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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Surprise!: the nearly blind Jane Austen created a nearly blind last heroine, Anne Elliot in Persuasion!

I want to share with you all my great thrill this evening upon reading the following BBC news report:

Author Jane Austen was virtually blind at the end of her life possibly as a result of arsenic poisoning, experts have revealed.
Tests on three pairs of glasses held at the British Library showed the author's sight deteriorated considerably. At the time, heavy metals like arsenic were used in medicines that Austen, who had rheumatism, may have taken. Library experts have suggested such poisoning may also have contributed to her early death at the age of 41. The novelist, who lived in Steventon, Hampshire, died on 18 July 1817 and the cause of her death has been the subject of much speculation.
Opinion sought: The three pairs of glasses, kept in the Pride and Prejudice author's writing desk, were examined using a portable lens meter brought to the library to determine the strength of the lenses which, despite their age, remain in good condition. Tests showed they increased in strength from +1.75 in each eye from the first pair to +4.75 and +5.0 in the final pair - meaning she would have found it very difficult to see well enough to read or write by the time she died.
British Library curator Sandra Tuppen said: "There's the possibility of her being poisoned accidentally with a heavy metal such as arsenic. We know now that arsenic poisoning can cause cataracts. Arsenic was often put into medication for other types of illness, potentially for rheumatism, which we know Jane Austen suffered from."  It is not known whether the glasses, made of real tortoiseshell and glass, were prescribed for Austen or she bought them herself. The British Library is inviting optometrists to offer their opinions on the new theory.” END QUOTE FROM BBC REPORT

I am so thrilled to read the above for two closely related reasons:

First, the above finding ---that Jane Austen became, in the last few years of her life, almost too blind to read or write by the time she died --- fits perfectly with the series of blog posts I wrote back in Aug.-Sept. 2013, beginning with the following-linked one [ ]. In that series of posts, I made the “wild” suggestion that Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion (which Austen wrote from start to finish during the penultimate year of her too-short life), is virtually blind.

All Janeites who know Persuasion well will immediately ask: how could this possibly be, without this rather important detail being noticed by any of the novel’s two centuries worth of readers? Because, as I argued in great textual detail in that 2013 series of posts, Austen's narrative voice is so blended with the mind of her heroine, that even though the narrator never tells you this crucial fact of Anne’s severe vision impairment explicitly, it is nonetheless cleverly hidden in plain sight (so to speak) in a multitude of subtly depicted scenes. I.e., throughout the entire length of the novel, it can be discerned by close reading that Anne's acute hearing is her primary, at time almost her exclusive, modality of experiencing other people, as well as the sensory landscape of the English countryside and “the white glare of Bath”.

So it made, and still makes, perfect sense to me, that Anne Elliot, whom many Janeites believe is the one heroine most similar to Austen herself, would share her creator's enormous personal, creative challenge during the very same time period the novel Persuasion was written!

But that’s only ½ of my thrill at the above news. The other ½ is that I’m pretty sure that I was actually the catalyst behind this study of JA’s eyeglasses being done!! You can see this in my post in the Janeites group on August 23, 2013...
….when I was first delving into the question of Jane Austen’s failing eyesight, and I suspected that she mirrored that experience in Persuasion. First I quoted my friend Diana Birchall’s response to my initial ruminations:

“Diana wrote: "And now I turn to Arnie's latest discovery. A good one – the weakness of the eyes! And come to think of it, even in one of these very theatrical letters I've been looking at, she's going on about the pain in her face….But eye problems first mentioned at age 24, and then at age 37 and 38, sound pretty constant. And we know she did wear spectacles (they are kept with the desk Joan Austen-Leigh gave to the British Library). I have seen them, when Joan had them, but I hadn't the temerity to actually look
through them; wish I had! No chance of that now."

When I read Diana’s reference to the spectacles kept with the writing desk at the British Library, a light bulb immediately went on in my head, and I responded as follows to Diana:

“…[I]t is important that at some point, JA did wear spectacles. What I'd like to know is, has any optometric analysis ever been done of those spectacles, to see what Jane Austen's "prescription" was, so to speak? Was she, e.g., very near-sighted and/or astigmatic? That sort of analysis is something that could, I would imagine, be easily and non-invasively done with today's technology. Does anyone know if it's been done? If for some odd reason it has not been done, it should! I am going to email the British Library and ask!”

And I then immediately did exactly that—I wrote to the British Library in late August 2013, and asked that this analysis be done---and now, 3 ½ years later, we can now all read the result!

So, to those who in 2013 found absurd and outlandish my claims about Anne Elliot being nearly blind, I now ask you, how could I have possibly predicted, as I did, that Jane Austen’s actual real-life spectacles, revealed that she not only suffered eye ailments (as has long been known), but that she herself, by the objective evidence of her actual eyeglasses, became nearly blind at the very time when she wrote the character of Anne Elliot?

What it tells you, I suggest, is that interpreting Jane Austen’s fiction, and also, for that matter, interpreting her letters written during the last two years of her life, requires that a very special sort of interpretive “spectacles” be used by the interpreter, to make sure that (as with the hero of National Treasure who uses Ben Franklin’s special spectacles to read the back of the Declaration of Independence) you can detect the hidden message on the other side, so to speak, of the pages of Persuasion!

[Followup added on March 9, 2017 at 9:30 am PST

In response to my above post, I received a couple of excellent reactions from my friend Diane Reynolds, to which I wish to respond further:

Diane wrote: “What fascinating news! And congratulations: I imagine it indeed was your contacting the British Library that led to this overlooked test of how strong Austen's glasses were!”

Diane, I have an update on that – first, I can’t retrieve the email I sent to the British Library, and any reply I may have received at the time (I just can’t remember if one was sent to me), till I get home from a trip in a few days. In the interim, last night before I went to bed, I did email Sandra Tuppen, the British Library curator responsible for the recent testing. When I awoke, I saw that she had already very promptly and warmly replied to me! First, she guessed that my August 2013 email must’ve gone to her predecessor, so she herself was unaware of the history of the idea of the testing, beyond the fact that it had been in the works for a while.

Tuppen also gave me the link to her blog post which provided the basis for the much shorter BBC report, and so I will pass it on here:

In regard to Ellen’s rather acerbic reaction, anyone who reads Tuppen’s blog post can immediately discern that it is quite soberly written. In no way can it be fairly construed as a “cult” response to the optometric analysis, or insensitive to the pain and disability that Jane Austen must’ve suffered through in those final years, regardless of the cause. She presents and discusses several plausible alternatives, including expert opinions, and overall does a very even handed and commendable job of reporting the findings.

And as you aptly pointed out to Ellen, the real headline is not the arsenic speculation, what matters is that Jane Austen’s vision was seriously impaired near the end of her life – and for my theory, as I said in my previous post, that is the best circumstantial evidence I can imagine for my independently arrived at interpretation of Anne Elliot’s near blindness –who else would be more likely to create such a character than a writer who was experiencing that very same challenge? But, being the sly elf that she was, Jane Austen gives us a clueless heroine who seems completely unaware of her own disability in “seeing” what is before her, on both the physiological and epistemological levels!

Diane also wrote: “As I was reading the initial article, I thought how odd it was that the JA world missed testing the strength of her glasses all these years. One couldn't come up with a better metaphor for the blindness of those who have been perhaps too close to their subject for too long and need the perspective of fresh eyes. I don't remember these initial posts of yours Arnie, except vaguely, about the importance of Anne overhearing, but will reread them. The whole subject is fascinating. I also know the lovely feeling when one's hunch, one's intuitive leap, is borne out.

I agree that it is just another example of the extraordinary passivity of aspects of Austen scholarship which do not fit neatly within the Myth of Jane Austen – had there been some statement in Henry Austen’s Biographical Notice, or in JEAL’s Memoir, about JA being nearly blind when she wrote Persuasion, you can rest assured that her eyeglasses would have been analyzed long ago.

As to your kind comments about my hunch, many thanks!! I note in Tuppen’s blog post that Janine Barchas and Elizabeth Picherit also have more recently expressed interest in the optometry of the three pairs of glasses, and that they have an article coming out soon regarding spectacles in JA’s novels that should be interesting.

Diane: “I wonder what else hides in plain sight? I read a week or so ago of the discovery of a lost Whitman novel: I can't help but believe there is material on Austen hovering out there.”

Yes, I saw that about the Whitman novel, too, and thought the same thing. I’m always waiting for the next shoe to drop, and since I have so many aspects of my Austen shadow story theory out there, I do harbor the dream that a true smoking gun will emerge in the next few years which will dramatically validate what I’ve been claiming. But, in the interim….

Diane: “In any case, you have plenty of material to write your book if you just focus on your strongest evidence and leave out anything tenuous. (You must have enough material at this point for ten books.)

Thanks, and yes that is true! But rest assured, I have been working on my book, even as I continue (on a lesser scale) to do fresh research – that’s the balance that feels right to me – yes it will take longer to get the (first) book done, but that’s okay with me, it makes the process tolerable for me.   ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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