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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, July 20, 2014

“Elinor could not find herself…”: the carriage rides of Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Musgrove, and Queen Mab

On countless occasions, among both serious Austen scholars and non-academic Janeites, the controversial passage in Chapter 8 of Persuasion when Anne is sitting on the same sofa with the corpulent Mrs. Musgrove in between Anne and Wentworth, has been passionately debated: 

“They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs Musgrove had most readily made room for him; they were divided only by Mrs Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier, indeed. Mrs Musgrove was of a comfortable, substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humour, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne's slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.
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.”

Many take the position that it must be Jane Austen-- a slender person all her life, by all accounts --- who personally felt surprisingly judgmental feelings toward those less svelte, and that this passage was the most overt expression of those feelings, which we also find traces of in JA’s letters.

I tend to think that Jane Austen the person did harbor unkindly thoughts toward heavy people, but it has been several years since I realized that, regardless of Jane Austen’s personal feelings, the phrase “large fat sighings” was intended by Jane Austen to reflect Anne Elliot’s subjective perceptions. In JA’s masterful psychological portraiture, they arise from Anne’s strong, repressed anger over being blocked from Wentworth’s line of sight, and vice versa, by Mrs. Musgrove’s formidable bulk seated in the middle of the sofa between them.

And that second quoted paragraph reflects the struggle in Anne’s mind, as first she finds Mrs. Musgrove’s histrionic grieving ridiculous, but then her reason/conscience argues that heavy people can also feel deep affliction--but then, Anne’s anger fuels her finding some irrational justification for sticking to her initial harsh judgment—sometimes, she decides, appearances do trump substance, when ridiculous is just too ridiculous.

And, if we dig a little deeper in Persuasion, we find out that Anne does not make this harsh judgment out of the blue, it has been set up by comments made to Anne by sister Mary three chapters earlier, in Chapter 5, as Mary describes a dinner out with her inlaws:

"Nothing remarkable. One always knows beforehand what the dinner will be, and who will be there; and it is so very uncomfortable not having a carriage of one's own. Mr and Mrs Musgrove took me, and we were so crowded! They are both so very large, and take up so much room; and Mr Musgrove always sits forward. So, there was I, crowded into the back seat with Henrietta and Louise; and I think it very likely that my illness to-day may be owing to it."

Mary has no qualms about being explicit about the cause of her discomfort. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense that both Anne and Mary should be judgmental, each in their own way, of the appearance of other people less blessed than the Elliots with good looks and a nice figure. After all, they both grew up in a household headed by Sir Walter, the world’s leading authority (or so he thinks himself) on good looks, and on the great, even decisive, importance of those good looks in judging the value of a person, second only perhaps to that person’s social status.

So we can also see that Anne, for all she thinks herself superior to, and different from, Mary and her father, and above their petty, small-minded, un-Christian  complaints, resentments, and judgments, is a whole lot more like them than she would ever want to admit.

I mention all of the above, because of something I noticed for the first time in Sense & Sensibility, which, upon examination, I realized, and will explain, below, is the covert forerunner of Mrs. Musgrove’s fat sighings—between 1811 and 1816, Jane Austen grew bolder in her depiction of uncharitable impulses in her virtuous heroines.

More than a few Janeites have over the years noticed the similarity between the personalities of Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Musgrove—jolly, expansive mother-figures who dote on their families and are not shy about expressing their  feelings in company, often to the chagrin of the restrained, discreet young heroines through whose eyes we see those matrons.

But how many Janeites have also noticed the strong physical similarity between Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Musgrove?  What I realized today is that Mary Musgrove’s report of the carriage ride with her in-laws the Musgroves that made her ill, and Anne Elliot’s frustration sitting on the sofa with Mrs. Musgrove and Wentworth, are actually not only connected to each other, but are also both echoes of a much earlier uncomfortable carriage ride described in Chapter 26 of S&S, when the narrator recounts the beginning of the long trip from Barton Cottage to London, with Elinor, Marianne, and Mrs. Jennings sharing some tight traveling accommodations:

"ELINOR COULD NOT FIND HERSELF in the carriage with Mrs. Jennings, and beginning a journey to London under her protection, and as her guest, without wondering at her own situation, so short had their acquaintance with that lady been, so wholly unsuited were they in age and DISPOSITION, and so many had been her objections against such a measure only a few days before!”

I’ve read that passage many times over the past 20 years, but for some reason this time, for the first time, I did a doubletake at the phrase “Elinor could not find herself”—was I just imagining it, or was this the prototype for Anne Elliot sitting on the sofa with Mrs. Musgrove?  I.e., taken out of context from the rest of that compound sentence, those first five words almost sound like Elinor literally could not find or locate her own body, because she was sitting next to, and to some extent under, the body of Mrs. Jennings, squeezed into tight quarters in the carriage!

Of course, upon further parsing of the entire sentence, the normative meaning becomes clear, i.e., “Elinor could not find, i.e., think of, herself in the carriage …without wondering, etc.”. However, knowing Jane Austen’s love of having it both ways as an author, I think it a compelling secondary interpretation that Mrs. Jennings, sitting next to Elinor, is also partially sitting on Elinor!---in the same way that a heavy person sitting next to a slim person on a modern airliner, where everyone is squeezed in like sardines from the getgo, cannot help but infringe on the personal space of the neighboring passenger.

Sound like a reach on my part? Well, consider how this seemingly wacky alternative reading fits remarkably well with other textual evidence in S&S. First and foremost, we all know that Mrs. Jennings is not petite:  “Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton's mother, was a goodhumoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar.”

Mrs. Jennings’s bulk is part of what could almost be a caricature of the merry older widow. Could this have anything to do with Elinor’s negative thoughts in the carriage?  Turns out that JA very quietly set up the idea of a physically uncomfortable carriage ride to London in the immediately preceding Chapter 25, when we learn a crucial detail indicating that Mrs. Jennings is going to be squeezing Elinor and Marianne into her carriage with her:
“It will only be sending Betty by the coach, and I hope I can afford THAT. We three shall be able to go very well in my chaise…”
So per Mrs. Jennings there would not be room in the carriage for herself, Marianne, Elinor, AND Betty. But, while Mrs. Jennings may very well believe that with Betty removed from the carriage, there will be plenty of room for the Dashwood sisters and Mrs. Jennings, I believe JA is giving us a very strong hint –via her ambiguous sentence structure--that Elinor would strenuously but silently, disagree vehemently on that point.

And note that JA, the mistress of literary economy, only needs five words to convey all of this extra meaning, and these five words, read against the grain as I suggest, are also true to Elinor’s character—she is not her sister Marianne, and she is not Mary Elliot either, in that she does not say what she really feels, everything is guarded, coded, and careful—and so “Elinor could not find herself” is the perfect expression of both her character and her feelings.

I Googled to see whether I was the first scholar to ever address this question, and I find that my young friend Ophelia Murphy (who was one of the two grad students who, along with their supervising professor, Fiona Stafford, invited me to give my first public talk about Jane Austen, at the Oxford Romantic Realignments Seminar, in June 2007), in her recent, erudite and thought provoking book, Jane Austen The Reader, quoted  that very passage in S&S Chapter 26, and then wrote about it from a different angle:
“Part of the reason for the disparate opinions of Elinor and her mother arises from their  different understandings of the Dashwood sisters’ position in society. A winter excursion to London was in many respects an important signifier of wealth during Austen’s lifetime. …This is the ‘condition of life’ in which Mrs. Dashwood mentally places her daughters, a sharp contrast to the ‘situation’ in which Elinor finds herself in Mrs. Jennings’s carriage, where she and her sister literally take the place of the maid Betty. Unlike her mother and younger sister, Elinor understands only too well her diminished status in a society in which wealth is the paramount signifier of personal importance. Her sensitivity to the ways in which she and her sister are likely to be perceived and judged by others may be seen as the source of her unease. Her response is to curtail her expectations….” END QUOTE FROM MURPHY BOOK

Here we see Jane Austen’s genius in full flower, because I believe Olivia is 100% correct, and onto something very important, in her explanation for how the carriage ride to London is a metaphor for the living situation of Elinor and Marianne—surely Jane Austen did indeed intend that interpretation.  But…when you layer on the covert depiction of Mrs. Jennings literally sitting on top of Elinor, such that Elinor cannot even see or feel the rest of her own body as she sits, it dovetails perfectly with Olivia’s metaphorical interpretation—the carriage ride is a kind of physical oppression which Elinor mightily seeks to stoically endure, but, because she is even more tightly wound than Anne Elliot, no “fat sighing” thought bubbles up from her subconscious, it only comes out muted, hidden beneath a benign meaning.

The metaphor Olivia sees is extended by realizing that Elinor is a lightweight not only in body but  also in finances and social status, and since her father’s death she has increasingly spent her life being pushed around, oppressed, and given no space, by those around her, even nice, kind people like Mrs. Jennings.

So, in those five words, we get a poetic encapsulation of Elinor’s life as she experiences it at that moment—she could not FIND herself—and it also seems to me  that Jane Austen was 150 years ahead of her time in using this expression as well. It of course became a cliché of the Sixties (the 1960s, that is) for young people to go off on adventures of various kinds, outside-the-box (or perhaps, outside-the-carriage?) attempts to achieve some mysterious alchemy, whereby they would suddenly have an epiphany and “find themselves”, i.e., find their true selves.

And when we look at Elinor Dashwood at that crucial juncture of the action in S&S, as she sits under Mrs. Jennings and ruminates with trepidation and doubt on what will happen in London, we may fairly say that she is a young person experiencing an identity crisis, as all the things she loved have been taken away from her, and she sees her sister having the same experience, and Elinor sees little hope for the future at that instant.

This is truly the prose poetry of Jane Austen at its most perfect---beneath the words of ordinary mundane life, which seem to be merely practical, we find, just under the surface, and putting on our double-take spectacles as readers, some very deep metaphysical angst.

And speaking of poetry, in this post I will only mention in passing the connections between this literal carriage ride to London and the metaphorical, carnal “carriage ride” that some “Queen Mab” (like, say, Mrs. Jennings, a very droll Queen Mab, given the grotesque contrast between her and Shakespeare’s tiny Queen!) would try to take Marianne (and perhaps Elinor too?) on, leading to a true “vortex of dissipation”, as the young JA described London.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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