Friday, January 29, 2010

A Winter's Persuasion - Chapter Twenty-Three

Today, we're talking about the letter Chapter 23. Because when I think of Chapter 23, that strikes me as the most important part. For the second time in Austen's finished novels, we have an instance of an unengaged man writing to his love interest uninvited (the first time was when Darcy wrote to Elizabeth in P&P to justify his statements/conduct, and it leads to the turning point in that novel). For the record, unengaged men and women did not generally correspond unless they were relatives or were conducting business, so the use of a letter is a rather big deal - which is why Darcy delivered his in person and Wentworth does the "here's a letter for you" nod: neither of the men wishes for his particular love interest to be the subject of gossip, yet both of them have something they urgently wish to convey and no other way to do so without making a spectacle of themselves and their ladies. The idea of secret correspondence was, at the time, a rather sexy notion - or at least such is my belief - so this letter would have made readers' hearts race by its mere existence, let alone once they got to the contents.

This whole chapter is a set-up for the letter, but I do want to talk about Anne's chat with Captain Harville (conveniently in Bath for, I might add, no good reason at all except to have this conversation with Anne on which Wentworth eavesdrops). Harville has just finished describing the origin of the miniature to Anne, and is discussing Benwick's shift of affection to Louisa Musgrove:

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 doted on him."

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

Captain Harville smiled, as much as to say, "Do you claim that for your sex?" and she answered the question, smiling also, "Yes. We certainly do not forget you as 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."

"Granting your assertion that the world does all this so soon for men (which, however, I do not think I shall grant), it does not apply to Benwick. He has not been forced upon any exertion. The peace turned him on shore at the very moment, and he has been living with us, in our little family circle, ever since."

"True," said Anne, "very true; I did not recollect; but what shall we say now, Captain Harville? If the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within; it must be nature, man's nature, which has done the business for Captain Benwick."

"No, no, it is not man's nature. I will not allow it to be more man's nature than woman's to be inconstant and forget those they do love, or have loved. I believe the reverse. 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."

"Your feelings may be the strongest," replied Anne, "but the same spirit of analogy will authorise me to assert that ours are the most tender. 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 hard, indeed" (with a faltering voice), "if woman's feelings were to be added to all this."

On the one hand, Anne accepts the traditional notion of what female life at the time involves, but she also indicates how confining such a life actually feels. The comparison and contrast between the rather constricted lives of women and the rather expansive lives of men is decidedly purposeful, and provides a rather concise summary of the lifestyles of ladies and gentlemen of that time period.

Where Austen truly displays protofeminist tendencies in this chapter is in the following part of Captain Harville's conversation with Anne, which discusses accounts of men and women in literature:

" . . . Well, Miss Elliot," (lowering his voice,) "as I was saying we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman, would, probably. 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 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 woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."

"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 anything."

This conversation is not so far off from Catherine Morland's outburst in Chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey, in which Catherine declares (about histories) that "the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all - it is very tiresome", as was discussed in this entry from August in the Abbey. Even though Northanger was written long before Persuasion, both include long passages set in Bath and discussions of the roles of the sexes in books. But I digress.

And oh! the poignancy of Anne's statement about how long love lasts: "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." Poor Anne. And yet, as I mentioned before, Captain Wentworth has been listening in.

Or, if you prefer the dishy Rupert Penry-Jones, you may like this edited version, which swaps images from the movie for Anne's ridiculous run through the rainy streets of Bath from the 2007:

Or, if you prefer a beautiful man to read aloud to you from a book, you might like to spend a few moments with Greg Wise, who reads The Letter in context from the text.

Overcome, Anne is in a complete tizzy, and is sent home on her brother-in-law's arm, when what to her wondering eyes should appear but Captain Wentworth, himself in a bit of a tizzy. Erstwhile hunter Charles is eager to pawn Anne off, as he's off to look at a new gun. And so it is that the lovers are reunited and additional declarations are made by Captain Wentworth and assurances given by Anne, and explanations as to the whys and wherefores of conduct are provided, and we are sure that all will end happily. Tomorrow's chapter is just there to sew things up for us and provide a bit more information as to how things shake out for the rest of the characters in the book.

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