Pauses: Moments in Jane Austen When Nothing and Everything Gets Said

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For Valentine’s Day, I’m very happy to share with you this guest post by Nora Bartlett on the moments in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion in which Jane Austen’s characters say nothing. Nora is currently writing a book on silence and listening in Austen’s fiction. She was born in upstate New York but has lived most of her adult life in Scotland, where she has taught for over twenty years in the School of English at St. Andrews University, also working with adults in various Lifelong Learning programs. She tells me she misses North American snow – and I have to say that with all the storms we’ve had recently in Halifax, I would gladly send her some of ours if I could.

I’m starting to plan a new series of blog posts to mark the 200th anniversary of Austen’s Emma, which was published on December 25, 1815, and I’m delighted to announce that Nora is writing the first post – on the snow in Emma. More details about the series coming soon! But for now, we can all look forward to Nora’s post on December 25, 2015.

Spirea

The spirea in my back yard.

Holly

The holly at my front door.

About fifteen years ago, Nora says, her love of Jane Austen’s novels “took a more scholarly direction, including in particular an interest in the way her juvenile writing leaves traces in her mature novels.” She’s also interested in the representation in Austen’s work of illness, exhaustion, and eating. She has published occasional poetry and short fiction and non-fiction, along with essays on Austen in Persuasions and in medical journals.

Her analysis of the significance of Austen’s silences is further evidence, I think, that the answer to John Mullan’s question “What matters in Jane Austen?” (the title of his 2012 book) is “Everything matters.” Every word, every silence, every pause.

Penguin Persuasion

All of Jane Austen’s novels use the “pause” – a moment of silence, sometimes of listening, sometimes of thinking, which precedes or follows speech – to great effect; the word appears more than a hundred times in her mature novels – but I would like to concentrate on Pride and Prejudice, the “light, and bright, and sparkling” novel famous for its snappy dialogue, and on Persuasion, the novel whose heroine, Anne, does so much listening and who does not herself speak until Chapter 3.

My interest in pauses started with a misremembered one: in the deliriously funny moment in Chapter 38 when Elizabeth, left alone with Mr. Collins on the last day of her stay at the Rosings parsonage, is forced to listen to his effusions about the delights of “this humble parsonage” when augmented by their “intimacy at Rosings,” I had always imagined a “short pause” before “Elizabeth tried to unite civility and truth in a few short sentences.” But in fact Mr. Collins’ bulldozer style does not allow any pauses, and Lizzie’s own quiet comments pass unheard in the background while he steams around the room in a kind of ecstasy of self-praise. There are other examples in the novel of his disallowing a pause, or invading it: in the midst of his Chapter 19 proposal to Elizabeth, his concentration on his own feelings is so profound, and his description of them so absurd, that, despite her reluctance to hear him out, “Elizabeth was so near laughing that she could not use the short pause he allowed in any attempt to stop him.”

This is a strong example of how Jane Austen uses the “pause” to create comedy: as in Persuasion, where in Chapter 3 Sir Walter Elliot shows his ignorance of the world, the law, and his own dire economic straits by declaring loftily that he is “by no means” certain “as to the privileges” attached to the tenancy of Kellynch Hall – the tenant may be limited in his access to Kellynch’s “pleasure-grounds … shrubberies … flower gardens.”

After this preposterous statement there is “a short pause” while his steward, Mr. Shepherd, is clearly biting his tongue to keep, either from laughing, or from replying with the sharpness which the comment deserves: he knows more than anyone what a jam the Elliots are in and how much they need this tenant, and he knows the law – but he is used to crawling to Sir Walter, has become of necessity what the Scottish call a “sook,” or suck-up, and will reply, as his clever daughter Mrs. Clay will always reply to the patronizing comments of Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, diplomatically, flatteringly. They are playing a long game with their short pauses.

So the “pause” is often a moment when a character is suppressing a laugh, or an angry reply: it stands for a rebellion that does not take place, or takes place only internally.

Penguin Pride and Prejudice

But there are other types of pause also, and one occurs in Pride and Prejudice a little later, in Chapter 21, when Jane Bennet has received, and relayed to Elizabeth, the distressing news of the Bingley party’s sudden departure from Netherfield. Elizabeth is listening, and forming her own opinions of, the “high-flown expressions” of Miss Bingley’s letter, but knows Jane’s view of the sisters is different from hers, so replies carefully, “after a short pause,” not showing her own sense that the female Bingleys are treacherous snobs and false friends, because she knows that that would both hurt the tender-hearted, trusting Jane, and alarm her about their brother. Instead she is, like Mr. Shepherd, tactful: “may we not hope that … the delightful intercourse you have known as friends, will be renewed with yet greater satisfaction as sisters.”

In that “short pause” Elizabeth was thinking what to say: and though Jane Austen presents her characters’ thoughts with incomparable depth and subtlety in her use of free-indirect discourse, where the narrative mingles with the character’s thoughts, here she allows the reader to invent or imagine what kind of thinking has gone into those “short pauses”: Mr. Shepherd wants to move the topic on to a more realistic plane, and wants not to lose his job; Elizabeth wants to give her beloved sister the kind of comfort in this unexpected turn of events that she believes is genuinely appropriate to the situation. Both characters, in highly contrasting situations, are taking care with their speech.

But the pauses also produce a kind of realism in the rhythms of speech as Jane Austen’s novels display it: we all know from our own experience of conversation, formal or informal, that we are often required to pause before speaking – like Mr. Shepherd and Elizabeth, we are deciding what to say next. In Pride and Prejudice, despite the “sparkling” reputation of its dialogue, there are many such pauses – even with Mr. Wickham, so easy to talk to that a clever young woman ought to be more on her guard, there are “many pauses” and “trials of other subjects” while Elizabeth tries to maintain her composure as she and Wickham mount their joint attack on Mr. Darcy’s character. And in her talk with Mr. Darcy, there are so many pauses that one is tempted to wonder if Jane Austen is thinking of the famously tongue-tied heroine created by her beloved Fanny Burney in Evelina, who, dancing with her high-born admirer at her first London ball, can say nothing at all.

Elizabeth, not quite so simple, nevertheless experiences in her first dance with Mr. Darcy, “a pause of some minutes,” and is forced to blurt out – here abandoning tact – that there are “no other two people in the room who have less to say for themselves.” Later, in Mr. Darcy’s first, unsuccessful proposal at the Rosings parsonage, there will be “a pause” on his part, in which his thoughts are embodied in physical reactions that Elizabeth cannot help seeing and experiencing – “his complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature” – this “pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful.” She does not realize, but the reader probably does, how much her feelings are already blending with Darcy’s: the reader can feel the intensity of her erotic response to Darcy – amidst all her resentment and rage – in that “dreadful pause.”

It would be possible to examine pauses in all the novels, but I have not chosen Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion arbitrarily – Anne and Elizabeth are among the heroines to whom Jane Austen gives her own talent for, and love of, the piano. It is well-known that when finally settled in some comfort at Chawton Cottage in 1809, she set up her beloved piano even before she took out her old manuscripts and began reworking them; and that she started each day not by writing but by practicing the piano – here she is more like Anne than like Elizabeth, who will “not take the trouble of practicing.”

“Pause” is a French musical term, known to 18th century English musicians, though the more common term at the time in England for “a notational sign that indicates the absence of a note or notes” was “rest” (Grove/Oxford Music Online, “Rest” [entry by Richard Rastall]). It seems possible to me that Jane Austen, the one musician in an unmusical family, growing up so familiar with the talk and tastes of her Frenchified cousin Eliza de Feuillide, may have been at least aware of the term more common in French for that specific kind of silence which gives shape to musical sound, as the pause gives her dialogue its particular shape – and that she may have used the term consciously. Fielding’s characters sometimes “pause” before speaking, but in all of Tom Jones’s over 1000 pages, only 9 times, versus Pride and Prejudice’s 23, Sense and Sensibility’s 24, Mansfield Park’s 29, Emma’s 17.

In Persuasion, the briefest and greatest of her novels, there are eleven pauses: I have looked at one comic one and want to end with one luminous and serious one, complicated by its being heard not only by those in the conversation, but overheard by the silent, pensive Anne. This is Captain Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove, nutting and flirting in the hedgerows in Chapter 10 while Anne is left alone, neglected by all, feeling no connection with anything but the melancholy autumnal landscape. Louisa, that healthy, lively, commonplace young girl, is expressing her resentment of her sister-in-law Mary’s snobbishness:

“She has a great deal too much of the Elliot pride – we do so wish that Charles had married Anne – I suppose you know he wanted to marry Anne?”

After a moment’s pause, Captain Wentworth said, “Do you mean that she refused him?”

“Oh! Yes, certainly.”

“When did that happen?”

Louisa is not imaginative enough to wonder at this abrupt shift, this surprising interest in Anne, on the part of a man who has been studiously ignoring her for weeks, but the reader thinks his or her way deep into that pause: later Captain Wentworth, referring to that refusal of Charles, tells Anne, “I could not help thinking, ‘was this for me?’” But there is more – as in the later moment when he responds to Mr. Elliot”s admiring glance at Anne on the Cobb at Lyme, he is suddenly seeing Anne again as she had once appeared to him – young and beautiful and desirable, stepping toward him beckoningly, freed from the ghastly nunhood of the years between. There are many moments in the novel which show the ways in which these two cannot get away from each other, but here, as often, it is displayed in a pause, spoken in silence.

Quotations are from the Penguin editions of Pride and Prejudice (1985) and  Persuasion (1987).

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