2001 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
A Slow Dance toward Happiness: Music In Jane Austen’s Persuasion
In Persuasion Jane Austen tells the story of Anne, a young woman who suffers terrible losses yet does not let these losses embitter her. But the death of her mother during Anne’s youth and the loss of her true love in her early adulthood certainly leave their mark on Anne. She survives with great strength of character, yet she withdraws from life. But Anne does not withdraw alone; she takes her music with her. Music has been called the language of the heart. It has an enduring quality, and it can cross barriers and build bridges. Music moves us. Words, too, can cross barriers, build bridges, and touch our hearts; and like beautiful music, a good story is timeless. In Persuasion, Austen uses music to define Anne’s character, to show her connectedness to people or her lack of it, and to show her gradual reawakening to life and to love.
Anne’s great depth of character is illustrated by her appreciation of books and music, two things that give her deep and lasting pleasure. When confronted by Mary for being tardy in coming to her, Anne mentions that she had “a great many things” (41) to do in getting ready to leave Kellynch Hall. Most of her preparations are for her father and Elizabeth, but when talking about preparing her own possessions to be moved, the only items she mentions specifically are her “books and music” (41). Anne’s regard for books and music is also seen as Anne compares herself to the Miss Musgroves. The Miss Musgroves use music, but for purposes other than the purely artistic appreciation of it. They have a “grand piano forte and a harp,” but their time is not invested in playing them, but in arranging the piano and harp, along with “flower stands and little tables,” around “the old-fashioned square parlor” for the latest fashionable effect: “the proper air of confusion” (42). In contrast, for Anne, playing the piano is a way to give “pleasure … to herself” (48) and to others. Anne thinks about Louisa and Henrietta, who are carefree, “living to be fashionable, happy, and merry” (43). Yet she does not desire to trade places with them because “she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments” (43). Anne very much values her education and musical training.
The marked contrast between Anne’s and Elizabeth’s relationship to music also helps to reveal the depth of Anne’s character. Anne appreciates music while Elizabeth simply uses it. Elizabeth sees music only as a way to further her own social standing. For the last “thirteen winters” she has “open[ed] every ball of credit which [their] scanty neighbourhood afforded” (13). In Bath, Elizabeth trails Lady Dalrymple into the concert room, enjoying herself as she tries to “be of all the consequence in [her] power, draw as many eyes, excite as many whispers, and disturb as many people as [she] could” (175). While both Elizabeth and Anne are “very, very happy” (175) at this concert, it is for vastly different reasons. Elizabeth is centered on herself, while Anne is centered on the music. She has “feelings for the tender, spirits for the gay, attention for the scientific, and patience for the wearisome; and had never liked a concert better” (176). The music takes Anne out of herself; its beauty transports her. Anne opens her heart, but Elizabeth only opens balls.
Although music is a used as a status symbol by some, for Anne it is a means of connection to other people. While at Uppercross, Anne connects with the entire group through music. She fills the “office of musician” by “play[ing] country dances to them by the hour together; a kindness which always recommended her” (49) to them. Music is also a strong connection to Captain Wentworth, the lost love of her youth, for he, too, “was very fond of music” (170). And although Anne’s mother is dead, Anne still feels a strong link to her through music. Her mother “listened to … [and] encouraged” Anne’s musical efforts with “just appreciation … [and] real taste” (48). Because of her mother’s appreciation of her music, it has deep emotional meaning to Anne. Therefore, music has become, to Anne, a means of reaching out and connecting to other people.
Paradoxically, Austen also uses music to show Anne’s lack of connection with those around her. Except for her mother’s appreciation, “in music, [Anne] had been always used to feel alone in the world” (48). Although the other “girls were wild for dancing” (48), Anne is isolated from the group, sitting removed from them at the piano, “desir[ing] nothing but to be unobserved” (71), her eyes filling with tears. At the dancing parties of Uppercross, Anne’s lack of connection with Captain Wentworth is especially pronounced. While others dance and laugh or sit and talk together, he treats her with “cold politeness … [and] ceremonious grace” and cannot be “induced to sit down” (72) near her. At the concert in Bath, Anne enjoys the music while she feels an emotional tie to Captain Wentworth. But after he becomes jealous of Mr. Elliot, Captain Wentworth “seemed to be withdrawn from her” (178), and the concert from which she received such pleasure and excitement now becomes “an hour of agitation” (179). For Anne, the concert is ruined, and her lack of emotional closeness with the people that are important to her makes her unable to enjoy her beloved music.
Anne cannot escape the pain of her past, and Austen uses music and dancing to illustrate Anne’s withdrawal from life because of the death of her mother, the loss of her relationship with Captain Wentworth, and even her current family situation. Anne “was nobody with either her father or sister: her word had no weight … she was only Anne” (12). Anne internalizes their attitude and places herself on the fringes of life. She believes that she has “no voice” (48). At Uppercross, her generous offer to play the piano while others dance seemingly makes her a part of the group, but actually allows Anne to withdraw safely to the outskirts of the party. Even though Anne is willing to play the piano, she does not allow herself to dance. Captain Wentworth asks if Miss Elliot “never danced” and is told: “Oh! no, never; she has quite given up dancing” (71). Anne’s losses have stolen her joy, and dancing yields no pleasure.
Anne discounts herself so completely that she attributes her family’s lack of appreciation of her to others, which increases her emotional separation. Anne feels sorry for herself as she plays for the Musgroves and thinks that, although she plays much better than the Musgrove girls, Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove dote only on their own daughters’ performances and have “total indifference” (48) to hers. But we actually see Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove noticing Anne’s “musical powers” and “often [giving] this compliment;—‘Well done, Miss Anne! very well done indeed! Lord bless me! how those little fingers of yours fly about!’” (49). Anne suspects Wentworth of looking at her while she plays, “observing her altered features, perhaps, trying to trace in them the ruins of the face that had once charmed him” (71). Although Anne’s self-evaluation may be suspect, she has internalized her family’s attitudes towards her and become a shadow of the person she used to be.
But as Anne’s story progresses, music also marks her reawakening to life and to love. At first we see Anne in lifeless, robotic terms. When she plays the piano, her “fingers were mechanically at work, proceeding for half an hour together, equally without error, and without consciousness” (71). But Anne is not totally without life, for as the Musgroves notice, her flying fingers sometimes dance on the piano keys. At Lyme, a turning point for Anne is reached when Captain Benwick values her opinion about “the tenderest songs” (98) of poetry. His appreciation of her opinion “emboldens” (98) her, and Anne’s self-confidence begins to bloom. As Anne’s opinion of herself grows, she begins to entertain hopes of a renewed relationship with Captain Wentworth. She desires to rekindle this romance, and she is “quite impatient for the concert evening” (170), where music, again, will be a part of her relationship with him. In comparison to Anne’s earlier mechanical response to music, she now is “in a most favorable state for the entertainment of the evening,” and she has “feelings … spirits … attentions … patience, and had never liked a concert better” (176). Anne’s heightened, sensual reaction to the music marks the end of her self-repression and the beginning of her quest for happiness.
Now that Anne has regained confidence in herself, she is ready for love, and music is used to illustrate this. During the concert evening, Mr. Elliot and Miss Carteret are interested in the literal interpretation of an Italian love song and ask Anne to interpret for them. Although she berates her own abilities as a translator, Anne is able to “translate at sight these inverted, transposed, curtailed Italian lines, into clear, comprehensible, elegant English” (176), and we find that Anne knows the language of love very well.
As Anne grows more self-confident, she makes overtures to Captain Wentworth and, although she has not yet danced physically, she certainly begins to dance in spirit. At the concert, Anne cannot bring herself actually to speak with Captain Wentworth directly about their relationship, so she uses music to symbolize it. As Wentworth prepares to leave the concert in agitation, Anne asks him, “Is not this song worth staying for?” He replies, “No! … there is nothing worth my staying for” (180). They both know that their relationship is what they are discussing, not the quality of a song. Just as a song becomes a symbol for Anne and Wentworth’s relationship, Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville becomes a surrogate for the defense Anne would like to make to Captain Wentworth. This spirited, pivotal conversation with Captain Harville is overheard by Wentworth. As Anne and Harville discuss opposing ideas of men’s and women’s fidelity in love, Captain Harville asserts that “songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness” (220). Anne energetically counters with the fact that books are written by men, and their lively conversation resembles a feisty dance. When Anne and Captain Wentworth meet after her reading of his letter, he “give[s] Anne [his] arm” and their “spirits danc[e] in private rapture” (226). In fact, Anne’s only sorrow is that she has no “family to receive and estimate him properly; nothing of respectability, of harmony” (236) to offer Wentworth. But for Anne and Wentworth, the harmony of their two hearts is obviously enough.
In Persuasion, Austen tells a story that follows a fairytale-like pattern. Anne, like Cinderella, is a young woman who is mistreated by her own family and who has lost her only true love because of their interference. Yet, like a fairytale heroine, Anne triumphs over adversity and is reunited with her Prince Charming. Austen uses the timelessness of music to develop this story. She weaves together two parallel interactions, Anne’s relationship with Captain Wentworth and Anne’s relationship with music, just as a musician weaves together the melody and harmony in a song. Each of these relationships enriches and mirrors the other; they are “instrumental to the connexion” (235). Tales of romance are tales of the heart, and Austen desires to stir our hearts. What better way to communicate Anne’s story than with music, the language of the heart.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1818. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.