Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Accidents and Coincidence in Persuasion

Anne Elliot and her two suitors Captain Wentworth and Mr Elliot, are traveling in a web of accidents and coincidences in Persuasion. This web puts them all in the same field, gives both suitors the advantage of luck and mystery, yet keeps them tangled away from Anne, struggling and gradually moving in their necessary directions, towards and away from her, as the novel progresses.

Wentworth is most strongly associated with luck and lucky accidents. At the time of his youthful engagement to Anne he had already 'been lucky in his profession’ and later Admiral Croft comments on his luck at having been assigned the Laconia by the navy, in which he had chanced to take enough privateers and war bounty to make him rich. Coinciding with his return from the war, his sister and brother-in-law the Crofts ‘accidentally hear’ of Kellynch Hall being to let while at Taunton, and thus the new tenants of Kellynch, Anne’s rightful home and the scene of her historic courtship, are the immediate family of her one time fiancĂ©, and expecting Wentworth moreover to stay with them.

While Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot decamp to Bath, Anne embarks on a long visit to her married sister Mary in the adjoining neighbourhood of Uppercross and, given the sociable habits of the Uppercross family, the Musgroves, she is understandably uneasy at the prospect of socializing with a man whom she had been persuaded to break off an engagement with eight years earlier, who has improved with time while she has faded, and with whom she is still in love. But a Persuasion accident allows her to absent herself from the dinner party she was to first meet him again at, when her nephew suffers a bad fall from a tree. In order that the child’s parents may attend the dinner, she offers to stay at home and nurse the him, preventing a long, painful and public reunion for them both. A coincidence is discovered by Mrs Musgrove when she suddenly remembers that Wentworth was the one of the captains their son Richard had served under in the navy. Never much loved on land but having died at sea, the troublesome Dick’s association with Wentworth, who had encouraged him to write the only two letters that weren’t supplications for money that his parents ever received, gives a touchingly pathetic and grateful tinge to the already healthy Uppercross admiration for the captain. And at Uppercross, accidents and coincidences first seem to pull Wentworth towards Louisa Musgrove.

The occurrence of accidents is a dominant motif throughout the narrative and never more so than on the day of the young people’s long walk to Winthrop, does this motif tie Anne, Louisa and Wentworth together. Whilst Anne is mediating on poetry that depicts the sweets of autumn, Wentworth tells of the Crofts’ adventures in their gig:

“…I wonder whereabouts they will upset to-day. Oh! it does happen very often, I assure you; but my sister makes nothing of it; she would as lieve be tossed out as not."

"Ah! You make the most of it, I know," cried Louisa, "but if it were really so, I should do just the same in her place. If I loved a man, as she loves the Admiral, I would always be with him, nothing should ever separate us, and I would rather be overturned by him, than driven safely by anybody else."

It was spoken with enthusiasm.

"Had you?" cried he, catching the same tone; "I honour you!"

Anne’s thoughts ‘could not immediately fall into a quotation again’ after this exchange, understandably.

Later on the Winthrop walk she accidentally overhears a conversation between Wentworth and Louisa. Having sat down to rest, ‘she very soon heard Captain Wentworth and Louisa in the hedge-row, behind her’, an accident which has two-fold significance. In one way, the exchange between Louisa and Wentworth draws him superficially closer to Louisa as he admires her strength of resolution in comparison to Henrietta Musgrove’s wavering about Charles Hayter, and by unmentioned proxy, Anne’s youthful wavering about him. But she also overhears Louisa tell him how she had refused her brother Charles' proposal a few years earlier too. Louisa wrongly speculates that Lady Russell persuaded her to refuse Charles Musgrove, leading Anne to assume Wentworth will now believe her to be completely without judgment for herself. And yet, ‘there had been just that degree of feeling and curiosity about her in his manner’ to pose the idea that he now begins to hope she might still be in love with him.

On the close of the Winthrop walk, the party comes across the accident prone Crofts in their gig and Wentworth, having noticed Anne’s fatigue, orchestrates a lift for her with them and Anne is driven home by the couple who unknowingly almost had become, and later would become her in-laws. And though on the drive they speculate on a romance at Uppercross for Wentworth, due to Mrs Croft’s precision, any other accidents here were avoided:

…by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart.

To be continued

No comments: