Saturday, March 30, 2024

Jane Austen proposal scenes, coda: Are Austen's endings romantic?

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, circa 1810. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 3630

In the first post of this series (linked below) I wrote about "how reticent Austen often is about her heroes' actual proposals and her heroines' acceptances. She follows their love stories in detail, relating conversations and letters verbatim for 300 or 400 pages. Then she often passes over the moment of the actual proposal quickly, or narrates it in the third person using indirect speech."

In some cases this may be because Austen recognizes that while every couple's love story is unique, at the moment of proposal and acceptance they are participating in a social ritual with a fixed form. We can all imagine what the gentleman will say and how the young lady will respond. In Sense and Sensibility we are told of Edmund's proposal to Elinor that "in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told"; in Emma, of Emma's response to Mr. Knightley's offer, "What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does."

It is striking that the proposal scenes that are related in the most detail, especially in terms of the women's speech, are refusals. They include Elizabeth Bennet's rejection of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice ("I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart"); her refusal of Darcy's first proposal ("I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry"); and in Emma, Emma's rebuff of Mr. Elton's declaration ("Believe me, sir, I am far, very far, from gratified in being the object of such professions. . .Nothing could be farther from my wishes").

The literary scholar Inger Sigrun Bredkjaer Brodey argues that Austen's brief, narrated denouements also reveal a skepticism about romantic endings. In Jane Austen and the Price of Happiness (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024) she notes that at the moment when the reader might expect to enjoy a full and intimate transcription of the couple's expressions of love, we are instead given the narrator's third-person distance and pointed, if affectionate, irony. Brodey outlines the strategies Austen employs to undercut readers' sentimental responses, including the speed of the novels' resolutions, the narration (rather than the depiction) of the actual proposals, the author/narrator's commentaries and rhetorical questions, and convenient/coincidental dei ex machina. [1]

As examples of last-minute events that enable the hero and heroine to marry, Brodey points in particular to four novels (spoilers follow): 

  • In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele's abrupt transfer of her affections to Edward Ferrars' brother Robert frees Edward to propose to Elinor Dashwood, while Marianne's change of heart about Colonel Brandon's age renders her amenable to his marriage proposal.
  • In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford's elopement with Maria Rushworth, and Mary Crawford's expression of regret to Edmund Bertram only that Henry and Maria's affair was discovered, eliminates Henry as a rival for Fanny's affections, and Mary as the object of Edmund's. With the romantic field open, Edmund comes to realize that Fanny would be a far more suitable marriage partner than Mary.
  • In Emma, when a poultry thief appears in the neighborhood, Mr. Woodhouse's fear of despoilation overcomes his objections to Emma devoting some of her attentions to Mr. Knightley rather than all of them to himself, enabling Emma "to fix her wedding day."
  • In Northanger Abbey, we learn in the final three paragraphs that Eleanor Tilney's longtime beau's "unexpected accession to title and fortune had removed all his difficulties" in proposing marriage to her. Eleanor and her husband are then able to convince General Tilney that Mr. Morland is not impoverished and that Catherine's family is a proper one for his second son to marry into, clearing the way for Henry and Catherine's marriage.

In Brodey's view these endings, each of which involves an obvious authorial contrivance that suddenly removes all obstacles to the couple's union, are another way that Austen signals her anti-romanticism. They are a metafictional technique, like her knowing commentary about the couple. As an example of the latter, in the concluding chapter of Mansfield Park we read of Edmund that,

Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, a hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.

I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire. (Ch. XLVIII)

In employing ironizing metafictional techniques at the moment of her characters' greatest happiness, Austen is following a model provided by some of her favorite authors, such as Shakespeare, Henry Fielding and Maria Edgeworth. Edgeworth's Belinda (1801) concludes, in a chapter entitled "The Denouement," with an arresting conceit:

'And now, my good friends,' continued Lady Delacour, 'shall I finish the novel for you?'

'If your ladyship pleases; nobody can do it better,' said Clarence Hervey.

'But I hope you will remember, dear Lady Delacour,' said Belinda, 'that there is nothing in which novelists are so apt to err as in hurrying things toward the conclusion: in not allowing time enough for that change of feeling, which change of situation cannot instantly produce.'

'That's right, my dear Belinda; true to your principles to the last gasp. Fear nothing—you shall have time enough to become accustomed to Clarence. Would you choose that I should draw out the story to five volumes more? With your advice and assistance, I can with the greatest ease, my dear. A declaration of love, you know, is only the beginning of things; there may be blushes, and sighs, and doubts, and fears, and misunderstandings, and jealousies without end or common sense, to fill up the necessary space, and to gain the necessary time; but if I might conclude the business in two lines, I should say,

"Ye gods, annihilate both space and time,
And make four lovers happy."'

Maria Edgeworth by John Downman, 1807. Image source: Lapham's Quarterly

So Austen's irony at the moment of the proposal is not unprecedented. But Austen is not merely following favorite models. In her novels, rationality, or, as the title of her first published novel has it, sense, is essential to both individual and marital happiness.

This may be one reason why we are invited to view the proposal scenes objectively, from the perspective of the narrator, rather than sentimentally, from the perspective of the lovers. As one of many examples, after Bingley receives Mr. Bennet's consent to his marriage to Jane, Elizabeth, "till her sister came down,. . .had to listen to all he had to say of his own happiness, and of Jane’s perfections; and in spite of his being a lover, Elizabeth really believed all his expectations of felicity to be rationally founded, because they had for basis the excellent understanding and super-excellent disposition of Jane, and a general similarity of feeling and taste between her and himself" (Ch. LV).

"As they hastily turned round—" Illustration of Jane and Bingley by C.E. Brock for Pride and Prejudice, J.M. Dent, 1907. Image source:

There are, of course, sobering negative examples as well: characters who impulsively follow their superficial romantic attractions (such as Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice), or those who choose their spouses solely through the cold calculation of financial and social gain (such as Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility). In either case, they are in danger of sacrificing their future happiness. In Austen, as, perhaps, in life, the marriages that have the best chance of felicity unite couples whose true and sincere emotional attachment is supported by "excellent understanding."

In Mansfield Park Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth run off together, Henry "regretting Fanny even at the moment, but regretting her infinitely more when all the bustle of the intrigue was over, and a very few months had taught him, by the force of contrast, to place a yet higher value on the sweetness of her temper, the purity of her mind, and the excellence of her principles."

"Put round her shoulders by Mr. Crawford's quicker hands." Illustration of Henry Crawford and Fanny Price by Hugh Thomson for Mansfield Park, Macmillan, 1902. Image source:

In behaving such a thoughtless and ill-considered way, the narrator tells us, "we may fairly consider a man of sense, like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret: vexation that must rise sometimes to self-reproach, and regret to wretchedness, in having so requited hospitality, so injured family peace, so forfeited his best, most estimable, and endeared acquaintance, and so lost the woman whom he had rationally as well as passionately loved" (Ch. XLVIII).

Inger Sigrun Bredkjaer Brodey's Jane Austen and the Price of Happiness will be published in June, and can be pre-ordered now.

Image source: Johns Hopkins University Press

Other posts in the Jane Austen proposal scenes series:

  1. On 24 March 2024 Brodey gave a presentation about her book to the Jane Austen Society of North America's Northern California chapter.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Remembering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, American mezzo-soprano, October 1, 2003. Photo credit: Richard Avedon. Image source: Operachic

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, born 1 March 1954, would have turned 70 today. It is a shock to realize that it has been almost 18 years since her tragic death from breast cancer on 3 July 2006, at the age of only 52.

We were incredibly fortunate to have been able to see her in performance four times: twice as the repudiated Empress Ottavia in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea) at San Francisco Opera in the summer of 1998—her "Addio Roma, addio patria" was magnificent—and twice in recitals sponsored by UC Berkeley's Cal Performances: the first on 29 April 2001 in the cavernous Zellerbach Hall, and the second on 29 September 2002 in the more intimate wood-lined Hertz Hall. Although all of her appearances were memorable, the second recital was one of the most moving performances I've ever experienced.

In late January 1999 Lorraine Hunt was scheduled to perform a program of Bach's cantatas directed by Peter Sellars as part of the Cal Performances season; a second show was even added in early February. However, just two weeks before those performances were to take place they were cancelled "because of an illness in Hunt's family," according to the announcements that appeared. We later learned that her sister Alexis had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and Hunt cancelled the engagements to be with her. Alexis died in May 2000.

Two months before her sister's death, Hunt herself was diagnosed with the disease. The program of the 2002 recital was clearly a response to her diagnosis and her sister's death. Every song was about mortality and the imperative to grasp fleeting moments of joy, from the opening "Scherza infida" ("Mock me, faithless one," from Handel's Ariodante), in which the suicidal Ariodante seeks "the embrace of death," to the closing "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," ("I am lost to the world," from Mahler's Rückert-Lieder), in which she sings "truly I am dead to the world./I am dead to the world’s clamor/And rest in a quiet place,/I live alone in my heaven,/In my love, in my song!"

Fortunately for us, her performances of some of the songs from this recital program were recorded. Here is Claude Debussy's "Beau soir," recorded at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on 20 October 2002. As in the Berkeley recital we attended three weeks earlier, Robert Tweten is her accompanist: ["Beau soir" ends at 3:10]

Beau soir
(Paul Bourget)

Lorsque au soleil couchant les rivières sont roses,
Et qu'un tiède frisson court sur les champs de blé,
Un conseil d'être heureux semble sortir des choses
Et monter vers le cœur troublé;

Un conseil de goûter le charme d'être au monde
Cependant qu'on est jeune et que le soir est beau,
Car nous nous en allons, comme s'en va cette onde:
Elle à la mer — nous au tombeau!
Beautiful evening
(My translation)

When at sunset the rivers turn pink
And a mild breeze brushes the fields of wheat,
Everything seems to urge contentment
And ascend to a troubled heart;

To urge us to savor the delight of being in the world,
While we are young and the evening so beautiful,
For our life flows by, as do the waves:
They to the sea — we to the tomb.

As in the recital we attended, on this recording "Beau soir" is followed after a pause by Ernest Chausson's "Le Colibri" (The hummingbird); if you want to keep listening you can find the words by Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle together with a translation by Richard Stokes on the Oxford International Song Festival website.

The final song (and third encore) of the recital was her signature encore, the spiritual "Deep River," in which she sings "Deep river/My home is over Jordan/Lord, I want to cross over into camp ground." This recording was made live at the 2004 Ravinia Festival with Peter Serkin as her accompanist: ["Deep River" ends at 2:40]

Although no recording can do justice to the experience of hearing this remarkable artist in person, many of her performances are available on audio or video. Among our favorites are the collections of Handel arias she recorded with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under musical director Nicholas McGegan, Arias for Durastanti and Handel Arias (there are four tracks in common). Supreme for me, of course, reigns her performance with the PBO of the Carthaginian queen Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. I've written elsewhere on this blog about how Dido and Aeneas and Hunt's other Baroque opera and oratorio performances with PBO and McGegan played a major role in igniting our passion for Baroque opera—a gift for which we will always be profoundly grateful.

Dido's lament from the final scene of the opera:

For more about what is was like to hear Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in performance, it would be difficult to find a warmer tribute than Alex Ross's "Fervor" (The New Yorker, 25 September 2006). Details in this post were also taken from the following articles:

  1. I believe that in this article Kosman mis-states the date of Lorraine Hunt's diagnosis; the date he gives of spring 1999 is contradicted by both Charles Michener's and Charlotte Higgins' accounts.

    Perhaps this is also the place to mention that while Kosman can be an insightful critic, he seemed utterly oblivious to the wrenching theme of Hunt's 2002 recital. In his review in the San Francisco Chronicle (1 October 2002) Kosman wrote that the recital was "an odd patchwork affair" that "lacked something of the unnerving sublimity of Hunt Lieberson's previous performances" and, to him, felt like "[one] song after another." Sublimity is, of course, in the ear of the auditor, but Kosman seemed not to grasp the story Hunt was telling through her musical choices. Not only was the recital a thematically coherent meditation on death, it was also carefully structured (the songs were grouped by language), and deeply affecting. So, hardly a patchwork, and it's no closer to the mark to call it "an appealing sampler," as Kosman does in his first sentence.