The Central Theme of Love and Marriage in Jane Austen’s Persuasion
Throughout her novels, Jane Austen portrays love and marriage to be centered between the hero and heroine. By making the theme of love and marriage central and continuous, Austen displays a change in the dynamic of love taking place at the time in the surrounding society. Marriage was used primarily to gain financial stability, security, and titles in the social hierarchy; however, the Romanticism era challenged this view by making passion or romantic love a more central factor rather than the security of finances. Anne Elliot, the heroine, begins to form her own ideas about the type of marriage she desires by experiencing the various mishaps in the marriages around her, only then can she come to the conclusion of what she desires free from the persuasion of her family. Austen uses Persuasion to find a middle ground between these two contrasting ideas, infatuation and materialistic love, by depicting a love that is reciprocal, results in the shared domestic sphere, and possible with the alignment of social classes.
While Persuasion is a romance novel, some of the marriages present can be seen as “bad marriages” or completely devoid of love which is exemplified by Sir Walter who attracted his late wife because of his rank and good looks. Austen states “his good looks and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment” depicting the marriage to be anything far from romantic (Austen 10). The novel presents Sir Walter Elliot as considering “the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy” showing his attachment to Lady Elliot to be purely physical (Austen 10). While the novel does not describe their marriage as “bad”, Austen does state that Lady Elliot was “not the very happiest being in the world herself” pointing out that looks are not everything in choosing a suitable partner for marriage (Austen 10). Sir Walter’s vanity and pride become his downfall as he is forced to relocate his family to Bath after he financially ruins the family with his lavish spending. Despite not being entirely happy in her marriage, Lady Elliot was at least wealthy and comfortable with her position at Kellynch Hall. Austen begins the novel by describing the relationship between Sir Walter and Lady Elliot to show that Anne is the product of a marriage that was formed out of aesthetic interest. By showing this distinction, Anne is able to discover that this type of marriage is not what she desires for herself.
Much like her father, Elizabeth Elliot desires to marry for what can be ultimately seen as the wrong reasons and purely for materialistic gain. Elizabeth is the perfect depiction of marriage for prestige as she desires a partner who can maintain her lavish lifestyle. Similar to her father, Elizabeth’s materialism adds to the family’s need to remove themselves from Kellynch Hall and move to Bath. The novel describes her as being anxious to be married because she was “always to be presented with the date of her own birth, and see no marriage follow but that of a youngest sister” causing further anxiety in her endeavors (Austen 12). Her anxiety is narrated as “she felt her approach to the years of danger and would have rejoiced to be certain of being properly solicited by baronet-blood” because she doesn’t want to become a spinster (Austen 12). Elizabeth desires a partner who can support her lavish lifestyle and add to her prestige with a title. Similar to her father, Elizabeth is prideful and that is what keeps her from marrying so that she is the only single Elliot sister at the end of the novel. Despite being unmarried, after her mother’s death, Elizabeth becomes the mistress of Kellynch Hall in which she was “presiding and directing with a self-possession and decision which could never have given the idea of her being younger than she was” (Austen 12). Although being the current mistress of Kellynch Hall, if Sir Walter were to die, Elizabeth would be removed as mistress and Mr. Elliot would resume his position as heir. Elizabeth’s title can only be cemented by marrying someone of a higher status which is why she pursues Mr. Elliot to remain forever mistress of Kellynch Hall. Upon meeting Mr. Elliot, “every plan in his favour was confirmed” showing their potential attachment to be more of a business transaction than for love (Austen 13). Austen seems to not reward Elizabeth’s pride and materialistic interests in a marriage by having her be the only Elliot sister that is unmarried.
Louisa Musgrove is representative of the desire to marry for infatuation in her pursuit of Captain Wentworth. The novel presents Louisa as having all “the usual stock of accomplishments” and being “like thousands of other young ladies” displaying her as not being a very unique character (Austen 38). The only thing that Anne envies of the Musgrove girls is the good sisterly relationship that Henrietta and Louisa have between themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove’s desire for their daughters to be married seems to abandon all proper etiquette in doing so. The novel states that “it was a little fever of admiration; but it might, probably must, end in love with some” depicting that infatuation was common and could possibly end in marriage between people (Austen 70). Louisa’s character is easily persuaded and swayed by fancy words as exemplified by Captain Wentworth’s speech proving her deep infatuation for him. Louisa is the foil to Anne’ character as she is lively, excited, and not easily persuaded by those around her. Louisa’s failure to be persuaded seems to be a deathly quality as her refusal to listen to Captain Wentworth almost ends in her death. According to Wentworth, what happened to Louisa is what happens when women love men showing that if a woman loves a man, she exposes herself to damage. Wentworth reads it as Louisa reads it as an act of determination. After her accident, Louisa seems to be absent from the rest of the novel proving her character to be nothing of note showing that infatuation is fleeting and that her obstinacy is what damages her. Austen’s display of Louisa’s unremarkable character shows how infatuation will not always equate to marriage and finding a suitable partner.
Austen believes it is bad for a couple to be unmatched socially which is exemplified through Mrs. Clay. Additionally, Mrs. Clay’s pursuit of Sir Walter is a purely one-sided love with the interest in materialistic gain. She is a widow of low birth and despite being Mr. Shepherd’s daughter, the Elliot family lawyer, she is able to wheedle herself into the family. She is described as being “a very dangerous companion” because of the fear that Mrs. Clay will attempt to work her way into Sir Walter’s affections through manipulation (Austen 21). Anne believes Mrs. Clay to be an unsuitable match for her father and fears their attachment as Mrs. Clay comes along with the family to Bath. Despite Sir Walter’s “severe remarks” about Mrs. Clay’s deficient looks when she is not around, she was “certainly altogether well-looking, and possessed, in an acute mind and assiduous pleasing manners, infinitely more dangerous attractions” proving her to be a threat the family (Austen 33). Sir Walter is shocked to hear his daughter, Anne, visiting Mrs. Smith and comments “upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste” (Austen 128). Anne is best friends with a poor woman, Mrs. Smith, which is seen as lowly because of her social status; however, Sir Walter’s relationship with Mrs. Clay is not seen as so even though the two women share the same social status. Anne “could have said much and did long to say a little, in defence of her friend’s not very dissimilar claim to theirs” showing how there is no difference in the positions between Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Clay (Austen 128). By making Mrs. Clay not beautiful, she is not seen as a threat and able to work herself into the family and ultimately, Sir Walter’s heart through her strong wit. Through Mrs. Clay’s character, Austen depicts how although a woman may not possess the looks to attract a suitor, a woman’s wit and strength in mind can certainly be more threatening.
Often times, characters in Austen’s novels are deceptive in their attempts to gain security through marriage showing that character is more important than societal gain. Mr. Elliot is described by Mrs. Smith as “a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself” (Austen 160). While being born in a lower class and was “inferior in circumstances” he attempted to hold himself as a gentleman as to climb the social ladder with “one object in view-to make his fortune” and “was determined to make it by marriage” (Austen 161, 162). His life is the management of convenience for himself because as he wishes to become richer, he marries rich; whereas, when he wants to gain himself a title, he mends the ties with the Elliot family. Mrs. Smith comments, “when one lives in the world, a man or woman’s marrying for money is too common to stroke one as it ought” showing how prevalent this ideal was at the time (Austen 162). Similar to Mrs. Clay, Mr. Elliot desires to have wealth and titles and means to receive these through marriage. He married his wife for money and the narrator states that “his caution was spent in being secured of the real amount of her fortune, before he committed himself” showing that his attachment for her was purely a materialistic gain (Austen 163). Mrs. Smith comments that Mr. Elliot’s affections for Anne are true and that “his present attentions to your family are very sincere, quite from the heart” which is unique because Anne is nothing like her family (Austen 165). Wanting to marry Anne and loving Anne are two very different things which show that Mr. Elliot may have other motives.
Austen depicts how marriage can be an agent for social change through Mary and Charles Musgrove. She shows that options are influenced by status and class and also how marriage influences social class and status. The novel states that Mary “had merely connected herself with an old country family of respectability and large fortune, and had therefore given all the honour, and had received none” portraying how marriage can raise someone’s social status but doesn’t mean they will be respected (Austen 11). Austen also proves that character qualities are more important than status in marital happiness. The narrator says that “Charles Musgrove was civil and agreeable; in sense and temper he was undoubtedly superior to his wife” (Austen 39). Charles is a patient husband with his wife Mary’s pettiness and lack of being motherly. The narrator states that “any disposition sunk her completely” and Anne must always tend to her needs (Austen 35). Mary, because of her father’s rank, believes herself to be more important than she actually is. She considers herself to take precedence over Mrs. Musgrove because of Sir Walter’s title which shows Mary to be overly proud and snobby. While the Elliot family is concerned with titles, Mary “had acquired little artificial importance, by becoming Mrs. Charles Musgrove” showing how titles don’t necessarily correlate to being respected (Austen 11). Austen shows how marriage can be an agent of social change; however, this social change does not always bring about the respect that those higher classes contain.
The Crofts are Austen’s ultimate display of marital bliss because of their shared space in the domestic sphere and their pursuit of interests that may go against gender norms. She does not disregard the weight that social status and finances have in regard to marriage but shows that the Crofts are an example of a marriage that is successful and well-matched with their social status. Lady Russell didn’t want Anne to marry Wentworth because she believed that Anne would have been worried continually in the sailor’s marriage, but the Crofts prove that it is, in fact, the opposite. While they’re driving their gig, Mr. Croft almost hits a post but “by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself [Mrs. Croft], they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand” they passed along without anything happening to themselves (Austen 78). This seems to be a metaphor between Mr. and Mrs. Croft’s marriage and how her assistance helps the carriage drive may be how she helps the marriage steer ahead. The navy as a systemic system allows women vocational abilities that in other instances wouldn’t exist. When discussing the business of Kellynch Hall Mrs. Croft “asked more questions about the house, and terms, and taxes” showing her intelligence and how she has a better mind for business than her husband (Austen 24). The Croft’s equality in their marriage exemplifies how Anne would want her marriage to be like. Anne thinks to herself how “she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs” between the Croft’s marriage showing her desire and respect for how they get along (Austen 78). Mr. Croft gets his wife’s help to remove the mirrors out of the room in Kellynch Hall stating that “So I got Sophy to lend me a hand, and we soon shifted their quarters” (Austen 104). This is managing the home space and reconceiving it by how the home works. The wife helps to move heavy materials showing that women are more engaged. The Crofts redefine how the domestic space is supposed to be and act as a guide for Anne Elliot.
Anne uses all her encounters with other marriages to determine what kind of marriage she would want for herself free from the persuasion of her relatives. Through the matured relationship and marriage between Anne and Captain Wentworth, Austen shows what qualifications in marriage she believes to be important. These qualifications are the kind of love that is necessary for a happy marriage with the shared domestic space between partners. The reason why Anne could not marry Wentworth, originally, was because he was not of her social status. At the time, Wentworth did not have the means to support Anne as the daughter of a baronet should be supported. Through this reasoning, Austen makes a point to say that a marriage with insufficient income is doomed. While Anne was originally persuaded to not marry Wentworth, she willingly outsourced her own autonomy to someone else. It isn’t until Wentworth has a triangulated male attention on her does, he then realizes she is valuable. From Captain Wentworth’s reaction, he thinks to himself, “that man is struck with you, -and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again” showing that the body attracts other men’s interests which then generates Wentworth’s own attraction and attention (Austen 87).
Anne cedes her personal autonomy to someone else which results in her being unable to marry Wentworth. Her identity was dangerously public and persuadable believing her crime to be too contingent on other people’s wishes. She is smart, poised, decently responsive to authority, and beautiful to which every man would find attractive and desirable in a marriage partner. The novel values masculinity that is controlling and manageable, unlike Louisa Musgrove. Only when Anne and Captain Wentworth can have a deeper appreciation for their suitability for each other, can their marriage exist and thrive showing how Austen values respect for either partner to be happy in marriage. Even though Wentworth is able to rise to the social status that was needed to marry Anne before, without their mutual respect and a deeper appreciation for each other their marriage would not have been a happy one. Austen shows how a character’s status is projected onto another to influence and create matches between people for marriage.
Through each unique marriage in Persuasion, Austen depicts a variety of matches ranging from based on infatuation to materialistic love. Anne Elliot is able to maneuver through these relationships to determine what she desires for herself, free from the Elliot family’s persuasions and suitability based on class. While marriage does require financial stability to prosper, a character’s qualities are more important than class status. Austen creates a middle ground between infatuation and materialistic love to depict a reciprocal love, one including a shared domestic space to triumph over persuasions and influences based on class and wealth. Through the Croft’s marriage, Anne is able to see a marriage that is based on these factors that are conducive to a happy marriage. This example frees Anne from the constraints of her family to pursue a reciprocal love with Captain Wentworth, proving that love free from infatuation and not based on materialistic qualities is what will help a marriage thrive.
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