This morning, I awoke to the following interesting and provocative comment by someone named Ceri at my blog post about my “wild idea” about Anne Elliot being vision-impaired:
“Well it's an interesting argument but I think many of the times that she didn't see it's not that she couldn't see, but because she was thinking. E.g 'These were thoughts, with their attendant visions, which occupied and flurried her too much to leave her any power of observation' (Chapter 20)”
I was delighted, because I had somehow overlooked the passage she quoted from in Chapter 20, when I was scouring the text of Persuasion for examples of Anne’s visual deficit and aural bountifulness.
While Ceri is in one sense correct, and her interpretation is plausible, yet, in another sense, as I will show, below, this passage at the same time also actually provides fantastic additional support for my reading as a plausible alternative.
And, for those willing to hang with me till the end of this post, I promise you not one but two additional textual discoveries about Ann’s vision impairment, in Chapters 19 and 23, respectively, which are not only linked to each other in a remarkable way, they also both (but especially the second one) change our understanding of the end of the novel, in particular our understanding of the mysterious “Mr. E”, Mr. Elliot.
But I begin with Ceri’s passage, expanded to quote with full surrounding context:
Chapter 20: Anne SAW NOTHING, THOUGHT NOTHING of the brilliancy of the room. Her happiness was FROM WITHIN. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks glowed; but SHE KNEW NOTHING ABOUT IT. She was thinking only of the last half hour, and as they passed to their seats, her mind took a hasty range over it. His choice of subjects, his expressions, and still more his manner and look, had been such as she could see in only one light. His opinion of Louisa Musgrove's inferiority, an opinion which he had seemed solicitous to give, his wonder at Captain Benwick, his feelings as to a first, strong attachment; sentences begun which he could not finish, his half averted eyes and more than half expressive glance, all, all declared that he had a heart returning to her at least; that anger, resentment, avoidance, were no more; and that they were succeeded, not merely by friendship and regard, but by the tenderness of the past. Yes, some share of the tenderness of the past. She could not contemplate the change as implying less. He must love her.
These were THOUGHTS, WITH THEIR ATTENDANT VISIONS, which occupied and flurried her too much TO LEAVE ANY POWER OF OBSERVATION; and she passed along the room WITHOUT HAVING A GLIMPSE OF HIM, WITHOUT EVEN TRYING TO DISCERN HIM. When their places were determined on, and they were all properly arranged, she looked round to see IF HE SHOULD HAPPEN TO BE IN THE SAME PART OF THE ROOM, but he was not; HER EYE COULD NOT REACH HIM; and the concert being just opening, she must consent for a time to be happy in a humbler way. “
This is exactly the sort of passage that Hennedy was referring to in his 1973 article as being present in multiple places in the text, when he said that Anne’s lack of visual perception was severely diminished. What I find most fascinating is the self-talk that Anne is engaging in, as she repeatedly reframes her lack of seeing as a lack of thinking. It appears that she is in denial about her diminished vision—and who wouldn’t be, if your vision started to fail and it might seem as if you were slowly going blind, and you lived in an era when doctors had no clue whatsoever as to the cause or cure of such an alarming condition--and so she keeps desperately trying to convince herself, over and over again, that it’s just”” that she’s not thinking about watching , or he’s “just” not in the same part of the room as she is, etc etc----all of this is much preferable to admitting to oneself that one is increasingly incapable, physically, of the taken for granted human faculty of seeing the world around you, at any distance, even across a concert room.
In particular, I love the line “her eye could not reach him”---think about that, it’s presented without special emphasis by JA, but when you pull it out of the paragraph and look this statement in isolation, it’s literally saying that, even at a distance of, say, 25 feet, he’s too far away from her for her to even see him! And this is clearly not a new experience, it’s something she has clearly experienced in her life long enough not to freak out when it happens---it’s become normal for her, even as she rationalizes what is happening into something over which she has the power of choice, if only she chose to look.
In this way of using as the central focalizing character a person with some perceptual or cognitive deficit, I am strongly reminded of the novel of about 10 years back, Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in which the 15-year old male protagonist in a murder mystery is a Sherlock Holmes obsessive (hence the novel title) and is also intensely autistic. Here’s a synopsis:
That’s sorta what I think Jane Austen was up to in Persuasion, but whereas Haddon does not hide from his readers the nature of his protagonist’s condition, Jane Austen most assuredly does hide Anne’s deficit from explicit notice. And I see this as Jane Austen, in her last completed novel, rising to the fresh challenge of covertly creating a focal consciousness with an implicit deficit, and telling the story from her point of view, leaving it to us to figure out her mental state merely from our being able to “eavesdrop” on her thoughts, and without the narrator telling us “this woman is half-blind”.
And now as I was thinking about the dog who didn’t bark as the crucial negative fact which Sherlock Holmes had to notice in order to solve the case of Silver Blaze, because it told him that the murderer was known to the watchdog, I just realized a remarkable negative fact about Anne Elliot’s perception, in the following oft-noted passage in Chapter 19:
“…now, if she were by any chance to be thrown into company with Captain Wentworth, her imperfect knowledge of the matter might add another shade of prejudice against him.
The following morning Anne was out with her friend, and for the first hour, in an incessant and fearful sort of watch for him in vain; but at last, in returning down Pulteney Street, she distinguished him on the right hand pavement at such a distance as to have him in view the greater part of the street. There were many other men about him, many groups walking the same way, but there was no mistaking him. She looked instinctively at Lady Russell; but not from any mad idea of her recognising him so soon as she did herself. No, it was not to be supposed that Lady Russell would perceive him till they were nearly opposite. She looked at her however, from time to time, anxiously; and when the moment approached which must point him out, though not daring to look again (for her own countenance she knew was unfit to be seen), she was yet perfectly conscious of Lady Russell's eyes being turned exactly in the direction for him--of her being, in short, intently observing him. She could thoroughly comprehend the sort of fascination he must possess over Lady Russell's mind, the difficulty it must be for her to withdraw her eyes, the astonishment she must be feeling that eight or nine years should have passed over him, and in foreign climes and in active service too, without robbing him of one personal grace!
At last, Lady Russell drew back her head. "Now, how would she speak of him?"
"You will wonder," said she, "what has been fixing my eye so long; but I was looking after some window-curtains, which Lady Alicia and Mrs Frankland were telling me of last night. They described the drawing-room window-curtains of one of the houses on this side of the way, and this part of the street, as being the handsomest and best hung of any in Bath, but could not recollect the exact number, and I have been trying to find out which it could be; but I confess I can see no curtains hereabouts that answer their description."
Anne sighed and blushed and smiled, in pity and disdain, either at her friend or herself. The part which provoked her most, was that in all this waste of foresight and caution, she should have lost the right moment for seeing whether he saw them.” END QUOTE
I imagine that some of you will by now have taken my hints and realize what I just realized about this passage. I.e., it appears quite likely to me that Anne Elliot only thinks she sees Wentworth walking on the other side of Pulteney Street in Bath, but because of her poor distance vision, it is not really Wentworth she sees, but another man!!
That would be a very plausible alternative explanation for why Lady Russell does not recognize Wentworth---far superior , actually, to Anne’s confabulation (which she never actually mentions to her friend, and therefore never learns what her friend really was thinking) about Lady Russell’s being spellbound staring at Wentworth and how well his good looks have weathered his years at sea.
My interpretation satisfies Occam’s Razor, as it requires only that we treat this like all the other scenes I’ve written about, in which Anne does not see what happens around her unless it is very near to her physically.
In a very real, Shakespearean sense, Anne is seeing a “ghost” on Pulteney Street. And note the subtle artistry that JA deploys in order to provide clues to the reader of the psychological motivation for Anne to see Wentworth where he actually is not. First, it is only earlier in that chapter that Wentworth enters the room where Anne is, and she sees him close up, and it throws her into a tizzy. So she knows he’s in Bath, and that’s why the above-quoted passage begins with Anne anticipating seeing Wentworth again.What we have here is closely analogous to Catherine Morland expecting to see the ghost of Mrs. Tilney around the next corner in the Abbey. And third, we have Anne deciding not to look again when Wentworth is just across the street, and actually within her field of accurate vision, a decision she rationalizes as not feeling worthy of being seen herself so she hides her face. And as far as I can recall, she never ever talks about it with Wentworth himself, so as to find out that he was not there.
But finally and most tellingly (this is the icing on the cake), Jane Austen gives us one final wink back to the above-quoted scene of onstreet-identification, when we read the following strikingly similar scene in Chapter 22:
"Anne," cried Mary, still at her window, "there is Mrs Clay, I am sure, standing under the colonnade, and a gentleman with her. I saw them turn the corner from Bath Street just now. They seemed deep in talk. Who is it? Come, and tell me. Good heavens! I recollect. It is Mr Elliot himself."
"No," cried Anne, quickly, "it cannot be Mr Elliot, I assure you. He was to leave Bath at nine this morning, and does not come back till to-morrow."
As she spoke, she felt that Captain Wentworth was looking at her, the consciousness of which vexed and embarrassed her, and made her regret that she had said so much, simple as it was.
Mary, resenting that she should be supposed not to know her own cousin, began talking very warmly about the family features, and protesting still more positively that it was Mr Elliot, calling again upon Anne to come and look for herself, but Anne did not mean to stir, and tried to be cool and unconcerned. Her distress returned, however, on perceiving smiles and intelligent glances pass between two or three of the lady visitors, as if they believed themselves quite in the secret. It was evident that the report concerning her had spread, and a short pause succeeded, which seemed to ensure that it would now spread farther.
"Do come, Anne" cried Mary, "come and look yourself. You will be too late if you do not make haste. They are parting; they are shaking hands. He is turning away. Not know Mr Elliot, indeed! You seem to have forgot all about Lyme."
To pacify Mary, and perhaps screen her own embarrassment, Anne did move quietly to the window. She was just in time to ascertain that it really was Mr Elliot, which she had never believed, before he disappeared on one side, as Mrs Clay walked quickly off on the other; and checking the surprise which she could not but feel at such an appearance of friendly conference between two persons of totally opposite interest, she calmly said, "Yes, it is Mr Elliot, certainly. He has changed his hour of going, I suppose, that is all, or I may be mistaken, I might not attend;" and walked back to her chair, recomposed, and with the comfortable hope of having acquitted herself well.”
Everyone always reads this scene as if Mary was correct in spotting Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliot ending a tryst outside the White Hart----but what if Mary was wrong (or lying), and she was taking advantage of Anne’s poor distance eyesight, combined with Anne’s stubborn refusal to openly acknowledge her increasing vision problems?
All these details fit perfectly with the simple outside the box explanation : i.e., that Anne only sees what is close to her, and therefore she cannot see who the man is who drops Mrs. Clay in front of the White Hart Inn!
But, you say, why would Mary pretend to see Mr. Elliot if it weren’t really him? The answer to that question is way beyond the scope of this post, but suffice for now to remind you that in the cancelled chapters of Persuasion, Admiral & Mrs. Croft are very overt and clumsy matchmakers for Anne and Wentworth, an idea that has been out there for twenty years, courtesy of my friend Jim Heldman who wrote the following article in the JASNA journal Persuasions in 1993...
...presenting ideas which I have taken further in more recent years:
So, it’s no big stretch to imagine Mary Musgrove being part of a benevolent Much Ado-like conspiracy of friends acting as matchmakers by deceiving the lovers into mutual recognition of true love.
But what about Mrs. Clay? Doesn’t she admit to the tryst with Cousin Elliot? Here’s the relevant text, you tell me if this isn’t yet another Emmaesque moment for Anne Elliot, confabulating an admission out of thin air, just as Anne did with Lady Russell on Pulteney Street:
“[Anne] only roused herself from the broodings of this restless agitation, to let Mrs Clay know that she had been seen with Mr Elliot three hours after his being supposed to be out of Bath, for having watched in vain for some intimation of the interview from the lady herself, she determined to mention it, and IT SEEEMED TO HER there was guilt in Mrs Clay's face as she listened. IT WAS TRANSIENT: CLEARED AWAY IN AN INSTANT; but ANNE COULD IMAGINE SHE READ THERE the consciousness of having, by some complication of mutual trick, or some overbearing authority of his, been obliged to attend (perhaps for half an hour) to his lectures and restrictions on her designs on Sir Walter. She exclaimed, however, with A VERY TOLERABLE IMITATION OF NATURE:-- "Oh! dear! very true. Only think, Miss Elliot, to my great surprise I met with Mr Elliot in Bath Street. I was never more astonished. He turned back and walked with me to the Pump Yard. He had been prevented setting off for Thornberry, but I really forget by what; for I was in a hurry, and could not much attend, and I can only answer for his being determined not to be delayed in his return. He wanted to know how early he might be admitted to-morrow. He was full of 'to-morrow,' and it is very evident that I have been full of it too, ever since I entered the house, and learnt the extension of your plan and all that had happened, or my seeing him could never have gone so entirely out of my head."
I would suggest to you that Mrs. Clay is part of “the team”, but again, the full proof of that requires much more evidence, and not at the present time.
I am smacking myself upside the head for not even looking for such a thing as Anne’s vision impairment hidden in plain sight (ha has) in any of JA’s novels until I read an article by a uniquely sensitive reader that gave me the giant hint I apparently needed in order to see what was always there.
I really shoulda known better, as a great poet once wrote, because I have known for many years that Jane Austen was particularly interested in the intersection of epistemology and psychology. So it makes perfect sense that she would have done such a thing, it is in a way the culmination of her experiments in point of view in all her novels, to bring it down to the physical, sensory level, and see if she could pull it off—and boy, did she!
And speaking of eavesdropping, it also reminds me what I recognized years ago, i.e., that Jane Austen was entirely conscious of the metafictional aspect of novel writing—we as readers are all eavesdroppers —but this example of Anne as covertly vision impaired is an example that just because Jane Austen allows us to eavesdrop, it doesn’t mean it’s obvious to us that Anne’s vision in impaired. What Jane Austen is also demonstrating is that she can both show “the truth” about Anne’s vision, by giving us all the textual hints I have collected, and surely there are others I’ve overlooked, and yet, by also allowing us to eavesdrop on Anne’s rationalizations, we are seduced into buying the same explanations that work on the heroines themselves.
The search for objective truth, and the enormous difficulty of even moving ourselves in that direction, is the ultimate subject of Jane Austen’s fiction, and Anne Elliot, viewed as I have now presented her, emerges as her most poignant heroine, as her “cluelessness” is at the bottom about how she (literally) sees the world.
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