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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Followup re Anne Elliot’s (& Jane Austen’s) hypersensitivity to noise

In followup to my recent post about Anne Elliot’s hypersensitivity to noise…  …I received a very interesting reply from Lynn Festa (whose recent Persuasions article I had cited therein), after I brought my post to her attention.
First, Lynn alerted me to Strange Fits of Passion, Adela Pinch's 1998 book which expanded upon Pinch’s 1993 article that I had cited. Here’s Pinch’s interesting expansion, at p. 149 of her book:

“What interests me…is the way in which [Persuasion] foregrounds the sensory nature of this knowledge [of society-wide events]. In the disquisition on noises that Austen interjects right after her picture of the noisy family-piece at Uppercross, she highlights the sensory, and the pleasurable or unpleasurable, aspects of noise: ‘Every body has their taste in noises…’ In this novel, in which overhearing is such an important way of knowing (in the hedgerow scene, for example, and in the climactic scene at the White Hart), noise and sound have special prominence. Spoken language is often apprehended as sheer sound.  ….Anne is often so occupied with her own rumination and recollection that impressions from the outside seem to have a hard time finding their way in. This is not to say that Anne seems self absorbed; rather, the way Austen frequently represents Anne’s consciousness is as absorption. While many readers have stressed Anne’s acute perceptions of the outside world. I’m interested in the way in which Austen’s representations of Anne’s innerness takes the form of an inwardness that oddly seems only penetrated from the outside with difficulty…’Anne found herself’…has a way of suggesting that what precedes these moments of contact is a state somewhat like unconsciousness: it is an absorption within… she appears as someone who does not want to know anything but what she already knows… at the White Hart hotel, Anne, absorbed in her thoughts, becomes ‘gradually sensible’ that Captain Harville is addressing her. Sensations from the outside are often surprises, like physical shocks, as when she is ‘electrified’ by Mrs. Croft’s suddenly saying something of interest…[Anne’s and Wentworth’s] renewed courtship takes place through moments of physical contact…which are both erotic and strangely intrusive, described as impingements from the outside world. It seems fitting that their whole re-courtship is framed by the fact that Wentworth’s family—and Wentworth himself-have taken over Anne’s house.
This combination of eroticism, claustrophobia, and sensation can be found above all in the scene in Chapter 9 in which Wentworth removes the child from Anne’s back…the agitation it produces…seems to come not only from Anne’s confusion about Wentworth’s motives…but also from the sheer physicality of this moment of contact…stresses how removed Anne’s experience of Wentworth is from an everyday knowledge of another’s presence…the presence of her lover is apprehended as invasive, much as the presence of others is…”  END QUOTE FROM PINCH BOOK

As an aside, I find almost uncanny the strong resonance of Pinch’s final observation about Wentworth’s intervention to remove the boy from Anne’s back as “invasive”, in light of my other recent post, about Mr. Elton’s drunken advances on Emma during their Christmas Eve carriage ride with Mr. Elton, as a metaphor for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia that was defeated by the Russian winter. It makes perfect sense, as I consider that resonance, that JA would have continued to play with that metaphor of sexual invasion in Persuasion, with its Napoleonic timeline, written right after Emma.

But back to Anne Elliot’s hypersensitivity to noise---Lynn Festa also alerted me to the following relevant discussion in Deidre Lynch’s 1998 book The Economy of Character:  

“In Persuasion, rooms filled with people are experienced by Anne Elliot as stages for unintelligible sound: the fashionable world’s ‘nothing-saying’ is apprehended less often as an aggregate of distinct voices, more frequently as a ‘ceaseless buzz’ or a hum…Austen shows how these noise machines give their female operators and auditors the space for private life…an imperviousness to the outside world’s demands and noises…”

What I find both fascinating and stimulating, is that Pinch and Lynch (nice coincidental rhyme there!) both take a psychological approach to explaining Anne's remoteness from, and defensiveness toward, other people. That is in contrast to my having been struck so strongly by the sheer, almost inevitable, "physiologicality" of Anne’s experience.  And so, as Festa has prompted me to now consider Anne from both perspectives, I believe Austen, master psychologist that she was--a Regency Era Oliver Sacks, if you will---intended a very sophisticated combination of the two perspectives on Anne’s experience of the world.  I.e., Anne is JA’s brilliant depiction—entirely by inobtrusive showing rather than didactic telling--- of a woman lost inside herself, both by the way her sensory organs operate, but also psychologically. And it makes perfect sense that these two forms of inner absorption would constitute an unfortunate closed loop, with the physiological and the psychological deficits amplifying each other---and it’s impossible to tell which came first.  That's why Anne's SO interior--she is not fighting to overcome her sensory deficits, she has long since retreated deeply inside them, and never quite emerges from them, even after she “blooms” in the second half of the novel.

Finally, Lynn Festa questioned my claim that it is only Anne who did not like the noise at the Uppercross Christmas. She suggested instead that Lady Russell also didn’t like all that noise. Festa based that assertion (which I now recall has been made by other Austen scholars as well) on Lady Russell’s making the following emphatic assertion immediately after the description of all the noises in that family scene:

"I shall remember, in future,' said Lady Russell.. 'not to call at Uppercross in the Christmas holidays.' "

I had overlooked that speech, which, at first, does seem to negate my claim that it was only Anne who hated the noise at Uppercross Christmas. In that same vein, when I looked again at the preceding passage, there was what seemed to be an example of Lady Russell’s frustration at the high noise level:    
“Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.”
That “fine” seems sarcastic, as in Laurel & Hardy’s famous “another fine mess” – i.e., it was apparently not very “fine” for Lady Russell not to be able to hear a compliment being paid to her.

But, upon closer analysis, those two passages actually support my claim that it is Anne, and only Anne, who hates noise. It’s an amazing tour de force on JA’s part.

First, note that Anne’s disliking the noise in that Christmas scene at Uppercross is entirely consistent with Anne disliking noise at several other points in the novel. However, in contrast, Lady Russell does not have a consistent aversion to noise. In fact, she actually (as Festa acknowledges) enjoys the street noise in Bath. Thus, it would be curious and inconsistent for Lady Russell to have such opposite reactions to the same sort of stimuli.  

But second and much more important, Lady Russell does not state the reason why she doesn't want to call at Uppercross at a future Christmas, she simply states her resolution not to do so! It is Anne who blithely assumes (clearly, I suggest, because of her own sensory overload issues) that Lady Russell also feels overwhelmed by the noise there. And Anne actually makes the same blithe assumption regarding Louisa Musgrove’s sensitivity to sound. But, I suggest, it's an unjustified assumption by Anne in both cases.  

And here’s the kicker, the gorgeous irony that JA hid in plain sight in that same Christmas noise scene. Read again the following, and ask yourself a simple question—how does Anne, who is the observer, have any idea as to what Mr. Musgrove was saying to Lady Russell:

“Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.”

If it’s so damned noisy in the room, and if Mr. Musgrove is speaking “with a very raised voice” “in vain” to Lady Russell sitting right next to him, then it means that Anne the listener, who is sitting at a further distance, has merely guessed that Mr. Musgrove was paying Lady Russell “his respects”!  

And that leads us to ask, what if his “very raised voice” has another explanation? What if it was not a reaction to the noisy room, but instead was a clue that Mr. Musgrove was speaking to Lady Russell in anger? After all, in the real world, it’s not only people trying to be heard over a din who speak “with a very raised voice”, it’s also angry people!

And, following that alternative line of inference to its logical conclusion, if Mr. Musgrove did speak to Lady Russell in anger, and if it was because they were engaged in an argument, which did not get resolved amicably, then that would be a powerful alternative explanation for Lady Russell’s resolution not to return to Uppercross—for Christmas, or at any other time, for that matter!

But, you should then be asking me, what in the world were they arguing about? And that’s what finally brings us to the kicker, i.e., the textual wink which quietly confirms that Jane Austen intended us to go through this entire chain of analysis, and to end by asking this question re Lady Russell and Mr. Musgrove. 

So now, I ask you who know Persuasion well--is there any other plausible reason you can think of, for Lady Russell and Mr. Musgrove to have words, such that she would resolve not to visit her old friends and neighbors at Uppercross at a future Christmas?  What could tick Lady Russell off that much?

I suspect that there is more than one plausible explanation, but here’s the one that occurred to me straight off. We know that Lady Russell’s hot button issue, the one that gets her dander up, is her extreme sensitivity to any slighting of the dignity of the Elliots. She’s a snob about a title, and that’s why, eight years earlier, she presumed to persuade Anne not to marry the commoner Wentworth. Snobbery is Lady Russell’s defining trait in the novel.

And we are not yet at the end of the novel, when Lady Russell to some extent repents her meddling. And so she is still just like Sir Walter, just like Elizabeth, and (even, although less obviously) just like Anne, in her snobbery.  And now I ask you, what do we already know about the Musgroves’s attentiveness—or lack thereof-- to the “high status” of the House of Elliot? I bet you also now recollect that we heard the following elaborate meditation by Anne on that very subject, way back in Chapter 6, when Anne first visits Uppercross after her father and sister move to Bath:

“Anne had not wanted this visit to Uppercross, to learn that a removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of only three miles, will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea. She had never been staying there before, without being struck by it, or without wishing that other Elliots could have her advantage in seeing how unknown, or unconsidered there, were the affairs which at Kellynch Hall were treated as of such general publicity and pervading interest; yet, with all this experience, she believed she must now submit to feel that another lesson, in the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle, was become necessary for her; for certainly, coming as she did, with a heart full of the subject which had been completely occupying both houses in Kellynch for many weeks, she had expected rather more curiosity and sympathy than she found in the separate but very similar remark of Mr and Mrs Musgrove: "So, Miss Anne, Sir Walter and your sister are gone; and what part of Bath do you think they will settle in?" and this, without much waiting for an answer; or in the young ladies' addition of, "I hope we shall be in Bath in the winter; but remember, papa, if we do go, we must be in a good situation: none of your Queen Squares for us!" or in the anxious supplement from Mary, of--"Upon my word, I shall be pretty well off, when you are all gone away to be happy at Bath!"
She could only resolve to avoid such self-delusion in future, and think with heightened gratitude of the extraordinary blessing of having one such truly sympathising friend as Lady Russell.”

So, we may conjecture that the plain-spoken, down-to-earth Mr. Musgrove has ruffled Lady Russell’s feathers by his lack of interest in Sir Walter’s social engagements with the Dalrymples, and the like—she has responded in a huff, and he has in turn let her know that he could care less about Sir Walter and the Dalrymples! Or something along those lines.

I could just end there with a Q.E.D., but before I finish, I want to go still one step further, and suggest that this assumption by the heroine of Persuasion is exactly the same kind of heroine’s epistemological error that is enacted explicitly and repeatedly in all of JA’s novels, but above all, in Emma. It’s yet another instance when an Austen heroine assumes she knows the thoughts and meanings of other people, but she is wrong---or, at least, she does not have enough information to be sure of her blithe assumption.

As those familiar with my theory of the shadow stories of all six Austen novels, the heroine in each novel, who is of course the overwhelmingly focal consciousness, projects onto others her own experience.
Anne is the heroine least likely to be viewed in this skeptical light, which, to me, is a sign of JA’s evolution as a writer—after making Emma’s cluelessness the central theme of her eponymous novel, JA took on the challenge of making Anne’s cluelessness much harder to detect, and yet have it be as serious and pervasive as Emma’s!  It makes JA’s early death that much more tragic, as we can see that she never stopped experimenting as a writer, she always kept pushing the edge of the envelope, in her endless game of theme and variation, literarily speaking.
Regards, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: Apropos the connection between Anne Elliot’s hypersensitivity to noise and the real life Jane Austen, I also want to mention that I found the following very interesting passage in JA’s letter to CEA dated 9/15/1813:  

“Now for Bath. Poor F. Cage has suffered a good deal from her accident. The noise of the White Hart was terrible to her. They will keep her quiet, I dare say. She is not so much delighted with the place as the rest of the party; probably, as she says herself, from having been less well, but she thinks she should like it better in the season. The streets are very empty now, and the shops not so gay as she expected. They are at No. 1 Henrietta Street, the corner of Laura Place, and have no acquaintance at present but the Bramstons.

Le Faye cites Chapman’s picking up on the obvious parallel between poor F. Cage and Louisa Musgrove, but I noticed that JA on more than one occasion in her letters refers in a negative way to places she finds herself staying as “noisy”—food for speculation…..

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