THE READER AND THE TEXT: THEORIES AND COMPLICATIONS
One of the benefits of approaching Austen’s work at this long distance of time is that the topic of how we read has become the focus of much critical endeavour. We now appreciate that the Austen family’s successful attempt to, in effect, sanitise her work coupled with the many thousands of books, theses and articles devoted to her novels has inevitably produced what might well be termed a ‘received image’ of her and her works that we all to some extent inevitably carry around with us inside our heads.
The psychologist D W Harding (coincidentally the editor of the 1965 Penguin edition of Persuasion) described how this works in his influential 1940 essay Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen:
The impression of Jane Austen which has filtered through to the reading public, down from the first-hand critics, through histories of literature, university courses, literary journalism and polite allusion …
and goes on to describe its effect on him before he started to read the novels:
Chiefly, so I gathered, she was a delicate satirist, revealing with inimitable lightness of touch the comic foibles and amiable weaknesses of the people whom she lived amongst and liked.
He goes on to say that that when he read the actual texts there were unexpected subtle changes of tone that forced him to rethink how readers – including himself – who held similarly conventional expectations of Jane Austen’s writing could actually misinterpret what they thought they were reading:
In order to enjoy her books without disturbance, those who retain the conventional notion of her work must always have had slightly to misread what she wrote at a number of scattered points, points where she took good care (not wittingly perhaps) that the misreading should be the easiest thing in the world.
The example he gave referred to the description of Miss Bates in Emma. Quoting what he terms the fairly conventional satire of the opening sentence where Miss Bates
‘enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married’
he develops his argument thus:
But the next sentence must have to be mentally rewritten by the greater number of Jane Austen’s readers. For them it probably runs, ‘Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or compel an outward respect from those who might despise her.’
And then quotes the actual sentence which Austen wrote:
‘… and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect.’
Harding was addressing the problem of an author’s received image with specific reference to Jane Austen, but a quarter of a century later the French philosopher, semiotician, literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes wrote in more general terms about its effects in his controversial essay The Death of the Author (I quote from Richard Howard’s translation):
The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence it is logical that with regard to literature it should be positivism,resume and the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s “person”. The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions; … the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it, as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always finally the voice of one and the same person, the author, which delivered his “confidence”.
Barthes coined the term ‘scriptor’ in place of ‘author’ because of what he considered this misplaced reverence for the person who wrote the text. After all, he argued, the important transaction was not between the author/scriptor and the text but between the reader and the text:
In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.
Unsurprisingly, these comments did not pass unscathed. Camille Paglia in her 1990 best-seller Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson called the idea of there being no relevant person behind a text the
‘Most pernicious of French imports into American academia’
and attacked his own writing style with vigorous contempt:
Is there anything more affected, aggressive and relentlessly concrete than a Parisian intellectual behind his/her turgid text?
Turgid or not, Barthes’ comments do help focus attention on how a text is interpreted and renewed over time through the interaction with the readers who engage with it – each of whom brings a different cultural experience and range of interests and knowledge to that engagement. Perhaps a more accessible metaphor describing much the same relationship might be to think of the text (to use a musical analogy) as the score and the act of reading as the performance. The reader can be guided by the text or alter textual indicators in much the same way that conductors might prefer a different tempo or louder or softer crescendo and so on. Whatever the hesitations one might have about the implications of the general argument of the dominance of the reader – that any reading by any reader must be equally valid, for example – Barthes nonetheless usefully reminds us that the act of reading is itself performative and not passive.
That said, the problem of making the reader the sole arbiter of the quality of a particular text is a serious one, because it cannot discriminate between interpretations that essentially reduce to individual preferences. Should there not be an equal focus on the text itself?
It is exactly this problem that Umberto Eco addressed in many essays, books and articles from the 1980s onward where he developed his concept of textual cooperation which, he argued, offers a means of at least avoiding what he called overinterpretation – which is a gentle way of describing what others might call invalid interpretations based more on these individual preferences or wider ‘outside’ knowledge than on the actual text.
Eco envisaged the act of reading a text as balanced between three elements: the author’s working intention (or intentio auctoris); the ongoing modification of that working intention as the text develops its plot and narrative (or intentio operis); and the reader’s pre-formed perceptions, background experience and personal preferences which shape the understanding of what s/he is reading (or the intentio lectoris).
Eco posited these different ‘intentions’ as forming the approach of textual cooperationwhereby the text creates what he called the ‘Model Reader’, capable of decoding the possible worlds of the narrative. Such a reader, he suggested, fills in the many gaps in the text – which is never totally explicit – using both linguistic inferences and more complex deductive reasoning to engage with the narrative and its meanings. The text, Eco argued, is a machine for producing possible worlds and therefore is ‘open’, with potentially unlimited interpretations; but the Model Reader (through a focus on decoding the possible worlds produced by the text) is able to actualise more fully the ongoing intentio operis and thus arrive at a narrower set of interpretations that are shaped by the text rather than through personal preferences.
But note the comment about ‘open’ texts and their potentially unlimited interpretations. Eco did not say that the Model Reader necessarily reaches the correct interpretation (which cannot exist) only that those interpretations s/he does reach are more likely to be more valid.
Of course, the reader’s pre-formed perceptions, background experience and personal preferences are not invalid in and of themselves – but they can and do influence how the reader approaches the text – as already noted in the previous section with regard to Thomas Rodham. If we are aware that we all exercise a multitude of purposes when reading texts – such as for information; for enjoyment; to follow instructions; to while away time while waiting in the doctor’s surgery; to relive precious (or upsetting) events; to ‘lose ourselves’ in a story; to read a favourite author; and so on and so on – we should also be aware that we can often read with more than one purpose simultaneously depending upon the context – and upon the text, of course.
As well as answering something of the question why we read, such awareness can also inform not only how we read but also those aspects we feel are important. Do we pay attention to the nuances of language, its cadence and structure? Do we focus on characterisation and how it grows alongside plot development? Do we concentrate on ‘decoding’ plot and narrative structures through events and scenes and the choice of characters within them? Do we analyse and assess both our perceived quality of the text and its wider significance, and synthesise all these aspects into as valid and detailed an interpretation as we can manage?
Of course, we do all of these things to a greater or lesser extent and with greater or lesser concentration for a variety of reasons. But our primary interest should be to achieve a reading which satisfies us as fully as possible. That might stand as a workable definition of reasonable success given the impossibility of uncovering the definitive understanding of any text.
Before he died Umberto Eco used to tell a lovely story of how a group of readers who immersed themselves in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum to such an extent that they decided to trace the main character’s path through the streets of Paris were delighted while retracing the exact route to recognize a bar described in the novel. A bar which Eco had invented, and which existed only in his imagined world – yet somehow happened to be in the physical world too. Texts will always contain meanings that the author did not intend but which readers may discover for themselves.
Or as Hamlet almost said:
The text’s the thing …
Emphasising the importance of the text shapes the interpretation of the text: it reinforces that conclusions must be supported primarily by what the text actually says. Only by testing interpretation(s) against the text can we begin to validate them – and also to carry out our responsibilities towards the author (pace Roland Barthes) in the negotiation with him/her that is the fundamental act of reading itself. But sometimes this is not as simple or straightforward as it sounds, especially given the gap of some two hundred years that separates us from Jane Austen and all the potential differences that implies.
For example, it is more or less inevitable that the modern reader will give extra weight to his or her own enthusiasms or knowledge and by so doing consciously or unconsciously modify the original balances and emphases of the text – especially as the original language might have more nuanced or different meanings from the ones current today in addition to the natural (sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious) ambiguities of expression that are used. This was, in part, what D W Harding addressed in his comments on how the received image of Jane Austen brought in its train what he called ‘conventional expectations’ of what readers thought she wrote. He went on – almost certainly unintentionally – to introduce a different complication which this gap of two hundred years and thousands of hours of research can produce by adding to his quotations from the text in support of his comments this observation:
Jane Austen was herself at this time ‘neither young, handsome, rich, nor married’, and the passage perhaps hints at the functions which her unquestioned intellectual superiority may have had for her
Now this is an observation based on his background knowledge of Austen’s life rather than on the text, which in the description of Miss Bates directly and deliberately recalls the opening sentence of the novel:
‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich …’
and thereby sets up a linkage between the two characters which culminates, as already discussed, in Emma’s awful behaviour at Box Hill where she humiliates Miss Bates in front of her neighbours and becomes, thanks to Knightley’s genuinely angry reproof, a major factor in Emma’s emotional growth. This is the textual significance that matters, even though Harding’s professional psychological focus on the parallels between the description of Miss Bates and Jane Austen’s own situation is credible and persuasive.
But however interesting such parallels might be their relevance to understanding or interpreting the novel is marginal, as Harding’s reservations show – the passage ‘perhaps hints at’ what Jane Austen’s own situation ‘may have’ been. For the reader working within the boundaries of the text, the most that can be said with some degree of certainty about Austen’s intention here is what it was not: Miss Bates is clearly not intended to appeal to prospective suitors and therefore has no possibility of being one of Emma’s projects – which in terms of the novel is probably a lucky escape, given Emma’s track record. More importantly, this establishes the basic dynamic of their relationship and thus helps illuminate Emma’s moral and social flaws.
Importantly, Harding’s speculation – based on what might be termed extra-textual insights or outside knowledge – does not pretend to interpret the novel but deepens the enjoyment and widens the appreciation of how Austen’s life experiences might shape aspects of her work. As already suggested, authors cannibalise elements of their own lives as part of the process of creating fiction – as, for example, Austen’s decision to make Frank Churchill Mr Weston’s son who, to his own advantage, was essentially adopted by the Churchill family. He takes their name in order to inherit their estate. All this is clearly based on the experience of her own brother Edward, who was adopted by the childless Thomas and Catherine Knight, changed his name from Austen to Knight, and eventually inherited their estate – which enabled him in turn to offer Chawton Cottage as a home for his sisters and widowed mother.
Equally, of course, readers inevitably carry their own life experiences or possess extra-textual knowledge which helps shape at every moment how they read a text. There is no doubt that this can offer valuable insights of all kinds which can tangentially support appreciation of a given text without necessarily adding to the quality of the critical interpretation arising out of that reading. And as Umberto Eco’s story about Foucault’s Pendulum shows, texts can also have meanings the author did not intend. A potential problem arises when the reader allows extra-textual insight or knowledge – however valid – to complicate the interpretation of the text.
Perhaps this point can be further demonstrated by following another character’s journey across Paris – Jake Barnes in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, for example – to see how extra-textual knowledge of Hemingway, interesting and accurate in itself, can actually (to use Eco’s word) overinterpret the text.
The Sun Also Rises offers a scrupulous depiction of the topography of Paris nearly a century ago that establishes a basic physical reality for the novel, and creates a vivid sense of atmosphere as expressed in this passage from the eighth chapter:
We walked on and circled the island. The river was dark and a bâteau mouche went by, all bright with lights, going fast and quiet up and out of sight under the bridge. Down the river was Notre Dame squatting against the night sky. We crossed to the left bank of the Seine by the wooden foot-bridge from the Quai de Bethune, and stopped on the bridge and looked down the river at Notre Dame. Standing on the bridge the island looked dark, the houses were high against the sky, and the trees were shadows.
This is beautifully constructed: there is an air of quiet relaxation (even the tourist boat is quiet), contentment and almost contemplation as the two characters – Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton – stand together looking down the river in the gathering night at the bulk of the cathedral looming more solid and black in the darkness. There is no sense of any meaningful thought-process or emotion here, no reaction to the huge mass of the cathedral darker against the night sky – just an acceptance of its presence among the houses and the trees and the river. It recalls the final sentence of the fourth chapter:
It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.
This scene on the bridge is definitely a soft-boiled moment for Jake, then, a release from the cares of his wound and his inability to deal with his relationship with Brett, as also expressed at the end of the fourth chapter:
This was Brett, that I had felt like crying about.
Hemingway has already more than established by this point that the fact that his wound prevents Jake from physically consummating his feeling for Brett impacts on his relationship with everything and everyone. So the clear sense of acceptance and absorption make this scene a significant moment in the novel.
In 2012 Daniel C Strack of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at the University of Kitakyushu wrote about The Sun Also Rises and highlighted the metaphorical importance of bridges in Hemingway’s fiction:
Bridges, when used metaphorically, are not univocal but rather can be individually adapted and strategically incorporated into a story’s context to add specific kinds of resonance. For example, the bridge on the Tagliamento River in A Farewell to Arms is located at the turning point in that story. The summary executions being carried out at the bridge not only create the incentive for Frederic Henry to desert, but the image of the bridge expresses and accentuates the sudden separation from his past that Henry will experience as a fugitive after his desertion. For Whom the Bell Tolls includes a number of diverse metaphors centered on the bridge that parallel ideological, relational, and philosophical aspects of the narrative. In general, bridges in Hemingway’s fiction are seen to have semantic relevance that belies their matter-of-fact depiction.
(Reading the Terrain: Cultural Setting and Characterization in The Sun Also Rises)
Strack comments on the passage where the two men stop on the foot-bridge as follows:
In one of the opening scenes, Bill and Jake are leaning against the railing of a wooden foot-bridge in Paris, enjoying the view of Notre Dame and some other larger bridges along the river. Unlike the Brooklyn Bridge, this foot-bridge is ideally suited to express a desire for intimacy in a relationship, and this scene offers no details of description that would contradict such a general interpretation. If anything, the inclusion of Notre Dame, a famous cathedral that is bound to have associations with weddings for the Catholic Jake, is another element that strengthens such a view. The combination of images, the wooden foot-bridge and the cathedral, gives the reader a fleeting glimpse beyond Jake’s tough exterior to a more sentimental side of his character.
Although these comments seem to be textually based the ‘general interpretation’ he offers is, in fact, based on his extra-textual knowledge of how Hemingway loads the bridges in other of his fictions with this kind of significance. On one level, of course, this wider knowledge of Hemingway’s work usefully reinforces the immediate interpretation of mood and purpose we have already deduced from the text itself. But it also complicates his approach to the text by, as it were, imposing that wider knowledge over the actual words and their meaning. While this does not necessarily cloud the interpretation for the most part (we can agree that the scene offers no details of description that would contradict his interpretation of the fact that the use of the foot-bridge expresses ‘a desire for intimacy in a relationship’) neither does it by itself support it for the reader who has no experience of Hemingway’s other fiction. What Hemingway creates in this scene, as already said, is a moment of relaxed intimacy between the two men, a shared quiet contemplation without the need to comment on it. That is, it expresses not so much a desire for intimacy but a momentary actual experience of it. But Strack then claims – without any textual evidence to support it – that Notre Dame holds associations of weddings for Jake. Strack strays into overinterpretation because his insight about how Hemingway uses bridges in his other writing obscures what the text actually says – or does not say.
This is a relatively minor hesitation – Strack’s overall argument is persuasive and a useful addition to appreciation rather than interpretation. But this slight misstep in allowing his enthusiasm for how Hemingway uses bridges in other texts to encourage the speculation that the cathedral ‘is bound to have associations with weddings for the Catholic Jake’ imposes a meaning in this scene that does not exist – even though the final sentence of his comment (‘The combination of images, the wooden foot-bridge and the cathedral, gives the reader a fleeting glimpse beyond Jake’s tough exterior to a more sentimental side of his character’) is an excellent summation of the scene’s purpose. All in all it illustrates the slipperiness of the task of reading the text co-operatively while maintaining an equal relevance between the textual limits and the wider resonances the reader brings to the process.
Some ten years earlier, in 2001, William Adair offered another focus in his paper The Sun Also Rises: A Memory of War, which concentrates on how much of Jake’s life and time is taken up by the consequences of the wound he suffered. Adair traces – in an interesting example of fusion between the text and extra-textual knowledge – how when Jake and Cohn discuss in the opening scene where to go on a walking trip, Jake’s suggestions are war-centred:
First he suggests that they “fly to Strasbourg” and from there climb to St. Odile’s, or somewhere else in Alsace. (Alsace was the only mountainous zone on the Western Front.) In “A Paris-to-Strasbourg Flight” (1922) we get an idea of what they would see from the air: near St Mihiel “the old 1918 front” (the first all-American offensive took place there) and “the old trenches zig-zagging through fields pocked with shell holes,” before crossing the “forest-covered” Vosges Mountains to Strasbourg. If Jake is haunted, and in a sense fascinated, by unspoken war memories – if he suffers, to use a cliché of the times, from a kind of Flanders (and mountainous Italy) of the mind – other places he names may have for him war associations. In fact, he may be sketching an outline of the Western Front at the war’s beginning, a large sweep of geography running from the North Sea down the Vosges on France’s eastern perimeter …
Again, this is very persuasive and certainly gives an extra detailed dimension to the novel’s theme of the wounds that wars leave in their trail; how what became known as the Lost Generation had to find new ways of living.
Also interesting is the way Adair makes the identical misstep as Strack when discussing the original night-scene by the Seine: his focus on the need to establish his premise that
In this complex, poetic novel, war and wounding constitute a major pattern of allusion
leads him to step beyond the limits of the actual text by fixing on the phrase ‘Notre Dame squatting against the night sky’. Adair traces how this word squatting forms part of a pattern of language both in newspapers and in a 1923 article by Hemingway and then various of his writings (A Way You’ll Never Be, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Across the River) and finally ends up stating that for Jake staring down the river at Notre Dame
…the huge cathedral’s silhouette could seem to him like an army with heavy artillery, or perhaps a fort or citadel near a river.
And once again a slight distortion arises, for the actual text of the passage, as has been pointed out, offers no support whatsoever for this speculation as to what meanings Jake derives from looking down the river.
So according to these two fascinating and well-researched commentaries on the novel (both of which add valid dimensions to Hemingway’s writing) Notre Dame both symbolises matrimony and the more sentimental side of Jake while simultaneously reminding him – despite the carefully constructed atmosphere of relaxed contentment – of the horrors of war. Despite this mild criticism it is important to acknowledge that both Strack and Adair, although offering different speculations as to what Jake might be feeling as he stands on the bridge, reach those speculations on the shoulders of wider analysis from different perspectives of Hemingway’s other works. Further, both speculations can be accommodated within established themes in the novel: the effect of his particular war wound on his emotional life and social attitudes and behaviour. Neither seeks to claim that his reading of the scene on the foot-bridge offers or argues for a radical reassessment of Hemingway’s intentions in choosing the events, characters, scenes and ideas in the novel as a means of exploring the ideas or artistic vision that prompted the writing. I have introduced their comments as examples of how wider knowledge that is valuable in itself can nonetheless occasionally distort how a text or part of a text is read.
The distortion grows out of their wider reading rather than out of attempts to promote a particular theory about how to approach a given text or trying to develop radical ‘new’ ways of seeing or engaging with a text. The border between enlarging perspectives and exaggerating them can be very thin. It is all too easy to read beyond the text, which is not the same as the extra-textual analysis offered by Strack and Adair but more the stretching of the parameters of the original text in an effort to make it fit into a pre-determined meaning which is (usually) only partially apparent in the original. It is all too easy in this stretching process to overbalance and topple into a perspective that fundamentally alters the dynamics of the original and in Mary Waldron’s words (in her 1998 Introduction to Women’s Writing 5:1) regarding Jane Austen, results in
identifying a novel which Austen might perhaps have written, but didn’t
This deserves more than a moment’s consideration.
Waldron too is concerned with the necessity of paying close attention to Austen’s actual text, referring in the work quoted to
the identification of supposed oblique references within Austen’s texts which provide links with issues of present-day concern, often involving strained and unlikely interpretations of language and allusion.
She is clearly thinking of the so-called Queer Theorists who apply current concepts of sexuality onto Austen’s texts. This can be seen as an extension of the Victorian predilection to play with gender when staging Austen’s work. Devoney Looser, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University points out (in an article published in The Atlantic magazine in July 2017 titled Queering the Work of Jane Austen is Nothing New) that from the Victorian era onward there is a long history showing that
actors and playwrights shifted Austen’s characters away from traditional gender roles and heterosexuality, in works of entertainment that ranged from mildly gender-fluid to perfectly queer. In front of live audiences, Miss Bates was often a man, there were female Darcys aplenty, and the first professional actors playing Jane and Cassandra were real-life lovers.
While an interesting sidelight on how Austen has been tampered with over the years, it does not escape from the fact that her characters as they appear in her novels were not ‘gender-fluid’, and Miss Bates was not a man, and Darcy was not female. Critical evaluations or interpretations of her novels which do not pay attention to this fact are simply not valid – the text is the text.
Waldron’s comment that ignoring this constraint too often leads to ‘strained and unlikely interpretations of language and allusion’ is illustrated by Edward Kozaczka’s 2009 paper Queer Temporality, Spatiality, and Memory in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’. He uses the passage in Chapter Six of the novel where Anne plays the piano at one of the Musgrove family gatherings to argue that this is, in fact, ‘a masturbatory self-indulgence’ on Anne’s part. But can this be easily construed from the text?
She played a great deal better than either of the Miss Musgroves; but having no voice, no knowledge of the harp, and no fond parents to sit by and fancy themselves delighted, her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware. She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation: excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste. In music she had been always used to feel alone in the world; and Mr and Mrs Musgrove’s fond partiality for their own daughters’ performance, and total indifference to any other person’s, gave her much more pleasure for their sakes, than mortification for her own.
The passage is certainly another fine example of Austen’s narrative command, where it is difficult if not impossible to separate out the author’s voice from the character’s mature understanding of how things work in social settings. She appreciates that any lack of attention to her playing is not at all personal, nor meant to belittle or demean her; she is not at all narcissistic or self-conscious but an emotionally balanced adult. While she is aware that ‘when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself’ in terms of appreciation of the music and her skill, the text makes it clear that part of her overall pleasure comes from ‘Mr and Mrs Musgrove’s fond partiality for their own daughters’ performance, and total indifference to any other person’s’.
Kozaczka, however, seems more concerned to impose critical theory rather than critical interpretation onto Austen’s words. He takes the descriptor quoted above (‘when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself’) and paraphrases it: ‘Anne pleasured herself by playing the piano’, presenting the text as a disguised message to the effect that her musical performance is an auto-erotic activity. He goes on to emphasise that Austen’s language in the passage is ‘sexually charged’:
While playing the piano — while giving herself pleasure — Anne has involuntary body memories that allow her to reflect on but also embody past and present simultaneously. To use Heather Love’s phrase, Anne begins to “feel backward” — a non-normative way of remembering that differs from traditional memory in its preoccupation with loss and failure and in its concern with mobilizing that loss and failure for strategic purposes. In short, feeling backward allows a subject like Anne — a character who is barely noticed when she enters a room and who is manipulated into abandoning her relationship with her first love — to transform her abject marginalization into opportunity.
Anne “feels backward” during her moments of playing the piano, a practice that, in her case, I label as a masturbatory self-indulgence that troubles heteronormative expectations of an individual’s relationship to conventions of time and space.
This is most definitely a different way of describing Anne’s constant struggle throughout the novel to accommodate to her social and personal situation. But does it enhance or distort the reading of the text?
In general terms, Austen describes this struggle by carefully structuring the relationship between feelings and reason (that is such a feature of Anne’s subterranean emotional life) to reflect the contemporary theories of the time concerning the interaction between the body and the mind. That is, Austen is at pains to describe how mental states are reflected in bodily terms. For example, the initially marginalised Anne is presented in the opening chapter (albeit through her father’s jaundiced and narcissistic eye) purely physically:
A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early … now … she was faded and thin
a circumstance explained a chapter or so later as being a direct consequence of the collapse of her relationship with the young and untried Wentworth. Austen makes this explicit in Chapter Four:
A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance; but, not with a few months ended Anne’s share of suffering from it. Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect.
In one important sense the chronicle of their rekindled interest and love is portrayed throughout the novel in terms of Anne’s reflorescence, so that in the penultimate Chapter Twenty-Three, when the lovers finally express their love, she is described as
Glowing and lovely in sensibility and happiness, and more generally admired than she thought about or cared for, she had cheerful or forbearing feelings for every creature around her
Put another way, Anne’s initial situation of marginalisation within her family steadily changes as the novel progresses and she finds herself in an ever-widening social circle that moves from location to location: from Kellynch Hall to Uppercross Cottage and the Great House; from there to Lyme (where Anne catches the attention of a gentleman who
‘looked at her with a degree of earnest admiration, which she could not be insensible of. She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced’
and after the accident on the Cobb overhears Wentworth say that there is ‘no one so proper, so capable as Anne!’); then back to Uppercross and from there to stay with Lady Russell at her house at Kellynch and then back to Uppercross on the way to Bath and everything which happens there. This is quite remarkable in Austenian terms – Emma Woodhouse had never before been to Box Hill, which we are told was only some seven miles from Highbury! It is, of course, no accident that this sense of physical movement reflects the revivification of Anne and brings her ever more from the margins of her family into the centre of the narrative.
Kozaczka’s ideological focus (as represented by the first word of his title) on Anne as a sexual being – while unarguably true – essentially distorts the way he reads. He moves beyond the text to ascribe the sexuality he perceives to Jane Austen’s intention rather than to the critical movement of which his essay forms a part. It is a fine example of Waldron’s unease about ‘issues of present-day concern’ – here the drive to establish acceptance of minority perspectives based on sexuality – subjugating the text rather than working with it in that spirit of co-operation which Umberto Eco proposed.
Of course, different perspectives sometimes require or feel the need to construct a different discourse to emphasise the new approach. But there is also a danger of another kind of linguistic distortion involved, as we see in his reference to Anne’s piano playing as:
a masturbatory self-indulgence that troubles heteronormative expectations of an individual’s relationship to conventions of time and space.
Sometimes such condensation of language – a shorthand for the initiated – can obstruct or obfuscate the ideas it is trying to express and thus run the risk of alienating the audience. Here it takes hold of the idea just expressed – that Anne disguises her suffering and regret regarding the lost marriage to Wentworth through her apparent involvement in her social role – and suggests that she copes with her regret by physically inhabiting one time and space (the Musgroves’ living room) while mentally reliving a different, earlier time and space (her memories and feelings bound up with Wentworth).
But Kozaczka’s (mis)understanding of how artistic performance works, the immersive experience of being absorbed in the musical relationship required to play the piano at all, rather undercuts his argument here. Far from being preoccupied with notions of remembering loss and failure, Anne of the ‘elegant and cultivated mind’ is fully absorbed and concentrated in the current moment and, as stated, aware of her social role as well as her musical one.
Further, is it not the case that most of us – when we are not performing in public – are capable of living in different physical and mental worlds simultaneously? If so, why should this be a ‘heteronormative’ faculty? Surely, it is a normal human faculty independent of sexual orientation? Does Kozaczka’s description of Anne’s hidden sexual life offer a valuable insight which Austen has failed to make clear – in a very concise summation of the difficulties of meeting Wentworth again just two chapters later?
They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other! Now nothing! …Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.
Whatever the expectations (heteronormative or otherwise) of an individual’s relationship to ‘conventions of time and space’ (whatever that might mean) it is an undeniable commonplace that the present, to a greater or lesser degree, is always mediated by and through the past. Part of the comedic appeal of the novel is the way that Anne’s attempts to be rational are always undermined by her body’s insistence that rationality is no defence against emotional attraction, as Austen clearly points out in Chapter Seven:
Alas! With all her reasonings, she found, that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing.
This is underlined when Wentworth rescues her from the unwanted attentions of young Walter in Chapter Nine, and she cannot behave normally:
Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings … such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from … She could not stay … But neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor any body’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was; and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.
This is a powerful description of the sheer complexity of Anne’s emotional life and the physical impact it has on her: unable to speak, confused and agitated, ashamed of her lack of control. While it is clear to the modern reader that part of this response must be sexual it is equally clear that Austen did not seek to foreground it in her vision of the character. The particular problem with Kozaczka’s reading here is his insistence on the sexual aspect. Approaching the text from this very particular perspective narrows Austen’s subtly complex richness of characterisation and plot, and runs the risk of becoming a myopic and reductive methodology.
This deserves further exploration.
The fact is that Emma prefers the company of women, more particularly of women whom she can master and direct; the fact is that this preference is intrinsic to her whole dominating and uncommitting personality. The same tendency has been recognised by Edmund Wilson; but Mr Wilson adds that it is ‘something outside the picture which is never made explicit’. The tendency is certainly never made explicit; but is it for that reason external? The myth of Jane Austen’s simplicity persists; and its corollary, that in her work the unexplicit is an error of tone; for surface must tell all.
Marvin Mudrick’s 1952 essay Irony as Form: Emma had tremendous impact on academic literary thinking, not least in this insistence that Jane Austen was a more complex and sophisticated writer than was popularly imagined. To a modern eye the coyness of a ‘tendency … never made explicit’ seems, sadly, a somewhat dated courtesy; but a little later he addresses the situation more openly:
Yet Harriet is a very pretty girl, and being infinitely stupid and unperceptive, may be used in other uncommitting ways. Emma’s interest in Harriet is not merely mistress-and-pupil, but quite emotional and particular; for a time at least – until Harriet becomes slightly resentful of the yoke after Emma’s repeated blunders – Emma is in love with her; a love unphysical and inadmissible, even perhaps undefinable in such a society; and therefore safe. And in all this web of relations, by no means exhausted here, we return always to Emma’s overpowering motive: her fear of commitment.
By even discussing the sexual elements in the novel he opened the characters to a new critical gaze – and in that sense can be seen as a precursor to the more definite Queer Theorists writing today. As can be seen from the comments quoted above, he was careful to situate the sexual element as a subordinate aspect of the wider psychology of the character; it was, in that sense, an enlargement rather than narrowing of Austen’s subtlety.
Academics, it seems, were always more reticent to translate knowledge about the relationship and sleeping arrangements of the Austen sisters into speculation about how this might help shape Austen’s intention behind her characters’ behaviour. More reticent, that is, until 1995, when Terry Castle published her seminal essay Sister-Sister? in The London Review of Books. (For some reason, the editors chose to headline the submission on the front page under the somewhat meretricious title Was Jane Austen Gay? – not Castle’s choice.) Castle continued her argument in a 2011 review of Deidre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Letters:
The conventions of 19th-century female sociability and body intimacy may have provided the necessary screen behind which both women acted out unconscious narcissistic or homoerotic imperatives.
At first glance it seems difficult to argue with this statement, given that Castle is careful not to present this as definite evidence by implying that at best it might be seen as speculative – ‘may have provided’, ‘the necessary screen’, ‘unconscious narcissistic or homoerotic imperatives’. Modern psychology is well-versed in the notion of the importance of ‘screens’ when it comes to social interaction. Also at first glance it is possible to apply this sense of female affinity across the novels: Catherine Morland chooses Eleanor Tilney as her role model and delights in having her as her sister-in-law ; Elinor and Marianne Dashwood clearly share that sororal closeness that Terry Castle identified between Jane and Cassandra; and the same can apply to the two major Bennet sisters, who are very close and very much entangled in the friendship between Darcy and Bingley; there is much tension and confusion of emotion between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, especially in the rehearsal scene for the play Lovers Vows between the two and its interruption by Edmund; and then there is Emma and Harriet and the ‘great intimacy’ between them that so troubles Mr Knightley in Chapter Five and which he tells Mrs Weston is ‘a bad thing’. Perhaps Mudrick should have been more explicit himself in the Queer Theory manner which says that Emma is obviously a lesbian.
And yet Knightley’s concerns are not focused on a possible sexual involvement between the two but on precisely the potential and actual flaws in Emma’s character as outlined succinctly in the opening chapter:
The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself
His concern, he explains, is centred exactly on these issues, and brings him into close alignment with Austen’s concept of the character:
I think her the very worst sort of companion that Emma could possibly have. She knows nothing herself, and looks upon Emma as knowing every thing. She is a flatterer in all her ways; and so much the worse, because undesigned. Her ignorance is hourly flattery. How can Emma imagine she has anything to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?
And Austen is at pains to show how Emma’s good intentions towards Harriet
… she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking
are clouded by self-regard rather than simple altruism
… certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers
Now a ‘Queer’ reading of the situation would (and does) point out the fact that also underpinning Emma’s interest is the fact that Harriet is a very pretty girl:
She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness
But even this passage introduces an equally (perhaps more) important factor in Harriet’s attractions:
before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
In the very next paragraph we are told why Emma was so much pleased by Harriet’s manners:
She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging – not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk – and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given.
It seems clear from these extracts that the central issue which Austen is concerned to explore is how Emma uses, misuses and abuses those ‘powers’ about which she is so self-satisfied. Even though Harriet’s physical appearance is clearly influential because it happens to coincide with Emma’s predilections (and immediately following on from the last extract quoted above is another reference to her ‘soft blue eyes and all those natural graces’) there is no substantial evidence to suggest that her physical and sexual attractiveness for Emma is the primary reason for Emma’s interest.
It is as if the enthusiasm and excitement of discovering a different perspective on female relationships across Austen’s novels – as outlined above – blinds proponents of Queer Theory to the wider contexts in which the relationships take place. This exactly mirrors D W Harding’s description (quoted earlier) of readers whose expectations of what they think they are reading actually leads them to misread the text in front of them. And the upshot can be that the appeal of first glances is followed by the disappointment of second ones.
Terry Castle seems to fall into this mistake in her 1995 piece when she follows her comments on how conventions might screen hidden relationships between female characters by saying:
… in the novels so many of the final happy marriages seem designed not so much to bring about a union between hero and heroine as between the heroine and the hero’s sister.
This surely very much overstates the case given that out of the principal marriages in the novels (five or seven, depending whether one includes Bingley’s marriage to Jane Bennet and Edward Ferrars’ to Elinor Dashwood as worthy of inclusion) three of the husbands – Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon and, of course, Mr Knightley – don’t have any sisters. Kit McMahon, in a response to Terry Castle’s original review, also pointed out:
John Bingley and Edmund Bertram have two each, but both pairs of sisters are unremittingly hostile to the women their brothers marry and definitely play no part at all in their achieved marital happiness. Wentworth’s sister, the wife of Admiral Croft, is a genial lady, well disposed to all, but there is no particular affection between her and Anne Elliot. Which leaves Darcy and Georgiana. While it is clear that Elizabeth is going to guide and inspire her husband’s unformed, motherless young sister, and will enjoy doing so, the prospect is dealt with in a paragraph and it would be ludicrous to regard it as a significant factor in the marriage.
But Castle is certainly correct to suggest that marriage is a more complicated issue than it might appear, even without the extra pressures imposed by the doctrine of coverture. Although marriage is presented as the satisfactory conclusion in all Austen’s novels the same does not apply to the question of family. Families do not come out so well in the novels. Indeed, it is more than possible to argue that many of Austen’s marriages are important because they offer an escape from families – though Mansfield Park, as in other respects, seems to move in quite the opposite direction given that the question of almost-incest and its undesirability is raised as soon as Fanny arrives at the Bertrams as a child and provides a constant subterranean theme throughout the novel; and in Persuasion the important marriage is carefully positioned as emblematic of the possibility of national regeneration and societal progress.
To return to Emma, Emma’s relationship with Harriet is very much entangled in the idea of marriage. While Austen does not present Harriet’s perceived physical attractiveness as the primary reason for Emma’s interest in her, she certainly admits it as part of the reason – Emma’s interest would not have been so quick and decisive had Harriet been less attractive. But even if Emma is conscious of Harriet’s physical attractions it is an ancillary element – because Emma is fixated on her notion of having arranged Mrs Weston’s marriage and is looking to expand her territory – and Harriet’s appearance makes her more marriageable. And in the first early stages of their relationship Emma’s intention is clearly that Harriet should reject Robert Martin and marry Mr Elton. The situation becomes more complex as the novel progresses and Emma slowly begins to recognise how cavalierly she has indulged herself in her treatment of Harriet. Note the different tone towards the end of the novel after she has agreed to marry Mr Knightley and tries to find a way to soften the disappointment that Harriet must feel at the news:
How to do her best by Harriet, was of more difficult decision; – how to spare her from any unnecessary pain; how to make her any possible atonement; how to appear least her enemy? – On these subjects, her perplexity and distress were very great – and her mind had to pass again and again through every bitter reproach and sorrowful regret that had ever surrounded it
The strength of the vocabulary underlines the genuine feeling Emma has for Harriet as well as acknowledging her responsibility for causing Harriet ‘unnecessary pain’. But genuine feeling can be based on emotional empathy rather than sexual involvement and be a sign of growing maturity and self-awareness.
That said, the argument that the restricted and segregated nature of Austen’s contemporary society could result in the sexual impulse flowering within same-sex environments seems valid enough. After all, so many of her characters caught up in what we might term ‘the queer gaze’ are quite or noticeably young and inexperienced in developing emotional relationships with anyone. Emma, despite her self-confidence and domineering attitude to almost all around her, is only twenty-one; and a modern psychological assessment might well interpret that self-confidence and ‘dominating and uncommitting personality’ (as Mudrick describes it) as a form of displacement to disguise her anxieties about her father, her future and her ability to sustain an emotional relationship with someone else. Her sister has married and left Hartfield, her governess likewise; she tries to deny this loneliness by insisting on her own indifference to marriage while seeking it for others – and suspecting the worst of Jane Fairfax’s relationship with Mr Dixon. It is a clue as to how active the notion (and her reluctance to address it directly) is in her consciousness. One of the themes of the novel is how she slowly does come to address and deal with these anxieties – at least, so far as she can.
Mudrick’s interpretation of ‘the great intimacy’ between Emma and Harriet as the start of an experiment to test the possibility of entering a new emotional relationship while remaining ‘safe’ in her social and educational superiority is persuasive – and that it involves some sexual interest is not dismissed. How active that interest might be is difficult to judge because Austen – however politically, morally, and socially subversive she might be in her examinations of her society – is clearly not especially interested in foregrounding it. Again, to claim that Emma is obviously a lesbian superimposes a modern emphasis on the importance of sexuality à la Kozaczka – which Austen did not deny existed, but which she assimilated into the wider subtleties of her characterisation and depiction of the complexities of trying to find some way to accommodate personal happiness and social pressures and expectations within the formal relationship of marriage.
A fascinating perspective on this question of the nature of the perceived intimacy between Emma and Harriet Smith is offered by W Ray Crozier of Cardiff University in a 2016 paper entitled The Blush:Literary and Psychological Perspectives (published in Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 46:4).Crozier summarises his purpose as follows:
Literary analysis of the blush in Austen’s novels identifies three themes, namely the potential ambiguity of a blush, its association with modesty, and its erotic and gendered nature … Analysis of Austen’s work suggests that greater attention should be paid to self-consciousness as it relates to threats to reputation, to the erotic dimension of the blush, and to potential gender differences.
In the section THE EROTIC BLUSH Crozier summarises literary criticism on Austen which addresses the act of blushing and states his findings thus:
Austen uses a blush to indicate the sexual attraction between characters or their awareness of the sexual implications of an encounter, a conversation or the contents of a letter. Almost all of the blushes in Emma occur in the context of relationships between the sexes.
Reading literary critics’ writings on the blush in Austen’s novels suggests three themes: the blush has no single meaning; it is a sign of modesty; it is inherently sexual in nature
Although Crozier makes no specific mention of it, the only instance of blushing when Emma and Harriet are together is in Chapter Seven, when Harriet comes to Emma for advice after receiving Robert Martin’s letter proposing marriage. Emma is concerned to persuade Harriet to reject the offer:
‘Not for the world,’ said Emma, smiling graciously, ‘would I advise you either way. You must be the best judge of your own happiness. If you prefer Mr. Martin to every other person; if you think him the most agreeable man you have ever been in company with, why should you hesitate? You blush, Harriet. – Does any body else occur to you at this moment under such a definition? Harriet, Harriet, do not deceive yourself; do not be run away with by gratitude and compassion. At this moment whom are you thinking of?’
Emma assumes that Harriet blushes because she is thinking of Mr Elton and is delighted that her plan is working. This is, of course, to mistake the reason for the blush, for Emma herself would never be ‘run away with gratitude and compassion’.
Crozier says that Harriet blushes eight times in the novel, Jane Fairfax nine and Emma twelve. Jane blushes because of her shame at the secret engagement with Frank Churchill and Emma generally blushes when she is coming to terms with her mistakes. Crozier does not claim that there are any instances in the novel where a blush can be attributed to a consciousness of any meaningful sexual attraction between Emma and Harriet.
Persuasion is rather different in that it would be difficult to ascribe any sexual interest between the female characters. (Though Queer Theory is happy to shift its focus onto the naval characters). That said, there is one specific instance of a blush during a serious and darkening conversation between Anne and Mrs Smith concerning the previous evening’s concert Anne had attended that, at first glance, seems to mirror the conversation between Emma and Harriet just noted:
‘But I ought to have looked about me more,’ said Anne, conscious while she spoke, that there had in fact been no want of looking about; that the object only had been deficient.
‘No, no – you were better employed. You need not tell me that you had a pleasant evening. I see it in your eye. I perfectly see how the hours passed – that you had always something agreeable to listen to. In the intervals of the concert, it was conversation.’
Anne half smiled and said, ‘Do you see that in my eye?’
‘Yes, I do. Your countenance perfectly informs me that you were in company last night with the person, whom you think the most agreeable in the world, the person who interests you at this present time, more than all the rest of the world put together.’
A blush overspread Anne’s cheeks. She could say nothing.
The similarity, of course, is in the mistaken interpretation of what the blush signifies on the part of Emma and now Mrs Smith, who is trying to introduce the notion of Mr Elliot for her own ends. But the situation here is far more complex and darker than Emma’s misreading – which provides so much of the comedy and structure of the earlier novel. Anne and Mrs Smith are most definitely not Harriet and Emma; they are older and more battered by experience; their relationship is different, founded on the early friendship of equals; and the purpose of this slight misunderstanding (because Mrs Smith is perfectly accurate in her reading of Anne as being in love) in the later novel is not comedic but arguably becomes in many ways the chief means of illuminating the dark and fractured moral world in which each in their different ways must find a modus vivendi, a way to live within its compass. ‘Arguably’, because this section of the novel is clearly compromised by the author’s accelerating ill-health and remains underdeveloped.
There is another significant moment concerning a blush – or rather the lack of one – in the following chapter as the novel hurries to its closure. Anne confronts Mrs Clay in front of Elizabeth about the somewhat furtive meeting between Mrs Clay and Mr Elliot that has been observed by Anne and Mary through the window of The White Hart:
… for having watched in vain for some intimation of the interview from the lady herself, she determined to mention it; and it seemed to her that there was guilt in Mrs Clay’s face as she listened. It was transient, cleared away in an instant, but Anne could imagine she read there the consciousness of having, by some complication of mutual trick, or some overbearing authority of his, been obliged to attend (perhaps for half an hour) to his lectures and restrictions on her designs on Sir Walter.
Here it is Anne who is jumping to conclusions and deciding that Mrs Clay was perhaps the victim of an unintended meeting where she was harangued by Mr Elliot about her relationship with Sir Walter. But this misunderstanding – as said – depends not upon a blush but upon the lack of one. Anne’s reading is structured by her moral code and beliefs: Mrs Clay must be relatively innocent because if she were not she would have blushed; as she doesn’t, Anne convinces herself that the transient guilt she thinks she sees is indeed only what she thinks she sees. Her reading is reduced only to ‘could imagine’, and the guilt is ascribed to some ‘consciousness’ on Mrs Clay’s part of an unlooked-for and awkward confrontation with Mr Elliot. But Mrs Clay is far from transparent because, as Austen skilfully reveals in the reply she creates for Mrs Clay, she may have consciousness, but she has no conscience:
‘Oh dear! very true. Only think, Miss Elliot, to my great surprise I met with Mr Elliot in Bath-street! I was never more astonished. He turned back and walked with me to the Pump-yard. He had been prevented setting off for Thornberry, but I really forget by what – for I was in a hurry, and could not much attend, and I can only answer for his being determined not to be delayed in his return. He wanted to know how early he might be admitted to-morrow. He was full of “to-morrow;” and it is very evident that I have been full of it too ever since I entered the house, and learnt the extension of your plan, and all that had happened, or my seeing him could never have gone so entirely out of my head.’
These words finish the chapter and so have no response or reaction from any of the other characters – they are, that is, carefully left for the reader to interpret. Many readers, perhaps, find Austen exercising her very considerable control of all the nuances of language here: the tonal implications of the opening exclamation marks; the fact that, although Anne has asked the question, the reply is to ‘Miss Elliot’, Elizabeth; the fluent use of a mixture of provable truth (the geography of the streets) and avoidance of any other actual information (‘but I really forget by what’); and the sudden glimpse of how to extricate the situation by emphasising the importance of ‘to-morrow’ and Elizabeth’s plans – which would, of course, be perfectly understandable to Elizabeth because the importance of her plans in everybody’s mind is, after all, only to be expected.
This is a tour de force depiction of just how skilful and manipulative Mrs Clay is – qualities which have been (more or less) hinted at since her appearance at the beginning of the novel, but which here are presented much more forcefully and at just the time to emphasise the darker tone of the conversation which had caused Anne to blush in the previous chapter. Perhaps Austen was playing with the idea of making Mrs Smith Anne’s Mrs Clay. After all, when she emerges out of obscurity much of the background information of Mrs Smith’s situation given in Chapter Seventeen comes not via Anne nor by Austen but in the form of reported speech from Anne’s former governess recalled by Anne – that is, very subtly indeed, creating (were we to notice it) a sense of distance about how much we really know about the current Mrs Smith and how she might fit into other themes in the novel. And there is a telling paragraph that describes Anne’s Christian values of empathy and compassion outweighing any doubts or hesitations she might have had:
Anne found in Mrs Smith the good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend upon, and a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond her expectation. Neither the dissipations of the past – and she had lived very much in the world, nor the restrictions of the present; neither sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits.
Here the modifiers ‘almost’ and ‘seemed’ indicate that Anne’s judgment is based on her memories as a schoolgirl rather than on current proofs; her judgment is also based on Mrs Smith’s ‘agreeable manners’ and her ‘disposition to converse and be cheerful’ rather than on any deep knowledge; and the ‘dissipations’ (encapsulating not only the wastefulness of Mrs Smith’s marriage but reminding us of how dictionaries surround it with such concepts as ‘corruption’, ‘debauchery’, ‘depravity’ and even ‘perversion’) are hurried past. Further, Austen makes it clear that Mrs Smith was not an unwilling or helpless victim, given that ‘she had lived very much in the world’. Whatever the seriousness of her current physical condition Mrs Smith is not without personal responsibility for it. Austen makes it plain that Mrs Smith has had to adjust to and survive privations beyond Anne’s experience – and that makes their renewed acquaintance rather more complicated than their earlier history.
So: having set out some of the complications of fulfilling Eco’s advice to read texts cooperatively it seems time to turn to considering how to read this text just quoted: Persuasion. Each reader has the freedom to select those elements s/he most feels shape the appreciation and assessment of a text, and as has been pointed out at some length, individual choices will inevitably be different – however much schooling might try to develop ideas about what is and what is not the correct and acceptable way to read.
The particular elements proposed for further discussion are: the title, given that it was chosen by Austen’s brother Henry rather than by herself; how the opening chapters establish the plot and themes of the novel as well as the surface narrative; the theme of privilege and rank and the rankness of privilege when seen alongside the Navy; the role and implications of Mrs Smith; the intense stage-management and control exercised in the rewritten chapters towards the end; and how the importance of nursing and an awareness of illness both in the text and in Austen’s personal life impacts on the final structure of the novel.