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    The Weight of Words and Silences

    Jane Austen persuades us to practice conversation and thereby to become more alive.

    By Grace Hamman

    December 2, 2021
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    • Karen de Foy

      As a fellow introvert who dislikes "shallow" conversation, I really needed to hear this. Thank you!

    • Curt Christy

      There would be, I think, more conversions if there were more conversations. Thank you, and your book club, for listening to Jane Austen, and then talk to us about her meaning. You have persuaded me to become a better listener.

    • Jenni Ho-Huan

      This is such a good piece. I have never read Persuasion, but now feel quite persuaded to! After my journey and book with silence, I have been rather struck with James' exhortation to us to be slow to speak, quick to listen and slow to get angry - this feels like a powerful tridium going on... and attentive listening seems to absorb some of what another is carrying. Indeed, if we listened to each other, creating more safety, might it be the turnkey for so much of our woes today, esp the mental health crisis around us?

    • Chris Singleheart

      Thank you for this, Grace. I propose that active listening skills be taught in schools. God's Peace to you!

    • Vivian Blatt

      Thank you for this piece! It filled me with such joy. I re-read Persuasion Last winter and so many passages left me awestruck. That aside, as an introvert, I am grateful for your reminder to forget my fears and give the gift of conversation.

    • Tom Bryant

      Well said Grace! And in the silence in between paragraphs, I do believe you were listening…

    • J Cole

      Excellent reflection—thank you!

    Jane Austen’s Persuasion is misnamed. At least in my opinion, very few people are actually persuaded in this novel. Austen’s brother Henry, who named the book after Austen’s death, should have opted for something even simpler: Conversation. In this novel more than any of her others, Austen considers conversation: what it looks like, and what it does.

    A group of friends and I explored Persuasion together in podcast form during the tedium and anxiety of another pandemic summer. We conversed ourselves through Persuasion’s conversations toward some theories about conversation itself. Conversation, according to Austen, undergirds human flourishing; it is in fact a profoundly Christian practice which recognizes another’s humanity, even when the topic is shallow or unimportant.

    As an introvert who dreads small talk, the idea of conversation as a Christian practice, aside from its content, slightly horrified me. Growing up as a daughter of American Evangelical Christianity, I gleaned somewhere that the ultimate purpose of speech is always conversion. My American roots affirmed this in their own way: to be an American is to be bold, to stand up for yourself or for what you believe. Words are a tool to achieve specific ends, whether valiant or selfish. My impulse is to resist the insipidity of so many light conversations and reserve my energy for “what really matters” – conversion, depth, insight.

    Austen, the queen of frosty drawing rooms and the witty retort, challenged me. She deliberately sets aside content or ends. Austen endows actual, often trivial conversation with the heavy weight of human flourishing by virtue of its form. Conversation comprises both utterance and silence. We fill up space, express need and desire, offer ourselves, and convey information through our voices. We give space, attend, and submit to another’s thoughts and feelings while we silently listen. Conversation’s function to form people lies even in the simplest chats, in the attentive give-and-take between persons. In practicing mere conversation, there’s a capacity for us creatures to become more alive, more like the Creator.

    The heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, is the least treasured daughter of the vain Sir Walter. After listening to her elders and not marrying the man she loves, and years of quiet, unappreciated care for her spoiled, spendthrift sisters and father, Anne’s bloom has faded. The ancestral family home, Kellynch Hall, must be rented out. Anne lives an itinerant life, moving from place to place with whoever will host her at that moment. She is a “nobody.” Persuasion depicts Anne’s renewal and her second chance at a full life. Austen unfolds Anne’s process of being recognized as a valued human being beyond her marriage status, social background, or beauty. Anne is actually somebody; who acknowledges that – and how they do – is the subject of the novel.

    My book club’s discussions of conversation were sparked by a strange and brilliant plot point in Persuasion. A villain of the novel, the duplicitous Mr. William Elliot, is one of the first to publicly notice Anne, to engage her pointedly in conversation. While Anne’s former fiancé, Captain Wentworth, avoids her with a soul-shriveling coldness (though showing brief moments of attentiveness), Mr. Elliot speaks and attends to Anne warmly. In the frigid, inhibiting silence of the Elliot drawing room in Bath, Anne describes Mr. Elliot as “improving their conversation very much”: “His tone, his expressions, his choice of subject, his knowing where to stop – it was all the operation of a sensible, discerning mind.” For all that, however, Mr. Elliot is not authentic. He says what he thinks others want to hear. Clearly it’s not the content of his conversation that has awakened public awareness in Anne. It’s his attention, embedded in that sensible tone and expression, in knowing where to stop, and his discernment, the very act of his singling her out. Anne glows as she is noticed and spoken to. And Wentworth and others begin to recollect Anne’s worth.

    JaneAustenEmbed

    Still from the 1995 film Persuasion

    Similarly, Anne’s friend Mrs. Smith, who has fallen upon hard times after a loss of health and husband alike, finds renewed life with those who converse with her. Nurse Rooke, one of the few working women of Austen’s novels, nurses Mrs. Smith with care but also conversation. After her embarrassed admission that this conversation consists of mostly gossip, Mrs. Smith plaintively notes that there is “[s]o little real friendship in the world.” Nurse Rooke’s words, light as they are, have embodied friendship to her in her time of need.

    I find it humorous that the supremely moral and class-aware Austen reminds us that the purity of language is not always part of the human work of speech. Austen places attentive conversation that feeds human need in the mouths of dubious characters – either morally questionable, like Mr. Elliot, or socially inferior, like Nurse Rooke. Anne distances herself from such characters, but Austen’s choices can’t be ignored. Conversation becomes an act of human acknowledgment, rather than just solidifying one’s social standing, speaking one’s mind, or casual enjoyment. In speaking to another, you share a bit of yourself when you did not have to; you lavish some of your limited energy and attention on another person. When attentive speech is directed toward them, Anne or Mrs. Smith are recognized as somebodies even as they are treated as nobodies by others with more beauty, money, or power.

    When I think of utterance this way, the twentieth-century writer Simone Weil comes to my mind. She writes, “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love.” Nurse Rooke or Mr. Elliot likely do not represent Weil’s ideal of self-effaced attention in love. But her point is salient. Their mundane but kind utterances inadvertently become acts that foster another’s flourishing because of the attention they give, to the woman sitting in the corner at the party, or to the woman trapped in her dreary sickroom. Of course, this is only the beginning; conversation can become so much more. These small acts matter greatly to Austen’s characters. Speech in conversation becomes akin to the more obvious examples of watering seedlings or nursing a baby – such acts offer the beginning of creaturely sustenance.

    Speech is the golden child of conversation, but silence is quietly indispensable. Without it, we’d be left with constant shouting over one another and interruption of ideas (in other words, something disturbingly close to the state of public discourse in America). The life-giving attention of conversation would not exist. This novel uncomfortably, counterintuitively reinforces the gold of silence through the quiet heroine Anne Elliot.

    With that certain audacity known to book clubs everywhere, our club tended to agree that if we had written Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s character arc would have looked like this: silent Anne is downtrodden by her family, Anne learns to find her voice, Anne has her moment of triumph by claiming that voice and revealing her true self to her self-centered family. Everyone, including Captain Wentworth, realizes what they’ve been missing. New, empowered Anne is celebrated! We love claiming our words and seeing their power. This would surely fit in with these conversational themes of Persuasion. Alas, the Elliots remain frigid and selfish, awarding superficial importance to Anne only on the occasion of her marriage to Captain Wentworth. Even Captain Wentworth finally breaks his silence and proposes to Anne after overhearing a conversation between her and someone else, not because Anne “finds her voice.”

    Anne submits to quite a different lesson: “the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle.” This thought wounds me as I read. Who wants to realize as an art, a skill, that their cherished opinions and painful experiences are not worth much beyond one’s small circle? Yet Anne names it an “advantage” that she wishes her family members could realize and feel as well. Anne practices this art time after time in Persuasion as she moves from place to place, family to family, where conversations and concerns differ.

    My friends and I associated agency with speech in our pretend rewrite of Persuasion. But Anne Elliot shows us that the part of silent listening in conversation is also a skilled, ethical act that means acknowledging our nothingness outside of ourselves and our own times and places. Even in the tedium of conversations with Austen’s most annoying character, Anne’s sister Mary, Anne listens.

    What I find beautiful about this listening is that Anne isn’t listening to revolutionary speeches, profound truths, or anything particularly edifying. She attends to the kinds of things we listen to in our everyday lives. She listens to Mary complain about made-up ailments; and to Mary’s husband complain about Mary’s childrearing methods. She listens and becomes joined to the merry loudness of the Musgrove family. “She could do little more than listen patiently, soften every grievance, and excuse each to the other; give them all hints of the forbearance necessary between such near neighbors, and make those hints broadest which were meant for her sister’s benefit.” Anne listens, forebears, and acknowledges her nothingness. She is not her older sister Elizabeth, who practices a passive, dead-fish sort of silence without listening. Neither is she like Mary, who also does not listen, but continually speaks. Anne gives room. Anne’s silence is a practiced confession that she is no more important in the world than anyone else.

    I have a bad habit in conversation, shared by many, borne out of my shyness as a child. As I “listen,” I use my silence to plan and consider what I will say next. Predictably, I often have no clue what my conversation partner just said. This nervous habit is meant to bolster myself against the threat of foolishness, of accidentally revealing my nothingness and lack of importance. It succeeds, but at the cost of undermining actual attention to another person’s words and worries.

    Silent listening is a practice of restraint and discernment; listening closely resists the universal temptation to constantly place ourselves at the center of the universe. Active, restrained, attentive silence – the silence of Anne Elliot – humbles oneself and gives space for the words of others. Silence becomes something remarkably akin to Christian humility.

    We begin to recognize that Austen offers us models of conversation aimed toward human flourishing – that is, what we could think of as the beginning of a Christian ethics of conversation – based on the form of conversation as speech and silence, receiving and offering words. In the paradox of Christian humility, Anne can recognize her own nothingness and yet she remains somebody who desires recognition and love. Anne’s flourishing comes to fuller fruition when others learn to value her words as well as her silences. Practicing conversation is practicing our humanity, echoing the Incarnation. Speech and silence, that delicate dance back and forth, taking and giving, freedom and restraint, help us all to become more human and thus more like Jesus.

    I can’t help but think of a keynote address on Austen given by Cornel West. His words seem somewhat shocking when applied to this eminent writer of Regency upper middle class:

    Jane Austen teaches us that to learn how to die is to unlearn slavery, to learn how to die is to engage in courageous self-examination and self-interrogation and self-scrutiny, and any time you let a certain prejudice go, or let a certain conception of yourself go, as you mature, as you develop, as you grow, that is a form of death.

    For Austen, conversation can nourish this process of learning how to die to ourselves, to unlearn being slaves to ourselves or to cultural systems. Austen measures the overlap between saying the right things and attending to someone who needs attention. She calculates the effects of polite silence versus active listening. She probes who we listen to, who we speak to, and what kinds of speech we participate in.

    In the wake of Anne and the other characters of Persuasion, I am led to ask myself: am I fully present in the silences as well as the speech of my conversation? Can I bear to recognize my own nothingness? Do I deign to speak to people who are not being spoken to? The answers to these questions may reveal unexpressed commitments that violate what I profess to believe as a follower of Christ.

    With the increasing and sometimes necessary substitution of online or distant encounters for in-person interaction with other humans, we risk simplifying the complex attention and receptivity of conversation to mere argument. It’s good to persuade others of truth. It’s necessary to combat oppression with speech. And alongside those gifts of speech, Jane Austen persuades us to counter-culturally recollect the form and practice of attentive, simple, even unimportant conversation in cultivating and recognizing our shared and needy humanity.

    Contributed By

    Grace Hamman is a writer, speaker, and literary scholar. She holds a doctorate in English from Duke University. Grace runs a podcast and blog on literature of the past, Old Books With Grace, available on any podcasting service or at gracehamman.com. She lives in Denver with her husband and three young children.

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