Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” is the story of Anne Elliott, who has broken one engagement, rejected another, and is still single and pining after the man whom she would have married. Austen brings the theme of right marriage to perfection here: Nobility of heart and mind is more important than nobility of title and excess of wealth.
When asked if he read novels, philosopher Gilbert Ryle was said to have replied, “All six.” He meant, of course, the novels of the great Jane Austen. That a philosopher might identify the novel exclusively with those of the divine Miss Austen, even in jest, is not surprising. Though too many casual readers think of her novels as simply Hallmark Channel–like tales of women in empire-waist dresses and men in top hats, Austen has been identified correctly as a moral philosopher by many readers from the beginning.
Many of today’s readers, motivated by political sensitivities, think her a defective philosopher for the same reason that she has charmed other readers throughout history. Her tales are set in the somewhat narrow world of the English aristocracy and those classes just below it striving to be in it or accepted by it. Servants sometimes get speaking roles, as when Elizabeth Bennet stops with her aunt and uncle at Pemberley and hears from Mr. Darcy’s servant a vastly different account of his pride and his character than her prejudices had allowed for. But those in service and the working class are not generally the main subjects of her novels. Nor do moral questions about the nature and morality of the British Empire at home or abroad take up center stage, even if we can learn a bit about them in passing. No, her moral philosophy is practiced upon questions of class and economics with regard to family, work, and especially marriage in a smaller world.
Because she wrote in a time before the modernist dictum that fiction should show and not tell, we can hear in her tales plenty of moral wisdom delivered from the mouth of her omniscient narrators. Some of it is delivered straight up in terms of generalities, much of it in harsh, hilarious, but always humane judgments on her own characters. Like all moral philosophers, she is “judgy,” but like all great satirists she is wickedly funny. And unlike too many of today’s pseudo-moralists, she does not pick her targets on the basis of group identity. Pride and Prejudice, the best known of her works, is remarkably evenhanded in depicting dim, malicious, irresponsible, and absurd actions from the purest of aristocrats (think Lady Catherine de Bourgh), the clergy (the cringe-worthy Mr. Collins), the striving middle-class (Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bennet, Kitty, and Lydia), and the working or servant classes (Mr. Wickham, son of the late Mr. Darcy’s steward). Both men and women are equally likely to find that her pen draws blood. Younger readers, especially male ones, too often find her boring because they have not figured out just how “savage” (as today’s slang has it) she can be. Virginia Woolf wrote, “I would rather not find myself in the room alone with her.”
But if her philosophy were limited to attacks on folly, she would indeed be overpraised. What draws readers to her again and again is not just the savageness but the humanity of her vision of what true love and marriage involve: Neither money nor family connection are enough, though those might be taken into consideration, but affection that is deep and ultimately rational.
Pride and Prejudice will always be, I think, the all-time favorite of her novels. A 2003 BBC poll of the books most beloved by UK readers put it at number two behind The Lord of the Rings while a 2008 Australian poll of the “best books ever written” put it as number one. I have no wish to topple it, but if there were a number two in the Austen pantheon, I think it would be Persuasion. True, Emma has produced more movies and television series, including the delightful 1995 American adaptation, Clueless, but Persuasion is, to me, deeper and more moving.
Why? I confess that part of it has to do with the fact that my wife thinks so and has convinced me. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt and persuasion isn’t just the name of the book in question. But having taught it twice now, I find the novel satisfying in a number of areas. The first may seem shallow, but it is the shortest of the six and thus both a quicker read and easier to fit into my course on the nature of sex and gender, “Woman and Man.”
What else charms me are the autobiographical elements. The story is of Anne Elliott, 27-year-old daughter of a vain, spendthrift baronet, Sir Walter, who has broken one engagement, rejected another, and is still single and pining after the man whom she would have married. It is the only novel that has as its lead character a woman beyond the early twenties, and it has autobiographical echoes insofar as Austen herself was nearly engaged at 19 to a man of little money and never found any other suitors whom she felt worthy of acceptance. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin has called this novel her “present to herself” and “to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring.” But what is most important is the philosophy of whom to marry—always a topic for Austen but brought to perfection here.
As we begin the novel, Sir Walter and Anne’s similarly vain, spendthrift sister, Elizabeth, have been forced by their penny-pinching-less ways to let out the ancestral home, Kellynch Hall, and live somewhere else. Their lawyer (and acting real estate agent) informs the family that he has made arrangements for Admiral Croft and his wife, Sophy, to rent Kellynch Hall. Mrs. Croft, he informs them, is the sister of a Reverend Wentworth, who had been in the area some years before. Anne, we learn immediately, is interested in this fact, leaving the meeting with flushed cheeks and speaking to herself “with a gentle sigh, ‘a few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here.’”
The he in question is not the minister but another brother. At age 19 Anne had been engaged to Frederick Wentworth, a young sailor with much confidence, great love, and little money. Anne’s father and Lady Russell, a friend of the family who had served as a kind of substitute mother since Lady Elliott’s death when Anne was 14, opposed the marriage and persuaded Anne to break the engagement.
Now, Sir Walter and Elizabeth decamp to the resort town of Bath, while Anne helps get Kellynch Hall ready and then joins her younger, married sister Mary Musgrove, a neurotic narcissist and mother of two, at her home near her in-laws. There she learns that Frederick, now, a naval captain, who had gone off to sea and made his fortune in the Napoleonic Wars (25,000 pounds, or about 3 million dollars in today’s money), will be visiting shortly. When he does, the reunion is about as awkward as expected, and Mary reports that Captain Wentworth told her teenage sister-in-law, Henrietta Musgrove, that Anne was “so altered he should not have known [her] again.” Frederick is clearly still angry at, though civil to, Anne. He is free with the information that he is in the market for a wife, and the two young Musgroves, Henrietta and Louisa, or pretty much anybody between 15 and 30, are possibilities. Anybody except, in his mind, Anne, who had “used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure.” (When I taught the book this semester, I played the Toby Keith song “How Do You Like Me Now?” to capture the hurt and vengeful mood of Frederick.)
What is fascinating about this story, however, unlike Austen’s other stories, is that Anne really doesn’t need to change in this case. While she has gone over her breaking of the engagement many times in her mind and decided that she would neither do the same thing again nor advise any young woman to do so, she felt that her own actions had not shown “feebleness of character” but a real respect for the advice of Lady Russell, a sensible woman who truly loves Anne but whose main flaw is perhaps too high a regard for social rank. While Elizabeth Bennet had the prejudice to match Darcy’s pride, Anne does not really have feebleness to match Frederick’s anger. The rest of the story is really about his coming to realize that if she no longer has the fresh face of a 19-year-old, she really does have the characteristics of a woman whom he would be a fool not to pursue again.
Not that Anne doesn’t have anything to decide about Frederick. Anne’s hope that she was and is right in her affection for him grows, as is true in most human things, through events that might escape the notice of others. When visiting the Musgroves, her sister’s in-laws, at the same time as Frederick, she is witness to Mrs. Musgrove’s lament that Richard Musgrove, Mary’s departed and generally worthless brother-in-law who served as a sailor under Captain Wentworth before his early death, had not remained under his command. While some are charmed by a laugh, Anne is impressed by a stifled guffaw.
There was a momentary expression in Captain Wentworth’s face at this speech, a certain glance of his bright eye, and curl of his handsome mouth, which convinced Anne, that instead of sharing in Mrs. Musgrove’s kind wishes, as to her son, he had probably been at some pains to get rid of him; but it was too transient an indulgence of self-amusement to be detected by any who understood him less than herself; in another moment he was perfectly collected and serious; and almost instantly afterwards coming up to the sofa, on which she and Mrs. Musgrove were sitting, took a place by the latter, and entered into conversation with her, in a low voice, about her son, doing it with so much sympathy and natural grace, as shewed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent’s feelings.
The Austenian judgment machine is in high and hilarious gear as the narrator informs us that Wentworth “should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.” Yet if there is ridicule here, there is also the recognition of the high moral value of a man who can stifle the ridicule that reason itself suggests when the need is for compassion.
Captain Wentworth shows his kindness on two other occasions, offering Anne a ride in a carriage when she is exhausted and also rescuing her by physically removing one of Mary’s spoiled sons who will not stop climbing on his aunt. Captain Wentworth is, she is realizing, a man of character—in command of himself enough to observe her distress and secure her relief even if he no longer cares for her. Further, he would be the kind of father who would not indulge his children as Mary and Charles Musgrove have done.
Yet the bulk of the learning must be done by Captain Wentworth who must look past his own anger at a woman of worth. Though he has been flirting with the two Musgrove sisters and seems to be paired off with Louisa, he has been watching Anne. Directly he sees that if she is harassed by her young nephews, it is because she is the one caring for them. Indirectly he learns from the Musgroves that not only had Charles proposed to her first, but that the family had much preferred Anne to Mary. She is a woman with whom one wants to be on a day-to-day basis. As it turns out, she is also the woman whom one wants in an emergency.
When Anne joins a group of the young adults on a trip to Lyme to visit some naval colleagues, Captain Benwick and Captain Harville, the impetuous Louisa Musgrove demands against his expressed judgment that Captain Wentworth catch her as she jumps off a high wall. When she does so and hits her head, chaos breaks loose. Captain Wentworth keeps his head, but looks around at his crew—Charles, Mary, Henrietta, Captain Benwick—and wonders, “Is there no one here to help me?” As it turns out, there is. “Anne, attending with all the strength and zeal, and thought, which instinct supplied, to Henrietta, still tried, at intervals, to suggest comfort to the others, tried to quiet Mary, to animate Charles, to assuage the feelings of Captain Wentworth. Both seemed to look to her for directions.” As it happens, she has those, too: Benwick should find the surgeon since he knows the area best and Louisa should be carried to the inn. When it is established that Louisa is not in danger of death, Anne overhears Wentworth saying that the others should get back to inform the elder Musgroves but that Anne should stay with Louisa, for there is “no one so proper, so capable as Anne.” Though she does not end up staying with Louisa in Lyme, what is important is Captain Wentworth’s realization of her capabilities.
What is more, in Lyme he realizes too how others see her. He catches sight of a man giving Anne the once-over and looks at her himself with a renewed appreciation. This man turns out to be her cousin William Walter Elliott, heir of Kellynch Hall, and a man who had once disappointed Anne’s older sister Elizabeth. When Anne finally joins Elizabeth and Sir Walter in Bath, Mr. Elliott begins his pursuit of her. Captain Wentworth arrives in Bath several weeks later only to find that the talk of their circle is not only that Louisa Musgrove has now been engaged not to Wentworth but to Captain Benwick, but also what many take to be the impending engagement of Mr. Elliott and Anne.
One of the most charming scenes in the book is a debate between Captain Harville and Anne about which sex is most faithful in love. Captain Harville argues for men, citing the words of the poets about women’s fickleness and men’s devotion, while Anne declines to take such evidence seriously since these were written mostly by men. Women, she asserts, are better at “loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.” This debate is held while a silent Wentworth sits in a corner writing a letter but listening all the same. When he leaves the room, she realizes another letter sits addressed to her, asking if his own hope is gone: “Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”
She walks back to her own new home in Bath with Charles Musgrove and encounters Wentworth, whom Charles engages to walk Anne the rest of the way while he goes to see a gun being sold. Like Elizabeth and Darcy, who had “the talk” while walking, Frederick and Anne now explain themselves. He explains how he learned both to do her “justice” and “understand himself”; both how he discerned the “perfect excellence of [her] mind” and also the “resolution” that that “collected mind” could possess. When he finally acknowledged this, he could drop “the pride, the folly, the madness of resentment.”
Given Wentworth’s wealth, there is no opposition to a marriage this time. Some might object that Austen’s stories have too much of the fairy tale about them—the middle-class girls do get their wealthy princes after all! But the way she tells them, it is not the monetary riches or the societal position that are ultimately the most important thing in a husband or wife. While Anne can’t fault her younger self for being persuaded by Lady Russell not to marry the poor Frederick, a conversation between Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft (the latter of whom, with Admiral Croft, forms the healthiest and happiest marital partnership in the book) signals to the reader that the best option for young, poor couples is to get married and work through some tough times together. Further, while Wentworth may be rich, he’s not part of the aristocracy, and there is no indication that this is in the cards—nor does he care. The most important categories to evaluate when considering popping (and responding to) the question have much more to do with nobility of heart and mind than with nobility of title and excess of wealth: compassion for silly but sorrowful mothers, a present help in trouble, an excellent mind, and a resolute heart.
But the impressive bank account is helpful when convincing one’s vain, aristocratic father.
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The featured image is “In Love” (1888) by Marcus Stone (1840-1921) and is in the public domain, courtesy of WikiArt. It has been brightened for clarity.