On the day that my mother died, in October 1995, I took a train from New York City to New Haven, where a cousin met my sister and me to give us a ride to the house in the Farmington Valley that at the time I still thought of as my home. “Don’t steel yourself,” said my cousin to my father, sisters, and I, but in the weeks after the funeral, I did steel myself, in part just to cope with daily life in the city of seven million strangers I had moved to after my college graduation a few months before. I was afraid that if I let my guard down and actually felt my sadness, I would unravel completely. And so I steeled myself through graduate school and then through a year of teaching high school, and I arrived at the end of my twenties exhausted and insensible to much of my own inner life. I remember trying to write a poem about what I felt most acutely then: wanting not to want anything. I desperately wanted to put an end to my own longing. Desire was too painful.
As a teen, like many other teens, I was drawn to gloomy things, and even now I find that I still prefer art that is sad. “That makes no sense,” said my eleven-year-old when I told him about this preference, but the long period of self-estrangement I endured through my twenties showed me that there is indeed sense to liking sad art. The melancholy of a character like Anne Elliot, for example, offered a safe way for me to experience the sorrow and loneliness that I otherwise kept at bay.
The quiet, steadfast heroine of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, Anne has lived a life of much sorrow. In her teens she lost her beloved mother, which left her “to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father”; then, through her twenties, she suffered eight years of regret for having broken an engagement to marry Captain Frederick Wentworth, who in the summer of 1806 “had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in the profession.” At the beginning of the novel, Anne’s “bloom” has vanished, and her prospects for marriage, now that she is twenty-seven, are dim, and so, despite her “elegance of mind and sweetness of character,” she is “nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way—she was only Anne.”
Anne is neither estranged from her feelings nor governed by them, but they are vivid—a quality apparent in her reaction to her first brief encounter with Captain Wentworth after eight years:
‘It is over! it is over!’ she repeated to herself again and again, in nervous gratitude. ‘The worst is over!’
Mary talked, but she could not attend. She had seen him. They had met. They had been once more in the same room.
Soon, however, she began to reason with herself, and try to be feeling less. Eight years, almost eight years had passed, since all had been given up. How absurd to be resuming the agitation which such an interval had banished into distance and indistinctness! What might not eight years do? Events of every description, changes, alienations, removals—all, all must be comprised in it, and oblivion of the past—how natural, how certain too! It included nearly a third part of her own life.
Alas! with all her reasoning, she found, that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing.
In all of Austen’s novels, I can’t think of another passage like this one, in which the heroine is so overwhelmed by feeling that she has to catch her breath, cannot listen to her sister, and cannot reason with herself. It is especially poignant that her feelings subside only when it is reported that Captain Wentworth said that she was “so altered” that he should not have known her again: “These were words which could not but dwell with her. Yet she soon began to rejoice that she had heard them. They were of sobering tendency; they allayed agitation; they composed, and consequently must make her happier.”
Anne wants to be sober, her agitation to be allayed because she wants to protect herself from her own painful desire. She has not only no hope of reconciling with Captain Wentworth but also no family member or friend to confide in fully. Given her circumstances, Anne cannot indulge in her feelings of sorrow and regret as does her friend Captain Benwick, whose fiancée, Fanny Harville, died while he was at sea. Captain Benwick channels his “affliction,” as the narrator calls his sorrow, into a devotion to poetry, particularly the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, which in turn likely serves to cultivate rather than assuage the brokenness of his heart. With far more practice than he at coping with such affliction, Anne offers a critique of Captain Benwick’s indulgence in poetry, telling him that “she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.”
Anne does not condemn such poetry altogether; indeed, the grounds of her friendship with Captain Benwick are that she, too, enjoys the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. But she presumably speaks from her own experience as someone with “strong feelings” who should enjoy such poetry only “sparingly.” In fact, one could argue that her feelings run more deeply than Captain Benwick’s, given that by the end of the novel he has transferred his longing to another fiancée, Louisa Musgrove. “Poor Fanny! she would not have forgotten him so soon!” exclaims Fanny’s brother, Captain Harville, to Anne, which begins a friendly debate over the relative constancy of men and women in love. Anne concludes:
‘I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as—if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’
After this speech, Anne is overcome with emotion; the narrator tells us, “She could not immediately have uttered another sentence; her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed.” This momentary agitation shows again that though she has managed to regulate her emotions for eight years, Anne has done so without annihilating either them or herself.
I wish that in my twenties I could have had such vigilance over my feelings as Anne does, neither repressing them nor fearing that I would be swept away when they arise. Because I could not, I am glad to have such stories as hers—not so that, like Captain Benwick, I could indulge in my sadness, but so I could allow myself to feel it. Anne’s story, of course, ends happily; overhearing her debate with Captain Harville, Captain Wentworth finally realizes that she has never stopped loving him and writes a letter to her in which he confesses, “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope . . . . I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it.” The happiness Anne finds in the end is possible because she did not steel herself against her love or sadness. I, too, found my own happiness only after I stopped guarding myself against my sorrow.