Saturday, 6 April 2013

Romantic despite herself

"I fly with HORROR from such a passion"
Sarah Martha Siddons, in a print made by Robert Graves in 1832 after Lawrence, mid 1790s. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Jane Austen was revising the first version of Sense and Sensibility (called Elinor and Marianne) in 1797-98, while the sisters Sally and Maria Siddons’ lives were being “embittered and disturbed”[4] by the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, who could not decide which of Sarah Siddons' daughters he should love, and transferred his attentions from the elder to the younger and back again, all the while confiding in his close friend, their famous mother....
Jane Austen and Sally Siddons were almost the same age, Sally the elder by six weeks.
Soon after Sally was reconciled to her inconstant lover in the spring of 1798, it became apparent that nineteen-year old Maria was dying of consumption. Compassion, loyalty, common sense, conventional decency, self-denial, self-respect compelled Sally to put sisterly love before romantic passion; she refused to marry Lawrence, who threatened to commit suicide, his selfish clamour profaning the family's grief. In this real life story, there was no happy ending; within five years, Sally was dead of the same disease as her sister. She had long since felt she had "ceas'd to give delight to the three beings dearest to [her]", her sister, her mother and Lawrence.

Sarah Martha (Sally) Siddons by Lawrence, c.1795. Image source: Wikipedia
Lawrence's vacillations in the house in Great Marlborough Street over Sally and Maria Siddons are like a rehearsal for Shelley and Byron's experiments in free love nearly twenty years later, with their themes of incest and adultery, the trail of broken hearts and unwanted babies, set against the Romantic landscape of European mountains, seas and lakes.

The young women who accompanied them on the adventure started off with the same hopes for self-development and emancipation, and were cheated into a new bondage. Lapping up the sensational drama vicariously, infatuated ourselves by the sexually ambivalent glamour of the poets, the libertarian ideals and heroic attitudes, we overlook what those women never forgot, in Claire Clairmont's still smarting hindsight, "what evil passion free love assured, what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life, into a destroying scourge".[5]

Even in Sally’s final renunciation of Lawrence - "I fly with HORROR from such a passion" and "Whenever I meet his eyes, with that glance that pierces through and through one, it is like an electric stroke to me" - there is passion, a furious revulsion against his selfishness, the male having-it-all, and a knowledge that she will never "quite conquer all [her] feelings".[6] This imbalance between the sexes was not redressed until Jane Eyre defiantly told Rochester, “I have as much soul as you - and full as much heart”, and Charlotte Bronte vindictively blinded and maimed him to make him fit to be loved by his feminine equal.

The conclusion of Austen’s heroines that personal feelings must be balanced and controlled by moral reasoning and consideration for other people is less stringent than Goethe’s condemnation of Romanticism as sickness. Austen cares deeply about her emotionally disturbed heroines, and solicitously nurses them back to health. Perhaps "the one or two of the simplest remedies" applied by Elinor to Marianne included ubiquitous laudanum, that kept Sally Siddons in oblivion, both from asthma attacks and mental anguish, after she had separated from her lover while her sister was dying of consumption. In Jane Austen's deceptively quiet world, Marianne's "heart swelling with emotion" and her "tears of agony", are louder than a madwoman laughter in the attic.

Jane Austen is a Romantic - just a very, very cautious one.