Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Great Moments in Reading, Part I

Summer 1992: The "Little Walter" Scene from Jane Austen's Persuasion

I remember that summer before Willie turned one as a season of idyllic days and long, hellish nights. During the day, I could set Willie down on the floor of the three-season porch to entertain himself with a paper cup. Willie would push the paper cup on its side and it would roll parabolically across the floor, and Willie would scoot after it on his belly. This seemed to fascinate him. Meanwhile, I could sit and read the novels of Jane Austen.

Persuasion had been assigned for a British Romanticism class that I took in college, but it was a novel that, at eighteen or nineteen, I was unprepared to appreciate. I had found the whole thing rather cool and dry compared with the heated effusions of Keats and Wordsworth that filled me with a dizzy recognition of adolescent longing. Returning to Persuasion nearly a decade later, I found it entirely transformed. One scene in particular seemed especially luminous in the light of my more mature experience.

Anne Elliot is in the drawing room, kneeling beside the sofa and attending to her injured nephew Charles. First, Captain Wentworth enters—the man she still loves, although several years earlier she was constrained by circumstances to reject his proposal of marriage. Captain Wentworth goes to stand at the window, and a moment later, another man enters and sits down with a newspaper. This man, Charles Hayter, regards Wentworth as a rival for the affections of one of the Musgrove sisters, and his presence increases the awkward tension in the room. Finally, the entrance of another of Anne’s nephews, two-year old Walter, completes the scene:

There being nothing to eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him teaze his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him—ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.

“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”

“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.”

Not a bit did Walter stir.

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

The brilliance of this passage—the tension between Captain Wentworth and Anne; the tension between Charles Hayter and his imagined rival; the nuisance of little Walter; the surprising intervention of Captain Wentworth—all of the brilliance that was lost to me at eighteen, filled me with profound admiration at twenty-eight.

The scene is constructed like a scene on the stage, with its well-timed entrances and dramatic lines of tension drawn between the characters. Jane Austen makes the reader see the scene in the drawing room, but she does more than that. In a letter to a friend, the novelist Maria Edgeworth wrote: “Don’t you see Captain Wentworth, or rather don’t you in her place feel him, taking the boisterous child off her back as she kneels by the sick boy on the sofa?” Don’t you in her place feel him? In the end, the scene is not so much observed as felt; experienced not as a scene on the stage, but from the inside. Jane Austen writes the reader into Anne Elliot’s place. Notice, for example, how beautifully constructed that last short paragraph is. Most of the sentence is constructed around a series of four passive verbs—being released, was taking, were unfastened, was borne—before shifting at last into the active voice: Captain Wentworth had done it. The sentence, with its weight on the passive voice, feels syntactically bent over. The final stress is not so much on Captain Wentworth’s action as on Anne’s realization of it.

I felt a shock of recognition as I read this passage, or perhaps a shock of premonition. Soon I would know too well that feeling of trying to take care of one child with another child on my back.

1 comment:

Shawbee said...

Great Moments in Reading:

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, this morning, on a hammock on a deck above Banda Aceh, Great Mosque to the left, mountains to the right.

"A journey is a lot different than the planning of it."

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