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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The curious case of the Austen heroine who “never danced”….because she couldn’t see where to step!

In further support of my claims that Anne Elliot suffered from a severe vision impairment which she did not (like her creator, Jane Austen) address by wearing super-strong eyeglasses, I now give you some relevant excerpts from “Acts of Perception in Jane Austen’s Novels” the article by Hugh L. Hennedy in Studies in the Novel (Spring 1973, Vol. 5 Issue 1, ppg 22-38), which I credit for alerting me, in August 2013, to take a closer look at Anne Elliot’s vision.

Beginning at page 30, Hennedy first defends JA’s authorial decision to present Mrs. Smith’s very long speech to Anne, and then continues as follows (I will put the auditory verbiage in ALL CAPS):

“Mrs. Smith’s story is justified in at least one other way, for, far from being something stuck into the novel at the last moment, it is a part of the novel which is very carefully prepared for…Anne throughout most of the novel is a listener, so that when towards the end of the novel she listens to Mrs. Smith’s long story, she is engaged in a characteristic action…during the novel proper, Anne is presented almost immediately as a listener…she is silent during most of the conversation between the two men…[in the whole novel] she does much listening [such as in the following scene]:
“When he talked, SHE HEARD THE SAME VOICE, and discerned the same mind…From thus LISTENING and thinking, she was ROUSED BY A WHISPER of Mrs Musgrove's who, overcome by fond regrets, could not help saying-- "Ah! Miss Anne, if it had pleased Heaven to spare my poor son, I dare say he would have been just such another by this time."
Anne suppressed a smile, and listened kindly, while Mrs Musgrove relieved her heart a little more; and for a few minutes, therefore, COULD NOT KEEP PACE WITH THE CONVERSATION of the others. When she could let her attention take its natural course again, she found the Miss Musgroves just fetching the Navy List…”

My interim reaction at this point was that throughout the rest of that scene, there is remarkably little visual description; as in a play, it’s virtually all dialog. Now back to Hennedy:

“…Anne does much listening in Persuasion…so much, in fact, that it would be tedious to try to cover all of it. …though the most important thing listened to in the novel is speech, other sounds are also important and emphasized. In the following passage, e.g., time is handled in terms of sound: “The elegant little clock on the mantle-piece had struck ‘eleven with its silver sounds’ and the watchman was beginning to be heard at a distance telling the same tale…”. And at one point in the novel, Uppercross and Bath, Mrs. Musgrove and Lady Russell, are linked and contrasted by means of sound. Mrs. Musgrove enjoys the clamor made by her active family at Uppercross, but Lady Russell does not enjoy it:  
Everybody has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and SOUNDS are quite innoxious, or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity. When Lady Russell not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon, and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the HEAVY RUMBLE of carts and drays, the BAWLING of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the CEASELESS CLINK of pattens, she made no complaint. No, these were NOISES which belonged to the winter pleasures; her spirits rose under their influence; and like Mrs Musgrove, she was feeling, though not saying, that after being long in the country, nothing could be so good for her as a little quiet cheerfulness.
Anne did not share these feelings. She persisted in a very determined, though very silent disinclination for Bath; caught the first DIM VIEW of the extensive buildings, smoking in rain, without any wish of seeing them better; felt their progress through the streets to be, however disagreeable, yet too rapid; for who would be glad to see her when she arrived? And looked back, with fond regret, to the bustles of Uppercross and the seclusion of Kellynch.”
Unlike Mrs. Musgrove and Lady Russell, Anne enjoys neither the sounds of Uppercross at Christmas nor the sounds of Bath. Nor can it be said that during most of the novel she enjoys listening to Wentworth speak: 
“…a thousand feelings rushed on Anne, of which this was the most consoling, that it would soon be over. And it was soon over. In two minutes after Charles's preparation, the others appeared; they were in the drawing-room. Her eye half met Captain Wentworth's, a bow, a curtsey passed; she HEARD  his VOICE; he TALKED to Mary, SAID all that was right, SAID something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to mark an easy footing; THE ROOM SEEMED FULL, FULL OF PERSONS AND VOICES, but a few minutes ended it. Charles shewed himself at the window, all was ready, their visitor had bowed and was gone, the Miss Musgroves were gone too, suddenly resolving to walk to the end of the village with the sportsmen: the room was cleared, and Anne might finish her breakfast as she could.“
Notice how much of Anne’s awareness of Wentworth during this brief scene is accomplished by means of sound. There are similar moments, moments when, though Anne’s power of sight is not totally dormant, it is not so active as her power of hearing. There is the time, for instance, when Anne is playing for the dancing at Uppercross.”

It was while rereading that last bit by Hennedy that I recalled Sherlock Holmes, who famously solved one of his mysteries via the curious case of the dog who didn’t bark (which, as has previously been noted, was Conan Doyle’s sly nod to Odysseus’s faithful old dog Argos, who revealingly didn’t bark when his master returned to Ithaca in disguise). In the same way, I find Anne to be the curious case of the Austen heroine who never danced! Yes, it’s true that she loves to play piano, but a young woman in that social circle who never dances could also be a young woman who cannot see well enough to dance, and doesn’t want to admit it (even to herself). Consider this passage:

“The [Musgrove] girls were wild for dancing; and the evenings ended, occasionally, in an unpremeditated little ball. There was a family of cousins within a walk of Uppercross, in less affluent circumstances, who depended on the Musgroves for all their pleasures: they would come at any time, and help play at anything, or dance anywhere; and Anne, very much preferring the office of musician to a more active post, played country dances to them by the hour together; a kindness which always recommended her musical powers to the notice of Mr and Mrs Musgrove more than anything else, and often drew this compliment;--"Well done, Miss Anne! very well done indeed! Lord bless me! how those little fingers of yours fly about!"

And then this one too:

“The evening ended with dancing. On its being proposed, Anne offered her services, as usual; and though her eyes would sometimes fill with tears as she sat at the instrument, she was extremely glad to be employed, and desired nothing in return but to be unobserved.”

And then this one too, that makes explicit what was implicit in the first two passages:

“These were some of the thoughts which occupied Anne, while her fingers were mechanically at work, proceeding for half an hour together, equally without error, and without consciousness. Once she felt that he was looking at herself, observing her altered features, perhaps, trying to trace in them the ruins of the face which had once charmed him; and once she knew that he must have spoken of her; she was hardly aware of it, till she heard the answer; but then she was sure of his having asked his partner whether Miss Elliot never danced? The answer was, "Oh, no; never; she has quite given up dancing. She had rather play. She is never tired of playing." Once, too, he spoke to her. She had left the instrument on the dancing being over, and he had sat down to try to make out an air which he wished to give the Miss Musgroves an idea of. Unintentionally she returned to that part of the room; he saw her, and, instantly rising, said, with studied politeness--"I beg your pardon, madam, this is your seat;" and though she immediately drew back with a decided negative, he was not to be induced to sit down again. Anne did not wish for more of such looks and speeches. His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.”

So, yes, Anne’s consistent preference of avoiding “a more active post” can be explained as part of her withdrawal from active life in general in prolonged grief over the eight years since she was persuaded to turn Wentworth down – but it also fits very plausibly with the other evidence of Anne’s vision impairment I’ve found.

Now, back again one more time to Hennedy’s article:

“And again when Wentworth takes the two year old Walter Musgrove from Anne’s back, Anne learns more from sound than from sight, though here Anne’s sense of touch is also important. If in the moments just cited, Anne’s power of sight functions only weakly, at one very important point in the novel it plays no part at all as Anne listens to Wentworth. If most of Wentworth’s speech early in the novel is not directed to Anne, so that her reception of it involves some degree of overhearing, Anne’s listening to the conversation at Winthrop between Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove is an instance of pure overhearing…
…Before the concert at Bath…Wentworth begins by speaking about Benwick but ends up by speaking about himself. That, at least, seems to be the way that Anne interprets his speech, for she ‘who, in spite of the AGITATED VOICE in which the latter part had been uttered, and in spite of all the VARIOUS NOISES in the room, the ALMOST CEASELESS SLAM of the door, and CEASELESS BUZZ of persons walking through, had distinguished every word’…Anne, then, arrives at the point at which she knows that Wentworth still loves her…” END QUOTE

Ceaseless clink of pattens, almost ceaseless slam of the door, ceaseless buzz --- that all sounds to me like the deficit in Anne Elliot’s vision is matched by an equal surfeit in her hearing.

Cheers, ARNIE

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