Tuesday, February 4, 2014

'All within Elinor's breast was satisfaction, silent and strong.'

Vol III also flew by, altho it wasn't quite up to Vol II in terms of characterization and sheer suspense. I am in the position of the immortal ass in the anecdote who finds his grandfather isn't quite as dumb as he supposed. This Jane Austen, she's a pretty good writer! Have you heard? (That said, I still think we should have read P&P at St John's, but no matter.)

The "through line," in today's awful modern slang (God, I sound old and wizened. Hang me up on the wall in a bag) is of course Marianne's terrible illness, which is brought on by her "sensibility": Mrs Jennings, in whom we are to trust as a nurse (Austen specifically says she has experience, and she is able to tell Marianne is gravely ill in spite of Elinor's denial) attributes it to her emotional agonies in London, and it is paralleled with her injury in Vol I: just as she went out in bad weather and became emotionally ill, infatuated with Willoughby, she insists on being physically vulnerable while dwelling on her lost love. Austen explicitly links her wanderings to Romantic symbols: the Grecian temple, winding shrubberies, hill vistas, twilight. (You can picture academics drawing entirely the wrong kind of lesson here: Young girls! Don't go outside when it's raining!) -- This is one of the few places where the movie fumbles: instead of Marianne fancying "that from their summits Combe Magna might be seen" (oh, Marianne), La Winslet stands in the rain, sopping, staring right at the house, and recites Shakespeare. It's very over-the-top, but very Marianne. -- When Elinor and Marianne take their first walk together after Marianne's recovery, Austen echoes Marianne's and Margaret's opening walk, which Drabble links to Dorothy Wordsworth "who, at precisely the period of composition (1798) was writing her Alfoxden Diaries". Marianne is emotionally recovered as well, for she somberly says: "'There, exactly there,'—pointing with one hand, 'on that projecting mound,—there I fell; and there I first saw Willoughby.'" It is the end of her sentimental education, and the true conclusion of the novel, rather than the hastily told-about marriages (which the movie of course dwelt lovingly on, God bless it).

But the great emotional set piece of this concluding volume -- of the whole book really -- is of course Willoughby's confession to Elinor. Apparently Austen is riffing some on the idea of the recovered rake in Clarissa, and I have never read Clarissa, and Clarissa is apparently about ninety zillion pages long, and people don't read it unless they're in grad school and I dropped out of grad school in 1996 so you can see where this is going. If it's true S&S was originally an epistolary novel, Austen probably shaped his monologue from a long letter, and it's easier to imagine Elinor reading it alone rather than sitting still listening for so long -- especially when she's expecting Brandon with her mother in what, an hour? But Willoughby's actual presence does heighten the scene's suspense, and underlines his rashness. It's an astonishing speech, and reminded me of nothing so much as Rochester's confession of his own libertine past to the virginal Jane Eyre (which is based also on Pamela).  Willoughby is not morally redeemed, as Marianne is; he doesn't die, unlike Lovelace; and as Austen takes care to tell us at the end, he isn't even that unhappy. But we and Elinor do understand his behaviour, awful though it was (and you can't doubt he will continue to cheat on his wife, and seduce young girls, or at least I can't).

(Another flourishing villain is the again-triumphant Lucy, an amazing creation; she climbs in society, but as Austen acidly remarks, she "may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience." It is a mark of Austen's realism that Willoughby, and the Lucy-Robert and John-Fanny pairs which shadow our heroes and heroines, live out their days with no further punishment than the admittedly awful one of having to be their own selves.)

But the focus isn't on Willoughby -- at least not for long: he says his (extremely long) piece, gains Elinor's forgiveness and dramatically (of course) exits. Austen's emphasis is on Elinor's listening to the story, and especially on her repeating it to Marianne; not to reunite the lovers, but to reassure her sister "he was not always acting a part, not always deceiving" her: he was "only fickle, very, very fickle." It would be easier for the sisters to hate him, and for Austen to dismiss him entirely (as she does dismiss Fanny and John, and Lucy and Robert). Somewhat surprisingly, in a novel always seen as Emotions v Reason (blame the title), Austen attributes nearly all of her villains' worst behaviour to lack of education: Lucy, her sister, Willoughby, and Robert are all spoiled by their culture, especially its materialism, and even Edward is harmed by his enforced idleness (in an amusing twist, Robert attributes Edward's "faults" to his education!). It's not a coincidence that Marianne's first plan after her recovery is self-education -- Austen pokes fun at her typical zeal, but not the idea itself. The ideal is not so much reason overcoming emotion as Plato's allegory of the two horses pulling the same chariot together.

And Marianne's last moving speech, which summarizes her moral flaws in the same way Elinor meditates on Willoughby's at the end of his confession ("The world had made him extravagant and vain—Extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish") focuses not on Willoughby, her past love, nor Brandon, her future husband, but her sister: " Had I died,—in what peculiar misery should I have left you, my nurse, my friend, my sister!—You, who had seen all the fretful selfishness of my latter days; who had known all the murmurings of my heart!" True to form, she immediately swears to live only for her family and studying, and has hysterics when Elinor hears of Lucy's final chilling "flourish of malice," but we cannot doubt she has changed, and the relationship between the sisters has changed also. Even after the concluding marriages, Austen emphasizes how they live happily "almost within sight of each other," and we are reminded the story was first called Elinor and Marianne.

-- On to Northanger Abbey, which I think I reread a couple of years ago after reading Mysteries of Udolpho, in the hope of getting more of the in-jokes (I first read NA in grad school, in a Gothic Lit course). This was a mistake: you don't really understand the in-jokes much better, and Udolpho is full of lavishly described trees, and bad poetry. I think I enjoyed NA pretty well last time, so I'm not expecting this reread to be as surprising as the S&S experience was, but I could be mistaken again!