Reading Jane Austen 9

The first section of Chapter Twenty-Three is arguably one of Austen’s finest achievements, not only in Persuasion but in all her novels. Its smooth narrative flow masks a complex set of interconnections between disparate elements that work together to create a developing emotional intensity at the same time as integrating the scene with the wider themes of the novel in a number of ways. And it demonstrates the scale of the determination Austen needed to find the resources of language to match the physical and emotional effort required to produce such a powerful rewriting of the reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth which was given such cursory attention in the original Chapter Twenty-Two.

She clearly recognised the weakness of the original chapter and was prepared, despite the health problems which might well have contributed to that weakness in the first place, to undertake a major revision. This is important in itself, for it suggests that she might well have concluded that the somewhat abbreviated plot lines in what became the final chapter a few pages later could also have benefited from a similar rewriting and development – but which never happened.

The narrative strategy Austen adopts for the scene involves an apparently simple story line structure underpinned by and executed through a deliberately limited choice of characters and the consequent choreography of their relationships both in physical placement and dramatic function.

This story line structure presents as neutral reportage of a straightforward process of one action by one group of characters leading naturally to another set of actions involving other characters that gently increases the emotional intensity of the scene by moving from the general to the personal. So an initial conversation between Mrs Musgrove and Mrs Croft leads directly to Captain Harville showing Anne a miniature painting of Captain Benwick. Benwick is physically absent but becomes the subject of a discussion between Harville and Anne on the possible reasons for and implications of his sudden ceasing to mourn the death of his erstwhile fiancée Fanny Harville and becoming engaged to Louisa Musgrove. Meanwhile, the opening conversation apparently continues in the background but disappears from the soundtrack of the narrative, which now focuses on this second conversation. This in turn is interrupted by Captain Wentworth dropping his pen while ostensibly writing a business letter concerning the painting; following this interruption the second conversation resumes and deepens while and until the business letter is completed. As the meeting that comprises the scene begins to break up a second letter – hurriedly written under the guise of completing the business letter – is handed over furtively by Wentworth to Anne. And the scene effectively ends with Anne opening and reading the letter unobserved by Mrs Musgrove, to discover it to be a powerful declaration of love that transfixes her in a chaos of feelings of agitation and happiness – so much so, indeed, that moments later she looks so ill that Mrs Musgrove and the others who have returned from shopping readily agree to her request to go home.

And in so doing, of course, the chapter continues towards pages of explanation and conversation that fill in the separate background experiences of the two newly reconciled lovers after Anne and Charles (who is accompanying her home) meet with Wentworth in Union-Street – and in yet another substitution Wentworth agrees to replace Charles who wants to go look at ‘a capital gun’. These following scenes are expertly handled with a range of emotions and regrets and flashes of wit and humour. But the opening scene where the reconciliation takes place is both the climax of the story and carefully embedded in the wider novel’s moral and social explorations – and as such merits closer analysis.

As outlined, Austen works with a cast of five actual characters and one absent but crucial shadowy presence. The social bustle of the previous chapter is replaced by the quiet relatively empty physical space of the Musgroves’ rented apartment in the White Hart. Interestingly, this nonetheless creates a situation of intimate constriction where any conversation is overheard by everybody present, all physical movement is noticed and where the emotional atmosphere increases in personal intensity as the scene unfolds. A hint of a perceived somewhat oppressive sense of enclosure is given immediately by the casual explanation of the absence of those others who had urged Anne to come visit: the shower of rain which had delayed Anne’s arrival proved a convenient escape for Charles and Mary and Henrietta who ‘too impatient to wait, had gone out the moment it had cleared.’

This reduced number of characters as compared to the previous chapter clears the way for Austen to present the reader with a miniature painting of her own of three immediate groups: the married women (Mrs Musgrove and Mrs Croft); the naval colleagues (Captains Harville and Wentworth); and the solitary in-between Anne, who is potentially a member of both – but not quite yet. They also present a richly dense unstated network of family and other relationships: Mrs Musgrove and Anne are members of the extended family created by Charles’ marriage to Mary; Mrs Croft is Wentworth’s sister; Wentworth almost became Mrs Musgrove’s son-in-law before Louisa’s accident on the Cobb at Lyme, after which Benwick will become her son-in-law; Benwick, of course, was intended to become Harville’s brother-in-law until Fanny Harville sadly died; and the social gathering is in part because Harville has asked Wentworth’s help to arrange to set a miniature painting of Benwick originally intended for Fanny but now to be given to Louisa.

(Benwick therefore increasingly emerges as a ghostly sixth character in the scene, despite his physical absence, through both the miniature painting which represents (or substitutes for) him and by being the subject of the scene’s second discussion between Harville and Anne on the constancy of love. In these ways his shadow both starts and helps shape the events and emotions that follow.)

The physical choreography creates an almost formal Regency-dance-like movement of separation and regrouping suggestive of actual and potential change. This background fluidity is also mirrored by the need to change the intended recipient of Benwick’s miniature painting from Fanny Harville to Louisa Musgrove.

Austen controls this choreography through succinct and seemingly incidental physical stage directions. All three women (and Harville) initially sit at the main table where the two older women (who remain fixed in position throughout the scene) begin the initial notes of the dance by restarting a previous conversation on the topic of the undesirability of ‘long engagements’. Wentworth takes the first actual physical step – ‘Two minutes after (Anne) entering the room’ – by moving to a separate table to write a letter and ‘nearly turning his back on them all’. Harville, lost in his own thoughts and apparently paying no attention to the music of the conversation, takes a second step by eventually moving away from the table (‘left his seat, and moved to a window’)from where he smiles at Anne in an invitation to join him. And Anne, by moving to the window, completes the third step of the dance, altering the original configuration of the three groups by exchanging places with Wentworth alongside Harville. In this new tableau Wentworth becomes the somewhat isolated solitary figure on the edge of the scene.

This physical movement serves its own direct dramatic function, of course, simply by energising what might otherwise be a fairly static scene; but it also serves a more subtle and delayed purpose – it happens because the opening conversation about engagements is overheard by the three other characters who, despite not participating in the conversation, cannot avoid Mrs Musgrove’s ‘powerful whisper’. This suggests the almost certainty that any one of them might well overhear any conversation anywhere in the room – which will emerge as the chosen mechanism for encouraging the reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth. Even more subtly, this awareness of the possibility of being overheard might influence Anne, especially as by moving to the window she is ‘nearer to Captain Wentworth’s table’. Her ‘nervous thrill’ when listening to the opening conversation shows how she is hyper-aware of everything around her, and this inevitably carries over into the apparently smooth and natural segue into the ensuing dialogue with Harville with which she readily engages. Austen carefully underlines the nature of this hyper-awareness when Wentworth drops his pen a few moments later by describing Anne as:

‘half inclined to suspect that the pen had only fallen, because he had been occupied by them, striving to catch sounds, which yet she did not think he could have caught.’
(my emphasis)

This is an important structural moment in the narrative flow of the scene that helps show how the apparently natural and straightforward momentum of the story line is more complex. Austen not only changes the dynamic of what Anne might say going forward but also ensures that her (apparently sudden) awareness of the possibility of Wentworth overhearing every word she utters reflects back on what she has already said to Harville about her perception of the differences between the male and female understanding of the constancy of love. That is, the focus falls on the language Anne uses and how she uses it rather than on the physical movement that triggers the discussion with Harville.

For the choreography is not simply a question of physical displacement, important as that is in its implications. It allows Austen to open other displacements and alignments that integrate and develop the emotional elements of the scene to help lock it firmly into place not only as the climactic scene of the story but also frame it within the wider narrative and thematic structures of the novel. The emotional current begins immediately the opening conversation starts, which in itself is so natural and credible a topic for Mrs Musgrove that its function as a plot device is easily overlooked. But its immediate purpose is to stir a consciousness of other engagements and their implications for the three other characters in the scene.

This consciousness is perturbing and emotionally fraught for all three, recalling not only the primary backstory of the cancelled engagement between Anne and Wentworth but also revealing the impact on Harville of Benwick’s sudden engagement to Louisa. It expresses in different ways but more or less simultaneously: both Anne and Wentworth react automatically by instantly looking at each other

Anne found an unexpected interest here. She felt its application to herself, felt it in a nervous thrill all over her, and at the same moment that her eyes instinctively glanced towards the distant table, Captain Wentworth’s pen ceased to move, his head was raised, pausing, listening, and he turned round the next instant to give a look – one quick, conscious look at her.
(my emphasis)

whereas Harville’s response is to move away, despite apparently taking no interest in what is being said – ‘who had in truth been hearing none of it’. But by leaving his seat and moving to a window away from the main table he literally and figuratively distances himself from what is being said.

Despite the different backstories of these emotional responses Austen metaphorically aligns them in two ways: through having Anne move to stand physically alongside Harville; and by having Harville show Anne Benwick’s miniature painting and asking two questions in fairly rapid succession:

‘Look here,’ said he, unfolding a parcel in his hand, and displaying a small miniature painting, ‘do you know who that is?’
‘Certainly, Captain Benwick.’
‘Yes, and you may guess who it is for. But (
in a deep tone) it was nor done for her. Miss Elliot, do you remember our walking together at Lyme, and grieving for him? I little thought then – but no matter.’
(my emphasis)

The first question might well stand as the constant question of the novel, as I will comment on a little later; the second appeals to a shared personal memory that not only claims a similar reaction to the situation it recalls but also links what is happening in this little room to previous events in the wider landscape of the novel. As well as developing the tonal atmosphere of the present this appeal to memory casts a backward light on what has happened in the past that explains Harville’s expectations of some degree of agreement now. Despite their different responses to the opening conversation Austen uses their similarity of immediate reaction (the intensity of Anne’s shared glance with Wentworth revealing a close kinship with Harville’s fixation on Benwick) to begin to build an emotional affinity between them.

This emotional affinity underpins the tonal atmosphere and is also created and developed primarily by Austen’s skill in capturing her characters’ emotional struggles as they express themselves: through the pace, emphasis and vocabulary of the dialogue she creates for them; by her use of inserted speech qualifiers and descriptions that develop a subtle linguistic entrainment between them; and by her craftsmanship in nonetheless separating out their individual personalities and voices. Consider the exchange between them after Harville briefly explains how and why the miniature painting came about and what is happening now:

‘And I have now the charge of getting it properly set for another! It was a commission to me! But who else was there to employ? I hope I can allow for him. I am not sorry, indeed, to make it over to another. He undertakes it – (looking towards Captain Wentworth) he is writing about it now.’ And with a quivering lip he wound up the whole by adding, ‘Poor Fanny! She would not have forgotten him so soon!’
‘No,’ replied Anne,
in a low feeling voice. ‘That I can easily believe.
‘It was
not in her nature. She doated on him.’
‘It would
not be the nature of any woman who truly loved.’
(my emphasis)

Both speak in the short clipped simple sentences suggestive of an attempted restraint of feeling that ironically confirms it. Harville’s ‘quivering lip’ is mirrored by Anne’s ‘low feeling voice’. His confusion and distress is expressed not only by the rhetorical question followed by the quick glance towards Wentworth but also through Austen’s control of punctuation: half of his sentences end in passionate exclamation marks – which become a default characteristic of his speech throughout the scene. Anne’s empathy is expressed by her affirmation of support – ‘I can easily believe’ – and the way she essentially repeats his phrasing – ‘not in her nature’ and ‘not be the nature’, ‘doated’ and ‘truly loved’. It is, perhaps, even possible to sense in this short extract Austen’s control of masculine and feminine voices through the way that Harville expresses himself in the active voice of direct personal (but specific and exclusive) references to ‘I’ and ‘he’, whereas Anne’s expression of personal experience:

‘It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved.’

is more passive, disguised as a general and more inclusive observation.

(This is, I suggest, a significant moment for a character who has schooled herself to outward emotional neutrality – so much so that, for example, she becomes the confidante for all sides of family irritations when at the Musgroves. Throughout the novel thus far she has struggled to prevent her vivid internal emotional life bursting into view, which, however uncomfortable for her, is a major source of gentle comedy for the reader. If, as said at the beginning of this discussion, an important aspect of the novel’s dynamic is the subtle rejuvenation of Anne’s originally faded bloom, this quiet admission of personal experience is part of that process. As such it can be seen as also part of the shift in status from her immediate family’s indifference (for whom she is ‘only Anne’), through the wider family’s appreciation as expressed by Charles Musgrove’s dramatic cry when Louisa falls off the steps at the Cobb of ‘Anne, Anne, what is to be done next?’ and finally, a few pages later, Wentworth’s statement so reminiscent of but so markedly different from that demeaning ‘only Anne’ to ‘but, if Anne will stay, no one so proper, so capable as Anne!’)

All these elements cohere to produce a psychological reality whereby Harville can function as a substitute for Wentworth through whom and to whom Anne can gradually express her deepest feelings. This is important, because it allows Austen to unblock the dilemma raised at the end of Chapter Twenty:

How was the truth to reach him? How, in all the peculiar disadvantages of their respective situations, would he ever learn her real sentiments?

The novel carefully demonstrates that although Anne values blunt and honest direct speech the constraints of the social and moral framework within which she has been raised mean that she cannot use such blunt honesty about her own feelings when talking to Wentworth unless and until they are reconciled. Indeed, this cultural blockage carries its own irony. Anne’s awareness of and adherence to those rules which so inhibit her ability to speak openly about her emotional life to Wentworth (and everyone else) results in a restricted use of language on her part that is, albeit unintentional, full of ambiguities that are not too far removed from the duplicities of Mr Elliot and Mrs Clay. Thus this interpenetration of dramatic function, emotional intensity and psychological realism creates a believable opportunity whereby she can speak increasingly directly and unguardedly to Harville while remaining within the acceptable boundaries of social discourse, because the topic of the constancy of love is not personal between them as it would be between her and Wentworth – and therefore inappropriate. All of which helps cement the scene into the thematic pattern of the novel in a way far removed from the cursory resolution offered in the original Chapter Twenty-Two.

As suggested, Austen uses the miniature painting of Benwick as part of a process of aligning the emotional states of Harville and Anne that grow in intensity as the scene progresses. But the miniature painting in itself also starts resonances that link to the novel’s deeper ideas through its associated symbolism.

Miniature paintings of and for a loved one have a long history stretching back several centuries. In Austen’s time it was a very common undertaking for more senior soldiers and sailors (who could anticipate being away for considerable lengths of time) to commission such portraits so as to leave behind their likeness for those that they were leaving behind. It can be seen as a precursor of photography, offering a portable image that could be set into jewellery (pendants, lockets or cameo brooches were favourite settings) and which could act either as a love token, a promise of marriage, or, in sadder circumstances, as a memento mori. So a miniature painting of Benwick would be part of the novel’s social realism for much of Austen’s contemporary audience, a recognition rather than a surprise.

Interestingly, Austen – who is usually careful to offer accurate guidance as to social and financial standing throughout the novel – chooses not to pursue such guidance with regard to this miniature painting. Because portrait miniatures (the technical term for such paintings) were in such demand some painters found fame and fortune as a consequence. These included such luminaries as Richard Cosway (1742-1821), George Engleheart (1750-1829) – who is estimated to have painted nearly 5000 miniature portraits – and John Smart (c1740-1811). Their work is much sought after today and fetches handsome prices.

(Sadly, I have not yet been able to find what fees they originally charged for their work; but for what it might be worth, Samuel Pepys recorded in his Diary that in 1668 he paid Samuel Cooper £30 to paint a miniature of his wife and a further £8 3s. 4d. for a crystal and gold case for it. As Professor Robert D Hume of Penn State University points out in a 2015 paper in the Huntington Library Quarterly, (Vol.77, No 4, pp.373-416) titled The Value of Money in Eighteenth-Century England: Incomes, Prices, Buying Power — and Some Problems in Cultural Economics:

‘In modern buying power, that £38 has a value somewhere between £7500 and £11500.’

Hume admits that at this distance of time exact calculations are difficult but is confident that in the Napoleonic era the multipliers were much less, and a sum of £38 in Austen’s time would likely have a modern value of between £3500 and £7500. In 1815 the annual rate of pay for a Captain in the Royal Navy varied depending on the size of the ship he commanded. Austen does not tell us what size of vessel Benwick commanded, but his lowest annual pay would have been some £284 rising to a possible £802 for the largest warship. Presumably, he would, if successful like Wentworth, also have profited from prize money.)

Austen hides the cost of Benwick’s miniature portrait by distancing both its creation and its artist – Harville merely says that it was painted by ‘a clever young German artist at the Cape’. It seems reasonable to suppose that this miniature portrait would not be as expensive as those produced by Cosway, Engleheart and others in England – but it is impossible to calculate a likely cost, however much reduced. Given that Benwick is immediately recognised by Anne it is reasonable to assume a basic competence on the part of the artist which might mean that Benwick spent an acceptable amount on it – after all, it was intended as a gift to his fiancée – and it is clearly implied that it is good enough to be set within a piece of jewellery, also unnamed. Given the economic uncertainty of the era, Hume argues that any cost of the time would need to be multiplied by a factor of 100 to 200, so even a cost of, say, £5 would equate today to between £500 and £1000. It may well be that for her contemporary audience Harville’s description was enough for them to interpret Benwick’s commitment fairly precisely from their wider knowledge of the time and thus be able to judge his character and commitment more keenly.

However that may be, it is clear that Austen uses the miniature painting primarily as another way to connect to the novel’s emotional and social concerns about the difficulty of ‘reading’ other people and finding and valuing relationships built on honesty and trust. The painting is presented as an emblem of emotional confusion and disappointment as Harville struggles to come to terms with Benwick’s engagement to Louisa and to recognise his friend. Note how Austen prepares the ground for this as Anne joins him at the window and sees that

‘(his) countenance reassumed the serious, thoughtful expression which seemed its natural character’
(my emphasis)

Harville’s immediate words and action as she joins him build on this idea of the problem of the opacity of character beneath appearance, as already quoted:

Look here,’ said he, unfolding a parcel in his hand, and displaying a small miniature painting, ‘do you know who that is?’
‘Certainly, Captain Benwick.’

(my emphasis)

As suggested earlier, Harville’s question might stand as the fundamental constant question of the novel. Here, of course, although Anne easily recognises Benwick physiognomically Harville struggles to recognise Benwick in any deeper spiritual or moral sense because of his rather speedy shift of affections. It is a problem – perhaps the problem – of all portraiture: intended as a constant representation of the subject it is almost necessarily – because of its fixity – inescapably limited in the breadth and depth of that representation. For Harville the miniature is a misrepresentation of Benwick in everything other than his physical outward appearance. And this, of course, relates directly to Anne’s and Wentworth’s difficulty: how can we truly communicate when dealing with other people and their essential opacity, when we can only hope that we know them well enough to trust them?

In his essay on Persuasion already mentioned, Tony Tanner also considers the importance of the miniature painting:

The portrait … is a fixed representation or ‘quotation’ of the man which he can dispatch to different women. The man changes in his affections; the portrait remains ‘constant’. In this it is precisely a misrepresentation – an ideal image of the man which leaves all his emotional changeableness out. However accurate as to physiognomy, it is untrue to life. It is a detached token which can be sent through intermediaries – Harville, Wentworth – to now this woman, now that. And potentially any other. It is in all respects the opposite of an unmediated confrontation of, and communication between, a living man and a living woman. In this the portrait comes dangerously close to being like a piece of money …
(my emphasis)

While Tanner’s claim that a portrait cannot match the communication between a living man and a living woman in ‘an unmediated confrontation’ seems obviously true, I would suggest that the novel argues that in the normal circumstances of the time such situations were rare – perhaps impossible. Austen clearly demonstrates that Anne and Wentworth gain their reconciliation indirectly, their eventually successful communication mediated by and through Anne’s conversation with Harville prompted by the miniature painting.

Anne’s first extended contribution to that conversation is constructed around the repetitions of ‘We’ and ‘You’ and their related forms. Indeed, they comprise one fifth of the passage and begin the further shift into the personal under the guise of generalised impersonal comment:

We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.’
(my emphasis)

Further, they quietly reinforce Austen’s control over the different masculine and feminine voices by comparing the active involvement of men in an external life with the restricted domestic internal life experienced by women. The reader is only too well aware by this time (if not from the very beginning of the novel) just how ‘confined’ Anne’s ‘fate’ must have been, living in her father’s house.

This aspect of Austen’s control is picked up by Tanner in his use of ‘quotation’ as a synonym for ‘fixed representation’ and harks back to Harville’s reference to the shared experience at Lyme. It was there that Anne encountered Benwick and their long conversations on poetry while walking by the sea, where it becomes clear that Benwick’s defining characteristic lies in the way he interacts with other people through an obsessive and excessive use of literary quotations and allusions. This has already been recalled for the reader in the previous chapter, of course, where Austen casually creates a vivid picture of the new relationship with Louisa while capturing so precisely Charles’ befuddled but accurate description:

‘Benwick sits at her elbow, reading verses or whispering to her, all day long.
(my emphasis)

This use of Benwick as an absent sixth character in the scene and the subject of the discussion of constancy of affection also in itself relates directly to the wider landscape of the novel. It raises questions in the mind of the attentive reader of how to interpret not just the miniature painting of Benwick but also the wider significance of the man as created. For example, does it reveal Benwick as a skilful practitioner of a particular seductive technique, a naval equivalent of Mr Eliot? Is Tanner correct to imply that he is likely, after all, to pass his miniature around from woman to woman even though his male companions (and Anne) have not heretofore suspected him of such behaviour? Or should we consider this literary focus as not so much a means of seduction but as either an attempt to disguise social awkwardness or to mask an inability to find personal expression for his sense of loss with regard to the death of the woman he loved? And we should not forget, perhaps, that other interpretation outlined in an earlier section of this discussion, to the effect that Benwick can be viewed as someone not truly in mourning but rather as a man in the grip of melancholia and its keynote repetitive interaction with the world. Until, that is, he breaks out of this limited claustrophobic mode of being and finds a new balance through his nursing of and care for Louisa after her dangerous fall.

Whatever one’s preferred reading, his portrait opens up an emotional freedom for the two people discussing him. A central plank of their affinity lies in the fact that they are both, in their different ways, clearly in mourning: Harville for his sister; and Anne for a lost love and a lost life. Part of the charm of her story and her character is that, despite this quiet personal grief, she remains grounded in a morally centred outward-looking empathetic involvement in the life she does have. This is amply demonstrated through her deeply felt appreciation of what the naval life entails in the next stage of the discussion. Harville rejects the notion that Benwick’s behaviour represents ‘man’s nature’, Austen beautifully underpinning the sincerity of his feelings by the final slippage into what we might call naval speak:

‘I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather.
(my emphasis)

Anne responds in kind, the depth and force of her feelings caught not only in the speech direction but once again in her repetition of ‘you’ and ‘your’ that builds on and links back to her first extended comment:

‘Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. Nay, it would be too hard upon you, if it were otherwise. You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with. You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home, country, friends, all quitted. Neither time, nor health, nor life, to be called your own. It would be too hard indeed’ (with a faltering voice) ‘if woman’s feelings were to be added to all this.’
(my emphasis)

Significantly, this directly precedes (and therefore causes?) Wentworth dropping his pen. Within the narrative of the scene her words also anticipate the next stage of the discussion between Harville and Anne and the impressively modern argument about the power relationship between men and women which it opens up.

Apparently an inconsequential act, (apart from Anne’s suddenly conscious realisation of the possibility of being overheard – which strongly hints that she has been aware of it subconsciously) the dropping of the pen opens up its own set of associations as well as marking another stage in the crescendo of emotional intensity. Austen sets a point for further reflection when the reader looks back over the scene by having Wentworth acknowledge only Harville and in the briefest way. And she then quietly continues and extends Harville’s use of naval terminology while smiling at Anne a second time in what is clearly a sign of approbation and affection:

I am in very good anchorage here,’ (smiling at Anne) ‘well supplied and want for nothing. – No hurry for a signal at all.’
(my emphasis)

This professional terminology reinforces his connection with Wentworth, of course, as well as his ease in talking with Anne while unaware of Wentworth’s determination to remain aloof and detached. Harville has no such qualms when gently ‘lowering his voice’ when challenging her viewpoint, a challenge which he nevertheless delivers with some force:

‘But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side of the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of women’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.’

Once again Austen subtly sets up the major unconscious irony here, for Harville is talking of ‘woman’s inconstancy’ to perhaps the most constant female character in her fiction. And further, perhaps, she begins to prepare the ground for why the dropped pen is significant in the wider context of the novel as well as in the context of Wentworth’s relationship with Anne. Harville’s final words – ‘these were all written by men’ – offer the opportunity for Austen to merge her voice with that of her character by having Anne reply:

‘Perhaps I shall. – Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.’
(my emphasis)

and so make a statement about the nature of society as well as a wonderful personal joke about the essential irrelevance of books when she and her sister writers are opening up important space for women’s voices in this new form of the novel.

But the important point here is that we have just witnessed the fact that ‘the pen’ has been dropped. It therefore forms part of the scene’s sense of fluidity, of the possibility of change, which in turn resonates with the novel’s central concern of the need for change in social and moral structures to match and accommodate to the dizzying developments in so many areas.

The dropping of the pen also resonates with and references the novel’s opening chapter, where, as already discussed, Austen uses Sir Walter’s handwritten notes in the Baronetage to raise the question of authority – or author-ity. This in turn brings back into focus the fact that, while in absolute terms Sir Walter, as representative of his class, is an image of decayed social responsibility lacking any moral authority, he is very firmly the head of his own family and as such exercises paternal power over his daughters. Anne’s earlier reaction in Chapter Twenty-One to what Mrs Smith calls Mr Elliot’s ‘highly disrespectful’ letter disparaging Sir Walter shows her instinctive deference:

‘Anne could not immediately get over the shock and mortification of finding such words applied to her father.’
(my emphasis)

Although Austen did not have access to modern ideas and global research into family dynamics or social psychology, nor to the specific vocabularies that have developed to cater to such emerging academic disciplines and their attempt to deepen understanding of the processes involved, fundamental human nature has not yet changed radically since her time. And as her works show, she was a diligent and perceptive observer of all the social interactions happening around her. It is not accidental that her basic concept of the characters who became the Elliots involves the major decision to have Lady Elliot die some years before the narrative opens and thus establish Sir Walter as the significant adult in his daughters’ lives – who in their different ways can all be seen to suffer the consequences of their upbringing. In Anne’s case, her subdued importance and childhood role in the family inevitably condition to some extent – and in almost instinctive ways – her personality and behaviour despite her general balanced maturity. Her ‘shock and mortification’ at Mr Elliot’s contempt for her father and family is understandable when seen against this context. As is her refusal to allow herself to see her father with that absolute moral clarity and judgement she brings to bear in other relationships.

The quality of Austen’s perception here is beautifully illustrated by the 2011 review of thirty-six different studies around the world concerning the relationship between parents and children carried out by Ronald Rohner and Abdul Khaleque of the University of Connecticut, published in Personality and Social Psychology Review under the somewhat daunting title of Transnational Relations Between Perceived Parental Acceptance and Personality Dispositions of Children and Adults: A Meta-Analytic Review. Rohner summarised their findings thus:

“In our half-century of international research, we’ve not found any other class of experience that has as strong and consistent effect on personality and personality development as does the experience of rejection, especially by parents in childhood. Children and adults everywhere — regardless of differences in race, culture, and gender — tend to respond in exactly the same way when they perceived themselves to be rejected by their caregivers and other attachment figures.”

So Austen ensures that the fact that Wentworth drops his pen has profound personal meaning for Anne despite her lack of reaction at the time – except to wonder whether Wentworth has been listening to what she has said to Harville. Of course, Austen is more subtle than to present an immediate strong response, offering instead Anne’s subconscious awareness in picking up what has just happened while pursuing the general argument about how men’s vision so dominates and distorts how society sees its world. It is – again – not accidental that she uses the phrase ‘the pen has been in their hands’ to make her point. Austen’s artistry is exquisite in the way she submerges such delayed significances and connections beneath the smooth flow of the narrative here.

I propose to comment a little more on Wentworth’s dropped pen a little later, but within the structure of the scene it serves the purpose of disrupting the flow of the general discussion and allows Anne to recover from the emotion that has caused her ‘faltering voice’ a moment before. But the fact that Harville continues their conversation after the exchange with Wentworth by ‘lowering his voice’ also continues the sense of connection between them. When Anne agrees that they never shall ‘prove anything upon such a point’ she offers a possible reason why that may be which hints at the complication of an argument that is too personal:

‘We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle; many of which circumstances (perhaps those very cases which strike us the most) may be precisely such as cannot be brought forward without betraying a confidence, or in some respect saying what should not be said.’
(my emphasis)

It is simultaneously an attempt to recover her composure after her revelation of feeling about the privations and restrictions of the naval life (almost certainly an example of Austen using a character to express her own sentiments, given her own strong connection to the navy via her brothers) and an equal attempt to assure Harville that she herself is honourably constrained by fear of betraying confidences – which prevents her from saying more. But Harville has no such qualms, moving immediately into a statement of immensely personal candour even if couched in the opening ‘a man suffers’ and followed throughout by reference to ‘he’ and ‘his’. He is clearly recounting his own history of such feelings:

Ah!’ cried Captain Harville, in a tone of strong feeling, ‘if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, “God knows whether we ever meet again!” And then, if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when, coming back after a twelvemonth’s absence perhaps, and obliged to put into another port, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there pretending to deceive himself, and saying, “They cannot be here till such a day,” but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if Heaven had given them wings, by many hours sooner still! If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do for the sake of these treasures of his existence! I speak, you know, only of such men as have hearts!’ pressing his own with emotion.
(my emphasis)

This is a remarkable achievement, suffused with but not unbalanced by a strong religious as well as emotional vocabulary and clarity, beginning with the speech descriptor ‘in a tone of strong feeling’ and followed by ‘suffers’, ‘a last look’, ‘God knows’, ‘the glow of his soul’, ‘as if Heaven had given them wings’, ‘bear’, glories’, ‘treasures of his existence!’ and ending with him pressing his own heart ‘with emotion’. This is not the only element demonstrating Austen’s control of pace and rhythm and characterisation that continues the development of the essentially masculine voice commented on earlier. Notice, for example, how Harville’s speech crams its one hundred and ninety-six words into only four inordinately long sentences (the longest comprising eighty-seven words alone) and yet manages to include five exclamation marks and two examples of direct speech within that frame, underlining how the emotional undercurrents that have been building throughout the scene thus far burst to the surface here. Also note that, as before, Austen creates a context for that emotion expressed in dynamic terms of movement, of family separation and return, of loss and longing – and even, in the moment of return, a sense of redemption.

Wonderful as this achievement is, it sets Austen as a writer another significant challenge. How is the more reticent and emotionally cautious Anne to respond to this, especially after claiming an honourable silence? Can Austen continue to develop that emotional affinity between them that has been so carefully constructed? Can Anne bring herself to reply in kind, to reveal how she truly feels about Wentworth in such a way that he will understand if he overhears her while somehow not saying ‘what should not be said’? I suggest that Anne’s reply is another tour de force, a masterclass in technique:

‘Oh!’ cried Anne eagerly, ‘I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures. I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of every thing great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as – if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’
(my emphasis)

The emotional affinity is expressed immediately in the mirroring of how Harville starts his words – ‘‘Ah!’ cried Captain Harville’ answered with ‘‘Oh!’ cried Anne’ – and again in the strong similarity between the extended speech direction, where Harville’s ‘in a tone of strong feeling’ is matched by Anne’s ‘eagerly’. The sense of linguistic entrainment noted earlier in their exchange remains. That said, Austen’s control of her material means that she can nonetheless differentiate the pace and rhythm of the two voices while establishing a powerful and equal emotional intensity in terms of their effects. Anne’s one hundred and forty-eight words are delivered in seven sentences, with a longest sentence of thirty-three words, and contain only one exclamation mark. Further, her comments are delivered within a framework of ‘I’ and ‘you’ and their wider forms, emphasising the more inclusive and intimate female viewpoint in a quiet and subtle way. And where the context for Harville’s emotion is one of action and activity in the wider world of going off to sea Anne’s context remains domestic, stoic, and solitary. There is no possibility of redemption, only the certainty of endurance, where

‘She could not immediately have uttered another sentence; her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed.’

Austen rounds off what might be termed the apotheosis of this measured emotional crescendo of their exchange by having Harville react spontaneously both linguistically and (very significantly) physically:

You are a good soul,’ cried Captain Harville, putting his hand on her arm quite affectionately. ‘There is no quarrelling with you. – And when I think of Benwick, my tongue is tied.’
(my emphasis)

(Although Austen repeats the same language structure of ‘cried Captain Harville’, I would suggest that here it denotes not just a speaker caught in the sustained emotion of the moment but expresses something of Harville’s personal qualities of enthusiasm and positivity as well as unconditional regard for Anne.)

At this moment of high drama Austen chooses to break the momentum by having Mrs Croft take her leave and lower the temperature by succinctly introducing a note of the socially mundane business of checking the arrangements for the evening:

‘Here, Frederick, you and I part company, I believe,’ said she. ‘! am going home, and you have an engagement with your friend. – To-night we may have the pleasure of all meeting again, at your party,’ (turning to Anne.) ‘We had your sister’s card yesterday, and I understood Frederick had a card too, though I did not see it – and you are disengaged, Frederick, are you not, as well as ourselves?’

Austen shows the range of her skill in managing language to create a vivid sense of character. Here is the unmistakable tone of the elder sister, brusque, neutral, and used to exercising control. It is perfect for Austen’s purpose here, which is to create a sense of space between Anne and Harville’s exchange and any interaction between Anne and Wentworth as a result. If the reconciliation were to take place immediately it would merely form an extension of what is, despite its importance, the ancillary rapprochement between Anne and Harville. It might also create a feeling of sensory or sentimental overload for the reader that would tend to diminish its impact. For Austen needs to control the reader as well as the situation and her characters.

And in terms of the narrative, of course, it serves to bring Wentworth (who has been essentially absent after dropping his pen) back into the focus of attention, where we see him somewhat agitated and distracted:

Captain Wentworth was folding up a letter in great haste, and either could not or would not answer fully.
‘Yes,’ said he, ‘very true; here we separate, but Harville and I shall soon be after you, that is, Harville, if you are ready, I am in half a minute. I know you will not be sorry to be off. I shall be at your service in half a minute.’

And so Austen presents us with another example of how to control the pace and rhythm of dialogue to reveal what is happening beneath the surface of the words. Wentworth apparently uses three sentences to frame his reply. But the first of these is so fragmented by the jerkiness of the punctuation – showing the staccato nature of Wentworth’s thoughts – that it divides into no less than four possible short sentences. Perhaps Anne is not the only one having problems with her breathing.

Wentworth’s impatience to leave rather than to take the opportunity to take Harville’s place next to Anne is another distancing device:

Mrs Croft left them, and Captain Wentworth, having sealed his letter with great rapidity, was indeed ready, and had even a hurried, agitated air, which shewed impatience to be gone.
(my emphasis)

Austen makes clear that the reader should not misinterpret what is behind Wentworth’s haste by dropping in the word ‘agitated’. In exactly the same way that Austen structures the scene to build a sense of emotional and linguistic entrainment between Anne and Harville, so she has almost imperceptibly created a similar hyper-awareness between Anne and Wentworth that both in their different ways attempt to disguise. Wentworth’s displacement strategy is to ignore Anne’s presence: when she enters he moves away from the central table to sit at the writing desk and turn his back on the room; there is the brief moment when he turns his head to glance (‘one quick conscious look’) to see Anne’s reaction to the mention of engagements – but then presumably turns his back on her once more, given that Austen then brings the conversation between Anne and Harville into play and Wentworth disappears from the narrative until he drops his pen; when he does so he acknowledges only Harville, not attempting even to look at Anne; and as the scene seems to be ending he is anxious to leave without acknowledging her at all, collapsing whatever hopes she might have had that her words had registered with him. She is baffled:

Anne knew not how to understand it. She had the kindest ‘Good morning, God bless you,’ from Captain Harville, but from him not a word, nor a look. He had passed out of the room without a look!
(my emphasis)

His silence and the repetition of ‘nor a look’ and ‘without a look’ ending in the shocked exclamation mark speak eloquently of her puzzlement and dismay. It seems that despite her warm reception from Harville, to whom she is ‘a good soul’ who prompts the physical affection of ‘his hand on her arm’ and ends with the kindness of ‘God bless you’, Wentworth is unmoved. The plot device of substituting the two close friends has apparently failed to achieve its objective.

At this point Austen unveils her Coup de Théâtre. Wentworth returns in the very next sentence, when Anne has ‘had only time, however, to move closer to the table where he had been writing’; Anne, it seems, is not the only one who is hyper-aware and anxious:

He begged their pardon, but he had forgotten his gloves, and instantly crossing the room to the writing table, and standing with his back towards Mrs Musgrove, he drew out a letter from under the scattered paper, placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a moment, and hastily collecting his gloves, was again out of the room, almost before Mrs Musgrove was aware of his being in it – the work of an instant!
(my emphasis)

Once again note the language: to reinforce the sense of speed here, the sentence of seventy-eight words is broken up into ten brief segments of action separated by nine commas and a final dash operating alongside the vocabulary of ‘instantly’, ‘for a moment’, ‘hastily’, ‘almost before … aware of being in it’ and ‘an instant’. The speed and brevity is intended to show Wentworth’s emotional state, of course, as is the description of his ‘eyes of glowing entreaty’. If this were not enough Austen goes on to tell us that the address on the letter was ‘hardly legible’, an unobtrusive statement of just how Wentworth’s emotions are reflected in his diminished physical control over his actions. And then the reader metaphorically glances over Anne’s shoulder as she reads the letter – ‘sinking into the chair which he had occupied, succeeding to the very spot where he had leaned and written, her eyes devoured the following words’ in the best romantic fairy-tale tradition. Before I discuss it more fully in the following section it is, perhaps, worth making a few brief observations now on Austen’s purpose here.

Clearly, it would be weak structurally to have yet another stretch of dialogue after the conversation between Anne and Harville. Further, there is the dramatic need to separate out what we might call the actual Wentworth from the carefully arranged substitution or representation of Harville. Anne (and the reader) need the space to be reminded of the difference as expressed in Wentworth’s own words – and to have that space made available in a quiet, unobtrusive way. After all, Anne has been emotionally drained both by what she has been saying to Harville, by Wentworth’s apparent determination not to acknowledge her, and then by Wentworth’s hurried brief return to deliver his hastily written letter to her – the ‘revolution which one instant had made in Anne’ and which was ‘almost beyond expression’.

Alongside such structural considerations is another (and, I would suggest, even more important) strand: how will the letter develop and confirm Wentworth’s character and redeem his suitability as a worthy husband after some of his earlier behaviour and comments? Consider his generally studied indifference to her compared with his apparent pursuit of the Musgrove daughters, salted with such remarks in Chapter Seven (filtered through Mary) as ‘Captain Wentworth is not very gallant by you, Anne’ and a moment later ‘You were so altered he should not have known you again’; and then his use of a nut as an analogy to reinforce his views to Louisa in Chapter Ten on ‘the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character’ and finishing with ‘My first wish for all, whom I am interested in, is that they should be firm. If Louisa Musgrove would be beautiful and happy in her November of life, she will cherish all her present powers of mind’.

A final question presents itself concerning the letter. Wentworth wrote it – after supposedly dropping his pen. What might Austen be suggesting by this?

Back to Reading Jane Austen 8
© Mike Liddell 2020