Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Winter's Persuasion - Chapter Eight

From this time Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot were repeatedly in the same circle.

Poor Anne. Imagine what it would be like, to be constantly in the company of the person with whom you're in love, and completely unable to speak freely with them.

They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other! Now nothing! There had been a time, when of all the large party now filling the drawing-room at Uppercross, they would have found it most difficult to cease to speak to one another. With the exception, perhaps, of Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who seemed particularly attached and happy, (Anne could allow no other exceptions even among the married couples), there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.

This chapter firmly establishes the Crofts as one of my favorite happily married couples in all of Austen's work - right up there with Aunt and Uncle Gardiner from Pride & Prejudice, in fact - and also establishes Mrs. Croft as perfectly wonderful, and also as a proto-feminist sort of character once she starts getting into it with her brother as to whether or not women ought to be allowed on board ship. Having claimed that he's only looking out for women, his sister says:

"But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days." Gotta love Mrs. Croft, with her mastery of metaphor and her defense of women as rational creatures who are willing to roll their sleeves up in order to be with the men they love. And then there's the conversation that follows about her time spent aboard ships:

"What a great traveller you must have been, ma'am!" said Mrs. Musgrove to Mrs. Croft.

"Pretty well, ma'am in the fifteen years of my marriage; though many women have done more. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies, and back again; and only once, besides being in different places about home -- Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never went beyond the Streights -- and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies."

Mrs. Musgrove had not a word to say in dissent; she could not accuse herself of having ever called them anything in the whole course of her life.

"And I do assure you, ma'am," pursued Mrs. Croft, "that nothing can exceed the accommodations of a man-of-war; I speak, you know, of the higher rates. When you come to a frigate, of course, you are more confined -- though any reasonable woman may be perfectly happy in one of them; and I can safely say, that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship. While we were together, you know, there was nothing to be feared. Thank God! I have always been blessed with excellent health, and no climate disagrees with me. A little disordered always the first twenty-four hours of going to sea, but never knew what sickness was afterwards. The only time I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal, when the Admiral (Captain Croft then) was in the North Seas. I lived in perpetual fright at that time, and had all manner of imaginary complaints from not knowing what to do with myself, or when I should hear from him next; but as long as we could be together, nothing ever ailed me, and I never met with the smallest inconvenience."

"Ay, to be sure. -- Yes, indeed, oh yes, I am quite of your opinion, Mrs. Croft," was Mrs. Musgrove's hearty answer. "There is nothing so bad as a separation. I am quite of your opinion. I know what it is, for Mr. Musgrove always attends the assizes, and I am so glad when they are over, and he is safe back again."

In Mrs. Croft's answer, we learn quite a lot about what life as a naval officer's wife was like. Austen's younger brother Charles kept his wife and children aboard ship with him for a while, and it is likely that Austen based her information on them, as well as on stories told her by her elder brother Francis (who eventually rose to great heights in the British Navy). We also get an interesting perspective on psychosomatic illnesses, as we learn that Mrs. Croft was made ill by her stress over separation from her beloved husband. It tells us something about the close and loving relationship between the Crofts, as well as informing us about the notion of nervous complaints among women at the time.

And oh, the pain in the closing of this chapter. It begins with this paragraph, which gives us the shorthand version of the rest of the evening: 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.

Having laid down this somewhat sparse - but emotionally impactful - version, Austen goes back over the same time period, etching a deeper and more detailed version of the same time space. By establishing in this summary how Anne filled the time and that she is overcome by emotion, Austen has essentially applied the first coat of paint down for this portrait of the evening's end. She then returns to her palette and applies more subtle gradations and additional details so that the picture comes more alive, not just in what a reader can visualize, but in how the reader registers Anne's emotional state as she sits playing the pianoforté so that Captain Wentworth can dance with and charm all the single young ladies present (except for her). She knows the women who are present - the Musgroves and Hayters - quite well, and correctly interprets their admiration and flirtation. She realizes he's asked a question about her, the answer to which implies that she has put herself on the shelf - she no longer dances at all. And then, worst of all, he springs up from the piano, where he had started to pick out a tune for the Misses Musgrove, all disinterested politeness, leaving the chapter on a bleak and sinking note, but one that nevertheless compels a page turn:

Anne did not wish for more of such looks and speeches. His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.

Here Austen demonstrates what Elie Wiesel said over a century later: The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference.

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