A Discussion of the Romantic Element in Austen’s Persuasion

July 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

“[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 dénouement: “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.

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