Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 157-163
Persuasion: The Accidents of Human Life
Goucher College, Towson, MD
By this time the report of the accident had spread among the workmen and boatmen about the Cobb, and many were collected near them, to be useful if wanted, at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady, nay, two dead young ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report.1
It was dangerous to be alive at the turn of the nineteenth century. Common diseases and conditions could kill even the healthiest person. Bad bugs were in the air and in the water, and everyone was on the alert against rashes, chills, wet feet, and sneezes. For the general reader, popular journals carried reviews of the latest medical books and essays about how to avoid endemic and epidemic, chronic and acute diseases. The reading public was fascinated by the human body, had plenty of access to medical literature, and obviously delighted in knowing arcane pseudo-medical facts and reading about the body’s anatomical and physiological functions. A glance at the Table of Contents in any one of many popular journals published in 1815 and 1816, the years Jane Austen was working on Persuasion, indicates just how much attention the public focused on health issues.
The nervous system and the results of injuries to the head and spinal column elicited a great deal of medical and general interest in 1815. Many journals carried notices and reviews of one particular book whose topic (or perhaps it was the physicians’ names) captured everyone’s imagination: A Sketch of the New Anatomy and Physiology of the Brain and Nervous System of Drs Gall and Spurzheim, considered as comprehending a complete System of Anatomy: with Observations on its Tendency to the Improvement of Education, or Punishment, and of the Treatment of Insanity.2 In a hilarious forty-one page article entitled “The Doctrines of Gall and Spurzheim,” an irate reviewer finally concludes that “the writings of DRS GALL AND SPURZHEIM have not added one fact to the stock of our knowledge …” (268). The same “Quarterly List of New Publications” also advertises Tho. Forster’s Sketch of the New Anatomy and Physiology of the Brain and Nervous System, just another example of the proliferation of works about the mysterious workings of the nervous system.
In Persuasion, too, the nervous system is of primary importance. Louisa jumps down the steep flight of steps on the Cobb mainly because she is stubborn and determined that she will have her own way, but she also likes the “sensation” (109) of the “jar.” After she falls and is carried to the Harvilles’ home, she appears “lifeless” to everyone around her; that is, Louisa is essentially without sensation or sensibility. Finally, she does give a sign of life: Louisa “once opened her eyes, but soon closed them again, without apparent consciousness” (112). The surgeon who examines her finds that “the head had received a severe contusion, but he had seen greater injuries recovered from: he was by no means hopeless …. Louisa’s limbs had escaped. There was no injury but to the head.” Ironically, it is Henrietta who remains “insensible,” but Louisa’s flicker of life saves her sister “from a return of her own insensibility.”
Diseases, injuries to vital bodily organs, accidents, catastrophes, wars – danger lurked on the roads and byways and in the sea lanes and fields and hedgerows. Battles on land and sea supplied long lists of war casualties, but both the medical literature of the period and the obituaries describe as well the ordinary, everyday accidents that killed the young and old alike. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, accidents were the common results of the activities of daily living, and no one could avoid completely the possibility of a mishap occurring during a coach ride along the highway, or during a stroll along the public footpath, or even during some amusing occupation. In her letters to Cassandra, Jane Austen scrupulously reported on the physical status of friends and family members. While she was writing Persuasion, she was particularly concerned about her brother’s health: “Henry’s illness is much more serious than I expected. He has been in bed since three o’clock on Monday. It is a fever – something bilious but chiefly inflammatory. I am not alarmed but I have determined to send this letter to-day by the post, that you may know how things are going on.”3 In other letters, Jane Austen also commented quite candidly on the accidents, miscarriages, and deaths that shaped the daily lives of the people she knew. She notes when family and friends arrive at their destinations. “They are all safe” becomes a theme that runs through the letters and fiction (Sunday, 8 September, 1816). And in what is perhaps her most famous quip about health, she tells Cassandra: “Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband” (Saturday, 27 October, 1798). Jane Austen’s utter lack of sentimentality about Mrs. Hall’s troubles often shocks modern readers, but the fact is that life as Jane Austen knew it was harsh and uncompromising. One’s safety, and therefore one’s fate (like happiness in marriage), was purely accidental, purely a matter of chance.
Like her contemporaries, Jane Austen, it seems, appreciated the drama of the accidents of human life. Persuasion, which Jane Austen began writing on 8 August, 1815, when she herself was already ill, has more accidents, ailments, and hysterias than any of her other completed novels. As a writer, she recognized the plot possibilities of diseases, but emergencies seem to offer an even greater range of imaginative choices. In her novels Jane Austen uses the word “accident” a total of 31 times, but Persuasion and Sanditon, with seven references each, include more mishaps than the other works.4 A child falling, carriages overturning, a young seaman’s dying aboard ship, a Captain in the navy recuperating from a bad wound, a young woman missing her footing on some stone steps, a wife dead and another young woman suddenly dying – these are the catastrophes that shape the plot of Persuasion, but they are also the mishaps that were so common as to have been within the experience of every family. Since they are so much a part of life in both the country and the city, the private as well as the public sphere, these physical accidents seem almost too lifelike, too realistic for the structural drama they lend to a plot in a novel, but Jane Austen uses the accidents symbolically as well as structurally. The wider implications of the events always involve ambiguities that demand right action. In his chapter entitled “Persuasion: the pathology of everyday life” in Jane Austen and the Body, John Wiltshire points out that “Persuasion is a novel of trauma: of broken bones, broken heads and broken hearts.”5 This is also a novel about coping, and growing, and coming to terms with practical existence. Underscoring the fragility of life and the tenuous control people have over their own and others’ fates, the “accidents” serve to remind the reader that even the most seemingly inconsequential event has personal and societal repercussions.
In Persuasion, “accidents” serve multiple purposes and give the text profound complexity. Jane Austen uses the accidents of life as a comment on how fate breaks apart the most carefully planned schemes – inheritance, for example, or courtship. In a lesser novelist’s hands, the linking of so many accidents and health-related events with the disruption of a character’s life plans might have an episodic quality, but Jane Austen combines these elements of daily life into a seamless story that reveals the inner qualities of her characters.
Jane Austen saw accidents and illnesses as part of living; they were not something to rage against, but they were something to contend with both publicly and privately. With her eye on circumstances that changed the relationships between characters, Jane Austen recognized the great plot potential of one of the most common mishaps the human body is liable to suffer: a fall. Depending on the type of fall, the accident could provide highly emotional scenes that were comedic and ridiculous as well as heart-breaking and terrifying. In Persuasion, Jane Austen uses two falls to structure the plot and to provide catalysts for action. The scene of the first fall – the child’s fall – is set in the private sphere of the Musgroves’ estate. The eldest Musgrove boy, as a result of a “bad fall,” suffers from a dislocated collar-bone and such severe back injuries that paralysis, which is merely suggested in the text, cannot be ruled out. For the whole family, but especially for Anne, “[i]t was an afternoon of distress, and Anne had everything to do at once – the apothecary to send for – the father to have pursued and informed – the mother to support and keep from hysterics – the servants to control – the youngest child to banish, and the poor suffering one to attend and soothe … ” (53). Finally, the apothecary arrives and replaces the collar-bone, “and though Mr. Robinson felt and felt, and rubbed, and looked grave, and spoke low words both to the father and the aunt, still they were all to hope the best, and to be able to part and eat their dinner in tolerable ease of mind … ” (54).
Here is the situation: the eldest son and heir has suffered serious injury to his back – so serious as to cause “the most alarming ideas … worse for being vague”; his dislocated bone is set; the boy’s mother is hysterical, so his father and aunt are consulted and consoled; and then, sotto voce, the efficient apothecary tells everyone to go off and eat their dinner! This combination of terror and common sense shows the matter-of-fact way that accidents had to be handled if people were to cope with active life. Since the child has a comfortable night, the only thing to do now is to wait, for “[i]t must be a work of time to ascertain that no injury had been done to the spine, but Mr. Robinson found nothing to increase alarm, and Charles Musgrove began consequently to feel no necessity for longer confinement” (55). Keeping the bedridden child amused, the boy’s father feels, “was quite a female case,” so most of the nursing chores, which would ordinarily belong to the mother, fall on Anne’s shoulders. Calm, organized, and supportive, Anne is more than capable of undertaking the duties of the sickroom.
The second fall in Persuasion is essentially the felix culpa because it shocks Captain Wentworth into new perceptions about Anne and into a new appreciation of the way his behavior must be perceived by others. He also begins to understand his culpability in the series of events leading up to Louisa’s accident. Unlike Charles and Mary Musgrove, who easily relinquish their responsibilities when their son is injured and do not scruple to leave him alone with Anne, Captain Wentworth is perhaps too scrupulous, and he suffers from knowledge that his inappropriate behavior has encouraged the young woman to be rash. Under his influence, it could be argued, the young woman was not “contented to pass quietly and carefully down the steep flight … [but] must be jumped down them by Captain Wentworth” (109). She must make a public display of herself. As Louisa amuses herself, she courts disaster for herself and she also jeopardizes the safety of the other people in her group. The steps are dangerous and steep. When she miscalculates by a fraction of a second and falls “lifeless” to the pavement, “[t]here was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death” (106). What is so interesting is that in Persuasion Jane Austen makes the accident per se and the victim less important than the circumstances surrounding the event or the onlookers observing the tragedy. Jane Austen examines very particularly the observers’ response to the accident, which is always viewed as a call for right action. Unlike some of her Puritanical predecessors, Jane Austen does not use an accident (or a disease) to punish a character for “sin.” She does not seek to make cosmic sense of a person’s suffering. Instead, in this fictional society, a mishap tests the characters and challenges them to cope just as people would have to cope in real life.
In 1815, The Monthly Review, May to August inclusive, reviewed a book whose message was aimed at active young people who might find themselves present at an accident or emergency. A short, unsigned but extraordinarily revealing review of The Accidents of Human Life: with Hints for their Prevention, or the Removal of their Consequences, by Newton Bosworth, reads like a public service announcement. In the preface to his book, which is quoted in the review, Mr. Bosworth tells his readers exactly what his work sets out to do:
The design of this little volume is to do something towards the removal of the ignorance complained of, by communicating to general readers, and especially to young persons, such information as I have been able to collect on the subject of bodily accidents in general, whether arising from fire, water, journeying, heat, cold, amusements, violent exertions, or other cause, together with the best methods I could think, or hear, or read of, for avoiding those accidents, and alleviating or removing their consequences.6
Pointing out “how much the danger on some occasions has been increased by the aukwardness [sic] or ignorance of those who have given their assistance” (445-46), Mr. Bosworth condemns “the want of knowing how to act. People running in one another’s way, … some clamoring for one thing, and some for another” (446). Mr. Bosworth seems to be commenting on exactly what Jane Austen depicts dramatically in the scene on the Cobb. Until Anne decisively takes charge, the scene is certainly dangerous for more than one of the swooning, hysterical young ladies. Besides, the accident could have been avoided so easily in the first place.
The advice in Mr. Bosworth’s book was essential to early nineteenth-century society. In the early nineteenth century, English society was rapidly changing; as roads improved, more young men and women travelled out on their own, just as the party from Uppercross journeys to Lyme Regis for a social visit. “Mr. Bosworth,” we are told, “is engaged in the instruction of youth,” and he structures his book so that he can deal with “accidents at play, and in travelling” (445). What codes – internal as well as external – were to govern the behavior of young people when they were placed in a situation that called for knowledge, practicality, and right action? The reviewer of Mr. Bosworth’s book points out that “it is impossible that the mind can be too well prepared for an emergency, in which nothing should occur that can agitate, or produce the slightest indecision” (446). The reviewer “cannot but warmly praise the design of this little publication,” and, as though from personal experience, he adds: “I know it is difficult to have what is called presence of mind on such occasions.” He seems grateful for the minutiae included in the book: “It is certain that calmness without knowledge is of no use whatever, and therefore a useful hint, if treasured up in the mind, may occur to it at the moment it is wanted, and prove the most essential benefit” (447).
How are the young people at Lyme going to alleviate the suffering of Louisa? Mary begins shrieking, “ ‘She is dead! She is dead!’ ” Henrietta “lost her senses, too, and would have fallen on the steps, but for Captain Benwick and Anne, who caught and supported her between them” (110). Except for Anne, every one of the young people in the visiting party should have consulted a manual like Mr. Bosworth’s. Indecisive, awkward, ignorant, and out of control, the young Musgroves in particular think more of themselves and essentially immobilize each other. They are absolutely incapable of alleviating or removing the deadly consequences of Louisa’s folly. Yet, even as Captain Wentworth groans, “ ‘Is there no one to help me?’,” Anne comes to his aid. Offering the kind of advice that Mr. Bosworth would have praised, Anne calls out to “ ‘Rub her hands, rub her temples; here are salts, – take them, take them.’ ” Taking charge and spurring Captain Wentworth into decisive action, Anne also has enough presence of mind to send Captain Benwick for a surgeon.
Before the sad catastrophe at Lyme, accidents of fate had helped make Captain Wentworth one of the nation’s up-and-coming young men. Wealth, power, status – he accrued much in the world after Anne rejected him. Perhaps adversity, that is, Anne’s initial rejection of his proposal, had the positive effect of making him work even harder and achieve more than the average naval officer. He could have suffered the same fate as Captain Harville, or worse, but Captain Wentworth’s accidents of fate are always lucky. The navy and the spoils of war advanced his position in society. A self-made man whose exploits fortuitously rewarded him, Captain Wentworth has also become rich, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single naval officer in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife and a landed estate.
No matter how much power characters in Persuasion think they have over the events in their lives, Jane Austen shows that their sense of power is illusory, for an accident intervenes as a corrective. The author forces her characters to realize that life is chaotic and random, that the most well-intentioned design is subject to disruption. “ ‘Oh God!’,” Captain Wentworth cries after Louisa has been carried off to the Harvilles’ house, “ ‘that I had not given way to her at the fatal moment! Had I done as I ought!’ ” (116). If he had done “as he ought,” he would not have let his pride and resentment lead him into such folly, for his intimacy with Louisa has been so public that the Harvilles considered him an engaged man. “He had no sooner been free from the horror and remorse attending the first few days of Louisa’s accident, no sooner begun to feel himself alive again, than he had begun to feel himself, though alive, not at liberty” (242). His loss of control over himself, along with his inability to control the obstinate and self-willed Louisa, could have ruined both their lives, as well as Anne’s, forever. If Anne had not been at liberty to marry him when they were young, Captain Wentworth in 1814 finds himself unable to marry her because, through his own fault, society has assumed that he has attached himself elsewhere. Ultimately, however, Captain Wentworth’s acknowledgement of his loss of control parallels Anne’s acceptance of her fate: “ ‘If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk’ ” (244), Anne reminds him. If Wentworth has to learn through the tragedy of an accident that he does not have perfect control over the world around him, Anne has learned, partially from the happiness exhibited by the Crofts, who care nothing for the upsets they have experienced in their travels throughout life, to take some chances.
At the beginning of the final chapter, Jane Austen concludes, “Who can be in doubt of what followed?” (248). In fact, everyone should be in doubt, because in Jane Austen’s world view nothing is certain. The novel is built on the lack of certainty and the apparent randomness that attend active life. The accidents of human life provide drama for they remind us how little control we really have over the events around us, but they provide comedy, too, and can make us laugh at our assumptions. Accidents call people to active, decisive participation in the world. They demand that people readjust their goals, values, and futures. As Captain Wentworth reminds Anne when the accident is well behind them, “ ‘It was a frightful hour … a frightful day!’ ” (182). For Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot, it was even a fatal day: their fate was sealed; they were well matched.
1 Jane Austen, Persuasion, Vol. V of The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933). p. 111. All further quotations from Persuasion are taken from this edition.
2 “Quarterly List of New Publications,” in the Edinburgh Review, June, 1815, p. 227. All further quotations from this review are taken from this edition.
3 R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932), p. 425. All further quotations from Jane Austen’s letters will be taken from this edition.
4 Peter L. DeRose and S. W. McGuire, A Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen, New York and London: Garland Publishing Company, p. 6.
5 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 165.
6 “The Monthly Catalogue, Miscellaneous,” in The Monthly Review: or Literary Journal, Enlarged. London: sold by Becket and Porter, Booksellers, in Pall Mall, p. 445. All further quotations from this review will be cited in the text.