When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil,
And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale….
I want to share Ellen Moody’s guest post on Persuasion and the poetry of Charlotte Smith while it is still autumn (in my part of the world and Ellen’s, that is). My blog series celebrating the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion will begin officially on Jane Austen’s birthday, December 16th, but I don’t really want to wait to get started, as I’m excited about celebrating these two books with all of you.
The blog series now has a title—you may remember I was seeking advice back in August—and I am delighted to announce that it will be “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.” Many thanks to everyone who sent in suggestions! It was extremely hard to choose from among more than 60 possibilities, and it took me three months. Thank you as well to the friends and family members who helped me decide. Special thanks to Adam Q for this beautiful title that captures elements of both novels (Catherine’s youth; Anne’s experience) and of Jane Austen’s career (because she composed Northanger Abbey in her youth and Persuasion towards the end of her life). As promised, I will be happy to send you a set of “Austens in Halifax” cards, Adam. Please email me (semsley at gmail dot com) to let me know where to send them.
It’s a pleasure to introduce today’s guest post by Ellen Moody. Ellen taught in senior colleges for more than thirty years, and for the past four she’s been teaching at two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning attached to two of these colleges, George Mason and American University. Two years ago, she received the Leland Peterson award from the Eastern Central region of ASECS for long service.
Ellen has published essays and reviews on Austen, the eighteenth century, and film adaptations. You can also find her online, if you haven’t already, at jimandellen.org and reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com. Her timelines drawn from Austen’s novels are well-known and often cited, along with her other work about Austen and her contemporaries. For four years, as a member of group read on two Austen lists (Austen-l and Janeites) she blogged on Austen’s letters. (Edited to add Ellen’s description of the process: “The insights which emerged were a ‘hive’ effect, the result of all of us putting our collective heads together to close read and add our own bits of knowledge and perspectives.”)
Ellen says she hasn’t stopped reading Jane Austen since she was twelve. She tells me her e-text editions of later eighteenth-century French novels influential on Austen, Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield and Sophie Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield, have been commended for use in French reviews. Her most recent publications are on Charlotte Smith—last year, the first scholarly affordable paperback since the early nineteenth century of Smith’s Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake was published by Valancourt Press. Her essay “On Inventing a New Country: Trollope’s depiction of settler colonialism” will be published next year in Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature.
What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all,
Nor is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought:
for whatsoever from one place doth fall
Is with the tyde unto another brought:
for there is nothing lost, that may be found.
(Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Book 5, Canto 2, in Emma Thompson’s Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility )
It will come as no surprise to readers that yet another writer finds Austen’s texts comment centrally on a nearly universal aspect of human experience: autumn. I am aware there are people on the earth who live in continually summer or winter worlds, but am taking the view that such folk visit other regions. All of Austen’s mature novels, and not a few of her unfinished fragments and juvenilia, engage with and show an ambiguous relationship with autumn; none more centrally than Persuasion. Four of the novels begin in autumn; four end there, and autumn draws Austen to describe it, as we see in Sense and Sensibility when Elinor remarks to Marianne: “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves” (Volume 1, Chapter 16), almost against her will.
In one of the earlier seasonal and well-known reveries in Persuasion, we find a striking revision of a famous sonnet by Charlotte Smith. The “pleasure” (italics Austen’s) of Anne’s walk on a “fine November day” among people she feels somewhat uncomfortable with must be (she tells herself) to view “the tawny leaves and withered hedges,” and to repeat to herself “some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.” Alas, she finds she cannot shut out Wentworth’s conversation with Louisa about people who prove themselves indecisive and anxious over the future, clearly a reference to or coming out of a memory of how she once behaved to him, the basis of her rejection of him. Will she, nill she, “The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by, unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth, and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory” (Volume 1, Chapter 10).
These passages encompass a pointed rewrite of an early thematically central poem in Charlotte Smith’s then famous Elegiac Sonnets.
Written at the close of Spring.
The garlands fade that Spring so lately wove,
Each simple flower, which she had nursed in dew,
Anemonies, that spangled every grove,
The primrose wan, and hare-bell mildly blue.
No more shall violets linger in the dell,
Or purple orchis variegate the plain,
Till Spring again shall call forth every bell,
And dress with humid hands her wreaths again.—
Ah! poor humanity! so frail, so fair,
Are the fond visions of thy early day,
Till tyrant passion and corrosive care
Bid all thy fairy colours fade away!
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness—no second spring?
Then in the next paragraph, Anne finds herself in a meadow constructed from “large enclosures, where the ploughs at work and the fresh-made path spoke the farmer counteracting the sweets of poetical despondence, and meaning to have spring again” (Volume 1, Chapter 10). Indeed for some readers amid all the loss, aging and actual death, depressions in Persuasion, one lesson it teaches is the buoyancy of the human spirit irresistibly and against great odds, given some luck, and irrespective of other relationships or obligations, seeks and sometimes finds or creates for itself true self-renewal. Of Mrs Charles Smith, Anne Elliot remarks: “Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (Volume 2, Chapter 5).
Austen’s relationship with Charlotte Smith displays analogous ambiguities. One of several women novelists cited inside her fiction, Smith is the only one where explicit concrete details and titles from Smith’s novels appear, not once but twice: Emmeline in “The History of England” and Ethelinde in “Catherine, or the Bower” (Minor Works). Mary Lascelles was the first to note Austen’s possibly pervasive debt to Smith (and Radcliffe); William Magee meant to exhaustively catalogue Smith references across Austen’s oeuvre; Lorraine Fletcher demonstrated persuasively that the central situation and scenes between a hero, Willoughby, and a heroine modeled the anguish of Marianne before her Willoughby’s public snubbing or her in Sense and Sensibility is Smith’s Celestina. If you accept the argument that known tragic facts about Charlotte Smith are replicated in the situation of Mrs Charles Smith (Fletcher, Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography , Chapter 6), including crippling lameness and an inability as a woman to act for herself in a lawsuit (see my blog, Charlotte Smith’s Collected Letters, Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two), Charlotte Smith might seem the presiding genius loci of the novel. Captain Benwick habitually reads and finds comfort in Byron and Scott’s historical romance verse, as apparently does Anne herself, together with “such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering” as she thought might “rouse and fortify” his grieving mind to endurance” (Volume 1, Chapter 11). But it is the realistic texture of Smith’s sonnets and her insistence that she cannot forget her past, her refusal to be consoled that until near its end Persuasion repeatedly calls to mind. I limit myself to the opening and closing of Smith’s characteristic Sonnets 32 and 42:
When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil,
And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale:
For at such hours the shadowy phantom pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eye;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night-wanderers, who their woes bewail!…
But no gay change revolving seasons bring
To call forth pleasure from the soul of pain!
Bid Syren Hope resume her long-lost part,
And chase the vulture Care—that feeds upon the heart.
The works Anne refers to as useful in checking and controlling our love of strong feelings in ourselves aroused by literature probably include Samuel Johnson’s Ramblers, and memoir-novels like Smith’s own but also say Burney’s novels, Frances Sheridan’s (the novel Sidney Biddulph, 1761, which has reconciliation out of near disaster at its close), and novels by French women very popular in the period: Madame de Genlis and Sophie Cottin wrote two she refers to in other novels, respectively, Adele et Theodore in Emma (Englished as Adelaide and Theodore, or Letters on Education [1782; translated 1783], ed. Gillian Dow, Pickering and Chatto ), and Amelie Mansfield in Mansfield Park [see my etext edition]).
Nick Dear in his screenplay for the quietly emotionally effective 1994 BBC Persuasion (directed by Roger Michell, featuring Amanda Root as Anne, and Ciarán Hinds as Wentworth) rewrote moments of this thread in Austen’s text at crucial moments viable for film as lived out by the principal characters. In Bath, given the slightest opportunity to speak, Wentworth says to Anna of Benwick’s marrying out of his grief: “but Benwick—he’s something more. He’s a clever man, a reading man—and I do view his—I mean that he—suddenly attaching himself to her like that! A man in his situation! With a broken heart! Phoebe Harville was wonderful and he was devoted to her. A man does not recover from such devotion, to such a woman!—he ought not—he does not.” To which Root as Anne replies, a few scenes later, and herself having but an indirect prompting and but a moment to snatch: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex—and it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it—is that of loving longest, when all hope is gone.” We see Hinds as Wentworth responding: “at times during this debate … listening intently, and at times writing fast” (Persuasion: A Screenplay ). Simon Burke’s screenplay took this further, to a high emotional pitch of stark anguish and half-crazed joy in an extraordinarily moving realization by Sally Hawkins (2007 BBC Persuasion, directed by Adrian Shergold, with Rupert Perry-Jones as Wentworth), for which there is much warrant in Austen’s text. In Austen’s Persuasion we move from the fraught first meeting of Wentworth and Anne in Bath to her return home for a “perusal” of his letters. A few chapters later (though close in time) Anne learns from Mary’s needling letter that Wentworth is “unshackled and free;” this is followed immediately by her father’s castigation of her defiant visit to her friend, Mrs Smith, where she learns of Mrs Smith’s dire situation and we and she hear Mrs Smith’s reflection, e.g, “There is so little real friendship in the world.” Then under pressured from Lady Russell to consider marrying Mr Elliot in order to become Lady Elliot of Kellynch; Anne, nonetheless, at the mere news Benwick is not to marry Louisa Musgrove, gives way to “feelings” of “joy, senseless joy.” (Volume 1, Chapter 6 and Volume 2, Chapter 17). As with the interaction between Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s 1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility, and the marvelous film and Austen’s novel; after viewing the two Persuasion films, one cannot read Austen’s last mature nearly finished book in quite the same spirit again.
This situation of seemingly diametrically opposed points of view fragilely reconciled, is important because it’s typical of Austen’s novels, and thus puts before us in this brief close reading of the novel in context, why people debate so intensely with opposed inferences about her work and life too. We also see here an instance of Austen’s subtle skill in using the techniques of intertextuality. In a fascinating lecture I heard last night (November 17, 2017, at the Library of Congress) at the Washington Area Print Group, in a regional monthly meeting of people associated with Sharp (spelled out The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), Antony W. Lee’s “Rambler 2 and Johnson’s Dictionary: Paratextual and Intertextual Entanglements with Pope, Statius, Dryden, Gay, and Milton,” Professor Lee suggested (himself quoting Herman Meyer, from The Poetics of Quotation in the European Novel) that “the charm of quotation emanates from a unique tension between assimilation and dissimilation.” Austen makes Smith’s texts and her very life story link closely with a new environment (Austen’s Persuasion), but remains detached (as do the quotations from Byron and Scott and allusions to Johnson among others), permitting us to radiate them into Austen’s novel as well as (if we think about it), making us judge these other authors by Austen’s perspective (I paraphrase and add to what was said in this paper and a discussion afterward).
She leaves her stamp on these great poetic texts in her great creative poetic novel. And on us too. She takes (as she said in a poem she composed shortly before her early death) her immortal destructive, conquering and influential place in the traditions of literature, art and film. Is there a better way for ourselves enjoy and contemplate the autumnal November day I’m writing this blog in than studying Jane Austen’s Persuasion?
Quotations are from the Oxford edition of Jane Austen’s novels, edited by R.W. Chapman (1933), and from Stuart Curran’s edition of The Poems of Charlotte Smith (1993).