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ELH 72.3 (2005) 605-633

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Everyday War

Indiana University
The traumatized, we might say, carry an impossible history within them. Or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess. (and thus which possesses them)
—Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History1

In her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen offers up symptoms of a history not entirely possessed. The past presented in the novel is incomplete, interrupted. Over the narrative hangs the unaccountable weight of "eight years and a half ago," a period of romance which the novel conjures only to dismiss in a few paragraphs. "A short period of exquisite felicity . . . and but a short one. Troubles soon arose."2 The narrator emphasizes the brevity of a lost love which, now in the form of enduring pain, possesses her heroine, Anne Elliott. "A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance"—already the narrator diminishes the affair—

but not with a few months ended Anne's share of suffering from it. Her attachment and her regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect.
(P, 28)

Loss of bloom, loss of spirits, loss of money, loss of status: characters in Persuasion are variously in danger of having the past slip away. "Tell me not I am too late, that those precious feelings are gone forever," Capt. Wentworth writes desperately, and he too uses the language of pain to underscore his own share of suffering: "You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope" (P, 237). In the end, the novel, like Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, reassures us that love can, magically, come back to life. But even that resuscitation remains tenuous, and not without the threat of further pain. The narrator closes the novel by reminding us that the moment of happiness may not last and troubles may arise again. United with her love, Anne Elliott "gloried in being a sailor's wife," but had to "pay the tax of quick alarm"—dread of his [End Page 605] being called back to war (P, 273). What does endure, filling most of the narrative and more than eight years, testifying to love and its history, is suffering. One name for that history of suffering is the everyday, a term often invoked to characterize the world of Austen's novels. Another name for that history, which cannot be possessed but possesses the novel, is war.

Like other versions of the everyday constructed in the Romantic period, Austen's in Persuasion emerges from the reality of worldwide war. Reading these unaccountable histories of pain and loss, one begins to suspect that the everyday is a wartime. In fact, one can follow a distinct strand of thinking about the everyday, from its philosophical and aesthetic roots in Romanticism into twentieth-century critical theory, and find it informed by the language, the features, and the preoccupations of wartime. Modern war—with its national armies, its tendency to erase the line between combatants and noncombatants, its global reach—is the history which possesses, perhaps determines our own current thinking about the everyday. It seems appropriate, at a moment where war appears to have no horizon, to acknowledge this marriage of war and the everyday, but also to call into question, as the best romances do, the inevitability of this marriage.

* * *

For Austen, the everyday is the elastic form in which she tries to hold the recent history of the Napoleonic Wars; but by understanding the everyday as a record of pain and alienation, as in fact Anne's story, Austen makes it permeable to the suffering of war. The everyday, with its rhythms of routine and accident, of endless waiting and unforeseen returns, provides a chronotope for Austen's novels; in Persuasion it reveals itself to be as well the register, the telling surface, on which to read traces of nearly ineffable loss.3 And reading these traces makes any assumption about Austen's everyday into a problem of...


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