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|She "almost screamed with agony"
Written by Anselm
(9/28/2009 8:39 a.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Ch 28: humiliating, devastating party scene, penned by Heather Leigh
...almost choked by grief, one letter in her hand, and two or three others lying by her. Elinor drew near, but without saying a word; and seating herself on the bed, took her hand, kissed her affectionately several times, and then gave way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne's. The latter, though unable to speak, seemed to feel all the tenderness of this behaviour, and after some time thus spent in joint affliction, she put all the letters into Elinor's hands; and then covering her face with her handkerchief, almost screamed with agony.
In all of Jane Austen's work, can anyone think of another image as harrowing, gut-wrenching and chilling as this? Its power is only increased by its ambiguity. Does it mean that she emitted a cry that was so loud or piercing that it was almost - but not quite - a scream? Or are we to imagine that she was suffering an agony so great that it literally choked off the sound she was trying to make? I prefer this second version, because it’s so much more poignant. It reminds me of Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream (above). Because both Austen’s and Munch’s images are paper-based, they’re silent, which only increases their impression of repression and suffocation. Note especially in this regard the bold phrases in the extract above, all to do with inarticulateness (“a burst of tears") or the total inability to make a sound. That handkerchief is especially horrific – it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of a gag. She wants to scream, but she herself is simultaneously trying to stifle it.
This impression of smothering is further reinforced by the fact that we witness this awful spectacle third-hand: through the narrator, and then through Elinor’s eyes. Marianne has no voice of her own. For me, this gives the scene a nightmarish quality, as if it were some dimly-perceived great devouring monster that we cannot reach and are therefore powerless to control. That gap between us and Marianne must be filled by our imagination, and the ability to bring that into play is one of the greatest of Jane Austen’s great powers. I for one find myself hardly able to breathe as I’m reading this passage.
If I had to state what Marianne’s core quality was, I’d say it was “genuineness”. I know, I know… she “professes opinions that are not her own” (Darcy’s teasing of Lizzie in P&P), as when Willoughby suddenly departs from Barton Cottage. She
would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down in it. But the feelings which made such composure a disgrace, left her in no danger of incurring it. She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it. She got up with an headache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain every moment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either. Her sensibility was potent enough!
All this is, of course, affectation. But the point is that she doesn’t do it for “show” – she seriously and wholeheartedly believes it. This is because of two other defining characteristics: her “eagerness” and her inability to say what isn’t true. She does not do things by halves, and she totally commits to whatever viewpoint she professes, which she adopts as if they were her own. I remember harbouring similar illusions when I was her age. I may look back on this period in embarrassment now – but how real they were to me at the time, how intense, how all-encompassing! This is why I think that views of her as a “drama queen” are quite misguided, at least in the sense that she is incapable of putting on an act to attract attention. More than once we hear that she is constitutionally incapable of saying what she does not believe to be true. She’s quite happy to leave uncongenial company to play the piano on her own, not caring what people think of her. No, she’s genuine. Mistaken in many ways, but absolutely genuine. She’s the total opposite of Lucy, always slyly checking out her effect on Elinor or shamefacedly simpering to Lady Middleton and her spoilt kids.
Marianne has yet to discover her true self. That discovery has begun in the most painful, cruel way. The unreal expectations aroused by Willoughby’s “perfect” alignment with her romantic doctrines have been brutally crushed. Her illusions are being stripped away as if they were a layer of skin – in emotional terms, she’s being flayed alive! In this horrible way, she’s starting to grow up and see things as they really are. I have no doubt that she will survive this ordeal and become wiser in the process, simply because she is well-endowed with “sense” and an inner strength. There’s nothing shallow about her. She has internal resources to fall back on, unlike so many silly females of her time, who JA takes such delight in satirising.
I can’t resist having a go at Charlotte Bronte’s ludicrous criticism of P&P, which is obviously meant to extend to all her works. According to her, she
ruffles her reader with nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound….The Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood….what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life, and the sentient target of death, that Miss Austen ignores.
I wonder whether Charlotte B could read at all, if she could say that about the authoress of Ch.29 of S&S!
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