Scenework in Persuasion

The prevailing thought I had reading all of these Austen novels, and in particular Persuasion, is that they feel much more like modern novels than anything else we’ve read so far this semester. There’s an attention to realism which was all but absent in the Amatory fiction we looked at, not merely in terms of place and action which certainly feel better developed than (I’d argue) any other text we’ve read, but also in the psychological depths of these characters. 

Of course, we’ve seen a psychological interest in the inner minds of characters before, most notably in Clarissa, but something felt different about its portrayal here. In Clarissa, the psychological depth comes from the endless considerations of the characters, which are expressed more or less directly to the audience in the novel’s epistolary form. Persuasion operates on very different principles though: here, scene is the main vehicle through which this psychological depth is imparted to the audience. 

Austen’s interest in scene—not just the dialogue but the positioning of characters, the choreography of their movements, the things which go unsaid, and the resulting tension such things create—far exceeds that of any other writer we’ve looked at. Although this is present throughout all of three of the Austen we’ve read, I felt it most intensely in Persuasion, and, in my accounting, it reaches its zenith in the scene in chapter 23 where Captain Wentworth writes Anne the letter that reveals his feelings  (I won’t record the entire thing here because it’s quite long).

To me, this scene amounts to the climax of the novel—perhaps an interesting one, given that there’s no outward danger to anyone and although there is a revelation its one whose drama is considerably lacking when compared to that of, say, the one in Woman of Color, where we discover the existence of a secret first wife. Here, it’s the internal emotions of the characters  that push us to that intensity rather than any outward or external force. 

There’s also a layering here that’s absent from any other text we’ve looked at. The scene mostly consists of a conversation between Anne and Captain Harville about the nature of love, especially as it applies to men and women. This is a prime example of talking around a point rather than openly discussing it, as, without ever being told (at least to best of my memory) the audience understands that Anne is discussing her own feelings for Captain Wentworth. Austen has also carefully blocked out the scene—positioning Captain Wentworth close by, though the reader is unsure whether or not he can overhear, or if he does overhear, if he will understand it for what it is—a declaration of love. The intensity comes not from the literal conversation, but rather from this clever positioning of characters, the layering of said/unsaid, which all create a palpable tension in both the characters (as is revealed in Captain Wentworth’s frantic letter) as well as the audience itself. This was the first time this semester I could viscerally feel the tension in my body. I didn’t just want to see how the scene ended—I needed to. 

Though the scene work in Persuasion hasn’t quite reached what I would term “modern standards” yet—Austen defaults to narration/summary in places modern writers would never dream of, for example, the meeting in the park where Anne and Captain Wentworth discuss their feelings openly—but using it as the main thing through which we understand our characters is undoubtedly a modern technique.

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