A little over two years ago, I wrote a series of posts, beginning with this one…
…in which I made the claim that Anne Elliot sees the world through a glass darkly, i.e., that she is vision impaired, and that her primary sensory engagement with the world is through her acutely sensitive ears.
I return now with an extension of the thesis of those earlier posts, as I take note for the first time of JA’s subtle depiction of Anne’s HYPERsensitivity to what Anne calls “noise” – i.e., it’s not just that Anne’s sense of hearing is her primary mode of sensory perception—it’s that she pays a price for it---she is easily overwhelmed by too much “noise”, as you will readily observe in the following Persuasion passages:
Chapter 9: Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room. She could not stay.
The common interpretation of the above scene is that Anne is overwhelmed with romantic feelings by Wentworth’s gallant act in grabbing Charles off Anne’s back, as it suggests to her that Wentworth still has feelings for her. And David Lodge, decades ago, raised the stakes, and a number of eyebrows as well, by suggesting that Anne’s “perfectly speechless” “disordered feelings” were evidence that Anne has just experienced an orgasm, as a result of the sudden revival of long-repressed feelings for Wentworth.
These are perfectly plausible interpretations, but, as usual with Jane Austen, I suggest that the author has also provided us with an alternative or supplemental plausible interpretation, which is that Anne is physiologically hypersensitive to sound, such that the “noise” of Wentworth playing with the boy is itself agitating to Anne, and she can only recover sensory equilibrium when she leaves the noisy room.
Even stronger evidence of Anne’s vulnerability to aural sensory overload comes five chapters later, when she first enters Bath, and then shortly thereafter enters the Musgrove lodgings there:
Chapter 14: Everybody has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and sounds are quite innoxious, or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity. When Lady Russell not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon, and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint. No, these were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures; her spirits rose under their influence; and like Mrs Musgrove, she was feeling, though not saying, that after being long in the country, nothing could be so good for her as a little quiet cheerfulness.
Anne did not share these feelings. She persisted in a very determined, though very silent disinclination for Bath; caught the first dim view of the extensive buildings, smoking in rain, without any wish of seeing them better; felt their progress through the streets to be, however disagreeable, yet too rapid; for who would be glad to see her when she arrived? And looked back, with fond regret, to the bustles of Uppercross and the seclusion of Kellynch.
….Lady Russell and Anne paid their compliments to them once, when Anne could not but feel that Uppercross was already quite alive again. Though neither Henrietta, nor Louisa, nor Charles Hayter, nor Captain Wentworth were there, the room presented as strong a contrast as could be wished to the last state she had seen it in. Immediately surrounding Mrs Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and 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.
Anne, judging from her own temperament, would have deemed such a domestic hurricane a bad restorative of the nerves, which Louisa's illness must have so greatly shaken. But Mrs Musgrove, who got Anne near her on purpose to thank her most cordially, again and again, for all her attentions to them, concluded a short recapitulation of what she had suffered herself by observing, with a happy glance round the room, that after all she had gone through, nothing was so likely to do her good as a little quiet cheerfulness at home.”
One can count in that passage a dozen varied descriptions of Anne’s extremely negative reactions to the many sounds of Bath—both on the streets and in those lodgings—and an explicit contrast is drawn between Lady Russell’s enjoyment of those same “noises”, and Anne’s being driven nearly to distraction by them!
To hammer home the point forcefully, Jane Austen gives us this one final example six chapters later still:
Chapter 20: Either from the consciousness, however, that his friend had recovered, or from other consciousness, he went no farther; and Anne who, in spite of the agitated voice in which the latter part had been uttered, and in spite of all the various noises of the room, the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and ceaseless buzz of persons walking through, had distinguished every word, was struck, gratified, confused, and beginning to breathe very quick, and feel an hundred things in a moment. …
I wrote in my 2013 posts about how at the dawn of the Romantic Era, there was a special awareness that those with impaired vision developed compensatory increased sensitivity in hearing---but I had not then read closely enough in Persuasion to notice that JA realized better than anyone that this heightened aural sensitivity came with a price, which was vulnerability to aural overload. As for that price, somewhere in my 2013 posts I also mentioned that Fanny Price was very similar to Anne in this same way --- making me wonder whether there was not, in JA’s real life, someone (perhaps herself?) who was this way?
To delve into this more deeply, I checked in the usual online archives and databases, to see if anyone else had made similar observations, and I found a number of them, which did indeed illuminate things, as you will now see.
First, here is an excellent excerpt from a May 2000 post by Dorothy Gannon in Janeites that fits perfectly with my thesis:
“Last Sunday an article appeared…on 'highly sensitive persons.' …These people are overwhelmed by loud noise, crowds, disturbed by things like fluorescent lighting, etc. It's a physiological trait, something to do with how the brain processes stimulation, and affects something like 25% of the population, to varying degrees. There was a quiz you could take to discover where you stand in the spectrum. I suspect Austen herself was one of these people, though not to the extent of, say, a Fanny Price. It's been my personal experience that one can harden oneself, so to speak, against these stimulants, through exposure. One can also simply pretend one is not bothered. I suspect Austen, if she was an 'h.s.p.' may have done this as a matter of discipline, not wanting to give in to a 'weakness.' Without the status of artist, and as the youngest daughter, an impoverished spinster at everyone's beck and call, such a temperament, if she had one, was not likely to be much indulged.”
In 2014, Diana Birchall reported in Janeites about a blog re: researching sound in Virginia Woolf:
“…the blog is taking into consideration the music that influenced Woolf, but also the cacophony of street sounds, or "music," in Mrs. Dalloway in particular. Of course there are many studies of the music Jane Austen listened to, but I don't think anyone has studied sound in her novels, and I think they should. I was thinking it would be very different from the sound in Woolf's novels, who as a modernist living in London was assailed (and she was sensitive to noise) by a cacophony indeed, cars backfiring and so on. But then I remembered that, pre-industrial and rural though Jane Austen's world was, she has some "sound" passages herself.”
Diana then quoted the same above passage re Lady Russell’s enjoyment of Bath’s cacophony, but did not pick up on Anne’s contemporaneous distress.
Turning to the academics, Lynn Festa in “The noise in Mansfield Park” in Persuasions #36 (2014) writes the following excellent and thought provoking comments about Fanny Price’s and Jane Austen’s sensitivities to “noise”:
“In Mansfield Park, Austen asks--compels--us to listen to noise and to think about what it might mean. Fanny may be stunned by the cacophony at Portsmouth, but the narrator anatomizes the slamming of doors, the shudder of thin walls, the stomping and hallooing, offering us as detailed a sense of the Prices' house as any modern sociological study of the impact of noise pollution upon the poor. …But what counts as noise? Defining noise is not as simple as it sounds. The word "noise" in Austen's time could refer both to pleasant and unpleasant sounds; in Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary, it means "any kind of sound." And indeed, unless they are obtrusive, noises often pass unremarked. Austen's letters record snatches of conversation, but they only occasionally register the sonic backdrop or soundscape of her world: the noises of domestic life--the clatter of pots, the flap of drying laundry, the creaking of floor boards, the crackle of a fire--or the sounds of the countryside--the bleating of sheep, the hammering of laborers, the rumble of a farm cart (not carrying a harp). And of course we all know the famous story of the un-oiled hinge that served as a primitive intruder alert system at Chawton. When Maria Bertram finds the distance of the church from Sotherton to be a blessing because '"the annoyance of the bells must be terrible'", we recognize her lack of piety, but also glimpse how one might have experienced the sounds of village life. It is difficult to capture the ephemeral nature of sound; we can more easily describe what Austen ate than what exactly she heard. And even the most meticulously reconstructed soundscape cannot tell us which sounds Austen herself considered to be noise. For noises are personal: one person's music, as any parent with a teenager knows, is another person's noise, which risks leaving us with something like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography in an aural register: "I know it when I hear it."
However, Festa did not reach the point of suggesting that Anne Elliot might be hypersensitive to sound, because Festa misread the above-quoted Chapter 14 passage, and inferred that it is Lady Russell who is overwhelmed by the noise of Uppercoss, when it is actually Anne who is so distressed by it:
“As Austen herself observes in Persuasion, "Every body has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and sounds are quite innoxious, or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity". Although overwhelmed by the pandemonium in the Musgroves home at Uppercross, with its chattering girls, riotous boys, and "roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others," Lady Russell nevertheless greets the hubbub of Bath--"the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men and milk-men, and the ceaseless clink of pattens"--with delight. The designation of something as noise is a subjective call…”
It’s easy to fall into that error, because, in Persuasion, as in all of JA’s novels, we experience the fictional world through the senses and mind of the heroine, and Anne is especially prone to rationalizing her own experiences, especially those aspects of herself she tries not to notice, and displacing her own reactions onto others. A perfect example is in Anne’s reaction to the roaring Christmas scene at Uppercross: “Anne, judging from her own temperament, would have deemed such a domestic hurricane a bad restorative of the nerves, which Louisa's illness must have so greatly shaken.” Domestic hurricane indeed!
Penny Gay in “The Romanticism of Persuasion” in Sydney Studies (2008), actually overlooks that crucial sentence, and infers that Anne actually enjoys all the noise at Uppercross, when the opposite is the case!
And I highly recommend “Lost in a Book: Jane Austen's Persuasion" by Adela Pinch in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 97-117, (which Festa apparently was unaware of, despite its strong overlap with her article) which includes the following acute observations harking back to Hennedy’s 1973 article which first prompted my 2013 series of posts re Anne’s vision impairment:
“Persuasion is striking for the ways in which the presences of other people are apprehended as insistently sensory phenomena. … What interests me…is the way in which the novel foregrounds the sensory nature of perception. In the disquisition on noises which 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…. In this novel, in which scenes of overhearing are so important (the hedge-row scene, for example, and the climactic scene at the White Hart), noise and sound have special prominence. Spoken language is often apprehended as sheer sound. This passage is an urban pastoral in the tradition of Swift, where instead of pastoral sounds the ear is met with the sounds of the town, which are ranged in a list, from "the dash of other carriages" to "the ceaseless clink of pattens." Both the listing and the conjunction of sound with the word "ceaseless" (a conjunction which will occur again) evoke an atmosphere of continuous, unhierarchized sound….. I'm interested in the way in which Austen's representation of Anne's innerness takes the form of an inwardness that oddly seems only penetrated from the outside with difficulty….”
Finally, it is Peter Graham who, albeit in passing, comes closest among the academics to picking up on Anne’s idiosyncratic reaction to “noise” in his 2004 Persuasions Online article “Born to Diverge: An Evolutionary Perspective on Sibling Personality Development in Austen's Novels”, when Graham describes the roaring Christmas scene at Uppercross:
“It is a “fine family piece” in fact, despite the overstimulating effect it might have on a fastidious introvert.”
My response is that Graham is correct, Anne is indeed a fastidious introvert, but I also assert that Anne’s hypersensitivity to sound is much more than just that ---Jane Austen, that uncannily perceptive and sensitive observer of all things human, meant us to discern that beneath the psychological, there was also a physiological basis!
Perhaps Festa was correct after all in her suggestion that JA herself was hypersensitive to “noise”—if so, then, unlike Anne Elliot, with her endless rationalizing, JA’s hypersensitivity was more blessing than curse, because JA managed, by artistic will, to subjugate it, and to make it a servant to her fiction-writing process!
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