Sultaness Scheherazade's head,

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Persuasion (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 23

The story of Scheherazade comes From The Arabian Nights, a work that enthralled countless English children, some of whom, like Austen, went on to become major novelists. Story-telling forms a leitmotif in Persuasion, and this allusion sets the stage for an important statement by Austen a few sentences later.

The Persian king or here sultan would each day marry a virgin, have sex with her that night, and then in the morning condemn her to be beheaded. He did this in revenge for his first wife's infidelity 1000 nights before. Scheherazade volunteers or is chosen for the 1001st night. She is highly educated in the Persian poets and in history, science, philosophy, and the arts. Her education, combined with its life-saving role for her, was not lost on Austen and should not have been upon her readers. Her education makes her a great deal more interesting as a companion (a point Wollstonecraft repeatedly makes in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), and in fact the Sultan seems to forget the sex and settle in for the story.

Before she joins the Sultan in bed the first night she asks if she can say goodbye to her sister, who is sitting in an adjoining room. Scheherazade had arranged with her sister that she ask to be told a story, a long story. The Sultan lies awake and overhears the story, which takes the entire night to tell. He asks her to continue, but she demurs, saying that the sun is rising. He defers her execution, and in the middle of the second night she completes the story. The Sultan asks for more. Another thousand nights pass, until on the 1001st Scheherazade says she has no more stories to tell. The Sultan, however, has been so charmed by her intelligence, knowledge, inventiveness, and wisdom that he makes her his wife and Sultaness. 

Women storytellers represent a significant portion of the readership of fiction and are central to the Gothic (Mrs. Radcliffe and Mrs. Roche) and the realist novel as well (Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth). About to debut is Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, and at seventeen more or less the age of Scherezade. Austen introduces this passing allusion to prepare a context for her coming, trenchant observation that "Men have had the advantage of us in telling their own story."Northanger Abbey addresses a related issue.

Regarding Austen, a literary critic, male, wrote to the publisher Murray, "Have for the first time looked into Pride and Prejudice, and it is really a very pretty thing. No dark passages; no secret chambers; no wind-howlings in long galleries; no drops of blood upon a rusty dagger—things that should now be left to ladies' maids and sentimental washerwomen [as readers]."  

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