sing the SOFA.
Cowper, Book I, The Task
They were actually on the same sofa,
Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him;
were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove.
My topic focuses on “the precious rooms and furniture” that create
the intimate as well as the social spaces of Anne Elliot’s world (47).
I am not alone in my interest in furniture, for William Cowper
(1731-1800), the poet declared by Henry Austen to be Jane Austen’s favorite
“moral” writer “in verse” (7), also had something to say on the topic. I want to start out by questioning Henry Austen’s
pronouncement regarding his sister’s opinion about Cowper, a poet my students
find virtually unreadable today. I
wonder whether we accept Henry’s dictum here without probing too deeply into
the why or the wherefore. Is Henry
voicing the reality of Jane Austen’s preference, or is he perhaps projecting
his own idea about the “correct” poets and writers to link with his
sister’s authorial name?
In her letters Jane Austen alluded to and quoted (very infrequently) from
Cowper. For example, in a letter dated 25 November 1798 Jane tells
Cassandra that the family is about to purchase Cowper’s works, and then, three
weeks later, on 18 December, she relates how “My father reads Cowper to us in
the evening, to which I listen when I can.”
On 8 February 1807, writing from Southampton, Jane Austen asserts, “I
could not do without a Syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s Line.” It seems a
bit odd to me that, Henry Austen’s pronouncement notwithstanding, these lines
are the main references to Cowper in Jane Austen’s letters.
Her favorite poet, yet these are the only references?
I must quote from or allude to my favorite writer at least three times a
In the novels as well, Jane Austen alludes to and quotes from Cowper’s
poetry. In Sense and
Sensibility, Marianne, like Willoughby, is drawn to his works (47).
In Emma, Mr. Knightley quotes
from “The Winter Evening,” Book IV of Cowper’s long poem The
In Mansfield Park, Fanny quotes
twice from Cowper’s poetry—most famously, of course, when, shocked by Mr.
Rushworth’s radical plans for improving Sotherton, she murmurs: “‘Ye
fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited’” (56).
This line is also from The
Task (Book I). But do these lines
support Henry’s claim that Cowper as Jane Austen’s favorite moral writer in
verse? Marianne and Fanny, like the
poet himself, are melancholic, even rather depressive (Fanny) or manic
(Marianne), so perhaps they find solace in Cowper’s calm observations about
nature, rural scenes, home, and the world.
In his mania and melancholia, Cowper sometimes found himself at a loss
for a theme. This was the case in
the summer of 1783, when Cowper and Mrs. Mary Unwin (his landlady, walking
companion, and soul mate)
and Anna, Lady Austen
(no relation to Jane Austen)—two ladies to whom he was emotionally
attached—were sitting around reading poetry together.
(This literary ménage a trois suggests
a scene in one of Austen’s novels; there are always, it seems, too many
ladies.) Not for the first time was
Lady Austen trying to interest Cowper in developing some new metrical devices.
She suggested that he drop the rhymed couplet form he had used quite
successfully in his early work—a form associated with the last generation of
poets; she wanted him to attempt blank verse, that is, a more conversational
unrhymed iambic pentameter form. Surprisingly,
Cowper could not imagine what kind of a subject he could turn into blank verse. He implored Lady Austen to give him a topic—and she did.
“Go home and write about anything,” Lady Austen told him (in so many
words), “Go home and write about a sofa.”
With just the idea of the sofa, then, to stimulate his poetic muse,
Cowper took on “the task” Lady Austen set for him; Book I of The
Task is “The Sofa.”
Isn’t it fitting, then, that
Fanny Price, ever at the beck-and-call of her sofa-bound Aunt Bertram, quotes
from this section of the poem?
“I sing the SOFA,” reads Cowper’s cheery first line of The
Task: A Poem in Six Books (published 1785), “I who lately sang/Truth,
Hope, and Charity . . . .” To
propose to “sing the SOFA” strikes me as humorous in the extreme, and I like
to imagine a very young Jane Austen responding with a good guffaw when she read
that pseudo-classical invocation. What
follows in the first part of the poem is a kind of pious comedy, for in The
Task, the poet ambles along contentedly from a contemplation of the SOFA to
a history of furniture to an assessment of the condition of man to an
appreciation of Nature; indeed, it is as if Cowper tries to comment on the whole
of the meaning of life in 5000 lines of rambling, technically simple blank
verse. The Task, which was proclaimed a masterpiece in its day,
focuses on realistic, everyday life. From
upholstery fabric Cowper moves to the “rural sounds” and “rural sights,”
“hedgerow beauties,” “ten thousand warblers,” those “fallen
avenues,” a sheepfold, a cottage—those certitudes of country life that
reverberate in Jane Austen’s work. Cowper’s
step-by-step consideration of every idea that occurs to him has the quality of a
meditation (not unlike Wordsworth’s Excursion,
or Tintern Abbey, or Intimations
of Immortality). We
have learned to value The Task for
Cowper’s philosophical reflections on Nature and on man, for what Marilyn
Butler calls his “Christian, ethical preference for the simple life” (110).
But Jane Austen must have been attracted as well to Cowper’s
particularity of style, to his absurd—but acute—observations on the concrete
realities of daily life.
I like to think that the absurdity of “I sing the SOFA” echoes
throughout Jane Austen’s works.
especially, Jane Austen has a bit of fun with furniture—with sofas and chairs
and looking-glasses. Admiral and
Mrs. Croft are cited as the best kind of tenants for Kellynch-hall because the
admiral “was a married man, and without children; the very state to be wished
for. A house was never taken good care of, Mr. Shepherd observed,
without a lady: he did not know, whether furniture might not be in danger of
suffering as much where there was no lady, as where there were many children.
A lady, without a family, was the very best preserver of furniture in the
world” (22). Anne grieves for the
“beloved home made over to others; all the precious rooms and furniture . . .
” (47). Furniture, it seems, propels the plot of this novel forward.
Had it not been for Mary Musgrove’s sofa, Anne Elliot and Captain
Wentworth might never had made their match.
In The Task, Cowper begins his chronicle with the concept of the
evolution and development of furniture. He
describes chairs and moves smoothly, if slowly, to “the accomplished sofa”
as the end point of creation. “Time
was,” Cowper reminds us, when we all sat around on rocks or “gravelly bank[s]”:
were then created; on three legs
they stood. Three legs upholding
massy slab, in fashion square or round. . . .
length a generation more refined
the simple plan, made three legs four,
them a twisted vermicular,
o’er the seat, with plenteous wadding stuffed,
a splendid cover green and blue,
and red, of tapestry richly wrought
woven close, or needlework sublime.
might ye see the peony spread wide,
full-blown rose, the shepherd and his lass,
and lambkin with black staring eyes,
parrots with twin cherries in their beak.
Austen MUST have found it hilarious to contemplate sitting upon lapdog, lambkin,
peony, shepherd, and parrots. If I
find it impossible to read these lines of Cowper’s poem without laughing, I
assume that Jane Austen appreciated the way he described the extraordinary
details of the sofa—the “plenteous wadding stuffed.”
Perhaps Jane Austen was just as attracted to the humorous quotidian
specificity of The Task as she was to
the pastoral ideas and morals Cowper expressed?
I have attached this long preamble for you because my subject, like
Cowper’s, is the sofa—well, not only the sofa, but also the chairs and the
looking-glasses that feature in complex and subtle ways in Persuasion.
In this novel, Jane Austen uses furniture and household furnishings—the
interior worlds of houses—to establish the characters’ social interactions
and to comment on such abstract qualities as vanity, independence, dignity,
pride, comfort, social importance, self-importance, and taste.
Austen even points out to the reader the ways tiny rooms, such as those
the Harvilles have adapted for their crowded living space, can be fitted up with
furniture and be made cozy or snug, or the ways a grand space like the drawing
room at Camden-place, with its card tables and aristocrats, can remain frigidly
Throughout Persuasion, pieces of furniture and other domestic items become
associated in the reader’s mind with characters—Sir Walter is forever linked
with his looking-glasses, Mary with her sofa, Mrs. Musgrove and her “fat
sighings” with a sofa, and Anne with sofas and with chairs.
I could extend this idea and say that Elizabeth is matched with her card
tables, Lady Russell with the curtains she espies in Bath, and William Elliot
with an elegant little chiming clock (144).
By the end of the novel, Captain Wentworth is perhaps more intricately
linked with a chair at a small table at the White Hart than he is with his great
prize-taking ship. The furniture—that is, the stage dressing—supports the
theatricality of the interior scenes. Austen
sets up miniature dramas—intensely personal scenes (Gay 158)—that embody
striking impressions of intimacy. The
text carries “liberal stage directions regarding characters’ movements
towards and away from each other” (Gay 162), and the dramatic quality of each
scene is emphasized by the way the characters move toward and away from the
chairs and sofas. Jane Austen gets
the most dramatic effects from the seemingly random placement of people on the
most mundane pieces of furniture and from the exaggerated self-display of
characters demanding the attention of others.
Like Cowper, Jane Austen obviously loved the idea of as well as the
verbal resonance of the word “sofa.” “Sofa”
is an unusual word with Italian, French, Portuguese, and Arabic derivations—a
word associated more readily with travelers like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu than
with Jane Austen. It is
significant, therefore, that Austen did not use the word “couch” or “settee”
(Cowper does refer to a “settee” in The
Task); she specifically chose the more poetically resonant and allusive “sofa,”
a word used by Laurence Sterne in A
Sentimental Journey, by George Crabbe (another of Jane Austen’s favorite
poets) in his Tales, and by Samuel
Richardson in Sir Charles Grandison (OED).
The sofa, that is, “‘a couch for reclining,’ une espece de lit de repos á la maniére des Turcs,’” derived
“from a ‘part of the floor in Eastern countries raised a foot or two, [which
is] covered with rich carpets and cushions’” (Jourdain 77; OED). The sofa emerges as “an article of high fashion before and
during the second half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
In an 1808 book on Household Furniture, George Smith asserts that the sofa is “an
article admirable in almost every room” (qtd. in English Furniture 78). Ackermann’s
Repository for the year 1809 points
out that “[t]he sofa is recommended ‘when tired and fatigued with study,
writing and reading’” (qtd. in English
Furniture 78). For Austen’s
characters, the sofa is a concrete reality of life in the big house, but it is
also part of set scene, and as such, the sofa becomes a focal point for
During Jane Austen’s lifetime, there was renewed interest not only in
improving the estate but in the art and craft of furniture-making.
As Susan Watkins points out, “the eighteenth century and the early
nineteenth century comprised an era of unparalleled creativity and beauty in
furniture, pottery and interior design, no less than in architecture, landscape,
art and music” (88). Watkins
postulates that “the spread of an informed appreciation of aesthetic
achievement from the wealthy elite to the middle classes resulted in a more
generalized awareness of design . . . [and] may be one reason why Jane Austen
did not find it necessary to fill up her readers’ senses with visual
details.” Instead of slowing down
her narrative with detailed descriptions of rooms and furniture, Austen
references furniture and furnishing details in a most dramatic or theatrical
way: to set the scene for commentary on character and society, manners and
morals, as well as to create scenes of heightened tension, sensibility, comedy,
and drama. When Fanny is introduced
to the family at Mansfield Park, for example, her Aunt Bertram invites her to
“sit on the sofa with herself and pug” (13). Austen
is succinct; Cowper, on the other hand, would have described the sofa’s fabric
in detail—was Aunt Bertram reclining on tapestry or on “needlework
sublime”? What was depicted on
the fabric: “the peony spread wide” or “parrots with twin cherries in
Persuasion begins with the
concept of retrenchment, with economizing, but what could Sir Walter give up?
his lifestyle? his looking-glasses? his sofas and chairs?
Anne is called upon to “mak[e] a duplicate of the catalogue of [Sir
Walter’s] books and pictures” (38), a task revealing her competency and
sense of order while also suggesting her father’s lack of responsibility in
caring for a collection that had been compiled by his ancestors.
Thus, Anne preserves a record of the contents of the house. With
the “duplicate” completed, Sir Walter and his eldest daughter,
psychologically a mirror-image of himself, can abscond to Bath, leaving the care
of the tenants, the preservation of the furniture, and the improvement of the
estate to his agent.
The looking-glass, one of the most iconic symbols in all of Austen’s
novels, is deceptively easy to interpret as Sir Walter’s symbol, but it is
worth noting that throughout history mirrors have been regarded as “prized
possessions” of the very wealthy elite class (Cescinsky 190).
Silvered glass had been introduced in England in the beginning of the
seventeenth century, and the cost of manufacturing large sheets of silvered
glass—so much the fashion in the Regency—was “prohibitively expensive.”
Historians of furniture point out that “to possess a
‘looking-glass’ implied wealth; to own a large pier-glass indicated great
means, indeed.” Since Kellynch-hall
has not one but multiple looking-glasses, the implication is that the Elliots’
wealth has plummeted considerably under the bad stewardship of Sir Walter.
Austen rarely uses the words “mirror” or “looking-glass” in her
works, so we pay special attention to the image when it shows up in Persuasion.
As Sir Walter’s symbol, the looking-glass defines the narcissism of the
man—a father who is so self-absorbed that he cannot see to the needs of his
children or to the upkeep of the estate. What
is reflected back to the man is a vision hermetically sealed off from
truth—the same vision that he gleans from the pages of the Baronetage.
In both the book and the mirror, Sir Walter sees a very fine man whose
heritage and bearing give him the pride of place.
As Sir Walter looks at himself, never pausing for self-reflection, he
sees, I think, a youngish, handsome, slim, elegant man, but the reader sees the
reality: a Sir Walter that is perhaps adding half a stone, losing a few hairs,
needing a little muscle tone. What
glitters back at him is a case study in self-obsession.
As Claudia Johnson points out, “self-importance is a birthright, a
benefit conferred upon [the Elliots] by their social position.
Sir Walter believes he is somebody to the ‘nobody’ of virtually
everybody else” (158), and the mirror confirms this idea.
Even in Bath, when Mary and Charles Musgrove arrive at Camden-place, they
understand “the absolute necessity of . . . following the others to admire
mirrors and china . . .” (219)—to admire, that is, the exterior trappings of
the patriarch’s elegance.
References to Sir Walter’s looking-glasses abound again when Anne
returns to Kellynch-hall to visit the Crofts—the tenants.
The great comedy of this scene arises from the combination of Anne’s
nervous tension about her return “home” and Admiral Croft’s chatty
admission that he has removed Sir Walter’s large looking-glasses from the
dressing-room: “‘—Such a number of looking-glasses!
oh Lord! there was no
getting away from oneself,’” he
blurts out to Anne (127-28). “‘I should think, Miss Elliot’ (looking with
serious reflection) ‘I should think he must be rather a dressy man for his
time of life.’” A “‘little
shaving glass’”—which he finds a great improvement—suffices for the
a few short lines, Austen has captured the essence of meritocracy: she shows how
the simplicity of the new men of action has replaced the sham elegance of the
landed gentry. But it is also
interesting to note the way the men here comment on the appearances of other
men. Before he meets Admiral Croft,
his potential tenant, Sir Walter comments that the man must have a face
“‘about as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery’” (22); when
Admiral Croft does agree to take Kellynch-hall, Sir Walter finds that the
Admiral is “the best-looking sailor he had ever met with,” although he could
use an appointment with the baronet’s own hairdresser (32).
But it is Sir Walter who is out of place in Bath.
The “dressy” men—that is, the Regency fops—are redundant in the
political and social landscape of 1814.
Persuasion is a very physical
book, and the men and women in Somerset, in Lyme Regis, and in Bath are obsessed
with their own bodies and with the physical appearance of others.
If in Pride and Prejudice the Bingley sisters should be faulted for
calling attention to Elizabeth’s dirty petticoat and her “ancles,” in Persuasion
Sir Walter, Elizabeth, Admiral Croft, and even Captain Wentworth pass comments
on the bodies and looks of others. Sir
Walter comments that Admiral Baldwin is “‘the most deplorable looking
personage you can imagine, his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to
the last degree, all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing
but a dab of powder at top’” (20); Sir
Walter is “continually making severe remarks upon” Mrs. Clay’s
“projecting tooth,” “clumsy wrist,” and freckles (34); he comments on
Mary’s “red nose” (142); he says at the end of the book that Captain
Wentworth is “‘A well-looking man . . . a very well-looking man’” (188).
Lady Dalrymple agrees that Wentworth is “‘[a] very fine young man
indeed!’” By the time of her
card party, even Elizabeth “understand[s] the importance of a man of such an
air and appearance” as Captain Wentworth’s (226).
But perhaps the most egregious comment about physical looks is Captain
Wentworth’s, as reported by Mary to Anne, about Anne herself: Mary tells her
sister; “‘he said, “You were so altered he should not have known you
again”’” (60). Anne knows that, in the eight years since last they met, she
has lost her looks, and that compared to Louisa and Henrietta she lacks the
youthful bloom. His words wound and mortify Anne, and his comments reverberate
in her mind. If Darcy’s flippant
rejection of Elizabeth’s beauty at the Meryton ball could spur her into
action, Captain Wentworth’s words fill up the messy space of youth and years
and absence. After Mary’s
revelation, Anne thinks she knows what Captain Wentworth really thinks. It
is this comment that Captain Wentworth forgets, of course, at the end of the
novel, when he assures Anne that to his eye she could never alter (243).
The flesh-and-blood physicality of the book is underscored by the way
Jane Austen brings men and women into close proximity in the interior spaces of
Kellynch-hall, Uppercross Cottage, and the Great House; in the inn and at the
Harvilles’ house in Lyme; and in the drawing room of Camden-place, the bed-sit
of Mrs. Smith’s room in Laura-place, and the Musgroves’ chaotic apartment at
the White Hart. Austen establishes
intimate, claustrophobic, and sensually charged spaces where characters are
close enough to scrutinize each other and even to touch one another. In
the confines of rooms, they dine, dance, flirt, and converse; there is “music,
singing, talking, laughing, all that was most agreeable” (58); there is gossip
about bodies and beauty and physical appearances.
With only inches between their bodies, the characters sit in the
Musgroves’ and the Crofts’ and the Harvilles’ chairs; they sit together
upon sofas; and they sit together at crowded tables. Austen’s psychological
realism extends to the tensions produced by this physical proximity—think of
Anne’s agony as she is fixed in her seat at the piano watching the Musgrove
girls capture Wentworth’s attentions, or the heightened sexual tension when
Wentworth sits between Anne and Henrietta during the lurching, knee-knocking
carriage ride across country from Lyme to Uppercross.
The result of this intimacy is a sexually and psychologically charged
drama—a serious comedy.
The placement of furniture yields proximity.
Austen’s dramatic situations are simply constructed and yet so
revealing of intimacies and understandings. When
a displaced Anne arrives at Uppercross Cottage, she finds Mary alone in the
house, “unwell and out of spirits,” and “lying on the faded sofa of the
pretty little drawing-room, the once elegant furniture of which had been
gradually growing shabby, under the influence of four summers and two
children” (37). Mary Musgrove
should take the cue from Cowper; she should acknowledge the importance of the
sofa, the piece of furniture that provides symbolic resonance in her house.
Like Lady Bertram, Mary is eternally attached to the idea of the sofa:
the reclining position suggests her ennui, her lack of energy, her
pseudo-invalidism, her dissatisfaction with her lot in life; the faded and
shabby appearance of the “once elegant furniture” corresponds with her idea
of herself and her life. But we
witness here the first of the “talking cures” that are effected by one
character’s sympathetic listening to and consideration of another. Anne says
to Mary, “‘You know I always cure you when I come.’” Anne talks with her
sister; she lets Mary talk all she wants; and Anne listens and rejoins with
conversational tidbits that help calm Mary’s sense of grievance. Anne’s physical proximity and her attention to her
sister’s mindless chatter has worked psychological magic: Mary “could soon sit upright on the sofa, and began to hope
she might be able to leave it by dinner-time.
Then, forgetting to think of it, she was at the other end of the room,
beautifying a nosegay; then, she ate cold meat; and then she was well enough to
propose a little walk” (39). The
short, choppy clauses here mimic the action.
From lying down on the sofa, to sitting upright, to dining, to walking to
the Musgroves’ Great House, Mary has undergone a physical and mental
pre-Freudian insight into the concept of the “talking-cure” sets this scene
apart as one of the funniest—and perhaps one of the saddest—in the novel.
At the Great House, Mrs. Musgrove’s sofa sets the scene for one of the
most uncomfortably comic scenes of the novel—uncomfortable because of the
topic of conversation, comic because of the way Austen places three people on
the same sofa—a perfect mis en scène
for farce because the arrangement is all wrong.
The dramatic and comedic tension is heightened by the fact that for the
first time in eight years Anne and Wentworth “were actually on the same sofa .
. . ; they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove” (68).
The narrator plays a large role in this scene, commenting in a rather
jocular voice that Mrs. Musgrove is “no insignificant barrier indeed.”
Bharat Tandon, in Jane Austen and
the Morality of Conversation, says that “[t]he whole scene with the sofa
explores how a pair of supposedly former lovers might react to being close to
each other with only someone like Mrs. Musgrove in the way; it tells simple
truths about bodies as well as deriving complex effects from them” (236). I
would go further and say that these complex effects include moments of intense
sensibility as well as a pantomime of misery and barely controlled emotions.
Mrs. Musgrove blocks from Wentworth’s view “the agitations of
Anne’s slender form, and pensive face” (68).
The word “agitations” is problematic here: do we attribute those
agitations to Anne’s heightened emotional reaction to being so close to
Captain Wentworth? or is Anne
laughing to herself over the absurdity of this sofa scene?
Captain Wentworth, the narrator reminds the reader, “should be allowed
some credit for the self-command with which he attended to [Mrs. Musgrove’s]
fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.” Is
Anne mustering her own self-command as she hears Mrs. Musgrove’s “fat
sighings”? Many critics have puzzled over Austen’s use of the
expression “fat sighings,” an unusually harsh adjective-noun pairing that
rather cruelly calls attention to Mrs. Musgrove’s bulk as well as to her
exaggerated sensibility as she remembers a son she would ordinarily, perhaps,
like to forget.
This section of the novel represents Jane Austen’s comic rhapsodies
upon the theme of the sofa, but the subtext is disturbing.
Austen has created in this sofa tableau a pantomime that challenges
interpretations. In a scene that
reverberates with sexual and psychological tensions, we “hear” only Mrs.
Musgrove’s part of the conversation; we “see” Mrs. Musgrove’s
“comfortable substantial size,” the agitations of Anne’s body, and the
“momentary expression,” the “quick glance,” and the “curl of
[Wentworth’s] handsome mouth” (67-68). In his facial expressions, Anne recognizes Captain
Wentworth’s true feelings about the worthless young troublemaker, but she also
sees the way his “sympathy and natural grace . . . [his] kindest
consideration, for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent’s feelings”
surfaces as he sits with Mrs. Musgrove on the sofa. By
placing these three characters—two lovers and a fat lady—close together on
the sofa, Austen complicates the form and content.
These three stock characters of comedy perform a pantomime that negates
sentimentality and underscores realism. The
pantomimic gestures undercut the serious content of Mrs. Musgrove’s monologue.
Neither Austen nor Anne is sentimental here. The final effect of this
sofa scene projects a kind of reconciliation—a talking cure for Mrs. Musgrove,
and perhaps for Anne and Wentworth as well.
Persuasion is not a gentle
book. If instances of injustice,
carelessness, and unkindness mark the everyday interactions of human beings, so
it is with almost every intimate scene in the book—not excepting those scenes
featuring Anne and Captain Wentworth. In
a final coup de grace to sentimentality, the narrator provides an aphoristic
conclusion: “A large bulky figure
has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs
in the world. But, fair or not
fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in
vain,—which taste cannot tolerate,—which ridicule will seize.” Complexity
of emotions seems to be Austen’s artistic aim.
Mrs. Musgrove’s sofa provides the setting for Anne’s first close
encounter with Captain Wentworth, but we come back to Mary Musgrove’s sofa for
a scene of particularly startling intimacy and melodrama. It is impossible to
read Persuasion without noticing the
sexual tension in Captain Wentworth’s striding into “the drawing-room at the
Cottage, where were only herself and the little invalid Charles, who was lying
on the sofa” (78); we see Wentworth “rescu[ing]” Anne from the onslaught
of her boisterous nephew Walter. The perfectly
composed scene is notable for its dramatic tension—for physical movement and
masculine presence on the one hand, and for Romantic femininity on the other.
The tension in the room is unbearably intimate; the scene is calculatedly
theatrical and pantomimic: as soon as they see one another, Wentworth heads for
the window, Anne for the sofa, where she kneels down to take care of her
patient. Austen breaks the tension
by the entry of the ineffective Charles Hayter, followed closely by the younger
Musgrove child (Walter), who “went straight to the sofa to see what was going
on, . . . and as his aunt would not let him teaze his sick brother, he began to
fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about
Charles, she could not shake him off” (80).
It is a domestic pantomime, but the subtext is frighteningly Gothic in
its implications: Anne is at the mercy of a little male tyrant, an aggressor who
bends down her head and wraps his “little sturdy hands” around her neck. Her “release” comes at the hands of Captain Wentworth, who
has to pry those sturdy little hands loose from her neck. Even today, jaded as
we are by sexually explicit scenes in graphic movies, we can recognize the
erotic effect as well as the melodrama of this scene.
Note that I am using “erotic” in its classical sense: “erotic” as
“amatory”—expressive of love or desire (not pornographic). Captain
Wentworth hovers over Anne, and he must touch her to effect this release.
Penny Gay points out that this scene is unique in Austen’s fiction:
“in writing so explicitly of Anne’s bodily sensations, and her
inability to separate her physical feelings from her emotional and intellectual
response, Austen is drawing on a character/audience relationship that is most
commonly to be found in the drama. In
short, as audience to this moment we are voyeurs of sexual intimacy” (158).
The intimacy of this sofa scene generates physical and emotional
reactions in Anne. Memory and desire, incredulity and gratitude descend upon
her. The narrator tells us that she
is speechless, that she retreats into “solitude and reflection” to deal with
the emotions that this act has occasioned, that she is overcome. The physical
nature of this scene is unmistakable. As Penny Gay notes, “We witness
taboo-breaking physical contact . . . ” (158).
The placement of the furniture reinforces dramatic possibilities for
character interactions. In chapter after chapter, furniture forces intimate
connections, and these connections are bolstered by Austen’s use of parallel
scenes with sofas and with chairs. When
Anne Elliot is not tending to Mary or her nephew Walter, to Mrs. Musgrove, or to
Mrs. Smith, she seats herself at the edge of the social group.
At the Musgroves’ Great House in Chapter VIII, for example, Anne sits
at the piano playing for the dancers and watching Wentworth flirt.
The dancing over, Anne leaves the piano-forte; when she returns
“[u]nintentionally” to that part of the room, she finds that Captain
Wentworth has taken her accustomed seat: “he
saw her, and, instantly rising, said, with studied politeness, ‘I beg your
pardon, madam, this is your seat;’ and though she immediately drew back with a
decided negative, he was not to be induced to sit down again” (72).
What is going on here? Captain
Wentworth has invaded Anne’s traditional place.
By sitting in her seat at the piano, is he trying to understand her
psychic space? By refusing to sit
down again, is he rejecting her? is
he rejecting the part she has had to play during all the years of his absence? Although
he is all “cold politeness” and “ceremonious grace,” the reader intuits
the intimate nature of this kind of musical chairs.
Perhaps the reader would pass more quickly over Wentworth’s sitting in
Anne’s chair if it were not for the very theatrical “duplicate” scene in
the crowded room at the White Hart that resolves the misunderstandings and
reconnects Anne and Wentworth. In
the Regency period, chairs were scattered throughout a room and could be moved
to suit the sitter’s activities; work tables proliferated; the look of
busy-ness and industry permeated the clutter.
In a single room, like this one taken by the Musgroves, small pieces of
furniture could be moved about so that individuals could read, write, converse,
teach children, or sew while still remaining part of a social group.
This is the kind of chaotic interior space Anne walks into—at one end
of the room Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft are having a serious chin-wag about
engagements and weddings; someplace in the “distance” Captain Wentworth sits
at “a separate table” writing letters; and Anne, thinking about Mrs.
Smith’s revelations and “deep in the happiness of such misery, or the misery
of such happiness . . . ” (229), sits alone in a chair near a window.
She is once again seated at the periphery, but she can overhear
When Captain Harville invites Anne to stand with him at the window “at
the other end of the room from where the two ladies were sitting,” she
“rouse[s] herself” (231) to go to him.
Showing precisely how the characters have shifted positions in the
crowded room, Jane Austen brings her characters closer and closer together.
At this point, Anne, “though nearer to Captain Wentworth’s table,
[was] not very near”;
and yet, when Captain Wentworth drops his pen, she “was startled at finding
him nearer than she had supposed” (233).
Near, nearer, and nearer yet:
this melodramatic pas de deux is intricately choreographed, to the extent
that the scene, which we know to be romantic, is also highly comedic. In
a very funny pantomime, Captain Wentworth, the prize-taking officer, eavesdrops
on conversations, drops his pen, “forgets” his gloves, and practically
forces his letter on Anne. In
response to Wentworth’s silent entreaty to read the letter he had left for
her, Anne melodramatically “sink[s] into the chair which he had occupied,
succeeding to the very spot where he had leaned and written” (237).
This is an intimate, physical tableau, full of sexual tension, and the
symmetry of action is a special feature of Austen’s plotting. At the Musgroves’
party Captain Wentworth sat himself in Anne’s seat at the piano; at the White
Hart Anne sinks into Captain Wentworth’s chair at the writing desk.
The silence of the scene, the rapid action, and the overtly pantomimic
gestures create a small comedy of manners.
Through dramatic plotting, Austen has assured that the reader will feel
the nervous tension. Beneath the
action, which is somewhat akin to musical chairs, the scene reverberates with
love and desire. Jane Austen
understood the theatrical potential—the comedy, the shock, the extremes of
sensibility—of having characters physically exchange places, especially when
the characters involved are a man and a woman.
Perhaps on our first reading of Persuasion
we miss another instance of extraordinary intimacy as places are exchanged. Consider this scene: into the claustrophobic confinement of
their home, a house with “rooms so small as none but those who invite from the
heart could think capable of accommodating so many” (98), the Harvilles find a
room for Louisa to recuperate after her fall.
Despite the “ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain
Harville,” the living space in Lyme is confined enough to astonish Anne.
Where could they possibly find space for a young woman who is an
invalid?: “Captain Benwick must give up his room to them, and get a bed
elsewhere . . . ” (113). In this
small house, where it is a fact of life that physical proximity yields intimacy,
Louisa sleeps in Captain Benwick’s bed.
E.M. Forster, a great fan of Jane Austen, developed the erotic potential
of changing places into the magnificently comic opening of A
Room with a View. Bemoaning
their viewless rooms and desiring more than they had been given, Charlotte and
Lucy become “a little peevish” (4). When
Mr. Emerson offers his own and his son’s rooms to the women, a shocked
Charlotte rejects the change—the implied intimacy.
Even Lucy intuits that there is some kind of subtext, that the change
deals “not with rooms and views, but with—well, with something quite
different, whose existence she had not realized before” (6). The subtext
suggests something “indelicate” in occupying the men’s space—sleeping in
their beds, so to speak. Priggish
Charlotte attempts to protect naive Lucy from the implications of intimacy:
“I have taken the largest room. . . . I happen to know that it belongs
to the young man, and I was sure your mother would not like it” (14-15).
By comparison, Jane Austen’s world was much more attuned to the
physical nature of beds and bedrooms.
Chairs, looking-glasses, sofas, beds—I am not providing here a symbolic
reading of all the furniture in Persuasion;
as Mrs. Swann says in Tom Stoppard’s Indian
Ink, “sometimes a vine is only a vine” (68).
In Persuasion, I think, a sofa
is simply a sofa and a chair is simply a chair.
But I have focused on the furniture in this book because Jane Austen
reflects the preoccupations of the Regency world while creating scenes that
provide highly dramatic confrontations and psychological insights.
Austen’s sofa and chair vignettes in Persuasion
create spatially confining interior scenes of excessive sensibility. Austen
did not just decorate the text with Regency artifacts; she set the scene and, as
Cowper would say, she “sang the sofa.”
One final note about the sofa: In
a postscript to his “Biographical Notice of the Author,” Henry Austen
includes extracts from letters Jane Austen wrote only a few weeks before her
death. In what may be Jane
Austen’s last extant letter (written “?Wednesday 28/Thursday 29 May
1817”), Jane Austen tells her correspondent, “I live chiefly on the sofa,
but am allowed to walk from one room to the other.
I have been out once in a sedan-chair, and am to repeat it, and be
promoted to a wheel-chair as the weather serves” (9).
I cite this letter, with its reference to the sofa and the chairs that
define the invalid’s space, to show that even in her personal correspondence
Jane Austen was keen to set the scene. There
is a certain irony in her tone, even in this very sad letter, for to “live
chiefly on the sofa” after having Mary Musgrove engaged in the same activity
must have struck Jane Austen as absurd, humorous, and terrifying.
Cowper, Sterne, Richardson, Austen, Forster—the sofa has a history as well as a future in literature. I think it is significant, too, that Virginia Woolf settles the frail Clarissa Dalloway on a sofa for her nap on the afternoon of her party. But on this day, Clarissa cannot rest; “lying on the sofa, cloistered, exempt,” Clarissa lets her mind wander over the events of her youth, to the point that she questions “in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life?” (121-22). Like Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf has set a scene depicting an interior, intimate space; you might say that the sofa has led Mrs. Dalloway to a meditation on the meaning of life. What was Jane Austen musing about as she began to live chiefly on her sofa?
Mr. Knightley “could not help remembering what he had seen; nor
could he avoid observations which, unless it were like Cowper and his fire
‘Myself creating what I saw,’
him yet stronger suspicion of there being a something of private liking, of
private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane” (344).
also quotes from Cowper’s Tirocinium:
or, A review of Schools”: “With what intense desire she wants her
and Mrs. Unwin, a widow, had planned to marry, but another bout of madness
for Cowper prevented their marriage.
reference books give the name as Austin.
Cowper felt strongly enough about the scene with Lady Austen that gave rise
to his meditation to append a brief explanatory note to the text of The
[The history of the following
production is briefly this:—A lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem
of that kind from the author, and gave him the SOFA for a subject. He obeyed, and having much leisure, connected another subject
with it; and, pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn
of mind led him, brought forth, at length, instead of the trifle which he at
first intended, a serious affair—a volume.]
the juvenilia, for example, in “Letter the 4th:
Laura to Marianne” in Love
and Freindship, Jane Austen may have been alluding laughingly to
Cowper’s preference for the simple life.
Laura tells Marianne that she has been warned: “‘Beware of
the insipid Vanities and idle Dissipations of the Metropolis of England;
Beware of the unmeaning Luxuries of Bath & of the Stinking fish of
Southampton’” (78-79). “‘Alas!,’”
Laura exclaims, “‘What probability is there of my ever tasting the
Dissipations of London, the Luxuries of Bath or the stinking Fish of
Southampton? I who am doomed to
waste my Days of Youth & Beauty in an humble Cottage in the Vale of Uske.’”
And in Persuasion, Jane Austen alerts her readers to the vanities and
dissipations of life—rural life, in the case of the estate of Kellynch-hall,
and city life in Bath.
Bharat Tandon in Jane Austen and the
Morality of Conversation finds that “it is one of Cowper’s finest
achievements to chart the means by which rural tranquility and retirement
can be their own undoing. The
paradox of leisure is on which The
Task never conclusively resolves, a creative worry which it bequeaths to
Mansfield Park, that novel which
holds it in amused respect. Like
Cowper before her, Austen registers the duplicity of leisured life through
the refusal of objects and places to maintain comfortably stable meanings .
. . ”(207).
The OED lists alternate spellings for the word “sofa”: sofa;
sofy. Does Jane Austen
include a pun in her naming of Captain Wentworth’s sister?
terms of social history, “sofas and settees are two distinctive articles
of furniture”: the settee, an “extension of the chair and part of a
suite of chairs,” seems to be a particularly formal piece of drawing room
Note that the OED includes the following reference from Jane Austen’s
correspondence: “There will
then be the Window-Curtains, sofa-cover, & and a carpet to be altered”
(8-9 February 1807). This is
the same letter that includes the reference to Cowper’s Syringa.
The Crofts’ opinion on this great looking-glass is uncannily Victorian:
one of the first tasks in the Victorian renovation of a great estate was to
remove and dismantle the overpowering looking-glasses that reflected the
rooms back at them. (Harewood
The term “serious comedy” has been used by a variety of critics.
See, for example, W.D. Harding, “Introduction,” Persuasion by Jane Austen, New York: Penguin Books, 1965.
Penny Gay also explores the “quasi-sexual nature” of the carriage scene,
which occurs shortly after the drawing-room scene with the children.
Perceiving Anne’s fatigue, Wentworth “hands” Anne into his sister’s
carriage. “Anne’s thought
processes,” Gay says, “move swiftly from an almost shocked registration
of the quasi-sexual nature of Wentworth’s act to an attempt consciously to
rationalize and thus censor the event” (159)
the concert in Bath, Anne feels that Wentworth “could not have come nearer
to her if he would; she was so surrounded and shut in” (188).
She resettles herself in a seat at the end of the bench so that she
is “within reach of a passer-by” (189).
He comes close enough to talk with her; “he even looked down
towards the bench, as if he saw a place on it well worth occupying . . .”
(190), but Anne’s attention is intercepted by Mr. Elliot.
From his reaction to Mr. Elliot’s attentions, Anne discovers
Bharat Tandon says
shifting emotional and ethical resonances of sofas in The Task find echoes in Austen’s own sense of the unpredictable
importance of the objects in her domestic worlds” (206).
Tandon points out that “Austen challenges her readers to recognize
both the psychological suggestiveness of inhabited space, and those
instances where a door may simply be a door” (207).
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of the Author,” in Persuasion and
Northanger Abbey. Ed. R. W.
Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1986.
Jane. The Letters of Jane Austen.
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The Novels of Jane Austen.
Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd
ed. Oxford: OUP, 1986.
Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford
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Herbert. English Furniture from Gothic to Sheraton. 3rd
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William. The Task. In The
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J.D. Baird and C. Ryscamp. Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1980-95.
E.M. A Room with a View. 1923;
rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Austen and the Theatre. Cambridge:
Claudia. Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel.
Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990.
Margaret and F. Rose. English
Furniture: The Georgian Period (1750-1830).
London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1953.
Tom. Indian Ink. London:
Faber and Faber, 1995.
Bharat. Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation. London: Anthem Press,
Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Susan. Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925; Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
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York: Oxford UP, 1987.