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.

Homoerotic Female Friendships in 18th Century British Fiction

For my topic, I’m interested in looking at some of the really intense female friendships that we’ve come across in texts (most notably in Clarissa, but also potentially in Maria as well) and examining how they might be read as romantic and/or subtextually homoerotic, and perhaps even suggest that the truest relationships available to women in the 18th century were those with other women.

Foundational Text:

Todd, Janet. Women’s Friendship in Literature. Columbia Univ. Pr., 1980.

In this book (which unfortunately I wasn’t able to look at directly, though the UH library does have a copy of it, so I can get it through them the next time I’m on campus. In lieu of actually looking at the text, I read a number of reviews to get an idea of what was argued) Todd is essentially arguing against Virginia’s Woolf’s assertion that there are no female friendships exist in literature. Todd tracks female relationships in 18th century texts which are not defined by men. She sorts these friendships in five categories including ones like “sentimental friendship” and “erotic friendship.” She discusses Clarissa and Anna Howe’s relationship at length, casting their friendship in the first category. Much of her analysis deals with the ways in which the patriarchy is operating on these female characters and essentially undercutting their relationship. 

Secondary Texts:

Donoghue, Emma. Passions Between Women. Bello, 2014.

Emma Donoghue’s book will be an excellent help in this topic. She covers a lot of ground throughout the book, notably the ways in which the intense female friendships found in British literature of the 18th century can be read as homoerotic. She cites a lot of other critics in her work and part of her analysis seems wrapped up in the ways in which critics have historically side-stepped the issue of Lesbianism/Sapphism in these historical texts as an attempt to shield the authors, and indeed the characters, from criticism. She refers to Clarissa specifically in the chapter “A Sincere and Tender Passion,” taking issue with previous critical interpretations (from Jean Hagstrum in particular) which argue that while Anna Howe and Clarissa’s friendship could be seen as homoerotic it has noting to do with “consummated lesbianism” (217.) Of this Donoghue writes: “such godlike insight into hypothetical sexual practices of fictional female characters is not rare among critics who hate lesbians” (217). 

Woodward, Carolyn. “‘My Heart so Wrapt’: Lesbian Disruptions in Eighteenth-Century British Fiction.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 18, no. 4, 1993, pp. 838–865., https://doi.org/10.1086/494845.

Woodward spends a lot of time tracking what she terms “lesbian disruptions” in 18th century fiction—this is a fairly ambiguous term, but one that she defines as “gaps in narrative, genre mixing, and avoidance of closure” which are utilized by 18th century authors of fiction (intentionally or unintentionally) as a means to discuss (or not discuss as the case may be) female desire and especially same-sex female desire (842). She talks about the ways in which Clarissa and Anna Howe’s relationship is the most sustained and unproblematic depiction of love in Clarissa and how the novel reestablishes patriarchal expectations/standards by killing off/neutralizing the “lesbian subject” (858). 

Kittredge, Katharine. “Men-Women and Womanish Men: Androgyny in Richardson’s ‘Clarissa.’” Modern Language Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 1994, p. 20., https://doi.org/10.2307/3195142.

In this essay Kitteredge tracks different forms of androgyny found throughout Clarissa. I’m particularly interested in her read of Anna Howe as “a kind of proto-male woman” (22). Although Kittredge never explicitly mentions lesbianism or the potential homoerotic readings of the the friendship between Anna and Clarissa, this read of Anna as inherently androgynous, or in some way denying her own role of woman seems incredibly relevant to other sources I’ve encountered like Randolph Trumbach, whose historical tracking of lesbianism in 18th century England goes hand-in-hand with the creation of what he terms a fourth gender (the third being the homosexual male). It seems like many discussions of 18th century lesbianism are bound up in these ideas of non-gender conforming women which I’ve seen referred to in many different ways throughout my research.

Stakes in Evelina

How are the stakes constructed differently in Evelina than they are in Clarissa? Do we ever really believe that there’s the potential for an unhappy ending in Evelina’s tale? If not, what is the compelling factor keeping the reader engaged?

Volume III, Letter VI:

“Awake, then, my dear, my deluded child, awake to the sense of your danger, and exert yourself to avoid the evils with which it threatens you, – evils which, to a mind like yours, are most to be dreaded, secret repining, and concealed, yet consuming regret! Make a noble effort for the recovery of your peace, which now, with sorrow I see it, depends wholly upon the presence of Lord Orville. This effort, may, indeed, be painful, but trust to my experience, when I assure you it is requisite.


You must quit him! – his sight is baneful to your repose, his society is death to your future tranquillity! Believe me, my beloved child, my heart aches for your suffering, while it dictates its necessity.


Could I flatter myself that Lord Orville would, indeed, be sensible of your worth, and act with a nobleness of mind which should prove it congenial to his own, then would I leave my Evelina to the unmolested enjoyment of the chearful society and increasing regard of a man she so greatly admires: but this is not an age in which we may trust to appearances, and imprudence is much sooner regretted than repaired. ”

[I have a digital copy of the book that doesn’t have page numbers]

Clarissa’s Agency

The sources I chose to focus on for the annotated bibliography have to do with the different feminist reads that scholars have applied to Clarissa in the past half century. In a novel as massive and sprawling as Clarissa, it seems to become a sort of touchstone, where many different readings and interpretations can exist in tandem. The two texts I chose to look at examined different, albeit similarly elusive and abstract subjects in Clarissa—one the views on marriage stated throughout (and how they compared to the literal practice of marriage in the novel), and the other the interior lives and general mental capacity of the female characters.

One thing that neither text seemed concerned with examining in any depth that I found myself thinking about quite a bit during this last section was Clarissa’s physical agency throughout the novel. During the first half, this agency seems to vanish before it had a chance to begin, as Clarissa is constantly in positions that more or less amount to captivity and yet refuses to take any reasonable action to free herself from those conditions. 

In this section of the novel though, Clarissa seems to come into her own agency for the first time. For once, Lovelace (or her brother, father, uncles, etc.) isn’t dictating the actions of the plot, but suddenly has to cater to Clarissa’s whims, as she continues to refuse to marry despite everything that has happened. Rather being subject to the actions of the men around her, Clarissa subjects them to her own will in these last 600 pages or so. 

It is interesting (and bears more consideration than I have time to properly do justice to here) that the thing which allows her to make this move from object to subject is the sexual assault. This reminds me of Monique Wittig’s points about “women” (an admittedly impossible to define category) whose line of oppression forces them to exist outside of the typical societal concepts of womanhood. This exclusion allows these people access to forms of resistance that were previously inaccessible. Though Wittig is referring mostly to lesbians, it seems like it also can be applied to the role of “fallen” women in the 18th century. The assault, which ruined any hope Clarissa has to fit into the societal role of “woman” that she has spent her whole life trying to maintain, suddenly allows her an agency that was completely impossible for her to access previously.

What I’m really interested though is not the portion of this reading that has to do with Clarissa giving Lovelace and her family the runaround as she refuses to marry, but rather the portion that deals with her madness. I was a little bit disappointed to see how brief this section of the novel truly is (given the length of the text as a whole) but there’s so many fascinating things here that even with the relatively short page space it leaves an impression. When it comes to the question of female agency, this seems to be the point in the narrative when Clarissa hits her apex. Here, she has shed all societal (and indeed literary expectations) expectations and is moving according to a gravity all her own. Richardson’s knowledge as a printer allows this newfound freedom to manifest itself in the text, as the free floating thoughts and poetic lines appear randomly all over the page, completely unbound by page settings or typical margins. In the world of Feminist literary theory where so often plot/conflict driven narrative is seen as inherently patriarchal, this moment of the text moving beyond that seems to represent the height of Clarissa’s personal agency. 

Annotated Bib: Developing Scholarly Views of Richardson’s Feminism

Rogers, Katharine M. “Sensitive Feminism vs. Conventional Sympathy: Richardson and Fielding on Women.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 9, no. 3, 1976, p. 256., https://doi.org/10.2307/1345466.

In this article, Rogers argues that Samuel Richardson’s portrayal of female characters casts him as someone highly sympathetic to the plight of women, especially when it came to acknowledging their autonomous identities. To illustrate this point, she contrasts him with Henry Fielding, whose female characters she locates within the “anti-feminist prejudices of the time” (256). Although like Fielding, Richardson tended to write submissive women and held chastity as the most important womanly virtue, Rogers sees Richardson’s feminism as radical—unlike Fielding, his formulation of womanly obedience has hard, lawful limits and his “ideal” relationship is one that’s not marked by oppression. In Clarissa, Rogers argues, such an ideal relationship is found within the friendship of Clarissa and Anna Howe, rather than what one might term the “romance” of the novel, that is, Clarissa and Lovelace. Rogers concludes by stating that at the heart of Richardson’s portrayal of women is an inherent interest in workings of womens’ minds—Richardson’s female characters are complicated, thinking creatures who almost obsessively contemplate and discuss the world around them and their place within it. In this sense, they are more than equal to their male counterparts. 

Cook, Jessica. “Revising Mary Astell: Anna Howe’s Reflections on Marriage in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 32, no. 3, 2020, pp. 407–426., https://doi.org/10.3138/ecf.32.3.407.

Cook begins her article by summarizing the general scholarly opinion of Anna Howe—that she is a highly self-aware character whose formidability is equal to, and arguably surpasses, that of the men in Clarissa. Key to this are her apparently scathing opinions on marriage. To some extent, Cook takes issue this read on Anna Howe, arguing that Anna has always been a somewhat troublesome character to study since, at first glance, her beliefs seem much more radical than those of her creator. To investigate this conflict in further depth, Cook suggests we read Anna as a fictional stand-in for the 18th century feminist Mary Astell, with whom Richardson was well-acquainted. Cook argues that through the creation of Anna, Richardson grapples with Astell’s arguments for female autonomy. Despite her high-minded claims, Anna’s character is complicated by her implied sexual knowledge and what seems to be her genuine desire for love or some type of sexual connection. At the end of the novel Anna seems to betray both her anti-marriage ideals and her longings for a partner to whom she is physically attracted and marries Hickman. This, Cook argues, is where Richardson departs from Astell’s voice and moves to his own conclusions on marriage—that, despite everything, marriage is still a worthy institution and one that (most) women should aspire to.