“Coincidence can be an important element in the novelist’s armoury, providing it is handled with discretion,” writes Maggie Lane in today’s guest post for my blog series celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Maggie is the author of many books, including Jane Austen’s World, Jane Austen and Food, and Jane Austen and Names. Her most recent books are Growing Older with Jane Austen (Hale, 2014), which is about the concept of ageing and older characters in Jane Austen’s work and times, and On the Sofa with Jane Austen (Hale, 2016), a selection of essays first published in Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine on topics as diverse as hairstyles and heroes, nature and needlework. Maggie is Editor of the Jane Austen Society (UK) Newsletters and Annual Reports. It’s my pleasure to introduce her guest post on coincidence in Persuasion.
Coincidence can be an important element in the novelist’s armoury, providing it is handled with discretion. “Mrs. Smith had been able to tell her what no one else could have done” (Volume 2, Chapter 10). The episode towards the end of Persuasion, when Anne Elliot calls on an old schoolfellow with whom she has lost touch, only to find that she is the widow of Anne’s cousin’s intimate friend, and can give information about Mr. Elliot’s shady past and dubious morals that Anne could not have obtained from any other source, has been found unsatisfactory by many readers. Objections can be made on two counts. The fact of the relationship itself may seem too far-fetched. To counter this, it could be argued that within a much smaller national population, of whom the gentry formed only a tiny part, it was inevitable that such chains of acquaintance and coincidence should emerge quite often. This is what we might call the “small world” phenomenon. Known even to ourselves, Jane Austen’s contemporaries may not have found it at all unlikely.
The second more specific objection, the plausibility of Mrs. Smith’s being able to produce corroborating evidence in the form of a letter, is less easy to defend. Here, surely, Jane Austen is stretching credulity, and hoping to get away with it at a point in her story where a dramatic denouement is the convention, the pace of reading quickens, and critical faculties may be laid aside in the excitement of nearing the end. Mrs. Smith gives the best explanation she can, though it is a rather feeble one: the letter from Mr. Elliot to Mr. Smith “happened to be saved; why, one can hardly imagine” (Volume 2, Chapter 9).
We know that Jane Austen was suffering debilitating illness as she wrote Persuasion, and though she completed it and moved on to begin a new novel, she strangely did not submit it to her publisher—nor did she plan to do so for “a twelvemonth” as she told her niece Fanny Knight (13 March 1817). The best explanation for this delay is that she was dissatisfied with her own work. If so, she is more likely to have been dissatisfied with later than earlier passages, as her weakness took hold. What is certain is that Persuasion begins at a measured pace, taking its time to introduce us to a new imaginative world, with situations and characters promising a novel quite as long as Emma or Mansfield Park, but that it seems to come to a conclusion in a rush of quickly tied loose ends. This theory is well supported by comparing the coincidence of the Mrs. Smith narrative with the way Austen handles an even greater coincidence at the beginning of the novel, without arousing the least uneasiness in her readers.
Consider how we would react if Austen had written an opening chapter focussing on the heroine’s emotional history (as many a novelist might indeed have begun such a story) in which we learnt about the broken engagement to Captain Wentworth; and if this had been followed, a chapter or two later, by his sister turning up as the new tenant of Anne’s home. Too much of a coincidence, we would feel, spoiling the story from the start. But Austen has cleverly avoided that trap. While she gives us the outline of Elizabeth’s disappointment in Mr. Elliot early on, along with much other family history, she withholds the equivalent back story of Anne. We are introduced to Anne, we see through her eyes the tragicomedy of her father’s retrenchments and reluctant agreement to let Kellynch, we warm to her delicate personality. But it is only after the Crofts have presented themselves as likely tenants that we learn the most important thing about the heroine, the regrets and enduring love for one man which have clouded her youth.
This “little history of sorrowful interest” (Volume 1, Chapter 4) is so deeply involving that we are carried beyond the fact of the Kellynch tenancy and give it no great critical thought as we anxiously anticipate what this will mean for Anne. It helps, too, that Anne herself does not regard the Crofts’ coming as an unlikely coincidence, only as an event of painful emotion. The complex opening chapters of Persuasion have not always been credited with the high level of control, the fine artistic judgement, which Austen here displays. In August 1815, when she began this novel, she was surely writing at the height of her powers.
Her masterly touch is in evidence again halfway through the novel on the first appearance of Mr. Elliot in person. Undeniably, it is a coincidence that he should be on the shore at Lyme at exactly the same time as Anne. But what the circumstance loses in implausibility, it gains in dramatic power. A mysterious stranger, an openly admiring glance, the rekindling of Captain Wentworth’s feelings for Anne as a result of another man’s admiration: all this is achieved by the clever stroke of bringing Mr. Elliot to Lyme. True, Austen could have invented a passing stranger, never heard of again, if Captain Wentworth’s reaction were all that mattered; but the passage has an afterlife. What Anne later thinks of as “a cousinly little interview” (Volume 1, Chapter 12) before they are aware of their relationship gives them a warmer interest in one another when their real acquaintance develops in Bath. This extends to the reader: Mr. Elliot interests us more, seems a more serious suitor for Anne, than if he appeared first as the protégé and intimate of Sir Walter and Elizabeth. By virtue of this prior meeting he seems to belong to Anne, and it is she who must assess his worth and withstand his pursuit. And when Captain Wentworth follows her to Bath, the jealousy he quickly conceives of Mr. Elliot has its foundation in the scene on the beach. By linking Anne’s Lyme experiences with those she will encounter in Bath, Austen weaves the parts of her story together. For all these reasons, this use of coincidence is artistically justified.
This passage serves to prove that without some degree of coincidence, a fictional world would not draw together so satisfyingly. A novel is art, not life, and we expect from it the unity and closure which often elude in real life, without the author seeming to manipulate the puppet strings too much. So we should not be surprised to find coincidence in some form or other in most of Austen’s novels. Only in the circumstance of Mrs. Smith’s box of old papers, brought with her to Bath, does it jar. And, I suggest, Jane Austen knew it.
Quotations are from the Cambridge University Press edition of Persuasion, edited by Janet Todd and Antje Blank (2006), and the Oxford Edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (4th Edition, 2011).
Twenty-fifth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Next week, we’ll turn back to Northanger Abbey, with guest posts by Diana Birchall and Kim Wilson, and then we’ll have two more weeks on Persuasion before the series ends with a guest post by Deborah Yaffe on Captain Wentworth’s letter.