The notion of a “Jane Austen legacy” seems more salient every year. Austen’s name—often invoked without any explanation—appears in so many places that it seems to stand for certain ideas. It shows up in popular culture, in scholarly books, and in newspapers and magazines, and, of course, the six novels and versions of her “own” life keep being turned into movies and new television productions. Just to suggest the variety of invocations of “Jane Austen,” consider a recent scholarly use of her name. In his 2006 history, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Peter Heather describes the lives of wealthy Romans on their country estates in this way: “Leisured, cultured and landed: some extremely rich, some with just enough to get by in the expected manner, and everyone perfectly well aware of who was who. And all engaged in an intricate, elegant dance around the hope and expectation of the great wealth that marriage settlement and inheritance would bring. . . . [T]here is certainly a touch of Jane Austen in togas about the late Roman upper crust,” Heather concludes (138). In this portrait of wealthy and not-so-wealthy Romans at their villas, Heather makes us think of Austen characters like Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, waiting for Mrs. Smith to die but then settling instead for marriage to the wealthy Miss Grey.
Such a reference suggests that Austen’s legacy is so well known that using the words “Jane Austen” is sufficient to evoke a whole world, and that no further comment is needed to know what world is being described. College students who have read only Pride and Prejudice, and that while they were in high school, or who have only seen the movies of Austen’s novels tend to think of “Jane Austen” as predictable in another specific way: in telling the same old story of a worthy young woman finding her romantic partner. To keep Austen’s legacy fresh and alive, in my teaching I try to help students measure her achievements by identifying what is inventive and experimental in the distinctive qualities of her prose in different novels. Recently, I have asked students to detect the changing ways that Austen depicts consciousness in successive novels by considering passages from Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. Various critics have illuminated Austen’s depiction of her characters’ thinking or inner lives, starting perhaps with Dorrit Cohn’s 1978 book, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Many others follow, including James Wood with “Jane Austen: The Birth of Inwardness” (1998). The most sophisticated and perceptive study of this quality of Austen’s prose is John Wiltshire’s Recreating Jane Austen, especially in the fourth chapter where he analyzes Austen’s achievement of “inwardness” in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. My essay is deeply indebted to his work.
Attentive student readers can discern fascinating differences among the novels when they think beyond plot summary. Highlighting the distinctive ways that Austen depicts characters’ inner lives in the various novels implicitly counteracts students’ tendency to think of the novels as similar to each other, a tendency especially common among readers who have seen the Austen films but have little experience in close reading. Classroom conversations, reading aloud, and writing assignments that focus on Austen’s prose enable students to make fresh and authentic observations about specific moments in each book. Approaching the novels this way, students can see the increasing subtlety in Austen’s presentation of consciousness. In a one-semester course, we usually read at least one of the Steventon novels (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) and all three of the novels written entirely at Chawton (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion). Among discussions and assignments on various topics, we often look at Austen’s way of depicting of characters’ inner lives in each book. Student readers can see differences among well-chosen passages, and they can articulate ways that Austen in the last three novels shows greater assurance in capturing the complexity of thought than in those first drafted at Steventon. As Wiltshire writes in Recreating Jane Austen, “In her last three novels, those both begun and completed at Chawton after 1809, there is a development of techniques which represent struggles between incipient thoughts and feelings” (81).
I want to begin by briefly discussing a famous instance of Austen’s depiction of a mind in action in the greatest of the first three novels, Pride and Prejudice, and then I want to explore more fully another famous, and I think even more brilliant, chapter in Austen’s last novel, Persuasion. In each part of this essay, I hope to capture some of the experience of discovering these scenes in classroom conversations.
In Chapter Thirteen of the second volume of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth laboriously reads and absorbs Darcy’s letter, and this chapter lends itself beautifully to careful analysis in class discussion and in students’ writing. We read aloud some paragraphs of the chapter in class. The narrator notes the “contrariety of emotion” that Elizabeth experiences as she starts to read the letter, and the narrator attempts to name the elements of this “contrariety” of feeling with painstaking exactitude (204). Students see that although Elizabeth’s “feelings as she read were scarcely to be defined,” the narrator does try to find language for them. Elizabeth begins reading “[w]ith amazement,” and “[w]ith a strong prejudice against every thing he might say,” in a spirit consistent with her interpretation of Darcy’s behavior in all previous scenes (204).
With these emotions, Elizabeth reads “with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes.” This psychologically astute sentence captures the experience of a mind frantic to absorb written words and yet almost in rebellion against paying attention. In class, we talk about what it is like to read an emotionally charged document. Someone in class can usually describe that experience—how it makes one’s eyes blur, how one’s racing mind keeps sentences from registering, how one hurries to read ahead and yet cannot absorb what is right there on the page.
When Elizabeth gets to the part of Darcy’s letter where he tells the story of Wickham, “her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her” (204). We examine the narrator’s solution to the problem of defining those feelings that are “more difficult of definition” and “yet more acutely painful.” We pause over the words and describe what they must refer to: “astonishment” at new information, “apprehension” that what Darcy is saying may be true, and “horror” at having to surrender her “cherished opinion” (204). We talk about why Elizabeth briefly resolves never to look at the letter again.
We then watch how Austen makes it plausible for Elizabeth to reverse her long-standing interpretation of Darcy’s character, to come to new conclusions about what she has observed in him and in Wickham, and to grasp her own errors in the past. We trace the steps by which Elizabeth “[g]radually, and painfully” comes to understand that what Darcy says is not just possible but undoubtedly true (Wiltshire 114). Her change requires a kind of discipline characterized by words implying strenuous mental effort: “collecting herself as well as she could” and “command[ing] herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence.” She was “forced to hesitate”; she “weighed every circumstance” and “deliberated on the probability of each statement” (205). The narrator describes this process in language that shows Elizabeth moving to new vantage points and reviewing events of the past from a different angle: “[T]he affair . . . was capable of a turn which must make [Darcy] entirely blameless throughout the whole” (205); “How differently did every thing now appear in which [Wickham] was concerned!” (207). These brilliant passages tracing Elizabeth’s thought as she reads each part of the letter are Austen’s patient, nuanced analysis of a mind in action, moving through stages of mental and emotional response to grasp and finally accept unwelcome discoveries. The very explicitness of the narrator’s search for clear language to define Elizabeth’s mental experience suggests how much attention Austen paid to depicting her inner struggle.
As I have recounted in an essay about teaching this novel, my students exclaim about the two chapters that include Darcy’s letter and Elizabeth’s reading of it: “How does she make it so you don’t notice how reasonable Darcy is the first time you read it?” “Look how she makes us read the letter over and over again, too! First we read the real letter. Then we see Elizabeth force herself to slow down and read it one part at a time. Then we find out that Elizabeth has read it so many times that she knows it by heart. In a way, we go through the same thing Elizabeth goes through!” (Folsom 2). Or as Wiltshire more elegantly puts it, “The novelist, by presenting the letter without narrative framing in one chapter and then reviewing the letter through Elizabeth’s consciousness in the next, takes the reader through that travail of reading and rereading, that cumulative assault on previous conviction that is Elizabeth’s experience” (114).
The conclusion of Elizabeth’s reading of Darcy’s letter is a moment of dramatized consciousness when she exclaims to herself, “‘How despicably have I acted! . . . I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! . . . How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!’” She ends with, “‘Till this moment, I never knew myself!’” (208). This moment of self-discovery is rendered as internal speech. As Wiltshire says, “Even if this is not what Elizabeth actually says aloud, it has all the confidence of a clearly felt inner conviction that can be immediately expressed in words” (81). And yet, since Austen presents Elizabeth’s thoughts as exclamations and as spoken sentences, they may not seem to be exactly what a person would say in her mind and therefore may not be completely convincing as actual moments of thinking and feeling.
Brilliant as this chapter is, Austen moved in her next three novels to even more subtle examinations of the process of inner debate. Instead of direct exclamations of dramatized inner speech like these of Elizabeth, in Mansfield Park Austen developed new “techniques for the representation of inner life or interior consciousness” (Wiltshire 78). Looking with student readers at one of Fanny Price’s “soliloquies” side by side with Elizabeth’s moment of self-discovery gives students a way to gauge Austen’s changing mastery of representing thoughts, feelings, and even unconscious impulses. Giving students a writing assignment on one or two paragraphs of Fanny’s thinking when she is alone in the East room enables them to perceive Fanny’s complexity and to see how much is going on in her mind and even beneath her consciousness. Such an assignment makes them see how inaccurate are the readings of Fanny as self-righteous or as morally perfect. (One of these moments Wiltshire has analyzed with exceptional perceptiveness and depth, the paragraphs tracing Fanny’s agonized thoughts and feelings after Edmund tells her that she is one of his “‘two dearest objects’” (MP 264, Wiltshire 77-88).
Even greater ease and confidence is evident in Austen’s capturing of mental processes in Emma’s thoughts, of course in the three great epiphany scenes but also in Austen’s succinct indications of Emma’s interior life in half-phrases or brief implied inner colloquies. For example, in her first conversation with Mr. Knightley, the narrator adds after, “said Emma,” the words, “willing to let it pass—,” concisely suggesting Emma’s inner decision not to contest a small point with Mr. Knightley (11). Finally, in many passages of Persuasion, Austen renders the complexity of Anne Elliot’s thought and feeling in sharply compressed language that comes to life in the classroom when students read aloud some of these remarkable passages.
I turn now to one scene of Persuasion—the remarkably complicated and memorable conversation of Anne Elliot and Captain Harville that Captain Wentworth overhears near the end of the novel. In her last novel, Austen’s mastery of representing the inner life is so sophisticated that it warrants the deep attention that we try to give it in class and in writing assignments. I want to suggest how our conversations in the classroom and the written conversations between student writers and me can even shed light on experiences that Austen explores in this scene in Persuasion. As the characters in this scene talk and listen, they adjust what they think and what they are saying to respond to and acknowledge what the others say. Likewise, what my students perceive and put into words makes me adjust my reading and return to Austen’s texts with sharpened attention. I think and hope that what I respond to them inspires new insights, not just about the texts before us, but about ourselves.
In Chapter Eleven of the second volume of Persuasion, Austen brings together Mrs. Musgrove, Mrs. Croft and her brother Captain Wentworth, Captain Harville, and Anne Elliot in the large main room of the Musgrove apartment in the White Hart Inn of Bath. In this scene, Austen not only depicts Anne’s inner life but also allows readers to perceive the inner experience of Captain Wentworth. As my students and I discussed this scene last semester, we noted how many times the narrator uses an unobtrusive word or two to indicate how the characters speak and their tones of voice, and how subtly she locates them within a room where they are able to listen to and hear each other. By reading closely, we could then see how the narrator indicates some of Anne’s implied thoughts, some of Captain Wentworth’s, and even some of Captain Harville’s.
I attempt to diagram the scene and place the characters in it. We read that when Anne enters the room where Captain Wentworth has preceded her, she “immediately heard” that Mary and Henrietta had gone out, and that she has been ordered by the two young women to stay there until they return. She “had only to submit, sit down, [and] be outwardly composed,” even though she was “plunged at once in all the agitations” that she had expected not to begin so soon (229). Capturing Anne’s surprise, the narrator remarks, “There was no delay, no waste of time.” Anne’s inner state when she must “submit” to being in the electrifying presence of Captain Wentworth the narrator describes rather tartly: “She was deep in the happiness of such misery, or the misery of such happiness, instantly” (229). Meanwhile, “[t]wo minutes after her entering the room,” Captain Wentworth addresses Captain Harville and rather impersonally says, “‘We will write the letter we were talking of, Harville, now, if you will give me materials’” (229). Then, without speaking to Anne, Wentworth goes to a separate table to be “engrossed by writing,” “nearly turning his back on them all” (230).
The focus of the scene now turns to the conversation of the two older ladies, with Mrs. Musgrove telling the story of Henrietta’s engagement “just in that inconvenient tone of voice which was perfectly audible while it pretended to be a whisper” (230). The narrator says that “Anne felt that she did not belong to the conversation,” but at the same time, “she could not avoid hearing many undesirable particulars.” My students note that the narrator appeals to the reader’s familiarity with “that inconvenient tone of voice,” suggesting that the reader will of course know how awkward it is to overhear too much information. Mrs. Musgrove recounts such a “great deal” of “[m]inutiae” about the progress of her daughter’s romance with Charles Hayter in her “powerful whisper” to Mrs. Croft that “Anne hoped the gentlemen might each be too much self-occupied to hear” (230). Anne’s private thought hints that she is embarrassed by the excessively confessional quality of Mrs. Musgrove’s chat. One student suggested that Mrs. Musgrove’s indiscreet way of talking about Henrietta’s engagement perhaps inspires Anne to surmise that Captain Wentworth would be contemptuous of such talk, for she has observed disdain in his face on other occasions when he disapproves of something he overhears.
We then discuss the shift in the two ladies’ conversation when they turn to deploring long engagements and uncertain engagements. Mrs. Croft’s comment to Mrs. Musgrove seems almost pertinent to the broken engagement between Anne and Wentworth. She says, “‘To begin without knowing that at such a time there will be the means of marrying, I hold to be very unsafe and unwise, and what, I think, all parents should prevent as far as they can’” (231). Does Mrs. Croft’s caution in some way vindicate Lady Russell’s advice and Anne’s decision eight years ago? Her words make Anne feel “an unexpected interest.” The narrative shifts to Anne’s consciousness: “She felt its application to herself, felt it in a nervous thrill all over her” (231).
Austen skillfully registers Anne’s shock in overhearing this talk about uncertain engagements, and her instant awareness of Wentworth: “her eyes instinctively glanced towards the distant table” where “Captain Wentworth’s pen ceased to move, his head was raised, pausing, listening, and he turned round the next instant to give a look—one quick, conscious look at her” (231). Obviously, Captain Wentworth is not “too much self-occupied to hear” the distant voices, or to grasp some unintended implication of the ladies’ talk. Because of this “look—one quick, conscious look at her,” Anne knows that Wentworth is listening and thinking of her. Now, “Anne heard nothing distinctly; it was only a buzz of words in her ear” (231). We ask, what does Wentworth’s “quick, conscious look” mean? Does he register his sister’s words about “‘the means of marrying’” or what “‘all parents should prevent’”? His meaningful glance at Anne cannot be interpreted, but his “look” makes the voices “indistinct” to her and leaves her mind “in confusion.” Meanwhile, Captain Harville “had in truth been hearing none” of the ladies’ conversation. My students say that one gentleman overhears because he is drawn to listen to any talk that Anne might be listening to; the other gentleman doesn’t hear because he is thinking about other things and tunes out the ladies’ voices.
By looking at Austen’s meticulous attention early in the chapter to the possibilities of overhearing and responding inwardly to conversations that take place in a rather public space, we have set up a way of looking at Captain Wentworth’s incomplete overhearing of Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville. The two ladies cannot know that what they are saying has particular meaning to two people in the room who overhear them. Thus, the narrator introduces the awkwardness of overheard conversation and the secret responses of listeners even before Anne and Captain Harville begin to talk.
A new part of the scene begins when Captain Harville initiates a conversation with Anne with a “little motion of the head” that invites her to come and stand near him. His “unaffected, easy kindness of manner” makes her feel his friendly interest in talking with her (231). Anne rouses herself from her reverie, gets up, and joins him “at the other end of the room from where the two ladies were sitting, and though nearer to Captain Wentworth’s table, not very near” (231-32). With this change of the scene’s location, the ladies’ voices fade out, and the two new speakers’ voices come into range. We can now perceive that Captain Harville, who before “seemed thoughtful and not disposed to talk,” has been preoccupied with thinking about the portrait of Captain Benwick that was originally intended as a gift for his sister Fanny Harville, who has died (230). It is about this portrait that Wentworth is presently writing, for it is now to be given to Captain Benwick’s new fiancée, Louisa Musgrove.
We read this conversation aloud in class, with different students taking the parts of Captain Harville, the narrator, and, for one brief moment, Captain Wentworth. When students read aloud with spirit, sensitivity, and a feeling for drama, a novel comes to life for them in a different way from when they read silently and alone. In reading aloud, they necessarily slow down, and they hear in their own voices the way Austen so brilliantly captures characters’ ways of talking and thinking. Reading aloud is especially effective with Austen’s novels, partly because she wrote dialogue so dramatically and partly because she so deeply knew the hidden layers of each of her characters. When the narrator’s voice is also read aloud, it adds stage directions, insight into tones of voice, and sometimes irony to the vivid dialogue.
In reading this scene aloud, I reserve the part of Anne for myself because of something I learned long ago, in another Austen course, from a student who read aloud Anne’s part in this conversation. She did it so beautifully that I asked her to meet with me later and do it again. Her voice was a little low—an alto—and she read slowly, hesitatingly, capturing the significant pattern of revising and qualifying her assertions that typifies Anne’s way of talking. I’ve tried to read Anne’s speeches as my former student did ever since she gave me that little tutorial in Anne’s way of speaking. Remembering her insights, last semester I wrote to one student, “Notice how often Anne revises her claims and assertions to be respectful of Captain Harville, and to acknowledge the validity of his points.” I point out places like this one where Anne corrects herself: “‘True’ said Anne, ‘very true; I did not recollect; but what shall we say now, Captain Harville?’” (233).
We begin reading aloud with Captain Harville’s mournful remark about his sister. Showing the portrait to Anne, Captain Harville sadly says that his sister Fanny would not so quickly have forgotten Captain Benwick as he seems to have forgotten her. Anne replies to him “in a low feeling voice.” Her heartfelt response, “‘It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved,’” makes Captain Harville smile and imply that she is making a claim about all women (232). Anne smiles in return and acknowledges that he is right. The two then debate whether men or women are more constant in love, or which sex is more predisposed “‘to be inconstant and forget those they do love, or have loved’” (233).
My students detect in the conversation between Anne and Captain Harville an improvisational quality, as both try out arguments to defend the constancy of their own sex. Their tones seem at first musing, friendly, respectful, and rather relaxed. Each one speaks with feeling and from conviction but responds to what the other says with tact, sometimes with playfulness, and an improvisational spirit. They are not in a hurry, for Anne and Harville are both waiting for someone else to be ready to do something. My student Jarred Lynch wrote that Captain Harville appears at first to be somewhat lightheartedly enjoying the “banter” as he argues for women’s infidelity “but that Anne is much more personally vested in the exchange.”
In writing about this conversation, both Jarred and my student Kathy Hume found language to measure the emotional investment of the two speakers, Anne and Captain Harville, as they each explain their views. Kathy attempted to sort out the various levels of what she called “the characters’ unawareness of the motives of others” as she wrote about this scene. She carefully noted that Captain Harville cannot know that Anne is talking about herself when she replies: “‘We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us’” (232). Kathy wrote that Anne does not fully realize that Captain Wentworth might try to overhear their conversation but that when “Anne declares her opinion that men forget love easily because of their focus on their profession,” she must be talking about him. Kathy perceived that the tone of the conversation is “contemplative and friendly, but for Anne, [the conversation] is more meaningful and anxious [than for Harville] as she is revealing hidden truths. The reader can ascertain these tones while it is impossible for the characters to realize all the parts of what is happening.” Jarred wrote, “Anne’s explanations to Captain Harville, effusing such emotion, are here a surrogate for a conversation she could never have with Wentworth himself.” In response to Jarred’s analysis of the scene, I went back to the text, trying to figure out what Austen allows us to conclude that Wentworth could overhear and whether Anne meant for him to overhear. To Jarred I wrote, “In Anne’s and Harville’s debate, I think you capture beautifully the tone of Harville’s engagement as at least initially lighthearted. But I don’t think it’s true that Anne is directly addressing Wentworth. Anne seems active and expressive, but she believes that he is out of earshot. Later it becomes clear that Wentworth can hear only snatches of what she says.”
By reading aloud Anne’s self-deprecating explanation for women’s tenacious feelings, we could perceive her unwillingness to win the argument by force. Michelle Chernobylsky pointed to Anne’s speeches comparing women’s lives with men’s lives. She wrote about the generosity of Anne’s speech about women’s confinement: “‘It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately’” (232). Or as Evelyne Gagnon wrote, Anne argues that men are “always busy and have no time to brood over love.”
Likewise, we noted Anne’s openly expressed admiration of men’s necessary courage and her respect for the sacrifices their lives demand. Several students cited Anne’s touching description of the lives of sea captains. Anne tells Harville,
“You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with. You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home, country, friends, all quitted. Neither time, nor health, nor life, to be called your own. It would be too hard indeed” (with a faltering voice) “if woman’s feelings were to be added to all this.” (233)
Anne’s description of the lives of sea captains is perfectly appropriate for her to address to Captain Harville, and she directs her words specifically to him: “‘You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with” (italics added). But in this speech she is of course really thinking of Wentworth. The reader knows that Anne had carefully studied the Navy lists during the years when Wentworth was at sea, and that she listens attentively to him when he describes his life on the Asp and the Laconia. She has had external sources for her knowledge of a captain’s life, and her imagination has enabled her to fill in the personal meanings to him of Wentworth’s life in the Navy. Moreover, her speech makes clear that because she has so fully imagined his life at sea, she has forgiven him for seeming to be inconstant in his love for her.
Does he overhear this speech? Some of my students think he does, and some even read this speech as Anne’s deliberate declaration to him of her continuing love. They claim that she is explaining to him and to herself that she understands why his attachment to her was not “‘longer-lived’” (233). One wrote, “She seems to be testing Wentworth,” and another wrote, “Although Captain Harville does not comprehend the significance of Anne’s statements, Captain Wentworth understands them perfectly.” My students’ observations led me back to this moment in the conversation to figure out whether Wentworth seems to overhear this part of the debate. The narrator’s mention of Anne’s “faltering voice” suggests that Anne’s tone at this moment may be too low for Wentworth to hear. But Kathy wrote, “Anne’s faltering voice reveals how affected she is by this thought, and Captain Wentworth is equally moved as well. He drops his pen as he is so distracted with their conversation, then picks it up to compose a note to Anne of his feelings.” As Kathy surmised, it is perhaps at this point in listening to their conversation that Wentworth sets aside the letter he is writing for Harville and begins his letter to Anne.
Another way we tried to figure out whether Wentworth overhears Anne’s contrast of the lives of men and the lives of women is by looking at what Wentworth says that he is hearing as he writes his passionate letter to “Miss A. E.—.” He is writing as the conversation unfolds, so his words reveal the parts of the conversation he is overhearing. He begins with a comment on his place outside the conversation. “‘I can listen no longer in silence.’” Early in the letter, he ardently writes, “‘Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you’” (237). These sentences respond to Anne’s words about men’s lives, though perhaps he cannot hear her generous concession that “‘[i]t would be too hard indeed . . . if woman’s feelings were to be added to all this,’” spoken in a “faltering voice” (233).
It is at this moment in the conversation between Anne and Harville that
a slight noise called their attention to Captain Wentworth’s hitherto perfectly quiet division of the room. It was nothing more than that his pen had fallen down, but Anne was startled at finding him nearer than she had supposed, and half inclined to suspect that the pen had only fallen, because he had been occupied by them, striving to catch sounds, which yet she did not think he could have caught. (233-34)
Again the narrator measures the distance between the speakers and the listener by mentioning the “slight noise” that calls the attention of Anne and Harville to Wentworth’s place at the “separate table.” It is only the sound of Wentworth’s pen falling—a sound that breaks the perfect silence in his part of the room. This fascinating sentence makes ambiguous the imagined distance between speakers and listeners: Anne is “startled at finding him nearer than she had supposed,” but she still surmises that Wentworth had been “striving to catch sounds, which yet she did not think he could have caught.” Because of Anne’s almost telepathic understanding of Wentworth’s perceptions and his inner life, the reader can deduce that Wentworth is trying to hear, that he can hear something of the conversation but cannot quite catch every word or sentence.
His letter corroborates this interpretation. Later in the letter he says, “‘I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others’” (237). He is “‘every instant hearing something,’” and he is moved by the characteristic “‘tones of that voice’” he knows so well but perhaps cannot pick up her exact words. To my student Evelyne, I wrote, “you definitely perceive the way that Anne’s heartfelt declarations have the effect of moving Wentworth to write his impassioned letter. But I think perhaps you are attributing to Anne purposes that are really Austen’s. The author wanted to find a way for Anne to be active in the reconciliation with Wentworth, and gave her this conversation with the kind, brotherly Captain Harville as a way for her to voice her own deep feelings. That’s why this chapter is so much more powerful and dramatic than the cancelled final chapters that Austen decided not to use. I don’t think Anne is declaring her love to Wentworth; she is only speaking truthfully to Captain Harville, who cannot know that she is telling him about her enduring love for Wentworth. Austen is the one who makes if possible for Anne actively to declare her constant love and to be more than a passive recipient of Wentworth’s renewed offers.”
Student readers easily fathom that after Wentworth’s pen drops, Harville raises his voice as he calls out to him: “‘Have you finished your letter?’” Wentworth answers, “‘Not quite. . . . I shall have done in five minutes’” (234). Harville reassures Wentworth that he is in no hurry to leave as he is quite happy where he is. He then turns his attention back to the conversation, “smiling at Anne” and “lowering his voice.”
The wonderfully improvisational quality of Anne’s and Harville’s next exchange returns the debate to its earlier relaxed tone. Harville offers the argument that literature supports his side of the debate: all stories, prose and verse, all books, support his argument about “‘woman’s fickleness.’” But he also kindly offers Anne a possible rebuttal of his argument: “‘But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men’” (234). Again, improvisationally, Anne accepts his suggestion and answers: “‘Perhaps I shall.—Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books,’” adding with wonderfully ironic aptness about men’s advantages in education and in telling their own stories: “‘the pen has been in their hands’” (234). This is funny because Wentworth himself has had the pen in his hand and funny because he just dropped it. Anne rejects the argument that books prove Captain Harville’s side, saying, “‘I will not allow books to prove any thing’” (234).
As a student reads Harville’s next speech aloud, we can hear the intensity of the character’s feelings. Giving up the argument that literature proves men’s constancy and women’s inconstancy, Harville instead uses his own personal experience. He revises the terms of his argument, and the “lightheartedness” that Jarred noted in his earlier “banter” changes to ardent self-disclosure. Harville’s earnest, pleading speech is spoken “in a tone of strong feeling,” as he bursts out with an “‘Ah!’” and a wish that “‘I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children’” (234-35). His heartfelt portrait of the anguished farewell of a sea captain to his vanishing family, and then his rapturous description of such a man’s return and the self-deceiving calculations he makes about when he can possibly expect to see them all again, are obviously his own vivid memories of parting and reuniting with his wife and children. He wants to make Anne understand these feelings. He exclaims, “‘If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do for the sake of these treasures of his existence!’” And then, perhaps realizing that his own personal experience does not necessarily translate into a generalization about all men, he concludes: “‘I speak, you know, only of such men as have hearts!’” as he is “pressing his own with emotion” (235).
In response to such a burst of feeling and such a personal revelation, Anne likewise raises her voice.
Oh!” cried Anne eagerly, “I hope I dojustice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures. I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman.” (235, italics added)
The exclamation and the words “‘God forbid’” and “‘utter contempt’” mark the vigor and energy of Anne’s acknowledgement of Harville’s touching speech. But when she returns—more gently and less categorically—to their general argument she reduces her claim about women’s faithfulness to the famous final sentence: “‘All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone’” (235). What she says in parenthesis is necessarily spoken in a softer (parenthetical) voice, and it seems that her voice would sink further as she utters the words “‘when hope is gone.’” The narrator’s comment about Anne’s demeanor at the end of this speech confirms that Anne’s voice has become softer as she makes this last claim: “She could not immediately have uttered another sentence; her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed.” Harville’s tender acknowledgment of her beautiful speech comes in his final concession, “‘There is no quarrelling with you.—And when I think of Benwick, my tongue is tied.’” And he puts his hand on her arm “quite affectionately,” allowing her to have the last word (235-36).
When Anne raises her voice to acknowledge the ardor of Harville’s description of yearning for his wife and children, Wentworth overhears all that she says. He actually cites the first sentences of her last speech at the end of his letter. It is striking evidence that Wentworth is listening intently to the conversation and hearing it all, for he picks up the exact words of her speech: “‘Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating in F. W.’” Both incredibly touching and comically ironic, Wentworth’s letter and his renewed passion for Anne Elliot partly refute her side of the argument about men’s and women’s constancy. He has loved only Anne. As I wrote to Kathy Hume, “You capture the final irony of the scene: that Wentworth is not inconstant, though Anne has argued with great delicacy and sympathy that men cannot be as constant as women. His constant love disproves her argument.”
Wentworth’s letter is almost too nakedly emotional to read aloud, but student writers respond powerfully to its immediacy and the way it connects directly to Anne’s words. My student Martin Busch chose to write about Wentworth’s letter. He began, “Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne is easily Austen’s most poetic, heart-wrenching, and beautiful proposal (and maybe even passage) that I have seen in any of her novels this semester. This passage could easily melt the cold heart of any Ice Queen and inspire any future Casanova.” Marty found Wentworth rather reserved throughout the novel, but when he read the letter, Marty was stunned. He cited its central lines:
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. . . . I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.” (237)
Commenting on these sentences, Marty wrote, “Wentworth here is not only declaring his love but attempting to justify his actions. He attempts to apologize for his resentment but at the same time reveals that he is still hurt. . . . It also seems that Wentworth feels remorse for feigning an interest in Louisa Musgrove because he says he has not loved another since Anne.” Entering fully into the logic of the letter, Marty discerned the complexity of character that Austen imagined in Captain Wentworth. Although Wentworth admits to being “‘unjust,’” “‘weak,’” and “‘resentful,’” when he enters the debate on men’s and women’s constancy, he says that he was “‘never inconstant.’” He always loved Anne, even when he was angry.
In his conclusion, Marty argued that Anne’s response to this “heart-wrenching” letter was worthy of the letter’s power. “Anne’s reaction to the letter entirely lives up to the strength of the proposal. As happens so many times in the novel, she finds herself completely unable to see or hear her surrounding companions and is overcome with a surge of emotion. . . . ‘She began not to understand a word they said and was obliged to plead indisposition and excuse herself’ (238).” Marty added, “This complete incapacitation of all senses is the only acceptable reaction to a proposal so rich and powerful, proving to the reader how worthy Anne is of the romantic seaman, Captain Wentworth.”
Once again, a life-changing letter is read by a woman whose eagerness to understand can scarcely be put into words. Anne’s relation to her letter is opposite to that of Elizabeth, who wants vigorously to reject every word of Darcy’s letter: “stedfastly was she persuaded that he could have no explanation to give, which a just sense of shame would not conceal” (204). Anne’s eager hope that Wentworth’s letter will be a renewed declaration of his love does not need to be stated. The narrator succinctly captures the intensity of Anne’s reading of Wentworth’s letter by saying, “her eyes devoured” it, suggesting that she almost ingests the astounding sentences (237). But even Anne, who knows Wentworth so well, could not have expected sentences of such articulate and agonized passion: “You pierce my soul”; “a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago” (237). The narrator simply observes, “Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from” (238). Colleen Kavanagh wrote about Anne’s reaction after “her eyes devoured” (237) the words of the letter. Anne feels “an overpowering happiness” (238), but as Colleen observed, “Anne is overwhelmed by her intense emotions, but never once does she question the action she will take. Immediately, she begins to think of how she will get word to Captain Wentworth.” She went on, “the tone in this passage is one of desperation.” Colleen wrote that Anne “needed time to process her thoughts, but she didn’t have that luxury. When she realized that she had to get word to Wentworth, she was desperate to find him. The passage makes you want to read desperately and quickly to make sure that these characters will finally find happiness.”
In describing my experience of teaching these novels, I am borrowing Anne’s ironic language about the “privilege” she claims for her own sex as she finally reduces her argument about women’s constancy: “‘All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone’” (235). The privilege I claim for my profession as a teacher is quite enviable: I reread Austen’s writing every year with relatively new readers, and go through the pleasure of rediscovering her works as my students are reading them and writing about them. Austen’s legacy stays fresh for me partly because of the living experience of the classroom and my discoveries in reading and responding to student writing. Students’ perceptions—sometimes startlingly accurate, sometimes incomplete, and sometimes really wrong—constantly lead me to new respect for the layers of thought in Austen’s construction of such scenes as the one when Captain Wentworth overhears some part of the conversation between Anne and Captain Harville.
My students’ lively and heartfelt readings of that conversation and of Captain Wentworth’s letter led me back to the chapter with renewed attention and awe at Austen’s superb management of the complexities of overheard conversation and her skill at succinctly capturing the inner experience of her characters. The narrator’s subtle and unobtrusive indications of where the characters are located physically, the volume of their voices, and their deeply imagined responses to words spoken, overheard, partially heard, understood and not understood emerge with new brilliance as I follow the logic of the text and the logic of students’ fresh readings.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1933-69.
Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: PUP, 1978.
Folsom, Marcia McClintock. “Introduction.” Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom. New York: MLA, 1994. 1-13.
Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford: OUP, 2006.
Wiltshire, John. Recreating Jane Austen. Cambridge: CUP, 2001.
Wood, James. “Jane Austen: The Birth of Inwardness.” The New Republic 24 Aug. 1998: 25-28.