Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Persuasions On-Line ›   |   Volume 37 No. 1 ›   |   Austen at the Ends of the Earth: The Near and the Far in Persuasion

Austen at the Ends of the Earth: The Near and the Far in Persuasion

“The far and the near must be relative, and depend on many varying circumstances.”

Pride and Prejudice

ELIZABETH BENNET’S COMMENT TO DARCY in Jane Austen’s 1813 novel (201) is a glimpse into the early nineteenth-century interest in the local and the near to hand, the world beyond the local, and the difficulty of clearly distinguishing between the two (201).  From Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility through General Tilney of Northanger Abbey to Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, military and naval characters affirm Elizabeth’s sense of the elasticity of the concepts of near and far; they have, in Wentworth’s phrase, been from England to the “world’s end” and back (75).  In Persuasion (1818) Austen is particularly preoccupied by distance.  Persuasion showcases her both as a novelist of long-range distances and as a writer of the near to hand.1  Austen not only represents the near and the far but shifts perception as the faraway is brought near; her last novel applies her celebrated miniaturizing aesthetic to the known globe.  In her day domains as diverse as telescopy and landscape gardening worked out complicated relationships between the near and the far, and magnification and condensation; Austen made these issues her own by stretching the local to the ends of the earth to celebrate the power of the novel form to make an aesthetic of magnification compatible with a miniaturizing, condensing aesthetic.

Austen is literature’s most celebrated localist.  Even so, the depth of her vantage and the implications of that depth are unsettled matters.  Raymond Williams finds fault with Austen’s localism.  He describes a “thirty mile triangle” inhabited by Austen, Gilbert White, and William Cobbett (109), and within this already circumscribed world, which Williams calls a “small locality,” he confines Austen still further as he contrasts her view “from inside the houses” with Cobbett’s as he was “passing on the road” (112).  The Austen of Williams’s account is a novelist of narrow narrative scope, who does not merely write fiction that resembles life but rather naturalizes her own point of view through her “lightly distanced management” and “unseen formula.”  This description of Austen is in marked contrast to his account of Cobbett, whom Williams credits with “a consciousness of viewpoint, of a class viewpoint, [which] marks the distance from most previous accounts [of social observation]” (109).  Williams powerfully outlines the shortcomings of Austen’s close-in focus on a restricted geographic area.  Edward Said’s portrait of Austen as a writer of distance calls attention to a different set of dangers from those that preoccupy Williams.2  In his account of imperialism in Mansfield Park, Said claims:  “Austen sees what Fanny does as domestic or small scale movement in space that corresponds to the larger, more openly colonial movements of Sir Thomas” (89).  Said concludes that “the two movements depend on each other” (89).  Where Williams sees a writer of the near to hand, Said finds a subtly expansive one.  Just as Said helps highlight the limitations of Williams, so does Susan Fraiman highlight Said’s limitations, especially on the crucial issue of gender.  Arguing against a “little” Austen, Fraiman favors one with “widely engaged interests” (207).  Even so, Austen’s very littleness is part and parcel of that width. 

Austen is both.  She makes the global local and the local global.  As he himself widens the scope of inquiry for Austen’s novels, Said prefers “larger and better administrated spaces” over confined ones in which “you cannot see clearly, you cannot think clearly, you cannot have regulation or attention to detail” (88).  Kellynch-hall, contra Said’s contention, is not simply, by virtue of its size, “better administered” than smaller spaces.  Indeed, Kellynch-hall is so poorly administered that Sir Walter and his family choose removal when confronted with mismanagement.  Removal instructs Anne in the meaning of proximity as it brings home in fresh ways “the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle” (45).  The relative proximity of Kellynch and Uppercross, “a distance of only three miles,” underscores the wide gulf between the two houses.  Traveling those three miles, Anne experiences “a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea” (45).  Where her sister Mary feels the distance between the Great House and her own to be uncomfortably far when other members of the Musgrove family fail to visit her on the morning of Anne’s arrival in Uppercross, Anne herself notes the longer distance between Kellynch and Uppercross with a measure of satisfaction. Anne wishes others in her family could enjoy the upheaval attendant on even a short move, “that other Elliots could have her advantage in seeing how unknown, or unconsidered there, were the affairs which at Kellynch-hall were treated as of such general publicity and pervading interest” (45). 

For all that she appears an unlikely author of distance, long-range distances are nevertheless common in Austen.  The novel opens with an image of stasis:  within Kellynch-hall, Sir Walter reads in the Baronetage about his family home and county (3-4).  And yet, in Persuasion, characters describe their global travels, as when Mrs. Croft responds to Mrs. Musgrove’s polite comment, “‘What a great traveler you must have been, ma’am’’’ (76).  Though Mrs. Croft recounts locations to which she has traveled in response to Mrs. Musgrove’s politeness, those experiences are not represented in the novel; Persuasion does not “follow” Mrs. Croft as she travels beyond England.3  Louisa and Henrietta’s turning over the navy list with Captain Wentworth in the comfort of Uppercross combines the stasis of the novel’s opening with wider vistas as the list itself and the conversation it prompts disclose events that unfold in far-flung places.  The list gives rise to stories of traveling to and from those same far-flung places, but the scene settles into intimacy as a discussion of the life, death and naval career of Dick Musgrove takes over (70-76).

The interchange between rooted domesticity and wide-ranging travel, the retreat to remain within England’s borders and the impulse to move outside of England encapsulates the expansions and contractions that structure Austen’s final novel.  In poignant terms, Captain Harville describes to Anne the horrors of a failed telescopy:  “‘[I]f I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight’” (255).  Harville asks Anne to imagine the pain caused by distance that separates even intimates and how that pain becomes acute when there is no power to draw the intimates near.  His concern that he may never see his family again alludes to the dangers of warfare and seafaring.  It also raises the specter of a distance so great that it cannot be bridged. 

Two sources feed the pathos here.  The interplay between the likeness and difference of Anne’s and Captain Harville’s access to this vantage point is one way in which pathos gets a foothold.  The conditional under which the passage unfolds suggests that Anne’s femininity means that she cannot understand “what a man suffers.”  A subjective view is based on belonging to a certain class of person.  And yet, Harville insists that Anne can imagine “what a man suffers” even if she herself cannot experience that suffering.  Pathos is also created by the inexorable fixity of the viewer’s position in relation to its object.  Distance only increases that pathos.  That the distant object is an intimate one emphasizes this point.  Mansfield Park dramatizes the reverse:  Fanny and Edmund together look at the heavens from within the house but do not realize their plan to see stars from the lawn because Edmund is “among the most urgent in requesting to hear the glee again” (133).  In Persuasion, intimates come and go across great distances, but it is proximity, Edmund crowding around the singers, that divides the future lovers of Mansfield Park

Persuasion brings the far near.4  Perhaps no other scene so vividly or movingly enacts the faraway coming near as Anne’s visit to the temporary lodging of the Harvilles.  The house is described: 

On quitting the Cobb, they all went indoors with their new friends, and found rooms so small as none but those who invite from the heart could think capable of accommodating so many.  Anne had a moment’s astonishment on the subject herself; but it was soon lost in the pleasanter feelings which sprang from the sight of all the ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville, to turn the actual space to the best possible account, to supply the deficiencies of lodging-house furniture, and defend the windows and doors against the winter storms to be expected.  The varieties in the fitting-up of the rooms, where the common necessaries provided by the owner, in the common indifferent plight, were contrasted with some few articles of a rare species of wood, excellently worked up, and with something curious and valuable from all the distant countries Captain Harville had visited, were more than amusing to Anne:  connected as it all was with his profession, the fruits of its labours, the effects of its influence on his habits, the picture of repose and domestic happiness it presented, made it to her a something more, or less, than gratification.  (106) 

Anne’s vantage here is mobile.  Her visual sense of the spatial organization of a small space expands as the passage unfolds.  Anne’s feeling of crowdedness, even over-crowdedness, initially makes the rooms feel “so small” that she is surprised that they can accommodate “so many.”  In this small space it is hard to achieve a vantage point from which to gain a distanced, wide-ranging view.  Anne initially experiences the crowding as indecorous and slightly uncomfortable because it is, to her mind, unexpected.  Nevertheless, Anne’s uncomfortable “astonishment” gives way to “pleasanter feelings.”  Captain Harville’s “ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements” make Anne feel more at home.  As soon as her attention lights on the specific objects in the room, she thinks about the great lengths they travelled to inhabit and decorate the lodging-house.  Anne’s foreshortened view limits her eye’s movement back into the room even as her thoughts turn to long distances.  Naval ships come and go, separating and uniting intimates with the travelers inhabiting close confines.  Wentworth’s comment, “‘I would assist any brother officer’s wife that I could, and I would bring any thing of Harville’s from the world’s end, if he wanted it,’” makes the very ship that can separate intimates from one another into a means of their reunion (75). 

The pattern of coming and going is joined to the novel’s central marriage plot.  The removal of the Elliot family from Kellynch might seem, if Persuasion followed the pattern of other Austen narratives by placing its heroine in a large country estate at novel’s end, to set the stage for a local focus by returning Anne Elliot to her ancestral home as Lady Elliot.  Anne rejects the possibility of becoming Lady Elliot even while acknowledging its appeal.  Instead, Anne’s most intimate relationship is not tied to any particular local spot or county.  In her life comings and goings of various distances will be the norm, a pattern that upends intimate, local relations by placing them in a national, and even international, context.  Austen concludes her novel by reflecting more positively on the fate of Anne than Mary—who comforts herself with the thought that “Anne had no Uppercross-hall before her, no landed estate, no headship of a family” (272)—could ever imagine:  “She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (275).5  “A sailor’s wife” neatly binds the national, and even international, to the intimate.  Such a bond extracts its own “tax,” but the penalty is light and is offset as the high “national importance” of the Navy underscores its “domestic virtues.” 

To understand the importance of bringing the faraway near, I turn briefly to realms outside the novel.  Developments in telescopy and landscape gardening reveal how domains of very long-range distances—the heavens—and more intimate distances—household gardens—not only dealt with distance, but also with the magnification and intensification of space.  In fact, these realms coordinate magnification and condensation instead of treating them as countervailing.  William Herschel, a late eighteenth-century scientist with wide-ranging interests, published accounts of his discoveries of moons of Saturn (1789) and of Uranus (1787) and of volcanoes on Earth’s moon (1787).  Herschel’s astronomical writings not only deal with vast distances but dramatize the power of the telescope to bring the faraway near to hand. 

The telescope is important not only because the word “telescope” comes from the Greek meaning “to see at a distance” but because it deals with vast distances at extremely close range.6  In Austen’s time, scientists make particularly clear that writing about the shifting perception that occurs when the far is brought near involves treating the ideas of “near” and “far” as dependent on one another.7  Indeed, in the period, the telescope was noted for two powers:  its ability to magnify a field of view and its ability to condense a field of view.  David Brewster, a famous scientist in his own day and perhaps now remembered as the inventor of the kaleidoscope, discusses magnification generally in A Treatise on Optics

Now, if we bring an object, or the image of an object, very near to the eye, so as to give it great apparent magnitude, it becomes indistinct; but if we can, by any contrivance, make the rays which proceed from it enter the eye nearly parallel, we shall necessarily see it distinctly.  (51) 

In relatively plain language, Brewster describes a phenomenon that most observers have experienced:  an object that is brought near can become blurry but if the rays that come from the object remain parallel, the object will be seen “distinctly.”  Like a microscope, a telescope magnifies the object in view:  “A lens thus used to look at or magnify any object is a single microscope; and when such a lens is used to magnify the magnified image produced by another lens, the two lenses together constitute a compound microscope (Brewster 51).  The crucial difference between the two instruments has to do with distance:  a microscope magnifies an object that is already nearby, but a telescope magnifies an object seen at a distance. 

Issues of miniaturization are as important to Brewster’s account of the telescope as are issues of magnification.  In fact, Brewster combats the distortion caused by magnification in the language of fineness and delicacy.  Brewster marvels at how a micrometer fitted to a telescope allows for measurements of the “smallest spaces in the heavens” (Instruments 2).  A micrometer is made of parallel pieces of wire that are used to measure the angle created when a wire is placed on each side of the image of the object being viewed in the telescope.  Not only does the telescope extend what it means to see at a distance by bringing into view bodies such as the Earth’s moon, and the moons of Saturn and Uranus, but it highlights what it means to miniaturize and condense vast spaces because it brings those distant objects near. 

Landscape gardening, especially when considered alongside telescopy, also shows the complex ways that distance was conceived of and managed in the early nineteenth century.  Telescopy demonstrates that the period could reconcile even vast distances with miniaturization, while landscaping developments in the period show that small distances could be magnified and intensified.  The Romantic era saw the birth of the picturesque, an aesthetic defined and championed most famously by William Gilpin (Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty; on Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape: To which is Added a Poem, on Landscape Painting, 1794), Richard Payne Knight (An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, 1805), and Uvedale Price (Essays on the Picturesque, 1810).8  Gilpin, Payne Knight and Price held that the best kind of landscapes and gardens are those that resemble the landscapes of paintings.  Gilpin writes to Joshua Reynolds, “With regard to the term picturesque, I have always myself used it merely to denote such objects, as are proper subjects for painting” (37, italics original).  And Price praises “pictures” for their ability to “guide us, by means of those general heads (as they may be called) of composition, in our search of the numberless and untouched varieties of beauties of nature” (4). 

In their desire to produce and reproduce a world full of “the untouched varieties of beauty and nature,” landscape painters and gardeners filled reduced spaces with variety and novelty.  This work took place across the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  In 1838, J.C. Loudon published The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion, a work that inherits the picturesque respect for variety and novelty.  Loudon writes, “One of the greatest of all the sources of enjoyment resulting from a garden is, the endless variety which it produces” (4).  He is, nevertheless, alive to the joys and limitations of realizing a picturesque ideal in the small spaces of the suburbs: 

The number of plants, and especially of trees, which can be cultivated in a suburban garden at one time is necessarily circumscribed; but, if a suburban amateur chose to limit the period during which he cultivated each tree or plant to the time of its flowering with him for the first time, he might in the course of a few years, more or less in number according to the size of his garden, have had growing in it all the plants in cultivation in the open air in Britain.  (4) 

Despite the “circumscribed” situation of a suburban garden, Loudon believes that it can contain the novelty and variety of trees and plants of the picturesque.  The vast lands of the extensive country estate are condensed in the suburban garden.  As this happens, the variety and novelty of vegetation of the picturesque garden is magnified and intensified through condensation.  Loudon makes an aesthetic of magnification compatible with a miniaturizing, condensing aesthetic impulse.

Telescopy and landscape gardening bring into focus the way that Austen celebrates the power of the novel to reconcile magnification and condensation.9  By working within reduced spaces, literature’s most famous miniaturist reveled in the novel’s capacity for amplification.  Even Mrs. Smith’s cramped confines in Westgate-buildings, “limited to a noisy parlour, and a dark bed-room behind,” extend to the outside world through the “gossip” provided by nurse Rooke “‘that makes one know one’s species better’” (167, 169).  Condensation, in Persuasion, is not limited to the near to hand; it encompasses the known globe.  Austen’s final novel both amplifies and condenses.  This congruence is forcefully expressed through Anne’s “pleasant” experience of the coziness of the Lyme Regis lodging-house.  She admires the “very pretty shelves” that Captain Harville has “fashioned” for “a tolerable collection of well-bound volumes, the property of Captain Benwick” (106).  Such “excellent accommodations” allow a small space to fill up.  Harville is not an outlier in finding happiness in this kind of intensification:  Sophy Croft defends naval ships, which not only offer home comforts in close quarters but travel great distances, as appropriate lodgings for the wives of naval officers:  “‘When you come to a frigate, of course, you are more confined—though any reasonable woman may be perfectly happy in one of them; and I can safely say, that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship’” (76).10  Both the Harvilles’ house and the naval ship are comfortably confined domestic spaces. 

Austen famously likens her own novels to a “little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory” (16-17 December 1816).  On that limited space, Austen not only draws the “Country Village” of her advice to her novel-writing niece Anna, but works beyond it (9-18 September 1814).  In writing the novel capable of telescoping its material, Austen shows that even constrained spaces can be full of variety and novelty.  Expansiveness is at the heart of Austen’s littleness, and littleness is at the heart of Austen’s expansiveness.


1Laura Mooneyham White shows Austen’s facility as a geographer of social spaces and human relations:  “Anne’s skill as a geographer, then, has one purpose:  to track the man she loves” (206). 

2Said says that “Williams’s survey” of Austen requires greater “width” so that her novels and the novel form in the early nineteenth-century “will appear more implicated in the rationale for imperial expansion than at first sight they have been” (84). 

3Just so in Mansfield Park, which holds out the possibility of Fanny’s reading about Lord Macartney’s “trip into China” in the East room (her own particular “nest of comforts”) but forestalls the journey as distance is superseded by the domestic upheaval caused by the amateur theatrical (183, 179). 

4Austen experienced first-hand the domestic effects of long-distance travel through the absences of two of her brothers who were naval officers.  See Southam’s Jane Austen and the Navy and “Jane Austen beside the Seaside: Devonshire and Wales 1801-1803.” 

5“The Return Home” provides a way of thinking about how the boundaries of home, intimacy, and domesticity in Austen’s novels are redrawn in today’s digital context. 

6Isaac Asimov and Patrick Moore both note that “telescope” comes from the Greek “to see at a distance.” 

7Pamela Gossin’s Thomas Hardy’s Novel Universe is especially helpful for a far more comprehensive account of the relationship between literature and astronomy than I provide.  Anna Henchman’s The Starry Sky Within focuses on how astronomical insights of the day play out in later nineteenth-century literature. 

8William Galperin explains that the picturesque aestheticizes nature to show how Austen “eschews” its “regulatory practices” in creating her fiction. 

9Robert Clark uncovers the history of wilderness gardens in Austen’s day to show how her contemporary readers would have been familiar with such gardens as provide “models for the Sotherton wilderness in Mansfield Park.” 

10Marilyn Butler, Claudia Johnson, Margaret Kirkham and Tony Tanner all provide useful insights into the workings of gender and politics in this scene. 

Works Cited
  • Asimov, Isaac.  Eyes on the Universe: A History of the Telescope.  Boston: Houghton, 1975.
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005-2008.
  • _____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.
  • Brewster, David.  A Treatise on New Philosophical Instruments, for Various Purposes in the Arts and Sciences. With Experiments on Lights and Colours.  Edinburgh, 1813.
  • _____.  A Treatise on Optics.  London, 1838.
  • Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1975.
  • Clark, Robert.  “Wilderness and Shrubbery in Austen’s Works.”  Persuasions On-Line 36.1 (2015).
  • Fraiman, Susan.  “Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism.”  Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees.  Ed. Deidre Lynch.  Princeton: PUP, 2000.  206-23.
  • Galperin, William.  “The Picturesque, the Real, and the Consumption of Jane Austen.”  Wordsworth Circle 28.1 (1997): 19-27.
  • Gilpin, William.  Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; on Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape: To which is Added a Poem, on Landscape Painting.  London, 1792.
  • Gossin, Pamela.  Thomas Hardy’s Novel Universe: Astronomy, Cosmology and Gender in the Post-Darwinian World.  Burlington: Ashgate, 2007.
  • Henchman, Anna.  The Starry Sky Within. Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature.  Oxford: OUP, 2014.
  • Herschel, William.  Account of the Discovery of a Sixth and Seventh Satellite of the Planet Saturn; With Remarks on the Construction of its Ring, its Atmosphere, its Rotation on an Axis, and its Spheroidical Figure.  London, 1789.
  • _____An Account of the Discovery of Two Satellites Revolving Round the Georgian Planet.  London, 1787.
  • _____.  An Account of Three Volcanos in the Moon.  London, 1787.
  • _____.  Description of a Forty-Feet Reflecting Telescope with a Comparative Determination of the Extent of That Power in Natural Vision, and in Telescopes of Various Sizes and Constructions; Illustrated by Select Observations.  London, 1795.
  • _____.  On the Power of Penetrating into Space by Telescopes.  London, 1800.
  • Johnson, Claudia.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel.  Chicago: UCP, 1988.
  • Kirkham, Margaret.  Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction.  New York: Methuen, 1986.
  • Knight, Richard Payne.  An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste.  L ondon, 1805.
  • Loudon, J. C.  The Suburban Garden, and Villa Companion.  London, 1838.
  • Moore, Patrick.  Eyes on the Universe: The Story of the Telescope.  London: Springer, 1997.
  • Price, Uvedale.  Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful; And, on the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape.  London, 1810.
  • Pucci, Suzanne R.  “The Return Home.”  Jane Austen and Co.: Remaking the Past in Contemporary Culture.  Ed. Suzanne R. Pucci and James Thompson.  Albany: State U of New York P, 2003.  133-55.
  • Said, Edward.  Culture and Imperialism.  New York: Vintage, 1994.
  • Southam, Brian.  Jane Austen and the Navy.  London: Hambledon, 2000.
  • _____.  “Jane Austen beside the Seaside: Devonshire and Wales 1801-1803.”  Persuasions 33 (2011): 125-47.
  • Tanner, Tony.  Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.
  • Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield.  “Appropriating Austen: Localism on the Global Scene.”  Persuasions On-Line 28.2 (2008).
  • White, Laura Mooneyham.  “The ‘Positioning Systems’ of Persuasion.”  Persuasions On-Line 27.1 (2006).
  • Williams, Raymond.  The Country and the City.  New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
‹ Back to Publication