October 30, 1999
Re: S&S: Chs 44-47: Marianne's Epiphany
During our last group read of this novel on Austen-l, when we got to these chapters I was struck by their didactic quality. From around the middle through to the end of Johnson's Rasselas, at regularly intervals the characters sit down and discuss what has happened, with Imlac providing the authorial stance. I have to disagree with those who have seen something wanting in Elinor's momentary sympathy for Willoughby and her grasp that Marianne gave up a passionate fulfillment when she gave up Willoughby. I don't think Austen meant us to censure Elinor for her sense that something was lost there: the point of the book is that there was loss, but that such losses happen.
It has sometimes been said that S&S and MP are the most Johnsonian of Austen's books and I find the moral discussions in this part of the novel very Johnsonian, from the irony that once again Mrs Dashwood is not judging a male (Brandon) by what he has done over time but by her own desire to idealise. These are long conversational set pieces in which the ethical analysis is remarkably adult and sophisticated -- and as disillusioned as Johnson's. Austen accepts humanity, and Willoughby is a piece of us. He acted very wrongly, he did what was in fact irretrievable and Marianne is better off without him for her safety and tranquillity's sake, and eventually for her contentment, yet he had redeeming qualities in him. He is like us. The touch about how his childhood formed him in directions that have made him the selfish self-indulgent partly obtuse man he is looks forward to MP and back to P&P (the story of Darcy and Willoughby as children). This is a favorite theme in Austen: the importance of the shaping of children through their circumstances, through what is inculcated in them, what is developed, what ignored or repressed.
An analogy with Austen's own fiction may be found in the depiction of Marianne. I would say she has the kind of epiphany that we see in Elizabeth reading Darcy's letter, in Emma after Harriet has told Emma that Mr Knightley loves Harriet herself, in Wentworth at the close of the book when he tells Anne Elliot of the transformation of attitude he has undergone since returning to Somersetshire. It is as fully and beautifully achieved as they: that Marianne can't keep it up quite (I refer here to her comically rigorous schedule) makes her intent to behave more maturely all the more believable. I find quite touching her desire to think that Willoughby had had some love for her; else, he had just been attempting to seduce her coldly. That would not only diminish her ability to feel secure for the future, but degrade her in her own eyes. Could she have been such a fool to have thought some love was there? Well there was some, but, as is all too human, not enough to sustain Willoughby against what he has been taught and most people then and now still believe is the necessity of maintaining one's position and good creature comforts.
It's interesing how Austen keeps her plot moving and skilfully turns us from Marianne to Elinor again and again. At midpoint of each volume, Marianne's crisis reaches a height, about 3/4s the way through it is momentary resolved, and then Austen picks up the threads of Elinor's story which the volume then climaxes on. Some people have read Lucy's ambiguous words as deliberately trying to hurt Elinor yet further for a while: it would be malicious since nothing is to be gained. Yet remember it is Thomas who tells the tale, and there is nothing in the words reported to insist that the Mr Ferrars is Edward. An interesting element in the Edward-Elinor plot is how much Lucy resembles Elinor in her desperation, in her lack of dowry; how much she resembles Marianne in the sense that Edward wants out as Willoughby wanted out. Lucy is no heroine, but we should not overblacken her either. We see her through Elinor's eyes, and the narrator is acid about Lucy's ruthlessness and sycophantic behavior towards Mrs Ferrars. However, there is enough in the text to give us another view of Lucy: Lucy's own.
How complicated this fiction is even though a number of its techniques and its intents are only partly psychological: an emblematic conversation piece and an epiphany are species of ethical fiction. The complication comes from Austen's understanding of reality in all its ramifications and in depth.
Re: Brandon in Emma Thompson's Screenplay
October 30, 1999
This is to add to the posting I just wrote that I find the build-up and development of Edward and Brandon in Emma Thompson's screenplay perfect. They are too shadowy in the present extent S&S. I once went through all the scenes in the screenplay which had Colonel Brandon in them to show how beautifully Emma Thompson brought out the romantic and chivalric man of sensibility Austen outlined and perhaps developed further in an earlier version of S&S; and then through the screenplay to show how Thompson had caught the arch playfulness and shyness, the awkward sincerity and slight melancholy of Edward. Here I'll just content myself with referring to the scene in which we see Marianne from the back with her bonnet: Did someone say this week that this shot recalls Cassandra's portrait of Austen herself from the back, or did I dream that? Colonel Brandon is reading aloud some lines from Spenser's Faerie Queene, Canto V, Bk 2, lines 39-43: and we hear:
For there is nothing lost, but may be found, if sought ...
The other relevant lines of the stanza leading into this are:
What though the sea with waves continuall
I see Thompson as through this allusion suggesting the theme of loss that I have just argued Austen intended, a loss that is loss, but that can and may be repaired. If we think of the close of Persuasion with the retrieval of Wentworth and Anne's love leaving them more appreciative of what they had almost lost, we can see a wholeness of vision in Austen's oeuvre.