This is the second of Mr. Shapard’s Annotated Austen series I have read (see my review of his Annotated Pride and Prejudice), and again he does an excellent job of making Jane’s novels contemporary to the modern reader.
It’s been a while since I’ve read Persuasion and some passages fairly jumped out at me, as in:
Lady Elliot [Anne’s mother] had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose judgement and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation with made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterward…
Mr. Bennet, anyone? He, too, married a pretty face and lived to regret it. Lady Elliot, it seems, at least in Lady Russell’s hindsight, coped better with the price of her bad choice. On this passage Shapard annotates:
Her duties, as the wife of a baronet, would have centered around managing the household, which included purchasing what was needed, keeping the household budget, planning meals, and most of all, supervising the servants and their various labors.
At least she wouldn’t have been bored. This time I am reminded of Charlotte Lucas, who marries Mr. Collins and arranges her household so that she and her husband never have to spend any time in each other’s company. I read Claire Tomalin’s bio of Jane and I thought then that Jane’s mother might have informed the character of Mrs. Bennet. I wonder who else in Jane’s life is being pilloried here.
In that seminal conversation with Mrs. Smith, Anne’s invalid schoolroom friend, where Anne’s opinion of Mr. Elliot is confirmed, Anne says, “A sick chamber may often furnish the worth of volumes.” Mrs. Smith replies:
“Yes,” said Mrs. Smith, more doubtingly, “sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial, but generally speaking it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber; it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of it.
This whole issue had a particular poignancy for Jane Austen, for it while finishing this novel that she came down with the illness–possibly Addison’s disease, a failure of the adrenal glands–that killed her. Based on the testimony of family members and some letters from that time she seems to have demonstrated uncomplaining fortitude, even as her pain worsened and the possibility of recovery became more remote.
In several places Shapard speculates how she might have edited Persuasion had her body granted her the time to do so.
Shapard extensively annotates Anne’s conversation with Harville and Wentworth’s letter to Anne:
[Wentworth] is obviously writing this while listening to her last statement during the exchange with Captain Harville. He naturally focuses on her avowed belief that men can also be constant, rather than her final claim of greater female constancy in certain unenviable circumstances.
I wonder. In Tomalin’s biography (see my review here), Jane’s brothers and cousins wear out their wives with 13, 14, 15 children, and after the wives understandably die, of among other things I imagine exhaustion, their husbands immediately remarry and have another 13, 14 or 15 children with the new wife. Doesn’t exactly ring of constancy, does it.
Jane did turn down Harris Bigg-Wither, when that marriage would have meant a life of ease and comfort for herself (if she didn’t die in childbirth), and a comfortable old age for her parents and her sister Cassandra. Which could have had something to do with her previous broken relationship with Tom LeFroy. As could Wentworth’s (in the end, anyway) constant love for Anne.
I have long thought that Persuasion was the most realistic of all Jane’s books. Anne maddens a lot of readers with her inability to act, but maybe Anne is an exemplar of her kind and class and time. If so, I’m glad I live now.
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