photo by Thomas Devaux
Jane Austen suffered from what she called "weakness" in her eyes - we know this
from three letters she wrote, the first to CEA (Cassandra Austen) when Jane was 24, and the second
to CEA when Jane was 37, and the third and last to Anna, when Jane was 38.
This is of course an unreliably small sample for drawing any reliable inferences
about Jane Austen's eye health during her entire adult life, other than that it
appears likely that in her last few years of life, her eye problems, which had
begun plaguing her no later than her early twenties, became more severe, at
least in duration. We may safely infer that, because in Letter 103 to niece
Anna, Jane Austen reports that "for these last 3 or 4 weeks [I] have had weakness in my
eyes" and then she finishes the letter abruptly with "my eyes are tired so I
must quit you."
Now, you will no doubt wonder why the question of Jane Austen's eye weakness is
on my mind today, and what in the world I mean by my peculiar Subject Line.
The answer is that a few hours ago, while reading a scholarly article written
forty years ago which included an eccentric but very interesting discussion of
the heroine of one of the six novels, I was caught short when I read that this
particular heroine's vision was much much less powerful than her hearing, which
was extraordinarily acute. I.e., this heroine largely experienced her world
through her ears much more than through her eyes.
And a light bulb suddenly went on in my head, making me wonder whether that
eccentric scholar who wrote that article so long ago, long before the dawn of
Austenmania, long before the Internet, might just have been unusually sensitive
to something extraordinary and amazing that has been hiding in plain sight in
that Austen novel for 200 years, more or less (no clue there as to which novel,
based on publication date!).
And I think you have by now guessed what that light bulb illuminated for me - the
possibility, which I subsequently verified to my own satisfaction as a strong
possibility, from browsing through the Austen novel in question, that Jane
Austen had actually taken on the challenge, and had succeeded, of writing this
novel from the point of view of a heroine who suffered from a more or less
permanent "weakness in her eyes"!
This weakness would have been sufficient, over a period of time, to have altered
the balance of her senses, such that her primary experience of the world was
through hearing, then through smell and touch, and last with a (statistically)
abnormal strong lack of visuality.
The Jane Austen heroine who seems to be vision-impaired is Anne Elliot in
In a nutshell (sorta like Captain Wentworth’s famous nutshell which Anne hears
about as she eavesdrops), Anne’s experience, consistently throughout the entire
novel, is mediated most of the time through her sense of hearing; and the much
lesser portion of her perception that is visual is entirely focused on people
and objects which are physically close to her—it’s as though she is blind to
anything or anyone at a distance of more about 20 feet.
The scholarly article I read which prompted me to this insight about Anne
Elliot’s vision impairment is “Acts of Perception in Jane Austen’s Novels” by
Hugh L. Hennedy, in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 5, No. 1 (spring, 1973), pp.
22-38. This erudite gentleman, with whom I briefly spoke the other day, is a
poet, and it seems to me that it was his keen eye and ear for the language of
perception (which are crucial faculties for a poet) which enabled him to spot
this pervasive but subliminal motif in 'Persuasion', while no other reader of the
novel had ever detected in it.
Hennedy’s remarkable insight placed him (and anyone who read his article) only
one small additional step from what I saw the other day, which is that Jane
Austen intended her readers to figure out that Anne’s visual deficit and aural
hypertrophy was the result of a medical condition.
The passage in 'Persuasion' which came to my mind immediately after I read
Hennedy’s article and the idea of Anne as vision-impaired popped into my head,
was the following famous one, in Chapter 5, which I have hinted at in my Subject
“Anne though dreading the possible heats of September in ALL THE WHITE GLARE OF
BATH, and grieving to forego all the influence so sweet and so sad of the
autumnal months in the country, did not think that, everything considered, she
wished to remain.”
“The white glare of Bath” caught me up short, and made me wonder
̶ was Anne,
because of some vision problems, unable to perceive, at a distance, the visual
details of the white stone architecture of Bath, such that what was merely
visually interesting and striking to other observers was experienced by her as
an overpowering, unpleasant blur-a “white glare”?
And that reminded me of the following passage in Letter 43 dated 4/11/05 letter
written to CEA by Jane Austen from Gay Street (the same street where the Crofts stay in
Bath) near the end of Jane Austen’s 4-year residence in Bath which ended shortly after
her father’s death:
“Here is a day for you! Did Bath or Ibthrop ever see a finer 8th of April? — It is
March & April together, the glare of one & the warmth of the other.”
ends in the end of February, right before March!
“The glare of one” — although her sentence structure is a bit ambiguous, it seems
to me that Jane Austen is referring to the month of March as the particular season during
which (for whatever scientific reasons that a physicist and a meterorologist
might be able to explain) “the white glare of Bath” is most pronounced. So, was
Jane Austen herself, with her real life eye issues which I have put forward for
discussion the past few days, afflicted in the same way as her creature, Anne
By the way, the only other mention of “glare” in Jane Austen’s writings is in Mansfield
Park, where the glare on the terrace at Sotherton is the excuse given by the
Crawfords for entering the shaded wildnerness, and the glare through the window
at the Price residence in Portsmouth which is so unpleasant to Fanny.
But back to Anne Elliot. The most striking example of Anne’s visual deficits,
her seeming indifference to the picturesque, appears in the following passage
describing the walk to Winthrop:
Anne's object was, not to be in the way of anybody; and where the
narrow paths across the fields made many separations necessary, to keep with her
brother and sister. Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and
the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and
withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical
descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible
influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from
every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of
feeling. (Chapter 10)
First, we learn that Anne’s pleasure from the walk MUST arise from the
experiences listed thereafter, which, by clear negative implication, excludes
the pleasure most other people would derive during such a nature walk, which
would derive from looking at the glorious pastoral landscape on every side.
Second, what Anne does notice visually are only “the tawny leaves, and withered
hedges”, which are relatively small objects which are within a few feet of her
as she walks. Again, by negative implication, she does not notice large, distant
Third and most spectacularly, Anne derives pleasure from “repeating to herself
some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn” – the poignant
irony of this activity cannot be overemphasized — here Anne is, in the midst of
actual visual, picturesque beauty during actual autumn, but she has zero access
to that direct experience, and instead MUST derive what pleasure she can from
the indirect, internal, cerebral imagining of that beauty as expressed by word
Talk about being too much in one’s head and not enough in the moment! But
it does not appear to be an indifference or lack of interest, it appears to be a
mechanical problem with the operation of her eyes.
And then, as if to hammer home the point of Anne’s visual deficiency, the
narration immediately gives us one of the many clues in the novel to Anne’s
“She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations;
but it was not possible, that WHEN WITHIN REACH OF CAPTAIN WENTWORTH’S
CONVERSATION with either of the Miss Musgroves, she should not try to hear it;
yet she caught little very remarkable. It was mere lively chat, such as any
young persons, on an intimate footing, might fall into.”
Now, I can imagine that a skeptic might suggest at this point that perhaps Jane
Austen by mid-1816 was feeling her own impending death , was having more eye
problems herself, and therefore could not bear to even write descriptions of her
beloved southern English landscape anymore, and could, shades of Benwick, only
derive solace from poetry about landscapes?
I suggest to you that there is no choice but to toss THAT speculation in the
circular file, when you contrast Anne’s obliviousness to the distant landscape
surrounding her on the Winthrop walk with the following passage, which is
clearly NOT from Anne’s point of view, but is, I believe, a rare authorial
intrusion by Jane Austen herself, in which there is nothing BUT observation of the
distant landscape surrounding Lyme:
“After securing accommodations, and ordering a dinner at one of the
inns, the next thing to be done was unquestionably to walk directly down to the
sea. They were come too late in the year for any amusement or variety which
Lyme, as a public place, might offer. The rooms were shut up, the lodgers almost
all gone, scarcely any family but of the residents left; and, as there is
nothing to admire in the buildings themselves, the remarkable situation of the
town, the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the walk to the Cobb,
skirting round the pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with
bathing machines and company; the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new
improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east
of the town, are what the stranger's eye will seek; and A VERY STRANGE STRANGER
it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make
him wish to know it better. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its
high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired
bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands, make it
the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied
contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and,
above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the
scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth, declare that many a
generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff
prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely
is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the
far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again, to
make the worth of Lyme understood.” (Chapter 11)
What Jane Austen is whispering to us, by the unbecoming conjunction of these two
passages in consecutive chapters, is that Anne Elliot is indeed that “very
strange stranger… who does not see charms in the immediate environs of” any
picturesque spot she finds herself, whether it be Bath, or the wilds outside
Winthrop, or Lyme.
Subsequently to my analyzing the Chapter 10 passage, above, I found another
article, “Autumn at Uppercross: A Note on the Use of Landscape in 'Persuasion'” by
the late G.A. Wilkes in Sydney Studies in English 16 (1990-1991): 137-42, which
resonates strongly with my argument. Wilkes focused on the oddness of the
minimal detail in the descriptions of the landscape in the Winthrop trek, but
Wilkes, like Hennedy (whose article he apparently was unaware of) did not
entertain the possibility that Anne’s own vision capacity was the cause of the
strangeness he detected.
And last but best, did any sharp-eyed reader amongst you notice the ironic
echoing of the famous passage about the “white glare of Bath” in Chapter 5 which
I quoted, earlier, in the Winthrop passage five chapters later?
Here’s what we read in Chapter 5, right after Anne Elliot thinks negative
thoughts about the white glare of Bath:
“…grieving to forego all the influence so sweet and so sad of the autumnal
months in the country…”
It is in Chapter 10 that we realize that what Anne would be “giving up” by being
in Bath would be the sweet, sad (but self-deluding) pleasure of quoting
picturesque poetry to herself as she walks, obliviously, amidst actual
picturesque beauty — even Benwick could not match the poignant absurdity of this
ironic deflation! She could as easily quote picturesque poetry to herself
indoors in Bath, as she could walking to Winthrop with no capacity to observe
the scenery around her!
And speaking of being indoors at Bath, the next cluster of clues as to Anne’s
visual impairment I wish to highlight come during Anne’s visit to Mrs. Smith, do
indeed occur INDOORS. Anne gives Mrs. Smith a report on the concert, a report
during which it almost seems to me that the sharp elf Mrs. Smith gently,
persistently, but ultimately unsuccessfully tries to bring Anne to an awareness
that her vision is seriously deficient:
An account of the concert was immediately claimed; and Anne's
recollections of the concert were quite happy enough to animate her features and
make her rejoice to talk of it. All that she could tell she told most gladly,
but THE ALL WAS LITTLE WAS FOR ONE WHO HAD BEEN THERE, and unsatisfactory for
such an enquirer as Mrs Smith… (Chapter 21)
"The little Durands were there, I conclude," said she, "with their mouths open
to catch the music, like unfledged sparrows ready to be fed. They never miss a
"Yes; I DID NOT SEE THEM MYSELF, BUT I HEARD Mr Elliot say they were in the
"The Ibbotsons, were they there? and the two new beauties, with the tall Irish
officer, who is talked of for one of them."
"I DO NOT KNOW. I DO NOT THINK THEY WERE."
"Old Lady Mary Maclean? I need not ask after her. She never misses, I know; and
you must have seen her. She must have been in your own circle; for as you went
with Lady Dalrymple, you were in the seats of grandeur, round the orchestra, of
"No, that was what I dreaded. It would have been very unpleasant to me in every
respect. But happily Lady Dalrymple always chooses to be farther off; and we
were exceedingly well placed, THAT IS, FOR HEARING; I MUST NOT SAY FOR SEEING,
because I APPEAR TO HAVE SEEN VERY LITTLE."
"Oh! you saw enough for your own amusement. I can understand. There is a sort of
domestic enjoyment to be known even in a crowd, and this you had. You were a
large party in yourselves, and you wanted nothing beyond."
"But I OUGHT TO HAVE LOOKED ABOUT ME MORE," said Anne, conscious while she spoke
that THERE HAD IN FACT BEEN NO WANT OF LOOKING ABOUT, that the object only had
How many examples can you count in that passage of Anne’s NOT seeing someone in
the same room with her?
…"Did you observe the woman who opened the door to you when you called
"NO. WAS NOT IT MRS. SPEED, AS USUAL, OR THE MAID? I OBSERVED NO ONE IN
"It was my friend Mrs Rooke; Nurse Rooke….
I was alerted to that last passage’s subtle hint about Anne’s poor vision by the
following comments by Susan Jones in her 2004 Persuasion's Online article, which
Susan explains as Anne’s class-based blindness to her social inferiors:
"Nurse Rooke, however kindly, is not a representative of the same class as Mrs.
Smith. Indeed, when she opens the door for Anne Elliot, Anne does not even
notice her, telling Mrs. Smith when the door was opened, she “‘observed no one
in particular’” (197). This comment almost completely parallels her father’s
unjustified remarks about Mrs. Smith, based on her name, and demonstrates that,
not entirely unlike her father, Anne has areas of blindness, however benevolent
she is being (Anderson). In fact, for Anne Elliot, a “professional” nurse is
probably is both invisible and unknown—for the most part in 'Persuasion', as
elsewhere in Austen’s novels, nursing is performed by members of the family, or
perhaps by familiar servants such as a trusted nursery maid who form part of a
sort of extended family. What kind of nurse was Nurse Rooke?”
If this were an isolated incident in 'Persuasion', Jones’s analysis would be
persuasive, but it’s the opposite of isolated, it’s part of a pervasive pattern.
I.e., Anne is oblivious to the picturesque scenery at Winthrop, and she is
equally oblivious to the visual “scenery” in the concert room in Bath!
And in this next, final passage I’ve chosen to quote, Anne, very much like a
blind person, knows Wentworth by the sound of his footsteps, an extraordinary
acuteness of sound perception.
“They were on Union Street, when a quicker step behind, A SOMETHING
OF FAMILIAR SOUND, GAVE HER TWO MOMENTS’ PREPARATION for the sight of Captain
Wentworth. He joined them; but, as if irresolute whether to join or to pass on,
said nothing, only looked. Anne could command herself enough to receive that
look, and not repulsively.” Chapter 23
Anne is as sensitive to sound cues as she is oblivious to visual cues.
I will conclude by taking note of three other relevant but miscellaneous points:
First, in a recent dissertation, “Courting the Eye: Seeing Men in Jane Austen’s
'Persuasion'” by Meaghan Malone, we read: “Indeed, the male gaze, as filtered
through Anne, is entirely absent from the most pivotal moments of their
relationship. Their first meeting, for example, almost completely lacks a visual
element, and though “her eye half met” his, they do not study each other. Anne
instead focuses on his voice “as he talked to Mary, said all that was right,
said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to make an easy footing”.
From my perspective, Malone was alertly picking up on just the sort of textual
clues to Anne’s extraordinary aural focus, which Hennedy referred to in his
pioneering 1973 article.
Second, in Edward Larrissy’s 2007 book,
The Blind and Blindness in Literature of
the Romantic Period, although he does not mention Jane Austen or 'Persuasion', I
see great significance for our understanding of the thematic implications of
Anne’s being vision-impaired in Larrissy’s following discussion of romantic
Preface: …Yet in the Enlightenment, the blind, who are the subject of intense
philosophical scrutiny, are shown to be very capable, despite the bars to
sympathy and empirical learning which make them such tempting test cases. Some
of the popular moral tales in which they figure make this point in a quite
prosaic manner, which is nonetheless very instructive about the role they play
in more polite literature. Most of all, though, they are thought to enjoy the
compensations of enhanced sensitivity to music and to words. This compensation
becomes associated with the loss and gain inherent in the modernity of a
post-bardic age. In particular, poets may learn to value such mastery of sound
and association and find a richness in these which compensates for, and even
surpasses, the lost intensity of inner vision. Such was Milton’s power.
…Representations of blindness and the blind elucidate a tension at the heart of
the Romantic period, between the desire for immediacy of vision on the one hand,
and, on the other, the historical self consciousness which always attends it.
…there is a general awareness of the influence of the idea of Homer’s or
Milton’s or Ossian’s blindness, combined with a specific awareness of individual
texts, such as Blake’s ‘Tiriel’, Wordsworth’s ‘The Blind Highland Boy’, or
Keats’s ‘To Homer’, and of individual passages, such as the encounter with the
Blind Beggar in Prelude VII, or the De Lacey episode in Frankenstein. …those
philosophical discussions of the experience of blind people which were central
to Enlightenment theories about the role of the senses in the acquisition of
knowledge, and which are well known to Romantic-period authors…
….the idea of compensatory sensitivity to music merges with that of sensitivity
to language and its resonances and associations, a notion which contributes to
some of the most original thinking in Burke’s Enquiry, and which is subtly
present in those passages of Wordsworth where he laments the loss of past
vision. I shall claim that the idea of sensitivity to language overlaps,
especially in view of the concept of ‘association’, with a particular
supposition about what is inwardly seen by those who have lost their sight:
namely, that what they see are memories, rather than visions of the imagination.
Other elements in the background to Romantic blindness would include the sheer
mysteriousness of the experience of the blind to sighted people, and more
specifically the difficulty of explaining that experience in terms of the
various sense-based empiricist theories about the growth of the mind.…the image
of the blind man is significant of the acute historical self-consciousness of
the Romantic period: it carries with it not only the profound apprehension of an
inner self which develops from Locke onwards, but also a sophisticated sense of
the historical situatedness and relativity of that nature. Furthermore, this
sense co-exists with ironic and melancholy realization that the inwardness
My hunch is that Wordsworth’s poetry in particular is part of this covert
“blindness” motif in 'Persuasion'.
And I will end with a quotation from the beginning of the cancelled chapters of
'Persuasion', which, had it survived the cut, would have been the one and only
place in the novel where Anne would have connected herself to “blindness”:
“With all this knowledge of Mr E - & this authority to impart it, Anne left
Westgate Buildgs - her mind deeply busy in revolving what she had heard, feeling,
thinking, recalling & forseeing everything; shocked at Mr Elliot - sighing over
future Kellynch, and pained for Lady Russell, whose confidence in him had been
entire. -The Embarrassment which much be felt from this hour in his
presence! - How to behave to him? - how to get rid of him? - what to do by any of
the Party at home? — WHERE TO BE BLIND? where to be active? - It was altogether a
confusion of Images & Doubts - a perplexity, an agitation which she could not see
the end of - and she was in Gay St & still so much engrossed, that she started on
being addressed by Adml Croft, as if he were a person unlikely to be met there.”
Perhaps Jane Austen removed that reference to blindness precisely because she
realized she had perhaps given too obvious a clue to Anne’s vision-impairment,
and it was therefore necessary to “lop and crop” that hint out of the text of
the novel — and as a result, perhaps and ironically, Jane Austen made it so difficult for
any reader of the novel to “see” Anne’s near blindness, that it remained
undetected for a century and a half until Hennedy saw it. And then it took
another four decades for another reader (me) to read Hennedy armed with
knowledge of Jane Austen’s shadow stories, and also with knowledge of Jane
Austen’s deep interest in epistemology — how we know, how we perceive.
Viewed in that light, for Jane Austen to attempt the audacious literary
experiment of hiding her heroine’s vision impairment from her readers is really
a very logical extension of her career-long focus on that universal aspect of
Jane Austen's poor sight 'caused by arsenic'
Three pairs of spectacles found inside a portable writing desk that belonged to Jane Austen
Author Jane Austen was virtually blind at the end of her life possibly as a
result of arsenic poisoning, experts have revealed.
Tests on three pairs of glasses held at the British Library showed the author's
sight deteriorated considerably.
At the time, heavy metals like arsenic were used in medicines that Austen, who
had rheumatism, may have taken.
Library experts have suggested such poisoning may also have contributed to her
early death at the age of 41.
The novelist, who lived in Steventon, Hampshire, died on 18 July 1817 and the
cause of her death has been the subject of much speculation.
The three pairs of glasses, kept in the 'Pride and Prejudice' author's writing
desk, were examined using a portable lens meter brought to the library to
determine the strength of the lenses which, despite their age, remain in good
Tests showed they increased in strength from +1.75 in each eye from the first
pair to +4.75 and +5.0 in the final pair - meaning she would have found it very
difficult to see well enough to read or write by the time she died.
British Library curator Sandra Tuppen said: "There's the possibility of her
being poisoned accidentally with a heavy metal such as arsenic. We know now that
arsenic poisoning can cause cataracts.
"Arsenic was often put into medication for other types of illness, potentially
for rheumatism, which we know Jane Austen suffered from."
It is not known whether the glasses, made of real tortoiseshell and glass, were
prescribed for Austen or she bought them herself.
The British Library is inviting optometrists to offer their opinions on the new
A Wild Idea about the Weakness in the Eyes of One of Jane Austen's Heroines, that Milton might have Given his Eyes to have Thought of it
AUGUST 22, 2013 |
A Wild Idea about the Weakness in the Eyes of One of Jane Austen's Heroines: The White Glare of Bath
AUGUST 25, 2013 |
Jane Austen's poor sight 'caused by arsenic' BBC
March 9, 2017