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  • The Beginning and Early Middle of Persuasion; Or, Form and Ideology in Austen's Experiment with Narrative Comedy
  • James Phelan

Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.


Mr. Shepherd was completely empowered to act; and no sooner had such an end been reached, than Anne, who had been a most attentive listener to the whole, left the room, to seek the comfort of cool air for her flushed cheeks; and as she walked along a favourite grove, said, with a gentle sigh, "a few months more, and he, perhaps may be walking here."


This little circumstance seemed the completion of all that had gone before. She understood him. He could not forgive her—but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her and becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer without the desire to give her relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.


These three well-known passages from Jane Austen's last novel represent the first move of exposition, the introduction of the narrative's global instability (that is, the situation that must be complicated and resolved before the novel can end), and the culmination of Anne's reflections about Wentworth during the Uppercross section of the novel, at a point I will call its early middle. It is my contention that, in [End Page 65] constructing the progression from the opening exposition through the introduction of the global instability to Anne's culminating reflection, Austen develops her most radical experiment with the form of narrative comedy. Indeed, during this section of the narrative Austen almost transgresses the boundaries of the form. In this essay, I shall seek to demonstrate these claims and to consider their consequences for the larger narrative, including their relevance to the widely-held view that Persuasion is distinctive among Austen's novels for its elegiac, autumnal quality.

Even as I turn my attention to these formal issues, I am aware that the dominant emphasis of Austen criticism over the last twenty-five years has been on her relation to the cultural politics, especially gender politics, of the first two decades of nineteenth-century England. Indeed, work by critics such as Mary Poovey, Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert, Julia Prewitt Brown, Claudia Johnson, and John Wiltshire, to name just a few, has permanently and beneficially shifted our view of Austen as a writer who lived apart from the larger social and political currents of her time to one who is very much engaged with them in her fiction.1 I pursue my questions about the form of Persuasion within this larger understanding of Austen's fiction, but I also hope that this essay, by calling attention to elements of Austen's craft that tend to be overlooked within the more ideological and cultural readings, can suggest something about the benefits of renewed attention to questions of form. Furthermore, towards the end of the essay, I will explicitly address the relation between my argument and Mary Poovey's intriguing and well-argued case about the "ideological tensions" in what she calls the "promises of love" in Persuasion (1983: 152). I choose to focus on Poovey's argument because it, too, wants to link form and ideology, but its conclusions are significantly different from mine; consequently, it provides a rich occasion for further exploration of some specifics of [End Page 66] Austen's novel and of the broader issue of the relation between form and ideology.

Austen and Narrative Comedy

My view of Austen's approach to the form of narrative comedy is a rhetorical one that attends both to the internal dynamics of the action—the introduction, complication, and resolution of instabilities...


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