Anne Elliot accompanies her sister Mary, Charles, Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove and Captain Wentworth on a walk over the November fields, and finds the world of nature reflects her mood of melancholy resignation.
At some unspecified time after her sister’s death, Cassandra Austen took a pencil and wrote beside a certain passage in her own copy of Persuasion ” Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold”. And the sentence so singled out for attention reads “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, but she learnt romance as she grew older – the natural result of an unnatural beginning.”
Cassandra’s comment has sparked much fresh debate in its own right. What did she – or Jane – mean by that weasel word, “romance”? Originally it comes from the French roman, meaning work of fiction, and it remains the modern
French term for a novel. Today, we use the term loosely to mean any aspect of the perennial quest for a partner. The romantic novel, dealing with the game of love, traditionally ends after several reversals with blissful union – or else an equally satisfying grand tragedy. So can we call Jane Austen a “romantic” writer in our modern sense of the word? Well, yes. The fuel that drives her plots is what publishes call the “love interest”. And for all her rationality, all her sharpness, she remains essentially an optimist. In her shrewd analysis of the middle-class marriage market of her day, the novels close with wedding bells – sounding remarkably harmonious and free from ironic dissonance, considering the author’s sense of realism.
But in 1816, the words “romance” and “romantic” had different and wider connotations. Most of the literature between around 1800 until 1830, along with music and fine art, emphasised what Wordsworth called “the holiness of the heart’s affections”, as well as imagination and the yearning for that something beyond the material world – in Keats’ phrase, “truth and beauty”, – to nurture the spirit. Cassandra probably meant the word “Romance” in this earlier, more literary sense. And it’s as a Romantic author – let’s use a capital letter to denote the literary sense of the word – an author who finds in Nature that sense of connection with something outside and greater than ourselves, that we see Jane Austen, when we take another look at this passage from her autumnal masterpiece, “Persuasion”.
In the description of the walk to Winthrop in Chapter X, Jane is employing a new sense of the specific in her description of the landscape. She gives us a detailed picture of the time, the place, and the weather. It is a very fine day in November and we are told of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges. We can be sure that the practical Jane had checked her facts to confirm that these hedgerows, consisting of a double row of mixed foliage with a rough, wild sort of channel down the centre, were a feature of this area on the borders of Somerset and Dorset. Remember the Musgroves live some seventeen miles from Lyme. The structure of the hedgerow is important to her purpose, for it is down this central path that Louisa will draw Wentworth away to search for a gleaning of nuts.
How effortlessly and neatly Jane arranges her characters, and like a skilful director, sits back to see them interact. Anne finds herself suddenly within earshot of the couple’s conversation as they walk along the hedge, and has to freeze her own movements to avoid detection. What is a well- worn stage device – the screen hiding the listener, seen by the audience, but not by those on stage – becomes in Jane’s hands a deft method of gaining insights into Wentworth’s attitude to Anne, without any clumsy switches away from Anne’s viewpoint. Her introspective, sensitive heroine, evidently still deeply in love with Wentworth, and resigned but saddened that he seems to be content to court the immature Louisa, makes a very reluctant eavesdropper. The dramatic irony is painful, rather than playful, as Anne is forced to listen to his heartfelt comments about “The evils of too silent and yielding a character”. As readers we share her silent mortification at his conclusion: “Let those who would be happy be firm” he tells his companion, in a tone that not only indicates their increasingly intimate footing, but makes Anne feel keenly the implication that he can never forgive the woman who was too easily persuaded to part from him all those years ago.
No wonder Anne Elliot looks at the autumnal landscape and feels that its underlying quiet melancholy is an apt analogy for her own declining happiness, the images of youth and spring all gone together. Like a true Romantic, Anne is fond of poetry and has committed to memory many of the poetical descriptions of autumn, that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt description, some lines of feeling. And this was written, we must remind ourselves, some three years before John Keats wrote his famous ode To Autumn!
Do Anne’s feelings give insights into her creator’s inner life and emotions? It would be rather impertinent of us to assume as much. Despite her affinities with the Romantic attitude to Nature seen here, Jane Austen is never a confessional writer in the true Romantic tradition. Crisp, rational and essentially self-effacing, we won’t catch her writing an “Ode to Dejection” like Coleridge, or wailing with Shelley that “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed!” Her inner life, in the absence of any highly personal letters, diaries or journals, remains for us a tantalising mystery. The nearest we get to Jane’s emotional life may well be these autumnal musings of this solitary, elegant little woman of twenty-seven – – the closest of all her heroines to her own age at the time of writing. But we will probably never know for sure.
It’s typical of the writer that at this moment of intimacy, and possible identification with her heroine, she suddenly detaches herself and makes playful fun of the whole Romantic scenario – including Anne’s melancholy reflections. For the fictional Winthrop – without beauty and without dignity – is the very opposite of the idealised English village. The prosaic farmer with his plough is counteracting the sweets of poetical despondency by preparing the land for the seeds of next year’s crop. Whether it fits in with Romantic poetry or not, the nation must be fed, and Nature means to have spring again. Even when Jane Austen is at her most “Romantic” – in every sense of the word – she gives the careful reader no excuse for wallowing in self-indulgent thoughts of ageing and decay. As that rare creature, the rational optimist, Jane always balances emotional sensitivity with good sense. By the time she wrote Persuasion, she can resist the temptation to be brisk with a melancholy heroine. But the message remains, gentle yet firm. If Anne Elliot can remain steadily rational, even at this moment when her hopes are at their lowest ebb, her intelligence will appreciate the full seasonal analogy – that there will be for her, as for the natural world, a “second bloom”, a springtime of hope and regeneration.
Sue Le Blond is writer and tour guide at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, and
teaches English, Drama and Creative Writing to adults part-time at Frome
Community College. Author of the Austen-related plays “Poppy and Porage” and
“Darcy’s Dilemma”, Sue is the editor of the new Jane Austen’s Regency World
Magazine, due for launch in January 2003. She welcomes feedback on this
feature and considers all proposals for Jane Austen-related articl