A few weeks ago, I posted about various staged overhearings over hedgerows and hunting metaphors in both Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion, and also in their shared antecedent, Much Ado About Nothing….
Even so, until an hour ago, my opinion was that the allusion to Much Ado was central in P&P, but was only peripheral in Persuasion.
But then, as I responded this morning to Deb Barnum’s post about Anne Elliot’s vision in Austen-L, I found myself writing about my discovery of an amazing additional allusion to Much Ado in Persuasion:
“…that’s why Mary [Musgrove] (who is one of the matchbreaking (vis a vis Mr. Elliot) and matchbreaking (vis a vis Wentworth) family cabal, whom Jim Heldman first described so well thirty years ago…
…uses Anne’s inability to see at a distance in order to trick her. After all, as far as the family knows, Anne is really into Cousin Elliot, so what better way to put the kibosh on his chances with Anne than to use Anne’s vision impairment to slander him.
If this sounds awfully familiar, there’s a [really good] reason---this is (ironically) the exact same trick, in reverse, that Borachio hatches and successfully pulls off in order to slander Hero in Claudio’s eyes in Much Ado. Both involve observing someone through a window, but in the Shakespeare, the observers have been carefully gulled into standing down below and looking up through a window and misidentifying a lover supposedly engaging in cheating behavior, whereas the Austen involves someone who is gulled into looking down through the window and misidentifying someone below supposedly engaging in cheating behavior.”
As I have now had an hour to reflect further on the significance of this extraordinary veiled allusion by JA to Much Ado in Persuasion, I now realize, more and more, that Much Ado was actually a very significant allusive source for Persuasion, much more than I had previously ever imagined it to be.
How cleverly Jane Austen hid that allusion in plain sight, and her strategy for that hiding is now clear to me. The reason why Much Ado is so visible as a key source for P&P is of course the merry war of witty words between Lizzy and Darcy, which is, paradoxically, the most perfect “original copying” in the history of English literature, in that the allusion is obvious (and was noted in one of the very first printed review of P&P two centuries ago) and yet, so brilliantly executed that no one would ever dream of accusing Jane Austen of parroting Shakespeare. If anything, Lizzy and Darcy wage an even merrier war than Beatrick and Benedick.
But there is much more to the global allusion to Much Ado in P&P than the merry wars they share, it is fair to say that the verbal jousting constitutes only the very visible tip of the proverbial iceberg of allusion that I have written about over the years.
Now, contrast that to Persuasion—not only is there not a merry war between Anne and Wentworth, there’s actually the reverse of same-they barely speak to each other for most of the novel, even when there is opportunity, and when they do, it’s awkward, strained, the furthest thing from a witty exchange. It’s “dark, cloudy, and flat” rather than “light, bright, and sparkling”!
It has in fact been well documented that Persuasion is autumnal in mood, in vivid contrast to the “hot summer” of P&P. And as I have posted about Anne’s failing eyesight, actual light bright and sparkling would have been experienced by Anne as a very unpleasant white glare!
But…despite this surface oppositeness, which might make it seem that Much Ado was the last place you’d want to look among Shakespeare’s plays for a source for Persuasion, yet, there it is, quietly resonating in the cloudy muted environment of JA’s last novel.
It’s not just the staged eavesdropping over a hedgerow, and it’s not just the staged overlooking of an illicit romantic tryst, which I have already documented. It’s much more global, fundamental and pervasive.
Here’s the best way to think about it—you tell me which famous love story I am describing when I refer to:
…a young man in the armed forces
… who has a romantic history with a young woman onshore
…which leaves both of them upset and embittered about each other,
….until a point some time later,
….after his successful performance in the wars abroad,
…the young man returns to “the scene of the crime”
….and then the guy and the girl proceed to stumble around, hurting each other’s feelings repeatedly for most of the period of time depicted for the audience,
….until, with more than a little help from their friends, secret matchmakers all,
…..and after a girl close to them both nearly dies,
….and a malevolent sneak also connected to one of them is foiled in his own plans to wreak havoc,
…..they eventually realize they both still love each other after all, and get together in the end, happily ever after etc etc.
Could there be a better synopsis of all the key plot points of BOTH Much Ado AND Persuasion, and how they march in virtual lockstep with each other, in a way that no other Shakespeare play or Austen novel even remotely fits with them?
It makes me wonder, how did I miss how strong these parallels were till now? Well, a search of my old files just reminded me that in late 2005, in reference to someone posting about “Anne's being allowed to tell her feelings about constancy and love to Captain Harville at a natural moment, and at a time when Wentworth can overhear and interpret her words feelingly.”, I responded as follows:
“This of course alludes to Much Ado About Nothing and the overhearing of love statements (which JA added when she thought about how to alter that penultimate chapter—it is actually a window into how she revised to bring Shakespeare in!), and also shows that Harville is a Cupid, he must deliberately raise this subject with Anne…”
If only I had taken my own words more seriously back then eight years ago, and had not, perhaps, been “persuaded’ by doubters that I was reading too much into Jane Austen, I’d have dug deeper and realized that this was a small wisp of smoke drifting up from a large wildfire of allusion! In any event, better late than never!
And I conclude by closing the circle, and coming back to Jane Austen’s having hidden Anne Elliot’s vision impairment in plain sight, so to speak, and now showing how this significant plot twist is also pointing to Much Ado About Nothing in a compelling way which Jane Austen chose to tag with one of her most telling textual allusions, so that anyone who had come upon it, as I have now done, could not help but smile at her “confirmation”.
Recall that in one of my most recent posts about Anne’s vision problems, I made the following statement about Wentworth’s reaction to same:
“But Mrs. Smith is unaware in Chapter 17 of the actions which wind up being taken, which save Anne from adverse consequences for not having thought seriously, because Anne ends up with a husband who will watch over her, even when she loses her eyesight entirely. As Anne unwittingly anticipates when she says to Elizabeth about Mrs. Clay’s freckles in Chapter 5: "There is hardly any personal defect," replied Anne, "which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to." In this case, it is Anne’s agreeable manner which will gradually reconcile Wentworth to Anne’s blindness, and Anne, like Scheherazade, will live another day despite her physical and psychological blindness.”
Now I see that Jane Austen, when she revised her ending of Persuasion as she did, managed to wink at Wentworth’s noble action in choosing to marry a woman who could be going blind, with “much ado”!
I.e., just read these word of love which Beatrice speaks to Benedick just after she gets to see a letter he has written to her which declares his undying love (sound familiar?), and right before he stops her mouth with a kiss:
“I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I YIELD UPON GREAT PERSUASION; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.”
There you have, in a witty joking epigram, the very sentiment I ascribed to Wentworth—he observed (and was reminded by the Crofts) that Anne’s vision was being consumed by disease, and he loved her so much that he married her with his eyes wide open as to her “consumption”—what extra beauty this adds to their love story!
And it’s not just a parallel of idea---those of you who know Persuasion well will recognize immediately how Jane Austen unmistakedly echoed Beatrice’s debriefing words in the following, less sparkling, more staid, romantic debriefing between Anne and Wentworth:
"You should have distinguished," replied Anne. "You should not have suspected me now; the case is so different, and my age is so different. If I was wrong IN YIELDING TO PERSUASION once, remember that it was TO PERSUASION exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I YIELDED, I thought it was to duty, but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated."
"Perhaps I ought to have reasoned thus," he replied, "but I could not. I could not derive benefit from the late knowledge I had acquired of your character. I could not bring it into play; it was overwhelmed, buried, lost in those earlier feelings which I had been smarting under year after year. I could think of you only as one who had YIELDED, who had given me up, who had been influenced by any one rather than by me. I saw you with the very person who had guided you in that year of misery. I had no reason to believe her of less authority now. The force of habit was to be added."
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P.S.: When I checked to see if any prior scholars had written other than in passing about the allusion to Much Ado in Persuasion, I found the following blog post from 2 ½ years ago…
….which was captioned “Move Over Jane Austen, William Shakespeare's Written His Own 'Persuasion' “ but which, despite the promise of that title, did not reach the point of recognizing that it was not merely the case that Shakespeare had, in Much Ado, written a play which was all about “persuasion”-as to which the blogger does an excellent job summarizing the evidence for same---but that Jane Austen had not only recognized the “persuasion” subtext of Much Ado, she had taken that ten steps further by covertly patterned her own Persuasion after his!