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|Symmetries, origami and distorting mirrors.
Written by Rachel G
(11/1/2008 4:19 p.m.)
Something I've become aware of during this group read, thanks mainly to the insights of fellow participants, is the way 'Persuasion' is filled with parallels and symmetries. Here are some examples of what I mean:
The Baronetage, Sir Walter's favourite volume, “the volume of honour”, is paralleled by The Navy List, Wentworth's (and probably Anne's) “precious volume”.
When Anne leaves Lyme it appears that she may have two new suitors, both of whom are men who have been recently bereaved. Mr Elliot is cold hearted, Benwick is a man of feeling with a loving heart, yet they both move speedily on to the next woman in their lives at about the same time.
Two women are plagued by 'ill health'. Mary is a wealthy hypochondriac who's ailments are largely imaginary, attention-seeking behaviour, and who's real sickness is that of a discontented spirit. Mrs Smith's illness is cripplingly real, as are her poverty and the injustice she has suffered, yet she is an upbeat, cheerful character, thanks to her “elasticity of mind” and “power of turning evil to good”, the “choicest gift of Heaven”.
Mrs Smith is “not the only widow in Bath between thirty and forty, with little to live on, and no surname of dignity.” Here she has a parallel in Mrs Clay. Both women are in financial difficulties following an 'unprosperous' marriage.
Mrs Clay's assiduous flatteries and attention to Sir Walter and Elizabeth is paralleled by that pride-filled pair's grovelling and fawning over Lady Dalrymple.
The advisability or otherwise of a long engagement is explored through two contrasting examples. Benwick's engagement to Fanny Harville is tragically unfulfilled because of the premature death of the one who stayed 'safely' at home rather than that of the one who was risking life and limb at war on the high seas. The Croft's engagement was so short that even the forthright Mrs Croft baulks at specifying it's duration, yet theirs is perhaps the most abundantly happy marriage in the entire Austen canon.
The novel as a whole has a sort of bilateral symmetry, with the events of Anne's last day at Lyme, exactly half way through the tale acting as a sort of hinge around which the novel is structured. Before it the mood is sombre and seemingly hopeless. After it Anne's outlook has changed, she has detached from the narrow constraints of her family's attitudes, and found a new level of maturity and self-confidence.
Despite the many pairings in the text, we are offered no easy answers; none of the questions explored in the novel are susceptible to a simple “right or wrong” analysis. Indeed, one of the major themes, that of the importance or otherwise of money as a consideration in marriage, is illuminated by examples of many possible outcomes:-
Mary has married the most 'eligible' and wealthy man in the neighbourhood (and a remarkably patient one too) yet contrives to be perpetually dissatisfied.
Mrs Smith marries a man of fortune, but he was weak and improvident so she is now an impoverished widow, albeit a cheerful one.
Mrs Clay's unprosperous marriage has left her with children but no money, dependent on her father or on the uncertain financial support of Sir Walter and William Elliot.
The Harvilles have children and very little money, yet despite his disability they are happy and generous with it.
When Benwick proposes to Louisa he is far from wealthy, and having lately been made a Commander his career prospects are just as uncertain as those of Wentworth, who had recently been promoted to Commander when he met Anne in 1806. Nevertheless, Louisa's parents willingly consent to her marriage.
The device which JA uses to explore her theme here is not so much a simple pairing as a fan of alternative possibilities.
In trying to understand how the novel is constructed, thinking about these patterns gives me the idea of 'Persuasion' as an intricately folded piece of Origami. I am not sure that this is quite right though, as it suggests something more precisely folded than what I can dimly glimpse when I try to understand the novel's underlying structure.
Perhaps a better analogy than “symmetries” would be “mirrors”. If so they must be subtly distorting mirrors I think. As distorting as the mirrors which reassure Sir Walter that he is as remarkably handsome as ever.
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