Professor John Morillo
Department of English
North Carolina State U.
Delivered at NASSR, Durham, NC, Nov. 11, 1994
Whether considered for its social criticisms, as the epitome of Austen's rules of amiable courtship, or for its special authority as the last complete Austen novel, Persuasion challenges its critics to make some sense out of one peculiar moment: Louisa Musgrove's startling fall from Wentworth's arms onto her head. While many have noticed this incident on the steps of the Cobb at Lyme-Regis, I wish to pursue its significance by starting with what it literally is--a fall, and one that turns a story around.
Initially, we are encouraged to see the humor in this disruptive moment, especially once any mortal danger to Louisa's health has passed. Admiral Crofts remarks of this "sad catastrophe," "'Ay, a very bad business indeed.--A new sort of way this, for a young fellow to be making love, by breaking his mistresses' head!" (120). Similarly, the narrator, given to especially sharp-tongued appraisals of characters in this novel, remarks with humorously skewed concern that "Louisa's limbs had escaped. There was no injury but to the head" (109). The scene, however, is not merely played for laughs. The immediate impression is that Louisa has in fact died, and the horror of the moment is not quite restricted to the friends at the Cobb.
This serious pivotal moment in the novel, coming as the catastrophe in the plot, ends the action of volume one and directs the action of volume two. Although Louisa's fall marks no real turn to tragedy, the importance of her fall lies in taking seriously the dialogue this novel stages with the idea of a fall as an event that structures not just novel plots, but fundamental myths about the moral lives of men and women. I will argue that Austen targets traditional Christian myths of the fall as an especially damaging kind of false education for women and men alike. Persuasion seeks to reeducate all who assume fundamental myths of woman's inconstancy and fickleness, those like Captain Harville. Such dangerous, traditional myths are maintained, as Anne Elliott claims, by myriad "examples in books," examples roundly criticized in the narrator's ultimate comments on education, sex and sensibility. Anne retorts to Captain Harville's claim that all literature is a variation on the constant theme of woman's treachery by ruling out his evidence entirely: She wants to hear of "no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling our own story. Education has been theirs in so much a higher degree; the pen has been in their hands" (221). Given this focus on rules for women penned by men, it is appropriate that Austen reconsiders the myth of the fall as crucial to issues of writing, gender and power. The fall forms perhaps the most fundamental story of the weakness of woman and the consequent woe to mankind. Persuasion, generally noted for its apparently conservative religious intimations, instead reveals in Austen's revised and inverted story of the fall an untraditional, critical appraisal of some Christian myths. Most importantly, in Austen's revision of the myth of the fall, Satanic temptation is identified not only with the devious Walter William Eliot, but with the apparently innocuous Captain Benwick, and with Austen's unique version of a contemporary Satanic school of Romantic poetry. Not just Byron, but Scott tempt women with this devilish mode of discourse.
Many of the important parts of the Biblical story of the fall find counterparts in Austen's novel, but her scenes resemble mirror images. They reverse the order of the Christian myth and alter its expected outcome. One page before Louisa lands on her head, Austen first introduces her readers to William Walter Elliott, the heir presumptive in Anne's family and a character quite accurately described as a snake. In Anne's later terms William represents those "manoeuvres of selfishness and duplicity" that she terms revolting. William does partly play the devil in Austen's plot, and he is indeed irredeemably evil in concert with the corrupt and aptly named Mrs. Clay. But he first enters the scene on the Cobb not to tempt Louisa, but Anne, who mistakes him for a fine gentleman. Meanwhile he, much like Milton's Satan to Eve, "admired her exceedingly" for her "bloom and freshness of youth" (101). But it is not Anne herself who falls.
Louisa's Musgrove's mock-tragic tumble is initially called both an accident and a catastrophe. Its function in the plot as classical catastrophe, however, is superseded in the novel, as tragedy is by comedy, thanks to a stronger association with the post-classical idea of a felix culpa or fortunate fall. Captain Wentworth, later recalling to Anne that distressing day at Lyme, remarks, "The day has produced some effects however--has had some consequences which may be considered as the very reverse of frightful" (172). For Wentworth and Anne the remark is just. As Laura Mooneyham has noted, the fall at Lyme marks a critical point at which Wentworth's and Anne's roles begin to reverse, improving each, allowing them to slowly overcome the many barriers to communication and understanding.
Understanding who benefits from this fall becomes, for Austen, an explicitly woman-centered issue. As the narrator informs us, "As to the sad catastrophe itself, it could be canvassed only in one style by a couple of steady sensible women, whose judgments had to work on ascertained events" (120). Any good fortune borne of this fall must be ascertained by attending to these wise women. Louisa herself, however, is not one of these wise women, nor does any good fortune from the sad mishap extend to her.
Louisa Musgrove keeps her life but forfeits much of what makes it, for Austen, worth living. Formerly high-spirited, she becomes vegetatively docile in her permanent convalescence, and is both infantilized and reduced to something reminiscent of a small, frightened bird, "like a young dab-chick" (206), as her brother Charles describes her to Anne. Louisa, though often annoying, seems an unlikely figure to shoulder the weight of this fate, much less to bear Austen's intellectual religious critique. As a minor character first representing "all the usual stock of accomplishments" and "living to be fashionable, happy and merry," this frivolous socialite hardly seems a likely point on which the whole novel should pivot, except that she is, at Lyme, acting as Anne's rival for Captain Frederick Wentworth's affections. But even the importance of such a romantic rivalry is played down as Anne instead has her eye as much on the newly-introduced William as on Wentworth. Why then so forcibly remove Louisa from the action?
If Louisa is punished for daring to express overtly a too-sexualized pleasure, then the immediate circumstances of this fall might suggest that the novel's view of religion resembles Victorian piety. Louisa falls because she insists on being jumped down from step to step, a process in which she has Wentworth lift and carry her through the air because, as Austen puts it, "the sensation was delightful to her" (106). Accordingly Austen, never willing to venture beyond a tame "amiability" as the proper passion for courting couples, divinely intervenes with a most sexually repressive punishment.
But if this is indeed her myth, Austen arrogates to herself the voice and power of an angry god. While any voice of God in the novel may well need to be a woman's voice, there is a better candidate for the woman who speaks a divinely-powerful commandment in this novel, a voice that occasions not only the scene on the Cobb but more accurately explains the immediate cause of Louisa's fall.
That voice belongs to Lady Russell, Anne Eliot's aunt who attempts to replace Anne's dead mother. Lady Russell's earlier life with Anne is important to Louisa's later folly. When told not to jump again Louisa retorts, "I will" (106). It is not the pleasure Louisa feels but instead what Louisa says that precipitates her fall and connects her fate to Lady Russell and to Anne. Lady Russell initiates the whole story of Persuasion as Anne's adversity, much as God does the story of man's adversity, with a commandment. She tells young Anne that she may not marry Mr. Frederick Wentworth, a mere navy man of no apparent means or prospects. Lady Russell's potent spoken influence far outweighs Anne's ineffectual father, and Anne is persuaded to give up the romance.
In this context, when Louisa later commands the flagging Wentworth that she will be jumped down one more stair--"I am determined I will"--a reading favorable to Louisa initially seems applicable: if she will have her last jump, she will have her sexualized pleasure, she will have self-determination, she will apparently become a strong, admirable, perhaps even feminist figure. In contrast, Anne, diffident victim of others' will has spent years regretting her own prior inability to say, "I will" and "I do." Louisa seems poised for greatness. Louisa, however, plummets insensible to the pavement, while Anne regenerates and triumphs because of Louisa's fall.
The novel poses an ethical problem in reading the value of woman's self-determination. The reader, like Wentworth, needs to separate Anne from Louisa by coming "to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind" (228). A strong will is no apology for a pointless pursuit. But Austen hints at a more radical response to the critical business of commandments and ethical choices in women's lives: no single rule can be had for taking or rejecting apparently authoritative advice. In a novel that has already supplanted the patriarchal authority Anne's father Sir Walter with her aunt Lady Russell, Austen has Anne question a further aspect of traditional Christian ethics, the link between the will of God and the voice of the parent.
Anne, after telling Wentworth that she was perfectly right in being guided by Lady Russell, adds an unsettlingly honest coda to her attempt at trying impartially to judge of the right and the wrong, as she puts it, "with regard to myself" (232). Of Lady Russell she concludes:
To me she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides" (232, my emph.)
This is a strikingly relativistic appraisal from the woman who earlier seems to advocates Christian education by means of moral tales of worth and suffering, stories reminiscent of Samuel Johnson and earlier Christian stoic moralists. Even though Anne adds that "a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion," her intriguingly destabilizing words about cases and events do carry the added authority of being part of Anne's last speech in the novel. But which cases are to be evaluated only as the event decides, admitting of no categorical imperative? The broader circumstances of Louisa's fall provide a possible answer.
Not only is Louisa selfish and obstinate, she is self-deluded. Her tumble from our respect is carefully prepared by Austen as the necessary consequence of an unhappy mix of trivial will with habitual deference. Louisa is best appraised in the scene late in volume I, just before the incident on the Cobb, in which Wentworth makes a moral exemplum out of a hazel nut. Wentworth believes he has spotted in Louisa the admirable firmness of mind that he claims to value so highly, and so he compares her to a hazel nut still on the tree, one that has not "fallen and been trodden underfoot" (86). Such verbs, combined with the telling mention of Autumn throughout this chapter make it clear that fall is very much in the air. Perhaps Austen's specific choice of hazel nut further recalls Wordsworth's hazels in his "Nutting" poem, a possible example of what the narrator calls in the same chapter "those thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn" (86). Indeed, Wordsworth's "Nutting" aptly further represents a decidedly male retelling of the loss of paradise. Precisely these kinds of poetical descriptions occupy Anne's musings while she overhears Wentworth and Louisa discoursing on the nut. Yet even without allusion Austen indicates that Wentworth admires some very questionable aspects of Louisa's character. Louisa earns Wentworth's admiration by criticizing Mrs. Crofts, Wentworth's own sister, for too much cold independence in her marriage to the Admiral Crofts: "If I loved a man as she loves the Admiral, I would be always with him, nothing should ever separate us, and I would rather be overturned by him, than driven safely by anybody else."
Before being physically overturned by Wentworth on the steps, Louisa's traditional feminine deference to male authority has already been overturned by the very subject of her effusion, Mrs. Crofts. In a subtle piece of plotting Austen concludes the same chapter with Mrs. Crofts' literalizing and reversing Louisa's remarks on being safely driven. When a carriage driven by Admiral Croft comes perilously close to hitting a post, Mrs. Croft grabs the carriage reins from him and prevents the carriage from crashing. As the narrator pointedly adds, "by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself...they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart." (90) Louisa however, lacking the narrator's recognition of the value of strong active women like Mrs. Croft, falls into a more dangerous and foul kind of rut, one formed not by carriage wheels, but by the repetitive lines of male myths about proper female moral character.
Louisa's alternately laughable and pathetic post-lapsarian fate is to become a parody of the proper sentimental female reader. For Louisa plays out her life being doted on by the feminized and bookish lieutenant Benwick, who, despite being a Man of Feeling, acts much like Waugh's later mad Dickensian in the jungle. Benwick is incessantly at Louisa's ear "whispering to her all day long" (206). In fact he is reading to her the latest romantic verse of Byron and Scott. Benwick, the narrator informs us, especially favors Scott's Marmion and Byron's eastern tales like the Giaour. However distinct these two romantics poets seemed to many others, in Austen's hands they collectively represent a kind of Satanic school of poetry, presenting equally diabolical, debilitating choices for women's acceptable romantic conduct: Scott can only offer women pining chivalric effusions, what Anne calls "tender songs," while Byron aligns women with smolderingly destructive sexuality, what Austen's narrator terms "hopeless agony." Those women who assume only these narrow roles have already fallen from grace. And in Benwick's suggestive position as one crouching and whispering at Louisa's ear Austen has placed before Louisa's unseeing eyes a devilish emblem of that most subtle kind of real temptations that led to her fall, an ideology of gender in which much of the new verse of the early nineteenth century merely recapitulates the same old stories. It is thus especially significant that Anne, just after overhearing Louisa's pledge to stand by her man, finds herself unable to resume her daydreaming about the many poetic descriptions of autumn. As the narrator notes, "Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again." As foil to Louisa, perpetually fallen into a restrictive world of masculine quotation in which all choices have been prewritten for her, Anne instead will conclude that it is high time that women wrote the texts to be quoted. And whereas Louisa slips into passive inanition verging on catatonia, Anne is roused to action by Louisa's disaster, and moves closer to Mrs. Crofts, one who, unlike the false divinity of Lady Russell, represents in her forthright opinions, strong marriage and admirable bearing something rare and divine in this world in which, as Austen knows, men want to hold the pen and the reins.
Persuasion itself becomes the model text that needs to be available to teach women about love, life and moral choices. This novel becomes its own best example of progressive moral education. It is precisely as an antidote to Benwick's cherished Byron and Scott that Anne suggests an alternative, a kind of prose about "characters of worth and suffering...as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurance" (99). Such prose, especially for rousing any fallen and despondent women, is exemplified by the story of Persuasion itself. Fortified with Austen's persuasive alternative to a dominant patriarchal ideology, one is invited to see that Anne's earlier dissatisfaction with extant poetic descriptions of Autumn is no passing aesthetic quibble but instead hints at a far more profound dissatisfaction with the extant mythography of the fall.
Austen's rewriting of the idea of the fall is thus suggestive rather than exhaustive. Rather than retelling a myth of temptation, fall and consequence in chronological sequence, we see the clearest picture of Austen's' devil after Louisa's downfall, in the procrustean bed of categorical and inflexible rules for the conduct of ladies in love, rules which Byron and Scott too blindly follow. As for the role of God, even though Lady Russell attempts the part, she fails. With her fails any belief that timeless, inflexible commandments resembling hers--and perhaps God's-- will suffice for guiding all women onto the path of virtue and happiness. For any single, fixed rule for women about being persuadable by others, like Christian conviction about Eve's error, would have drastically different consequences for Louisa and Anne.
Finally, seeing Austen's novel as engaged in a dialogue with other stories of the fall sheds light on the way any social criticism in the novel becomes inseparable from primary myths of culture like that of the fall from grace. Such connections become visible in Austen's alternative to a world where women too often fall into quotation. In the crucial hazel nut scene, Anne is able to avoid falling into quotation by instead observing "the ploughs at work, and the fresh-made path...counteracting the sweets of poetical despondence." Austen recognizes here that it will be hard, very hard work clearing ways for such fresh-made, alternative paths through established myths. She further implies that any patriarchal or pastoral ideal of dwelling in happy contemplation on the land of one's fathers is bankrupt, because this very desire characterizes Anne's useless and socially prejudiced father at the start of the novel. Instead, Austen advocates a life that sees work not as postlapsarian curse, but as the blessing of directed activity, as true virtue. If this welcome acceptance of work is a tenet of Austen's Protestant faith and is central to her new mythology, it is quite fitting that her father's world of stagnant leisure and land is willingly left by Anne for the vigorous activity, but constantly shifting circumstances that characterize the trustworthy moral guide Mrs. Crofts, and that await Anne in her new career at sea.