Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Wentworth’s unconscious constancy ; and, “Nay, Mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!”: Jane Austen, William Cowper, and Marianne Dashwood’s evocative sensibility

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Kellia Moore (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Jennifer Keith

Abstract: In Persuasion, Jane Austen uses Frederick Wentworth, a fundamentally unique Austen hero, to revise the eighteenth century theories of mind she has relied on in her earlier novels. Specifically, her depiction of his memory both recalls and undermines Enlightenment traditions. In her first three novels, Austen depicts memories that function along the lines of theories set forth by John Locke and Samuel Johnson. Colonel Brandon, for example, manifests Locke's theory of association in his conscious, habitual connection of Marianne with his lost love Eliza. Brandon's melancholic recollections also align with Johnson's description of afflictive, unresolvable regrets that can continually invade the mind. Moreover, manifold Austen characters rely on Johnson's formulation of memory's primarily moral use; at pivotal moments in their development, characters as disparate as Marianne and Darcy look back on their past actions to assess their behavior, discover their shortcomings, and derive the impetus to change. Though Austen continues to employ these models in her depiction of Wentworth, she also subjects them to significant revisions that resemble depictions of memory by contemporary Romantic writers. Wentworth, locked in contradiction, attempts to expel painful regrets of Anne with a Johnsonian reliance on logic and industriousness. In the process, however, he continually reassesses Anne's past significance to him, violating the eighteenth-century conviction of memory's static fixity and invoking William Wordsworth's depictions of memories that can change and grow beyond their original contexts. Similarly, he engages in Johnson's process of reviewing and learning from his past behavior, only to evince a serious misremembering in the midst of his moral reform. This depiction of memory evokes Byron's work in the Turkish Tales, and it is characteristic of the novel, manifested in Mrs. Musgrove's unexpected surge of grief for her dead son, in Anne's "retentive feelings" for Wentworth, and in Wentworth's breakdown on the Cobb. Austen continues to rely on eighteenth-century models, but she revises them in ways that recall Romantic writers like Wordsworth and Byron. In Wentworth's character and in Persuasion as a whole, Austen engages in a unique experiment that utilizes and even amalgamates the divergent traditions. ...AND... Jane Austen's particular enjoyment of the poetry of William Cowper, though often treated as a critical commonplace, is rarely taken into account in discussions of her work. However, Austen's references to the poet in her novels suggest that Cowper, whether read aloud by Edward Ferrars or quoted from memory by Fanny Price, remained a serious influence, both in theme and in craft. In Sense and Sensibility in particular, Austen places Cowper at the crux of Marianne's cultivated sensibility and her relation to the outside world. Though Marianne's reliance on literary convention in her enacted sensibility is often treated by critics as proof of her affectation and of the ultimate inadequacy of her worldview, a closer look at Austen's evocations of Cowper's poetry in Marianne's habits and attitudes shows a more complex picture. While Marianne's habits and passions evoke a variety of literary precedents, an examination of the character's connections to Cowper offers a unique perspective on her connection to rural nature and on her responses to suffering. Austen's character "reads" and enacts Cowper's ideas not merely to form fallacious conclusions and indulge in deleterious habits, but also to enrich and expand her inner life. Ultimately, Austen uses Cowper's fond and nuanced description of a rural, domestic life in communion with nature to give Marianne the resources to handle dislocation and suffering, and she evokes his model of irreparably isolating pain in Marianne's breakdown, depicting her sensibility as a complex and ambiguous trait that can turn in upon itself to isolate her from others, can effect a larger protest against her disenfranchisement, and can ultimately give her the tools to heal.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2014
Jane Austen, Persuasion, Samuel Johnson, Sense and Sensibility, William Cowper, William Wordsworth
Austen, Jane, $d 1775-1817. $t Persuasion
Austen, Jane, $d 1775-1817. $t Sense and sensibility
Cowper, William, $d 1731-1800. $x Influence

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