"Taste in noises": Registering, evaluating, and creating sound and story in Jane Austen's persuasion.
Despite these similarities, there is an undeniably important difference between the player-piano and Anne's errorless and unconscious playing: while the player-piano is meant to be listened to, Anne consistently and attentively listens. Even in her mechanistic music making, Anne is the exclusive auditor: "she had never... never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to" (44). Anne herself, however, is "a most attentive listener" (25). Listening, as Hugh Hennedy claims, is Anne's "characteristic action" (30); in fact, he claims that Anne listens so much that "it would be tedious to try to cover all of it" (33). Yet what is less obvious is the centrality of Anne's listening to the crafting of Persuasion's narrative. Listening is not merely a characteristic action of Anne's disposition; it is the act through which the events of the story unfold. Throughout the novel, readers gain entrance into the events of the story through sound bytes of Anne's experience, through what Anne hears. Whether readers fade in and out of the Musgroves' stories about their poor son Dick, capture the partially eclipsed whisperings of Captain Wentworth and Louisa behind garden hedges, or overhear riotous boys by a roaring Christmas fire that "seemed determined to be heard," readers follow the ear of Anne Elliot. The functioning of this ear, however, is hardly consistent throughout the novel. This essay revises conceptualizations of Anne "as a listener" by tracing the parallel changes in Anne's relationship to sound and her character's development. Listening does not define Anne's character; instead, changes in Anne's character define how Anne listens. In examining Anne's listening as the novel's primary mode of focalization, I track Anne's transition from a passive detachment to an active, critical engagement with the world around her through the narrative repercussions of her ingestion, evaluation, and, finally, creation of sound.
Anne's role as a filter of the happenings of Persuasion has long been a topic of scholarly inquiry; many critics have noted Anne Elliot's management of focalization in Persuasion without attending to her attention to sound. Gerard Genette famously theorizes the concept of focalization in his classic Narrative Discourse, in which he offers focalization as a clarification of the "[c]onfusion between the question whose point of view orients the narrative perspective? and the very different question who is the narrator?--Or, more simply, the question who sees? and the question who speaks?" (186). Jane Austen, with her mastery of free indirect discourse, offers novels that exemplify the slipperiness between the acts of focalization and narration; the consciousness of characters seep subtly and, at times, almost imperceptibly into the narration, blurring the lines between the distinction Genette so lucidly delineates. While this is characteristic of Austen's oeuvre, Anne's predominant control of focalization in Persuasion has struck scholars as unique (see Flavin, Orange, and Tave). In fact, it is in part Anne's "unique absorption of Austen's narration" that D. A. Miller critiques as the fall of the impeccably impersonal and detached authority of what he calls Austen Style (69). Yet some scholars have examined Anne's "absorption" of the narrative as subversion of the traditionally masculine gaze of a novel's point of view. In a feminist narratological approach to Persuasion, Robyn Warhol builds on these discussions of focalization by analyzing Anne's control of "the gaze." Warhol's analysis aims to respond to the question: what does it mean for a focal character to be female? Borrowing from the vocabulary of film theorists like Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane, Warhol suggests that Anne usurps the role of the male as observer, "juxtaposing the feminine focalization that relies on the heroine's viewpoint with the objectifying gaze" (8). According to Warhol, Anne is the "filter for all the visual information of the novel" (17). As Genette would articulate, Anne is the character "who sees."
Warhol's conceptualization of Anne as a filter for visual information, however, is narratologically insufficient. Anne seems far less interested in visual phenomena than in sounds and conversations, and Anne's frequent practice of "overhearing" suggests that Anne controls not the eye, but the ear of the narrative. Interestingly, amendments to and clarifications of Genette's theorization of focalization correct the visual bias influencing Warhol's reading. In Narrative Discourse Revisited, Genette briefly revises his original contrast of "who sees versus who speaks" to "who perceives versus who speaks," claiming that "who sees" is too "purely visual, and hence overly narrow" (64). William Nelles responds to this critique by coining qualifying types of focalization by perception channels: ocularization (sight), gustavization (taste), olfactivization (smell), tactivilization (touch), and, most relevant to Austen's Persuasion, auricularization: focalization by sound (see Nelles ch. 3). Genette's self-critique and Nelles's categorization of perceptive filters both complicate Warhol's theory of Anne's visual focalization. Furthermore, these amendments expand Genette's original question, "whose point of view orients the narrative perspective?" to "through what type of perception is the narrative predominantly oriented?" I argue that Anne manages the focalization of Persuasion primarily through filtering aural, not visual, phenomena.
The privileged place of hearing in Persuasion in part reflects the sociocultural amplification of interest in hearing and listening contemporaneous with its publication. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker explores sound's transformation into a quantifiable and marketable object or commodity in the Victorian age, beginning with the artistic and scientific preoccupations of hearing and the ear in the early nineteenth century. Picker depicts the late Romantics as the heralds of the aural with their attention to "natural sound" and preference for "the rough music of nature" (8). Works by Austen's contemporaries--including William Wordsworth's "On the Power of Sound" (1828) and Charles Lamb's "Chapter on Ears" (1821)--celebrate practices of listening to the world outside of the concert hall and theatre. Medical and scientific inquiry also centered on the physiology of hearing and what Jonathan Sterne terms "audile technique," or techniques of listening that emerged during the early nineteenth century (90). In 1802 French physician Matthieu-Francois-Regis Buisson distinguished between two definitions of hearing; he opposes "auscultation," or active listening, to passive hearing, or "audition" (Sterne 100). Buisson's distinction mostly functioned in the medical projects of listening to the sound of movements in organs, air, and fluid in the chest. In 1816, the very year that Austen finished writing Persuasion, R. T. H. Laennec found that a tube of rolled paper held up to the chest could amplify the sounds of the heart--a discovery that would lead to his subsequent invention of the stethoscope and the techniques to accompany it (Steme 101). Tellingly, the notably ocular connotation of the term stethoscope illustrates the conflation between techniques of active listening and active looking in early nineteenth-century thought; active listening was figured as a sonic equivalent of the gaze, demanding analogous techniques of paying attention. An analysis of focalization in Jane Austen's Persuasion, then, must take into account the emergent interdisciplinary practice of "gazing" with the ear and not the eye.
Active listening, after all, was not just important to scientists, physicians, and Romantic poets; audile technique was also essential in exercises of reading, writing, and editing narrative. A scopic-centered narratological approach like Robyn Warhol's, an approach that retroactively applies film theory to narratives written pre-cinema, undeniably unveils resonant insights. However, such a methodology ignores the importance of listening to practices of reading and writing in the early nineteenth century. The common practice of reading aloud in late Georgian and Victorian England (see Collins) necessitated a kind of literary auscultation, an attention to the sounds, not just the sights of a given narrative. For Jane Austen, reading aloud was a fundamental part of both her ingestion and creation of narratives. In a letter to her friend Martha Lloyd, Austen admonishes Lloyd for requesting that Austen bring books when she visits:
I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hearreading. I can do that at home; and indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of conversation. I am reading Henry's History of England, which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, desultory, unconnected stream, or dividing my recital, as the historian divides it himself, (qtd. in Austen-Leigh 55)
Here, reading and the dissemination of narrative is an inherently oral and aural activity. In stating that she does not come to "read or hear reading," Austen assumes that reading is an oral practice; "reading" is not seeing, but either speaking or hearing. Austen also positions herself as an oral transmitter of others' narratives with her promised "recital" of Henry's History of England. Yet, in giving Lloyd a choice between two styles of recounting--one that is "loose" and "desultory" and another that imitates Henry's structure--Austen speaks to the interpretive power of the oral storyteller as mediator of both form and content.
This "literary auscultation" was not only inherent in Austen's transmission of others' narratives; it was also a method of evaluating and editing her own. In letters to her sister Cassandra, Austen writes of reading the first volume of a not-yet-published edition of Pride and Prejudice aloud. This reading allows Austen to notice "a few typical errors," and she remarks that a "'said he,' or a 'said she,' would sometimes make the dialogue more apparently clear" (qtd. in Austen-Leigh 83). She also makes larger scale evaluations, claiming that "the second volume is shorter than I could wish" (83). A "second evening's reading" was not as effective as the first, but Austen attributes this to "my mother's too rapid way of getting on: though she perfectly understands the characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought" (84). In this way, Austen's ability to evaluate her story's pacing and tone, as well as edit for mistakes and clarity, stems from a largely aural process: hearing her texts read aloud. In evaluating Anne's communication and construction of narrative through the focalization of aural phenomena, I build on the observation that Austen herself constructed, evaluated, and edited narrative by hearing it.
Other surveys of Anne's listening in Persuasion portray hearing as a symbol of disempowerment, as the antithesis of speech and, consequently, authorship. In her chapter on eavesdropping and Persuasion in Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust, Ann Gaylin claims that Austen "associates speaking with authority and power; the heroine's muteness reflects a corresponding lack of agency" (44). Gaylin reads Anne's acts of overhearing as symptoms of her lack of narrative control, a control gained only when she "speaks persuasively on behalf of her sex and her love" (51) near the close of the novel. Yet this conflation of all acts of listening with passivity and silence flattens Anne's development as an auditor and devalues the centrality of hearing and listening to the formulation of narrative and the act of authorship.
This essay traces changes in Anne's techniques of listening as techniques of focalization and narrative construction in Persuasion. The following four sections of this essay examine the trajectory of Anne's role as listener--from passive auditor to involuntary commentator to evaluative analyst to the creator of sounds worth listening to. The first two sections analyze Anne's aural attention in the first volume of the novel, first as a character compelled to listen and, secondly, as a character compelled to comment with unwilled corporeal responses. The last two sections discuss Anne's move from passive audition to active auscultation in volume II. In the second half of the novel, Anne--like Austen herself--uses techniques of listening to evaluate, alter, and eventually craft narrative. In this way, Anne's control of the ear (like a control of the gaze) subverts traditions of patriarchal control over narrative transmission, alteration, and creation.
Passing and Passed Voices: Registering Sound and Speech
Anne's practices of listening in the first volume--like many of her actions--do indeed lack agency. Anne's ear, as it guides the attention of Persuasion's first half, is an ear belonging to what Barbara Hardy astutely but still inadequately terms an "involuntary eavesdropper" (96). Hardy places an oxymoronic emphasis on Anne's passivity in a usually very intentional, clandestine act of audition--the word "eavesdrop" stems from the practice of hiding in the "eavesdrop" of a house to "listen secretly" to others' conversations (OED). This highlights the way that Anne seems to be held captive by the sounds around her in the first half of the novel, compelled to listen. "Overhearing" may seem a more appropriate term for Anne's early practices of listening, as it does not imply the hearer's intention; to overhear is "to hear... contrary to the intention or without the knowledge of the speaker" (OED). Yet, much of Anne's listening in volume I does not occur "contrary to the intention or without the knowledge of the speaker." In fact, one of the defining characteristics of Anne's audition early in the novel is its continual submission to the sway of other speakers' intentions. Many scholars describe Anne as "eavesdropping" or "overhearing" (see Gaylin 191 n.5), most likely because these terms illustratively point towards Anne's psychological removal from the soundscape she filters. These words, however, do not adequately or comprehensively describe the form of listening that characterizes Anne's passive auricularization in volume I, a form of listening sculpted by Anne's malleability of character at the onset of the novel.
As the novel begins, both Anne's person and Anne's ear are too much under the influence of others. As early as the fourth chapter, readers learn that Anne had been in love and engaged to a Mr. Wentworth, but "was persuaded" by the notably suspect guidance of Lady Russell "to believe the engagement a wrong thing" (27). Anne's continued attachment to Captain Wentworth marks Lady Russell's influence as increasingly unreliable while also marking Anne's will as problematically malleable. Similarly, Anne's acts of audition, like her decisions, are notably passive: "acted upon from outside... affected by external force" (OED). Yet, the term passive takes on yet another resonance in describing Anne's listening, as Anne's ear is continually passed from speaker to speaker.
When living at Uppercross with her sister Mary, Anne's ear is passively passed among residents, and she finds that she is unfortunately "treated with too much confidence by all parties," as well as "being too much in the secret of the complaints of each house" (42). She delivers messages between Mary, her husband Charles, and their neighbors the Musgroves, and she finds herself in clandestine conferences regarding the concerns each individual holds about the others. Every interlocutor singles Anne out as the only appropriate auditor. Mrs. Musgrove, for example, refuses to tell Mary that she disapproves of Mary's nursery maid, but says to Anne: "I shall tell you... because you may be able to set things to rights" (43). Similarly, one of the Miss Musgroves has "no scruple of observing to" Anne that Mary is "nonsensical" about her rank because Anne herself is so "easy and indifferent... about it" (43). While the inhabitants of Uppercross feel that Anne can "set things to rights," Anne feels that she can "do little more than listen patiently... and excuse each to the other" (44). Anne, an "easy" and "indifferent" auditor, functions as a neutral vessel or container for thoughts and messages, a listening instrument passed from person to person. Just as Anne's engagement is too much under the sway of the words of Lady Russell, Anne's ear is too much under the influence of the speech of others.
The passivity of Anne's audition continues even when Anne can no longer be deemed an "easy and indifferent" listener. When Captain Wentworth comes to reside in Kellynch Hall and the two are "repeatedly in the same circle" (59), Anne can hardly be called indifferent to the stories she hears. Yet, Anne's ear remains under the tyranny of others just as the narrative remains under the tyranny of Anne's ear. Austen's account of evening gatherings read as Anne's transcription of an evening's conversations--ranging from Wentworth's stories of his naval escapades to the Musgroves' reminiscences of their deceased son "poor Richard." The chapter follows these conversations except for when some aural phenomenon diverts Anne's attention. For example, Anne "was roused" from "listening and thinking" about a conversation concerning Wentworth's "naval matters" by "a whisper" from Mrs. Musgrove, who subsequently speaks to Anne about her "poor son." During these "few minutes" neither Anne nor the narrative can "keep pace with the conversation of the others" (60). John Wiltshire's analysis of Anne's "half-hearing" in his chapter on "Anne Elliot and the ambient world" reads moments of obscured audio phenomena as symptoms of Anne's depression. Wiltshire argues that sound is "blurred or incapacitated by [Anne's] self-absorption" and conversely "amplified by [Anne's] happiness" (155). Here, however, Anne's ability to attend to sound seems independent of any change in mood. Instead, Anne's aural attention is wrested from its desired object--a conversation about Captain Wentworth--merely because Mrs. Musgrove wants Anne to listen to her. Anne is not too self-absorbed; she is rather absorbed by others. At this point in the novel, Anne's ear guides the novel without Anne guiding her own ear; these moments of compulsory listening demonstrate that, while Anne manages the focalization of Persuasion, she does not yet fully manage its narrative attention.
This is perhaps most dramatically illustrated in her inability to discern the sound she most aches to hear: Wentworth speaking of her. At the close of volume I, chapter 8, Anne again filters the conversation of another evening gathering. This time, Anne speculates that, once, Wentworth mentions her. Yet, his voice is still out of her reach:
once she knew [Wentworth] must have spoken of her;--she was hardly aware of it, till she heard the answer; but then she was sure of his having asked his partner whether Miss Elliot never danced? The answer was, "Oh! no, never; she has quite given up dancing." (67)
Here is a strange and under-recognized instance of overhearing; unable to decipher the sound of the speech most relevant to her, Anne must reconstruct Wentworth's question to fit the answer that she could hear which, on its own, is completely uninteresting to her. Wentworth's question--not enclosed by quotation marks--remains speculative, "questionable" in fact. As a sound unregistered by Anne, the unheard question resists quotations as the demarcation of speech; it remains merely thought, a fugitive sound not captured by Anne's ear.
As this and the earlier scenes demonstrate, Anne's registering of the sounds and conversations around her controls the narrative ear. Despite this, she fails to control her own ear; her powers of audition are dizzyingly wrenched from interlocutor to interlocutor. Anne's move to active auscultation--a move towards sound as an intentionally pursued object of inquiry worthy of assessment, evaluation, and emendation--remains painfully unrealized in the first half of the novel. Yet, these episodes of involuntary overhearing nevertheless anticipate Anne's forthcoming occupation of actively pursuing, editing, and crafting sound in the second volume. While Anne cannot help but hear the conversations surrounding her, she also cannot help but remark on them through a form of unconscious but undeniably telling commentary: the commentary inscribed on Anne's body. Anne's blushes, electrified nerves, and frozen limbs serve as Anne's inadvertent analysis of the sound she overhears, the still-passive prototype of her deliberate and active engagement with sound and speech in the second volume.
(Anne)otations: Corporeal Commentary on the Spoken Word
Even while passively registering the sounds and stories of Persuasion's soundscape, Anne anticipates her forthcoming capability in active auscultation by annotating the speech around her with unconscious sensory response. Just as Anne is compelled to listen, she is compelled to engage with and respond to auditory phenomena. Her responses, however, are not linguistic but instead inscribed on her feeling body (see Johnson, McNaster 172, and Nagel). This begins in the scenes already discussed, when Anne is both corporeally and emotionally affected by the stories of Captain Wentworth and his auditory presence at social gatherings. Anne is "electrified" (46) when she mistakenly thinks Mrs. Croft alludes to her and Wentworth's past relationship and hopes "she had not outlived the age of blushing" (46). The emotional weight of this conversation's subject matter exhausts Anne's body as well as her spirits: "to hear them talking so much of Captain Wentworth... was a new sort of trial on Anne's nerves" (49). Here, the threat of Anne's blush, along with the other sensorial changes, makes material the commentary Anne does not articulate through thought or speech. In Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush, Mary Ann O'Farrell--who significantly includes two chapters on Austen--holds that identifying and interpreting the "blush" entails "imagining it as the writing of the body." As such, she holds that the blush "dispels the alternative fantasy that the obdurate body is obstinate in its refusal to speak" (3). The Anne of the first portion of the novel, along with her blushing, heart-palpitating, nerve-electrifying body, consequently speaks or writes without intent.
During the novel's most explicit incidence of eavesdropping and filtered hearing--when Anne overhears Louisa and Wentworth talking in the hedgerows--Anne's body also composes an accompanying commentary. During a walk through the hedges of Winthrop, Anne sits down under a hedgerow when she "soon heard Captain Wentworth and Louisa... behind her, as if making their way back.... They were speaking as they drew near" (80). Anne's management of focalization is especially clear here. The narrative is limited to what Anne can speculate while hearing and not seeing the couple: she hears Wentworth and Louisa behind her as if they were making their way back. Anne cannot know if they actually are and, consequently, nor can the reader. During their conversation, the reader can only decipher the words when audible to Anne and can only decipher Anne's emotional response when articulated by her body.
As is characteristic, Anne's body responds when she overhears Wentworth inquiring about her, in this case, about her refusal of Charles Musgrove. As the "sounds were retreating," Anne's body is so affected that she becomes immobile: "her own emotions kept her fixed. She had much to recover from, before she could move" (82). While the "listener's proverbial fate was not absolutely hers" because she "had heard no evil of herself," Anne reflects on the words overheard not with articulated thoughts, but with corporeal response. She had "heard a great deal of very painful import" and Wentworth's curiosity concerning her "must give... extreme agitation" (82). Here, the overheard words take complete control of Anne's feeling body, leaving legible her interpretation of their "painful import" without linguistic articulation. It seems as though the passivity of Anne's listening reaches its apogee here--she is trapped, immobile, and forced to listen to a painful conversation. Yet, her lack of motion juxtaposes with her intractable e-motion, the active agitation of her affective response. Just as her concealment in the hedgerows compels her to listen, her obdurate physiology compels her to comment, to not merely hear but to respond with her fleshly footnotes.
During her fateful trip to Lyme, Anne's body similarly responds to an episode of overhearing, but the moment marks a change in Anne's techniques of listening, just as the catastrophe of Louisa's fall marks a change in Anne's character. Coming "quietly down" from Louisa's sick room, Anne overhears Wentworth praising her and recommending her to stay with Louisa in Lyme. Once again, this overhearing is ostensibly compulsory; as Anne descends, she "could not but hear what followed, for the parlour door was open" (106). Like the hedgerows, the parlour door functions as a spatial trap that makes hearing unavoidable. After Wentworth declares that there is "no one so proper, so capable as Anne!" Anne is, once again, immobilized. She must pause "a moment to recover from the emotion of hearing herself so spoken of' (106). As before, her emotions paralyze her; the intractable fluctuation of her interiority oxymoronically leads to her intractably frozen frame. Again, she must recover from her body's involuntary commentary.
Yet, this time, she does eventually move. Instead of remaining hidden, removed in the figurative "eavesdrop" of spatial separation, she enters the conversation. As Austen climactically narrates: "she then appeared" (106). After that, she is not spoken of, but spoken to. Wentworth, "turning to her," directly addresses Anne for one of the first times in the novel: "You will stay, I am sure; you will stay and nurse her" (106). Anne's body predictably responds; she "coloured deeply" (106). More importantly, she responds in speech as well, assenting to Wentworth's request: "It was what she had been thinking of" (106). Thoughts unsaid become words expressed, ideas sounded. In this moment, standing in the literal threshold of the parlor door, Anne stands in the figurative threshold between "involuntary eavesdropper" and interlocutor. Two pages from the close of volume I, Anne becomes an active participant in the soundscape around her.
"Taste in noises": Assessing Sound and Speech
This moment signals a passage from passive audition to active auscultation that is fully realized in volume II, during which Anne actively engages with, evaluates, and comments upon sound and speech. In the second half of the novel, listening becomes not a symptom of Anne's lack of agency, as Gaylin argues, but rather an intellectually and socially stimulating process that Anne seeks out (by going to hear Mrs. Smith's gossip, for example). Here we see in Anne a listener that resembles the author as listener. Anne engages with her sound as Austen engages with her manuscripts--critically. Sound and the spoken word become objects for interpretation and evaluation as her character simultaneously exercises increased independence of thought and action. Consequently, Anne gains even more control over the narrative's focalization. Readers follow Anne's ear as it is guided by both her desire and her analysis; she controls both the readers' access to sound and their interpretation of it.
Volume II begins noisily. The Christmas season brings the Musgrove and Harville children back from school "to improve the noise of Uppercross" (125) and indeed the volume of the house is amplified:
On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. (125)
Due to this ruckus, Mr. Musgrove must talk "with a very raised voice" to Lady Russell, and even then he couldn't be heard above the "clamour of the children on his knees" (126). Lady Russell does not care for the noises of Uppercross, as she remarks to Anne in the carriage ride home. Yet as Austen's narration wryly points out, Lady Russell's distaste for the Christmas hubbub has less to do with volume and more to do with type of noise. For, when "Lady Russell, not long afterwards, was entering Bath... and driving... amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men and milk-men, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint" (126). For Lady Russell, these "were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures" (126). Lady Russell does not dislike noise, she dislikes the noise of Uppercross.
Anne, however, does "not share these feelings." She prefers the "bustles of Uppercross" to the rumblings of Bath. Anne's preference is steadfast: "She persisted in a very determined, though very silent, disinclination" (126) for the sounds that Lady Russell finds invigorating. Anne's staunch adherence to an aural partiality diverging from Lady Russell's serves as an illustration of her increased independence from the woman who held too firm a sway on her past actions. Austen's narration suggests as much with its maxim: "Every body has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and sounds are quite innoxious, or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity" (126). Anne's "taste in noises" stands in here for her taste in husbands, "as well as in other matters." Her assertion of her own auditory tastes, as well as her refusal to adhere to others' preferences, marks her readiness to assert her own predilections in pursuit of love and marriage.
Her divergence from Lady Russell's influence manifests most significantly in Anne's suspicion of her Lady-Russell-approved suitor, Mr. Elliot, a suspicion that also stems from Anne's auditory discernment. When Mr. Elliot, the Baronet's indecorously absent heir, reappears with an apparent fancy for Anne, both Lady Russell and most of the Elliots are enchanted with his behavioral polish. Yet, even while Mr. Elliot "explained away all of the appearance of neglect on his own side" (129), Anne remains unconvinced of his innocence. Her unease, which turns out to be rightly justified, stems from her actively critical listening skills. At first, she hears of Mr. Elliot's past from a range of interlocutors. While she finds that their excuses for Mr. Elliot "sounded extravagant or irrational" (130), Anne critically examines her initial impression. Here, Austen employs "sounded" as a synonym for "seemed," yet the polysemy of "sounded" still resonates: Anne does indeed analyze Mr. Elliot's credibility by critically listening to his and others' speech. She reminds herself that the impression of irrationality could be attributed to the narrators' style of delivery, for she "heard it all under embellishment" (130). Her suspicions of Mr. Elliot's past "might have no origin but in the language of the relators" (130-31). As an analytical auditor, Anne examines the "sound" of the "language of the relators" before casting a final verdict on Mr. Elliot's character.
She does eventually disapprove definitively of Mr. Elliot's character, and this in part stems from a critique of his method of speaking. Mr. Elliot was "not open" and, to Anne, "this... was a decided imperfection" (151). Anne appreciates "the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character" as expressed through "warmth and enthusiasm" (151). His too perfect locution is imperfect to Anne: "She felt that she could so much more depend on the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped" (151). Anne's well-practiced ear identifies and condemns Mr. Elliot's well-practiced tongue. This discernment allows Anne to dismiss even the "bewitching" sound of the "precious name of Lady Elliot"--her mother's title, as Lady Russell temptingly reminds her--an alluring reward of a marriage with Mr. Elliot. Contrary to Lady Russell's wishes, Anne holds: "she never could accept him" (150). Anne's ear, as well as her mind, escapes Lady Russell's tyranny.
The culmination of Anne's abilities in auditory critique and assessment occur at a gathering devoted to the art of discretionary listening: the concert. The concert, during the time of Persuasion's publication, was an increasingly popular form of entertainment. As Peter Gay notes, the early nineteenth century was also the period in which concerts became spaces to practice what he calls "the art of listening." As a place previously known for noisy chitter-chatter, the concert house of the late eighteenth century became, in the nineteenth, a place of intellectual reflection and contemplation. In Austen's Persuasion, the concert, which was "really expected to be a good one" (169), is most highly anticipated by the novel's most important listeners: Anne and Captain Wentworth. Captain Wentworth "was very fond of music" and Anne, after the "elegant stupidity" of private parties, "was quite impatient for the concert evening" (169). The music of the concert, however, takes a back seat to the concert of conversations rife with material for Anne's contemplation and analysis. In many ways, this scene parallels the scene in volume I, chapter 8--during which Anne's ear is wrenched from speaker to speaker during an evening's conversations about "poor Richard" and Captain Wentworth. In both scenes, Anne's ear guides the narration as it shifts from aural object to aural object. Both scenes contain moments radically changing Anne's perception of Wentworth's feelings for her, and, to complete the symmetry, both scenes fall eight chapters into their respective volumes. Yet the differences between these scenes elucidate the changes in Anne's techniques of listening as reflections of her character's psychological trajectory.
Unlike in the first volume, Anne demonstrates an ability to uncannily amplify sounds important to her and hush those that are unimportant. When Captain Wentworth criticizes Benwick's fast recovery from his wife's death (and, in doing so, cryptically confesses his love for Anne), Anne displays an almost preternatural ability in auscultation:
Anne, who, in spite of the agitated voice in which the latter part had been uttered, and in spite of all the various noises of the room, the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and the ceaseless buzz of persons walking through, had distinguished every word. (173)
Unlike previously, when she could recall all voices but Wentworth's, Anne can now distinguish every word of Wentworth's speech (1) over the concert hall's slams, buzzes, and other various noises.
Anne's auditory attention to Wentworth primes her ear for musical entertainment. The conversation leaves "Anne's mind... in a most favourable state for the entertainment of the evening" (176). Austen's narration portrays her as an ideal listener: "she had feelings for the tender, spirits for the gay, attention for the scientific, and patience for the wearisome" (176). In fact, she even translates a song written in Italian into what Mr. Elliot terms "clear, comprehensible, elegant English" (176). As she was able to discern each word of Wentworth's agitated speech even when muffled by the hall's buzz, Anne again makes abstruse sounds (in this case, Italian) comprehensible.
The emotional apotheosis of this scene--a moment that seems or "sounds like" Mr. Elliot's marriage proposal--also involves practices of listening. Mr. Elliott confesses that "the name of Anne Elliot... has long had an interesting sound to me... and, if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change" (177). The development of Anne's character as tracked by her practices of listening--her transformation from one who registers to one who critiques aural phenomena--hinges on this moment: will the sound of Anne Elliot's name change or remain the same? Will Anne preserve or edit the auditory resonances of the words that have previously defined her? We learn later, of course, that she does indeed change her name in choosing Captain Wentworth, a man whose "superiority of rank" is "assisted by his well-sounding name" (233). Anne's judgment of character is once again figured as auditory discernment; as the manager of her own ear--as well as its likes and dislikes--Anne edits the sound of her own name and, metaphorically, her own story.
Auditing Audition: Editing and Authorship in the Final Chapters of Persuasion
The harbinger of this patronymic emendation occurs before the close of the concert scene. Anne, through "a little scheming of her own," places herself (and her ear) "much more within the reach of a passer-by" (178), consequently enabling her to catch Captain Wentworth before he leaves. As he utters "a reserved yet hurried sort of farewell," Anne significantly asks: "Is not this song worth staying for?" (179). This question importantly marks Anne's most explicit and direct inquiry regarding Wentworth's feelings for her--Anne quite obviously figures herself as the "song worth staying for." Anne's choice of metaphor is particularly relevant to this analysis; Anne's depiction of herself as a "song," as a portion of a concert worth attending, transforms her from listener into, finally, someone who is listened to. Editing her story, this passage suggests, involves moving beyond the processes of the first passive and then evaluative listening that characterize Anne for the majority of the novel. Rewriting the failed love story of her past necessitates more than just crossing out the rotten ending. Anne must create a new narrative that she does not hear, but rather sounds or voices--a narrative in which she is the song, not the one listening for someone worth staying for.
It is almost too serendipitous that Jane Austen chose to completely rewrite the end of Persuasion, a novel about a woman trying to re-author the end of a past romance. The mere existence of the "Cancelled Chapter," retracted from Persuasion to be replaced by chapters X and XI of volume II, points towards the similarity of both Austen and Anne as story editors. Yet, Austen's two endings offer two radically different conclusions about the nature of both Anne's authorship and auscultation at the close of the novel. While the "Cancelled Chapter" offers an Anne who continues to author by emending the speech and narratives of others, Austen's revised ending depicts an Anne who abdicates the role of listener and, consequently, the auricularization of the novel, to become the object of audition.
In the "Cancelled Chapter," Austen depicts Wentworth and Anne's reunion as lovers in a scene not unlike many of the others in this novel--a scene filtered by Anne's involuntary overhearing. In walking past the Crofts' residence, Anne enters to "ask Mrs. Croft how she does" (168) (2) when she finds Captain Wentworth unexpectedly inside. After her entrance, Admiral Croft asks Wentworth for "a word," and the two leave the room, leaving Anne to eavesdrop behind a "door... firmly closed" (170). As during other episodes of overhearing, Anne finds it "impossible for her not to distinguish parts," especially since she "heard her own name and Kellynch repeatedly" (170-71). Wentworth returns obliged to speak to Anne on a "particular subject" (172)--her expected union with Mr. Elliot and consequent inhabitation of Kellynch. Wentworth, "breathing and speaking quickly," offers up the speculated narrative of Anne and Mr. Elliot's romance and expected residence. Anne does not speak but "listened as if her life depended on the issue of his speech" (173). Anne responds not with a story of her own, but with "No, Sir": an utterance of pure negation, a crossing out of Wentworth's mistaken story. He repeats his question, asking again if there is "no truth in any such report?" She again states: "None" (174). This is followed by a "silent but very powerful dialogue" after which Wentworth claims Anne as his own--"Anne, my own dear Anne!"--and a declaration of decisive narrative closure: "all suspense and indecision were over" (174). The ending of Wentworth and Anne's story is completely revised without Anne saying anything but no. Here, Anne is not sound, but the negation of sound; she does not voice a story, but rather listens and crosses out a flawed one.
Contrast this with the scene of Wentworth's confession of love through a letter in Austen's revised chapters; here, Anne speaks (of female authorship, no less) and Wentworth listens. As Anne argues with Captain Harville about whether men or women are more loyal in love, Anne speculates that Wentworth--ostensibly writing a letter to Captain Benwick--listens. When she hears the "slight noise" of his pen falling, she is "half inclined to suspect that the pen had only fallen, because he had been... striving to catch sounds" (219). The roles of the hedgerow scene are reversed: Anne does not overhear Wentworth, but Wentworth overhears her. Shortly afterwards, Anne responds to Harville's offer of literary evidence for women's inconstancy with the claim that "men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story... the pen has been in their hands" (220). This moment is consistently read as the scene of triumph, the moment that, as Patricia Howell Michaelson writes, "Anne finally gains a voice" (214; see also Giordano and Swanson). Scholars interested in Anne's practices of hearing and speaking, including John Wiltshire and Ann Gaylin, celebrate this interaction as a reversal of traditional gender roles, as manifested in Persuasion by the binary of passive female listener and active male speaker. As Gaylin writes, "Wentworth's eavesdropping, so all-consuming that he drops his pen, signals a change to male possession of the oral and textual word." Anne's speech marks the moment when the pen, the figure of male authorship, falls down and, consequently, she "temporarily possesses narrative agency" (Gaylin 51). Wiltshire agrees that, in this scene, "the conventional attributes of their gender are exchanged" and Anne Elliot "commands the textual stage" (165). Anne--it seems--has finally become "author."
Or has she? For, while these critics aptly attend to Wentworth's dropping the pen, they fail to adequately account for the fact that he picks it back up again and continues to not only write, but also author the very scene we witness. For, while purportedly writing to Captain Benwick, Wentworth manages to also write a letter to Anne confessing his love and, more relevantly, documenting Anne's words and the sound of her voice. Wentworth captures Anne's orality in writing. In fact, the final relation of Anne's impassioned speech on men's metaphorical grasp on "the pen" is through a man's (Wentworth's) penmanship. He documents the contents of her speech--"Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death..."--and her delivery--"You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others" (223). (3) Contrary to Gaylin's claims, this letter is the moment Wentworth most possesses Anne's oral and textual word. Here is the true moment of role reversal: Wentworth fills the role of aural filter and focal character while Anne becomes the sound he filters and transcribes into text. Wentworth's letter, an act of authorship theorized by John Pikoulis as "in essence, a miniature epistolary novel in which the act of letter-writing is converted into a symbol of creativity" (35), transforms this scene into a moment in which Anne does not gain authorship, but gives it up. Authors, as this scene demonstrates, listen.
Anne's abdication of the role of listener in the revised ending, however, does not entail her loss of the independence and agency she has gained throughout the novel. Here, Anne becomes "author" of her own story in a different way. The word "author," sharing a root with the word "actor," stems from the classical Latin "auctor"--meaning a person with "authority to take action or make a decision" (OED). At the close of Persuasion, Anne does finally take seriously her own authority in asserting her opinions (as exemplified in her conversation with Harville) and deciding her own fate (in marrying Captain Wentworth). Yet, the scene of Wentworth's overhearing and letter-writing importantly complicates the binaries of passive/female/listener and active/male/speaker, not by placing Wentworth in a passive position, but by confirming that listening is not exclusively passive. As this essay has shown, listening plays a key role in the construction of narrative and does at times demonstrate interpretive power, independence, and agency. In this climactic scene, Anne finally experiences the "happiness of being listened to," but it comes with a price. In order to become the author/auctor of a new narrative, she must stop being the author/auditor of this one.
This depiction of "author" as listener and transcriber of speech reflects a primary task of literature in the early nineteenth century: the remediation of orality. Anne and Wentworth exemplify the ideal Romantic author and reader in their adept attention to the sound of speech. The importance of listening to processes of focalizing and remediating narrative in Persuasion marks Austen as participating in the tradition of her contemporaries--like Walter Scott and Wordsworth--who work to capture an essence of the "aural" in the printed world. Studies of Austen's treatment of speech, use of punctuation, and incorporation of other textual markers of emphasis and pause suggest that Austen calls on her readers to follow Anne and Wentworth's example and listen. Michaelson's study of reading and speech in "the age of Austen" sees novels as replacement conversation manuals; reading Austen out loud, she claims, allowed women to practice "authoritative speech" (19). Andrew Elfenbein similarly sees Austen's writing as imitating speech patterns. He views Austen as a paradigmatic example of the Romantic novel's "narrative division of labor" (124) in which narrators spoke in expository English and characters spoke in elocutionary English. The latter required the novel to swallow the vocabulary of "elocutionary pauses, emphases, tones, accents, climaxes, and cadences to describe how characters talked" (120). Kathryn Sutherland traces editorial changes to punctuation in Mansfield Park and claims that the original publication's use of a "rhythmical" rather than "syntactic" punctuation marks Austen's preservation of "the aural trace in the printed text" (104). She sees Mansfield Park, as I see Persuasion, as both modeling (through the heroine, Fanny Price) and requiring the reader's active listening. Persuasion, like Mansfield Park, portrays listening to and retaining the "aural trace" of speech as central to reading and authoring the Romantic novel.
By the end of the novel, however, the sounds and speech heard through Anne's ear fade out; after her abdication of the role of listener, Anne no longer guides the narrative's focalization, and the reader loses her ear. She and Wentworth go for a walk, for example, and Austen occludes much of their conversation from the reader, mentioning only that "words enough had passed between them to decide their direction towards the comparatively quiet and retired gravel-walk" (225). Austen mentions that "they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure every thing," yet the words and sounds of those exchanges and promises remain out of the reader's earshot. The narrative then turns to Wentworth's side of the story, a point of view eclipsed for the majority of the novel. (4) The final chapter of the novel enigmatically begins with a question neither Wentworth's nor Anne's: "Who can be in doubt of what follows?" (232). For an instant, the question floats unanswered as an invitation for readers to complete the story, to figuratively sing the rest of Anne's song. The chapter parades readers through a series of characters' "ever afters," which, as Austen notes again, "cannot be doubted" (234). Austen seems to invite her readers to listen to a recitation of their own expectations, the narratological certainties, the indubitable "what follows" of Persuasion's, narrative.
Austen's strange final paragraph, then, creates a dissonant rebellion to the narrative harmonies of the preceding pages. While Anne "gloried in being a sailor's wife," Wentworth's profession requires that Anne "pay the tax of quick alarm" while waiting for "the dread of a future war" (236). Here, Anne is once again caught in an act of compulsory listening--for the alarm or "alarum" of a call to war. (5) Yet, this dread is also a "tax" for the reader, as he or she is asked, once again, to construct Anne's future (will Wentworth stay or won't he?). Now, who can not be in doubt of what follows? Listening for the "alarm," therefore, is the price paid by the most cleverly concealed eavesdroppers of the novel: us, as readers. We are left with the unavoidable "tax" of overhearing: not knowing what happens after the sound fades out.
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA
(1) Wiltshire reads Anne's ability to hear at this moment as a sign of her happiness. In other places in the narrative, however, happiness stemming from the confirmation of Wentworth's love for her causes hearing impairment. Sec, for example, the look exchanged in volume II, chapter 11, after which "Anne heard nothing distinctly; it was only a buzz of words in her car, her mind was in confusion" (217). It seems that, at this point in the novel, Anne docs not just hear when happy, she hears when she needs and wants to hear.
(2) All quotations from Austen's "Cancelled Chapter" of Persuasion can be found in the second edition of J. E. Austcn-Lcigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen.
(3) Note how Wentworth's acute listening abilities here--he can hear Anne when others cannot--mirrors Anne's preternatural auscultation during the concert, when she hears Wentworth's voice over the buzz of the pre-concert noise. As Michaclson posits, "it seems probable that what is praised here is not Anne's speaking, but Wentworth's listening" (214).
(4) The end of volume I, chapter 7 is a notable exception to Wentworth's primarily eclipsed perspective. This glimpse into Wentworth's inferiority, however, is merely that: a glimpse. For the majority of the novel, both Anne and Austen's readers must guess at Wentworth's thoughts and motivations, largely left out of the story's earshot.
(5) Thanks to Dr. Garrett Stewart for calling to my own auditory attention the connection between "alarm" and "alarum."
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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