Reading Jane Austen 8

Chapter Twenty-One helps crystallise the difference and the relationship between story and novel in Persuasion as outlined in the opening remarks of this discussion. Although Anne and Mrs Smith in their ‘important conference’ expand the major themes and ideas that Austen wishes to explore this is not at all their concern – they are concentrated on their own stories, with how their fates might work out in the complex world they inhabit. Anne is grateful for her escape from any compulsion to marry Mr Elliot; Mrs Smith is relieved to escape from the temptation and sin of reassuring Anne of the safety of such a marriage by explaining in some detail the background to her impoverished circumstances. Although they each have clear views on Mr Elliot and his behaviour they do not seek to extrapolate from these views to develop a commentary on or judgement about what this might mean vis-à-vis the state of contemporary society. The perspective of the story is far narrower and more personal than that of the novel.

That said, Austen clearly intends that through this crystallisation the chapter will become the springboard for the development of the final stage both of the story and the novel: Anne can now actively move forward in finding a way to convince Wentworth of the fact that she has never ceased to love him; and Austen can knit together all the strands of the novel’s wider purposes through those issues of moral and social degradation and failure that Chapter Twenty-One has clarified, perhaps by exploring more fully the circumstances of the hidden relationship between Mr Elliot and Mrs Clay – as suggested both by Anne’s explicit repeated intention to reveal what she has learned to Lady Russell (which never happens, of course) and by the fact that Mary happens to see their serious but unheard conversation through the window of the White Hart and draws everyone’s attention to the unexpected meeting.

But the energy and momentum at this point resides in the reader’s (and the author’s) emotional involvement in what is going to happen next between Anne and Wentworth. It is significant that the original Chapter Twenty-Two (later cancelled and replaced by the published Chapters Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three) set out to answer this question of what would happen next by immediately throwing the two characters together at the Crofts’ lodgings in Gay Street. An embarrassed Wentworth says that his sister and her husband are prepared to end their lease of Kellynch Hall if Anne so wishes, given that they have heard that she and Mr Elliot are to be married. Anne denies that such is the case; and both fall silent in

‘a silent but a very powerful dialogue; on his side supplication, on hers acceptance. Still a little nearer, and a hand taken and pressed; and ‘Anne, my own dear Anne!’ bursting forth in the fulness of exquisite feeling, – and all suspense and indecision were over.’

And the rest of the chapter is given over to several pages of reported explanation of Wentworth’s feelings and behaviour.

The ‘silent but … very powerful dialogue’ is a weak resolution of the emotional power of their story, of course. Indeed, some might well argue that the general weakness of the original Chapter Twenty-Two is itself proof of Austen’s diminished, possibly failing, energy and perhaps of her awareness of it. There is a strong sense of rushing towards a conclusion as quickly as possible before her energy disappears – something which, as already suggested, seems to underpin the summary plotlines of Chapter Twenty-Four – which she was unable to revise before her death.

The fact that at some point and despite her health problems Austen decided to completely rewrite the whole process of the reconciliation – and by so doing give it the weight of attention it needed and deserved by replacing the original brevity of the cancelled chapter with a sustained demonstration of narrative control far more intricate and subtle – is testament to her profound artistic integrity. Not only that, but in so doing she creates the truly poignant and resonant description of how they each, in their own way, have the courage to find their voices – spoken and written – instead of the convenient silence of the original.

It is not too surprising, then, that the quality of these two rewritten chapters firmly establishes the story as the dominant memorable element of the novel for readers and later writers alike. The scale of the effort required to achieve such remarkable artistic control must have been as exhausting for the author as it is for her characters.

The reworking of the approach to the moment of reconciliation is primarily concerned in the new Chapter Twenty-Two with timing, narrative structure, and embedding what happens in the story in this chapter into the novel’s thematic concerns. Far from rushing towards a happy ending the chapter is organised so as to frustrate the possibility of reconciliation, showing how everyday social bustle and its varied interactions conspire to prevent the private intensity between Anne and Wentworth from finding expression.

Chapter Twenty-Three then builds on this frustrated intensity primarily through the careful choice of a smaller group of characters for the first part of the chapter, which is where the reconciliation is essentially achieved. This simple decision allows Austen to develop from their various relationships a mix of subtle elements of what we might term dramatic choreography, subliminal symbolism, and the remarkably modern technique of displacement (of characters and emotion) to create a genuinely moving portrait of the exhausting anxiety of honest speaking.

And so, in Chapter Twenty-Two the focus on timing, narrative structure and wider themes creates not only a welcome return to Austen the storyteller’s gentle comedy obliterated by Mrs Smith’s revelations but also emphasises Austen the novelist’s concerns. For example, it is thematically significant that the rewritten Chapter Twenty-Two moves the action out of the context of the Crofts’ lodgings in Gay Street and into the very centre of the immediate Elliot family in Camden-place; and then sets the meeting between Anne and Wentworth in the cheerful bustle of the Musgroves (part of the extended Elliot family) in the more public space of the White Hart. There, as already said, the possibility of rebuilding their relationship is forever interrupted by the business of normal everyday life where the other characters are oblivious of their anxious struggle to understand each other. Likewise, the sense of gentle comedy returns in the bluff rural honesty of Charles Musgrove, where his observations on Louisa and Captain Benwick make Anne laugh out loud, a welcome relief for readers as well as the character.

These changed decisions directly allow Austen the narrative space to further develop plot ideas that help maintain the novel’s primary commentary on the weaknesses of contemporary English society as she sees them, and which had been essentially absent from the cancelled chapter. Further, they make it clear that she had every intention of balancing the transcendent triumph of resurrected love with something darker – for example, by beginning in Camden-place with the shallow complacent self-satisfied dialogue between Elizabeth and Mrs Clay. Their contempt as they discuss Mr Elliot’s apparently desperate intention to return to there that evening is carefully captured:

‘I had not the smallest intention of asking him,’ said Elizabeth, with affected carelessness, ‘but he gave so many hints; so Mrs Clay says, at least.’
‘Indeed I do say it. I never saw any body in my life spell harder for an invitation. Poor man! I was really in pain for him; for your hard-hearted sister, Miss Anne, seems
bent on cruelty.
‘Oh!’ cried Elizabeth, ‘I have been rather too much used to
the game to be soon overcome by a gentleman’s hints.’
(my emphasis)

Elizabeth’s ‘affected carelessness’ and subsequent description of the interplay between the sexes as a ‘game’ not only reveals the gap between the sisters’ viewpoints (for Anne’s relationship with Wentworth is a matter of crucial importance to her and not at all a game) but also sets up a wider thematic abyss. Elizabeth remains unmarried (quite possibly because of this instinctive dismissive attitude that encourages her ‘cruelty’). This is significant, given that the story revolves around marriage and that one of the novel’s major themes explores how society is clearly built on and sustained by the constant renewal and enlargement of family through appropriate marriage partnerships.

Anne’s observation of the interplay between the guests later that evening offers another strong hint that Austen intends to explore further the dubious relationship between Mrs Clay and Mr Elliot:

Anne admired the good acting of the friend, in being able to show such pleasure as she did, in the expectation, and in the actual arrival of the very person whose presence must really be interfering with her prime object. It was impossible but that Mrs Clay must hate the sight of Mr Elliot; and yet she could assume a most obliging, placid look, and appear quite satisfied with the curtailed license of devoting herself only half as much to Sir Walter as she would have done otherwise.
(my emphasis)

On one level, of course, all social interaction inevitably operates on such superficial compromise and ‘good acting’. But Austen is careful to give Anne a vocabulary (‘must hate the sight of’) which makes it clear that she is thinking of a more profound and negative deception. The social gathering also allows Austen the opportunity to show Anne ‘more guarded, and more cool’ when Mr Elliot attempts to ‘animate her curiosity again’ without success. It is important at this point to show Anne responding to the information she has been given by Mrs Smith by exercising her moral judgement, not only because it gives a sense of the dynamism which is to be so important when she talks with Captain Harville in the following chapter but also because it underlines how fragile the immediate family structure is. The fact that Anne is suddenly not locked into her ‘elevated style’ underlines her new outlook. She does not soften even her unvoiced thoughts:

It was bad enough that a Mrs Clay should be always before her; but that a deeper hypocrite should be added to their party, seemed the destruction of every thing like peace and comfort.
(my emphasis)

The structural decision to interrupt the narrative flow then kicks in immediately in the following paragraph. Anne prepares to set off to visit Lady Russell to ‘accomplish the necessary communication’, waiting until Mrs Clay has left to carry out ‘some obliging purpose’ for Elizabeth (which will later be seen as a ploy to meet with Mr Elliot, of course). This intended visit prompts another example of the superficial nature of social interaction (and also underlines in the clearest possible way how far Anne’s elder sister and father are undeserving of any sympathy engendered by being the victims of Mr Elliot’s duplicity) by having them reveal themselves to be equally and happily duplicitous and appalling:

‘Very well,’ said Elizabeth, ‘I have nothing to send but my love. Oh! you may as well take back that tiresome book she would lend me, and pretend I have read it through. I really cannot be plaguing myself for ever with all the new poems and states of the nation that come out. Lady Russell quite bores one with her new publications. You need not tell her so, but I thought her dress hideous the other night. I used to think she had some taste in dress, but I was ashamed of her at the concert. Something so formal and arrangé in her air! and she sits so upright! My best love, of course.’
(my emphasis)

This moves beyond characterisation and straight into the thematic framework of the novel. The rejection of culture (‘new poems’) and of any social responsibility (‘states of the nation’) and the implicitly moral criticism of being ‘so upright’ moves Elizabeth out of the purely personal into the expression of an attitude representative of the failures of the prevailing structure of English society as Austen sees them. As pointed out in the opening remarks of this discussion, the negative views of the novel as form reflected the tenor of the times, when England saw itself as (and was) under threat from the revolutionary events in America and France that were seriously influenced by the upsurge in newspapers and political pamphlets. Elizabeth’s vocabulary – ‘tiresome’, ‘plaguing’, ‘bores one’ – reveals a deadening complacency and dangerous disconnect from reality.

(Austen then contents herself with repeating Sir Walter’s totally narcissistic view as laid out in the opening paragraphs of the novel, where appearance is the only thing that matters and which Admiral Croft refers to later with his amazement at the number of mirrors at Kellynch. She has Sir Walter say:

‘And mine,’ added Sir Walter. ‘Kindest regards. And you may say, that I mean to call upon her soon. Make a civil message. But I shall only leave my card. Morning visits are never fair by women at her time of life, who make themselves up so little. If she would only wear rouge, she would not be afraid of being seen; but last time I called, I observed the blinds were let down immediately.
(my emphasis)

That said, the mention of ‘blinds’ might well carry the sense or inference that Sir Walter too is blind to the world around him.)

The entrance of Charles and Mary Musgrove is a second interruption of the intended visit to Lady Russell and therefore further delays the intended revelation about Mr Elliot’s true nature. It also conveniently develops Austen’s plotting under the guise of personal family business. Charles explains to Anne that everyone has come to Bath because Captain Harville has business there (the significance of which emerges in the next chapter) and ‘it was thought a good opportunity for Henrietta to come and buy wedding-clothes for herself and her sister’. Austen builds on this further in the most natural way as Anne expresses surprise that things were so advanced and comments on his sisters’ good fortune in their parents, who ‘do everything to confer happiness’ and seem ‘totally free from all those ambitious feelings which have led to so much misconduct and misery, both in young and old.’ – which, of course, is a personal comment on her own family disguised as a generalised comment; and also, perhaps, a precursor of the opening conversation on the subject of engagements in the following chapter.

Austen restores that sense of gentle warm affection commingled with comedy that has also been absent in the previous chapter through the refreshing unvarnished honesty of Charles’ descriptions of Louisa and Benwick:

‘(Louisa is) very much recovered; but she is altered; there is no running or jumping about, no laughing or dancing; it is quite different. If one happens only to shut the door a little hard, she starts and wriggles like a young dab chick in the water; and Benwick sits at her elbow, reading verses or whispering to her, all day long.’
Anne could not help
laughing. ‘That cannot be much to your taste, I know,’ said she; ‘but I do believe him to be an excellent young man.’
‘To be sure he is. Nobody doubts it; and I hope you do not think I am so illiberal as to want every man to have the same objects and pleasures as myself. I have a great value for Benwick; and when one can but get him to talk, he has plenty to say.
His reading has done him no harm, for he has fought as well as read. He is a brave fellow. I got more acquainted with him last Monday than I ever did before. We had a famous set-to at rat-hunting all the morning, in my father’s great barn; and he played his part so well, that I have liked him the better ever since.’
(my emphasis)

Charles’ use of direct unaffected language (as opposed to Elizabeth’s earlier ‘affected carelessness’) is very effective as a counterweight to the self-regard of Sir Walter, who clearly does want everyone to have ‘the same objects and pleasures’ as himself if they wish to be valued. The intricacy of plotting and characterisation here demonstrates that, whatever the impact of her illness, Austen is clearly very much in control of her writing at this point and moving confidently forward with her plot and use of characters. Note, for example, the way she alters how Anne and Wentworth interact when they meet at the White Hart. Whereas the cancelled chapter depends on the accidental meeting between Anne and Admiral Croft ‘within a few steps of his own door’ as Anne leaves Mrs Smith in a state of shock at the revelations she has just been given and somehow finds herself in Gay Street, the reworked Chapter Twenty-Two makes it clear that, however apparently coincidental, this meeting was inevitable:

‘The appearance of (Wentworth) could not be more than the surprise of the moment. It was impossible for (Anne) to have forgotten to feel, that this arrival of their common friends must be soon bringing them together again.’

Anne is once again portrayed as strengthened by her new knowledge of Mr Elliot and is both confident in her own reading of the possibility of rekindled affection and capable of hiding her disappointment by rational analysis when ‘He did not want to be near enough for conversation’:

‘Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness.
(my emphasis)

This is s succinct assessment both of how they have changed from ‘boy and girl’ and how she feels she made the wrong decision so many years earlier. Nonetheless, Austen immediately undercuts this determined calm rationality:

‘And yet, a few minutes afterwards, she felt as if their being in company with each other, under their present circumstances, could only be exposing them to inadvertencies and misconstructions of the most mischievous kind.’

by having Mary call attention to the meeting between Mrs Clay and ‘a gentleman’ she recollects as ‘Mr Elliot himself’, and thus sets the groundwork for developing this later. Anne responds that it could not be Mr Elliot because he was out of town for the day:

‘As she spoke, she felt that Captain Wentworth was looking at her; the consciousness of which vexed and embarrassed her, and made her regret that she had said so much, simple as it was.’

In contrast to the cancelled chapter, then, Austen not only inserts a future plot point but reinforces her analysis of social weakness by building the sense of something furtive ‘between two persons of totally opposite interests’.

A credible family argument then ensues about whether or not to go to the theatre the following night (which would clash with Elizabeth’s party at Camden-place) in the course of which occurs Charles’ rebuttal of his wife’s argument that they should go because ‘Every attention is due to Mr Elliot. Consider, my father’s heir – the future representative of the family’. Charles is usefully forthright:

‘Don’t talk to me about heirs and representatives,’ cried Charles. ‘I am not one of those who neglect the reigning power to bow to the rising sun. If I would not go for the sake of your father, I should think it scandalous to go for the sake of his heir. What is Mr Elliot to me?
(my emphasis)

Anne’s positive reaction to this last question captures Wentworth’s attention, but the conversation moves on once again to the question of what to do about the clash of options for the following evening, culminating in Anne’s clear statement that:

‘If it depended only on my inclination, ma’am, the party at home (excepting on Mary’s account) would not be the smallest impediment. I have no pleasure in the sort of meeting, and should be too happy to change it for a play, and with you.’

This could be validly read as Anne’s first real attempt since Mrs Smith’s revelations and the misunderstanding at the concert to address Wentworth under the guise of speaking to someone else – a technique revisited in the next chapter. It is only briefly after this that Wentworth moves closer to Anne by means of first walking to the fire-place, and then engaging her in a snippet of significant conversation about liking cards but suggesting to her that ‘time makes many changes’. Anne replies ‘I am not yet so much changed’ before stopping ‘fearing she hardly knew what misconstruction’ – the misconstruction presumably being that Wentworth might interpret her words as saying she has not changed her mind about refusing him. (As George Eliot was to write later in The Mill on the Floss, words can be slippery things and ‘it’s puzzling work, talking is.’) After a moment’s hesitation Wentworth says feelingly ‘It is a period, indeed! Eight years and a half is a period!’ However, before this exchange can develop Austen yet again interrupts the flow, this time by having Henrietta insist on getting out ‘lest somebody else should come in’ – a perfect example of the difficulty of pursuing a personal exchange while in company. Which prophecy is immediately fulfilled by the arrival of Sir Walter and Elizabeth – ‘whose entrance seemed to give a general chill’ because of their ‘heartless elegance’, and so continues the leitmotif of father and daughter as people irredeemably frozen in their attitudes and behaviour.

That said, Elizabeth does recognise that Wentworth would be a valuable addition to her planned ‘Miss Elliot at home’ and pointedly hands him an invitation; a paragraph or so later he overhears Mary commenting on how delighted he must be by such indulgence – and Anne, so attuned to his moods and expressions, catches his eye and ‘saw his cheeks glow, and his mouth form itself into a momentary expression of contempt’ – and turns away, her thoughts unvoiced as ‘The party separated’. Despite being urged to go with them Anne refuses:

‘She was earnestly begged to return and dine, and give them all the rest of the day; but her spirits had been so long exerted, that at present she felt unequal to more, and fit only for home, where she might be sure of being as silent as she chose.
Promising to be with them the whole of the following morning, therefore, she closed the fatigues of the present, by a toilsome walk to Camden-place …’
(my emphasis)

where she goes on to challenge Mrs Clay about the meeting with Mr Elliot, as discussed earlier. Anne’s physical and mental exhaustion here mixes the comic irony of her inability to fully prevent or control her emotional responses to Wentworth with an oppressive sense of the social pressures complicating any chance to rekindle their relationship. The seemingly unending addition of characters each with his or her own agenda constantly prevents any meaningful dialogue.

Austen unobtrusively inserts her plot point once again by having Anne promise to visit the Musgroves the following day – which sets up the second seemingly unsuccessful attempt at attracting Wentworth’s attention and conversation.

The reworked Chapter Twenty-Two, then, brilliantly outlines the frustrations and difficulties of reconciliation (a private act) within the context of the public group and its concerns. This is undoubtedly a more psychologically and physically realistic situation (and even a more interesting one) than the totally private, rapid and relatively problem-free reconciliation in the cancelled chapter. And as suggested earlier, Chapter Twenty-Three builds on this greater realism even more subtly by developing the action through the apparently simple expedient of using only five characters – but using them to interweave, almost invisibly, a set of relationships that increase the emotional intensity despite the apparent failure of trying to perform a private act in a public space that the previous chapter had established.

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© Mike Liddell 2020