Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

From Interior to Exterior Worlds: Anne Elliot Goes Hollywood

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

From Interior to Exterior Worlds: Anne Elliot Goes Hollywood

Article excerpt

AT THE OPENING of Jane Austen's Persuasion, Anne Elliot has spent virtually her entire life in the country. Her tastes are all for country life; she dislikes the superficial pleasures and the shallow social intercourse of crowded cities and fashionable watering-places. At twenty-seven, she seems resigned to her repressed, restricted life of duty and introspection. Austen, however, uproots her, sending her first to Uppercross, then to Lyme, and eventually to Bath where she is transformed from her role as a member of the audience who watches and hears (or overhears) the courtship dances and dialogues of others, to that of a romantic heroine whose actions are watched and whose words are listened to (or overheard) by others. During the first half of the novel, Anne works hard to mask her inner feelings from scrutiny; in the second half of the novel, however, she performs those feelings, acting out what is inside, turning her interior self into an exterior display, in order to encourage Captain Wentworth to renew his suit. Thus, thrust onto the urban stage of Bath, Anne must act in both senses of the word. In our own idiom, she finally becomes a player.

In Persuasion Anne Elliot is socially and emotionally isolated; by critical consensus her role is one of observer, listener, eavesdropper, confidante. Throughout most of Volume I she is an audience to the speeches and actions of others. Anne is, of course, a shrewd listener and observer. When Mr. Shepherd, Sir Walter and Elizabeth first discuss the Crofts as proposed tenants, "Anne ... [is] a most attentive listener to the whole" (25). Indeed, she is sadly familiar with her father's public performance of the role of Baronet, for, as Mr. Shepherd says, "'Sir Walter Elliot has eyes upon him'" (17). She brings "a great deal of quiet observation" to her sister's friendship with Mrs. Clay, accurately interpreting that lady's accomplished performance (34). She alone reads the fleeting expressions of Captain Wentworth's flashing eye and curling lip. Even when she moves from the isolation of Kellynch to the larger social scene of Uppercross, Anne remains an observer, not a performer. At Uppercross, "[s]he could do little more than listen patiently" (46). Although she is the best musician in the drawing room of the Great House, no one chooses to hear her play, for "having no voice, no knowledge of the harp, and no fond parents to sit by and fancy themselves delighted, her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others ..." (47). During impromptu balls at the Great House, "Anne, very much preferring the office of musician to a more active post, played country dances to them by the hour together" (47). When Wentworth joins the dancers, Anne "desired nothing in return but to be unobserved" (71). At Uppercross as at Kellynch, then, her word is unheeded, and her musical performances serve merely as accompaniments to the courtship dances of the other young people.

Captain Wentworth's arrival emphasizes Anne's role as observer rather than actor. When Wentworth first appears, Anne's faculties of observation momentarily falter and everything blurs, but later, as their meetings become more routine, she grows adept at reading his behavior: "Now, how were his sentiments to be read? Was this like wishing to avoid her?" (60). When Mrs. Musgrove wishes that "poor Richard" had remained under Wentworth's command, Anne reads Captain Wentworth like a book:

   There was a momentary expression in Captain Wentworth's lace
   at this speech, a certain glance of his bright eye, and curl of his
   handsome mouth, which convinced Anne, that instead of sharing
   in Mrs. Musgrove's kind wishes, as to her son, he had probably
   been at some pains to get rid of him; but it was too transient an
   indulgence of self-amusement to be detected by any who understood
   him less than herself.... (67)

Sometimes the drama proves too painful to watch. …

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