Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Austen in August: Persuasion Read Along (Chps. 8-18)

Check out my thoughts on chapters 1-7 here.

Ok! I'm running a bit late on this, as I have been in Texas for the past several days, but here are the questions for the 2nd installment of Persuasion Read Along posts, as part of Austen in August, and my erratically formed response below. 

  • Now that we've gotten to know most of them a bit, discuss the side characters: who is your favorite? least favorite? Were there things Austen did with these side characters that you absolutely loved or hated?
  • As Anne and Wentworth are thrown together more and more, how do you feel about the fact that they never address their shared history? Do you find either to be irrational or unjust in not being open with the other and broaching the topic? Do you find Anne too self-sacrificing?
  • Is there ever a time you dislike Capt. Wentworth? Were you put off by his treatment of Anne?
  • Discuss the incidents at Lyme; consider Louisa's fall from the cob and Wentworth's subsequent praise of Anne, the appearance of Mr Elliot and his reaction to Anne (and Wentworth's reaction to him), etc.
  • Discuss Anne's arrival in Bath, considering the continued presence of Mr Elliot, Anne's reaction to her family and the way she begins to distance herself from them and stand up for herself more than she has been known to do.
Chapter eight of this book is so maddening brilliant. We feel all of Anne's intense pain. I think the scene where she sits playing the piano is arguably the most amazing Austen ever wrote:
The evening ended with dancing. On its being proposed, Anne offered her services, as usual; and though her eyes would sometimes fill with tears as she sat at the instrument, she was extremely glad to be employed, and desired nothing in return but to be unobserved.

It was a merry, joyous party, and no one seemed in higher spirits than Captain Wentworth. She felt that he had every thing to elevate him which general attention and deference, and especially the attention of all the young women, could do. The Miss Hayters, the females of the family of cousins already mentioned, were apparently admitted to the honour of being in love with him; and as for Henrietta and Louisa, they both seemed so entirely occupied by him, that nothing but the continued appearance of the most perfect good-will between themselves could have made it credible that they were not decided rivals. If he were a little spoilt by such universal, such eager admiration, who could wonder?

These were some of the thoughts which occupied Anne, while her fingers were mechanically at work, proceeding for half an hour together, equally without error, and without consciousness. Once she felt that he was looking at herself, observing her altered features, perhaps, trying to trace in them the ruins of the face which had once charmed him; and once she knew that he must have spoken of her; she was hardly aware of it, till she heard the answer; but then she was sure of his having asked his partner whether Miss Elliot never danced? The answer was, "Oh, no; never; she has quite given up dancing. She had rather play. She is never tired of playing." Once, too, he spoke to her. She had left the instrument on the dancing being over, and he had sat down to try to make out an air which he wished to give the Miss Musgroves an idea of. Unintentionally she returned to that part of the room; he saw her, and, instantly rising, said, with studied politeness--

"I beg your pardon, madam, this is your seat;" and though she immediately drew back with a decided negative, he was not to be induced to sit down again.

Anne did not wish for more of such looks and speeches. His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.
The contrast between Wentworth and Anne is so stark: her angst so acute, his high spirits so cruelly mocking! Charlotte Bronte famously criticized Austen for her lack of passion, but how can one read this chapter, entering into all of Anne's feelings, as we must, and not want to weep for her? The hopelessness of Anne's circumstances gets reinforced time and again during this middle part of the book, even while Austen teases her (and us) with hope. The secondary characters to whom Misty draws our attention are the tools Austen uses to accomplish this dance, playing upon our emotions. Wentworth will display kindness towards Anne (when he removes her nephew from her back, when he places her in the Croft's gig, and when he brings an update on Louisa's condition to Kellynch Lodge), but then his conversations, always with someone other than Anne, emphasize the notion of his affections being directed elsewhere. His soliloquy on the nut, as well as his use of Louisa's first name ( "Dear, sweet Louisa!"), are all clear indications, in this society, of marital intentions towards her, and Anne certainly feels their blow. But remember, he refers to Anne by her first name as well: "But as to the rest, as to the others, if one stays to assist Mrs. Harville, I think it need be only one. Mrs. Charles Musgrove will, of course, wish to get back to her children; but if Anne will stay, no one so proper, so capable as Anne." The familiarity he betrays with her here (especially when maintaining such a formal tone towards Mary and particularly Mrs. Harville, with whom he is very intimate), while acknowledging his high opinion of her capabilities, makes this a giddy moment indeed: "She paused a moment to recover from the emotion of hearing herself so spoken of." And then he turns and addresses her directly! For the first time! Though he quickly subdues this outburst, he has already betrayed himself. By turning instinctively to Anne in his time of need, he reveals much of his true sentiments for her, demonstrating precisely the openness that Anne mistrusts Mr. Elliot for not possessing.

Austen's playing with both Anne and the reader's emotions in this manner, eventually working us up into a truly fevered pitch, takes its toll in rendering Wentworth a bit fickle. It is largely because Anne cares for him that we believe him worthy of her, for his behavior does not speak well for him. Don't get me wrong - I find Wentworth as irresistible as any Janeite - but at this point in the book, he's not at his best. We forgive him because we understand he is angry and hurt, but it is undeniable that he acts without proper consideration for the perception he creates and the effect it has on others, as he will admit himself in the last section of the book. In contrast, and perhaps precisely because he is so aware of his own actions and their consequences, Mr. Elliot is looking pretty great. He sees Anne's beauty when no one else does, treats her with flattering consideration, and provides us with the supreme gratification of knowing our heroine preferred to her odious sister. Between him and Captain Benwick, we become assured that Anne is not doomed to be an old maid, but it is perhaps Sir Walter's compliments on her approved appearance that hold the most weight, for if he is unreliable on every other topic, we can firmly depend on his expertise in matters of beauty.

I really do love Sir Walter, as horrible as he is. He is such an amusing character: so completely foolish and oblivious to all but his own concerns. I find him one of the most entertaining specimens of humanity Austen presents for our amusement. In fact, all the Ellitos provide me with a great deal of gratifying eye rolling. The Musgroves, on the other hand, bore me. Louisa and Henrietta are so vapid that, however good-natured they may be, or touching in their sisterly devotion, I find myself hard pressed to attend to passages focused upon them. Charles Musgrove is just irritating, with all his hunting fervor. This line, in particular, always makes me cringe:
Mary had shewn herself disobliging to him, and was now to reap the consequence, which consequence was his dropping her arm almost every moment to cut off the heads of some nettles in the hedge with his switch; and when Mary began to complain of it, and lament her being ill-used, according to custom, in being on the hedge side, while Anne was never incommoded on the other, he dropped the arms of both to hunt after a weasel which he had a momentary glance of, and they could hardly get him along at all.
I cannot tell you how often the image of Charles darting after that weasel has haunted me, but it sets up Wentworth to look particularly refined and gallant in comparison, and it is, in part, the inferiority of her companions that makes Anne's near perfection so starkly apparent.    

Generally, I think Misty's questions have been fabulous, and I again commend her for breaking up the book into the sections she did, but I do have a qualm with an assertion she makes, regarding "the way she begins to distance herself from them and stand up for herself more than she has been known to do." I don't think there is any evidence that Anne has not always allowed her conscience to dictate her actions, as she does when refusing to break her engagement with Mrs. Smith to attend the Dalrymples. We know she has never been in high favor with Sir Walter and Elizabeth, or even comprehensible to them, and I imagine it is because she has again and again been guided by values completely alien to them. We do not see enough of Anne's earlier behavior to mark this as a departure. Even the shame she expresses in Sir Walter and Elizabeth's grovelling attitude towards their grand relations is only a result of never having seen them in such company before, and while novel in that sense, it cannot be much different than the embarrassment they have caused her in a variety of other areas, particularly her father failure to be a proper steward to his estate. I think her determination to not go to the Dalrymples is an episode that shines more light on the characters of Lady Russell and Mr. Elliot than herself, for while they both honor the sentiments motivating Anne, they have no compunction in rearranging their own plans.

One last thought in regards to Mrs. Smith, who I find endlessly fascinating, She is unlike any other character in Austen, perhaps bearing something of a resemblance to Miss Bates in her circumstances, but her intelligence sets them wildly apart. To have this glimpse into the life of the impoverished gentry is mesmerizing to me, and it allows Austen to provide her clearest expression of the importance of endurance and positivity, a theme present in all her novels:
 In the course of a second visit she talked with great openness, and Anne's astonishment increased. She could scarcely imagine a more cheerless situation in itself than Mrs. Smith's. She had been very fond of her husband: she had buried him. She had been used to affluence: it was gone. She had no child to connect her with life and happiness again, no relations to assist in the arrangement of perplexed affairs, no health to make all the rest supportable. Her accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour, and a dark bedroom behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance, which there was only one servant in the house to afford, and she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath. Yet, in spite of all this, Anne had reason to believe that she had moments only of languor and depression, to hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? She watched, observed, reflected, and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.
The picture painted also changes our perception of Anne's situation, which, though looking up at this point, still commands our sympathies. In Mrs. Smith, we see how fortunate Anne really is. Though her family's prominence has diminished, and though they be poor companions, she is still secure of the dignities of her rank. She has a great deal more security than most of Austen's heroines, and has little fear of ever finding herself in such truly wretched circumstances as Mrs. Smith's. I think Persuasion does more to illuminate the plight of women at this time period than any of Austen's novels.  

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