Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Two Loves

Anne Elliot and Lucy Manette

It may seem an unlikely pairing, but I would like to make some comments on and comparisons between two seemingly disparate literary heroines, Anne Elliot and Lucy Manette. In Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, the beautiful Lucy Manette marries Charles Darnay, the descendant of an aristocratic French family denounced by the revolutionaries, among whom are the memorably evil fanatic Mme. Defarge. While in Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion, which was not published until after her death, Austen created a strong, mature, and independent heroine, Anne Elliot. Having foolishly broken off an engagement eight years earlier to Frederick Wentworth, a penniless naval officer, Anne at the age of 27 has remained unmarried--and secretly devoted to Wentworth. While written decades apart and depicting two different women, one of whom is substantially more "mature" than the other, I believe these characters share some of the same core values, the foremost of which is an enduring love for a man in whom each believes strongly. Lucy, as wife to Charles, is able to withstand the separation from him while he is imprisoned awaiting apparent doom buoyed by her love for him. Anne, after being "persuaded" to break off her engagement to Frederick when she was all of nineteen years old, did not abandon her inner feelings for him and found that in nurturing this enduring love she could attain the reward that she may not have imagined possible when he went off to sea. In addition to and complementing their love each woman demonstrates an extraordinary loyalty to her friends and family. We see this demonstrated in Anne's relationship with Mrs. Smith just as Lucy demonstrates a loyalty to her Father during moments when she cannot be sure that he recognizes her.

My comparison would not be complete if I did not also note some of the contrasts between the heroines and their respective novelistic worlds. There could not be a greater distance between the settings of the novels than these two with one focused primarily on two houses within miles of each other in England while the other is focused, as the title makes clear, on two urban centers in two different countries separated by the English Channel. One is focused on the internal workings of families seemingly immune to the world outside them while the other finds the characters and families buffeted by the winds of revolution and the politics of their respective countries. Fate and death intervene in the world created by Dickens with the express intent to mirror history; while fate is also present for Austen, and the threat of death is not absent, it is not nearly so overwhelmingly displayed. While the two heroines seem to share a certain reserve, it is in Austen's novel with its' narrower focus on family and marriage that we learn more about the details of the heroine's life. In many respects Lucy remains a cypher, not unlike some of Dicken's other fictional women, perhaps in part because, unlike Esther Summerson in Bleak House, we never are allowed to share her thoughts. In spite of the differences I believe that the fundamental character of each of these women has much in common. From my recent reading of these two novels they will remain among my fondest memories.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Penguin Books, London. 2003 (1859)
Persuasion by Jane Austen. The Modern Library, New York. 2002 (1818)

No comments: