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|'The Letter' is very, very special.
Written by Rachel G
(10/27/2011 5:55 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, The anticipation!, penned by Cheryl
On the whole, Jane Austen did not write 'Romance'. In almost all her work she avoids sentimentality, and keeps a discreet, often ironic distance when moments of intimacy occur.
Consider the various 'proposals' in the novels:
"...his first purpose was to explain himself, and before they reached Mr. Allenís grounds he had done it so well that Catherine did not think it could ever be repeated too often." NA
"How soon he had walked himself into the proper resolution however, how soon an opportunity of exercising it occurred, in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told." S&S Brandon and Marianne's courtship and proposal are omitted entirely.
In P&P the first two proposals Elizabeth receives are demonstrations of How Not To Do It! During Darcy's second attempt the reader is kept at a discreet distance:
"...he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do." P&P
JA keeps her distance even more rigorously in MP. Edmund and Fanny's courtship is compressed into a few short paragraphs, and there is no proposal scene at all.
She is more forthcoming with the proposal scene 'Emma'. "I cannot make speeches" says Mr Knightley, and then proceeds to demonstrate how true that is with a stumbling, barely coherent declaration that is made funny and touching by it's realism. Then JA quickly takes a step back:
What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. She said enough to show there need not be despair -- and to invite him to say more himself.
I cannot fault JA for this reticence and lack of sentimentality. Her cool, ironic narrator's voice raises her work far above any commonplace romantic fiction. Real moments of intimacy are beyond description, beyond words, and Austen is right to leave the details to the reader's imagination. Of course we long for more, having come to identify with her heroes and heroines, and occasionally Austen tosses a few crumbs in our direction - the odd "Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!" But that is as far as she would go.
Then she wrote "Persuasion". As we discussed earlier, JA broke new ground with this work, using a new technique in critical passages which gives the reader an extraordinary sense of intimacy and identification with Anne. We share Anne's consciousness and seem almost to inhabit her body as we feel her tension, know her mental confusion and inability to speak and act normally - our pulses race with hers.
This is intimacy indeed, but it is between Anne and the reader. She and Wentworth are kept at such a distance that they barely exchange more than the merest commonplace through most of the novel. Not much chance of romantic sentimentality there. When Anne is at last buoyant with hope following the evening at the concert, Austen does not relent, but writes as usual with her tongue wedged firmly in her cheek:
"Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy could never have passed along the streets of Bath than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way." (21)
Austen's first version of the denouement between Anne and Frederick, which we can read in the 'cancelled chapters', tentatively moves on from her writing in previous proposal scenes. There is more intimacy than before, in a wordless meeting of eyes and touching of hands, but the experiment does not quite come off. JA thought it "tame and flat", and so she tried again, this time with total conviction.
The result is glorious. JA finally cast aside her resistance to sentimentality and romance. The Letter must surely be the most moving, the most swooningly romantic declaration of love ever written. Sigh!! ;-)
All I can say is: "Dearest Jane, you made us wait a long, long time for that. But Oh my goodness! It was well worth the wait!"
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