Monday, February 20, 2017
The one place where Austen comments on the art of literature
Nearing the conclusion of Persuasion, and, at last, Captain Wentworth declares his love for Anne Elliot - and he does so - by penning her a letter! Strangely enough, they're in the same drawing room as he writes the letter, and she's engaged in a serious discussion about whether men or women are more steadfast and faithful in regard to love. She's discussing all this while Wentworth picks up a pen and writes; then, awkward as a schoolboy with a crush, he leaves the room and then in a bumbling manner returns and hands her the folded letter. He leaves again, she steps aside to read it, and for the first time recognizes that he truly loves her and has been faithful to her ever since they were forced by importunate relatives to cancel their engagement and during his 8+ years at sea. Then through an awkward arrangement Wentworth gets to walk Anne home. Crescendo! It's all both sweet and funny, as we try to picture this tough, bold Navy officer acting like a teenager in love. The greatest interest in this (penultimate) chapter in Persuasion, however, probably centers on the remarks from Anne E about women novelists - one of the few points in her fiction that Austen shares her thoughts about literature and in particular about literature by women. I'm sure these lines have been parsed by scholars and Jane-ites; I don't have them in front of me, but as I recall captain harville notes that literature is full of examples of women pining away and remaining ever faithful to their beloved, and Anne points out that the many examples he is thinking of are from novels and poems by men. (Note: I had to look back to check some points in this dialogue). We get the wit and tension here: We're reading a novel by a woman about a woman who remains faithful though most of the other characters in this novel are shallow or insidious. Clearly, fidelity is an ideal in this novel; Persuasion differs from other Austen novels in that the obstacle to the romance isn't internal - poor initial character judgements based on misinformation or partial information - but external: Anne E and Wentworth are kept apart initially by the prejudice of others and later by world events, the war that is just over the horizon, sickness and poverty and death that permeate the atmosphere - it's fitting and unsurprising that the novel finds its way to Bath, a setting both of stagnant English country society and strange healing waters for the invalid.