Assortment, Take 2

Random thoughts on Persuasion:

-Lady Russell isn’t musical. It says that since Anne’s mother died, when Anne was fourteen, nobody listened to her piano playing, and she got very used to playing only for her own enjoyment – except for that short period of time when she was engaged to Frederick Wentworth. Somehow that touched me more than anything else that’s said about their relationship. Nobody in Anne’s life appreciates her music, except for him. Lady Russell is kind, motherly, intelligent, etc., but you get the feeling she’s actually a bit dense in some ways. Sort of rigidly conservative, a stick-in-the-mud. The other telling phrase about her is that she has no use for wit, so she doesn’t like Captain Wentworth. She’s a good woman, but even though she loves Anne, she really doesn’t understand her; it’s almost like Anne’s feelings, or tastes, aren’t on her radar. Wentworth is the only person Anne has ever met who is on her wavelength – not unlike Marianne and Willoughby, really. No wonder she falls head over heels for him; he’s the only person other than her mother who gets her.

-Sir Walter is a prize idiot. It’s got to be said. I love the scene in the 1995 movie where he castigates Anne for turning down an invitation to Lady Dalrymple’s in favour of a visit to Mrs Smith: “Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have extraordinary tastes!” and meanwhile he’s wearing this utterly ridiculous jacket with a bright yellow daffodil print. That just nails it.

-If I had the casting for a new Persuasion movie, I’d get Tom Hollander to play Captain Benwick. Captain Benwick is supposed to be small and slight (at least compared to Captains Harville and Wentworth); Richard McCabe, who plays him (very well, I might add) in the 1995 movie isn’t. I had to adjust my mental image of the good captain during this re-reading, and what I came up with is Tom Hollander in Gosford Park (the character who sits in the dark larder eating jam to console himself for the loss of his business). I think he could pull off Captain Benwick’s romantic melancholy very well.

-Louisa Musgrove is an interesting case. She gets a severe concussion in her fall, and when she recovers, she is a changed character. I wonder if she actually has something in the nature of a brain injury – it would have to be pretty serious to cause a permanent change in personality, not just a little bonk on the head. On the other hand, what if the change isn’t permanent? What if, a year or two into her marriage with Benwick, she gets back to being the bubbly, energetic, strong-willed Louisa she is at the beginning of the story? Are they going to regret having married each other? Is she going to feel stifled by Benwick’s seriousness? Is he going to find her giddiness objectionable? There’s a bit of a dark undercurrent here.

-Anne and Captain Wentworth are one of the more satisfying love stories in Austen. Perhaps it’s because their real romance has taken place off-screen, as it were, eight years before the book even opens; a lot of the initial meeting-and-figuring-out-each-other is long done with and Austen can concentrate on getting them back together in this story. I’m indebted to Linda Bree’s foreword to the Broadview edition (Peterborough: Broadview, 1998) for that piece of insight: practically everything that happens in this book is already done; the history of what went before is absolutely crucial to what goes on in the story. Anne and Captain Wentworth: an eight-year-old story. Mr Elliot and his behaviour to Sir Walter and Elizabeth: eleven years previous. Mr Elliot and Mrs Smith: up to three years ago. Lady Russell and Anne/Wentworth: eight years old. Sir Walter’s wastefulness which necessitates his removal to Bath: from his wife’s death to the time of the story, fourteen years. So in this book, Austen can concentrate on a very specific slice of action, what happens here and now, in the space of a few months; she has no need to lay the groundwork through the action. All that is done in the back story.

-Incidentally, Bree also points out that Persuasion is the book which is the most specific as to dates: it takes place between late summer 1814 and spring 1815. At the end of the book, as Austen’s readers would have known, Napoleon is just about to bust out of Elba, and Admiral Croft will get his wish of having the “good luck to see another war”. That’s a phrase that always makes me shudder – but I guess the navy saw much less carnage than the army during the course of a war. Less bloodshed, more prize money?

-Why were Regency ladies so incredibly delicate? Personally, I’ve only fainted once in my life (and I still don’t know why, but it was definitely for physical reasons), and I’ve never seen anyone else faint. Perhaps it’s because my friends and I come from robust peasant stock, or something. The way Henrietta passes out when Louisa is injured – what’s with that? I find Mary’s hysterics easier to understand; they’re more self-inflicted (she thinks she should freak out, so she does). But it seems to me that a real lady would very readily “sink” under any kind of emotional affliction. Getting upset meant to get light-headed, apparently. And they didn’t even have the Victorian tight-lacing by way of a good reason – I believe Regency ladies wore corsets, but nothing on the order of the breath-constricting torture devices their granddaughters strapped themselves into. I wonder if they were taught to be so delicate as to faint at the drop of a hat?

-Another thing Bree brings out that I had not previously considered is that Persuasion is the only book in which the hero and heroine don’t settle down on a landed estate or a respectable parsonage, the only book which does not reaffirm the old order. Captain Wentworth works himself up the ladder from a “nobody” to wealth, and Anne goes with him to his life of adventuring. There is every reason to believe that she follows her sister-in-law’s footsteps and goes sailing with her husband, leaving her father and sister to their stagnant life of manners and society in Bath (for the rest of their days, presumably) and Mr Elliot to inherit Kellynch Hall and be a corrupt baronet fleecing the land, while men like Captain Wentworth (probably Admiral Wentworth, one day) are the ones who really run the country.

Well, so now I’m done re-reading the books. Two months instead of two weeks – but it had to be done. On to reasearch and writing, now.

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