When Jane Austen wrote her first version of Persuasion’s concluding chapters, she presented an episode in which the reiterated trope of Anne’s unhappy and partial overhearing is given climactic and even extreme form. In this draft, later discarded, Anne overhears through a door. Because the listening behind a door seems quasi-theatrical, and because Jane Austen, rather than rewriting the chapter, abandoned it altogether, the passage can be more readily dismissed than it deserves. But this first attempt throws considerable light on the determinants of the novel’s underlying structure…. [Anne] is stuck, sitting trapped in a room, made to become the unwilling witness of a dialogue that, despite Wentworth’s keeping his voice down, and trying to restrain Admiral Croft’s, evidently becomes an altercation between the two men about something to do with her…. As before in Persuasion, Anne Elliot hears herself spoken of, again only in snatches, but in this scene it is even in a context she cannot understand. Her powerlessness, is graphically represented by the door: a ‘thin’, permeable barrier, so that her hearing through it becomes an acute representation in physical terms of her marginal status — being both inside and outside — that the novel has found so many ways to define. The very forcefulness of the men, with the impatient Wentworth almost losing his temper, seems to underline the fact that she has no power to govern her own life. This carefully staged scene thus recapitulates the novel’s contrast between genders, representing it, again, in material terms…
It is known that Jane Austen was unhappy with this conclusion to her lovers’ story. She wrote 'Finis’ on the manuscript on 18 July 1816, but, according to her nephew, 'she thought it tame and flat’, and one night 'retired to rest in very low spirits’ after signing it off. Because the two endings of Persuasion are so different, and because it seems astonishing that the novelist should not have worked out how her lovers were to be reunited, even before she began her work, one is inevitably led to some biographical, or rather bioliterary, speculation. Austen knows, then, as she approaches the end of the novel in July 1816 that the final scene must be the culmination of the situations she has imagined throughout the novel. It should be another scene of overhearing, it should again rehearse in some form those impediments that have so far prevented the lovers from understanding each other, and it must be a scene in which the contrasting roles of ladies and gentlemen, of men and women, are somehow again the subject. And as a skilled writer she knows this scene must be a scene of heightened drama, of emotional tension. But how to bring off all these requirements? She could imagine a scene in which Wentworth simply avows his love and is accepted. But she has already written one in which he comes very near to this, only to be interrupted by the man who he thinks is his rival. This has effectively achieved one of her fundamental aims — to reiterate the contingent, continually besieged nature of their communication, now made even more difficult by the jealousy Mr Elliot’s attentions have aroused and the continual interference of other people’s affairs. Through Anne, she has even declared the problem that confronts her: 'How was the truth to reach [Wentworth]? How, in all the peculiar disadvantages of their respective situations, would he ever learn her real sentiments?’ As a woman in the early nineteenth century, Anne can hardly confess her love to him. How could a scene of Wentworth avowing his undying love be made convincing? She has to imagine them coming together through some mode of silent communication.
And so the scene she writes meets these co-ordinates of her imagination. It is a good scene, half comic, half dramatic. It presents two men quarreling about how to act, but each able to act, to take change, and it shows Anne in an extreme condition of contingency, a lonely prisoner in the next room, a prisoner, now literally, of the female role. Her fate is again apparently being decided by men. But if Jane Austen goes to bed depressed after writing this scene, isn’t it because — to use a modern phrase — the novel now makes no statement? She has left her heroine powerless, an actually silenced, condition. Perhaps unwell herself, she may have reflected her own depression by returning her heroine to the position that her narrative has shown her gradually escaping. She has written a scene that intensifies, that climaxes many of the earlier situations she has worked with, but there is something crucial missing. Isn’t the problem that there is no overturning in the silent if 'very powerful Dialogue’ of Anne’s self-suppression, of that miserable abeyance [Austen] has constructed her sentences throughout the novel so carefully to both replicate and hide? Is the problem that she has not allowed Anne to express and recover something of her own personal history, never allowed Anne to be fully present to the reader? And hasn’t the minor theme she has worked at, the way Anne’s consciousness is imbued with her reading, been left behind? But soon she begins to feel herself less ill, and, moreover, 'feeling new strength’, she imagines a completely new scene.
Over the next fortnight, according to her sister’s record, Jane Austen radically revised the conclusion of her novel, inventing in the course of it two new chapters in which the cast of characters is reassembled at the White Hart Inn, Bath. But she retained, and reworked, the central trope of this earlier version: overhearing, and specifically, the partial overhearing of the marginalised subject…. Anne enters, sits down, and since she sees that Wentworth is one of the party, is 'deep in the happiness of such misery, or the misery of such happiness, instantly’. Wentworth gets up and goes to a separate table some distance away to write a letter on behalf of his friend Harville…. When Captain Harville gets up and moves to a window, he invites Anne to join him, and not for the first time she 'rouses’ herself from an absent state of mind, gets up and crosses the room to join him…. Now the geography of this interior is made more specific: 'The window at which he stood, was at the other end of the room from where the two ladies were sitting, and though nearer to Captain Wentworth’s table, not very near’. Thus the 'thin door’ that once kept Anne apart from Wentworth and Admiral Croft is re-created as a space that should preserve, and yet does not quite preserve, privacy, but with the positions of speakers and listener reversed.
Rather than rehearsing once again the polarisation of the genders, like the first version of the novel’s resolution, the conversation between Harville and Anne that Austen now conceives is an explicit debate about gender difference, and it is one in which both speakers take equal roles. Anne Elliot now achieves textual being as an intellectual woman, who, like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, enjoys an argument and has lawyer-like logic at her command. Their exchange is about grief, and the different ways in which a man and a gentlewoman experience and deal with it…. Anne is at last allowed to speak in effect of what she has long been forced to withhold. The depth of her experience emerges when she speaks of the feelings that 'prey’ upon a woman who has no outlet for her emotional energies, or when, after an escalating series of sentences, she finds herself speaking 'with a faltering voice’ (though still in general terms) about what her tremor admits are her personal feelings.
Both enjoy the debate, but they are talking quietly so as not to disturb Wentworth’s writing at the desk, till they hear a noise from his 'perfectly quiet division of the room’. ('Division’ suggests both contiguity and separation: he is equally present in the same space, and cut off.) It is at the precise moment when Anne speaks 'with a faltering voice’ that Wentworth drops his pen. Anne is 'startled at finding him nearer than she supposed; and half inclined to suspect that the pen had only fallen, because he had been occupied by them, striving to catch sounds, which yet she did not think he could have caught’…. It may be a mistake, though, to suggest as some distinguished critics do, that Anne is implicitly addressing her speeches, and especially the last one, to Wentworth. This reading assumes that she has not concluded he is too far away to catch her words. If her speech, as Tony Tanner put it, has a 'double target and dual purpose’, this implies a certain insincerity in her avowals to Harville, as if she were not aroused and stimulated by Harville’s own strong feeling, and makes much less telling the response in Wentworth’s letter. It is the purity of Anne’s feelings here, not their doublings, that is moving…. Anne and Harville are talking about the different accommodations of men and women to grief: it may seem to a reader that Anne is affirming the enduring power of her own feelings, but this is implicit, and what is implicit is not a declaration. The truth is that the scene is more subtle and more subtly conceived: that Austen makes it difficult to be sure of how much Anne’s awareness of Wentworth’s presence in the room is transmuted into the emotional force of her eloquence….
Anne has been the dependent listener; Wentworth by contrast has been shown as the confident, attention-commanding, textually dominant speaker. The subordinate role assigned to her, even in that first draft of their romance’s conclusion, is now assigned to him. Their positions (as before, literally) are reversed. She has been forced to sit, catching fragments of discourse, listening in to conversations that —whether they wound or elevate her —cause her consciousness to cloud or her heart to beat faster. Her emotional life has often been lived and displayed to the reader only through these overhearings. Now it is Wentworth, the energetic male raconteur, who is the passive partner, sitting at the table, held there by his task, while she stands at the window, he overhearing sounds that bear upon his life, his prospects, his feelings, unable wholly to possess what he overhears. Through the novels’ trope of filtered hearing, the conventional attributes of their gender are exchanged.
Jane Austen’s first version of her finale climaxed many of the situations that her previous chapters had displayed. But it had failed to engage with the crucial issue of Anne’s reticence: her silences not only within the action, but within her own text. Persuasion repeatedly presented Anne as 'only Anne’, the despised, marginal, unregarded spinster. At the same time it allowed the reader to know what a fund of intelligence and feeling lay beneath her quietness, to accumulate a sense of her hidden passionate life, intimated by the novelist in many, but oblique, ways. In the finale as it now stands Anne Elliot commands the textual stage. She defines and laments the life of the gentlewoman, a life of severely restricted opportunities. But at this moment she has an opportunity, and she is prepared to seize it. When she tells Harville 'if you please, no reference to examples in books’, her authority is augmented by the clear, extra-diegetic implication that now in this volume, the book in which she is now speaking, the text her reader is now reading, a different story is being told….
Of all the novels, Persuasion is the most obviously a love story. It opens with a tale of love thwarted, its action details the impediments ot that love’s renewal, and it ultimately brings about the return and retrieval of that love, become perhaps deeper and truer than at first. But Austen’s genius was to turn this romantic narrative into a vindication of the right to self-expression, and thus to make her fiction a statement of her own professional and personal identity. As in all of Jane Austen’s novels, it is this unromantic intelligence that leads her readers to re-read, again and again.
excerpt from “Anne Elliot and the ambient world”, John Wiltshire’s The Hidden Jane Austen