One day only had passed since Anne’s conversation with Mrs. Smith; but a keener interest had succeeded, and she was now so little touched by Mr. Elliot’s conduct, except by its effects in one quarter, that it became a matter of course the next morning, still to defer her explanatory visit in Rivers-street. She had promised to be with the Musgroves from breakfast to dinner. Her faith was plighted, and Mr. Elliot’s character, like the Sultaness Scheherazade’s head, must live another day.
“Oh sister,” said Dinarzade, “what a wonderful story is this!” “The remainder of it,” said Scheherazade, “is more surprising; and you will be of my mind, if the Sultan will let me live this day, and permit me to continue the story to-night.” Shahriar, who had listened to Scheherazade with pleasure, said to himself, “I will stay till to-morrow, for I can at any time put her to death, when she has made an end of her story.”—So, having resolved to defer her death till the following day, he arose, and having prayed, went to the council.
—The Arabian Nights (13)
Jane Austen’s ironic narrator, in the passage above from Persuasion, takes on the telling of the story of “one day only” among the days that follow Anne’s meeting with Mrs. Smith, who acquaints her with Mr. Elliot’s lack of a moral center and reveals disturbing truths about his character. In this passage, Austen makes an explicit and tantalizing allusion to the story of Sultan Shahriar of The Arabian Nights: this Sultan, angry at the infidelity of a past wife, takes a virgin bride each night only to behead her next morning. Only Scheherazade can break this cycle of jealousy and violence through her storytelling, which so enraptures the Sultan that he lets her live day after day in anticipation of additional stories. At the end of one thousand and one stories, Sultan Shahriar is so enthralled by the genies and flying carpets in “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” and the magical password “Open Sesame!” in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” that, paying tribute to the power of storytelling, he decides to marry and live with Scheherazade forever.
The reference in Persuasion to Scheherazade provides evidence that Austen had read and enjoyed Scheherazade’s art of storytelling in The Arabian Nights. Encompassing fairy tales, romances, legends, fables, parables, and anecdotes, The Arabian Nights is a composite of popular oral stories that developed over several centuries in Persia, China, India, Egypt, Iraq, and the surrounding regions. A brilliant and sparkling legendary storyteller, Scheherazade was introduced to the West in 1704 by Antoine Galland’s first two volumes of Les Mille et une nuites, contes arabes, which concluded in 1717 with the twelfth volume. This French translation of The Arabian Nights, based on a rare thirteenth-century Arabic manuscript, was followed by numerous English, German, and other translations and adaptations. Austen’s reference to The Arabian Nights is intriguing, suggesting the basis of her fiction’s global appeal.
Austen makes only one reference to Scheherazade in her entire work; however, this reference in Persuasion is rich in suggestive power. It extends the range of Austen’s global reach, enriches her use of irony to explore the central themes of love and marriage, and opens up whole worlds of fiction. In her reference to “the Sultaness Scheherazade’s head,” Austen makes an unexpected and interesting global reference to a local context in her fictional design. She conjures up the name of Scheherazade, the central storyteller of The Arabian Nights, to suggest both the passage of time and the delayed but perhaps inevitable discovery of the truth in Persuasion. Aware of Mr. Elliot’s true character, Anne postpones, for a day, the revelation of this truth to Lady Russell at Rivers Street. “On Friday morning she meant to go very early to Lady Russell, and accomplish the necessary communication; and she would have gone directly after breakfast but that Mrs. Clay was also going out”; she decides “to wait till she might be safe from such a companion” (215). Austen compares this waiting on Anne’s part, and the suspense associated with it, to the suspense created by the storyteller in The Arabian Nights, who weaves new stories each day, deferring the moment of death. But, as we know, Scheherazade upsets this pattern of inevitability. In narrating her stories, Scheherazade creates suspense and keeps Sultan Shahriar wanting more. She decides to tell a story but stops just short of completing it that night. The Sultan, eager to know how the story concludes, lets her live just one more day.
Both Persuasion and The Arabian Nights are narratives of deferral. While Scheherazade must defer happiness and tell one thousand and one stories in one thousand and one nights, Anne must wait seven long years before being deserving of the fulfillment and love she is capable of giving and receiving at the end of the novel. At the center of her fictional world, Scheherazade exerts herself to liberate both herself and the Sultan by enlightening him with her wisdom and understanding of the human condition. At the conclusion of the thousand and one nights, in language that perhaps recalls the description of Wentworth’s enlightenment, the narrator of The Arabian Nights praises the power of Scheherazade to open Sultan Shahriar’s eyes to the truth about himself:
The Sultan of the Indies could not but admire the astonishing memory of the sultana his consort, whose stock of tales seemed inexhaustible, and who had thus continued to furnish fresh amusement every night for a long period. . . . [T]he lapse of time had very much tended to diminish the cruel prepossession and prejudice of the sultan against the fidelity of all wives. His mind had become softened, and he was convinced of the great merit and good sense of the Sultana Scheherazade. He well recollected the courage with which she voluntarily exposed herself to destruction, in becoming his queen, without at all dreading the death to which she knew she was destined, like those who had preceded her. (516)
Recognizing her greatness, the Sultan addresses Scheherazade:
“I am well aware,” he said, “O amiable Scheherazade, that it is impossible to exhaust your store of those pleasant and amusing tales with which you have so long entertained me. You have at length appeased my anger, and I freely revoke in your favour the cruel law I had promulgated. I . . . wish you to be considered as the preserver of many ladies, who would, but for you, have been sacrificed to my just resentment.” (518)
Like Scheherazade, Anne Elliot also eventually achieves the happiness that she deserves at the end of Persuasion. Seven years earlier she had met and fallen in love with Wentworth but had been persuaded by Lady Russell to reject his love, and “her bloom had vanished early” (6); now, concurrent with the loss of Mr. Elliot’s reputation, the door opens for Captain Wentworth and Anne to be united in marriage. In the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay, Anne’s excitement and “keener interest” in the Musgroves and their upcoming marriages (connected of course to Wentworth’s story) delay her communication of the truth about Mr. Elliot’s character to Lady Russell. Earlier, Anne’s timid nature had succumbed to Lady Russell’s persuasion not to marry Wentworth, but her gradual development of self-awareness has made her see and exert herself to be free to realize her potential. As Anne waits to communicate the truth about Mr. Elliot’s true character and personality to Lady Russell, she reflects on her escape from a possible evil, of being trapped once again in a pattern of persuasion:
Anne could just acknowledge within herself such a possibility of having been induced to marry him, as made her shudder at the idea of the misery which must have followed. It was just possible that she might have been persuaded by Lady Russell! And under such a supposition, which would have been most miserable, when time had disclosed all, too late? (211)
Anne feels she must break this cycle of persuasion by her visit to Lady Russell at Rivers Street.
The moment of discovery and the impulse to communication are central to Austen’s fictional design and underline the significance of the reference to Scheherazade in Persuasion. Anne must exert herself so that Lady Russell is no longer deceived about Mr. Elliot’s character, for Mrs. Smith “had been able to tell her what no one else could have done” (212). This moment marks a turning point in the narrative. Because, in the past, Anne had been persuaded by Lady Russell not to marry Wentworth, she now sees the urgent need to “talk to Lady Russell, tell her, consult with her, and having done her best, wait the event with as much composure as possible” (212); however, Anne’s “greatest want of composure would be in that quarter of the mind which could not be opened to Lady Russell, in that flow of anxieties and fears which must be all to herself” (212). In her complex journey toward love, Anne, in danger of losing her way for seven long years, now feels empowered to escape such a fate and is able to achieve fulfillment. For the pattern to be completed, it is Lady Russell who needs to overcome her earlier “prejudices on the side of ancestry” and her “value for rank and consequence” (11) that had prevented Anne and Wentworth’s coming together seven years earlier. As Austen brings together the pieces of the puzzle in her story, Lady Russell is included in the circle of happiness; she too, like the heroine and hero of Persuasion, must grow, develop, and change. It is an inner process expedited by external events in the narrative.
A further look at the passage from Persuasion cited above, however, reveals that Austen links Anne Elliot’s power with the Sultan as well as with Scheherazade. Austen draws a parallel between her fictional heroine, Anne, and Scheherazade, the heroine of The Arabian Nights. Both are portrayed as storytellers who wield information as power—controlling destinies of men with their insights on life and love. At the same time, both Sultan Shahriar and Anne, in very different ways, have much to learn about the courage to love. Anne “had been forced into prudence in her youth, [and] she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (30). Ironically, Sultan Shahriar, by deferring Scheherazade’s moment of death, not only saves her life but his own as well; his unnatural behavior toward women gradually gives way to the natural expression of love. Based on the premise and the assumption that women are not to be trusted, marriage to the Sultan initially means death and annihilation. Instead of leading to joy and celebration, the formula equating marriage and happiness has been reversed to mean oppression, death, and destruction. The quest for happiness ends, ironically, with the loss of all possibility. The arrival of Scheherazade, the bright and sparkling narrator of The Arabian Nights, however, marks an upward movement toward the realization of all possibility. She opens the Sultan’s eyes to his blindness to virtue, truth, and goodness in women.
It is quite possible that Austen would have been attracted to The Arabian Nights because of the power of storytelling and even of untold stories to elicit a happy ending. As we know, Austen was eager to defend the reputation of her favorite genre. In narrating her local stories, involving three or four families in a neighborhood, Austen delights in the lively art of triumphantly playing with words in different worlds. “‘Oh! it is only a novel!’” she mimics the apologetic readers of novels of her day in Northanger Abbey, only to chastise and silence them with the power of her definition: “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language” (38). In underlining the power of storytelling in Persuasion, Austen self-consciously affirms her creative role as storyteller and portrays her heroine, Anne, as both participant and observer of events in her life and those around her.
Yet, one of the fundamental differences between Scheherazade and Anne is that Anne’s word has no weight. In the opening chapter of the novel, we are introduced to Austen’s heroine: “Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;—she was only Anne” (5). Apparently passive, she is her own person though limited by social constraints. As the daughter of an overpowering egoist like Sir Walter Elliot, she has also been forced into silence and submission. Like Scheherazade’s provocative speech, Anne’s silence holds power; she is the still center of the novel. Capable of deep reflection, like Scheherazade, she is true to her deepest self and also reveals her inner power.
Anne wields her power through stillness, silence, and speech; in the course of the novel, she grows and changes to achieve more balance in her life. Toward the novel’s conclusion, when Anne is joined by Wentworth on Union Street, the narrator observes that “a quicker step behind, a something of familiar sound, gave her two moments of preparation for the sight of Captain Wentworth.” As he joins her, he “said nothing—only looked. Anne could command herself enough to receive that look, and not repulsively” (239-40). Moving from meaningful silence to powerful speech, Anne later explains to Wentworth, “‘I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong. . . . I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. . . . I am not saying she did not err in her advice’” (246). She then goes on to make the insightful observation, “‘But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I would have suffered in my conscience’” (246).
The audacious Scheherazade wields her power through compelling patterns of speech. In order to exercise her power over the Sultan through storytelling, Scheherazade needs an auditor like her younger sister, Dinarzade, who enriches the effect of her story’s power. Susanne Enderwitz remarks that Dinarzade’s “real importance lies in her instigation of the storytelling. She is one who raises the King’s interest and keeps it alive by urging Sheherazade to tell a story, by commenting upon it, and by interrupting it at the end of the night” (10). The dynamics of a triumphant woman’s story power, along with the narrator-auditor rapport, creates a sophisticated use of the oral tradition in print. Powerful storytellers must have powerful listeners as well. Austen is alive to the fascinating dimensions of a story—of talkers and listeners creating meaning. In the passage above, Anne Elliot responds to Mrs. Smith’s story, which includes another story within it—that of Nurse Rooke’s method of gathering more details and information, material for another story, from Colonel and Mrs. Wallis and other sources. The story about Mrs. Smith’s property in the West Indies intersects with the story about Mr. Elliot’s character. A good listener, unlike her self-absorbed father, Anne defers, for at least one more day, her communication to Lady Russell of the story told her by Mrs. Smith.
Jane Austen’s reference to the storyteller Scheherazade in Persuasion extends the range of her appeal and establishes the centrality of the power of the artist to challenge, illuminate, and shape life. Scheherazade literally saves her life through her art of storytelling. In contemporary fiction, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, inspired by the marvels and wonders of The Arabian Nights, picks up the theme of the importance of storytelling when the ten-year-old Haroun asks his father, the storyteller Rashid (a character borrowed from The Arabian Nights), “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22). Rashid is so devastated by the question that he loses all motivation and creative power; when he opens his mouth, he finds that “he has no stories to tell” (22). The action of the novel takes us on a fantastic journey, much like the journeys in The Arabian Nights, in search of the tools that will restore Rashid’s power of telling stories. All is well at the end, and, as in Austen’s conclusions, the central characters live happily ever after. Even Haroun’s mother, who had run off with Mr. Sen Gupta, the man who had initially questioned Rashid’s art of storytelling—“What are all these stories? Life is not a story book. . . . All this fun will come to no good. What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (20)—returns. Such constant criticism of stories and storytellers has influenced the boy Haroun. The novel envisions a world in danger of the removal of storytellers, till the art of storytelling is eventually restored. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie points to the need for compelling stories for saving, if not our lives, then the sense of our lives.
Like Rushdie, Austen, in referring to the world of The Arabian Nights, reveals her interest in the power of storytelling, self-consciously shaping her fictional world as if to say, “Watch me tell my story!” and, in an ironic tone, both mocking and creating perfect, happy endings. Like Scheherazade, Austen’s universal appeal lies in her power to tell compelling stories within an ironic framework and to underline the value of imaginative literature. Like the charming and witty Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights, the more subdued heroine of Persuasion wields power with her words, whether spoken or unspoken.
Austen centers her world around women like Anne Elliot who are able to create meaning. Like a smooth stone thrown into a pool of water, the reference to Scheherazade in Persuasion leads to concentric circles of meaning that make connections across cultures, linking the power of storytellers like Austen and Scheherazade to the universal appeal of their art. Playing with words in different worlds, they affirm, mock, and tease life’s absurdities and possibilities into aesthetic designs that delight and instruct global readers in the twenty-first century.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933.
Enderwitz, Susanne. “Shahrazâd Is One of Us: Practical Narrative, Theoretical Discussion, and Feminist Discourse.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 18 (2004): 187-200.
Kuwahara, Kuldip K. Jane Austen at Play: Self-Consciousness, Beginnings, Endings. New York: Lang, 1993.
Muhsin, al-Masawi, ed. The Arabian Nights. London: Barnes & Noble, 2007.
Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. London: Granta, 1990.