"Is this the promised end?" Is doomsday here?
So asks the Earl of Kent when Shakespeare's great and fallen King Lear appears carrying the murdered Cordelia in his arms. "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" Lear cries at the unspeakable horror of outliving his child.
Given the recent spate of American tragedies, Kent's question seems terrifyingly timely. In Newtown, Conn., a young man gunned down 27 people, including his mother, 20 young children at Sandy Hook Elementary school and six school personnel, before killing himself. This only a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy left over a hundred people dead and tens of thousands homeless.
Were this a literary text, the repetition of names -- Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook -- would be symbolic. "Sandy" might stand for the impending desertification of climate change, which many believe propelled the hurricane; or the desert of grief for Newtown's murdered children; or the dust and ashes to which we will all return.
The name "Newtown" is also haunting. It is supposed to signal beginnings. It now represents a gruesome end. How fitting that, according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, "the promised end" of the world will take place any second now.
On a more mundane note, we are undoubtedly approaching the end of 2012. For me, this means the end of my semester, the end of my Jane Austen course and the end of this particular column. Fear not, dear readers. So long as the Mayan calendar proves wrong, I will continue blogging for the Huffington Post and writing other articles. But this is my last official installment of the "Jane Austen Weekly."
I end with Persuasion, Austen's last completed novel, written under the shadow of what she rightly feared was a fatal illness (probably Addison's Disease).
The novel itself is littered with the dead. Like Emma Woodhouse, the heroine Anne Elliot has lost her mother. At least six other would-be characters have expired.
Among the living, injuries abound. Anne's nephew falls and dislocates his collar-bone; Louisa Musgrove falls in Lyme and is "taken up lifeless!" Mrs. Smith is crippled from "severe rheumatic fever"; Captain Harville is a "little lame" and in "want of health"; Admiral Croft develops gout; even the indefatigable Mrs. Croft has a blister on her heel "as large as a three shilling piece."
Above all, the grief-stricken heroine suffers. Like Lear's Cordelia (or Cinderella), Anne Elliot is the worthiest, the quietest, and the most neglected of three sisters. She is elegiac and mournful. Nearly eight years before the novel opens, Frederick Wentworth proposed to her and she refused him, despite their mutual adoration. "A few months had seen the beginning and the end of Anne and Captain Wentworth's acquaintance; but, not with a few months ended Anne's share of suffering from it. Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect." What ended with Wentworth is now endless in Anne's consciousness.
In addition to love, youth and beauty, Anne has lost socioeconomic influence. In Persuasion the nineteenth-century "one percent" is on its deathbed. High birth no longer guarantees stability or success. Anne is the daughter of a baronet, like the Bertram children in Mansfield Park. But her idiotic father is so strapped for cash he has to rent out his estate.
Eight years earlier, Lady Russell persuaded Anne to reject Wentworth because it was "a very degrading alliance" for a young woman "of birth." At that time, Frederick Wentworth had "nothing but himself to recommend him." Now he is a rich captain and war hero. Meanwhile, Anne -- older, poorer and quickly headed for spinsterhood -- must submit to "the art of knowing [her] own nothingness." Wentworth's name says it all. With his loss, there "went worth."
To her credit, Anne values the meritocracy that now diminishes her. She says naval men have as much right to "comforts" and "privileges" as those born above them. When Admiral and Mrs. Croft, replace her family at Kellynch-hall, Anne "could not but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay." In Sense and Sensibility, a brother unjustly inherits his sisters' home. In Pride and Prejudice, the insufferable Mr. Collins will acquire Longbourn. But in Persuasion, the worthless heir is ousted and his homeless daughter applauds their fall. Were she alive today, Anne would gladly sacrifice her own wealth for Obama's tax hike.
She survives psychologically by learning to relish loss. Of all the seasons, Anne most prefers "the influence so sweet and so sad of autumnal months." When Wentworth starts cavorting with Louisa Musgrove, Anne watches their romance with sorrow but not bitterness. (Not my style, I can assure you.) Like the period's Romantic poets, she seeks what Wordsworth called the "overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility." The Musgrove home is "precious" to Anne because it stands as "the record of many sensations of pain, once severe, but now softened." "When pain is over," she declares, "the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure." That, as one of my wise students suggested, is what you might call "masochistic."
In this and other ways, Anne's coping mechanisms seem suspect. Her admirable acceptance of lost rank is accompanied by her dubious identification with ideal womanhood. Nobody is better with children, better as a nurse, or more inclined to naturalize sexual difference than Anne Elliot. "The privilege I claim for my own sex," she nostalgically tells Captain Harville, "is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone." Meanwhile, the naval men she celebrates leave women and go to war. They get rich like Captain Wentworth, get injured like Captain Harville, or get to die like dumb Dick Musgrove.
And yet, Persuasion's predictably happy ending is hopeful and deeply moving. Buoyed by Wentworth's presence and her newfound femininity, Anne regains her bloom. Wentworth returns to loving her. In a letter, he provides the most romantic proposal of any Austen novel: "I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. . . . I have loved none but you." At the end of this book about endings, the hero and heroine get to begin again. "Traumas are the ground bass of the book's composition," as the scholar Gillian Beer beautifully puts it. "But in fiction, here blessedly, the dead return to life."
Right before Wentworth proposes to her, Anne decries women's literary invisibility. "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story," she tells Captain Harville. "The pen has been in their hands." The comment echoes something the narrator says near the beginning of Northanger Abbey, Austen's first mature novel. "Let us not desert one another," she tells other female novelists; "we are an injured body."
Austen died before putting the final polish on Persuasion. She was only forty-one. But "in fiction, . . . blessedly, the dead return to life." Despite her fears about women writers, Jane Austen never was deserted. Her influence is endless. The pen remains in her hand.
Susan Celia Greenfield is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.