August 25, 1999
Re: S&S, II:7 (29): Deep Reverie: A Chapter of Letters
This is after the chapter in which Elinor watches from hour to hour, moment to moment almost, Marianne in her illness. It's one of the most powerful chapters in the novel. If I were Gaston Bachelard I would go on about reveries at dawn, up from consciousness, the etching on the mind of thoughts in flow outward into a letter. It's revealing that the edition of the screenplay for Emma Thompson's S&S reprints the still of Marianne writing at dawn, with Elinor on the bed in the dim light, watching her, the doppelgänger of romance made manifest in the repetition. Do others know some of the very many Baroque depictions of a woman by candlelight meditating a book (or skull?)?
The opening paragraph resembles an eruption (as Bachelard would say) from a dream world. Marianne arises from her bed and writes:
'BEFORE the housemaid had lit their fire the next day, or the sun gained any power over a cold, gloomy morning in January, Marianne, only half dressed, was kneeling against one of the window-seats for the sake of all the little light she could command from it, and writing as fast as a continual flow of tears would permit her. In this situation, Elinor, roused from sleep by her agitation and sobs, first perceived her; and after observing her for a few moments with silent anxiety, said, in a tone of the most considerate gentleness,
It is at this point the book takes a major swing. Up until now I think one could argue, despite many passages which are sympathetic to Marianne, a distance is always maintained, and a spirit of criticism drawn from various moral ideas or a rejection of passionate sensibility for various reasons are there. Not in this chapter. This chapter enters into Marianne's grief as if it were the writer's own.
It is actually a chapter of letters. We get a series of letters. These 'work' for us -- we understand them in a variety of ways -- because a deep groundwork of previous events has been laid. Aysin points out one of Willoughby's lies. We have seen how he got that lock of hair. So the letters provide satiric exposure; one response to these letters is to castigate the writer -- especially as the chapter is also one of responses. As important as the letters are the readings of the two women. Let us recall how Elizabeth's reading of Darcy's letter is as important and takes as much space across the rest of the novel as Darcy's letter (long as it is). Elinor is appalled; Marianne traumatised. We should, however -- and especially if this is our second reading -- realise the letters also reveal an authentic state of mind in Willoughby however disguised and twisted. People who write letters reveal themselves: the disguise itself tells you something.
Notice how Austen gives us Willoughby's last letter first. Then we get Marianne's first letter and second. This is a deliberate rearrangement. Note how they are poured out all at once. Time is rearranged to have a sudden climactic effect. The desperation the man who feels like a trapped animal only comes clear to us as we move onto Marianne's; one source of the falseness of it -- that it was the result of Miss Grey reading these that morning -- is only revealed later. Time is collapsed; psychological time takes precedence over chronological yet chronological is maintained.
One of the students I had this summer in the course in which I had students read S&S and watch the movie, compared an abridgement of one of Austen's texts which appeared in the screenplay volume to show how the movie producers had both softened the blows of Willoughby's letter and at the same time heightened the crass rejection. She saw in Willoughby's first a few hints at the reality he is facing which he is telling Marianne to face: he will be married soon; it is with great regret he returns ... &c&c I am not sure I am convinced. How open was Marianne in hers. How she left herself vulnerable. Thinking about it the second one could have been savaged. Think of some pest or troll taking Marianne's second; how they could have shamed and humiliated her.
There is the dialogue between Elinor and Marianne in which Austen reminds us that Elinor has experience something of the same betrayal, only one which she felt was not something planned and manipulated in the way of Willoughby. Which Edward's was not. Says Elinor: "Do you call me happy, Marinane? Ah! if you knew! -- And can you believe me to be so, when I see you so wretched?"' (p. 156).
An interesting dialogue. Marianne asserts the modern attitude which says that erotic love between two sexual partners trumps all other love relationships. Elinor says sisters, mothers, others count. They do, but I fear not as much to that intense desire for a peer fulfillment and deep companionship the sexual relationship answers. Then Elinor says, maybe you are better off. What would have happened had the engagement continued. Indeed. Deeper and deeper emotionally and intimately -- had Marianne and Willoughby met and gone off on one of their excursions together -- Marianne would have gone. Marianne looks up:
'"Engagement!" cried Marianne, "there has been no engagement."
And what was that, Marianne?
After the intense reading of our three texts (over Elinor's shoulder, through her eyes), Marianne's repetition of the phrases of Willoughby's letter is psychologically true. They burned into her mind. So too her sudden sense at the close of the chapter of exposed presumed guilt and self-exposure. On Austen-l someone suggested that Austen was simply imitating some detail in Cecilia. Fictions don't work like that. People write novels while engaged in deep reverie within a character. Marianne cannot explain to herself quite why Willoughby really dropped her utterly; some sexual/emotional intimacy has gone on. She has given of herself. So it must be people have talked about her as easy. How painful all this is.
But Marianne arouses herself too. She sees clearly too. How insolent is this. Who does this guy think he is. Even were Marianne 'easy', he cannot be justified. It is profoundly inhumane.
Sudden nervous fit. She must go home. She cannot bear it. She cannot stay. She cannot lay still. Round and round the nightmare she goes -- it makes me think of a line in Pope's Characters of Women in which he describes women wandering in the night like ghouls, haunting where their 'triumph' was. This though is inward.
Lavender drops. I suppose some watered down form of opium. It was very common in this period for pain. My Penguin editor provides no notes. She didn't know. The only thing is oblivion, and the chapter ends on Marianne 'quiet and motionless'.
--------- Just as the historian pays little heed to slow and stagnant epochs, and his interest is focused upon a few and scattered but dramatic and decisive moments -- so, for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace. ---Stephan Zweig, Mary Queen of Scots