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Posts Tagged ‘Nut-brown maid’


Ciarhan Hinds as Wentworth lifting Amanda Root as Anne Elliot into the carriage with the Crofts (1995 BBC Persuasion)

Henry: ‘Condemn’d in lonely Woods a banish’d Man to rove’
Emma: ‘That I, of all Mankind, will love but Thee alone’– Prior, Henry and Emma

Friends and readers,

Still on this question of how intertextuality’s layers deepen the meaning of a text (or film).

Last time I wrote of Persuasion, I traced the threads Austen wove therein from Charlotte Smith’s elegiac poems and Austen’s knowledge of Smith’s difficult life (betrayed by a husband, impoverished, crippled) in the context of other intensely romantic poets and texts (Byron, Shelley, Edmund Spenser): the characters from this angle in the novel present themselves as melancholy, plangent, drenched in irretrievable loss, with anecdotal counterparts presenting a prosaic buoyant hope in renewal.


Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot cracking under the strain of remembering what was (2007 ITV Persuasion)


Helen Schlesinger as the cheerful disabled Mrs Smith (1995 Persuasion)

Tonight I want to write of another longer skein of allusion in Persuasion, which if examined turns out to reach across the novel, and offer readings about loyalty, male obduracy and suspicion of women, female abjection, constancy in love, sex, men and women’s natures and circumstances from Pride and Prejudice through to this last sixth full novel. This time it is a case of a text redolent with a cynical realistic disillusioned wit, which connects to the most plangent poignant moments of Persuasion and its comic-ironic, and burlesque elements too.


Dancing at Uppercross (1995 Persuasion) — one of the lighter moments in the film

I move to the first half of the 18th century, to Matthew Prior whose forte in lighter verse, tales and narratives, and lyrics was ironical sentiment. Once very well-known, to 18th century audiences and perhaps into the early 19th (I surmise Byron could have enjoyed his poetry, and his more serious philosophical metaphysics continued to be read), technically speaking, Prior is said by some to be the best male poet between Dryden and Pope. His Poems on Several Occasions (1709) appears to have been well-known until late in the century, and printed there are the two poems we will deal with, The Nut-Brown Maid (1503?), followed by Henry and Emma (by Prior), as an imitation (an invitation to the reader to compare), frequently alluded to.


Prior’s Collected Poems (1719), with featured frontispiece an imagined moment from Henry and Emma

There is another edition of Prior that Austen could have read these two poems in. At the close of an honorable career as a diplomat (if competence and producing useful treatises hard to negotiate means anything), in 1719 underpaid, undervalued partly because of his original low rank, Prior found himself near broke. His many influential political and poetic friends, Pope, Swift, Harley, Bathurst, Arbuthnot (see Ripply, Matthew Prior, a Twayne Life, Chapter 1), using Tonson as publisher, helped him produce an immense volume of poetry by subscription (a large handsome folio, 500 pages long, 1,445 people subscribing for 1,786 copies). The sale made Prior independently secure (it’s thought he may have made as much as 4,000 guineas at 2 guineas each volume). Prior’s poems were reprinted in the 18th century and Austen could have read his poem elsewhere (the type of thing is exemplified by Dodsley, A collection of Poems in Six Volumes by Several Hands with notes, 1748, reprinted and enlarged numerous times, which however does not contain these poems). She probably read Prior in the 1709 edition where the medieval poem is included, but the 1719 reprint is as much a possibility.

Austen mentions Prior twice, both times in the posthumous sister volumes of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published by her brother and sister after her death. In the famous Chapter 5 of NA she inveighs against the over-valuation of male pseudo-scholarly texts over novels:

… while the abilities of the nine–hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.

If by chance a female reader is found reading a novel, she is shamed into self-deprecation and condescension:

‘It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is onlyCecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;’ or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of The Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it (1:5).

Not a very high recommendation. In his “Life of Prior,” Samuel Johnson is not keen on Prior’s comic and witty poetry about sex and love either. By this time in the century what was wanted in a lyric was something emotionally deep, the poetry of sensibility and I darsay the libertine and pessimistic are never openly popular. Prior’s verse links to the vein of John Gay’s insouciant wit. As far as we can tell from Austen’s letters, the poetry of sensibility was her preference too: she speaks highly of Cowper, Johnson, Crabbe, Charlotte Smith.


Louisa has just fallen and Wentworth and Anne are the first there (1995 Persuasion)

The second reference is in Persuasion. Louisa Musgrove has just fallen on her head and all are gathered around her, at first fearing a death from concussion. When Louisa is seen to be still breathing, everyone around her appears in a state of distress about her mental faculties, motor skills, general health from here on in. Anne has just felt rapture at overhearing Captain Wentworth describe her value as a nurse and organizer over Louisa (“No one so proper, so capable as Anne!”), but when Mary Musgrove, petty mean spiteful, and, ceaselessly actively jealous, insists on taking Anne’s place, Anne observes Wentworth so crestfallen for Louisa’s sake, seemingly indifferent to her, Anne; he cares intently about Louisa above all, and the “mortifying” conviction arises in Anne’s mind that she was “valued only as she could be useful to Louisa.” Prior again comes to Austen’s mind as partly narrator partly Anne:

She endeavoured to be composed, and to be just. Without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry, she would have attended on Louisa with a zeal above the common claims of regard, for his sake; and she hoped he would not long be so unjust as to suppose she would shrink unnecessarily from the office of a friend (1:12).

Anne is intensely conflicted but the parallel makes plain that while (as is implied) not quite as fanatically in love as Emma towards “her Henry” (it is clearly a case of love), Anne would have done everything she could for this girl that Wentworth seems to love so — in place of her whom he was once so devoted to.

The matter alluded to is, as I’ve suggested, Matthew Prior’s rewrite or sophisticated ironic imitation of a medieval ballad, The Nut-brown Maid turned into Henry and Emma, one of the more popular poems of the 18th century. Prior rewrites the medieval enigmatic narrative fully, adding all sorts of concrete circumstances in a spirit of part ironic mockery part sweet love tone. Both versions of the poem are stanzaic. In both Henry tests Emma: they have fallen in love and maybe have had sex (unclear in both medieval and Prior’s poem) and in the 18th century poem have hunted, danced, and courted to their heart’s content. It is over-time to marry.

In both the medieval and then 18th century poem Henry tests Emma by lying to her.  He pretends Emma’s father has rejected him or he has committed murder. He is now “Condemn’d in a lonely Woods a banish’d Man to rove.” She will have immediately to elope with him if they are not to be parted (this before they can marry). He tells her they will have nothing if they wed. In the medieval poem, Mozart-like (it anticipates Cosi Fan tutte), her loyalty to Henry is tested: does she love someone else? In both poems, he outlines a series of terrible deprivations: she will have to live in forests, go hungry, be despised for running away with him. In both poems, Emma says nothing of this matters. She throws all caution to the winds and trusts to him and time. She of “all mankind” will “love him alone.” That’s the dual refrain. He keeps at it and names sacrifice after sacrifice, and at the last in the 18th century poem he says he has another mistress and loves her too, and she will have to serve this mistress, Now, is that all right? Will she still come? She will have this other woman as rival.

Well, she’s up to each turn of the screw: she will herself care for this other woman. At that Henry is satisfied and tells her in fact they are as a pair accepted by her father. In the medieval tale he had pretended to be a peasant and reveals he is a prince.  In the 18th century poem, he has no other mistress. The reader the first time through is fooled too (rather like Austen’s novels, which often at first omit vital information). Henry had decided to test Emma’s loyalty to him, her resolve, her faithfulness, chastity, if you will. She has proved herself faithful and worthy of him.  The ballad is crude, but at moments there is mild melancholy wildness; Prior’s are sometimes verses of sensibility and sometimes our implied author is tongue-in-cheek.


Anne musing climbing the stairs (1995 Persuasion)

Is Austen likening Anne Elliot to Prior’s Emma and that original nut-brown maid? If so, because the Prior poem is satiric, is she partly mocking Anne Elliot? One critic, Galperin (The Historical Austen) argues the whole novel is burlesque, and we have been misreading it. The cancelled ending is in fact the true and better one, and there we see how comic it was supposed to be. Galperin insinuates not only did Henry and Cassandra misname the books, but they chose a different text than Austen intended.

I’m hard put to see Persuasion as a sort of mean burlesque.  David Selwyn in his book, Jane Austen and Leisure demonstrated Persusion takes up anguished analogous issues in poems with closely similarly stories in his Tales: in “Procrastination”  and “Delay has Dangers,” a young couple are made to wait prudently,  never get together, and live out their lives apart in grief and/or desolation. In “Danger has Delay” we find a Mrs Norris figure turning her heroine into her way of thinking.   Although there is much ironic comedy, one ribald moment (oddly enough over death), and gentle fun at Anne’s high musings of constancy and romance as she walks the streets of Bath, Austen’s Persuasion is as serious about these losses as George Crabbe (who in her letters she declares was in spirit like a husband). As in Mansfield Park and Austen’s treatment of Fanny Price (also found in Crabbe’s tales) on my pulses I know it’s deeply felt.

At least Austen is saying Anne over-does it? Anne Elliot is not quite an Emma but she is coming close because she is so in love, so desperate and so abject. Wentworth is not deliberately testing Anne: Persuasion is no literary stereotypical misogynistic texts where the assumption is woman are fickle, promiscuous, can be turned like weathercocks. Again Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte (thus do all females) comes to mind.

The misogynistic perspective is in fact one Austen may be eager to counter. This is confirmed in a long dialogue at the close Persuasion that links to the theme of inconstancy, using the 18th century language we find in Persuasion, loyalty to an attachment after the person has died. All will recall how at the White Hart Inn, Anne finds Wentworth’s friend, the disabled Captain Harville grieving openly for the death of his sister, Phoebe, because he is hurt for her: “Poor Fanny! she would not have forgotten him so soon!” Captain Benwick had claimed he would never forget Phoebe, or know another love, but has nonetheless within a very few weeks fallen in love with Louisa Musgrove. Where was his vaunted depth if he could forget so soon? Harville has not forgotten his sister. One could say (were one privy to scenes not dramatized in the book) Benwick took advantage of Louisa, however half-unconsciously in his own need. Louisa was susceptible because she was emotionally and physically weak and vulnerable after falling from a stone stairway. Harville explains that Wentworth is taking the framed miniature of Benwick that had been meant for Phoebe, and having it re-framed it for Louisa so Harville need not do this (Persuasion, 2:11).


Robert Glenister as Captain Harville and Anne having their talk over the re-framed miniature

The word used is “inconstancy.”  From Benwick’s case Harville and Anne debate over whether men or women are the most inconstant. Paradoxically — in the face of his assertion that Fanny Harville would have been more faithful than Benwick — Harville insists men are most constant, most in need of their families and emotional support because they must sail far away and spend so much alone (it seems) on a ship. All literature proves this, says he. Anne objects that literature proves nothing of the sort as it is written by men; she eloquently protests that precisely because women don’t go out and endure dangerous adventures in the world, but stay at home, they are “preyed upon” by their feelings. They have no other outlet, cannot forget, as they are given no other object. Still Harville is not convinced and she,not contented with defending women based on the idea they have no way to be inconstant, pivots on the idea on the need for an object. She has not read Donald Winnicott but she knows how central to women the need to feel attached and needed:

‘I believe you [men in general] 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! (2:11 or 24).

This extraordinary compelling moment of Anne asserting as the privilege the right to feel fully something self-destructive, deeply hurtful to the personality structure shows Austen has moved full circle from Prior’s tongue-in-cheek dual poems.  Austen began with alluding to Prior comically over too abject a love to finding something deeply disquieting in the pains of unreciprocated love which still holds out. Constancy is not a matter for misogynistic testing, and if it truly exists in women (quite contrary to what men claim), it’s because they are given nothing else.


Joseph Mawle as Harville and Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth half-discussing Wentworth’s change of heart (added scene in 2007 Persuasion)

As it turns out, when Wentworth sees by everyone’s response to what happened to Louisa after she falls, and that he is now expected to behave like a bethrothed, realizes he has gone too far. He wakes up to remember this is a girl with a very simplistic understanding of what he was getting at in his lectures on not being persuaded away from what you had determined upon . When he leaves Anna off at Uppercross and returns to Bath, he realizes he wants out. It was Anne who kept him and held his attention at Upper Cross and Lyme.  Much later Anne finds out he hurried away to visit his brother — thus leaving “the field” (Louisa) open to Benwick. Anne herself (and Lady Russell) had been hoping for Benwick to come to her as he seemed about to propose to her. Benwick says he cannot come and we realize later that’s because he is already on the rebound to Louisa. As Louisa was not deeply committed to Wentworth, she cannot be accused of inconstancy. The attachment was short in time and thus remained superficial and she easily moves to Benwick. Wentworth’s removal of himself succeeds.

What is the gain of this layering of meaning interwoven here? The satiric perspective provides a hard questioning edge to Austen’s text: in the autumn Wentworth had been flirting with Louisa, but finding himself irresistibly drawn to Anne, began dialoguing about people who are over-persuaded from seizing their heart’s desires. Then when Louisa takes this too seriously and has an accident as she attempts to prove she is above (beyond?) persuasion, he uses Anne as nurse without truly thinking of her as a person. Anne is overly abject, but pulls up just in time as she feels resentment (however slight) for being valued only for what she can do for Louisa. Anne is also conflicted, wanting to do what Wentworth wants, and to do what is right for him, Louisa, herself, not to omit Benwick. We have seen how Wentworth torments Anne and almost marries Louisa.


A scene from the BBC 1971 Persuasion: Anne not strong almost falls (early in this not-well-known film)

The second sensibility perspective makes us look more deeply into this notion of constancy: why is what Harville contends (and the medieval and Prior poem assumed), that women are inconstant not true. Their circumstances and psychology makes them vulnerable to emotional attachments, however painful and potentially destructive to them. After 8 years of Wentworth’s absence, Anne has aged and became haggard. She has been given no adequate substitute our narrator says. She rightly does not like the superficial Bath, and Charles (offered as an appropriate partner at age 22) is not an adequate partner for her. I believe if Crabbe is there in the subtext Austen is also showing how cruel over-prudence can be, and we have the early and many years of joy of Captain and Mrs Croft to assure us, and Mrs Croft’s words to re-enforce the counter-idea that the risks are worth it.

The novel does not discount the harm that may be done by marrying someone unfitted to our temperament — without saying there can be only one partner. Charles is much the worse as a character for having married Mary. It’s the non-thinking Charles who mistakes his sister to think she’ll change her nature and they’ll be ever so happy. In the assembly rooms in the spring Wentworth of course is also thinking of himself and Anne as he speaks to her, trying to reach her. So constancy as an ideal is not absolute. We are given enough to suggest that in future Benwick and Louisa will be another of the many mismatches in Austen. For the moment sex, love, emotionalism takes both over but as time goes on, Wentworth says, Benwick as a thinking man — as was Colonel Brandon in Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility — will be bored. This paradigm can suggest that Austen saw Colonel Brandon and Marianne Dashwood as eventually becoming a very happy couple indeed.  Louisa will eventually become restless. Inconstancy then arises from a lack of true compatibility.

‘I confess that I do think there is a disparity, too great a disparity, and in a point no less essential than mind. I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man; and I confess that I do consider his attaching himself to her with some surprise. Had it been the effect of gratitude, had he learnt to love her, because he believed her to be preferring him, it would have been another thing.'(2:8 or 20)

Eventually, Louisa and Benwick will be another of Austen’s several mismatched couples who were drawn together originally by sexual attraction and over-emotionalism and youth: from Mr and Mrs Bennet, the Palmers, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to perhaps Mr and Mrs Woodhouse, Admiral Tilney and poor Miss Drummond that was (Mrs Tilney’s birth or maiden family name), and Sir Walter and Lady Elliot. We never do see Benwick and Louisa together after we leave them at Lyme. Had Austen shown them, we might have foreseen what is to come by the present relationship.

Not only are there these complications of very different nuances coming out of this intertextual embedding of Prior, but the novel has another whole skein, which I began with, of very different sources and memories:  the poems of Charlotte Smith, the story of her life, the poetry of Byron, of Scott. We have an  intertextual groundwork in Crabbe’s stories of struggling poorer and middling couple deprived of what is most precious if intangible in life. Let us recall the famous marginalia of Cassandra scratched out next to Austen’s line in Persuasion: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning:”

‘Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold’ (quoted in Tomalin, JA: A Life, 260)

These intertextualities from other authors do not take precedence over the book’s naturalistic art and how it is close to its author’s heart, memories and life experience. The book is not called Melancholy, Abjection or Constancy, but Persuasion. Persuasion opens the book up to wider themes than erotic passion: it includes Austen herself as someone over-persuaded. It is limiting to see this as her remembering her youth when she was deprived of Tom Lefroy, or say remembering her own decision not to marry Brook Bridges (if Nokes is right and this romance as played out in Miss Austen Regrets was a second serious possibility), or give herself utterly to some other partner, we don’t know about, man or woman, for example, the mysterious romance by the seacoast Cassandra dreamt of, or Martha Lloyd. The cancelled manuscript reveals that Mrs Austen had given Austen a hard time over how she presented authority in the person of Lady Russell.


Fiona Shaw as Mrs Crofts (1995 Persuasion)

Austen herself as a writer and woman is involved, how she has allowed herself to be over-persuaded to live a life different than some other she yearned for (more as an independent writer?) and now that she is ill (another part of the novel’s subtext), dying there is no time. She writes she wishes she had read more. She dreams of going to sea in the figure of Mrs Crofts (so beautifully acted by Fiona Shaw in the 1995 film). I find the final moments of the 1995 Persuasion with Amanda Root as Anne in the sun on the bridge a beautiful fulfillment of actuating elements in the core of the book.


Amanda Root as Anne looking out to sea aboard a ship with Wentworth (1995 Persuasion)

Ellen

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