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

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Anne Elliot's Vision-Impairment in Persuasion: I know I see more distinctly against the grain

I've had a couple of interesting responses from the usual suspects in Janeites and Austen-L, my friends Diana Birchall and Diane Reynolds, in response to my two posts about Anne Elliot's vision-impairment in Persuasion.

Diana, GREAT catch on that other quote about Jane Austen's eyesight in her 1801 letter not long after her move to Bath:

"The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion."

It is very interesting to note that even in 1801, at age 26, Jane Austen preferred to observe an urban landscape WITHOUT a bright sun shining down--she didn't use the word "glare" in the above passage, but she may as well have, right? And therefore it functions nicely as a bookend to her quote about the glare in Bath in March 1805, which she echoed in Persuasion.

Diana, the following probably won't change your mind about my claims about Anne Elliot's vision impairment, but it's worth a shot anyway. Even if not, I appreciate the spur that rational opposition like yours provides to me in this instance, it forces me to dig deeper in explaining myself, and that's always a good thing, regardless of the effect it may or may not have on the opinion of my amicable opponent.

Diane Reynolds wrote: "I am working through the Hennedy article...and he quickly acknowledges the traditional argument about blindness and sight largely functioning as moral metaphors for Austen but is prepared to take the metaphors down to a more literal level. So, if I understand correctly, for Hennedy is is not either/or but both/and in his examination moral/literal lack of clear seeing."

Yes, exactly. It's never either/or with any aspect of Jane Austen's writing, it's always both/and.

I rank Hennedy's insight about Anne Elliot's hearing her world rather than seeing it as one of the greatest one-off scholarly achievements in the history of Austen studies. Why? Because it required strong sensitivity to the actual words on the page, but also an outside-the-box mentality, WAY back in 1973 (really, the Jurassic Era of Austen literary criticism, when scholarly dinosaurs ruled the Janeite world) to realize that this was not accidental, but was an intentional strategy on JA's part running through the entire novel. The proof of Hennedy's revolutionary insight is that it has not, as far as I can discern, ever been repeated by any other scholar since 1973, although G.A. Wilkes, whose early Nineties article I also cited, does get in the ballpark with his acute zeroing in on the Winthrop episode. In particular, Wilkes marvels at the way that several well known Austen scholars read the Winthop passage as if Anne Elliot is having a real picturesque experience, when the words on the page show that she is completely oblivious to any scenery more than 10 feet away from her!

And of course, Hennedy being completely outside the box of normative Austen scholarly criticism, his article was almost never cited by later Austen scholars, and it quickly slipped into a limbo where it was no longer visible for 40 years until I dredged it up the other day, like one of Titania's jewels from the deep--I'm trying to remember now what key words I searched last week, which led me to his article, but it doesn't really matter, that was just serendipity. What I know is that the minute I read the title, "Acts of Perception in Jane Austen's Novels", I knew I had to read it, because it promised a sensitivity to the decisive influence of perspective and point of view on preception,  which was an overarching theme I knew was near and dear to JA's literary heart. But I never dreamt it would lead to such fruitful results.

For anyone who takes the time to _really_ closely study each and every of the textual examples from Persuasion which I addressed in my two posts (which are long only because I include long quotations to give full context, my own discussion is shorter)....

.....I suggest you ask yourself whether the global, consistent pattern I articulate from a dozen examples could all be a figment of my imagination? What shines through and is clearly visible, I suggest, is the sheer brilliance and subtle, understated deftness of the writing skilll with which Jane Austen manages to have it BOTH ways---i.e., she generates two completely different readings, both compelling, both powerful, both psychologically deep----one an interpretation WITH the grain of the text, the other AGAINST the grain.  Literary counterpoint realized on a small scale, but nonetheless on the highest plane of perfection.

Read from the perspective of Anne's being laser-focused on Wentworth, and only having eyes for him (metaphorically), to the radical exclusion of looking at anything or anyone else, i.e., the normative reading, it works---it works so well that the intense romance of that reading has gripped the hearts of two centuries of readers; but read from the perspective of Anne's having a vision impairment something like extreme nearsightedness which she is in extreme denial about, it also works.  And I can tell you that when fit into other aspects of an against-the-grain reading, it is equally gripping emotionally. just very different.

After eleven years of learning, by trial and error, how to read Jane Austen against the grain, I know I see more distinctly against the grain---practice does, after all, eventually make perfect---while still retaining the faculty to read with the grain. I get two great novels for the price of one, and that is available to anyone else who takes the trouble to learn to read against the grain in this way.

As you said, both/and.  Or rabbit/duck, whichever metaphor you wish to use to describe Jane Austen's anamorphic literary structures:

I had up till only six months ago reluctantly concluded that Jane Austen was ill enough physically by the time she was finishing Persuasion, that she simply lacked the energy to achieve a finished level of genius in it comparable to that achieved in the other novels. Now I have seen a variety of major motifs in Persuasion since the Spring, each more surprising, even to me, than the next, of which this vision impairment motif is the capper. Collectively, these new insights have made me realize that for all its shortness of length, Persuasion, like Northanger Abbey, is the equal, in genius, to the four longer novels.  Just shorter, and therefore on a smaller scale.

It is always a mistake to underestimate Jane Austen, especially when she's working on fewer inches of ivory, measured by the page.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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