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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mrs. Musgrove is Anne Elliot's Looming Shadow

Catriona wrote: “Persuasion deals with many shades of grief from the formal "mourning " of Mr
Elliot who wore the trappings of grief but felt none and Elizabeth putting on black ribbons for Mrs Elliot, whom she resented and despised, through more genuine grief which is acknowledged in society but is of varying degrees of depth, the Musgrove family, then Captain Benwick, then Captain Harville and Anne. Anne does not even have the consolation of having her grief acknowledged and respected, even her closest confident who does love her, says nothing.”

Catriona, you are correct, but, I would suggest to you, incomplete, in the above summary of the grief theme in Persuasion.

I refer you and others interested in this topic to my blog post of 2 ½ years ago….

….in which I argued that nearly all the interpretations I could find of the infamous “fat sighings” passage in Persuasion have been fundamentally offbase, because they have attributed those uncharitable opinions about Mrs. Musgrove to Jane Austen herself, when they should have been attributed only to Anne Elliot.

Here is the conclusion of my comments in this regard in that earlier blog post:

“Anne is angry because Mrs. Musgrove is in between her and Wentworth on the sofa, completely screening Anne from seeing Wentworth, and vice versa. And so Anne can only hear Wentworth as he says "Yes, Ma'am, a terrible loss indeed" and similar comforting platitudes, even though what Anne wants more than anything in the world at that moment is to be physically close to Wentworth. His physical proximity alone has reenergized Anne's libido, perhaps for the first time in eight years, and it is so powerful experience that it temporarily swamps, it obliterates, for those few instants, Anne's normal Christian charity, and all she can think is, "Enough about this son, whom alive nobody had cared for, let me get close to that man of-- no, who used to be--mine!" Anne's powerful visceral sense of loss at that instant makes her utterly intolerant of any other woman's loss, no matter how painful. I think this is absolutely brilliant subtle characterization by JA at this time. And then she shows this, by stepping back a few paces, and having her narrator look down upon both Anne and Mrs. Musgrove, and make some characteristically ironic comments: "Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain -- which taste cannot tolerate -- which ridicule will seize." 
The narrator is describing exactly what happened inside Anne's head--it was not a rational reaction on Anne's part, because rationally, the large bulky Mrs. Musgrove does have as good a right as Anne--with her own graceful set of limbs--to be in deep affliction. But Anne's reason is overpowered by her own yearnings, and so the always-suppressed judgmental voice inside Anne's head suddenly takes charge, and ridicules (internally) Mrs. Musgrove, giving Anne some relief from the torment she feels at that instant.”

Catriona, your comments, in prompting to revisit this point, have now sparked my seeing another way of describing Anne’s state of mind here. Although my knowledge of Jung is not great, I do know that in Jungian terms, Anne overreacts because Mrs. Musgrove at that instant is Anne’s “shadow”, i.e., the side of Anne’s own personality, and of her painful situation vis a vis Wentworth, that fills Anne with anger, shame, helplessness, and perhaps also self-loathing, and which she would wish to ignore.

Mrs. Musgrove feels to Anne like one of Cruikshank’s over-the-top caricatures, and sitting next to her, perhaps even being jostled by Mrs. Musgrove as she moves around on the couch, simply overpowers Anne emotionally and physically---she literally and figuratively cannot escape from the parallel between her own endless pining away for Wentworth and Mrs. Musgrove’s endless grieving for her dead son. Her shadow, the side of herself she would wish to dissociate herself from, is suddenly and literally looming over her.

And so Anne’s mind responds to this great stress in maximum overdrive, by trying to rationalize away these very bad feelings. Being a very quick-witted elf, Anne’s mind in a flash seizes upon the one obvious characteristic which distances her (if only figuratively) as far as possible from Mrs. Musgrove—the dramatic difference in the size of their bodies. And that explains the narration that follows, which is a simply the product of  Anne’s formidable intellectual powers “protesting too much” about how different she “really” is from Mrs. Musgrove.

But her conscience is not totally asleep. In that narration you can hear the internal “debate” going on in Anne’s, when her conscience says—“Wait a minute, it’s not right to think such insulting thoughts about a good person who’s been very kind to you, and whose only real “crime” is being openly emotional and overweight”. To which her “id” desperately but seductively responds, “Yes, but you must acknowledge, there is something ridiculous about this woman, which is completely opposite to moi Etc etc.

The sophistication of such psychological portraiture, the way it is so far ahead of its time, is obvious, isn’t it? Such subtle psychological processes as projection and repression, which are now part of the common knowledge of psychologically minded people around the world, were not described in print, as far as I am aware, until nearly a century after JA died.

E.g., Am I correct in my understanding that Hume, Adam Smith, Locke, and others who wrote influential treatises about what we today call psychology, did not address such matters?

As far as I know, no one has given Jane Austen credit for being a pioneer of such conceptualizing about psychological matters—or as she would have put it, a “studier of character”.  So I am doing that now.

So, in conclusion, Catriona, I’d say, it’s not merely that Persuasion deals with many shades of grief, it’s that it also deals with the interactions of those shades of grief---not merely bittersweet “melody”, but even more bittersweet “harmony”, too!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter   

P.S.: The closest thing I could find in writing to my own position on these points was articulated in April 2001 in Janeites by Dorothy Willis:

“One of the themes of the book is self-control. Anne has learned to value that smooth surface Mrs. Smith mentions, and has learned to control her outward reactions to folly, etc. under ordinary conditions. But the arrival of Captain Wentworth has put a strain on that control, and she is about to snap. Her reaction to Mrs. Musgrove's "large, fat, sighings. . ." sound to me like the thoughts of someone who is just about at the end of her rope.”

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