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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, August 30, 2013

"There are so many who forget to think seriously till it is almost to late.": Mrs. Smith's Unnoticed Empathy to Anne Elliot re her Vision Impairment

 (Unless I receive further responses, this will be the last in the series of posts I began last weekend, in which I have spelled out important elements of the case for my claim that Jane Austen covertly depicted Anne Elliot as being significantly vision impaired, but in total denial as to what is happening to this deterioration.)

Today my subject, as suggested by my Subject Line, is Mrs. Smith, Anne’s old friend, whom Anne visits several times in Bath. We get our best insight into their relationship during the second visit which is described in Chapter 17 of Persuasion. My claim is that while Anne believes that that Mrs. Smith is talking about Mrs. Smith’s own straitened condition, Mrs. Smith is actually speaking in code, obliquely warning Anne about Anne’s own dire straits. I will insert my comments in between the novel text segments, as the easiest way to make my points:

“In the course of a second visit [Mrs. S.] talked with great openness, and Anne's astonishment increased. She could scarcely imagine a more cheerless situation in itself than Mrs Smith's. She had been very fond of her husband: she had buried him.

[Anne had been proposed to by Wentworth, she refused, and Anne had “buried” her love with that refusal]

She had been used to affluence: it was gone.

[If Sir Walter were to die in debt, who would provide an affluent lifestyle to Anne?]

She had no child to connect her with life and happiness again, no relations to assist in the arrangement of perplexed affairs, no health to make all the rest supportable.

[Anne at that moment had no child, no relations other than Mary who cared whether she lived or died, and, as I have claimed, the increasingly poor health of her eyes would also make all the rest insupportable.]

Her accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour, and a dark bedroom behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance, which there was only one servant in the house to afford, and she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath.

[And what would Anne do if she went completely blind? Would her circumstances be that different from Mrs. Smith’s?]

Yet, in spite of all this, Anne had reason to believe that she had moments only of languor and depression, to hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? She watched, observed, reflected, and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only.

[As is revealed during Anne’s conversation with sister Mary described in Chapter 5, Anne spent most of her time at Kellynch in languor and depression, engaged in trivial pointless actions that she tried to convince Mary, and herself, were actually useful occupations for a woman of Anne’s talents. So Anne’s own situation prior to the rekindling of love for Wentworth was exactly that—a case of not very successful fortitude, and way too much of resignation]

A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

[And that is indeed what Mrs. Smith is offering to Anne- Mrs. Smith herself as a role model for how to turn such “lemons” into “lemonade”, by proactive steps to be active, to be engaged with other people, especially other women, even when one lacks the resources to move about and act freely in the wider world—in other words, to emulate not only Mrs. Smith, but also Miss Bates. ]

There had been a time, Mrs Smith told her, when her spirits had nearly failed. She could not call herself an invalid now, compared with her state on first reaching Bath. Then she had, indeed, been a pitiable object; for she had caught cold on the journey, and had hardly taken possession of her lodgings before she was again confined to her bed and suffering under severe and constant pain; and all this among strangers, with the absolute necessity of having a regular nurse, and finances at that moment particularly unfit to meet any extraordinary expense.

[And actually at that moment in Anne’s life, she was much closer to that sort of “bottom” than she allowed herself to even think about]

She had weathered it, however, and could truly say that it had done her good. It had increased her comforts by making her feel herself to be in good hands. She had seen too much of the world, to expect sudden or disinterested attachment anywhere, but her illness had proved to her that her landlady had a character to preserve, and would not use her ill; and she had been particularly fortunate in her nurse, as a sister of her landlady, a nurse by profession, and who had always a home in that house when unemployed, chanced to be at liberty just in time to attend her. "And she," said Mrs Smith, "besides nursing me most admirably, has really proved an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pin-cushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood. She had a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandise. She always takes the right time for applying. Everybody's heart is open, you know, when they have recently escaped from severe pain, or are recovering the blessing of health, and Nurse Rooke thoroughly understands when to speak. She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation, which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who having only received 'the best education in the world,' know nothing worth attending to. Call it gossip, if you will, but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour's leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable: something that makes one know one's species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation, I assure you, is a treat."

[And there you have the meaningful alternative life that Mrs. Smith is actually offering to Anne, that does not require marriage to a man! I.e., Mrs. Smith is saying in so many words, that you don’t need to spend the rest of your life isolated as you become more and more of a physical invalid, but instead have the option to live within a support, “gossip” network of mutually caring women.]

Anne, far from wishing to cavil at the pleasure, replied, "I can easily believe it. Women of that class have great opportunities, and if they are intelligent may be well worth listening to. Such varieties of human nature as they are in the habit of witnessing! And it is not merely in its follies, that they are well read; for they see it occasionally under every circumstance that can be most interesting or affecting. What instances must pass before them of ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, of heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation: of all the conflicts and all the sacrifices that ennoble us most. A sick chamber may often furnish the worth of volumes."

[And here Anne’s unfortunate Elliot snobbery kicks in—she considers herself to be of a higher “class”, and therefore somehow this life (one which in many ways was lived by Jane Austen herself) would be beneath her, so she has no clue that Mrs. Smith is talking about Anne’s own possibilities.]

"Yes," said Mrs Smith more doubtingly, "sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial; but generally speaking, it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber: it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of. There is so little real friendship in the world! and unfortunately" (speaking low and tremulously) "THERE ARE SO MANY WHO FORGET TO THINK SERIOUSLY TILL IT IS ALMOST TOO LATE."

[There’s the key line, which I quoted in my Subject Line. Just as Elizabeth Bennet is cluelessly deaf to similar warnings and invitations given to her by her clearer-seeing sister, Mary (“…loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.” & “The men shan’t come between us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?”) so too in this instance Anne Elliot is cluelessly deaf to a thinly veiled warning and invitation given to her by her clearer-seeing (in both a physical and psychological sense) and generous friend, Mrs. Smith.

It is Anne who is forgetting to think seriously till it is almost too late, about how Anne is going to handle her own life if Anne goes blind, is not married, and if her family’s finances remain precarious, or if her father dies, remarries and/or sires a child. In any such instance, Mrs. Smith is as much as saying, don’t despair, come be a part of our community of women in Bath, a kind of informal “Millenium Hall”!  As Gerald C. Wood put it in his recent article about Persuasion: “In league with her nurse, Smith establishes a confederacy of women dedicated to alternative sources of truth and action for women otherwise disadvantaged in the public world.” But, alas, Anne is not hearing the applicability to herself.]

Anne saw the misery of such feelings. The husband had not been what he ought, and the wife had been led among that part of mankind which made her think worse of the world than she hoped it deserved. It was but a passing emotion however with Mrs Smith;

[Anne saw nothing of herself, and her own misery that Mrs. Smith was discreetly alluding to, so low and tremulously, in the “mirror” that Mrs. Smith had so discreetly held up to Anne’s face. She is in that sense her father’s daughter, to whom all the mirrors in the world cannot give the ability to truly see himself as a human being, when all the titles are stripped away.
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.]

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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