As She Lay Dying

As she lay dying, Jane Austen finished (if not polished) my own personal second-favorite novel of hers (after Pride & Prejudice), a novel whose value to me probably requires a bit of explanation. So, therefore, today I would like to ponder some of the reasons why this novel strikes such a chord with me, even if it is one of her more obscure works, and hopefully provide a little bit of context as to my interest in Jane Austen’s novel as a whole, as odd as that might seem to be to some. As there are so many ironies about this particular novel in my own life and in the life and death of its author, let us begin.

Jane Austen wrote six mature completed works during her all-too-brief lifetime, which began during the American Revolution and ended shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Nearly her entire life was spent with an England at war, which had some tragic results on her own life, including the drastic shortage of men which led to many young gentry women (like herself) being unable to find a suitable spouse, and leaving her a spinster. Jane Austen had one chance to elope and another chance to marry a friend and have a companionate but not very romantic marriage and no other serious opportunities of courtship herself. Her sister got engaged to a man who died in the West Indies during the long period of warfare during the late 1700’s, and that was her only chance at marriage. It is a sobering reminder to think that the fate of a life could rest on one or two relationships or chances in a small and somewhat incestuous social circle, which all of the pressure that led to. Sadly, I can relate in at least a small way to this.

Jane Austen wrote comedies, though, and not tragedies, a decision that was remarkably brave given the course of her own tragic life. She chose to make all of her novels have happy endings, even though they are realistically happy and not without the reality of genuine problems and difficulties. While dying of Addison’s disease, a cruel disease of the adrenals where they do not produce enough steriods, Jane Austen finished writing Persuasion, a novel that deals with the recovery of lost bloom, second chances, and loyal love. Though she did not see a second spring restored to good health and to beauty and happiness, she never lost the hope of that restoration, and continued to write about that hope to the very end. There is a sort of sad bravery about her task, combining the vivid life of her mind and heart with her rather circumscribed conditions and untimely and all-too premature death.

At the core of Persuasion are two characters, one Anne Elliot and one Captain Frederick Wentworth. Anne Elliot is the second daughter of an impovershed English baronet who seeks an escape from debt as a gentleman in Bath, letting his ancestral estate to an Admiral returned from war on shore duty. Anne had one shot at romance, with the young Capatain Wentworth, and was persuaded by the hostility of her father to the match (which he viewed as improper) and by the active efforts of the woman she saw as a mother, Lady Russell, who did not think them a suitable pair. Despite being a decent and largely blameless young woman herself, she suffered terribly for her refusal to continue their engagement, losing her bloom, a great deal of her happiness and spirits, and was largely seen as a spinster even in her late 20’s, when the novel begins. She is used to being ignored and mistreated by her family, and while she delights in serving others, knows very little personal pleasure in her own life, despite being a person of great gifts and considerable shy charm.

Frederick Wentworth also offers a great deal that I can relate to. He is a man who came from a somewhat obscure background to be a successful captain in the British navy, dashing and brave, with an independent fortune, open-hearted and sincere, but also a bit insecure in love, and a person whose heart remained loyal despite his anger at the initial refusal of Anne to continue the engagement. Peace finds him single and looking to marry and settle down, without an estate of his own but with a supportive family that happens to throw him into the circle of Anne Elliott once again, some eight years after their initial engagement. The novel seeks to resolve their unfinished business between these two noble-hearted characters despite the difficulties of family and money that surround them, and Frederick’s own lack of sense when it comes to allowing the attentions of young women he is not seriously interested in but finds himself caught by as a result of his own folly. The happy ending is well-deserved, and provides a sense of hope for a young woman who had a lot to offer but who was not aggressive, as well as a young man whose shyness in love was ultimately not fatal either thanks to his generally courageous and open heart.

The most miraculous element of the novel comes from the return of Anne Elliot to her bloom and beauty at Lyme, where she attracts the attention of her cousin and shows her good judgment and good sense that returns her to the respect and admiration of Captain Wentworth, whose status as a young self-made outsider is certainly one I can relate to. She gets a second chance at first love, chosing to cast of the shackles of attachment to wealth and family name to seek a husband of good character and of a noble personality. The folly of her brother-in-law’s sister Louisa in being reckless and headstrong causes the most violent event in Jane Austen’s novels (aside from a duel referenced between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility that is often overlooked), an event that leads Wentworth to reflect on how his honor was bound to a young woman he did not love even as he was now openly in love with another whose love he doubted.

The most romantic lines of the novel come in the form of his poorly written letter at the end of the novel, in the midst of a fascinating conversation where Frederick is overhearing Anne and one of Frederick’s friends talking about love and constancy between men and women: “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 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. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W. I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

To me, though, there are equally poignant lines said by Anne herself shortly before this: “”Oh!” cried Anne eagerly, “I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures! I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything 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.” As a person who is both romantic and deeply melancholy, and someone whose efforts at love and courtship have been largely disastrous to my own well-being, I feel a great deal of empathy for Anne Elliot, as a modest and likeable and tender-hearted young woman such as she is deserved a better fate than she suffered in literature. Having seen such tender hearts suffer in real life because of the opposition of parents or the inconstancy of lovers, Jane Austen’s portrayal cuts rather close to the bone. Being an open-hearted young man like Captain Wentworth, I would wish for my own Anne Elliot for myself, if God is ever so gracious.

Nearly two hundred years ago, a dying and obscure spinster wrote a novel about second chances for love and the beauty and bloom of youth, between two loyal and open-hearted and sincere and tender-hearted young people. Because of her death, that novel was not polished to the same degree many of other works were–in particular, the role of Mrs. Smith in sharing information that ultimately sinks the chances of Mr. Elliot with his cousin–but because of the situation of the characters and its relationship to my own life and concerns, Persuasion has long been a novel that I could relate to a great deal. The fact that her work still continues to inspire and encourage almost two centures after her death is the mark of genius, as well as a mark of how little humanity changes over time in matters of the heart and spirit.

[1] Austen, Jane (2012-05-16). Persuasion (pp. 155-156). . Kindle Edition.

[2] Austen, Jane (2012-05-16). Persuasion (p. 154-155). . Kindle Edition.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Love & Marriage, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to As She Lay Dying

  1. Well done! I relate to Anne on a deeply personal level as well. The bloom of youth should never die when it comes to true love, for it is far better to be a young spirit within an old soul than the other way around.

    • Yes, I was reading Persuasion not too long ago (I have the e-book for it on my laptop) and I was led to ponder on my feeling of fellowship with her and Captain Wentworth.

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