Accidents & Coincidence in Persuasion
Movement, actual and figurative, is an essential element of Persuasion. Anne Elliot, Captain Wentworth and Mr William Elliot, are traveling within a web of accidents and coincidence. This web holds all three players suspended together, giving each the advantage of mystery and secrets, yet keeping the suitors tangled just out of reach, gradually moving in their necessary directions, towards and away from her, as the novel progresses.
“I felt my luck, Admiral, I assure you.”
Frederick Wentworth’s journey is defined by coincidence and lucky accidents. By the time of his youthful engagement to Anne he had already ‘been lucky in his profession’ and chance continued to smile on his career. The ‘lucky fellow’ gained early promotion in the navy, we are told by Admiral Croft, over ‘twenty better men’. The Captain chanced to take enough privateers and war bounty to make him very rich. Coinciding with his return to England after battling Napoleon’s navy, is the Admiral and Mrs Croft’s tenancy of Kellynch Hall, Anne’s rightful home and the scene of their bygone betrothal. Some years previous to the narrative’s beginning, Anne and Wentworth had become acquainted at Kellynch during a visit he made to his brother, then a neighbouring curate, and had soon become engaged. This engagement caused no joy among Anne’s snobbish family, nor did it have the approval of her great friend and motherly advisor Lady Russell. Believing a rupture to be ultimately to Wentworth’s advantage in life, Anne surrendered to Lady’ Russell’s persuading and broke off the engagement. Eight years on, having ‘accidentally heard’ the ‘profound secret’ of Kellynch Hall being to let just when they are house-hunting Wentworth’s sister and her husband, Mrs and Admiral Croft, knowing nothing of this sad little history, take up residency. They are, moreover, awaiting the arrival at Kellynch of Captain Wentworth.
As Sir Walter and Miss Elizabeth Elliot decamp to Bath and the Crofts move to Kellynch, Anne embarks on a long visit to her other sister Mary in the adjoining neighbourhood of Uppercross and, given the sociable habits of the Uppercross family, the Musgroves, she is understandably uneasy at the prospect of meeting and perhaps socializing with Wentworth. who has improved with time while she has, in the general opinion, faded, and with whom she is still in love. A Persuasion accident however, allows her to absent herself from the dinner party she was to first see him at again, when her nephew suffers a bad fall from a tree. In order that the child’s parents may attend the dinner, she offers to stay at home and nurse the boy, thereby preventing a protracted and public reunion. After the Captain’s introduction to Uppercross the elder Mrs Musgrove is struck with the remembrance that Wentworth was one of the captains her late son Richard had served under. Never much loved on land but having died at sea, the troublesome Dick’s relationship with Wentworth gives a sentimental hue to the already healthy and universal admiration for the captain. The two grown daughters of Uppercross great house are all in a flutter for the captain and at Uppercross, accidents and coincidence first seem to pull Wentworth towards the young, pretty and spirited Louisa Musgrove.
The occurrence of accidents is a dominant motif throughout the narrative and never more so than on the day of the young people’s long Winthrop Walk, does this motif tie Anne, Louisa and Wentworth together. Whilst Anne is mediating silently on autumnal poetry, Wentworth tells the party of the Crofts’ adventures in their gig:
“…I wonder whereabouts they will upset to-day. Oh! it does happen very often, I assure you; but my sister makes nothing of it; she would as lieve be tossed out as not.”
“Ah! You make the most of it, I know,” cried Louisa, “but if it were really so, I should do just the same in her place. If I loved a man, as she loves the Admiral, I would always be with him, nothing should ever separate us, and I would rather be overturned by him, than driven safely by anybody else.”
It was spoken with enthusiasm.
” Had you?” cried he, catching the same tone; “I honour you!”
Anne ‘could not immediately fall into a quotation again’ after listening to this exchange.
While Charles and Henrietta Musgrove proceed to the Winthrop house to collect Charles Hayter, the remainder of the party rest on the hill above the estate. Once having found a spot to rest alone, Anne accidentally overhears a private conversation between Wentworth and Louisa. ‘She very soon heard [them] in the hedge-row, behind her’, and on first impression, the dialogue between them appears to draw him superficially closer to Louisa. Wentworth admires her strength of resolution in comparison to Henrietta’s wavering about Charles Hayter, and by unmentioned proxy, Anne’s youthful wavering about him. But, unable to move undetected, she is also forced to listen when Louisa tells him that Anne had refused her brother some years earlier. Louisa wrongly speculates that Lady Russell had persuaded Anne to refuse the proposal. Louisa’s assertions prompt Anne to assume that Wentworth must now believe her to be completely without judgment for herself. And yet, ‘there had been just that degree of feeling and curiosity about her in his manner’ to pose the idea to the reader that he, though not owning it to himself, begins to hope that Anne might yet love him.
At the close of the Winthrop walk, the party runs across the accident prone Crofts in their gig. Wentworth, having noted Anne’s fatigue, orchestrates a lift for her and Anne is driven home by the Crofts, who, unbeknownst to them, had nearly become her in-laws eight years previous. And whilst the couple speculate about romance for Wentworth at Uppercross, thanks to Mrs Croft’s precision any further accidents were avoided:
‘…by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart.’
It is during the significant turning point of Persuasion’s storyline, the visit to Lyme, that the accidents of Uppercross come to a head, and where the strands of the web holding Wentworth close to Louisa Musgrove and away from Anne shift and snap in their course. The visit to Lyme heralds the closing of the country setting and the opening of the Bath one, and the change from country accidents to town coincidences.
The climax of the bond between Louisa and Wentworth, a frenzy of school-girlish admiration on her side and careless enjoyment on his, comes in the form of the narrative’s most consequential accident, Louisa’s near tragic fall on the Cobb at Lyme. The intimacy between Wentworth and Louisa has childlike qualities and during their walks around Uppercross ‘he had had to jump her from the stiles’ as ‘the sensation was delightful to her’. From the steps on the Cobb Louisa insists Wentworth catches her, which he does, but a second, too precipitous jump leaves her seriously injured, concussed, unconscious for a period and bedridden during a long convalescence at Lyme. Louisa’s accident puts crucial developments into motion, realizations and reactions that pull Wentworth away from her and towards Anne:
…he had seen everything to exalt in his estimation the woman he had lost; and there begun to deplore the pride, the folly, the madness of resentment, which had kept him from trying to regain her when thrown in his way
Louisa’s obstinacy in jumping despite warnings of danger and Anne’s quick thinking and sensible reactions to the emergency, his feelings of guilt and responsibility and the group’s assuming there to be agreement between himself and Louisa force Wentworth to analyze his actions of the past few weeks, and to acknowledge his obligation to Louisa even while he confronts the reality that he is still very much in love with Anne, but honor bound to Louisa.
But as Louisa recovers she begins to fall in love with, and to be loved by, Captain Benwick. Benwick’s fiancé had died the previous summer while he was at sea, an accidental chance that left Benwick broken hearted and in need of healing himself. And though he could not be at the sickbed of Fanny Harville, he could be by Louisa Musgrove’s. The quiet, nervous girl that Louisa emerges as is the patient that Benwick can nurse, and the bookish, intelligent and kind Captain is exactly the man to now capture her heart. The news of their engagement frees Wentworth of any obligation and propels him to Bath in search of Anne, her love and her hand. But in Bath he also finds a man the narrative had introduced ever so teasingly, by coincidence of course, at Lyme: Anne’s estranged cousin Mr Elliot.
To be continued. Part III coming in February 2011 – RH