Sunday, April 20, 2014

Home news: Volume 2 now on sale, and more

The second volume of Bitch In a Bonnet—collecting my gregarious gallop through Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion—is now available as a trade paperback from both Amazon and Barnes and Noble; other retailers will be added in the coming months. (And an e-book edition will debut in a few weeks, as well.)

If you pick up a copy, let me appeal to your generous natures and ask that you also leave a review on the Amazon or B&N listing page. It's absolutely gobsmacking how much of a difference those little blurbs from readers make in deciding which books go mega, and which go meh.


If you're a gambling kinda guy or gal, you can also enter for a chance to win a free copy courtesy of the fine folks at Goodreads; we're giving away ten, and you have till May 31st to throw your name into the hat. 

Thanks again for all your support over the past five years. I'm thinking of continuing the blog in some less structured manner; now that my survey of the official canon is concluded, I may dip into the unofficial one—the juvenilia and fragments, the works Austen either never prepared for publication or even finished. Or possibly turning my fiery gaze on some of the Austen TV and film adaptations. We'll see.

But in the meantime, I'll be taking a bit of time off, because yowza, am I ever tired.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Final thoughts

…And, that’s it. That’s the canon. 

When I undertook this project, back in 2009, my aim was to rescue Jane Austen’s reputation from those who misunderstood her—whether through ignorance, or nostalgia, or some other, more fetishistic impulse. I reread all six of her novels, in the order in which they were published, and tried to chronicle her growth as a satirist—as a writer of caustic comedies on the freakishness and hypocrisy of human society.

But since I was publishing as I was reading—essentially live-blogging the Austen oeuvre—there was always the risk that I’d find myself, partway through, changing my mind…confronting a different Jane Austen than the one whose credentials I’d sought to celebrate.

And in fact, I did; and this should have come as no surprise. Having immersed myself in her works for nearly five years—to the point at which her fictions functioned almost as a subtext to my own life—I should have expected that something new would be revealed to me, that some aspect of her genius which had previously proved elusive, should become apparent, and alter my view of her.

In her final three novels, we see Austen evolve. From the broad, sweeping strokes of her early novels, she cultivates an increasingly refined hand—a more deftly calibrated technique. Her characters—especially her antagonists and her grotesques—gradually become more finely sketched, with more complexity and ambiguity. Persuasion, her last novel, is altogether richer in shading, texture, and tonal variety than Sense and Sensibility, her first; it offers greater range, deeper insight, and more opportunity for interpretation.

So in one sense, I was right: Austen did grow—not as a satirist, per se, but as an artist. And if you consider also her wild, anarchic juvenile works, you can drawn an arc for her creative life. She began as a rollicking farceuse; developed into a relentlessly funny social satirist; and matured into a brilliant ironist.  

There’s no telling where she might have gone from there, had she not died so terribly, almost criminally young. But one thing seems certain: she would never have become a sentimentalist…never a romantic…never a safe little scribbler of mawkish, soft-core valentines. And if there is a literary heaven? Those writers are the souls who flee the fastest when she enters a room.

A true Austen fan will always suffer some degree of anxiety—an uncomfortable sense that he or she isn’t nearly smart enough for her, or sharp enough, or possessed of an adequately nimble wit. A true Austen fan will always wonder: If it were possible to go back in time, and meet her—would I even dare approach her?

This is a woman who insisted on living on her own terms, to the limited extent her constrictive society permitted. She was unflinching and unyielding. She looked at the world arrayed around her, and she was not deceived by its splendid trappings; she saw the savageness of its inequalities, and the ruthlessness of its ambitions. She enjoyed no personal victory over it; in many ways, the world defeated her soundly. But her judgment of it—uncompromising, unforgiving, and riddled through with mocking laughter—rings down the centuries to our own. She had the last word.

And she always will have.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Persuasion, chapters 22-24


When we left Anne, she had just learned what a black-hearted sumbitch Mr. Elliot is, and her first order of business is to tell Lady Russell all about it. Not that she’s looking forward to that particular duty. She’s “concerned for the disappointment and pain Lady Russell would be feeling,” because Lady R. has totally let Mr. Elliot’s barefaced schmoozing charm her right out of her bloomers, like she’s a girl of sixteen or something. Still, that’s no reason for shirking the task (in my view, it’s a reason for pursuing it). Lady Russell has got to be informed, and then consulted as to the best way to proceed—i.e., do we go on smiling at Mr. Elliot and pretending everything’s still the tits? Or do we slip him a mickey in his Darjeeling, then with Admiral Croft’s help smuggle him onto a cargo ship bound for Bora Bora?

Fortunately, Anne has successfully evaded having to see the rangy cur before she can talk to Lady Russell about him. She arrives back at Camden-place to hear that she’s only just missed him; he apparently waited around half the morning for her. But alas, her escape isn’t complete, because Elizabeth now informs her she’s invited him back in the evening. Why the hell would she do something like that? Because “he gave so many hints,” is the answer; “so Mrs. Clay says, at least.” And Mrs. Clay chimes in with yup, he did, uh-huh, you bet, oh yeah, mm-hm.

And besides, Elizabeth goes on to say, she was touched by the way Mr. Elliot spoke of regretting not seeing Sir Walter. She “would never really omit any opportunity of bringing him and Sir Walter together. They appear so to much advantage in company with each other…Mr. Elliot looking up with so much respect!” This brings on a second little exclamation from Mrs. Clay—“Exactly like father and son! Dear Miss Elliot, may I not say father and son?”—and since this is exactly two exclamations more than Mrs. Clay has ever burst forth with before, we twig immediately that something is up with her. Because she can’t really be feeling anything near the giddy delight at Mr. Elliot coming back, that she’s pretending to.

Anne admired the good acting of the friend, in being able to shew such pleasure as she did, in the expectation, and in the actual arrival of the very person whose presence must really be interfering with her prime object. It was impossible but that Mrs. Clay must hate the sight of Mr. Elliot; and yet she could assume a most obliging, placid look, and appear quite satisfied with the curtailed license of devoting herself only half as much to Sir Walter as she would have done otherwise.

Anyway, Anne is forced to figure out how to handle Mr. Elliot, without Lady Russell’s advice. She decides on a strategic withdrawal. She resolves “to be as decidedly cool to him as might be compatible with their relationship, and to retrace, as quietly as she could, the few steps of unnecessary intimacy she had been gradually led along.”

When she puts this gambit into play that evening, it drives its victim a little bonkers. Mr. Elliot tries hard to “animate her curiosity again as to how and where he could have heard her formerly praised; wanted very much to be gratified by more solicitation” on that matter; and we can only imagine the look of defeated astonishment on his face when Anne just shrugs her shoulders and is all, Whatevs. He can’t know, of course, that she’s not only met the source of all that former praise—but that same source has also totally narced him out to her. So that “the charm is broken”—in fact, the charm is freakin’ atomized.

Fortunately, Mr. Elliot is leaving for Bath the next morning, and will be gone for the better part of two days. That should be plenty of time for Anne and Lady Russell to put their heads together and come up with a plan—something that will rescue the family from the worst effects of Mr. Elliot’s silent-movie-villain rapaciousness. Anne’s opinion of him has sunk so low, even Mrs. Clay’s pursuit of her father looks almost innocuous by comparison, and “Anne would have compounded for the marriage at once, with all its evils, to be clear of Mr. Elliot’s subtleties, in endeavouring to prevent it.”

The next morning Anne prepares to head out for Lady Russell’s, and as she’s pulling on her gloves there are a couple of barking-out-loud funny paragraphs from her sister and father. Elizabeth begins by telling Anne she has “nothing to send [Lady Russell] but my love”, but then quickly changes her mind.

“Oh! you may as will take back that tiresome book she would lend me, and pretend I have read it through. I really cannot be plaguing myself for ever with all the new poems and states of the nation that come out. Lady Russell quite bores one with her new publications. You need not tell her so, but I thought her dress hideous the other night. I used to think she had some taste in dress, but I was ashamed of her at the concert. Something so formal and arrangé in her air! and she sits so upright! My best love, of course.”

Not to be outdone, Sir Walter adds his own love, along with a promise to call on Lady Russell soon…

“…But I shall only leave my card. Morning visits are never fair by women at her time of life, who make themselves up so little. If she would only wear rouge, she would not be afraid of being seen; but last time I called, I observed the blinds were let down immediately.”

That said—and who could say it better?—Anne turns to go; but is delayed again, this time by a knock on the door—and then by the admittance, a few moments later, of none other than Charles and Mary. Anne is surprised and delighted to see them; and “as soon as it became clear that these, their nearest relations, were not arrived with any views of accommodations in that house, Sir Walter and Elizabeth were able to rise in cordiality,” as well. What a wonderfully acid detail.

As to what Charles and Mary are doing here…well, it’s one of those Musgrove affairs, that starts out as one thing and ends up quite another. Suffice it to say that it began with Captain Harville needing to come to Bath on business, and Charles Musgrove deciding to tag along; and then six hundred other things happened and somehow turned into Ms. Musgrove’s party with everyone else tagging along…everyone else being those already mentioned, plus Henrietta—whose wedding clothes are on the list of errands for the trip. Turns out Charles Hayter has finagled a living somewhere, and now has the stability and income to head on down the aisle.

Anne is delighted to hear this—it makes the two Musgrove sisters equal again—and she tells Charles she hopes his parents feel the same. “Oh! yes,” he says. “My father would be as well pleased if the gentlemen were richer, but he has no other fault to find.” Which sends Anne off on a little whirlwind of praise that ends up, as things seem increasingly to do, in these later chapters, more about her own issues than the people she’s talking about.

“Such excellent parents as Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove…should be happy in their children’s marriages. They do every thing to confer happiness, I am sure. What a blessing to the young people, to be in such hands! Your father and mother seem so totally free from all those ambitious feelings which have led to so much misconduct and misery, both in young and old!”

I like to imagine Sir Walter’s face as she says this. But who am I kidding, whenever he’s not the one talking, his face is turned towards a mirror.

As to the other Musgrove sister: Louisa is recovering…but is becoming quite a different person. “If one happens only to shut the door a little hard, she starts and wriggles like a young dab chick in the water,” says Charles, in the manner of someone who is frequently guilty of shutting the door a little hard; “and Benwick sits at her elbow, reading verses, or whispering to her, all day long.”

Anne “had heard enough to understand the present state of Uppercross, and rejoice in its happiness; and though she sighed as she rejoiced, her sigh had none of the ill-will of envy in it. She would certainly have risen to their blessings if she could, but she did not want to lessen theirs.” Of course she doesn’t. She’s a good girl. Pretty much the only one on hand, in fact.

Now that so many family and friends have descended on Bath, Elizabeth feels an uncomfortable compulsion to ask them to dine; uncomfortable, because “she could not bear to have the difference of style, the reduction of servants, which a dinner must betray, witnessed by those who had been always so inferior to the Elliots of Kellynch.” Fortunately, Elizabeth has plenty of practice in quashing any inconvenient sensations of obligation or generosity. “It was a struggle between propriety and vanity,” Austen tells us; and thus, no freakin’ contest.

These were [Elizabeth’s] internal persuasions.—“Old fashioned notions—country hospitality—we do not profess to give dinners—few people in Bath do—Lady Alicia never does; did not even ask her own sister’s family, though they were here a month: and I dare say it would be very inconvenient to Mrs. Musgrove—put her quite out of her way. I am sure she would rather not come—she cannot feel easy with us. I will ask them all for an evening; that will be much better—that will be a novelty and a treat. They have not seen two such drawing rooms before. They will be delighted to come to-morrow evening. It shall be a regular party—small, but most elegant.”

Give her ten additional minutes, and she’ll have figured out why serving them only  twigs and clippings from the front lawn is not only appropriate for the occasion, but the very thing everyone would most want.

With the invitation given, Charles and Mary depart, and Anne goes with them to their inn to pay a call on Mrs. Musgrove and Henrietta. So Lady Russell is put off again. But Anne is “convinced that a day’s delay of the intended communication could be of no consequence,” since Mr. Elliot won’t even be back till tomorrow anyway.

Anne gets a great big, potentially lethal bear hug of a welcome from Mrs. Musgrove, whose “real affection [she had] won by her usefulness when they were in distress. It was a heartiness, and a warmth, and a sincerity which Anne delighted in the more, from the sad want of such blessings at home.” She soon finds herself falling back into her Uppercross habits of helping everyone arrange their plans, listening to their confidences, offering suggestions for shops, and reassuring Mary every thirty-five seconds that no one in the room was disrespecting her or forgetting who she was or not including her in anything that she didn’t know about yet but should.

Anne hasn’t been there more than half an hour when Captain Harville appears—and with him, Captain Wentworth—whose unexpected appearance throws Anne into a little bit of a tizzy; the last time she saw him, after all, he was storming out of the concert hall in a snit of jealousy over Mr. Elliot. If she can just manage a word with him now, she might be able to set him right on that score…but, alas, “He did not want to be near enough for conversation.” What a sulky baby. Adorably sulky…but still.

Anne decides to let it go—to leave things to take their course. “Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness.” Uh, sugar…that’s what you’ve been doing pretty much for the last eight years.

Before she can dwell on this, Mary—who’s seated by a window overlooking the street—calls out to say she’s spotted Mrs. Clay standing under a colonnade, “and a gentleman with her. I saw them turn the corner from Bath-street just now. They seem deep in talk. Who is it?—Come and tell me.” But she doesn’t need to be told, because a moment later she figures it out herself. “Good heavens! I recollect.—It is Mr. Elliot himself.”

Anne exclaims—a little too quickly—that it can’t possibly be Mr. Elliot, because he left Bath that very morning. And as soon as she’s said this, she can feel Captain Wentworth’s eyes on her. Why did she have to speak that name in front of him? She makes up her mind to show no more interest in anything to do with Mr. Elliot, while the captain’s around. Mr.—who? Elliot, you say?—Is that someone we know? I think I can just baaaarely remember…

But Mary spends the better part of a page haranguing her—come on, it is him, just come and look, come on, come on, come on, come on—so eventually she just gives up and goes to the window (either that or Mary actually drags her over by her feet).

She manages to look out just as Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay are parting—because, amazingly, it is them—and parting with a handshake, too, like just the swellest of pals. Anne covers her surprise by saying, Oh, he obviously changed his departure time, and tries to shrug the whole thing off.

Then there’s a wonderful couple of pages where Charles Musgrove boasts about having got a box at the theatre the next night, and crows to his mother about what a “good boy” he is, only to have Mary, ever the devoted wife, quash him with, you idiot, tomorrow night we’re booked at Camden-place. And Charles retaliates by saying, you’re booked at Camden-place, baby, not this guy.

“Phoo! phoo!...what’s an evening party? Never worth remembering. Your father might have asked us to dinner, I think, if he had wanted to see us. You may do as you like, but I shall go to the play.”

“Oh, Charles, I declare it will be too abominable if you do! when you promised to go.”

“No, I did not promise. I only smirked and bowed, and said the word ‘happy.’ There was no promise.”

There’s a promising career in politics waiting for Chuck, if he ever decides to lean that way.

Mary keeps on at him—because haranguing is one of her only real talents—and tries to tempt him by saying that the Dalrymples will be there, and also, even better, Mr. Elliot. “Consider, my father’s heir—the future representative of the family.”

“Don’t talk to me about heirs and representatives,” cried Charles. “I am not one of those who neglect the reigning power to bow to the rising sun. If I would not go for the sake of your father, I should think it scandalous to go for the sake of his heir. What is Mr. Elliot to me?”

And Anne feels Captain Wentworth’s eyes on her again—as though wondering, what is Mr. Elliot to her? And a few moments later—with Mary insisting she’s going to the party even if no one else joins her—Mrs. Musgrove says maybe it’d be better to change the tickets for the next night, because “we should be losing Miss Anne, too, if there is a party at her father’s; and I am sure neither Henrietta nor I should care at all for the play, if Miss Anne could not be with us.” Seeing her opportunity, Anne jumps in.

“If it depended only on my inclination, ma’am, the party at home (excepting on Mary’s account) would not be the smallest impediment. I have no pleasure in the sort of meeting, and should be too happy to change it for a play, and with you. But it had better not be attempted, perhaps.”

And then she sits back, flush with daring and little bit trembly; but happy to have made it very clear, that’s what Mr. Elliot is to her.

She’s rewarded, a few minutes later, by Captain Wentworth actually approaching and speaking to her. He accuses her—in a nonthreatening way—of not having been in Bath long enough to be dismissive of evening parties (obviously forgetting she’s been here longer than he has). But she maintains that such events have no appeal for her: “I am no card player.”

“You were not formerly, I know. You did not used to like cards; but time makes many changes.”

“I am not yet so much changed,” cried Anne, and stopped, fearing she hardly knew what misconstruction. After waiting a few moments he said—and as if it were the result of immediate feeling—“It is a period, indeed! Eight years and a half is a period!”

So we’re on page 217, and he finally goes there. And we can see why he waited: it’s a tremendously precarious moment—a heart-in-the-mouth moment; we couldn’t feel any more suspense if they were playing catch with a pouch of nitroglycerin.

So what a perfect moment for Henrietta to insist that all the ladies all get up and go out, because, hello, she’s in Bath more than an hour already and has still seen no wedding clothes. The women dutifully pull themselves together to depart with more than enough bustle to drown out Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, never mind the nuances of Anne’s conversation with the captain.

And then, as if that weren’t enough randomness for one chapter, the ladies almost collide in the doorway with Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who are just on their way in—and “whose entrance seemed to give a general chill.”

Anne felt an instant oppression, and wherever she looked, saw symptoms of the same. The comfort, the freedom, the gaiety of the room was over, hushed into cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk, to meet the heartless elegance of her father and sister. How mortifying to feel that it was so!

So, yeah, Sir Walter and Elizabeth…not quite life-of-the-party material.

Which is kind of too bad, because the party is the reason they’ve dropped in. They’ve very graciously decided to widen the guest list, and Elizabeth dispenses cards to everyone who hadn’t yet got one—with particular attention (and even a smile!) to Captain Wentworth; something which amazes Anne, possibly to the point of wondering if Elizabeth has suffered a Louisa-like blow to the head.

The truth was, that Elizabeth had been long enough in Bath, to understand the importance of a man of such an air and appearance as his. The past was nothing. The present was that Captain Wentworth would move about well in her drawing room. The card was pointedly given, and Sir Walter and Elizabeth arose and disappeared.

The card may have been pointedly given, but it isn’t so pointedly received. In fact, for several minutes after the Elliots have gone (and the whole room exhaled in relief), Captain Wentworth stares at the card with a look on his face as though someone has sneezed into his hand, and he has no idea of where to wipe it.

Anne, knowing him, can’t believe he’d ever “accept such an offering, as atonement for all the insolence of the past.” But Mary, typically, is all agog over Elizabeth’s generosity in including everybody in her little fête. “I do not wonder Captain Wentworth is delighted! You see he cannot put the card out of his hand!”

Finally the ladies file out for shopping (la plus ça change); and the rest of the day passes without incident…at least until evening, when, back at Camden-place, Anne has to endure Elizabeth and Mrs. Clay clucking away over all the many, many plans for the party the next night. Eventually Anne, tired of brooding over Captain Wentworth, decides to distract herself by poking a stick at Mrs. Clay, and asks her, hey, didn’t I see you having a regular old chin-wag with Mr. Elliot three hours after he was supposedly on the road out of town? And she’s immediately rewarded with a spasm of guilt in Mrs. Clay’s face.

It was transient, cleared away in an instant, but Anne could imagine she read there the consciousness of having, by some complication of mutual trick or some overbearing authority of his, been obliged to attend (perhaps for half an hour) to his lectures and restrictions on her designs on Sir Walter.

Mrs. Clay replies by laughing, oh, hahahaha, yes I was SO SURPRISED to see him, hahahahaha, imagine, he was running late and I was in a hurry, hahahaha, imagine me forgetting to mention it, hahahaha, my head is so full of the party preparation I guess, hahahaha.

I can only imagine the hairy eyeball Anne gives her.

The day of the party dawns; and Anne has “promised to be with the Musgroves from breakfast to dinner”, which means once again Lady Russell is put off. (You have to wonder whether Lady R. has now realizes she’s being ignored, and has started to worry. We can but hope.) Anne arrives at the White Hart (the Musgroves’ inn) and finds only Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft talking together, and Captain Harville and Captain Wentworth doing similarly. She sits down to await the arrival of the others—and, with her mind free, finds herself suddenly attacked by all the anxieties and uncertainties she’s been feeling since yesterday. She “was deep in the happiness of such misery, or the misery of such happiness, instantly.” Beautifully constructed line.

Then Captain Wentworth says, “We will write the letter we were talking of, Harville, now, if you will give me materials.” Materials are duly given, and he goes off to a desk and begins writing.

So the room is quiet, except for Mrs. Musgrove droning on to Mrs. Croft. Austen turns this into a magnificently funny little set piece—you can just tell she’s showing off—where she completely nails what it’s like to be unable not to listen to the trivial chatter of somebody near to you.

…[Anne] could not avoid hearing many undesirable particulars, such as “how Mr. Musgrove and my brother Hayter had met again and again to talk it over; what my brother Hayter had said one day, and what Mr. Musgrove proposed the next, and what had occurred to my sister Hayter, and what the young people had wished, and what I said at first I never could consent to, but was afterwards persuaded to think might do very well”…

Technically ingenious, and terribly funny.

Minutes later the two women are bonding over their mutual disapproval of long engagements—the only thing worse being “an uncertain engagement; an engagement which may be too long.” Suddenly Anne’s listening with both ears, once again hearing things she can’t help applying to her own condition. “To begin without knowing that at such a time there will be the means of marrying,” says Mrs. Musgrove. “I hold to be very unsafe and unwise, and what, I think, all parents should prevent as far as they can.”

And it’s not just Anne who hears this through the filter of her own experience; “Captain Wentworth’s pen ceased to move, his head was raised, pausing, listening, and he turned round the next instant to give her a look—one quick, conscious look at her.”

After which, as you may expect, “Anne heard nothing distinctly; it was only a buzz of words in her ear, her mind was in a confusion.” Sort of like when you’re drinking in a bar where the TV is too loud. And so it remains until Captain Harville, standing by a window, motions her over to join him; and when she does, he shows her a miniature painting, and asks if she knows who it is. Of course she does; it’s clearly Captain Benwick. “Yes,” he replies, “and you may guess who it is for. But (in a deep tone) it was not done for her.”

Turns out the miniature was painted as a gift for Captain Harville’s sister, and Benwick was bringing it home to her when she died. “And I have now the charge of getting it properly set for another!” Harville sighs. In fact, the letter Captain Wentworth is now writing, is directed to the jeweler chosen for the task—Harville himself apparently not being up to the task, due to latent grief on his sister’s behalf. “Poor Fanny!” he laments, “she would not have forgotten him so soon!”

And so we enter into a comparatively brief (only three pages) but passionately urgent debate between Captain Harville and Anne on the fidelity of men’s hearts versus women’s. It’s the structural, thematic, and emotional crux of the novel, and it contains Austen’s best, most beautifully plangent writing; it’s possibly my favorite sequence from any of her novels. Which is odd, because here she steps clear outside her role as a comic author, and just delivers up the goods direct to your solar plexus. If some people insist on calling Persuasion Austen’s “serious” novel, it may be because of this scene. There’s nothing in it that plays to Austen’s strength as a humorist, satirist, ironist, whatever; it’s a narrative tightrope walk, and we almost read it without breathing, because the inescapable sense imparted by each syllable, is Everything Depends On This.

It’s difficult to summarize; the temptation is just to transcribe the whole goddamn thing. But the essence is as follows.

Anne argues for female fidelity.

“We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us. 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, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impression.”

This is what we might call the constructionist argument, because it attributes women’s faithfulness, and men’s ability to forget, to socially imposed circumstances. Harville dismisses it, and argues his case based on the opposing, essentialist viewpoint, which is that men are more faithful than women because of biology: “I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather.” Anne immediately counters: “Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments.”

“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.”

It’s at this point that Anne becomes aware that the skritch-skritch-skritch of Captain Wentworth’s pen has stopped; and she turns, “startled at finding him nearer than she had supposed,” and presumably having heard everything she’s been saying. Harville, seeing that he’s stopped writing, asks if he’s finished the letter; Wentworth says five minutes, Harville says no hurry.

Then Harville turns back to Anne and tries to make the case for women’s inconstancy by citing literature, which he seems to realize is a pretty lame argument even as he’s speaking it, and he concludes by saying, “But perhaps you will say, these [books] were all written by men.” Anne (and perhaps, Austen herself, bleeding through her creation) says yes, “Men have every advantage of us in telling their own story…I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

After a little additional debate, Harville switches tack, moving from an intellectual argument to an emotional one; and baby, does it pack a wallop.

“Ah!” cried Captain Harville, in a tone of strong feeling, “if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!’ ”

He continues in this vein—either because his feelings have run away with him, or because he sees the effect it’s having on Anne, which is considerable. But when he finally concludes, she has an answer ready, and it’s one of those immortal Jane Austen passages many people instantly recognize as hers, whether they’ve read any of her books or not. She doesn’t dispute or undervalue the “warmth and faithful feelings” of men, she assures Harville.

“No, I believe you capable of every thing great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as—if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. 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.”

She can’t continue; “her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed.” But she doesn’t have to: she’s carried her point. “You are a good soul,” Captain Harville tells her. “There is no quarreling with you.—And when I think of Benwick, my tongue is tied.”

Comedy, for me, works best when there’s something real at stake—something vital. The exhilaration of making it across a chasm, after all, is directly proportional to how far you have to fall. One of the reasons Emma never quite entirely works for me is that there’s never any real peril; from beginning to end, our heroine is loved and protected and safe from all harm (if not from occasional embarrassment). The humor in her story is for its own sake; it’s not in alleviation of, or in contrast to, something darker and deeper.

The risk to Anne Elliot, on the other hand, is real; she’s gambled and lost, and her life is a kind of desolation. Her only solace is in her own utility; she finds a subsistence-level validation in being an adjunct to other people’s lives.

This mere shadow of a life is her final fate—unless she can seize the second chance offered her by an unforeseeable quirk of circumstance. All the laughter—all the mockery—all the jests and jokes and jabs—have led us to this decisive moment: this naked, unbearable moment.

The spell is abruptly broken; Mrs. Croft is getting up, taking her leave. Busyness…chatter…Harville asks whether Wentworth has finished the goddamn letter already, or what. Wentworth says, almost there, just a sec; and he seals up the letter “with great rapidity,” and hurriedly joins Captain Harville, who leaves Anne with a “Good morning, God bless you”—but from Wentworth, “not a word, not a look. He had passed out of the room without a look!”

Appalling tension…then almost crippling release. He comes back in, on the pretext of having forgotten his gloves; and in the act of retrieving them, “drew out a letter from under the scattered paper, [and] placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed for a moment”.  Then he slips back out, leaving Anne feeling like he’s just reordered all the laws of physics at a stroke and she no longer has any idea which way “up” is.

She looks the letter: it’s addressed to “Miss A.E.—.” In her present condition, possibly it takes Anne a second or two to realize, oh, that’s me. So, when he had said he hadn’t finished Captain Harville’s letter yet, he actually had; and he was furtively writing this second one, to her.

She doesn’t spend a lot of time savoring the wonderful irony of this. “Any thing was possible, any thing might be defied rather than suspense.” So, with Mrs. Musgrove still nattering about in the background, she plunks down and opens the letter, and dives right in.

It begins without preamble.

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half in 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. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.

This is what I like best about Austen heroes: they way they get right to the point. Sweep aside the clutter and just cut to the goddamn chase.

He goes on in this same manner—decisive, declarative, and yet winningly deferential—concluding with a postscript stating that he’ll return “as soon as possible. A word, a look will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening, or never.”

For Anne, such a letter “was not to be soon recovered from.” Smelling salts may be in order, or possibly a cattle prod. While she’s still reeling from “overpowering happiness,” Charles, Mary and Henrietta come in, several scenes into a three-act play of their own, but Anne “began not to understand a word they said, and was obliged to plead indisposition and excuse herself.” All these chattering macaques are the last thing she needs, when she’s got Captain Wentworth’s sonorous sentences tolling gorgeously in her head.

But pleading indisposition is the wrong thing to do, because now they’re all standing over her, fussing and jabbering and flapping their arms. “Would they only have gone away, and left her in the quiet possession of that room, it would have been the cure;” but since that’s not likely to happen, she takes the matter into her own hands: she’ll go instead—return home, where she can reflect in private.

The idea of her going home alone, when she’s not well, causes another flurry of protest and argument and alternate plans, till Anne agrees under pressure to let Charles escort her to Camden-place. But before she departs, she earnestly asks Mrs. Musgrove to “assure Captain Harville, and Captain Wentworth, that we hope to see them both” at the party later.  Mrs. Musgrove says she will, but Anne takes both her arms and gets right up in her face and is like, Seriously, I mean it, tell them exactly what I just said, and Mrs. Musgrove, possible in fear of being eaten alive, says oh I will I will absolutely you betcha.

Even so, out in the street, Anne is more than half hopeful of running into the captain, and being able to give him her answer in person. And whaddaya know, as she and Charles make their way towards Camden-place, “a something of familiar sound, gave her two moments preparation of Captain Wentworth.” And there he is, big as life—but “irresolute, whether to join them or to pass on”, until Anne “could command herself enough to receive that look, at not repulsively.”

Finally, we have the hero and heroine acknowledging their love to each other; and so far from being a passage of vulgar overindulgence in feelings and sensations and skyrockets and rainbows, the ever-astringent Austen describes it for us by way of a negative—telling us what isn’t, not what is—that Anne receives Captain Wentworth’s look “not repulsively.”

Charles is delighted to see him, because if he’s headed the right way he can take Anne off his hands, and he can still make an appointment with a gun merchant across town (we should probably worry about a husband of Mary having too many guns). And again, we get the captain’s reply in the form of a negative: “There could not be an objection.”

And here they, alone together after more than eight years, and in perfect accord. It’s very satisfying, for us as well as for them, as they spend a grateful hour retracing the route by which they came to this pass. “And there, as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling house-keepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children”—note again the emphasis on the negative: Austen is illustrating their emotional state by painstakingly detailing what they don’t see—“they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgments, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest.”

Yes, he had been jealous of Mr. Elliot. No, he had never in love with Louisa. Yes, it was in Lyme that he learned “to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind.” Meaning: yeah, an overly cautious Anne Elliot didn’t look so bad, when he was on his hands and knees looking for bits of brain from the cracked head of an overly impulsive Louisa Musgrove. But by that time, it was a tad too late. “I found…that I was considered by Harville an engaged man!” And not just by Harville: Louisa’s own family were pretty much just waiting for official confirmation.

So he chose retreat as the better part of valor. He “determined to leave Lyme, and await her complete recovery elsewhere. He would gladly weaken, by any fair means, whatever feelings or speculations concerning him might exist;” and so he went to stay with his brother for six weeks…his newly, happily married brother. Who also, he tells Anne, “enquired after you very particularly; asked even if you were personally altered, little suspecting that to my eye you could never alter.” Anne quietly—but totally—grooves on hearing this.

It is something for a woman to be assured, in her eight-and-twentieth year, that she has not lost one charm of earlier youth; but the value of such homage was inexpressibly increased to Anne, by comparing it with former words, and feeling it to be the result, not the cause of a revival of his warm attachment.

When news reached him of Louisa’s engagement to Benwick, he felt a tremendous liberation; and a fierce resolve to head straight to Bath and put things right with Anne, if at all possible. “I could never doubt that you would be loved and sought by others,” he explains, “but I knew to a certainty that you had refused one man at least, of better pretensions than myself: and I could not help often saying, Was this for me?”

But, as we know, he found her being possessively pawed over by Mr. Elliot, whose intentions were pretty freakin’ clear. And the “horrible eligibilities and proprieties” of such a match made it even worse for him—as did the realization that it was “the certain wish of every being who could hope to influence you”—especially Lady Russell, whose authority over Anne was something he knew only too bloody goddamn well.

They continue thrashing through all this till they reach Camden-place; and Anne finally gets the privacy and quiet she’s been gasping for, to corral all her spiraling spirits and tether them a little more safely to terra firm.

An interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of every thing dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.

Jesus. Who else in the history of English letters could have written that sentence? Astringency over exuberancy; transcendence over indulgence; command over compulsion…all hallmarks of the Jane Austen heroine at her finest. And of the author herself, whose works—even the most problematic—stand as testaments to these very virtues. There’s nothing sloppy in Austen, nothing sappy or slavish; she’s about as yielding as iron. The world around her is a morass of social and emotional tumult, but she easily holds her place. In fact, the more the rest of us slide and sink, the more heroically fixed she seems.

Time at last for the big bash at Camden-place. “It was but a card-party, it was but a mixture of those who had never met before”—including such disparate elements as the Dalrymples and the Harvilles—“and those who met too often”—such as Lady Russell and, oh, take your pick—“a common-place business, too numerous for intimacy, too small for variety; but Anne had never found an evening shorter.” She’s all aglow, and has the genuine warm-fuzzies for everyone in the house—which is no mean feat, considering this crowd.

With Captain Wentworth, of course, she’s at her most sparkling, and when the two of them slip away together, “each apparently occupied in admiring a fine display of green-house plants”—God is in the details, baby—they get right back to fine-toothing their rather byzantine paths to their present bliss. Anne surprises us by saying that, on reflection, she was “perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now”; not that Lady Russell herself was right, but that’s beside the point.

“…I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.”

Captain Wentworth hears all this, but is a little bit stuck on that “friend whom you will love better than you do now” business. But for Anne’s sake, he gives it the benefit of the doubt: “I trust to being in charity with her soon.” Especially since he, too, has been busy reflecting, and has figured out that there is “one person more my enemy even than that lady”—he himself. If he’d just gone back to Anne once he’d become a success, and proposed a second time, she’d have accepted him in a New York minute.

“But I was proud, too proud to ask again. I did not understand you. I shut my eyes, and would not understand you, or do you justice. This is a recollection which ought to make me forgive every one sooner than myself. Six years of separation and suffering might have been spared. It is a sort of pain, too, which is new to me. I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses,” he added with a smile, “I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.”

“Who can be in doubt of what followed?” Austen says—apparently growing a little impatient to have it all over with, as she usually is once she’s finally cleared away all the obstacles for her principal pets. We get the expected rundown on everyone’s reactions. Sir Walter and Elizabeth, while unmoved, raise no fuss. Quite the contrary: Captain Wentworth is now a man of sufficient stature and fortune to make an appropriate match for the daughter “of a foolish, spendthrift baronet, who not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him”—and in fact Sir Walter, hilariously and characteristically, finds himself as won over by Captain Wentworth’s chiseled good looks as by anything else. As for Lady Russell, there was nothing less for her to do, “than to admit that she had been pretty completely wrong, and take up a new set of opinions and of hopes.” I might have changed that to, take up the life of a cloistered order, but I wouldn’t wish that on the other nuns.

Mary, it turns out, is the happiest with the news, because “it was creditable to have a sister married, and she might flatter herself with having been greatly instrumental in the connection” by having had Anne as her guest when Captain Wentworth first came to Uppercross. Also, it’s very satisfying that her sister is marrying so much better than Charles’s. And even though Anne’s marriage means she’ll now take precedence over Mary, Mary takes consolation in the fact that Captain Wentworth, unlike Charles Musgrove, has no property to inherit; he’ll never be landed gentry. If she “could but keep Captain Wentworth form being made a baronet, she would not change places with Anne.”

And Mr. Elliot?…He proves to be a pretty adaptable guy. Anne’s engagement means the end of his hope “of keeping Sir Walter single by the watchfulness which a son-in-law’s rights would have given…But, though discomfited and disappointed, he could still do something for his own interest and enjoyment.” Which is to work the other angle in the keep-Sir-Walter-single sweepstakes, and seduce Mrs. Clay away from the baronet…something he seems to have toyed with doing even before Anne slipped away from him (as witness the little frisson between Mrs. Clay and him, and that clandestine meeting outside the White Hart).

To Sir Walter’s and Elizabeth’s vast mortification and horror, the two elope to London, where Mr. Elliot installs Mrs. Clay as his mistress. And again, let me just say—if Mrs. Clay were really such a scheming adventuress, out for Sir Walter’s title and property, she’d scarcely have allowed herself to be distracted from it by some young turk’s fancy moves. I really do think Mrs. Clay is just a woman alone in the world, aware that she needs a man, and willing to pursue the best candidate she can find. Mr. Elliot may have played this trick more on himself, than on anybody else. Austen even admits that Mrs. Clay “has abilities…as well as affections”, and doesn’t discount her getting that Lady Elliot title after all—but from Sir William, not Sir Walter.

With this noxious mass of Elliot intrigue playing out, Anne finds that she has “no other alloy to the happiness of her prospects than what arose from the consciousness of having no relations to bestow on him which a man of sense could value.” Hey, I barked a laugh. But she does have two close friends, Lady Russell and Mrs. Smith, both of whom Captain Wentworth comes to value in time. (Austen doesn’t say how much time; but surely no more than twenty, thirty years.)

He even intervenes on Mrs. Smith’s behalf in sorting our her West Indies property, so that Austen is able to end this—her final novel (though she wouldn’t have known it to be so)—on a wonderfully characteristic note. Rather than immerse herself in tiresome romantic clichés, she gives us this completely unsentimental, blisteringly ironic bit of hilarity:

Mrs. Smith’s enjoyments were not spoiled by this improvement of income, with some improvement of health, and the acquisition of such friends to be often with, for her cheerfulness and mental alacrity did not fail her; and while these prime supplies of good remained, she might have bid defiance even to greater accessions of worldly prosperity. She might have been absolutely rich and perfectly healthy, and yet be happy.

No wonder Austen fell out of fashion with Victorians. Those terribly earnest, terribly feeling people would have been utterly confused by this kind of humor, and possibly even frightened by it.

There’s nothing left for Austen but to tip her hat to her hero and heroine as they sail away together, with just a sliver of darkness embedded in the gesture (a reference to “the dread of a future war”) to blunt the implication a happily-ever-after.

[Anne] gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtue than in its national importance.

And with that, she’s done with them. And, if she but knew it, with us.

The reverse, need I point out, is unlikely ever to be the case.

Next time: A few final words.