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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The laughing dancing ducking Miss Austen: Persuasion, eyesight and Admiral Croft


Intrigued by Arnie Perlstein's argument that Anne Eliot has poor eyesight in Persuasion, I looked back at the scene where Anne runs into Admiral Croft staring at the ship print in the shop window. This seemed an apt starting point for testing the theory: surely, if Anne can see details of a painting in a shop window, that would suggest her eyesight is acute.

Admiral Croft gazing into the shop window. I love this because of the cat.

Not for the first time on revisiting Austen, I was impressed with her artistry. She sets up the scene without missing a beat. We learn, right before Anne runs into Admiral Croft staring at the print, that every day, Lady Russell takes her out for a carriage drive. On these drives, Anne "never failed to think of them [the Crofts], and never failed to see them." Austen writes that it:

"was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could, delighted to fancy she understood what they might talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral's hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe the eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her."

This paints an utterly charming "picture of happiness." I love the "little knot of the navy" phrase, as we think of naval people as great knotters of ropes. On first glance (no pun intended), it certainly seems as if Anne sees perfectly well. Yet I am one who, like a handful of others, including Arnie, believes in a double text or alternative story, and given that, I understand how this lovely vignette could be read both ways. It all hinges on the word "picture." Is Anne really literally seeing this scene or is it a "picture of happiness" (after all, "happiness" is an abstract concept) painted in her imagination?

The "picture of happiness" in the Crofts that Anne likes to imagine. Does she really see it?


The word fancy means to imagine in 19th century England, as it does today, but while we might use fancy and imagination interchangeably, in that period fancy held a connotation of weaving a fantasy. Wordsworth, for instance, distinguishes between fancies and imaginings in The Prelude, with fancies more far-fetched, perhaps involving wizards or fairies. When Anne "delighted to fancy" what the Crofts said to each other, this indicates that can't hear them and thus is weaving their conversations wholly from her own mind. What she sees from the carriage window--the possibly blurry scene of the Crofts walking--"equally delighted" her: is it, in reality, as fanciful?

I think its not by accident that Anne runs into Admiral Croft when she does--we know she has been hoping to meet with the Crofts and there is that mysterious (and in Austen always red flag type of throwaway phrase): "about a week or ten days after the Croft's arrival, it SUITED HER [ANNE] BEST TO LEAVE HER FRIEND, OR HER FRIEND'S CARRIAGE ... and return alone to Camden Place." We are not told why it "suited" Anne to do this, but we might surmise it would be to encounter the Crofts and learn whether Wentworth is engaged to Lousia--and lo and behold, right away she stumbles on Admiral Croft.

Anne sees Admiral Croft "staring at a picture." She obviously can see well enough, even if near-sighted, to discern this. The word "picture," occurring so soon after Anne's thought of "picture of happiness" about the Crofts, might lead us to believe that the apparently real picture of the Crofts that Anne sees from the carriage is just as much an imaginative (and distorted) picture as the picture of the boat. Croft calls the boat a "cockleshell"--which means a flimsy ship--ready to capsize. However, a cockleshell also stands for a cuckold, as in the nursery rhyme "Mary, Mary quite contrary." Some have interpreted the "cockleshells" in that rhyme to mean Mary Queen of Scots was cheated on by her husband. (See Wikipedia's entry on the nursery rhyme: some printed 18th century editions replaced "cockleshells" with "cuckolded.") Significantly, too, we don't witness Anne seeing the ship--we witness her HEARING Admiral Croft describe it.

The color version of the scene above. Note that Anne looks at Admiral Croft, not the ship print.
After this, Anne and Admiral Croft promenade together along the street. He takes her arm, saying "I do not feel comfortable if I do not have a woman there." Croft's running dialogue tells Anne what is going on, not Anne's own eyes, lending further credence to the impaired eyesight theory. The running dialogue from Admiral Croft, rather than Anne, describes and also interprets the scene. We should be suspicious. Croft tells us that "Brigden stares to see anyone with me but my wife," and notes Drew (hhm sounds like drew a picture): "Look, he sees us; he kisses his hand to you; he takes you for my wife." Then we get the repetition of the idea of Anne not being Mrs. Croft: "as she was not really Mrs. Croft..." she has to bide her time for Admiral Croft to spill his news.

Admira Croft and Anne walk arm-in-arm in Bath.


In the overt story, this is simply a lovely scene showing Anne--and the reader--kept in inadvertent suspense by a kindly man about news she is yearning to have. But it also adds up in the covert story to bad eyesight. Why otherwise would Admiral Croft have to say to Anne that Drew "kisses his hand to you?" In the overt story, he is simply making cheerful and pointless conversation. In the covert story, he knows she can't see well. And further, if Anne actually is only painting distorted mental pictures of the Crofts (like the distorted boat), of the two out together happily (because she can't see well at all and only sees a blur), what if she is seeing Adm. Croft on the arms of other women and yet weaving her own fantasy of domestic happiness? Maybe Adm. Croft is a womanizer--he starts off by saying he doesn't feel comfortable without "a woman" on his arm--and perhaps people are staring, not for the reasons Admiral Croft supplies, but because they want to take in his latest possible paramour?

Also, we have to rely on Adm Croft's word that Mrs. Croft is not with him because of a blister on her foot: this is the kind of detail easily overlooked, but one we might want to fact check as the story emerges. As it happens, Mrs. Croft's blister never comes up again, and by the time we see her again, she is fine.

Working against the sight-impaired theory however, is the following scene, just a few pages later. Anne, her sister and Mrs. Clay have taken cover in Mollards, a shop, against a rainfall. We learn that

Anne, as she sat near the window, descried, most decidedly and distinctly, Captain Wentworth walking down the street.
If she is badly short-sighted, how can she see Wentworth "most decidedly and distinctly?" But, of course, she doesn't see him, she "descries" him, a word that means, according to dictionary.com, "to see (something unclear or distant) by looking carefully; discern; espy." A secondary meaning is "to discover, perceive, detect." The dictionary's suitably nautical example is "The lookout descried land." So to descry something can mean to see it hazily in the distance, but can also mean to perceive or detect. We are told that Anne "descried" Wentworth "most decidedly and distinctly." Is that literally possible on a rainy day, through shop a window, or does it suggest a more intuitive perception or  ability to discern him distinctly without needing to see him clearly? It would make sense to look more carefully into what descry connoted in the Regency and if Austen uses it elsewhere.

Not enough attention is placed on intertextual links between the novels or the way they might function as a metatext. If we look back at Mansfield Park, we see that admirals don't come off well. While it's possible that Mary Crawford exaggerates about the rears and vices of her uncle's naval friends, we know she is staying with her half-sister because her uncle has brought a mistress under his roof, rendering her former home no longer respectable and forcing her into her country exile. Could not our only admiral in this novel be cut from a similar cloth, and our characters blinded because each for their own reasons has an incentive to think well of him? 

1 comment:

  1. Diane, Excellent post, as usual! My reply is simple -- when the narration says that Anne "descried" Wentworth, it can plausibly mean TWO very different things:

    That she really did see him; OR

    That she believed she saw him, but actually she did not.

    As with a thousand other passages in JA's novels, there is the objective narrator or there is the subjective perception of the heroine.

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