Deborah Yaffe read Pride and Prejudice when she was ten and she’s been a passionate Jane Austen fan ever since. She joined the Jane Austen Society of North America when she was sixteen and she reports that she has an impressive collection of Austen-themed coffee mugs, bookmarks, tote bags, and DVDs. She spent thirteen years as a newspaper reporter in New Jersey and California, and her award-winning first book, Other People’s Children: The Battle for Justice and Equality in New Jersey’s Schools, tells the story of the state’s efforts to provide equal educational opportunities to rich and poor schoolchildren.
Deborah holds degrees from Yale University and Oxford University, and she lives in Central New Jersey with her husband, her two children, and her Jane Austen Action Figure. You can find her online at her blog, www.deborahyaffe.com, on Twitter (@DeborahYaffe), and on the Facebook page for her book Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.
When I hosted a celebration of Mansfield Park in 2014, Deborah wrote a guest post called “The Fatal Mistake,” and for my blog series “Emma in the Snow,” she wrote about “Emma the Imaginist.” I’m very happy that she’s written a guest post on Captain Wentworth’s famous letter for “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.” Welcome back, Deborah!
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan.—Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes?—I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others.—Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating in
“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening, or never.”
(Persuasion, Volume 2, Chapter 11)
“How was the truth to reach him?” Anne Elliot wonders towards the end of Persuasion, as she realizes that her true love, Captain Wentworth, is jealous of her relationship with her cousin, Mr. Elliot. “How, in all the peculiar disadvantages of their respective situations, would he ever learn her real sentiments?” (Volume 2, Chapter 8)
Anne’s romantic dilemma—how to bridge the distance between herself and the man she loves—mirrors Jane Austen’s artistic problem in the closing chapters of her last completed novel. Her hero and heroine are not family, like Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley; they are not even friends, like Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. Eight years after their broken engagement, they are at best acquaintances, part of the same neighborhood social circle. In the course of the novel, they have barely spoken to each other, and never in private. How will these two ever communicate freely enough to clear up the misunderstandings that divide them?
We know Austen struggled with this plot problem, since her first attempt at solving it has survived, in the so-called “cancelled chapters” of Persuasion, the only extant rough draft of any part of her finished books. The cancelled chapters—which cast Admiral and Mrs. Croft as heavy-handed matchmakers, the dei ex machina who maneuver Anne and Wentworth into a decisive conversation—provide a clumsy and implausible resolution; no wonder Austen herself found the work “tame and flat,” as her nephew tells us in his Memoir, and went to bed nursing that depressed feeling of failure so familiar to all writers (J.E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, ed. Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: Oxford University Press ).
But the alternative that came to her upon waking was nothing short of brilliant, and the scene she eventually wrote, which culminates in Anne’s reading of Captain Wentworth’s letter, is one of her greatest. It’s a clever and elegant solution to her plot problem and a tour de force of technique: In one of the greatest love scenes in all of English literature, the two protagonists never exchange a word, communicating entirely through stolen glances, overheard conversations, and, finally, an impassioned written declaration.
Wentworth’s letter—so beloved among Janeites that it is known simply as The Letter—is unusual in Austen’s work: deeply, satisfyingly romantic in a way that her happy endings seldom are. (Compare Edward Ferrars’ proposal to Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility: “In what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told” [Volume 3, Chapter 13]). While swooning, however, we should not overlook the consummate artistry with which Austen creates her effects, at the levels of plot, character, language, and theme.
First, note how perfectly Austen’s solution to her plot problem fits the relationship she has established between her two protagonists. Although they seldom speak—their first conversation of any substance occurs in the Octagon Room at Bath, three-quarters of the way through the novel—Anne and Wentworth are exquisitely tuned in to each other’s frequencies, picking up what less perceptive observers miss: He notices her exhaustion on the walk back from Winthrop, she correctly reads his lack of real romantic interest in the Musgrove sisters. From the beginning, their communication is non-verbal, or pre-verbal; how appropriate that it should remain so almost until the end—until one of them “can listen no longer in silence.”
Once that silence is broken, notice how true the letter’s style is to the personality of the man who writes it. Like so many of Austen’s most sympathetic male characters, Wentworth is decisive and direct; he does not ramble or dither. With its choppy rhythms (of the 23 sentences in the letter, 12 are less than 10 words long, and only three run to more than 20) and its simple, declarative vocabulary (only 14 of its 260 words contain more than two syllables), the letter is eminently believable as the work of just such a person operating under the influence of intense emotion. As he pours out the feelings he has bottled up for years, Wentworth doesn’t have the time or inclination for carefully balanced clauses and flowery turns of phrase.
And yet this passage, supposedly written on the fly by a man with no time for reflection, is structured with great care. Austen pulls off the near-miraculous trick of building a convincing illusion of spontaneous emotional expression on a foundation of conscious, deliberate artistic choices that recapitulate and deepen the novel’s themes.
Because we know we’re reading a declaration of love, it’s easy on a first reading, or even a fourth or fifth, to miss how dark the first part of the letter is. Wentworth begins with a painful, even violent metaphor (“You pierce my soul”). In the lines that follow, he speaks of agony and heartbreak. He condemns himself as weak, resentful, and possibly unjust. Repeatedly, he evokes the alternative way this story might end: the chance that he is too late, that Anne’s feelings may have changed, that love can die. As he writes, he in effect re-experiences the anguish of their parting and of the self-doubt and estrangement that followed.
If the first part of the letter is all about their past, the next section will leave that sad history behind. And what are the words that, on the page, provide the bridge from the remembrance of past pain to the possibility of new happiness? They are “never inconstant”—words that also name the fact about the Anne-Wentworth relationship that makes such bridging possible.
In the second part of the letter, we are no longer trapped in the painful past; we have moved into the present—their recent meetings in Bath—and almost immediately into real time, as Wentworth reports his sensations and reactions (“I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me”) as he listens to Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville. Indeed, Wentworth is listening so carefully that he even echoes one of Anne’s phrases from that conversation—“true attachment and constancy.” He comes into perfect unison with her on the very words that explain why such unison between them remains possible.
Just as the body of the letter moves from past to present, so in his postscript, Wentworth projects his relationship with Anne into the (near) future: “this evening,” when he will—or won’t—cross the threshold of “[her] father’s house,” literally and symbolically bridging the distance between Anne’s past life as a daughter and her future life as a wife. In essence, then, Wentworth’s letter retells in miniature the history of his relationship with Anne, moving from past grief to present understanding to future union, across the bridge of constant attachment.
Impassioned and moving, the letter deserves its reputation for romantic sublimity, but it is not a simple outpouring of endearments. It is something more mature and nuanced. It bears witness to life’s contingency, acknowledges past failure, and embodies a commitment to trying again anyway. In the letter, and in the conversations that follow, Anne and Wentworth do not deny the pain they have caused each other; they accept it, move through it, and integrate it into the happier future they plan together. Through Wentworth’s letter—an elegant plot device and an effective tool of character development, couched in carefully chosen language and perfectly calculated to put a lump in the reader’s throat—Austen returns us to Persuasion’s central themes: that love is fragile, but also enduring; that grief and pain are real, but so is hope.
Quotations are from the Penguin Classics editions of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, included in Jane Austen: The Complete Novels, with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler (2006).
This is the thirty-third and last post in the series—thank you very much to all the contributors, and to everyone who read and shared and commented on their work. If you missed any of these guest posts and you’d like to catch up, you can find all the contributions listed here. Happy 200th anniversary to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion!