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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Anne Elliot's Vision-Impairment in Persuasion: Seeing still more distinctly against the grain

 In Austen L, Deb Barnum wrote as follows re my recent series of posts about Anne Elliot's vision impairment:

Deb: “Just writing a few thoughts down re: Anne’s eye troubles – I have been re-reading Persuasion and since I saw your posts I have taken note of instances in the book where it is very clear she sees very clearly, so I have to disagree with your basic premise – only caveat: these are my observations after being more than ½ thru the book – have not gone back to find other such instances that support the fact that her eyes are quite fine actually [excepting this first one that I recalled]… I am using a Penguin edition, 1965 with intro by Harding [my scribbling copy] – most of these refer to Anne reading facial expressions or distinguishing people from afar – neither of which are do-able for anyone with vision impairment…”

Deb, thanks for responding to my posts, but there’s only one problem--you clearly did not read through my posts! There are a couple of basic assumptions you are making about my claims which are opposite to what I actually claimed. Reread my posts if you think I am in error about this.

Most important, I said that Anne’s vision was okay at short distances—the bubble within which she could see anything at all was, I estimated, about 15 feet in radius, by my rough reckoning, good enough for her to see faces of people across an ordinary sized house room, or walking with or very near her outside on a non-glarey day. But even close up, there are a number of narrative hints that suggest that Anne lives in a mental bubble, too, in that she believes she sees things clearly, but she may very well not be, she sees people and things, but she makes crucial mistakes in her judgments.

And I repeat my earlier caveat: as to the exact nature of her condition, I have no special ophthalmologic knowledge, so I have no idea if what I described, above, fits with what an eye doctor would find upon giving an eye exam to Anne Elliot--all I know is how her vision is depicted in the novel. Her vision is tricky across a room, but seriously impaired at any distance beyond that “bubble”.

Deb: “Now your first example of “for he was not altered, or not for the worse…. The years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look…she had seen the same Frederick Wentworth.” 

First of all, that is in close proximity, in a room, so I am saying that she does see him. But does she see his features as clearly as she thinks she does? Think about it—Wentworth has been all over the place in very sunny tropical and subtropical sea climates for 8 years, do you really think that he could have gone through all of that without altering at all from the 20 year young man, with perhaps little tropical seafaring experience, that she last knew? It’s not plausible! At the very least, he’d have been much more tanned in his face. So I suggest, we are meant to question Anne’s judgment that he hasn’t altered at all, and to at least speculate in an informed way that he hasn’t changed in her eyes, because of a combination of (i) her psychological “rose colored glasses” (compounded by her own negative self-talk that she herself really has aged, which only makes him seem younger-looking to her) and (ii) her genuinely poor eyesight she is in denial about.

Deb: “Mrs. Clay’s freckles: “it did not appear to Anne that the freckles were all that lessened.” [ch. 16, p. 159] – seeing facial defects on any kind is difficult for anyone with sight trouble, no matter how close they are...”

Again, I specifically wrote, on a dozen occasions, that it was Anne’s distance vision, especially in bright sunlight, that was most drastically impaired. I never suggested she could not see freckles on a woman sitting a few feet from her on a couch.

But now you get to the two most interesting examples, Wentworth on Pulteney Street and Cousin Elliot outside the White Hart Inn, as to which you apparently did not register that I wrote about them in detail and very specifically in one of my later posts….

…(which I also posted in Austen-L). Please read the above post before proceeding further, as there would be no point in my repeating the detailed argument I made in that post about each of those two alleged sightings.

Deb: “Anne and Lady Russell are walking 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…” [ch. 19, p. 188] etc. - here she picks him out of a large crowd of men far down the street – and then she watches him and Lady Russell to see if they see each other… [have you been to Pulteney St. Arnie? – it is rather long…  “Anne’s eyes had caught the right direction, and distinguished Captain Wentworth, standing among a cluster of men at a little distance.  As her eyes fell on him, his seemed to be withdrawn from her.” [ch. 20, p. 197] -hard to distinguish such detail of where someone’s eyes are focused…]”

If you’ve now read my earlier post, you see that I have specifically rebutted your argument—indeed those two examples would have been fatal to my claims, had Anne actually seen either Wentworth or Mr. Elliot—but my point is that she didn’t:

—that’s why we’re told that Lady Russell does not react….because it’s not really Wentworth!
—that’s why we’re told that Anne sees Wentworth up close earlier that same day…because that establishes that she knows he’s there in Bath, and so she’s looking for him everywhere
---that’s why Mary (who is one of the matchbreaking (vis a vis Mr. Elliot) and matchbreaking (vis a vis Wentworth) family cabal, whom Jim Heldman first described so well thirty years ago…

…uses Anne’s inability to see at a distance in order to trick her. After all, as far as the family knows, Anne is really into Cousin Elliot, so what better way to put the kibosh on his chances with Anne than to use Anne’s vision impairment to slander him.

If this sounds awfully familiar, there’s a reason-this is (ironically) the exact same trick, in reverse,  that Borachio hatches and successfully pulls off in order to slander Hero in Claudio’s eyes in Much Ado. Both involve observing someone through a window, but in the Shakespeare, the observers have been carefully gulled into standing down below and looking up through a window and misidentifying a lover supposedly engaging in cheating behavior, whereas the Austen involves someone who is gulled into looking down through the window and misidentifying someone below supposedly engaging in cheating behavior.

And you know, of course how significant an allusive source Much Ado was for JA in P&P. So…that actually turns out to be a fantastic example in support of my claim, not against it!

And earlier, during the walk to Winthrop, that’s why Anne Elliot quotes picturesque poetry to herself as she sees only the hedgerows and fallen leaves right next to her, instead of actually looking up and out at the sky, the horizon, etc., as anyone who truly loved to observe landscapes and who had the vision to allow it, would have done.

And similarly as to every other example in the novel discussing her vision. There’s always a catch, always an extra twist that JA subtly embeds in the narration, which just happens to fit with an interpretation that Anne’s vision is poor at a distance, and not necessarily great upclose.

JA was a master of ambiguous clues, clues which could support both a benign reading consistent with what the heroine thinks about what she sees, and a subversive reading supporting an entirely different reading, based on a fundamentally different assumption. The narrative you quoted could be entirely objective, as you read it, or entirely subjective, as I read it. Figure/ground, duck/rabbit, anamorphic imagery, straight out of  Holbein and other painters of the kind Henry Tilney mentions in her famous disquisition at (fittingly) the top of Beechen Cliff.

And everything I just wrote, above, rebuts what you then wrote about seeing Mr. Elliot from the window:

“5. when Anne moves to the window in the Inn where she is told Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay are conversing: “She was just in time to ascertain that it really was Mr. Elliot.” [ch.22, p. 227] – could she distinguish him if she had sight impairment?”

And now your next example is about close-up vision, which I already said was not seriously impaired, but which also turns out to support my claims, when fully analyzed:

Deb: “6.  the following passages: to see such fine facial expression, one must be seeing clearly: “…who saw that Capt. Wentworth was all attention, listening with his whole soul…brought his enquiring eyes from Charles to herself.” [ch. 22, p. 228] And again here:  “she saw disdain in his eye.” [ch. 22, p. 231]
 And here:  “and it seemed to her that there was guilt in Mrs. Clay’s face as she listened.”
And here: p. 235 – she can read Harville’s facial expressions from across the room… where he is signally for her to come to talk with him …”

Here’s the passage, see if you can notice the three hints that suggest a different way of interpreting what actually happens:

“Captain Harville, who had in truth been hearing none of it, now left his seat, and moved to a window, and Anne seeming to watch him, though it was from thorough absence of mind, became gradually sensible that he was inviting her to join him where he stood. He looked at her with a smile, and a little motion of the head, which expressed, "Come to me, I have something to say;" and the unaffected, easy kindness of manner which denoted the feelings of an older acquaintance than he really was, strongly enforced the invitation. She roused herself and went to him. The window at which he stood was at the other end of the room from where the two ladies were sitting, and though nearer to Captain Wentworth's table, not very near. As she joined him, Captain Harville's countenance re-assumed the serious, thoughtful expression which seemed its natural character.”

“Anne seeming to watch him, though it was from thorough absence of mind…”  There’s Anne in denial again about her vision issues, telling herself she’s just “seeming to watch him”, telling herself it’s just “absence of mind”—because if she’s not really intent on watching, and/or she daydreams, those are not scary symptoms of something really serious, so they’re no big deal, right?

“...became gradually sensible that he was inviting her to join him where he stood…”  So, why are we told “gradually sensible”? Because Anne does not notice him beckoning to her until he does it for a while, and one plausible explanation for that is that she is unable to judge the meaning of his (deliberately) small gestures.

But here’s the best part:

“though nearer to Captain Wentworth's table…”  Why tell us that Captain Wentworth’s table was more or less in between Anne and Harville? Because it suggests that just as Anne misinterprets the visual cues she sees on Pulteney Street, and at the White Hart Inn window, she might also have misunderstood Harville’s gestures? I.e., perhaps he was gesturing to someone else, such as Wentworth?  Again, it’s plausible, and it’s hinted at in the text.  

Deb, I actually did not start with any premise---I read Hennedy’s excellent insightful article in which he gave textual examples he had noticed in the text, and, more important, he presented his brilliant,  persuasive, synthetic realization that Anne lives overwhelmingly through her ears and not her eyes. I immediately formed the hypothesis that Hennedy had acutely sensed a deep pattern in the novel which was entirely intentional on JA’s part, I remembered that there were famous passages in JA’s novels about eye problems, and then I just went through Persuasion and looked for more—and there it was, the whole pattern, throughout the novel from one end to the other.

And in closing, I also just realized why it is that Anne was the perfect heroine for Jane Austen to give a vision impairment to, an impairment which causes Anne to not see so much, and to misinterpret so much else, in her visual field---can you see what it is? There is a characteristic she shares with only one other heroine, which sets the two of them far apart from the other four in experience of the world.

Here’s the answer hiding in plain sight--Anne lives in a bubble, because she has no female relation to whom she is close enough to share her perceptions with, someone who might have pointed out to her that she was not seeing things clearly!

Elinor has Marianne, Lizzy has Jane, Emma has Mrs. Weston and Harriet, and even Catherine has Isabella and then Eleanor. Fanny Price is closest to Anne in being solitary, but even she has Edmund, and then, in a complicated way, Mary. 

But when you think about it, Anne has almost no one other than Lady Russell (whom she does not see very much during the novel) to share Anne’s perceptions with. Therefore, when she thinks she sees Wentworth on Pulteney Street, she has all sorts of reasons for keeping her perception to herself, so she never has a chance to find out if she was actually correct! She lives in her own head, removed from the corrective input of close friends or family who could give her (literally) another point of view.

So, thanks for spurring me to sharpen my argument some more!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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