PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.25, NO.1 (Winter 2004)

 
 
Sir Walter Elliot’s Looking-Glass, Mary Musgrove’s Sofa, and Anne Elliot’s Chair: Exteriority/Interiority, Intimacy/Society
  LAURIE KAPLAN

Laurie Kaplan  (email: lkaplan@goucher.edu) is a Professor of English at Goucher College. This paper was presented at the 2004 JASNA conference in Los Angeles. Recent publications include essays on Mary Borden and Helen Zenna Smith, and on British India between the wars. She is Editor of Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line.

I sing the SOFA.

William Cowper, Book I, The Task 

They were actually on the same sofa, 

for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him;

—they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove.

Jane Austen, Persuasion 

            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 day.

            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 Task.[1]  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).[2]  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)[3] and Anna, Lady Austen[4] (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.”[5]  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.[6]   In Persuasion, 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]”:

Joint-stools were then created; on three legs

Upborne they stood.  Three legs upholding firm

a massy slab, in fashion square or round. . . .  

 

At length a generation more refined

Improved the simple plan, made three legs four,

Gave them a twisted vermicular,

And o’er the seat, with plenteous wadding stuffed,

Induced a splendid cover green and blue,

Yellow and red, of tapestry richly wrought

And woven close, or needlework sublime.

There might ye see the peony spread wide,

The full-blown rose, the shepherd and his lass,

Lapdog and lambkin with black staring eyes,

And parrots with twin cherries in their beak.

Jane 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.[7]  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 impersonal.  

            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” (sopha[8]) 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”[9] (Cowper does refer to a “settee” in The Task); she specifically chose the more poetically resonant and allusive “sofa,”[10] 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 revelations. 

            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 their beaks”?  

            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 Admiral.[11]   In 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.[12]

            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 rejuvenation.  Austen’s 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).[13]

            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 everything.

            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”;[14] 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.[15]  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?  


[1] See Emma:  Mr. Knightley “could not help remembering what he had seen; nor could he avoid observations which, unless it were like Cowper and his fire at twilight,

                        ‘Myself creating what I saw,’

brought him yet stronger suspicion of there being a something of private liking, of private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane” (344).  

[2] Fanny also quotes from Cowper’s Tirocinium: or, A review of Schools”: “With what intense desire she wants her home” (431).   

[3] Cowper and Mrs. Unwin, a widow, had planned to marry, but another bout of madness for Cowper prevented their marriage.  

[4] Some reference books give the name as Austin.  

[5] 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 Task:  

[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.]  

[6] In 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.  

[7] 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).  

[8] The OED lists alternate spellings for the word “sofa”:  sofa; sophee; sophy, sofy.  Does Jane Austen include a pun in her naming of Captain Wentworth’s sister?  

[9] In 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 furniture.  

[10] 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.  

[11] 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 House brochure)  

[12] 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.  

[13] 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)  

[14] At 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 Wentworth’s jealousy.  

[15] Bharat Tandon says that “The 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).  

 Works Cited

Austen, Henry.  “Biographical Notice of the Author,” in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Austen, Jane. The Letters of Jane Austen.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

_____.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Cescinsky, Herbert.  English Furniture from Gothic to Sheraton.  3rd ed.  New York: Bonanza Books, n.d.

Cowper, William.  The Task.  In The Poems of William Cowper.  Ed. J.D. Baird and C. Ryscamp.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980-95.

Forster, E.M.  A Room with a View.  1923; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Gay, Penny.  Jane Austen and the Theatre.  Cambridge: CUP, 2002.

Johnson, Claudia.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel.  Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990.

Jourdain, Margaret and F. Rose.  English Furniture: The Georgian Period (1750-1830).  London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1953.

Stoppard, Tom.  Indian Ink.  London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Tandon, Bharat.  Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation. London: Anthem Press, 2003.

Tomalin, Claire.   Jane Austen: A Life.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Watkins, Susan.  Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style.  New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Woolf, Virginia.  Mrs. Dalloway.  1925; Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.  

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