In my post yesterday…
…I was (as far as I can tell) the first Austen scholar to make the interpretation that, in the concert recital scene in Chapter 20 of Persuasion, Cousin Elliot pretends not to understand Italian, so as to induce Anne to translate sexually charged Italian lyrics into English for him. He does this, I suggested, in furtherance of his very proactive courtship of Anne.
Despite the lack of explicit confirmation from the narration, I inferred Cousin Elliot’s covert trick in part from Diana’s bringing to our attention a likely candidate for the actual Italian lyrics to be translated, from a song in Jane Austen’s own songbook about a Don Juan-like gondolier--plus what we already know about Cousin Elliot’s scheming, manipulative character. I.e., this is precisely the sort of smooth subterfuge he would engage in.
Today, I am back with a followup to bolster my claim, by pointing out a second, even more powerful motivation for Cousin Elliot’s pretense of ignorance of Italian—i.e., his clever (and nearly successful) plan to appeal to Anne’s vanity in her accomplishments and intellect, in addition to his well recognized explicit appeal to her other major vanity, that of social class.
I’ve learned over the years that Jane Austen frequently echoed motifs across her novels—sometimes depicting them overtly, sometimes covertly—such that each depiction echoes and informs the others. And so this morning I reflected on this motif of “playing dumb” as a character’s manipulative technique in JA’s fiction, to see what further light might be shed.
While I won’t go through them in detail today, I refer you to the following passages which all embody that motif:
ONE: My longstanding claim that Harriet Smith plays dumb with Emma, and by flattering Emma’s ego, gains access to Harriet’s true target, Mr. Knightley.
TWO: Charlotte Lucas’s own version of subtle flattery of Mr. Collins’s ego as an “eloquent lover” which she carefully stage manages after Elizabeth rejects his proposal.
THREE: The famous scene at Beechen Cliff in Northanger Abbey, when Catherine feels out of her league while Henry and Eleanor have a learned discussion, and then Jane Austen’s narrator intervenes, in order to very explicitly articulate the basic tenets and benefits of ‘playing dumb’.
These three passages from other JA novels led me right back to the dialogue between Anne and Cousin Elliot in Persuasion in Chapter 16 (i.e., only four short chapters before the concert scene), when Anne spoke praisingly of the company of “well-informed” people, in response to which Cousin Elliot, with much deeper understanding of human vanity than Anne’s, subverts Anne’s resolve by his appeal to status and to the benefits of “a little (but not too much) learning”. In effect, he flatters Anne by pretending ignorance of Italian, because that makes him better company to Anne, because she can show off her knowledge of Italian to him!
So, putting all of the above, interrelated passages together, it is clearer than before that Jane Austen intended her alert readers to infer that Cousin Elliot pretends not to read Italian during the concert scene,
so that Anne will get an ego boost from his request that she translate it for him. In the part of his speech about the best company in which he refers to “a little learning”, he’s as much as warned her (although she’s not really listening) about the strategy which he will shortly implement vis a vis her in Chapter 20.
His playing ignorant of Italian, therefore, is even better established, because it has two bases- in part to prompt her to speak sexual lyrics aloud to him, and in part, in the words of the narrator of Northanger Abbey, “administering to the vanity of” Anne!
And note that the narrator of NA does not limit her advice (about the benefits of playing dumb) to women, but to any “sensible person” of either gender who has “the misfortune of knowing anything”. And that’s the role Cousin Elliot chooses to play.
Did his maneuver work? Read the passage from the beginning of Chapter 21, right before Anne hears Mrs. Smith’s devastating account of Cousin Elliot’s infamous past conduct, and judge for yourself. You will read the thoughts of an Anne Elliot who is dancing on air as a result of Cousin Elliot’s smooth flattery as she goes to visit Mrs. Smith.
In particular, note the startling thought that passes through Anne’s head: “…had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case….”—hmm, sounds to me a lot like Fanny Price being sorely tempted in Portsmouth by Henry Crawford’s miraculous “reformation” despite Fanny’s feelings for Edmund. Anne is literally dancing through horse manure outside Mrs. Smith’s apartment, and she has Cousin Elliot’s successful flattery to thank for this ebullient mood!
And this connects to an insight about Anne which I came to a year ago, which is that Anne Elliot really is a status snob too, it’s not just the vice of her father and sisters. Which is why I conclude that Cousin Elliot is very consciously “administering” to Anne’s vanity on two fronts—in his talking up the value of the relationship with the Dalrymples, and also in flattering Anne’s intellectual accomplishments (such as reading Italian), he appealed to Anne’s unconscious vanity on both of those fronts. PLUS he appeals to Anne’s physical vanity of appearance and attempts to give her a sexual charge, with the tale of the Don Juanish gondolier who finds the beauty of his blonde passenger too much to resist.
It is Cousin Elliot’s combination of subtle and unsubtle flattery, his very adept administration to Anne’s vanity on multiple fronts, which has, at least temporarily, immunized Anne to all bad smells. But we all know that Mrs. Smith puts the kibosh on all of that in Chapter 21, and we read the result in Chapter 22, when Anne now “saw insincerity in everything” spoken by Mr. Elliot, and he realizes that “the charm was broken” and he will no longer be able “to kindle his modest cousin’s vanity.”
The only interesting discussion of Anne Elliot’s vanity that I could find in the scholarly literature was in in Persuasions # 15 1993 entitled “Persuasion and Persuadability: When Vanity is a Virtue” by Inger Sigrun Thomsen (now Brodey). Brodey makes an excellent catch by showing how JA, in Persuasion, is covertly engaged with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments on this question of different types and nuances of vanity, and how, e.g., we ought to judge Anne’s vanity vs. her father’s or her elder sister’s. Brodey concludes, not surprisingly, that readers are justified in giving Anne a pass on her vanity, while judging her father harshly, because Anne’s vanity sublimates into altruism toward others, whereas her father’s and sister’s appears selfish in the extreme.
I don’t disagree with Brodey as to these plausible conclusions, so much as to disagree as to the completeness of her analysis. I.e., I think JA not only looks at the way a person’s vanity may harm those around her, she also subtly and masterfully portrays the way that Anne’s vanity makes her vulnerable to harm from the manipulative flattery of schemers like Cousin Elliot. Brodey does not address this side of the question at all, perhaps because it is too outside the box to think of JA as criticizing Anne, the one among her heroines whom Janeites are most likely to identify with Jane Austen herself. But the overarching point of my above post is that Anne is not a reliable judge of her vanity.
But where in that passage is any recollection by Anne of “…had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case….”, the thought which passed through Anne’s mind 24 hours earlier? Anne is humiliated to think about how Cousin Elliot duped her father and sister—but what about being honest with herself about how he nearly duped Anne herself? She actually plans “to retrace, as quietly as she could, the few steps of unnecessary intimacy she had been gradually led along,” but that never actually happens.
Anne has many admirable attributes, but she’s human, and she is in complete denial about her own vulnerability to flattery (as she is also in denial, by the way, about her failing eyesight) in a very similar way as her father and her sister, and from the very same flatterer.
The crucial point is that Anne is not capable, on her own, of breaking Cousin Elliot’s spell. She needs the help of the angels (whether supernatural or human) who bring her the crucial information about Cousin Elliot’s bad intent just in the nick of time, so as to break the spell for her. And now, doesn’t that sound suspiciously like one major criticism that has been leveled against the original ending of Persuasion set forth in the cancelled chapters? I refer to the clumsy matchmaking by the Crofts which is the final impetus to bring Wentworth and Anne together.
In the revised version, that clumsy intervention has been replaced, I suggest, by a complex coordinated effort by various family members which I claim has gone on beyond Anne’s field of comprehension and perception, the goal of which has been to break the charm Cousin Elliot has held over Anne. And, ironically, that coordinated effort, as I elucidated recently, includes taking advantage of Anne’s vision impairment, but this time the deception really is for Anne’s good, rescuing her from herself.
And then it is Jane Austen’s supreme genius that she weaves this subtle object lesson into one of the most romantic climaxes in the history of literature. Nothing is ever simple in romance, Jane Austen style.
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P.S.: A wild additional parallel speculation about the ending of Mansfield Park: Could it be that Henry Crawford is also sandbagged by a similar coalition of family and friends, who avert Fanny's falling prey to Henry's infinitely subtle flatteries, who defeat Henry by creating a distraction HE cannot resist? Food for thought!