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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Wild Idea about the Weakness in the Eyes of One of Jane Austen's Heroines: The White Glare of Bath

The end of my previous post under the above Subject Line…..

…was as follows:

“And I think you have by now guessed what that light bulb illuminated for me--the possibility, which I subsequently verified to my own satisfaction as a strong possibility, from browsing through the Austen novel in question, that Jane Austen had actually taken on the challenge, and had succeeded, of writing this novel from the point of view of a heroine who suffered from a more or less permanent "weakness in her eyes"!  This weakness would have been sufficient, over a period of time, to have altered the balance of her senses, such that her primary experience of the world was through hearing, then through smell and touch, and last with a (statistically) abnormal strong lack of visuality.
And the most extraordinary achievement of Jane Austen was that she never made it explicitly clear to her readers that this was the case--rather, JA reported the experience of her heroine in such a way that this imbalance was depicted implicitly--which is what enabled that eccentric scholar (to whom I reached out an hour ago, whereupon he advised me that he lacked email, so I'd have to communicate in writing with him by snail mail, which I will!)  to detect what had otherwise been invisible to every other reader of that Austen novel, as far as I have so far been able to discern on the Internet.  This is the sort of extraordinary outside the box literary experiment and innovation which might have been expected to have been tried in an early 21st century novel rather than one written in the early 19th century.  But that's Jane Austen for ya, two centuries ahead of her time in yet another important aspect!
So....anyone care to guess which heroine I am talking about, and, even better, to give me the line from that novel which links that heroine's eye weakness to a report in one of JA's letters of Jane Austen's same visual experience?  (that's a big hint)”   END QUOTE

I’ve had a chance to suss my hypothesis out for a few days, and I am now satisfied that I’m onto something real that Jane Austen actually intended to create, even though I am also sure that Ive only ‘just begun to understand its full significance’, which I think is major. Suffice for now for me to disclose and then outline my interpretation.

The Jane Austen heroine who seems to be vision-impaired is (as hinted in the above, modified version of my Subject Line)…..Anne Elliot in Persuasion!!

In a nutshell (sorta like Captain Wentworth’s famous nutshell which Anne hears about as she eavesdrops), Anne’s experience, consistently throughout the entire novel, is mediated most of the time through her sense of hearing; and the much lesser portion of her perception that is visual is entirely focused on people and objects which are physically close to her—it’s as though she is blind to anything or anyone at a distance of more about 20 feet.

Diana came closest to guessing. In her first response to me, she promisingly and shrewdly identified Anne as a possible candidate, but then she discarded Anne for  other possibilities—too quickly, I suggest.

The scholarly article I read which prompted me to this insight about Anne Elliot’s vision impairment is “Acts of Perception in Jane Austen’s Novels” by Hugh L. Hennedy, in Studies in the Novel,  Vol. 5, No. 1 (spring, 1973), pp. 22-38. This erudite gentleman, with whom I briefly spoke the other day, is a poet, and it seems to me that it was his keen eye and ear for the language of perception (which are crucial faculties for a poet) which enabled him to spot this pervasive but subliminal motif in Persuasion, while no other reader of the novel had ever detected in it.
Hennedy’s remarkable insight placed him (and anyone who read his article) only one small additional step from what I saw the other day, which is that Jane Austen intended her readers to figure out that Anne’s visual deficit and aural hypertrophy was the result of a medical condition.  

The passage in Persuasion which came to my mind immediately after I read Hennedy’s article and the idea of Anne as vision-impaired popped into my head, was the following famous one, in Chapter 5, which I have hinted at in my Subject Line:

“Anne though dreading the possible heats of September in ALL THE WHITE GLARE OF BATH, and grieving to forego all the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal months in the country, did not think that, everything considered, she wished to remain.”

“the white glare of Bath” caught me up short, and made me wonder---was Anne, because of some vision problems, unable to perceive, at a distance, the visual details of the white stone architecture of Bath, such that what was merely visually interesting and striking to other observers was experienced by her as an  overpowering, unpleasant blur-a “white glare”?

And that reminded me of the following passage in Letter 43 dated 4/11/05 letter written to CEA by JA from Gay Street (the same street where the Crofts stay in Bath) near the end of JA’s 4-year residence in Bath which ended shortly after her father’s death:

“Here is a day for you! Did Bath or Ibthrop ever see a finer 8th of April?—It is March & April together, the glare of one & the warmth of the other.”  Persuasion ends in the end of February, right before March!

“the glare of one”—although her  sentence structure is a bit ambiguous, it seems to me that JA is referring to the month of March as the particular season during which (for whatever scientific reasons that a physicist and a meterorologist might be able to explain) “the white glare of Bath” is most pronounced. So, was JA herself, with her real life eye issues which I have put forward for discussion the past few days, afflicted in the same way as her creature, Anne Elliot?  

By the way, the only other mention of “glare” in JA’s writings is in Mansfield Park, where the glare on the terrace at Sotherton is the excuse given by the Crawfords for entering the shaded wildnerness, and the glare through the window at the Price residence in Portsmouth which is so unpleasant to Fanny.

But back to Anne Elliot. The most striking example of Anne’s visual deficits, her seeming indifference to the picturesque, appears in the following passage describing the walk to Winthrop:

Chapter 10:  Anne's object was, not to be in the way of anybody; and where the narrow paths across the fields made many separations necessary, to keep with her brother and sister. Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling. “

First, we learn that Anne’s pleasure from the walk MUST arise from the experiences listed thereafter, which, by clear negative implication, excludes the pleasure most other people would derive during such a nature walk, which would derive from looking at the glorious pastoral landscape on every side.

Second, what Anne does notice visually are only “the tawny leaves, and withered hedges”, which are relatively small objects which are within a few feet of her as she walks. Again, by negative implication, she does not notice large, distant objects.

Third and most spectacularly, Anne derives pleasure from “repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn” –the poignant irony of this activity cannot be overemphasized— here Anne is, in the midst  of actual visual, picturesque beauty during actual autumn, but she has zero access to that direct experience, and instead MUST derive what pleasure she can from the indirect, internal, cerebral imagining of that beauty as expressed by word poets. Talk about being too much in one’s head and not enough in the moment! But it does not appear to be an indifference or lack of interest, it appears to be a mechanical problem with the operation of her eyes.

And then, as if to hammer home the point of Anne’s visual deficiency, the narration immediately gives us one of the many clues in the novel to  Anne’s aural sensitivity:

“She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations; but it was not possible, that WHEN WITHIN REACH OF CAPTAIN WENTWORTH’S CONVERSATION with either of the Miss Musgroves, she should not try to hear it; yet she caught little very remarkable. It was mere lively chat, such as any young persons, on an intimate footing, might fall into.”

Now, I can imagine  that a skeptic  might suggest at this point that perhaps Jane Austen by mid-1816 was feeling her own impending death , was having more eye problems herself, and therefore could not bear to even write descriptions of her beloved southern English landscape anymore, and could, shades of Benwick, only derive solace from poetry about landscapes?

I suggest to you that there is no choice but to toss THAT speculation in the circular file, when you contrast  Anne’s obliviousness to the distant landscape surrounding her on the Winthrop walk with the following passage, which is clearly NOT from Anne’s point of view, but is, I believe, a rare authorial intrusion by JA herself, in which there is nothing BUT observation of the distant landscape surrounding Lyme:

Chapter 11: “After securing accommodations, and ordering a dinner at one of the inns, the next thing to be done was unquestionably to walk directly down to the sea. They were come too late in the year for any amusement or variety which Lyme, as a public place, might offer. The rooms were shut up, the lodgers almost all gone, scarcely any family but of the residents left; and, as there is nothing to admire in the buildings themselves, the remarkable situation of the town, the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with bathing machines and company; the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger's eye will seek; and A VERY STRANGE STRANGER it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands, make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth, declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.”

What Jane Austen is whispering to us, by the unbecoming conjunction of these two passages in consecutive chapters, is that Anne Elliot is indeed  that “very strange stranger….who does not see charms in the  immediate  environs of”  any picturesque spot she finds herself, whether it be Bath, or the wilds outside Winthrop, or Lyme.

Subsequently to my analyzing the Chapter 10 passage, above, I found another article, “Autumn at Uppercross: A Note on the Use of Landscape in Persuasion”  by the late G.A. Wilkes in Sydney Studies in English 16 (1990-1991): 137-42, which resonates strongly with my argument. Wilkes focused on the oddness of the minimal detail in the descriptions of the landscape in the Winthrop trek, but Wilkes, like Hennedy (whose article he apparently was unaware of)  did not entertain the possibility that Anne’s own vision capacity was the cause of the strangeness he detected.

And last but best, did any sharp-eyed reader amongst you notice the ironic echoing of the famous passage about the “white glare of Bath” in Chapter 5 which I quoted, earlier,  in the Winthrop passage five chapters later?

Here’s  what we read in Chapter 5, right after Anne Elliot thinks negative thoughts about the white glare of Bath:

“…grieving to forego all the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal months in the country…”

It is in Chapter 10 that we realize that what Anne would be “giving up” by being in Bath would be the sweet, sad (but self-deluding) pleasure of quoting picturesque poetry to herself as she walks, obliviously, amidst actual picturesque  beauty—even Benwick could not match the poignant absurdity of this ironic deflation! She could as easily quote picturesque poetry to herself indoors in Bath, as she could walking to Winthrop with no capacity to observe the scenery around her!  

And speaking of being indoors at Bath, the next cluster of clues as to Anne’s visual impairment I wish to highlight come during Anne’s visit to Mrs. Smith, do indeed occur INDOORS. Anne gives Mrs. Smith a report on the concert, a report during which it almost seems to me that the sharp elf Mrs. Smith gently, persistently, but ultimately unsuccessfully tries to bring Anne to an awareness that her vision is seriously deficient:

Chapter 21: An account of the concert was immediately claimed; and Anne's recollections of the concert were quite happy enough to animate her features and make her rejoice to talk of it. All that she could tell she told most gladly, but THE ALL WAS LITTLE WAS FOR ONE WHO HAD BEEN THERE, and unsatisfactory for such an enquirer as Mrs Smith…
"The little Durands were there, I conclude," said she, "with their mouths open to catch the music, like unfledged sparrows ready to be fed. They never miss a concert."
"Yes; I DID NOT SEE THEM MYSELF, BUT I HEARD Mr Elliot say they were in the room."
"The Ibbotsons, were they there? and the two new beauties, with the tall Irish officer, who is talked of for one of them."
"Old Lady Mary Maclean? I need not ask after her. She never misses, I know; and you must have seen her. She must have been in your own circle; for as you went with Lady Dalrymple, you were in the seats of grandeur, round the orchestra, of course."
"No, that was what I dreaded. It would have been very unpleasant to me in every respect. But happily Lady Dalrymple always chooses to be farther off; and we were exceedingly well placed, THAT IS, FOR HEARING; I MUST NOT SAY FOR SEEING, because I APPEAR TO HAVE SEEN VERY LITTLE."
"Oh! you saw enough for your own amusement. I can understand. There is a sort of domestic enjoyment to be known even in a crowd, and this you had. You were a large party in yourselves, and you wanted nothing beyond."
"But I OUGHT TO HAVE LOOKED ABOUT ME MORE," said Anne, conscious while she spoke that THERE HAD IN FACT BEEN NO WANT OF LOOKING ABOUT, that the object only had been deficient.

How many examples can you count in that passage of Anne’s NOT seeing someone in the same room with her?

…."Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you when you called yesterday?"
"It was my friend Mrs Rooke; Nurse Rooke….

I was alerted to that last passage’s subtle hint about Anne’s poor vision by the following  comments by Susan Jones in  her 2004 Persuasions Online article, which Susan explains as Anne’s class-based blindness to her social inferiors: 

“Nurse Rooke, however kindly, is not a representative of the same class as Mrs. Smith.  Indeed, when she opens the door for Anne Elliot, Anne does not even notice her, telling Mrs. Smith when  the door was opened, she “‘observed no one in particular’” (197). This comment almost completely parallels her father’s unjustified remarks about Mrs. Smith, based on her name, and demonstrates that, not entirely unlike her father, Anne has areas of blindness, however benevolent she is being (Anderson). In fact, for Anne Elliot, a “professional” nurse is probably is both invisible and unknown—for the most part in Persuasion, as elsewhere in Austen’s novels, nursing is performed by members of the family, or perhaps by familiar servants such as a trusted nursery maid who form part of a sort of extended family.  What kind of nurse was Nurse Rooke?”

If this were an isolated incident in Persuasion, Jones’s analysis would be persuasive, but it’s the opposite of isolated, it’s part of a pervasive pattern. I.e., Anne is oblivious to the picturesque scenery at Winthrop, and she is equally oblivious to the visual “scenery” in the concert room in Bath!

And in this next, final passage I’ve chosen to quote, Anne, very much like a blind person, knows Wentworth by the sound of his footsteps, an extraordinary acuteness of sound perception.

Chapter 23:  “They were on Union Street, when a quicker step behind, A SOMETHING OF FAMILIAR SOUND, GAVE HER TWO MOMENTS’ PREPARATION for the sight of Captain Wentworth. He joined them; but, as if irresolute whether to join or to pass on, said nothing, only looked. Anne could command herself enough to receive that look, and not repulsively.”

Anne is as sensitive to sound cues  as she is oblivious to visual cues.

I will conclude by taking note of three other relevant but miscellaneous points:

First, in a recent dissertation, “Courting the Eye: Seeing Men in Jane Austen’s Persuasion” by Meaghan Malone, we read: “Indeed, the male gaze, as filtered through Anne, is entirely absent from the most pivotal moments of their relationship. Their first meeting, for example, almost completely lacks a visual element, and though “her eye half met” his, they do not study each other. Anne instead focuses on his voice “as he talked to Mary, said all that was right, said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to make an easy footing”.

From my perspective, Malone was alertly picking up on just the sort of textual clues to Anne’s extraordinary aural focus, which Hennedy referred to in his pioneering 1973 article.

Second, in Edward Larrissy’s 2007 book, The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period, although he does not mention Jane Austen or Persuasion, I see great significance for our understanding of the thematic implications of Anne’s being vision-impaired in Larrissy’s following  discussion of romantic  poetry:

Preface: …Yet in the Enlightenment, the blind, who are the subject of intense philosophical scrutiny, are shown to be very capable, despite the bars to sympathy and empirical learning which make them such tempting test cases. Some of the popular moral tales in which they figure make this point in a quite prosaic manner, which is nonetheless very instructive about the role they play in more polite literature. Most of all, though, they are thought to enjoy the compensations of enhanced sensitivity to music and to words. This compensation becomes associated with the loss and gain inherent in the modernity of a post-bardic age. In particular, poets may learn to value such mastery of sound and association and find a richness in these which compensates for, and even surpasses, the lost intensity of inner vision. Such was Milton’s power. …Representations of blindness and the blind elucidate a tension at the heart of the Romantic period, between the desire for immediacy of vision on the one hand, and, on the other, the historical self consciousness which always attends it.
…there is a general awareness of the influence of the idea of Homer’s or Milton’s or Ossian’s blindness, combined with a specific awareness of individual texts, such as Blake’s ‘Tiriel’, Wordsworth’s ‘The Blind Highland Boy’, or Keats’s ‘To Homer’, and of individual passages, such as the encounter with the Blind Beggar in Prelude VII, or the De Lacey episode in Frankenstein. …those philosophical discussions  of the experience of blind people which were central to Enlightenment theories about the role of the senses in the acquisition of knowledge, and which are well known to Romantic-period authors…
….the idea of compensatory sensitivity to music merges with that of sensitivity to language and its resonances and associations, a notion which contributes to some of the most original thinking in Burke’s Enquiry, and which is subtly present in those passages of Wordsworth where he laments the loss of past vision. I shall claim that the idea of sensitivity to language overlaps, especially in view of the concept of ‘association’, with a particular supposition about what is inwardly seen by those who have lost their sight: namely, that what they see are memories, rather than visions of the imagination. Other elements in the background to Romantic blindness would include the sheer mysteriousness of the experience of the blind to sighted people, and more specifically the difficulty of explaining that experience in terms of the various sense-based empiricist theories about the growth of the mind.…the image of the blind man is significant of the acute historical self-consciousness of the Romantic period: it carries with it not only the profound apprehension of an inner self which develops from Locke onwards, but also a sophisticated sense of the historical situatedness and relativity of that nature. Furthermore, this sense co-exists with ironic and melancholy realization that the inwardness of….”END QUOTE

My hunch is that Wordsworth’s poetry in particular is part of this covert “blindness” motif in Persuasion.

And I will end with a quotation from the beginning of the cancelled chapters of Persuasion, which, had it survived the cut, would have been the one and only place in the novel where Anne would have connected herself to “blindness”: 

“With all this knowledge of Mr E--& this authority to impart it, Anne left Westgate Buildgs--her mind deeply busy in revolving what she had heard, feeling, thinking, recalling & forseeing everything; shocked at Mr Elliot--sighing over future Kellynch, and pained for Lady Russell, whose confidence in him had been entire.--The Embarrassment which much be felt from this hour in his presence!--How to behave to him?--how to get rid of him?--what to do by any of the Party at home?—WHERE TO BE BLIND? where to be active?--It was altogether a confusion of Images & Doubts--a perplexity, an agitation which she could not see the end of--and she was in Gay St & still so much engrossed, that she started on being addressed by Adml Croft, as if he were a person unlikely to be met there.”

Perhaps Jane Austen removed that reference to blindness precisely because she realized she had perhaps  given too obvious a clue to Anne’s vision-impairment, and it was therefore necessary to “lop and crop”  that hint out of the text of the novel—and as a result, perhaps and ironically, JA made it so difficult for any reader of the novel to “see”  Anne’s near blindness, that it remained undetected for a century and a half until Hennedy saw it. And then it took another four decades for another reader (me) to read Hennedy armed with knowledge of Jane Austen’s shadow stories, and also with knowledge of Jane Austen’s deep interest in epistemology—how we know, how we perceive.

Viewed in that light, for Jane Austen to attempt the audacious literary experiment of hiding her heroine’s  vision impairment from her readers is really a very logical extension of her career-long focus on that universal aspect of human existence.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.:  While I have not, as yet, done a close study of other Austen heroines to verify Anne’s uniqueness in regard to diminished visual perception (perhaps Marianne Dashwood or Mary Crawford are similar, as suggested by Diana and Diane, respectively), I think it likely at this point that Anne was not like any other heroine in this crucial and remarkable respect.

1 comment:

Ceri said...

Well it's an interesting argument but I think many of the times that she didn't see it's not that she couldn't see, but because she was thinking. E.g 'These were thoughts, with their attendant visions, which occupied and flurried her too much to leave her any power of observation' (Chapter 20)