In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Noticing and Not NoticingJohn Mullan
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Hidden Jane Austen 
by John Wiltshire.
Cambridge, 195 pp., £17.99, April 2014, 978 1 107 64364 2
Show More
Show More

There is​ no sign that Freud read Jane Austen. Yet in her use of the words ‘unconscious’ and ‘unconsciously’, Austen might have had some claim to his attention. The words had been around in English since the late 17th century, and when Austen first uses one of them, in Sense and Sensibility, it is in a conventional and wholly un-Freudian manner. Elinor Dashwood’s ghastly, venal sister-in-law, seeing the growing attachment between Elinor and her brother, Edward, observes to Elinor’s mother that Edward must find a wealthy or noble wife. There will be trouble for ‘any young woman who attempted to draw him in’. The implication (Elinor is an unacceptable nobody and should lay off) is so crude that Mrs Dashwood ‘could neither pretend to be unconscious, nor endeavour to be calm’. ‘Unconscious’ here means ‘unaware’, ‘uncomprehending’, ‘unwitting’; this is the way the word is commonly used by Austen’s contemporaries and the way it is used elsewhere in Sense and Sensibility and in Austen’s next novel, Pride and Prejudice. When Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr Darcy’s proposal, she nonetheless finds herself gratified ‘to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection’. To be ‘unconscious’ is simply not to notice something in the world around you.

Then, in Mansfield Park, these words start being used in a new way. The stiff pater familias, Sir Thomas Bertram, returns from Antigua to find that his niece Fanny has progressed from ugly duckling to swan. He can’t help perceiving ‘in a grand and careless way’ that the thoroughly eligible Henry Crawford – rich, elegant, every inch a gentleman – is showing a special interest in her, ‘nor perhaps refrain (though unconsciously) from giving a more willing assent to invitations on that account’. What does ‘unconsciously’ mean here? Sir Thomas has just presided over the mercenary marriage of his eldest daughter, Maria, to a hugely wealthy man whom she despises, though Sir Thomas believes himself ‘infinitely above scheming or contriving’ – that ‘infinitely’ telling us that we are hearing his own proud self-estimation. So ‘unconsciously’ means not noticing something in himself. The evasive double negative (‘nor perhaps refrain’) emphasises his refusal to admit his own calculations to himself. We would now probably say that his motivation was ‘subconscious’. Acting ‘unconsciously’ means being self-pleasingly blind to his own motives.

Under Austen’s touch, the word is opening up to new possibilities. In her last completed novel, Persuasion, Captain Wentworth acknowledges this when, in the happy afterglow of declaring himself to Anne and being accepted, he explains his past behaviour to her. He tells her that, in the eight years since she was persuaded to reject his first proposal of marriage, ‘he had been constant unconsciously, nay unintentionally; that he had meant to forget her, and believed it to be done. He had imagined himself indifferent, when he had only been angry.’ His discovery and then his confession of his unconscious devotion to Anne are all the more convincing because the reader has watched and listened while his certain indifference reported early in the novel (‘Her power with him was gone for ever’) has been contradicted by all the signs of revivifying affection. Persuasion was published in 1818, a year after its author’s death, which happens to be the date of the first recorded use of ‘the unconscious’ (noun), by Coleridge, in some characteristically probing but perplexing lecture notes. ‘As in every work of Art the Conscious – is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it. So is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.’

‘Till this moment I never knew myself,’ Elizabeth Bennet cries, somewhat stagily, as she walks alone down a Kent lane. She has just been persuaded by Mr Darcy’s letter that Wickham is a charming rogue whose lies she has all too readily believed. Generations of sixth-formers have been taught that the heroine’s self-knowledge, quite as much as the Pemberley estate, is the prize she eventually gains. What is less often observed is the technical delicacy – unknown in fiction before her – with which Austen has dramatised Elizabeth’s ability to hide her feelings from herself. Think of the way Mr Darcy, having been repulsed in his two previous efforts to get her to dance with him, finally claims her as his partner. At the Netherfield ball our heroine has had to endure two clumsy turns of the floor with Mr Collins, before enjoying a dance with an unnamed officer who has conversed happily about Mr Wickham’s popularity among his fellow militia members. She is talking to Charlotte Lucas when she finds herself ‘suddenly addressed by Mr Darcy who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him’. ‘Without knowing what she did’: the narrative behaves as if reporting a fact, but it is inhabiting her consciousness as her instant response to his ‘application’ is turned into a perplexing reflex. She is left ‘to fret over her own want of presence of mind’, and we sense the denial of feelings hidden from herself.

John Wiltshire’s finely observed study of Jane Austen’s six completed novels is all about the way she conjures characters’ hidden feelings. His title might lead you to expect some revelation of Austen’s private passions but, while knowledgable about her life, he devotes himself entirely to her novels. His title might also stir the expectation that the critic will be making explicit what the novelist herself strove to suppress, adding to those studies that have revealed Austen’s unacknowledged awareness of slavery, radical politics or masturbation. But Wiltshire is concerned, as he nicely puts it, with ‘the silences in the novels, not with the silences of the novels’. He reveals how artfully Austen uses silence, reticence and evasion. The hiddenness that he plumbs is contrived by the novelist. While he aims to show ‘how astonishing is Austen’s penetration of the hidden inner motives and impulses of her imagined characters’, this alone would hardly be news. The real point is to show the narrative techniques used to create, and often to withhold, these ‘inner motives’, giving the attentive reader the experience of inferring or discovering what can’t exactly be stated.

Wiltshire has written four books and many articles about Austen’s fiction, but he often seems to be discovering new things. This is as it should be, by his own argument, for ‘Austen readers tend to identify themselves as rereaders.’ Ever since George Henry Lewes, in his long and laudatory essay in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1859, referred to those ‘like ourselves’ who ‘have read and reread her works’, rereading has been the declared pleasure of all Austen admirers. Lewes had counted his readings – ‘We have reread them all four times’ – and was ready to embark on another round. In their introduction to Emma in the Cambridge edition of the novels, Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan argue that Austen wrote for the rereader. In Emma she deliberately sacrificed ‘readability’ for the sake of a novel that ‘demanded repeated rereadings’. Wiltshire cites their argument that Emma, more than any other of her novels, offers the discerning reader the sharp pleasure of seeing what he or she has failed to discern on an earlier reading. So, for instance, the first-time reader will certainly recognise, through the fog of Emma’s misconceptions, that the smooth, ingratiating Mr Elton has his sights on our heroine (‘handsome, clever and rich’) and has no interest in her stupid, illegitimate stooge, Harriet Smith. Few uninformed readers, however, will grasp from the first what Frank Churchill is up to as he appears to flirt with Emma – how his very appearance in Highbury, after years of good excuses to his father, is tied to the arrival of Jane Fairfax at her aunt’s cramped home in the village. The delight of his scheming is available only to the rereader.

So much is ‘hidden’ by Austen, though invariably in plain sight. It was only on my own nth reading of Emma that I suddenly realised that Mr Perry the apothecary, reliable source of news and advice, and quoted so often by the novel’s main characters, never speaks in the novel. ‘Perry tells me … ’, ‘Mr Perry said … ’: he is always being cited, but Austen gives us not a word of his actual speech. Who knows what he says? Of course we don’t get any of his own words: his business is reflecting back the prejudices of his neurotic clients. No wonder he is doing so well (connoisseurs of Emma will know how much turns on his forthcoming purchase of a carriage – the surest sign of affluence in provincial Regency England). If I had read Mary Lascelles’s 1939 study Jane Austen and Her Art carefully enough I would have known about Perry’s silence already, but it seemed for a blissful moment as if the discovery was all mine, as if Austen had carefully folded the joke into the novel to delight someone who reread it long after her death.

Austen aficionados feel confident that when they go back to one of her novels, many such new discoveries await them. Wiltshire proceeds by close reading of particular passages, plenty of which reveal, even to the frequent rereader, narrative refinements that were hidden before. In my own favourite example, when Emma visits Mrs Bates’s home to find Frank Churchill mending her glasses, Wiltshire displays the clues that allow us to discover that Frank and Jane Fairfax have hastily rearranged themselves after an embrace. We are seeing with Emma’s eyes and so will probably miss these clues. Wiltshire supposes no end to such discoveries. In his chapter on Pride and Prejudice, he suggests that Austen encourages us to reread not only in the sense of going back to her novel, but in the sense of turning back to earlier pages during the course of a reading. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are both in the habit of remembering, and sometimes quoting, what a person said earlier in the novel. ‘I do remember his boasting one day, at Netherfield, of the implacability of his resentments,’ Elizabeth tells Wickham, in reply to this pleasant deceiver’s account of his erstwhile patron’s ‘ill-temper’. But she remembers wrong. The reader who turns back a few chapters will find that Mr Darcy was attempting self-criticism in the face of her own playful mockery.

Letting your memory trick you is better than having no particular memory at all. Wickham and Lydia, with their shamefully cobbled together marriage, ‘seemed each of them to have the happiest memories in the world’. Wiltshire might have gone on to notice how brilliantly Austen allows many of her characters to forget what they have said before. Naturally there is Mrs Bennet, who manages effortlessly to turn from believing that Mr Darcy is ‘a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing’ to as near the opposite as she can manage. ‘Such a charming man! – so handsome! so tall!’ Everyone notices this, but for Austen the pleasure must have been just as great in having Mrs Bennet announce with feeling in the second chapter that her neighbour Mrs Long ‘is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her’ and then, 52 chapters later, letting her tell her daughters: ‘I do think Mrs Long is as good a creature as ever lived.’ Naturally, she has excellent reasons for her opinion on each occasion. It is difficult not to think that we are all like Mrs Bennet in this respect, and Austen doesn’t restrict self-contradiction to fools and frauds. It is clever, truth-telling Elizabeth who responds to her mother’s advice not to dance with Mr Darcy by saying, with evident sincerity: ‘I believe, ma’am, I may safely promise you never to dance with him.’ And we know where that leads.

Nothing intrigues Austen more than self-deception. She is the most psychologically plausible of novelists largely because her characters’ dialogue is everywhere inflected by their concealed desires and misguided views of themselves. Wiltshire listens intently in order to marvel at the subtle ways in which such concealment reveals itself. He shows how Mrs Norris’s most unbelievable self-descriptions in Mansfield Park, and some of her cruellest cuts at Fanny, draw on the liturgy or the Bible, as if she ‘has only been able to access Christian idioms in a distorted form’. ‘I am sure I should be the last person in the world to withhold my mite upon such an occasion,’ she declares in the opening chapter, as she deftly ensures that she will incur no expense for the young Fanny’s move from her family home. ‘Wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last,’ she savagely tells Fanny years later, twisting a line from the Gospels. ‘Of course,’ the reader thinks, ‘I should have noticed this before.’ This is indeed how she speaks. She has been a vicar’s wife for many years and has a fund of what Wiltshire calls ‘debased and attenuated sanctimony’.

Austen, as we might say, has as much delight in conceiving a Mrs Norris as an Anne Elliot. Wiltshire devotes most of a chapter to Mrs Norris, fascinated by the creation of a character who is wonderfully absurd as well as nasty because ‘she believes what she proclaims, that she is a really good person.’ Austen is not much interested in hypocrites, the Blifils and Pecksniffs who spout of goodness but know in their hearts that it is all nonsense. There are a few self-knowing schemers among the minor characters: we are invited to imagine how Mr Shepherd, Sir Walter Elliot’s agent in Persuasion, might talk to his widowed daughter, Mrs Clay, when they are alone together. ‘Keep angling for him, my girl, and tickling his vanity, and you’ll get him in the end.’ Or something like that. But for the most part those who act badly still like to think well of themselves. Wiltshire gathers all the little suggestions that tell us of Mrs Norris’s wounded, angry psychopathology and let us believe that she believes herself.

Not all Austen’s fiction is so achieved. Wiltshire, like others before him, notices that in Northanger Abbey she can’t entirely trust to her characters. He isn’t completely charmed by the novel’s amused narrator, who is ‘sometimes more like a compère’. In Sense and Sensibility he points out that Austen compensates for her heroine’s frequent silences, her habitual refusal to express resentment or censure, with a narrative prose that is ‘unremittingly scarifying and judgmental’. He seems close to Lewes’s decisive judgment that ‘all her power is dramatic power; she loses her hold on us directly she ceases to speak through the personae.’ The term ‘free indirect style’ wasn’t available to Lewes to describe the fact that much of the third-person narration is also filtered through the consciousness of one or other of her characters. Wiltshire edited Mansfield Park (‘this magnificent novel’) for the Cambridge edition of Austen and is especially revealing on the way the technique, which hardly existed before Austen, is used here.

His treatment​ of Mansfield Park is alive to the moments at which the narrative picks up the rhythm of a character’s thoughts. He doesn’t say this, but many critics have failed to detect such rhythms at crucial moments and have thus misread the novel, confidently finding the author’s values where there are only a character’s sentiments. When Fanny is transplanted to the tumult of her family home in Portsmouth after eight years at Mansfield Park, the narrative reflects on the appeal of her adoptive home. ‘At Mansfield, no sounds of contention, no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence was ever heard.’ Yet the ‘desperate’ cadence of this lets us hear how Fanny ‘turns Mansfield into a fantasy world of comfort, even if it is only a comfort made out of negatives’. Sir Thomas hopes that a few months in her cramped and shabby Portsmouth quarters will make her appreciate his household, and therefore do as he wishes and marry Henry Crawford. She is duly appreciative, but the narrative that reports this mimics what Wiltshire calls ‘her nervous hysteria’. For chapter after chapter we have seen her scolded and tormented by Mrs Norris, but now, it seems, ‘the little irritations, sometimes introduced by aunt Norris, they were short, they were trifling, they were as a drop of water to the ocean, compared with the ceaseless tumult of her present abode.’ The stir of cliché and hyperbole is panicky Fanny, not sagacious Jane.

In Mansfield Park, of all Austen’s novels, the use of free indirect style is easiest to miss, partly because the heroine is apparently right-thinking, but more because of the way the narrative moves between characters: this is the Austen novel in which the heroine is most often absent. The Austen novel most dominated by its heroine’s point of view is, of course, Emma. Here free indirect style is used to render the protagonist’s deluded view of her little world, so the reader should always know to be suspicious of what he or she is being told. Despite this we keep being tricked. The narrator follows so closely the progress of the heroine’s attention that all the clues as to characters’ real motives can as easily be missed by the reader as they have been by Emma herself. Wiltshire points at an innocuous few sentences describing the Coles’s ‘rather large’ – for which read, anxiously ostentatious – dinner party, at which Emma thinks Frank Churchill seems to be expressing his amorous interest in her. Distracted by Mrs Weston, she loses sight of him for a while, until she finds Mr Cole entreating her to play his new piano; Frank, who ‘had found a seat by Miss Fairfax’, adds his own ‘very pressing entreaties’. He is in fact using the gathering to find a precious moment or two of closeness to Jane Fairfax. Much of the time he can only exchange looks with her. But, as Wiltshire observes, the clue is ‘slipped into a sentence shaped as if to appear to reaffirm Frank’s courtship of Emma’.

The reader’s attention is minutely rewarded. You can do this sort of thing with any paragraph of Emma. As Wiltshire says, it’s ‘a novel that manages the reader’s own attention in extraordinary ways’. Emma is busily noticing things and not noticing things, and the reader has the chance to share what she notices and to notice what she doesn’t. In life more than one thing is happening at any given moment, and Wiltshire thinks Emma is the English novel that comes closest to representing this. Conventionally enough, he comes to Persuasion last and finds an audaciously different focus on the heroine’s consciousness. After the opening few chapters, we are almost always in Anne Elliot’s head, and because of this we often hear only ‘patches or fragments of conversations’ – not just because she is marginalised by the other characters, but also because, as Wiltshire puts it, ‘her own feelings impede or intercept the incoming communications.’ Anne is always ‘keeping her thoughts to herself’, Wiltshire says – I would say keeping them from herself too. Certainly he is right that the novel’s technical brilliance partly consists of the narrator’s keeping these thoughts from the reader, thus building up ‘a kind of bank, or freight, of painful, unexpressed experience and emotion’.

The last time I read the novel I noticed for the first time a tiny detail that Wiltshire highlights. We are being told that Anne, condemned to play the Musgroves’ grand piano while others dance or talk, is used to giving pleasure only to herself. The fond, tasteless Musgrove parents listen only to their daughters’ playing, even though Anne plays much better. ‘Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of 14, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste.’ It is easy to be distracted by that surprising mention of her mother (so rarely explicitly in her thoughts) and not to register the opening phrase. As soon as you notice it you know what it means: it echoes that ‘short period of exquisite felicity’ mentioned several chapters earlier, the period of her courtship by Captain Wentworth, before she was persuaded to turn him away. Of course: she must have played to him. But the inexplicit, almost evasive, reference to this is beautifully unclear because it dramatises Anne’s own thinking. She will hardly allow herself to remember that period. Wiltshire alerts us even to ‘the minuscule pause before the repeated “never” (which a lesser writer might have written “never, never”) giving the reader a momentary glimpse of her past happiness with Wentworth, and suggesting the depressive process by which one re-experienced grief drags another in its train’. Old critical hand that he may be, he almost applauds the sheer technical dexterity, which means that, after a decent pause, he will be able to reread those novels. Like her other admirers he will read again, and read her better.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.