“We have much to learn from the patient practice of quiet observation in Jane Austen’s Persuasion,” writes Natasha Duquette. I’m sharing her guest post on the novel today in honour of the first day of the Jane Austen Society of North America AGM, which is entitled “Persuasion: 200 Years of Constancy and Hope.”
Natasha Duquette is Professor and Chair of English at Tyndale University College. She’s the author of Veiled Intent: Dissenting Women’s Aesthetic Approach to Biblical Interpretation (2016) and the co-editor, with Elisabeth Lenckos, of Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety, Harmony (2013). Her current project is a 30-Day Journey with Jane Austen, which she describes as “a small volume consisting of curated passages from Austen’s work accompanied by brief reflections” (forthcoming from Fortress Press in 2019). She serves on the Board of Directors for JASNA and she’s a member of the churches subcommittee, which oversees JASNA support of parishes in the UK, such as St. Nicholas in Chawton and Winchester Cathedral. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with a pug, a papillon, and her husband Fred.
Four years ago, when I hosted a blog series in honour of Mansfield Park, Natasha wrote about “Fanny Price’s Prayers,” and it’s a pleasure to welcome her back with this guest post on Anne Elliot and “quiet observation.”
Slowing down, quieting one’s mind, and becoming more conscious of one’s physical senses and surroundings can yield unexpected dividends, spiritually and creatively. As a novelist, Jane Austen was a careful observer of both human character and natural landscapes. She must have been a masterful practitioner of silent attentiveness. In her novel Persuasion Austen deploys the phrase “quiet observation” (Volume 1, Chapter 5) to define this posture. The heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, exemplifies this intellectual faculty, in contrast to her sister Mary’s in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove, who are “unobservant and incurious” (Volume 1, Chapter 6). Anne, on the other hand, has the wonder, curiosity, and receptivity of a writer or a scientist. The narrator explicitly emphasizes her “attention for the scientific” while she is listening to music at a concert, for example (Volume 2, Chapter 8). Anne is at times painfully aware of “her silent, pensive self” (Volume 2, Chapter 1). This self-awareness is a gift, however. In our modern world of virtual realities, alluring distractions, and at times frantic busyness, we have much to learn from the patient practice of quiet observation in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
When I began thinking about this piece, I took my Penguin edition of Persuasion with me on a trip to Ward’s Island, off the Northern shoreline of Lake Ontario, just a short ferry ride away from downtown Toronto. I was trying to detach from the incessant press of urban competitiveness in order to create space to receive Austen’s words. As I was reading her most naval narrative alongside open water, I glanced up from the page and beheld a nineteenth-century schooner (or close replica of one) sailing along.
At first, I could not believe my eyes, but there it was, the perfect visual accompaniment to the text of Austen’s novel. After a few moments, the sound of cannon fire boomed in the distance from the schooner. With the scents and tastes of a swim in Lake Ontario fresh in my memory, feet cradled in the warm sand, eyes delighted by the sailing ship, and ears awakened via the sound of cannon, I was grateful I had taken some time for quiet observation.
In Austen’s novel Persuasion, Anne Elliot carefully contemplates both natural landscapes and human beings. At the turning point of the novel, she is in Lyme, with “its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation” (Volume 1, Chapter 11). When Anne visits the seaside with Henrietta Musgrove, the two young women “gloried in the sea; sympathized in the delight of the fresh-feeling breeze—and were silent” (Volume 1, Chapter 12). Paradoxically, this contemplative locale is where Anne Elliot breaks from her silent stasis by springing into action, when Henrietta’s sister Louisa Musgrove takes a near fatal fall. In this emergency, it is the men who are frozen and fainting in fear while Anne shouts out decisive and quickly obeyed commands. Austen shows us how Anne’s quiet observation leads to clear judgment, and her steady contemplation undergirds confident action.
This is the case in Anne’s contemplation of human nature as well. Early on in the narrative, we find Anne “contemplated” the Musgrove sisters “as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance” (Volume 1, Chapter 5). In her initial period of quietly observing Captain Wentworth, after their eight-year separation, she contemplates evidence of his still “warm and amiable heart” with a mix of pleasure and pain (Volume 1, Chapter 10). She later attentively observes the grieving Captain Benwick’s psychological state and prescribes textual remedies for his healing. Anne’s impoverished friend Mrs. Smith likewise receives her undivided attention. Interestingly, women of keen perception surround the vulnerable Mrs. Smith, as her nurse Rooke is also “a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman” with “a fund of good sense and observation” (Volume 2, Chapter 5). The collectively quiet yet shrewd study of Mr. Elliot’s character by a small team of women—Anne, Mrs. Smith, and nurse Rooke—leads to the exposure of his true character. Detectives are also people of quiet observation.
The novel’s moments of astute perception build one upon another until they reach a crescendo with Anne’s sighting of Captain Wentworth in Bath. The narrator powerfully but simply states: “the very first time Anne walked out, she saw him” (Volume 2, Chapter 7). Then, four paragraphs later, an amplified statement of the same fact occurs: “Anne, as she sat near the window, descried, most decidedly and distinctly, Captain Wentworth” (Volume 2, Chapter 7). The alliterative “d”s of this sentence create a staccato effect conveying Anne’s intense emotion. She is a woman whose “feelings for the tender” accompany her powers of empirical observation (Volume 2, Chapter 8). She sees the reality of Captain Wentworth’s being clearly as she looks through the transparent glass of a shop window. In her chapter written for the essay collection Jane Austen and the Arts (2013), Melora Vandersluis notes how Austen contrasts the vanity of those fixated on reflective glass mirrors, like Sir Walter Elliot, with the truth perceived by those who look through the glass of a window. Anne’s descrying of Wentworth’s distinct form is a perfect example of the latter.
There are dangers in underestimating and underusing the powers of quiet observation. By neglecting to regularly exercise this mental and spiritual capacity, we may miss the daily wonders of our external environments, the subtle signs of unethical characters impinging on us, or the lived realities of someone we love. Though you are most likely reading this blog post on an electronic device, consider turning it off for even just a few minutes. Following Anne Elliot’s example, take some time to contemplate the actual creatures or places close to you at this moment.
Quotations are from the Penguin edition of Persuasion, edited and with an introduction by Gillian Beer (1998).