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Archive for October, 2011

Some cold, hard facts about a male character who appears in a Jane Austen novel:

A young man becomes engaged under circumstances where the engagement must remain secret in order to prevent his being disowned and disinherited by his family. Within months of that engagement, the man realizes that his promise was rash — as he later puts it, “an idle, foolish inclination.” The engagement continues nevertheless. About four years later — his engagement still unbroken, and still secret — he meets another young woman, with whom he spends a sufficient amount of time, and to whom he pays a sufficient quality of attention, as to lead this second young woman’s family to wonder if she and the young man might be engaged.

Is that an Austen hero?

Just looking at that Joe Friday “just the facts” version of the first few chapters of Sense and Sensibility,* you’d probably say no. You’d say that maybe he’s an Austen villain — sort of a chaste Willoughby, a Willoughby-lite — or perhaps an Austen buffoon, like the foppish Frank Churchill.

And you’d be wrong.

About a year ago I had the pleasure of playing Edward Ferrars in a stage production of Sense and Sensibility.  And I was amazed at how often after performances I had to explain to various audience members why Edward Ferrars is a good character, despite the not insignificant body of evidence against him. My usual line of argument — sound as far as it went — was to plead his later conduct, which revealed him to be a man who stood to his promises, cost him what it may, and who manfully accepted the rather sad consequences of his imprudence (from which Austen delivers him, with his honor intact).

But in arguing that case I realized something. Commendable as Edward’s later action was, knowledge of it was not, at bottom, the reason I thought well of him and wished him happiness. My admiration for Edward, my wish that he be happy, my inclination to take his side in argument, were actually founded only upon these two things: First, I had the highest regard for Jane Austen, and great respect for her judgment — and she, as narrator, evidently admired Edward Ferrars. Second, I had the highest regard for Austen’s heroine, Elinor Dashwood, and great respect for her judgment — and she admired Edward Ferrars. Moreover, their admiration was quite absolute well before Edward’s later action proved just how worthy of it he was. From first to last, their praises of Edward’s virtues, and their readiness to cover his sins, ensured that I always viewed him as they did.

That is the awesome extent to which point of view affects character in a story.

 

* The secret engagement is a part of the man’s backstory, which does not come out until many chapters later. I include it in the summary to place his conduct under appropriately critical scrutiny.

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When I was a young man I boarded a ship
Boldly to sail across the western sea.
“Damned,” I said, “be tempest and sea monster.”
Swagger begat vain sweat, which could not stay
Winds that turned me round; then storms waylaid me,
And my vessel cast me into the deep.
By then I had grown old; my limbs, feeble;
I had no breath to spare to cry to heaven –
Just waves, breakers, billows to kick against,
And sea, I thought, beat the last breath from me.
Yet the tempest proved kind; so the nightmare
Of the dread deep gave way to deep slumber.
I was washed up (O blessed mystery!)
And set down upon a bed of smooth stone.
 
I felt the warm caress of golden dawn
Upon my icy brow.  My lids yet closed
I saw red, as light pierced flesh and journeyed
Down, deep into my narrowing pupils.
The body’s lamp thus lit, the light flooded
And roused (late left for dead) limbs, feet and hands.
I opened wide my eyes and saw clear blue.
No thought had I to move, but just to laugh:
Having lost all, I had, at last — la! — life,
A prize of war to take wherever I go.
Elijah’s ravens would feed me soon enough,
Jonah’s Ninevites, hear me soon enough;
Abraham’s stars appear in dark heavens,
His promises pierce this earth, soon enough.

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