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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 was afraid to fall!


When I finished my post last night,  

“The curious case of the Austen heroine who ‘never danced’ because she couldn’t see where to step!”,  I was unsatisfied with the latter half of the Subject Line. It felt slightly off --- somehow it didn’t capture my essential point that Anne Elliot’s strong vision impairment was the deeper reason why she avoided the dangers of an English country dance floor.

When I awoke today, a more apt Subject Line was in my mind, and you see it now, above. I hope you’ll  agree that it’s spot-on, because it not only speaks directly to Anne’s diffident timidity, it also should bring to mind the lack of fear of falling of the secondary heroine of Persuasion:

“There was too much wind to make the high part of the new Cobb pleasant for the ladies, and they agreed to get down the steps to the lower, and all were contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight, excepting Louisa; she must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth. In all their walks, he had had to jump her from the stiles; the sensation was delightful to her. The hardness of the pavement for her feet, made him less willing upon the present occasion; he did it, however. She was safely down, and instantly, to show her enjoyment, ran up the steps to be jumped down again. He advised her against it, thought the jar too great; but no, he reasoned and talked in vain, she smiled and said, "I am determined I will:" he put out his hands; she was too precipitate by half a second, she fell on the pavement on the Lower Cobb, and was taken up lifeless! There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death. The horror of the moment to all who stood around!”

Reading the above passage through the lens of dance, I see now that Jane Austen, mistress of subtle nuance, planted a subliminal cue that Louisa treats the steps of the Cobb as a kind of dance floor, as she insists on Wentworth being her partner, catching her as she wildly jumps down repeatedly into his arms, until she misses her mark. I claim that the close reader is meant to hear the distinct echo of one of the passages I quoted yesterday from the Uppercross episode:

The [Musgrove] girls were wild for dancing; and the evenings ended, occasionally, in an unpremeditated little ball.”

And then Austen applies the icing to the cake via Admiral Croft's assessment of the post-fall Louisa:
"she is altered; there is no running or jumping about, no laughing or dancing; it is quite different."

RESPONSES TO DIANE (INCLUDING THE SANDITON MIST): I also want to respond to a couple of points made by Diane in her response to my last night’s post:

Diane: “it's interesting how much emphasis Austen puts on Anne's hearing. I wonder if there are instances beyond the dim view of Bath, which could be attributed both to the weather and Anne's emotional disinclination to see it, where Austen shows her not seeing well.”

In addition to the Hennedy article, if you go back and look at my Aug-Sept. 2013 posts, I analyzed several passages in that way.

Diane: “It is interesting too that overall Austen is interrogating disability in her last three novels (including Sanditon).”

How remarkable (in a good way) that you mentioned Sanditon in that vein, because of what I found earlier today. While thinking about Anne Elliot viewing the world “through a glass darkly”, and then wondering whether Jane Austen wrote any scenes anywhere in her fiction which involved a “mist” that would be analogous to Jane Austen’s own (possible) case of cataracts, Google led me to the following discussion by David Selwyn in Jane Austen and Leisure

“Tantalisingly, in the last chapter that Jane Austen wrote, Charlotte’s vision is blurred, literally, by a mist, as she walks along the road to Sanditon House with Mrs. Parker. Out of the mist, in a carriage that appears ‘at different moments to be everything from a gig to a phaeton, from one horse to four’, rides Sidney Parker….A few minutes later, as they enter the grounds of the house, Charlotte sees on the other side of the paling ‘something White & Womanish’, which stepping a little nearer, as she identifies, ‘in spite of the Mist,’ as Clara Brereton in an intimate tete-a-tete with Sir Edward Denham. The mist has not only marked the first meeting between Charlotte and her possible lover, but also made her party to an intrigue that would no doubt have provided a test for both her judgment and her conscience.”

And here is the relevant verbiage in that final chapter of Jane Austen’s fragment, in more completeness:

“…Mrs. Parker was delighted at this release and set off very happy with her friend and her little girl on this walk to Sanditon House. It was a close, MISTY morning and, when they reached the brow of the hill, THEY COULD NOT FOR SOME TIME MAKE OUT what sort of carriage it was which they saw coming up. It appeared at different moments to be everything from a gig to a phaeton, from one horse to four; and just as they were concluding in favour of a tandem, little Mary's young eyes distinguished the coachman and she eagerly called out, "It is Uncle Sidney, Mama, it is indeed." And so it proved.
…The road to Sanditon House was a broad, handsome, planted approach between fields, leading at the end of a quarter of a mile through second gates into grounds which, though not extensive, had all the beauty and respectability which an abundance of very fine timber could give. These entrance gates were so much in a corner of the grounds or paddock, so near to one of its boundaries, that an outside fence was at first almost pressing on the road, till an angle here and a curve there threw them to a better distance. The fence was a proper park paling in excellent condition, with clusters of fine elms or rows of old thorns following its line almost everywhere.Almost must be stipulated, for there were vacant spaces, and through one of these, Charlotte, as soon as they entered the enclosure, caught a glimpse over the pales of something white and womanish in the field on the other side. It was something which immediately brought Miss Brereton into her head; and stepping to the pales, she saw indeed and very decidedly, IN SPITE OF THE MIST, Miss Brereton seated not far before her at the foot of the bank, which sloped down from the outside of the paling, and which a narrow path seemed to skirt along—Miss Brereton seated, apparently very composedly—and Sir Edward Denham by her side.
They were sitting so near each other and appeared so closely engaged in gentle conversation that Charlotte instantly felt she had nothing to do but to step back again and say not a word. Privacy was certainly their object. It could not but strike her rather unfavourably with regard to Clara; but hers was a situation which must not be judged with severity.” END QUOTE FROM SANDITON

Now, I am NOT suggesting that we’re meant to infer that the 21 year old Charlotte Heywood has cataracts!  But…I do believe (but of course can never prove) that had JA finished Sanditon, there would have been some character in it who did at some point evidence vision problems the way Anne Elliot did, and that this passage was meant to subtly foreshadow that.

And I think you’ll agree, Diane, that your comment about “interrogating disability” in Sanditon fits perfectly with my interpretation of the mist at Sanditon. As you also said earlier, there is no aesthetic necessity that any of Austen’s characters must have exactly the same eye disability as she did, it’s the extra dimension that becomes visible to close readers who know of Austen’s vision impairment, and how she used it to provide grist for her own incredibly creative artistic mill, even to the final day of her life, when she was composing “When Winchester Races”, and relied on a loving transcriber to write down her final composed words.


Which gives me a good segue to my final point in this post, which also came to my mind overnight, vis a vis the possibility that Jane Austen suffered specifically from cataracts. It is interesting that the word “cataract” has two very different meanings: a waterfall or an eye disease involving clouded vision. One online commenter suggested how this one word came to have these two seemingly unrelated meanings:   “The effect of the eye disease that in medicine is called cataract is that your sight diminishes as if a veil of water is flowing over your eyes. It is as if you would look through a waterfall.”

I don’t know if that is a valid etymology, but I do know (via Google Books) that this double meaning existed during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and it would have been exactly the sort of word that Jane Austen would pun on.  And so I thought for a moment about whether there was anything resembling a waterfall in any of JA’s infrequent landscape descriptions in her writing. And suddenly I found myself right back there at Lyme Regis:

“The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands, make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth, declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.”

Austen scholars have noted the strong resonance of the above sublime passage in Persuasion with Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, particularly the following passage:

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted 
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! 
A savage place! as holy and enchanted 
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted 
By woman wailing for her demon-lover! 
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, 
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, 
A mighty fountain momently was forced: 
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst 
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, 
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail: 
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever 
It flung up momently the sacred river. 

We don’t read the word “cataract” there, but I interpret the “ceaseless turmoil seething” as referring to some sort of waterfall/rapids natural omplex, And “cataract” was a word in both Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s lexicon, and we know Benwick and Anne would have discussed their poetry. And so I’d like to think that one of the reasons why JA included that lush landscape imagery about “Pinny” at that moment, right before Louisa Musgrove’s spectacular fall, was to punnily connect both meanings of “cataract”. That connection would be highly ironic, given that I believe Anne Elliot’s ocular “cataracts” made it impossible for her to see the “cataracts” in the landscapes described in the poetry she read. And that’s why poetry meant so much to her, as it was her best option to feed her visual imagination when her clouded eyes could no longer do so.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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