Jane Austen, Persuasion
I have read Persuasion for the first time many years ago, just once (not several times, like Pride and Prejudice), and what persuaded me to read it again was my recent reading of Carol Shields’s biography on Jane Austen. When I was studying English lit. in college, explaining a text through biographical elements was frowned upon: the text held keys in itself, spoke for itself, and students were not encouraged to explain a text relying on biographical elements. But since my students days are far behind, I thought it would be interesting to reread Persuasion, keeping in mind that it is the story of a second chance in love: the second chance that Austen herself never had…
In Carol Shields’s Jane Austen, I learned that Jane Austen was in love with a young man named Tom Lefroy. As she was expecting to be proposed, Lefroy simply disappeared from the scene: he was persuaded by his family to marry into a wealthier family. And that was it. He didn’t change his mind and come back for her, as Bingley came back for Jane Bennet. Neither did she get the chance to be persuaded to refuse him, live with regrets, and then happily agree to marry him eight years later, like Anne Elliot. There is not much romance in what happened to Jane Austen, not much matter for a novel either: a sad and uneventful story really (which make me think that the movie Becoming Jane, which I haven’t seen yet, must take a lot of liberties with the truth). Another proposal, by a man Austen could not love, was accepted and then refused, and that’s pretty much what her love life amounted to. So, through fiction, Austen imagined what could have been. The main subject of her novels is, of course, how to reconcile material contingencies and love. Austen doesn’t write silly romantic comedies, she is very aware of the realities of the world she lives in and doesn’t try to erase them in her fiction. Her challenge is to make love triumph despite the hard rules of society. Therefore, marrying for money is not formally condemned in Austen’s novels. As Mrs Smith, Anne Elliot’s friend says: "Oh! those things are too common. When one lives in the world, a man or woman’s marrying for money is too common to strike one as it ought."
Anne Elliot, a 27 year-old woman whose "bloom had vanished early" (and who therefore will be loved, if she will be loved, for other qualities than her beauty), lives with her father, a man who takes pride in two things in life: being a baronet and his physical appearance, and Elizabeth, a sister who encourages her father to live beyond his means. Anne also has another, married, sister, Mary Musgrove, not quite as snobbish as Elizabeth, but self-pitying and prone to hypochondria. Eight years before, Captain Frederick Wentworth, a naval officer of great ambition but uncertain prospects, proposed Anne. Although she was very much in love with him, and he with her, she refused him, persuaded by Lady Russell, a friend of the family replacing the influence of Anne’s dead mother. As it turned out, Wentworth became quite wealthy, and therefore a desirable catch, during the Napoleonic Wars. Eight years later, he is still unmarried.
Sir Elliot’s financial situation becoming very worrying, he accepts to rent his property in Kellynch to the Crofts, an admiral and his wife, and to relocate to Bath with his daughters. Mrs Croft turns out to be Wentworth’s sister, and he and Anne are soon reacquainted. While Elizabeth and Sir Elliot move to Bath, Anne stays with her "ailing" sister in Uppercross. Wentworth hardly acknowledges Anne, resentful of her past rejection, but seems very interested in Mr. Musgrove’s high-spirited two sisters: Louisa and Henrietta. If at first it is hard to know where his preference lies (occasioning the jealousy of Henrietta’s cousin Charles Hayter, until Henrietta realizes her own partiality for Wentworth has made Hayter avoid her, and she has to mark her preference for her cousin if she wants to keep him), but soon enough, Louisa is obviously the preferred one and she and Wentworth seem to be on the brink of announcing their engagement. Anne, who is still in love with him, suffers from this situation. During a vacation in Lime, while the company is visiting Wentworth’s friends Mr. and Mrs. Harville, an accident occurs: Henrietta, who, after a discussion with Wentworth (overheard by Anne), understands that he favors characters of "decision and firmness" over "persuadable tempers", wants to prove her determination by foolishly jumping from steps and be caught by Wentworth: but Wentworth fails to catch her and Louisa is severely injured, and must stay in Lime to recover. Lime is a turning point for Anne: While there, several apparently unimportant things occur, discretely changing her fate. First she attracts the attention of two young men: Captain James Benwick, a melancholic widower, and William Elliot, her own cousin, Sir Elliot’s heir and also a widower, who was supposed to marry Elizabeth Elliot years ago but chose a wealthier woman instead. Also, by keeping a cold-blooded and decisive temper when everybody else is panicking right after the accident, she becomes the one everyone relies own, a fact well noticed by Wentworth (as is William’s attraction to her).
Anne, after spending so much time away from her father and sister, must accompany Lady Russell to Bath, and finally join them. They haven’t missed her at all, and she finds in Bath a town she dislikes profoundly (as Jane Austen herself, a nature lover, disliked living in Bath. For as long as she remained there, she was unable to finish a single novel, explaining the long gap between her first novels: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and her later: Mansfield Park and Persuasion.) But while in Bath she occupies her time by visiting valuable friends like Lady Russell and Mrs. Smith, a disabled and widowed woman who was at boarding school with her. Her father and sister prefer the company of Lady Dalrymple, a cousin whose superior rank in society makes a desirable acquaintance, even though Anne doesn’t agree: "to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in turn, is but a state of half-enjoyment".
Also in Bath, William Elliot has renewed acquaintance with the Elliots. Despite his perfect manners and apparent good nature, Anne suspects William of being false. Mrs. Clay, a poor woman, friend of Elizabeth has been living with them for a while. She is the daughter of Sir Elliot’s lawyer and Anne as well as lady Russell suspect her to have designs on Sir Elliot. William Elliot, who also wants, as Sir Elliot’s only male heir, to prevent him from marrying Mrs. Clay, is as agreeable to her as he is to others. Having observed this fact, Anne suspects him of being a hypocrite. As the Crofts arrive in Bath to cure Mr. Croft’s gout, Anne learns unexpected, and very welcomed news. Louisa is engaged… not to Wentworth, but to Benwick. Benwick, who realized, when meeting Anne, that he could be interested in another woman than his dead wife, has fallen in love with recovering Louisa while reading poems to her. Anne is secretly delighted to learn that Wentworth is free. A short while after, she meets him again. She feels and has felt ever since the accident in Lime, that his behavior toward her has changed for the better, but she doesn’t know how to make him understand that her cousin William’s interest in her is one-sided. Meanwhile, she has it confirmed through her friend Mrs. Smith that William is indeed an hypocrite, interested first in money, and then in rank. This is why, the first achieved through marriage, he renewed the acquaintance with the same Elliots he snubbed before, in order to make sure he was going to remain an heir by preventing, if he could, Sir Elliot’s remarriage. However, William Elliot is sincerely in love with Anne…
Since Wentworth holds himself at a distance, certain that Anne and William are to be engaged, Anne has a conversation with Captain Harville, within Wentworth’s earshot, about the constancy of woman’s heart, the endurance of her love. Upon earring such words, Wentworth is moved to write a letter admitting his love to Anne. As it turns out, he has never ceased loving her but has been to proud to admit it to himself or to her. He has tried and failed to forget her. He has tried to appreciate other qualities in a woman, and has elected high-spirited Louisa for a while, but as he realized he didn’t care for her at all, he also realized that everybody was expecting him to propose her. Being a man of honor, he couldn’t step back. After the accident, when her life was not in danger anymore, he left, not daring to hope that the situation would resolve itself, but at least hoping to find comfort in solitude. Fortunately, the situation did miraculously resolve itself, through the intervention of Benwick, and his falling in love with Louisa and making her falling in love with him. Free again, Wentworth could follow his heart’s wish and look for Anne, but when he found her again, he was prevented to declare his love, thinking she was attached to her cousin. In the end, when all misunderstandings are cleared, they once again admit their love for each other, their feelings stronger than before. As for Wentworth, he comes to realize that what he thought was a fault in Anne, her capacity to be persuaded, is maybe a quality, as he could realize through the episode of Louisa’s accident: "he learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolutions of a collected mind".
Anne Elliot might indeed be Jane Austen’s wisest heroine: not interfering and manipulative, misjudging people like Emma, not spontaneous and therefore also prone to errors of judgment like Elizabeth Bennet, but wise in the ways of the world, very observing and able to read people’s true personalities (unlike Lady Russell, she trusted Wentworth and unlike many around her, she distrusted William Elliot), and unwilling to bear a grudge even when people, like Lady Russell, caused her pain by misjudging a situation. More than this, she maintains that "[she] was right in submitting to her (Lady Russell), and if [she] had done otherwise, [she] should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than [she] did even in giving it up, because [she] should have suffered in [her] conscience". Anne is a woman of conscience. She believes in love, but not at the price of sacrificing one’s conscience or sense of duty. If Wentworth is a man of honor, Anne is a woman of duty. Anne is the most grown-up, the most reasonable of Austen’s heroine.
Maybe it is this reasonableness that deprives Persuasion of the spark of such novels as Emma or Pride and Prejudice. The reader likes a heroine who makes mistakes, errors of judgment. As it is, Anne’s perspicacity, her capacity in being right about people deprives the novel of its suspense. We aren’t allowed to doubt and ask: will this heroine make the right choice? Will Elizabeth fall for wicked Wickham? Will Emma realize that Knightley is the one for her? Concerning Anne, we have from the beginning the certainty that she will love no one but Wentworth, because she never falters, never sways…
Though the dialogs are far from the easy banter of Pride and Prejudice, and the situations are not so amusing, there are some sources of humor: Sir Elliot and his bedroom full of mirrors, his obsession with the book of Baronetage (we know he approves of Anne’s marriage when we see him "prepare his pen with good grace for the insertion of the marriage in the volume of honour") are certainly sources of laughter. But the novel, Jane Austen’s last, is imprinted with a certain bitterness, the realization of the passing of time, and the growing necessity of compromise in life. The relationship between sisters, which in Sense and Sensibility and in Pride and Prejudice is idealized, the sister doubling as the best friend and confidante, has deteriorated. Here the sisters are estranged: one is despising while the other is needy. More than reflecting her own experiences in life (Jane’s relationship with her only sister was marked by ups and downs), Austen’s novels also show the changes occurring in society: the character of naval officer Wentworth and his social ascension shows how personal merit is starting to concurrence the rights of blood.
Less lighthearted and comic that her other novels, written in a time of illness, toward the end of her life, unrevised because she died before she could revise it, as she did with her other novels, Persuasion is not the best, but maybe the most poignant of her novels, when read in the perspective of her short life and of her own missed chance at love. Writing Persuasion allowed Jane Austen to create an alternate world where second chances exist, where old feelings come back stronger and more solid: "there they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment, more equal to act, more justified in acting." Through her fiction, Jane Austen could make her dream of true love and equality between partners come true.