Jane Austen’s insightful and influential novel Persuasion is an emotional tale of human conduct, and, in particular, of the moral implications of direct and indirect persuasion. The impact of the words of Sir Charles Grandison “…there is great cruelty in persuasion…”(VI Letter 34), which highlight the notion that the “act of persuading somebody to do or believe something” (Hornby 2000 869) can be perceived as cruel, that is, “cause pain or suffering” (Hornby 2000 869), will be discussed. This essay will also analyze the extent to which persuasion in the novel is cruel, and will show that the intention of persuasion is often selfish desire, not cruelty. Yet if the persuader is conscious of causing damage, this essay will argue that that can be consiered cruel. Moreover, it will evaluate whether, if the outcome of the persuasive act is positive, it may outweigh the damage done to the victim. Finally, the nature of persuasion without negative consequences will be discussed. The novel revolves around significant acts of persuasion. One major aspect of the novel is that the protagonist and heroine, Anne Elliot, is persuaded out of a relationship and convinced to reject a marriage proposal from another major character, Captain Frederick Wentworth. She is swayed by the views of her father, Sir Walter Elliot, and, more importantly, the advice of her godmother and friend, Lady Russell. They believe the engagement to be improper, almost solely due to Frederick’s low social and financial status. This causes a great deal of suffering to both Anne and Frederick. For many years after the event, Anne still feels that it “clouded every enjoyment of youth” (57), causing her “an early loss of bloom and spirits” (57). Frederick also suffers great agony and says he became “overwhelmed, buried” (246) and lived in “misery” (247) because of Anne’s decision. However, it was not Lady Russell’s intention to be cruel and cause such suffering. It was only as a result of her almost selfish determination to assure that Anne–and as a result, herself–were not permanently connected with Frederick, whom she saw as having not only “no fortune” (56), but also as “an aggravation of the evil” (57). The breaking of Anne’s engagement is seen by Lady Russell and her father as positive. From their perspective, her affliction is outweighed by the benefit of not being associated with the then-common and lower class Frederick Wentworth. Anne’s emotional damage, therefore, is largely due to the pressure of social norms and values. Wentworth, a common sailor with no guaranteed prospects of rising in the social hierarchy, is not acceptable for the highly respectable, eloquent and affluent Elliot family. Anne’s judgement, too, is affected by social pressures. She reveals to Frederick that she was induced to believe the engagement as improper, as “all risk would have been incurred and all duty violated” if she had gone ahead with the marriage (246). From this it can be seen that she has been persuaded by society to not violate her duty by marrying below her status. Perspective, however, is of key importance in the cruelty of persuasion. Although some, namely Lady Russell and Sir Walter, believe that Anne’s and Frederick’s suffering is just, the victims themselves feel differently. Anne, although she does not blame Lady Russell, feels that “she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it” (58). Furthermore, she strongly believes that she should not have received “any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good” (57). This emphazises the fact that judging the cruelty of persuasion depends largely on perspective. Whether or not the victim’s feelings and emotions are taken into account is influential in the way persuasion is perceived. It is much more cruel not to take into account the victim’s perspective, especially if they are likely to suffer. Furthermore, the predicted outcome of the persuasion can alter the persuader’s perception, and if they nevertheless influence one’s actions and the victim suffers, it is less tolerable. Lady Russell is at first, to a degree, blinded by her own determination to separate Anne and Frederick that she does not take into account her goddaughter’s feelings. This changes over time, and although she never regrets her past actions, she becomes more sympathetic toward Anne. Persuasion does not always entail pain and suffering, however, and therefore is not always cruel, particularly when it is more like encouragement and is solely for a beneficial cause. Lady Russell, Anne and Mr Shepard, an Elliot family friend, all persuade Sir Walter Elliot and Ms Elizabeth Elliot, the eldest daughter, to “retrench” and move to more affordable housing. This does not involve direct pain or suffering and is ultimately for their own benefit. Similarly, many of Anne’s close acquaintances in Uppercross, where she temporarily lives, often try to persuade her to encourage her younger sister, Mary, to be of more use and become more positive. Mary, who is not particularly fancied by some of her acquaintances because of her conceited character, is often irksome and unhelpful. For this reason, even her husband, Charles Musgrove, asks Anne to “persuade Mary not to be always fancying herself ill” (71). Likewise, Charles Musgrove’s sisters and mother try to persuade Anne to encourage Mary to be more accommodating. Through this, it can be seen that persuasion is not necessarily always a negative act. Persuasion analyzes, and to a degree attacks, human behaviour, with particular emphasis on persuasion. Persuasion can be perceived as a cruel act. Yet the extent to which it is cruel is undefined. Personal benefit is more often the motivation to persuade than the intention to cause pain and suffering is. As can be seen in Austen’s final novel, persuasion can often have a good intention, even if the outcome is not so. Furthermore, the positive outcomes achieved can compensate the affliction caused. However, this is largely subject to perspective. In addition, the persuader’s empathy for the victim can alter one’s perception of cruelty regarding persuasion. Specifically, persuasion is regarded as more severe if the suffering that the victim will experience is taken into account, and the persuasive act is carried out regardless. Persuasion does not always entail suffering and therefore is not always cruel. Although there may be great cruelty in persuasion, it is subject to many factors that make it somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Jane Austen’s Perfect Heroine:The Use of Reserve in Persuasion”Her character was now fixed on his mind as perfection itself.”Jane Austen, PersuasionAnne Elliot is often described as Jane Austen’s most mature and perfect heroine; and so she is. One is disposed to share Captain Wentworth’s sentiments when he pronounces Anne’s character to be “perfection itself, maintaining the loveliest medium of fortitude and gentleness” (226). Jane Austen’s use of reserve in her 1818 novel Persuasion is a device to set her heroine off against the people and society around her, and, most of all, to give Anne an air of perfection. By giving her a reserved character, Anne becomes the antipode of a society with decaying values. Austen speaks out against the attitude of the aristocracy, the inclination of a willful disposition, and a decreasing sense of decorum.Sir Walter Elliot is the embodiment of the declining aristocracy in Regency England, which Anne escapes by marrying someone from the rising professional class. According to Paul Cantor “the aristocracy no longer bases its claim to rule on its intrinsic merit or superiority in virtue, [but n]ow the aristocracy’s pre-eminence rests solely on its birth, which in practice means on pure snobbery.” Sir Walter is the epitome of such snobbery; he ignores the responsibilities he has as landed gentry, and denies the old aristocratic values. However, the traditional aristocratic standards are sustained by the characters from the rising middle class, and they take over the role of the landed gentry in society and in the navy. During the Napoleonic wars the aristocracy deserted its responsibility as military leader and left it to the middle class to fight their battles. The result is a power shift which places political power and wealth in the hands of the middle class and leaves the aristocracy to perish. Anne Elliot is aware of all this and rather wishes to be associated with the professional class, than with the old aristocracy into which she was born.”Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;-she was only Anne” (7). In the opening chapters of Austen’s novel we quickly learn that, despite her excellent character, Anne is nobody to her kin. She is put in the background, and she seems fairly comfortable being there. But even though Anne is nothing or nobody to her relatives, we learn also that her family consists merely of people of no “real understanding.” They are proud, snobbish and only interested in outward appearances. Anne is marginalized by her own family members and even she herself believes that “[t]o be claimed as a good, though in an improper style, is at least better than being rejected as no good at all” (32). Besides, her significance is here not only diminished by Anne and her family, but Austen reinforces this claim by not letting Anne speak for herself until the third chapter of the novel. Before that, we only get acquainted with her through the eyes and words of her family, Lady Russell and the narrator. Slowly but surely Anne moves to the center of the stage, as she quietly shares her observations and judgments about the people around her with the reader. In the introduction to Persuasion, Gillian Beer states that “Anne, like the reader, like her author, is an unobtrusive participant in [the Bath] scenes, her psychic drama almost entirely invisible to any other person. She can fit in and be useful anywhere, hence her obscurity” (xxi). In other words, Anne’s reserve provides her with the opportunity to criticize inconspicuously the behavior of her family, while her personality keeps growing even more admirable. As we gain more insight into Anne’s character, her aristocratic family members keep becoming more inferior to her. E.B. Moon accurately points out that the “evaluation of the heroine…becomes a test of character for others,” a test which her relatives fail miserably. Austen uses this contrast between Anne and the other Elliots to criticize the narcissistic and conceited attitude of the aristocracy, but most of all to emphasize Anne Elliot’s perfection.By comparing Anne’s reserved and collected disposition to Louisa’s unrestrained personality, Austen, once more, portrays Anne’s superiority of character. When talking to his sister, Captain Wentworth describes the woman he would like to marry. With a persuadable Anne Elliot in the back of his mind, he declares his ideal woman should possess a “strong mind, with sweetness of manner” (58). Consequently, he praises Louisa for her “character of decision and firmness” and tells her that if she values Henrietta’s “conduct of happiness” she should “infuse as much of [her] own spirit into her, as [she] can” (81). In Wentworth’s opinion, firmness equals happiness: “It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character, that no influence over it can be depended on.-You are never sure of a good impression being durable. Every body may sway it; let those who would be happy be firm” (81). Yet, Louisa’s ‘firmness’ is merely willful behavior and eventually it turns out to be her weakness and downfall. After Louisa’s accident on the Cobb at Lyme, Anne wonders whether it ever occurred to [Captain Wentworth] now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel, that a persuadable temper [like hers] might sometimes be as much in favor of happiness, as a very resolute character. (108)Indeed, this incident has taught Captain Wentworth “to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind” and only now does he understand “the perfect excellence of the mind with which Louisa’s could so ill bear a comparison” (227). Anne’s reserve has not made her a fickle character, but she is a level-headed young woman who knows and illustrates the value of reticence. Wentworth, finally, recognizes this quality of character in Anne, that “too good, too excellent creature,” and he realizes she is the woman he has been looking for all along (223).Anne’s perfect sense of decorum restrains her from sharing her true feelings directly with Captain Wentworth. In her work, Austen puts great emphasis on the constraint of feeling and emotion. This may be, some critics claim, because Austen’s spinsterhood deprived her of the chance to experience such a situation herself, and she therefore avoids emotionally charged scenes in her novels. But, whether or not that is the reason, Austen did live in a society that, like her, was dedicated to decorum; a society that imposed reserve on its women. In her account of strategies of reticence in Jane Austen’s work, Janis P. Stout explains that Austen uses “reserve as a touchstone of positive valuation,” and she continues by pointing out “a striking turn towards values of openness and demonstrativeness, even spontaneity, on all sorts of social interaction” in Persuasion, but “[e]ven so, the two characters who are the hallmark of both merit and emotional honesty in a world of dissolving values speak, as they act, with a considerable, and a considered, reserve” (33-4). Once again, Anne’s disposition is made to look superior in contrast to that of the other characters in the novel (with the exception of Wentworth). During her silent ponderings, Anne reflects on her love for Captain Wentworth, but she knows she will never be able to express these feelings towards him. Then, her confident conversation with Captain Harville, which is overheard by Wentworth, provides her with an unexpected opportunity. Through her carefully chosen words, without violating the decorum, she manages to convey her emotions to Wentworth: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving the longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (221). It is in that same conversation that Anne is able to attribute her silence to the standards of decorum which resulted in “circumstances (perhaps those very cases which strike us the most)…such as cannot be brought forward without betraying a confidence, or in some respect saying what should not be said” (220). Wentworth hears and understands her statement and “can listen no longer in silence,” and so it is broken (222). Anne’s life in silence is over, as Captain Wentworth declares he “can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others” (222-3). Not only does he distinguish the tones of that voice, but also the undertones. Stout convincingly argues that “[i]t was Austen who managed to transform the discreet feminine silence prescribed by a system of social decorum into not only a thing of art but also a persuasive rhetoric,” and Anne Elliot is the perfect example of this art (ix).Anne Elliot is Austen’s sublime model of female excellence. Her reticence sets her apart from the vain and narcissistic aristocracy; it gives her a steady and sensible character; and it shows her dedication to social values. Reserve is a recurring theme in all of Austen’s novels. It is an expression of decorum, values and good sense, and it is never a sign of weakness. One look at the Austen canon reveals that “[i]n Austen’s world, the big talker is almost always a fool or a villain, or both,” and silence is mostly portrayed as a virtue (Stout 27). Like Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Elinor Dashwood are also provided with a reserved character as a contrast to other characters, but neither of them has reached the same level as perfection as Anne has. In a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, Austen herself declares about Anne; “she is almost too good for me,” and one has to agree with Mr. Elliot who observes Anne Elliot to be “a most extraordinary young woman; in her temper, manners, mind, a model of female excellence” (149).Works CitedAusten, Jane. “Letters to Fanny Knight 1814-1816.” The Republic of Pemberley. “Letters of Jane Austen-Brabourne Edition: Letters to Her Niece Fanny Knight 1814-1816.” 14 Apr. 2006
“[A] persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.” (Persuasion, Ch. 12)Persuasion seems to draw on the deep divide in the two then contemporary forms of the novel – one based on Augustan values, in which the rational precedes the irrational, and the second based on Romanticist taste, in which the inner world of imaginings precedes the outer world of evidence. While Austen’s earlier novels had consistently affirmed an Augustan taste, in Persuasion she seems to concede some validity to the Romantic view, and at least leaves the reader to ponder an ambivalent response to the question of whether Anne Elliot acted correctly in succumbing to Lady Russell’s persuasion, when her initial, instinctive desire for a relationship with Captain Wentworth remained ultimately unchanged. Broadly, the issue becomes whether Anne was correct in letting herself be led by seemingly well-intentioned caution, or whether she would have been better advised to take a risk and follow the dictates of her heart. And though Austen makes an attempt to chart out a middle course between these two options, this debate is nowhere more manifest than in the closing chapters, where Austen registers a final judgement on the question of romance versus prudence, leaving its readers somewhat puzzled. Anne says, as she had earlier in Chapter IV, that she was right in being guided by a quasi-maternal friend, even though the advice was wrong, and that in a similar situation she may never have given it (Chapter XXIII): “But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience.” This, and the whole context of earnest assertion, come from a person of the finest moral sensitivity and integrity, yet it seems to be directly opposed to what had also been an earlier conviction, that while defending Lady Russell and herself, “she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it.” The final capitulation to natural instinct is, however, an image of Anne that is distinctly different from the one presented at the start of the novel. (It will also prove significant later in her rejection of William Elliot.) Indeed, Anne had even been willing to reject Lady Russell’s advice two years after she had taken it: in Chapter XXIII, Wentworth asks whether when he returned to England in 1808 with a few thousand pounds, she would have renewed the estrangement then. He says of her response, ” ‘Would I!’ was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough.” He regrets the hurt pride which had kept him from such a move, and takes the blame on himself. This benevolent gesture on Wentworth’s part, however, overlooks the fact that, ultimately, it is only when Anne takes recourse to the natural propensity of her heart to lead her to true love that she manages to salvage her relationship with him. The error in Lady Russell’s judgment of character (which in turn led her to counsel Anne imperfectly) is made explicit in Chapter XXIV, when the narrator says, “There is a quickness of perception in some, a nicety in the discernment of character, a natural penetration, in short, which no experience in others can equal, and Lady Russell had been less gifted in this part of understanding than her young friend.” It is this same “quickness of perception” that leads Anne to reject William Elliot, even before Mrs. Smith reveals the full truth about him:”Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. … She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.”Evidently, Anne comes to realize the value of listening to human impulse (“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”). It is this gradual realization that causes her to repeatedly recall feelings for Wentworth. This is the most obvious evidence of her ability to lend herself to the Romanticist exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over the intellect. Significantly, Anne’s most intense exertions are also to understand and live with her feelings, which are frequently held in check by ruling manners. Often, when Anne argues against what she is feeling, the particular reason turns out to be wrong. When Anne begins “to reason with herself” or when she hopes “to be wise and reasonable in time,” reason means not being in love with Wentworth. But this is arguably not a novel in which feelings are “wrong” and reasoning is “right.” Anne’s reasoning is a process of giving herself time. In a sense, through these exertions, Anne aims to be able to feel. She desires to transform her “senseless joy,” not into sense, but into “sensible joy.”This gradual alteration in Anne’s character and in the treatment of her own feelings toward Wentworth implies a certain Romanticist bipolarity that each represented initially (and which, to an extent, Anne continues to maintain perhaps even flaccidly in the dÃ©nouement: “I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with”). While Anne relies to a great extent on the advice given to her “persuadable temper” and believes her adherence to it to be her duty, Wentworth is shown to be a man of “a very resolute character” with complete faith in himself and in his powers to realize his own destiny. Having made his money as promised in two years, but only after having been turned down by Anne for marriage, Wentworth begrudged the fact that Anne did not demonstrate the same degree of confidence in him, or the courage to defy her elders, know her own mind or trust her own will. “She had shown a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided confident temper could not endure.” When he returns to the neighbourhood and Anne has to listen to snatches of his conversation with Louisa on their walk to Winthrop, she hears him reiterate his faith in the self. Louisa states that she would rather be overturned by the man she loves than be driven in the carriage by anyone else, and Wentworth exclaims “with enthusiasm,” “I honour you!” Later, when Anne overhears their conversation within the hedge, she hears him use words from a conspicuously Romanticist lexicon as he praises “resolution,” “decision,” “firmness,” “spirit,” and “powers of mind.” As Marilyn Butler notes, “Wentworth’s personal philosophy approaches revolutionary optimism and individualism and he is impatient of, or barely recognizes, those claims of a mentor which for him can be dismissed in the single word ‘persuasion.'” Inevitably, Wentworth compares his reckless faith that love overcomes all with Anne’s cautious retreat into security eight years previously. Lady Russell draws a general moral from Sir Walter’s embarrassing case of financial difficulties; his entrenchment will conform to what many families have done, or should do: “There will be nothing singular in his case; and it is singularity which often makes the worst part of our suffering, as it always does of our conduct.” This distaste for singularity and uniqueness of circumstances is very much in keeping with the Augustan taste, which would have prevailed during Lady Russell’s formative years. The Romantic taste of Austen’s period, on the other hand, sought out the singular, the abnormal, and the strange (“The principle object … was to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and … to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way.” Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800). Anne shares Lady Russell’s inclination to project a general case from a particular instance, such as in Chapter X, where she attempts a detached analysis of the burgeoning relationship between Wentworth and the Musgrove sisters. (“Anne longed for the power of representing to them what they were all about, and of pointing out some of the evils that they were exposing themselves to.”) It seems that after the trauma of her broken engagement, she has devoted herself to reach a rational understanding of the rules which might govern love affairs, and is set up as something of an authority on matters of the heart, despite her limited experience. But if Anne possesses some of Lady Russell’s Augustan sagacity, she is also a reader of Lord Byron, and at crucial moments in the novel (such as her cancellation of an appointment with Mrs. Smith) subordinates social obligations to the dictates of her passion for Wentworth. (This also keeps her from appearing like an idealised Richardsonian paragon.) If Austen poses an argument between rational decorum and a heightened examination of human personality, the novel culminates in a tone more in favour of Romanticism than Augustan ideals. During her walk in the countryside in Chapter X, in the discomforting presence of Wentworth, Anne’s pleasure must arise from “the last smiles upon the years upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges.” In Chapter XIII Anne likens herself to the surroundings once more when musing on the prospects of the Great House at Uppercross following Louisa’s full recovery: “A few months hence, and the room now so deserted, occupied but by her silent, pensive self, might be filled again with all that was happy and gay, all that was glowing and bright in prosperous love, all that was most unlike Anne Elliot!” It is rare to see any character in this novel in physical isolation, but here Anne assumes the familiar role of the solitary figure in Romantic literature – a guise that is further accentuated by the use of the pathetic fallacy. Ultimately, it isn’t so much having a “persuadable temper” as it is adopting “a very resolute character” and in turn realizing that Lady Russell “must learn to feel that she had been mistaken” that helps Anne to break loose from an outworn, half-spurious social pattern. By leaving convention she achieves freedom and fulfillment (it is, after all, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, not Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope, who form the basis for Anne’s literary discussions with Captain Benwick) in a different world that she and Wentworth help to create.
Jane Austen uses her novels to express her disdain for nineteenth century English marital practice. She herself defied convention by remaining single and earning a living through her writing. Austenâs novels, including Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion, frequently feature an aristocratic heroine who is torn between marrying for love or for security. While Austenâs works do not call for a classless society, they do criticize the strict class stratificationsâ effects on marriages. Specifically, Austen laments that nineteenth century English women usually married within their own social class for convenience as opposed to love and that cross-class marriages were generally discouraged. In Persuasion, we meet Anne Elliot, a bright, attractive, upper-class woman who fell in love with a sailor, Captain Frederick Wentworth. However, Anne was successfully persuaded to reject Wentworth by her aristocratic family and friends, who failed to recognize Wentworthâs fine character and saw only his shallow pockets. The central conflict in Persuasion is that of appearance versus reality. Anne can certainly see the superficiality that surrounds her while at Kellynch Hall with her family; however, she allow others, namely Lady Russell and her sisters, to interpret what she sees and force her to act according to their wishes. Thus, Persuasion, like several other Austen novels, deals with a young womanâs coming of age. Anne is fully mature when she acts on her own desires and acknowledges that her newfound adulthood necessitates breaking away from her shallow and delusional family.Anne was raised in Kellynch Hall, a beautiful estate shrouded in prestige, wealth, and superficiality. Her father, Sir Walter Elliot, is a vain, foolish man, who spends his days rereading the Baronetage, a genealogy of the local aristocratic families. He values appearance over all depth of character; he refuses to associate with anyone who is not physically pleasing. Admiral Croft, who rents Kellynch Hall, comically remarks on the extraordinary number of mirrors in Sir Walterâs dressing room: âI should think he must be rather a dressy man for his time of life. Such a number of looking-glasses! Oh Lord! There was no getting away from oneselfâ? (114-115). While in Bath, Sir Walter obsesses about the dearth of attractive women:He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five and thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop in Bond-street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them. (127)Such a fascination with outward appearance severely limits Sir Walterâs prospects of finding another wife or intelligent friends and keeps him ignorant and self-deluded.Two of Sir Walterâs daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, share his passion for appearance and rank. Mary, the wife of the moderately wealthy Charles Musgrove, believes that it is her duty and right to prevent her sister-in-law, Henrietta Musgrove, from marrying Charles Hayter, who is ânothing but a country curateâ? and would bring âbad connectionsâ? (68) to her family. Mary wants to end a relationship that will make Henrietta happy simply because she sees the union as a disgrace to the Elliot family: âIt would be shocking to have Henrietta marry Charles Hayter; a very bad thing for her, and still worse for meâ? (69). Similarly, while in Bath, Elizabeth finds herself actually âsufferingâ? in order to preserve the Elliotsâ wealthy appearance: she wants desperately to invite the Musgroves to dinner at her house in Bath, but she cannot âbear to have the difference of style, the reduction of servants, which a dinner must betray, witnessed by those who had been always so inferior to the Elliots at Kellynchâ? (193).Austen clearly uses the theme of appearance versus reality to characterize the three Elliot sisters. She evidently believes that how a character sees others is a direct reflection of that characterâs personality. Thus, we know that Anne Elliot possesses true depth of character and sincerity because her superficial family fails to recognize her fine qualities: âAnne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give wayâ? (7). Anne is clearly the only Elliot who can âsee realityâ?: she understands her familyâs need to economize, laments the âelegant stupidityâ? (160) of the lavish parties that her family attends in Bath, and recognizes Maryâs frequent sickness as a call for attention. However, Anne initially suffers from great family loyalty, and is thus unable to distance herself from her superficial kin. She allows Mary to drag her to Uppercross cottage because Elizabeth reasons, ânobody will want [Anne] in Bathâ? (30). When she does arrive in Bath, Anne follows Sir Walter and Elizabeth to various upper-class social gatherings and shows great respect to her cousin Lady Dalrymple, whom Anne really views as a foolish noble. Anneâs maturity is thus evident when she rejects Lady Dalyrmpleâs dinner invitation in favor of visiting her old and widowed friend, Mrs. Smith, whom her father views as âlow companyâ? and a âdisgusting associationâ? (140).In being Anneâs genuine friend, Mrs. Smith hastens Anneâs departure from the superficial world of Kellynch Hall and acts as Lady Russellâs character foil. Unlike her shallow father and sisters, Anne is able to see past Mrs. Smithâs shabby apartment and recognize the sweet person within. Mrs. Smith gradually begins to replace Lady Russell as Anneâs confidant because Lady Russell places so much stock in ârank and consequenceâ? (12), that she is âblindedâ¦to the faults of those who possessed themâ? (12). Lady Russell is an appropriately overbearing advisor to the insecure and obedient Anne that we meet initially. Anne allows Lady Russell to persuade her to reject Frederick Wentworth on the basis of his poor appearance and dearth of âconnexionsâ? (24). Moreover, Anne is encouraged to continue seeing William Elliot because Lady Russell fails to see his deception and instead believes he has âknowledge of the worldâ? and a âwarm heartâ? (131). Mrs. Smith, however, proves to be a better confidant because she sees through Williamâs affected kindness and exposes his true intentions to Anne, thus preventing a potentially disastrous and unhappy marriage for Anne. After Mrs. Smith tells Anne of Williamâs desire to marry for a noble title, Anne reflects on Mrs. Smithâs ability to accurately gauge character: âHere is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who having only received âthe best education in the world,â know nothing worth attending toâ? (139). Anneâs transformation into a mature, self-governing woman, complete with a sincere friend, is clear when she acknowledges that she herself is sometimes a better judge of true character than Lady Russell is: âThere is a quickness of perception in some, a nicety in discernment of character, a natural penetration, in short, which no experience in others can equal, and Lady Russell had been less gifted in this part of understanding than her young friendâ? (219).Anneâs developing maturity, marked by her continued visits to Mrs. Smith and rejection of William Elliot, is brought to fruition by Wentworthâs declaration of love for her. As a character foil to the deceptive William Elliot, Wentworth genuinely wants Anne to be happy in marriage. When Wentworth first arrives at Uppercross, Anne is terrified, yet secretly delighted to see him again. Her continued love for him is evidenced by her frequent reflections on their past âhearts so openâ¦tastes so similarâ¦feelings so in unisonâ¦countenances so belovedâ? (57). Moreover, she is mortified by their current estrangement: âhis cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than any thingâ? (65). Even though Wentworth has become a prominent member of the Navy and amassed a substantial fortune, Anne still resigns herself to Lady Russellâs decision and does not pursue him. She consequently endures his growing affection for Louisa Musgrove and her own inability to change his view of her as one âso altered that he should not have known her againâ? (55). Wentworthâs passionate love letter, however, which declares to Anne, âyou pierce my soul,â? (209) stimulates Anne to mature. For the first time in almost eight years, Anne feels complete, âoverpowering happinessâ? (209). Instead of falling prey to her self-described âtimidityâ? and âfeebleness of character,â? (55) Anne decides to act on her own desires and according to her own principles by marrying Wentworth because she loves him.The discrepancy between appearance and reality that resonates through Persuasion gives rise to another theme common to Austenâs novels: the corrupting effects of wealth. Characters in Austenâs works who possess excessive, inherited wealth, such as Sir Walter Elliot, often suffer from megalomania. However, Austen distinguishes between the heir, represented in Persuasion by Sir Walter Elliot and William Elliot, and the self-made man, represented by the men of the Navy. Captain Wentworth, Admiral Croft, Captain Benwick, and Captain Harville are all incredibly kind and genuine men. In contrast to Sir Walterâs insistence that the tenant of Kellynch Hall not use his âpleasure-groundsâ? (18), Captain Harville opens his house up to the entire Musgrove party after Louisaâs accident. Austenâs harsh portrayal of male aristocrats may stem from her own somewhat feminist views on women and marriage. She clearly believed that women are as intelligent and capable as men are. Thus, she was undoubtedly appalled at the nineteenth century English law passing all inheritance to a male heir. Persuasion, then, may mark Austenâs attempts to marry her own radical views on women and marriage with those of the nineteenth century feminist movement.
In elucidating a strong sense of time’s passing in ‘Persuasion’, Austen evokes the seething pain and angst that Elizabeth’s approach to ‘the years of danger’ affords in an era in which marriage and status were ultimately keystones of a successful life, and explores the oversights of the superficial group which Sir Walter and Elizabeth both pertain and aspire to, by showcasing Elizabeth’s successive failures to be ‘properly solicited by baronet blood’ despite her ability to remain ‘blooming’. An overarching idea of the novel is that marriage and happiness do not necessarily depend on shallow appearances or any specific, practical merits, but rather an indescribable connection which is anything but rational and considered.
As Sir Walter indulgently pontificates over his and Elizabeth’s resistance to becoming a part of the ‘wreck of the good looks of everybody else’, Elizabeth and her bloom are separated by a metaphorical chasm from the ‘coarse’ Mary and the ‘haggard’ Anne whose blunt physical descriptions evoke a sense of disappointment on Sir Walter’s behalf, emphasizing the vanity that underpins his character, as his reluctance to associate with even his own daughters who do not mirror his own aesthetic values is showcased. Sir Walter takes pleasure in his and Elizabeth’s resilience and enduring ability to lose ‘scarcely any charm’ while ‘every face in the neighbourhood’ worsens, creating an extra layer to Sir Walter’s pride, as the two are separated from the hoi polloi who are plagued by a decline in good looks. Here it is evident that only Elizabeth meets Sir Walter’s exacting physical standards, and he can therefore be excused ‘in forgetting her age’ as she reflects the unattainable level of aesthetic he demands, despite being older than his other two daughters, whose ‘blooms’ had far less longevity than those of Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is depicted as a commandeering and empowered character, having been mistress of a prestigious country house for ‘thirteen years’, with the specificity of this timeframe exactly mirroring the tight and astute way in which she had ‘presid[ed]’ and ‘direct[ed]’ with a ‘self-possession’ that such a position requires. The sense of movement created around Elizabeth is significant as it affords her many qualities. As she ‘lead[s] the way to the chaise and four’, her importance and lofty societal status is conveyed as she has the power to lead others. This dynamic and efficient air, and the weight of her word and social power are perpetuated by the idea that she socializes widely, attending ‘every ball of credit’ and gracing ‘all the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms in the country’. Elizabeth is given further credibility by her ‘walking immediately after Lady Russell’, who is already known to be a woman ‘of strict integrity…with a delicate sense of honour’. As Elizabeth rides on the coattails of Lady Russell, she is shown to be someone with great connection to title and status, and who associates with people of a high class, both socially and morally.
Austen implies that Elizabeth is well-versed in these duties through the way she manipulates time, Elizabeth having commanded the house for ‘thirteen years’. The specific time frame since Elizabeth’s transition from young girl to mistress and potential wife is repeated four times over as many pages, and this helps to educe a sense of bitterness on Elizabeth’s behalf, and that she has been dwelling upon this lengthy period during which proposals and engagements were expected, but never came. This is also emphasized by the description of the winters as ‘revolving’ which captures the cyclic nature of time and helps reinforce Elizabeth’s inner pain, in that each winter just passes by, leading onto the next one, without promise of any engagement.
Elizabeth is evidently a prime candidate for marriage; beautiful and youthful, commanding, yet appropriately lady-like and social. Accordingly, such is the shock and revolt when the reader considers that in fact, Elizabeth is not married. However, not only has she failed to marry, but she has also been scandalously jilted by William Walter Elliot, whose ‘rights had been so generously supported by her father’. Austen’s early portrayal of marriage as an organized, rational ‘right’, which later is revealed to be highly sarcastic in contrast to the ardor of Anne and Wentworth’s relationship, in combination with the status-centric and almost predatory images such as Elizabeth’s desire for ‘baronet-blood’, dehumanize the act of marriage. Here Austen may be implying that despite Elizabeth’s superficial advantages, her perception and lust for marriage and status is what prevents any chance of a harmonious relationship, and her angst and stress over this issue is taking precedence over its natural course. Her desire for her entry into the consecrated and revered ‘book of books’ to be extended, and tendency of her father to leave it ‘open on the table near her’ accentuates the magnitude stress and pressure felt by Elizabeth.
Austen suggests to the reader that Elizabeth and her father’s obsessive craving for further marriage, title and association is in fact detrimental to the success of her endeavors. Elizabeth’s failures lie not in herself, with her seemingly perpetual bloom and adept social skills, but rather the environment in which she has been conditioned by her father, and living in the shadow of the imposing ‘book of books’, and its pressurizing expectations of future status and wealth.
Jane Austen’s novels perform multiple functions individually as moral tales. However, they also occasionally work together to explore propriety in early nineteenth century England. Proper behavior for women often centered on their interactions with men. A woman’s reputation was the backbone for her marriageability, and because marriage was the only method of success for women, it was also their bread and butter. Socio-economic status was a major component to a woman’s ability to find a good husband as well. In Jane Austen’s novels, she explores the relationship between social rank and decorum, coming to a moral or didactic conclusion in the form of marriage. The novels are often viewed individually in this respect. However, the novels Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion work together to create a more expansive, almost sociological view of women in British culture in the late 1790s to the early nineteenth century. The most outstanding figures of these novels which function on this level are the two eldest Dashwood sisters and the two eldest Elliot sisters. The driving force behind how the sisters navigate their hopes for marriage is not just financial and social, but a moral device in which the two novels work side by side to show the pitfalls extreme ideas.
Marianne and Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility have seemingly opposed methods of directing their emotions, but closer examination shows that the women represent two sides of the same coin. A woman’s control over their emotional state was partially dependent on her ability to appear unaffected by circumstances. To be too open with one’s emotions was damaging to this image. Sense and Sensibility “is obviously aligned with something opposed to sensibility, specifically the good ‘sense’ and propriety that […] Elinor continually displays in the face of disappointment or adversity, it remains […] just as faithful to the sisters as a unit (as opposed to a binarism) or to a sisterhood writ large” (Galperin 187). Elinor often obfuscates her passions with her ability to maintain composure. While Elinor represents a moderate womanhood through her use sense, Marianne cannot fathom how a man of milder disposition than herself could attract a woman. When thinking about the possibility of Elinor’s attachment to Edward, she exclaims, “the more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” (Austen 32). Her high emotional state and her emphasis on sentimentality come together to create a woman governed solely by passion. Her eventual failed love affair with Willoughby changes her opinion later in the novel, but in the beginning of her story, her focus on passion sets her up for trouble. She represents an extreme, a cautionary tale for women who may allow their passions to guide them, rather than guiding their passions. Elinor’s love for Edward is not weak in comparison to Marianne’s attachment to Willoughby. In a way, the sisters are actually coming from the same social rank, reputation, and background. Their differences show how behavior affects women in similar positions in society. The roles of Elinor and Marianne set the stage for viewing other novels as part of a larger concept than simply a single didactic novel on romance.
Anne and Elizabeth Elliot of Persuasion provide two more sisters in seeming opposition, except that they demonstrate how either appreciation or pretentious ideas of one’s social standing can shift a woman’s marriageability. At the opening of the novel, both sisters are well into spinsterhood, with Elizabeth at twenty-nine years old and Anne at twenty-seven. Unmarried women were considered old at a relatively early age. The threat of spinsterhood was real and “typically entailed the loss of inclusivity, esteem, and status” (Neubauer 126). Anne avoids this dangerous outcome when she allows herself to speak openly about her opinions on the depth of emotional attachment between men and women. She tells Captain Harville that she believes women’s feelings for men to be “the most tender” (Austen 446). It allows Captain Wentworth to see that Anne had not turned him down because of arrogance for her social rank as a baronet’s daughter, but rather from the belief that she was doing the right thing for her family. The obviously unhappy ending in Persuasion comes to Elizabeth, who loses what she saw as her chance to marry Mr. Elliot when Anne becomes engaged to Captain Wentworth. Austen tries to temper the difficulty that she will likely face later in life when estate settles on Mr. Elliot by saying, “It would be well for the eldest sister if she were equally satisfied with her situation, for a change is not probable there” (Austen 478). She does not give Elizabeth a happy ending for all her conniving focus on a man’s economic benefits to her, instead cautioning ambitious women to find a way to be happy when their endeavor fails. Showing too much pride in one’s financial prospects leads to Elizabeth’s ruin. These seemingly individualistic concerns of daily life provided contemporary readers with a glimpse into how their choices might affect their long-term happiness. The nuances of their daily lives not only reveal the women’s character but also set the backdrop for the circumstances in which the women with happy endings can learn the lessons which will end their spinsterhood.
The happy endings achieved in the novel provide diverse types of rewards for women who follow the belief in moderation. Austen’s goal in her narrative construction seems to be at least partially to instruct. One of the most relatable methods of accomplishing that task is “to provide models for ethical development, then a primary pathway to that development is through the details of everyday experience” (Weiss 256). The three women who come to learn moderation, either of feeling or composure, are Anne Elliot, and the two Dashwoods. Anne and Elinor, who began their stories with the most sense, decorum, and composure marry the men with whom they had initially fallen deeply in love. Marianne loses Willoughby but gains a far more honorable match in Colonel Brandon, though heartbreak alters her spirits and it is unclear whether she loves him or not. Marianne learns to moderate her intense passions, allowing her to have at least a kind ending. She will not be a spinster. Marianne does not end up with a dishonorable husband or a poor one. Austen explains the reason for Marianne’s change in fortune when she tells Elinor, “I compare it [behavior] with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours” (Austen 644). While the details are relevant to the didactic theme of the novels as a unit, larger themes play a role in this as well.
One of the potential impediments each of these four women experience is how financial difficulties can lead to family degradation. As one scholar notes of the elegiac tone in scenes in which character meditate on family honor, “the regret Anne expresses appears to be related to the heroine’s sense of degradation in her family’s social position, a feeling of injured pride articulated the moment Anne crosses the threshold of the apartment in Bath” (Solinger 272). Both families suffer economic decline early in the novels. How each sister attempts to get over that hurdle on the marriage market in part determines her ability to find a husband. At the start of Persuasion, Elizabeth has been “presiding and directing” over the domestic affairs of the Elliot estate for thirteen years (Austen 10). In her tenure as a major decision maker in the family’s finances, she has played an active part in the increase of their debts by not seeing any way in which the family could “retrench” (Austen 16). By the end of the novel, she has not changed much. Anne, however, had “wanted more vigorous measures, […] a quicker release from debt” (Austen 22). Anne’s ability to compromise with Lady Russell in developing the financial plan shows her moderation from the very beginning. The Dashwood sisters look to marriage, however, as they are not the daughters of a titled gentleman. Austen’s endings for each character provides the ultimate cautionary tale for women to adhere to moderation in both shrewdness and sentimentality.
The aforementioned narrative elements of the two novels allow them to work separately and together as didactic novels which taught contemporary readers to moderate both their emotional and logical selves. Judy Stove discusses Jane Austen’s possible thoughts on the purpose of novels writing, “the background to Austen’s comments [about novels] was the widespread view that to instruct was not only an added benefit, but should be the prime purpose, of the novel” (Stove 3). Anne and Elizabeth Elliot from Persuasion along with Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility create a spectrum of women’s attitudes toward marriage and fortune. On one end of this spectrum, Marianne represents women who want to marry for love and passionate emotions, initially focusing on the sentimental aspects of romantic love. Elizabeth Eliot occupies the other extreme and seems to focus primarily on the financial benefits of a good match. She says little on the subject of love or affection. Elinor and Anne show more moderation from the beginning and occupy the central space. Elinor’s love for Edward Ferrars is not in question, yet she shows this affection only twice. She knows that her station and financial situation affect her ability to compete in the marriage market. Thus she keeps it to herself. The descriptions of Anne’s reactions to Captain Wentworth show that she continued to love him in his absence, though she hardly allows herself to hope that he might still return those feelings. Her age, as well as her fortune and social rank, are a hindrance to her ability to chose Captain Wentworth when they first meet, eight years before the novel. Ultimately, the women who find the most obvious happiness were the ones with greater moderation from the beginning.
When the two novels are viewed in conjunction with one another, the educational quality of Austen’s novels becomes richer and more nuanced than when the two are seen separately. Jane Austen’s novels have multiple potential readings and interpretations. While none of the common interpretations are inherently incorrect, the debate over her intention is less important than the effect her novels have on modern readers as well as the effect they had on her contemporaries. Through carefully crafted narratives Austen developed a contemporary mythology for women to navigate the world of marriage competition. Her practically scientific revelations of how behavior affects social rank on the marriage market show that her little English villages are actually microcosms of the country’s social dynamics. While her novels showcase enduring romances, sharp criticism of the culture’s failings, and allow for readers to develop their interpretation of several endings, such as Marianne’s, the didactic quality should not be overlooked. Moderation in all things seems to be the key to happiness according to Jane Austen’s novels.Works Cited
Austen, Jane. The Annotated Persuasion. Annotated and edited by David M. Shapard, Anchor Books, 2010.
Austen, Jane. The Annotated Sense and Sensibility. Annotated and edited by David M. Shapard, Anchor Books, 2011.
Galperin, William. “Adapting Jane Austen: The Surprising Fidelity of Clueless.” Wordsworth Circle, vol 42, no. 3, EBSCOhost, Summer 2011, pp. 187-193.
Neubauer, Breanna. “This Old Maid: Jane Austen and Her S(p)i(n)sters.” Midwest Quarterly, vol 56, no. 2, EBSCOhost, Winter 2015, pp. 124-138.
Solinger, Jason. “Jane Austen and the Gentrification of Commerce.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol 38, no. 2/3, EBSCOhost, Spring/Summer 2005, pp. 272-290.
Stove, Judy. “Instruction with Amusement: Jane Austen’s Women of Sense.” Renascence, vol 60, no. 1, EBSCOhost, Fall 2007, pp. 2-16.
Weiss, Deborah. “Sense and Sensibility: Uncertain Knowledge and the Ethics of Everyday Life.” Studies in Romanticism, vol 52, no. 2, EBSCOhost, Summer 2013, pp. 253-273.
Love, marriage, and the impact of gender are themes frequently taken up by Jane Austen, but it can be difficult to find where she stands on such topics, given the varying perspectives of her characters. While as readers we are often aligned with the heroine of the story, this doesn’t always mean she is who we ought to believe. Austen features a multiplicity of voices, giving more weight to some than others, in order to show that love doesn’t have a right and a wrong. In the case of the conversation between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville in Persuasion, I don’t believe that Austen necessarily agrees with either of their arguments. The debate being one of which gender shows more constancy in love does not allow for the complex circumstances of each situation. Each character is resolute in their point of view, but Austen undermines both with the events of the novel. Persuasion shows that love is a matter of individuals and their emotional capacity, rather than a subject one can make gendered generalisations about.
Captain Harville argues that Captain Benwick is an exception to the rule that men love longer and stronger, emphasising the connection between their physical and emotional selves. Harville draws upon socially accepted (at the time) generalizations about the physical differences between the sexes, and uses them to support his argument about the strength of men’s love: “I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather” (187). This argument is premised upon the belief that the mind and the body reflect one another, ignoring the strength of women’s bodies (particularly in childbearing), and the existence of physically weak men with robust intellectual and emotional minds. Harville’s conception of men as generally being strong of body and mind most likely comes from his experience in the Navy. As Austen knew from her brothers, being a sailor put men through many physical and emotional challenges, which would be Captain Harville’s own life experience, and that of his closest friends. Harville making his argument from his personal perspective is quite natural, but there is a definite self-indulgence in it. When he laments the pain of leaving on a ship and not knowing when he will see his family again, he doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest that it might be difficult for the wife and children of the sailor as well. This lack of awareness weakens his case. In fact, it reveals a selfish kind of love. Harville speaks of “all that a man can bear and do,” positioning men as the sole sufferers in instances of separation, showing that he thinks only of his own pain, not sparing any thoughts for how his family might be coping without him. Harville diverges from the original topic of conversation, about the constancy of love, and rather makes a case about strength of love, and who can best weather hardships. Anne and Harville end their conversation amicably, agreeing to disagree, but if this were a formal debate, Anne would come out as the champion.
Anne accepts Harville’s points, then cleverly counters each of them, while acknowledging the impact of gender roles on this subject. While Harville is fixed on his convictions, Anne never tries to deny that men love strongly and deeply. Anne’s closing statement of the conversation gives a clear summary: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex . . . is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (189). She shows an understanding of Harville’s arguments, and replies to each of them. His assertions about the bodily connection to the emotional mind are taken up by Anne and used to her advantage: “man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived.” She takes his tangential argument and adapts it to address the issue at hand: who is more constant? Anne also discusses the difference between men and women’s daily occupations, and how this might impact recovery time from a broken heart. This point centers around women being confined to the domestic sphere, while men have external business to keep their mind busy. Throughout the novel, Anne is very much a constrained and repressed character. She functions mainly as a passive listener, observing the events of the novel happening to others. Through the third person omniscient narration, we understand that Anne has a great number of thoughts and feelings about these events, but rarely voices them to others. Anne, as she is for most of Persuasion, is evidence for this repression of women’s voices, and how it means their thoughts and feelings grow in silence. Due to women of the upper classes not having the option of going to work, they were forced to spend most of their time around the home. Not having business or studies to occupy one’s mind gives them much time to dwell on matters of the heart. However, this conversation marks a turning point. Anne is speaking up and letting her opinion be heard. Although she still must operate within the societal constraints of her gender, she is becoming more empowered by giving her thoughts voice. This shift for Anne is one we appreciate, because it can be frustrating to read Persuasion and be constantly wishing for Anne to take some agency. Her intelligence and autonomy comes to the fore in this conversation, which is why her argument seems stronger.
Anne disagreeing with Harville proves her point in another way, which is through the subtext of her speech. The whole time Anne is talking about constancy, she is referring to her own unfaltering affection for Wentworth. This has an especially potent effect because Wentworth is sitting just a few meters from the pair as they debate, and is perhaps even within earshot (evidenced by him dropping his pen). Her speech marks her move from a passive woman who pines for affection, to an active character that is taking steps to secure the love they desire. She knows Wentworth is eavesdropping, and she wants him to hear (Mooneyham 179). While her argument with Harville is one of generalizations, she understands that it will have a specific meaning for Wentworth. In a similar way to Harville, Anne is arguing from her own lived experience. However, this doesn’t make her ignore the lived experiences of others. She heartily acknowledges that men can love, and can be constant in love, but she is persistent in her assertions that women can love for longer, even when hope is lost, because of her intimate acquaintance with that exact situation. We also appreciate the nuance of Anne’s understanding of the issue, and the concessions that she does make to Harville, because it exemplifies a mature and rational approach to an immensely emotional topic. As readers, our understanding of the subtext of Anne’s argument makes us more sympathetic to her side, and less likely to agree with Harville’s bold claims.
While both characters make robust arguments, I don’t believe Austen wholly agrees with either of them. As the author, she aligns us more with Anne, which makes us more likely to be on her side than Harville’s, but the events of Persuasion undermine her case. We feel more sympathetic to Anne’s argument because of the relationship Austen builds between Anne and the reader throughout the novel. Persuasion is written with third person limited omniscient narration, and mainly focuses on Anne. While we do sometimes have scenes that Anne wasn’t present for, Austen mainly gives us the events of the novel through Anne’s eyes and ears, and largely through retelling of events by other characters, or overheard conversations. Austen gives us the events of the novel, then gives us Anne’s thoughts on them. We are given a more intimate insight to Anne’s perception of the narrative than we are for any other character. This establishes a relationship between readers and our protagonist, because we are made to perceive events in the same way she does, or at least be aware of her understanding, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it. One point in the conversation where Anne’s, Austen’s, and hopefully the reader’s opinions all align: the issue of literature. When Harville uses books, songs, and proverbs as evidence, Anne quickly points out the unfairness of his proof: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” This clearly reflects Austen’s own struggle as a female author in the 19th century. While Anne is a well-read character, these particular sentences seem to be Austen speaking through Anne’s mouth. She utilities our closeness with Anne to undercut Harville’s claims of overpowering masculine love.
Persuasion doesn’t tell us which gender is more constant in love than the other. Instead, it tells us that the whole argument is redundant, and the evidence is in Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. Eight years have passed since Anne refused Wentworth’s proposal, and both of them have remained just as constant as each other. Austen wants us to see that love is an individual matter, and that there are some people who have a deeper, stronger, and longer emotional capacity than others. We understand the depth of Anne’s feeling through the narrative point of view, and we understand Wentworth’s through the letter he writes to Anne while this conversation is taking place. As Kramp writes, “His letter is the most open disclosure of amorous emotion by any man in Austen’s corpus” (137). Austen’s perspective on this issue of constancy also symbolizes her views on larger debates. When issues are discussed as having men on one side of the argument and women on the other, it isn’t productive, and it lends itself to generalizations that exclude many people. From Persuasion and her other works, Austen appears to be an advocate for understanding people based on their individual attributes, rather than making gender or class based assumptions.
The discussion between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville is a healthy debate with strong cases made on both sides. In the world of the novel, Anne comes out stronger, by acknowledging all of Harville’s points, such as the connection of body and mind, evidence in literature, and the pain of separation, then rationally responding to each with her own thoughts on the topic. However, Anne’s argument, while stronger than Harville’s, is also undercut by Austen through Wentworth’s constancy in his love for Anne. Love shouldn’t be turned into a gendered debate, we should understand it as it is: a relationship between individuals, who each have their own capacity for constancy. Austen wants us to understand the complexity and individuality of every romantic relationship.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Oxford University Press, 1980.
Kramp, Michael. Disciplining Love: Austen and the Modern Man. Ohio State University Press, 2007.
Mooneyham, Laura G. “Loss and Language of Restitution in Persuasion.” Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Edited by Judy Simons. MacMillan Press, 1997.
Woolf, Virginia. “Jane Austen.” The Common Reader. Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1925, pp.191-206.
Wiltshire, John. “Persuasion: The Pathology of Everyday Life.” Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Edited by Judy Simons. MacMillan Press, 1997.
“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older–the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” With these words, Jane Austen crystallizes one of the central questions of her novel Persuasion–whether it is better to be strong-willed or easily persuadable. Persuasion differs from other Austen novels because of its more somber tone and its more insightful analysis of trends in Victorian society. The most distinctive aspect of Persuasion, however, is the character of its heroine, Anne Elliot, a woman “silent but full of thought, persuadable yet steady, a model of self-composure yet glowing with emotions” (Muller 20). Indeed, throughout the novel, Austen uses description, dialogue, inner thought, and foils to reveal Anne’s character and to explore the themes of persuasion, constancy in love and gender roles.
To begin with, Austen uses description to portray Anne Elliot’s character and to delve into the novel’s themes. In chapter 2, for instance, the narrator describes Anne’s response to the Elliot family’s financial troubles. “She wanted more vigorous measures, a more complete reformation….a much higher tone of indifference for everything but justice and equity” (Austen 13). This detail about Anne illustrates her keen mind, good sense and scrupulous beliefs, qualities that contrast with the extravagance and pride of Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot, who both argue that any reduction in expenses would cast their family name into disrepute (Austen 11). In addition, the very fact that Lady Russell chose to consult Anne instead of Elizabeth about the family budget indicates her belief in Anne’s more prudent character. This detail about Anne also draws forth a comparison between her and the deceased Lady Elliot, a woman of great “method, moderation, and economy” (Austen 10). Indeed, “it was only in Anne that [Lady Russell] could fancy the mother to revive again” (Austen 7). Just as Elizabeth shares her father’s arrogance and vanity, Anne has inherited her mother’s frugality and sensibility. Not only does this portrayal of Anne reveal much about her character, but it also introduces the novel’s central theme: the superiority of a firm but prudent character over an obstinate or weak-willed one. One wonders whether the Elliot family might have been able to stay in Kellynch Hall if Sir Walter had only followed Anne’s advice. Even this early in the novel, Austen has already begun to showcase Anne’s sensible character and to communicate the superiority of prudence over willfulness.
Prudence, however, does not preclude a healthy firmness of character. For example, after telling the reader of Anne’s broken engagement with Captain Wentworth, the narrator describes how Anne, now 27, thinks “very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen,” for she now deeply regrets her decision and her experience of being “forced into prudence” (Austen 29). Through this description, the reader learns that Anne has become more independent-minded; doubtless, she still treasures the counsel of Lady Russell, but she has also developed her own perspective on love and life– she “learned romance as she grew older” (Austen 29). Besides offering insight into Anne’s character, this detail further develops the theme of persuasion. “Forced” contains the negative connotation of coercion, an indication of the harmful consequences that can result from persuasion. Anne’s sorrow over her estrangement from Wentworth also indicates the dangers of being too easily persuaded. After all, if Anne had kept her engagement with Wentworth, she would have spared herself countless hours of heartbreak. Austen thus communicates that prudence and firmness of character must come hand in hand.
Later on in the story, the author continues to use description to characterize Anne Elliot. For instance, when Mrs. Croft mentions something about one Mr. Wentworth, Anne cannot restrain her outburst of feeling. “Anne hoped she had outlived the age of blushing; but the age of emotion she certainly had not” (Austen 46). By describing Anne’s emotions here, the narrator indicates that Anne still has strong, perhaps unacknowledged, feelings for Captain Wentworth. In fact, despite eight years of separation and silence, Anne has remained unflagging in her devotion to Wentworth, and this facet of her character conveys another of the novel’s themes, namely the value of remaining constant in love. Austen holds up Anne as an example of how true love should remain steadfast through the longest and sharpest of trials. Furthermore, this snippet about Anne reveals her tendency to have intense emotions, especially when near Wentworth. She blushes when she hears his name, experiences “a thousand feelings” when she first meets him, and appears ill from her “overpowering happiness” after their reconciliation (Austen 25, 56, 223). As Robyn Warhol states, “love quite literally hurts in Persuasion” (quoted Muller 23). In truth, Anne Elliot’s acute emotions set her apart from other Austen heroines, “reminding us rather of Charlotte Bronte than of Jane Austen” (Muller 24). In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth Bennet never seems to express her happiness, but simply acknowledges that she should be happy because of her fiance’s wealth. Likewise, the protagonist of Emma lacks Anne’s emotional depth. Austen may have invested Anne with this intense emotion to subtly counter the restrictions of her day, those Victorian ideas that delegated women to the domestic sphere and limited how much emotion or sexual feelings a lady could express (Cenicola and Mareike 1). Persuasion was the only one of Austen’s novels set in the contemporaneous present, and therefore Austen may have created Anne Elliot–this graceful combination of traditional femininity and unconventional emotion– to challenge Victorian notions of the ideal woman. Hence, Austen uses this detail about Anne’s emotions, and many other descriptions, to highlight various facets of Anne’s character and to explore the novel’s themes.
In addition to description, the author employs dialogue to flesh out Anne’s character and to accentuate the story’s themes. In fact, in the first few chapters, what is most striking about dialogue with Anne is its absence. In the first three chapters, Anne utters only a few snippets of dialogue, while her father speaks profusely about Kellynch-hall and the navy. This silence partly stems from Anne’s subordinate position as an unmarried, middle daughter, but it also reveals Anne’s quiet, introspective character. Throughout the novel, Anne takes the position of an observer, and the reader hears much more of her thoughts than her words. When she does speak, however, her words bear great meaning. For instance, near the end of the novel, Anne and Captain Harville discuss Captain Benwick’s recent engagement to Louisa Musgrove, during which Anne tells Harville that women have more faithfulness in love than men. “We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us,” she says (Austen 218). She then contrasts how women “live at home, quiet, confined,” with how men strive to succeed in the rough-and-tumble world of professional work (Ibid). This conversation highlights Anne’s intelligence and ability to think for herself. Moreover, it clearly communicates her constancy in love, so much so that this exchange “pierces” the soul of Wentworth (Austen 222). More importantly, it also pierces the reader with a conviction of the need to remain steadfast in love despite the vicissitudes of life. In addition to the theme of loyalty in love, Austen also raises the theme of gender roles. Anne’s delineation of differing gender roles reflects the Victorian emphasis on separate spheres for men and women; according to this “cult of domesticity,” women were expected to be good housewives and mothers, and their status depended on marriage. These separate spheres are manifested in the dissimilar paths that Wentworth and Anne take after breaking their first engagement: Wentworth moves on to gain great wealth and status in the navy, while Anne becomes a faded spinstress who has past her prime. Evidently, through this contrast and through Anne’s conversation with Harville, Austen seeks to show the full consequences of the separate spheres idea, portraying the limited opportunities women faced. Although Austen was no feminist, she does seem to encourage greater equality of opportunity and experience between the sexes. Austen’s ideal couple would be something similar to the Crofts, where the wife still defers to the husband, but also accompanies her partner in his profession and travels outside the home. Hence, Austen’s use of dialogue in this case not only reveals more of Anne’s character but also develops the themes of constancy in love and equality between the sexes.
Austen also uses dialogue between Anne and Wentworth to reveal more of Anne’s character and to impart greater nuance to the theme of persuasion. After Wentworth’s letter of reconciliation, Anne and Wentworth pour out their feelings and discuss the events that have occurred over the course of the novel. “If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once,” Anne says, referring to her decision to break the original engagement, “remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety” (Austen 229). Likewise, during the card-party later that day, Anne tells Wentworth of her conclusion that, after all, it was right to submit to Lady Russell’s advice about the engagement, for she would have suffered in her conscience if she had done otherwise (Austen 231). Not only do these words reveal Anne’s strong sense of duty–an unwavering commitment to honor her elders and submit to authority–but they also display her sensibility, for even now, despite being swelled by Wentworth’s passionate love, she continues to keep a cool head. Austen also uses this dialogue to expand the theme of persuasion. By using Anne’s reasonable and credible voice, Austen communicates the value of pursuing moderation over obstinacy and prudence over unrestrained passion. Certainly, Austen does not justify Lady Russell’s advice–Anne herself admits that she would not give such advice to a younger woman (Austen 231). Neither does she promote a wishy-washy attitude that easily succumbs to persuasion. But Austen does seem to value Anne’s responsibility to her elders, her loyalty to her friends, and ultimately, her sagacity in making decisions. Thus, in this dialogue between Anne and Wentworth, the author illuminates Anne’s character and indicates that prudence of mind should ever accompany firmness of character.
Description and dialogue reveal much about the novel’s protagonist, but perhaps the most important tool Austen uses to characterize Anne is inner thought. In allowing the reader to enter the recesses of Anne’s mind, the author enables the audience to understand the full extent of her devotion to Wentworth. For instance, after Mr. Shepard briefly mentions Captain Wentworth, Anne rushes outside and thinks, “A few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here” (Austen 25). This example clearly shows that Anne still treasures Wentworth in her heart. Such devotion is downright extraordinary if one considers that eight years have passed since Anne last saw Wentworth, eight years of silence and separation, eight years of ignorance about whether he was dead or alive or married. In light of this, one cannot but marvel at Anne’s faithfulness in love. By using these inner thoughts to portray Anne as a woman of great loyalty and passionate love, Austen seeks to promote greater constancy in love.
Furthermore, Anne’s inner thoughts reveal her remarkable perceptiveness. Regarding Captain Benwick’s mourning over his deceased wife, for example, Anne says to herself that he will soon “rally again, and be happy with another” (Austen 91). This prediction soon comes true, for Benwick quickly becomes engaged to Louisa Musgrove. Anne’s clear-sighted thoughts also appear in her observation of Mr. Elliot. In contrast to Lady Russell’s great admiration for Mr. Elliot, Anne has a premonition of his shiftiness. She feels that he is simply too polished, too discreet, perhaps too keen on hiding his true past (Austen 151). These feelings are eventually validated by Mrs. Smith’s revelation of Mr. Elliot’s cold-heartedness, lust for wealth, and blackness of heart (Austen 187). Both of these examples convey Anne’s perceptiveness. Unlike Lady Russell, whose judgment is often “blinded” by outward appearances of wealth, or Sir Walter, who scarcely sees anything pass the tip of his gorgeous nose, Anne alone judges people for their true worth– Anne alone sees clearly (Austen 12, 231). Consequently, she escapes from the irony of self-deception that many other Austen heroines experience. Besides developing Anne’s perceptive character, these judgments ensure Anne’s credibility as an accurate commentator on the novel’s events, allowing readers to enter the story through her uncompromising gaze. This credibility makes Anne an effective vehicle for the author to express her own views; indeed, the line between Anne’s thoughts and the author’s commentary often blurs. For example, Anne’s thoughts during the aftermath of Louisa’s injury seems to reflect Austen’s own point of view: “Perhaps a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character” (Austen 108). The accuracy of Anne’s judgments indicate that her perspective closely aligns with that of the author, and thus one can conclude that Anne’s statement faithfully reflects the author’s own views on persuasion. Here, Austen clearly voices her belief that people should remain open to the advice of others, not too weak-willed to think for themselves, but not so stubborn as to disregard all counsel. Hence, through the use of inner thought, Austen both portrays Anne’s perceptive character and further develops the theme of persuasion.
The final tool Austen uses to develop Anne’s identity involves foils, people that contrast with Anne and serve to accentuate her character qualities. In the early part of the novel, Mary acts as a foil to her sister, highlighting Anne’s sensibility and kindness through her own childish attitude. For instance, when Anne first arrives in Uppercross, Mary feigns illness in order to receive more sympathy. Immediately, the conversation between Anne and Mary becomes entirely one-sided, with Mary moaning over her woes and monopolizing the attention. In fact, even though Anne has just moved from her childhood home, Mary barely mentions the change, instead choosing to focus solely on the particulars of life at Uppercross. This selfish attitude contrasts vividly with Anne’s own willingness to listen and express her concern for others. Anne’s empathy leads her to become the confidant of Charles, Mary and even the Miss Musgroves, as she strives to “listen patiently, soften every grievance, and excuse each to the other” (Austen 44). In addition to highlighting Anne’s empathy, Mary serves as a foil to accentuate her sister’s prudence. For example, after little Charles Musgrove’s injury, Anne quickly rises to the need, doing everything at once–calling the doctor, attending to the children, and comforting the hysterical mother (Austen 50). While Mary collapses in anxiety, Anne shows good sense and a calm mind. By contrasting Mary and Anne’s responses to this mini crisis, Austen clearly illustrates Anne’s prudent qualities. Thus, Austen continues to demonstrate the value of a sensible mind, expanding the central idea that prudence must always balance firmness of character. In the same way, Louisa serves as another foil to Anne. Outgoing, lively and often foolhardy, Louisa Musgrove is the antithesis of Anne Elliot, as illustrated by her injury at Lyme. Heedless of Wentworth’s warnings, Louisa jumps recklessly off the terrace, only to fall unconscious onto the pavement. Wentworth and the rest of the group are stunned into inaction, but Anne immediately takes control, summoning the surgeon and prompting everyone into a flurry of activity (Austen 102). Indeed, everyone “seemed to look to her for directions,” and even Wentworth admits that there was “no one so proper, so capable as Anne” (Austen 103, 106). Here, Anne’s sensibility contrasts with Louisa’s impetuosity; Louisa’s daredevil attitude shatters the day’s happiness, but Anne’s good sense restores it. Beyond developing Anne’s character, however, Austen uses Louisa’s injury to cast a shadow on the supposed value of stubbornness. Before Louisa jumps, she says “‘I am determined I will,’” indicating that her injury directly resulted from her unwillingness to heed wise advice. Anne herself concludes from this episode that firmness of character “should have its proportions and limits” (Austen 108). Thus, by illustrating how stubbornness can lead to harmful consequences, Austen demonstrates that firmness of character should be tempered by prudence. Foils clearly serve as an important way for Austen to reveal Anne’s character and develop the novel’s themes.
In short, through description, dialogue, inner thought and foils, Austen illuminates Anne’s character and explores the themes of persuasion, constancy in love, and gender roles. Indeed, Anne’s unique character qualities set Persuasion apart from other Austen novels, for unlike the “teenage immaturity” of Emma Woodhouse or the “arch and self-complacent” perspective of Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot feels intense, desperate emotions and also holds a clear-sighted view on events (Muller 24, 21). In Anne, Austen has created a character steadfast but persuadable, impassioned but level-headed, conventional in her femininity but modern in her emotions–a character so convincing as a flesh-and-blood individual and yet so effective as a vehicle for the novel’s themes. Few other writers have accomplished such a feat.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Penguin Books, 1998.
Muller, Claire. “Intellectual Qualities, Emotions and the Body: An Analysis of Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.” Contributions to the Study of Language, Literature and Culture. Volume 2010:1, pp 19-29.
Cenicola, Laura and Mareike Aumann. “Introduction to Victorian Morality: What exactly was the Victorian Era?” Laura-Cenicola, http://www.laura-cenicola.de/brithist2/brithist/8-1-introduction-into-victorian-morality-what-exactly-was-the-victorian-era.html. Accessed 14 December 2016.
Society is notably poor at judging people’s character. Good people can be disregarded for petty reasons and deplorable people can be supported for equally poor reasons. Such contrasts are common in Persuasion with characters like Sir Walter, Mr. Elliot, and Mrs. Smith. They all exhibit clear disparities between how they are viewed by their society and how they are depicted by Austen. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the contrast between society’s perception of people and their realities is used to reveal Austen’s thoughts on the negative and often inaccurate views of society.
Mr. Elliot is used to show how society can mistake scheming, selfish people for well-meaning people if they are rich and charismatic. After a few years earlier marrying a “rich woman of inferior birth” (Ch. 1) and causing Sir Walter to “[consider] him unworthy of it” (meaning family respect) (1), Mr. Elliot came back to the family and was “not only pardoned, [the family was] delighted with him” (15). He manages to explain away the faux pas of his previous marriage and win back the favor of Sir Walter and the others. He becomes an agreeable man, “rational, discreet, polished” (17), but on a subsurface level, according to Anne “there was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others.” Mr. Elliot becomes someone who people view as a good, agreeable person but he’s really quite manipulative, selfish and untrustworthy.
Ms. Smith, in contrast, is a down-on-her-luck woman with poor social status who is nevertheless a good person. She is described as having “little to live on, and no surname of dignity”(17). She has little money and zero prestige. Upon hearing Anne had befriended Mrs. Smith, Elizabeth was disapproving and Sir Walter was disgusted. Lines like Walter’s “Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you” (17) are common, displaying the fierce loathing from them. Why do they loathe her so? It’s because of her prestige (or lack thereof), not her personality or actions. In reality, she is really a rather pleasant person to be around. Anne befriends her not because of pity, but because of her apparently rather unique ability to see past the surface of people to see their core character. What she sees in Mrs. Smith, underneath the impoverished, “disgraceful” exterior is a good, kind, jovial person. Chapter 21 is all about a conversation between her and Anne that reveals her social intelligence and the fact that society spits upon her doesn’t change who she is.
Sir Walter Elliot is a perfect example of status meaning nothing when it comes to how good one’s character is. The “Sir” in his name shows what the majority of his character is: a vain pile of titles. The only thing he likes to read is “his own history with an interest which never failed” (1). He cares much for nothing more than how he appears, and his personal character reflects that. Sir Walter is not particularly empathetic and is rather selfish, or at least isn’t very charitable. Upon being presented with the idea of leasing out Kellynch Hall, he violently opposes it because it would make him look bad, even though the family needs it. He only agrees to it once it is framed in a way that makes Sir Walter Elliot look dignified. He’s an honored person, but he’s not all that honorable. Even if society views him as someone to be respected, he doesn’t deserve that amount of respect.
These characters serve to drive home Austen’s point that status doesn’t define who you are and you should be who you are whether people respect you as a good person or not. Mr. Elliot is a disreputable person, and Austen shows that even if society respects him, he’s not a person one should aspire to emulate. Another message of the novel involves people clashing with the preconceived notions that others had about them. Mr. Elliot is revealed to be conniving, Sir Walter to be vain, and Mrs. Smith to be kind. These contrasts are stark and impactful, as Austen reveals the ironies of upper class British society at the time. The problem of perception is that people are not what they often appear to be; people can’t be made to look past their preconceived notions most of the time. If we can persuade them to look deeper, however, society will end up better in the end.
Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion explores the varied behaviour of the English upper classes in the 19th century. Through the lens of protagonist Anne Elliot’s experiences and relationships, Austen suggests certain standards of behaviour and character traits should be adhered to. Austen contrasts the modesty and reservation of Anne with the flagrant vanity of her relatives, whom she often presents satirically and positions the reader to condemn as a result of their conceited actions and ideas. Austen’s novel also examines the notion of persuasion, scrutinising the relative worth of a firm nature as opposed to those who act upon the advice of others. Depicting Anne navigating her way through the clearly defined social classes of the period, Austen compares characters who cling rigidly to social convention with the more progressive and open-hearted, suggesting that warmth of character is of more value than propriety. Furthermore, Austen endorses those whose actions stem from selfless motivations and denounces those who act out of greed and vanity, illustrating her view that those with pure motivations are invariably rewarded.
Through Persuasion, Jane Austen emphasises the importance of modest behaviour, suggesting that vanity and the desire for attention are poor qualities. From the outset of her novel, Austen positions the reader to view Sir Walter Elliot as an object of ridicule, despite his baronetcy and distinct impression of his own importance. Describing Sir Walter’s ability to “read his own history with an interest that never failed”, Austen presents the most dominant aspect of his character, “vanity of person and of situation”, for the reader’s scrutiny. Through her claim that Sir Walter was even the “object” of his own “respect and devotion”, Austen encourages the reader to deride Sir Walter as a fool, associating his conceit with stupidity. Austen’s condemnation of Sir Walter’s vanity is further emphasised through her inclusion of Admiral Croft’s shock at the “number of looking glasses!” in his dressing-room and decision to “shift their quarters”, sensibly having no desire to be constantly surrounded by his own reflection. Furthermore, Sir Walter’s inability to recognise the true value of Anne, a character held up by Austen as the embodiment of gentle virtue, yet whom Sir Walter dismisses as “haggard” and a “nobody” because of her faded beauty, demonstrates the blindness Austen suggests arises from placing far too much importance upon superficial qualities. Through the character of Mary, Austen additionally condemns attention seeking behaviours and a lack of reserve. Feigning illness and bemoaning the lack of attention she receives from her husband and his family, Mary frustrates Charles, who wishes she would not “always be fancying herself ill” and fails to ingratiate herself with Mr and Mrs Musgrove, who “would have liked [Anne] a great deal better” as Charles’ wife. Mary’s lack of propriety also earns her the derision of Captain Wentworth, whom Austen presents as a good judge of character as a result of his love for Anne. Revealing her earnest desire to be perceived as high class by those around her, Mary claims she has never been to the Hayters’ residence at Winthrop “above twice in [her life!”, a comment which is answered by a “contemptuous glance” from Wentworth, who, reflecting the view of Austen, finds Mary’s vanity and excess pride deplorable qualities. Furthermore, Mary’s lack of regard for the consequences of her behaviour very nearly results in Henrietta’s decision not to renew her attachment to Charles Hayter, despite her love for him.
Austen provides a stark contrast to Mary’s poor behaviour in Anne during her stay at Uppercross. Despite her frustration and inward critique of her sister, Anne never voices these complaints to Mary, instead serving as a mediator, relieving the tensions of the household and being treated with “confidence” by all. Using free indirect discourse, Austen presents the events of the novel largely from the perspective of Anne, whose frequent silent introspection gives the reader insight into the sentiments kept silent by Anne, often because of what Austen suggests would be the impropriety of voicing such sentiments aloud. While Austen condemns the desire for constant attention that makes Mary a poor mother, abandoning her injured son Charles to attend dinner at the Great House, having “not dined [there] since Tuesday”, she endorses Anne’s willingness to forego the attention and excitement of the dinner party and volunteer to care for the child herself. Through the condemnation of characters who display a lack of reservation and vanity, Austen advocates for the importance of modesty as a personal trait.
As well as denouncing qualities such as vanity, through Persuasion Austen examines the limited merit of always acting decisively as opposed to being open to the influence of others. Injured by her past rejection of him, Captain Wentworth scorns Anne Elliot’s “feeble” character. However, Austen ultimately proves that this judgement is misplaced and that Anne’s “yielding to duty” was the right course of action at the time. Determined not to become attached to someone who could be persuaded to give him up as Anne was, Wentworth is attracted to Louisa Musgrove’s firm and at times obstinate nature. During the visit to Winthrop, Wentworth likens a resolute character to a “hazelnut … blessed with original strength”, which even after “all the storms of autumn”, retains its “happiness.” However this metaphor rings hollow to the reader, positioned by Austen to view conscious decision and the capacity to exercise discretion and common sense, as essential qualities, beyond the capabilities of a hazelnut. Austen exemplifies the dangers of obstinacy that is not tempered by common sense through Louisa’s fall at the Cobb. Displaying the desire for attention also condemned by Austen, Louisa insists upon being “jumped down” the stairs by Wentworth. Despite Wentworth “reason[ing] against” her jumping from a greater height, Louisa ignores his advice and common sense, instead declaring herself to be “determined” to do it. Austen condemns this wilfulness through the injury it incurs, which leaves Louisa “taken up lifeless!” Louisa’s obstinacy is contrasted with the steady-mind and common sense of Anne, who immediately proves her “strength and zeal and thought” in attending to the crisis. Anne’s actions prove to Wentworth that there is “no one more capable” than she, prompting him to reconsider his previous judgement of her character. Through this episode, Austen illustrates that ultimately common sense is of far greater importance than determination in guiding one’s behaviour. Furthermore, by the end of the novel Wentworth comes to realise that his “resentment” and anger for Anne’s actions was pure folly and kept him from recognising her true worth. Anne articulates Austen’s view that her decision to forego her relationship with Wentworth and submit to Lady Russell’s advice was “right”, as she was “yielding to duty”, honouring the wishes of her family and those of her late mother, represented in Lady Russell. Through the contrast created between Anne and more resolute characters such as Louisa, Austen suggests that being persuaded for morally sound reasons and only exhibiting determination tempered by common sense is of paramount importance.
Depicting the gradual emergence of a middle class in England, Austen’s novel contrasts members of society who cling rigidly to social convention, with those less concerned with elegant and ‘proper’ behaviour. Anne’s home at Kellynch Hall reflects the attitudes and social position of her family in its grandeur and representation of strict social hierarchy, “presided over” by Elizabeth as the Lady of the house. However, Anne’s visit to the home of the Musgroves at Uppercross leads her to discover that “a removal from one set of people to another” often results in a “total change of conversation, opinion and idea.” Unconcerned with the intricacies of etiquette, the Musgroves are full of laughter and warmth and their open-heartedness is refreshing to Anne, illustrating Austen’s endorsement of their more frivolous behaviour in contrast with rigidity. Through Louisa and Henrietta’s frustration at Mary’s constant insistence that “Mrs Musgrove give her the precedence that was her due”, Austen emphasises the restrictiveness of being too concerned with notions of social rank. Austen underscores her support for more progressive behaviour through Anne’s admiration of Admiral Croft. Despite not conforming to traditional standards of social position, as a ‘self-made’ man, Admiral Croft’s “goodness of heart and simplicity of character” are irresistible to Anne, illustrating Austen’s suggestion that behaving caringly towards others is more important than social position or traditional notions of respectability. Austen also condemns behaviour based purely upon the desire to maintain one’s social position through the character of Elizabeth, whom Anne feels to be “repulsive and unsisterly”. Anne is “disappointed” in Elizabeth’s behaviour in Bath, particularly her desperation to renew the Elliots’ connection with the Dalrymples, social ambition which Anne finds abhorrent and wishes, just once, that her family had “more pride”. By depicting the Dalrymples as completely undeserving of the Elliots’ admiration, Austen positions the reader to view esteem for those of high rank as a poor foundation for any friendship. By denouncing the actions of characters whose behaviour is based purely upon social convention, Austen suggests that goodness of character and light-heartedness is always preferable to rigidity.
Austen’s Persuasion suggests not only proper standards of behaviour, but also that it is of paramount importance that actions stem from selfless motivations, rather than greed or vanity. Through Anne’s revelation of her true worth during the crisis of Louisa’s accident in Lyme, Austen emphasises the positive consequences of acting selflessly. Despite her love for Wentworth and belief in his attachment to Louisa, Anne takes decisive action in the interests of Louisa’s recovery and even offers to stay in Lyme and “attend to [her] with a zeal above the common claim of regard.” While this doesn’t eventuate, Anne’s kind actions and their positive impact upon her relationship with Wentworth demonstrate Austen’s strong endorsement of selfless behaviour. Furthermore, Anne’s decision to visit her old school friend Mrs Smith, who has been thrown into poor social standing and poverty by ill-fortune and is derided by Sir Walter as merely “a poor widow”, is a charitable act that also results in considerable reward. Undeterred by the conceit of her family, after several visits to Mrs Smith, Anne learns of Mr Elliot’s truly “cold-blooded” and cruel nature. Mrs Smith informs Anne of Mr Elliot’s greed and designs upon the Elliot estate, which he planned to destroy, as well as his role in bringing herself and her late husband into financial ruin. Through her kindness to Mrs Smith, Anne avoids “the misery which must have followed” marrying Mr Elliot, illustrating Austen’s view of the importance of selfless behaviour. Almost the antithesis of Anne, William Elliot’s duplicitous behaviour is condemned by Austen primarily for its self-seeking motivations. The revelation of Mr Elliot’s desire to bring the Kellynch estate to “the hammer” for his own profit and lack of compassion in abandoning Mrs Smith following the death of her husband emphasises the self-interest that dominates his character. However by having his plan to marry Anne foiled by Mrs Smith and Anne’s attachment to Wentworth, Austen underscores the notion that actions with impure motivations are never rewarded with success. Positioning the reader to view the radical difference between Mr Elliot’s apparent nature and his truly selfish motivations as abhorrent, Austen suggests that individuals should be guided by selflessness and openness of character.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion not only details the romance between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, but also suggests standards of behaviour which should be aspired to. Through the many virtues of her heroine, Austen emphasises the importance of modesty and restraint and condemns conceit and a fixation upon superficial qualities. Furthermore, through Anne’s perceptions of the individuals around her, Austen positions the reader to condemn those who cling rigidly to social convention at the expense of being warm-hearted and caring. Austen also suggests that being firm in nature to the point of obstinacy can have damaging consequences and that it is wise to be open to the persuasion of others, provided they have sound motivations. Ultimately, Austen endorses actions that have kind and selfless motivations and subsequently condemns those who act out of greed and selfishness.