Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In Good Company: Thoughts on Persuasion

Some way into Jane Austen's Persuasion, heroine Anne Elliot is deeply distressed when she overhears a conversation between her former fiancé, Captain Wentworth, and the girl he has been flirting with, which makes it clear that Wentworth considers Anne weak-willed, and holds her in disdain for breaking off their engagement eight years ago, when he was a penniless lieutenant with no prospects, on the advice of her mentor Lady Russell.  Mind churning, Anne is glad when the three are joined by the rest of their group, thinking that "Her spirit wanted the solitude and silence which only numbers could give."  That line seems to me to sum up Anne, and indeed the whole of Persuasion, perfectly.  Anne Elliot is exactly the sort of person who is always most alone in a crowd.

Persuasion is an odd entry in Austen's bibliography.  Her last novel, it is the most sober of the six, with very little of the sharp, acidic humor that characterizes most of her writing.  In other Austen novels, characters like Anne's vain father Sir Walter, whose chief enjoyment is reading and rereading his family's entry in the Baronetage, and her sisters, proud Elizabeth and self-pitying Mary, would be figures of, admittedly quite barbed, fun.  In Persuasion, they are grotesques, and their ridiculousness is more often used to evoke horror rather than humor--that the petty concerns and selfish passions of these worthless people should proscribe and direct nearly every decision in Anne's life.  Persuasion is also the most blatantly romantic of Austen's novels.  Its plot is a straightforward Cinderella story--an unappreciated but superior young woman longs for a prince to whisk her away from her unhappy life, and then he does--and the terms in which it is related are earnest and heartfelt.  "You pierce my soul," Captain Wentworth writes Anne at the end of the novel.  The same writer who in her other novels could never seem to write a confession of love without either stepping away ("Elizabeth ... immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change ... as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.") or poking fun ("exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire."), and usually both, here gives us such protestations as "I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago.  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you."

What's most unusual about Persuasion, however, is that unlike all of Austen's other novels it doesn't revolve around the protagonist's growth.  Anne Elliot, who is unique among Austen's heroines for being a woman rather than a girl, is a finished person, and one that Austen quite obviously finds admirable.  There is in Persuasion none of the not-so-gentle authorial poking and prodding that Fanny Price--probably the Austen heroine who comes closest to Anne's mixture of self-possession, selflessness, and moral rectitude--endures in her own novel, because Anne has none of Fanny's flaws.  She's mature and confident enough to know her own worth and can hold her ground when it really matters.  Neither does Captain Wentworth undergo a Mr. Darcy-like transformation, though one might very well be in order given that he spends the first two thirds of the book coldly ignoring Anne, insulting her to her face, and flirting with another woman in front of her (and in the process leading that woman on).  Most of this is inadvertent or unwitting, but that's not usually an excuse for an Austen hero.  Persuasion, however, keeps making excuses for, and trying to downplay, Wentworth's behavior, and his journey is mostly about letting go of his anger towards Anne and realizing that he still loves her.  Even this revelation isn't the source of the novel's tension.  There's never much doubt that, if they can only keep from attaching themselves to anyone else (never a great temptation), Anne and Wentworth's reunion will happen--"We are not boy and girl," Anne thinks, "to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment's inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness."

What Persuasion is actually about is Anne's search for a place, a group, in which she no longer has to feel alone.  In one of the novel's most famous exchanges, Anne's cousin Mr. Elliot asks her what her idea of good company is.  Upon hearing Anne's requirements of "clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation," he laughingly replies that "that is not good company, that is the best."  But the best company is exactly what Anne, who is terribly lonely, terribly unappreciated, and terribly under-stimulated, is looking for, and Persuasion is made up of set pieces in which she moves from one social group to another (each time observing how completely the social mores and priorities change, how what seemed vital in one setting becomes a trifle in another), looking for that perfect fit.  She doesn't find it in her father's cold, unloving house, where family pride trumps manners and propriety, nor among her brother-in-law's family, the Musgroves, who though warmly appreciative of her are not on her intellectual level, nor in the stuffy drawing rooms in Bath, where the gossipy, fashion-obsessed chatter rises to a deafening din.  Anne finds her place among the retired officers of the British Navy. 

Persuasion is a book-long paean to the navy, whose officers are described as friendly, courtly, virtuous, loyal, and intelligent.  Anne is struck by these qualities in Captain Wentworth and his brother-in-law Admiral Croft, but upon falling into a whole set of former officers at Lyme, she feels "such a bewitching charm in a degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display, that Anne felt her spirits not likely to be benefited by an increasing acquaintance among [Captain Wentworth's] fellow officers.  "These would all have been my friends," was her thought".  Of course, Anne can't enter the society of the navy on her own power.  It's her reconciliation with and marriage to Wentworth that achieve this, and so the novel's central romance is actually a means to the end of finally placing Anne in that best company she's been longing for, of finally ending her loneliness.

There are two points that mar my enjoyment of Anne's journey from loneliness to the society of her peers.  The first is that, whether intentionally or not, this journey is also one in which Anne rejects relationships with women--which dominate the circles she moves in in her father's house, among the Musgroves, and in Bath--in favor of those with men.  Sisterhood, whether literal or figurative, is never an unalloyed good in Austen's novels.  Even in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, in which the heroines' relationships with women are often deeper and more significant than even the driving romance, there are negative examples of sisterhood--Lydia, Kitty, and Mary Bennet, or Lucy and Anne Steele--and in novels like Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey positive relationships between women are often drowned out by toxic ones.  In Persuasion, however, there is not a single example of positive, nurturing female friendship, and most of the female characters other than Anne are deeply flawed.  There are wicked, selfish women in the novel--Elizabeth, Mrs. Clay--and foolish ones--Mary and the entire Musgrove tribe--but even those women Anne thinks highly of turn out to be unsuitable as friends and confidantes. 

Lady Russell is the most obvious example--the whole of Persuasion is concerned with Anne establishing firm boundaries between herself and the woman who has been like a mother to her, and whose influence over her she now views as a source of harm.  Lady Russell's attempts to exert a similar influence on Anne in the second half of the novel, by persuading her to marry Mr. Elliot, are met with steely, unbending refusal, as well as a subtle weakening of Anne's regard for her mentor for failing to doubt Mr. Elliot's intentions as she does.  Mrs. Smith, with whom Anne appears to have struck a friendship of equals, and who seems to be acting as Anne's friend when she provides her with concrete proof that Mr. Elliot is a cad, is actually one of the most designing characters in the novel.  Even knowing Mr. Elliot's character, she encourages Anne to marry him in the hopes of advancing her own interests through their marriage, and only reveals the truth once it's clear that she has nothing to gain from lying.  Given her dire straits, it's hard to blame her for grasping at any available straw, but she's hardly a moral character or a good friend.  The only truly admirable female characters in the novel are the ones Anne sees from a distance, from whom she is separated from by the lack of an entry pass into their world--the navy wives, Mrs. Harville and Mrs. Croft (the latter may very well be the coolest female character in an Austen novel--she has sailed as far as the East Indies with her husband, and calmly takes the reins from him when they're out driving in their carriage).  It is, however, significant that even in the absence of that pass Anne manages to strike up an intimacy with a navy man, Captain Benwick (who may be the only character in the novel she considers an intellectual equal), and that the most open, honest and emotional conversation she has with any character in the novel is with another naval officer, Captain Harville.

My second issue with Persuasion is with Anne herself, and with the fact that, at some point over the course of the novel, her loneliness comes to seem less like a predicament and more like a choice.  Anne is, as I've said, a Cinderella heroine, someone who is put-upon and unappreciated.  But Anne is no Fanny Price, an emotionally battered, financially dependent, mousy person who probably can't bring herself to speak out against her mistreatment.  Neither is she Elinor Dashwood, who suffers silently until she's dealt one blow too many and then explodes with anger and frustration.  It's true that her position as a single woman in Regency England means that the choices available to Anne are not so much broader than the ones available to Fanny.  She can't just pick up and leave a setting that doesn't suit her, but I'm not sure that she wants to.  I think that Persuasion wants us to think of Anne as saintly, someone who can put up with her father's vanity, her sisters' pride or dependence, her in-laws' silliness, without losing her patience or composure, but the superiority with which Anne views almost everyone she encounters in the novel belies this approach.  There is something off-putting about being the sort of person who spends their life believing themselves to be superior to everyone else and detaching themselves from their surroundings because of that belief, even if it is entirely justified.  It smacks of not trying hard enough to find one's own level.  Anne seems to enjoy being the smartest person in the room, the one who sees and silently laughs at everyone else's foibles and weaknesses, a little too much, and the novel lets her get away with this.

We are enjoined, of course, from mistaking characters for their author, and lord knows that Jane Austen has suffered from this fallacious tendency far more than most, but it's impossible to know more than a little of her life and not wonder just how much of Austen, or of her idealized image of herself, there is in Anne.  It's easy to imagine Austen as the smartest person in the room, as someone whose superiority over others was a source of both pleasure and loneliness.  Is this why Anne is missing the flaws that makes Austen's other heroines so human and so real?  Is this why she's inhumanly saintly where a real person in her position would be just a little bit wicked?  I'm dipping my toes in forbidden waters and so I'll stop, but whether or not I'm on the right track, the fact remains that there's something not quite right about Anne Elliot, something that stops Persuasion, despite being one of Austen's finest technical achievements, and one of the most romantic stories I've ever read (I swoon at Captain Wentworth's letter.  Every time), from quite working.  In the novel's penultimate chapter, Anne glides through her father's house in Bath, rapturously waiting for Captain Wentworth to formally ask for her hand in marriage, benevolently observing the characters who have imposed on her throughout the novel: "Mr. Elliot was there; she avoided, but she could pity him. The Wallises -- she had amusement in understanding them. Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret -- they would soon be innoxious cousins to her. She cared not for Mrs. Clay, and had nothing to blush for in the public manners of her father and sister."  Ignoring them, she finds a quiet corner, and talks about the past with Captain Wentworth.  It's hard not to think that, instead of finally finding her good company, Anne has found someone with whom she can feel superior, someone to be alone in a crowd with.

23 comments:

svpow said...

Thanks for this, Abigail. I've long found Persuasion to be among my least favourite of Jane Austen's novels, partly because of the feeling that so little actually _happens_. But I'm going to try it again in light of your thoughts, and hopefully I'll have a better handle on Anne this time.

By the way, If you were interested in writing it, I'd love to see an article by you on how much you have, or haven't come to terms with the Keira Knightley P&P. Having now watched it many times, I am charmed despite its flaws; I wonder whether you've been equally succeptable?

Kaffee Beast said...

Thank you for this. I'm always happy to discuss anything about Jane Austen, and I've always liked "Persuasion." Although I'd never considered Anne as lost until she finds Navy society, I think you are right in your assessment. Some of Anne's best characteristics are revealed with Cpt Benwick. I look fwd to rereading "Persuasion" with this perspective in mind.

I would also agree with you that "Persuasion" is mostly about Cpt Wentworth's change from resentment and pain back to renewal of his love for Anne. The novel works best for me when the steps of Wentworth's changes are delineated clearly. The scene you mention, where Anne overhears Louisa Musgrove explaining to Wentworth that Anne refused Charles Musgrove on the advice of Lady Russell, is the most problematic for me. I never understand why Austen made the choice to stick Lady Russell in there. We know that Anne has come to regret following Lady Russell's advice about refusing Wentworth. We know that Anne's character would lead her to refuse Charles because she didn't love him and would never belong with him. I want Anne to have refused Charles due to her own judgement, and I want Wentworth to hear at this moment that Anne went against Lady Russell's advice, indicating to him how Anne has changed. Every time I read the book I expect the scene to play out according to my order, as if I'd misread the scene each time before. Critically, Wentworth's behavior toward Anne changes after this moment, as if he heard the scene the way I've described it! After Louisa's speech Wentworth attends to Anne and hands her up into his sister's carriage for the ride home, one of the novel's many romantic moments.

Perhaps, as you say, the open romanticism in "Persuasion" is the reason I like it so much. When you quote Austen's pitiful moments of romance-resolution in her other novels you leave out Emma's acceptance of Mr. Knightley, the most disappointing let-down in romance-writing history. When Mr. Knightley proclaims his love, what does Emma say? "Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does." Ack. "Persuasion"'s open-hearted details make it so enjoyable.

Perhaps each Austen novel suits a certain emotion. "Emma" is one of the easiest to reread because it's emotions are met every day. "Mansfield Park" is one of the most unpleasant to read because it's dark view of society is so depressing. "Persuasion," then, is appropriately enjoyed only occasionally. It's romanticism, and loneliness, are not to be experienced regularly.

Anonymous said...

I fail to understand how the book can be simultaneously all about Anne's search for "the best company," and yet show her "not trying hard enough to find one's own level." Either can be true; both cannot. I've always read "Persuasion" as being about the reawakening of Wentworth's love, and Anne's hope. At the beginning of the book, she has been too depressed and confined to seek out new possibilities for her life, but once the family is finally jarred from its house and she is out in the world, she begins searching in earnest -- and, appealingly, her ability to imagine a better and more vital life for herself reawakens before her hopes of reuniting with Wentworth.

James said...

It's great to read your assessment of Persuasion, an underrated entry in Austen's canon, but I have to disagree a bit with your take on Anne. I don't read her as being nearly as smug in her superiority as you seem to; I instead go very much along with the above comment that calls her depressed, unhappy in her isolation. I'd have to do a bit of digging through the text to support this assertion, of course, which I'm too lazy to undertake now.

You say "Anne seems to enjoy being the smartest person in the room, the one who sees and silently laughs at everyone else's foibles and weaknesses, a little too much, and the novel lets her get away with this." This reminded me very much of a similar line in the movie "Broadcast News," when Holly Hunter's character is sarcastically admonished, "It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room." and she earnestly replies, "No, it's awful."

MJS said...

Insightful as always, and I'm intrigued by this view of Anne, who has always struck me as Austen's final attempt at autobiography. I know, I know, this is folly - but the point remains, that there is something about Anne Elliott that smells like vindication. And the fact that Persuasion is undoubtedly the most romantic of Austen's novels lends credence to the idea that she was writing Anne as though experiencing her life, instead of commenting on it as she had with her other heroines.

I can't help but read Persuasion and feel the finality. There's a sense of adulthood that permeates it, so much so that when I was younger I couldn't tolerate it. I wanted the relative joviality of the other novels; Anne I couldn't stand until I had tasted some of her lonely experience, or imagine that I had.

I wonder, too, if Anne Elliott and a pre-Collins Charlotte Lucas aren't kindred spirits, if Charlotte is just the cynical version of Anne.

Now I want to reread Persuasion. Never a bad thing, inspiring a Jane Austen reread!

mariagoner said...

It's almost sad how thrilled I was to come into your journal and see another post on Austen! I know you primarily write about science fiction and contemporary fiction but I adore hearing your thoughts about older works of art. I actually may have clapped my hands at seeing this post up!

Additionally, I really enjoyed that point you made about Anne's superiority to pretty much everyone else in Jane Austen's oeuvre. Like you said, even Fanny Price gets mocked (albeit gently) by Austen in her role as narrator. The closest Anne gets to a fault is when she admits that she takes some pleasure at seeing Wentworth realize that her "indecisiveness" might be better than Louisa's hastiness after Louisa's fault-- and even then, she backtracks hastily.

On the other hand, I do feel that Anne gets saved from insipidity because the people around her truly *are* so utterly self-serving and wretched and unable to comprehend her-- and her circumstances at the beginning of the story (losing her bloom, having to deal with losing her home) make her captive to her family and their ridiculous ways.

It really does seem that the more morally 'correct' an Austen heroine is, the more pitiable and long-suffering she must be to counterbalance. And following your thoughts on Anne being a bit of an expy of Austen herself, Anne's concern of losing her youthful 'bloom' and being trapped in insipid company seem likely to echo Austen's own...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

svpow:

I wrote about Knightley Pride and Prejudice around the time it came out. You can find that post here. I'm afraid I wasn't very impressed - it struck me as an attempt to pour Austen's story into a Wuthering Heights-type mold.

Kaffee Beast:

I think your reading of the conversation between Captain Wentworth and Louisa is wrong. Louisa says that "papa and mamma always think it was her great friend Lady Russell's doing, that [Anne refused Charles]. They think Charles might not be learned and bookish enough to please Lady Russell, and that, therefore, she persuaded Anne to refuse him." But in chapter 3, when the facts of Charles Musgrove's proposal are related, we're told that

"She had been solicited, when about two-and-twenty, to change her name by the young man who not long afterwards found a more willing mind in her younger sister: and Lady Russell had lamented her refusal; for Charles Musgrove was the eldest son of a man whose landed property and general importance were second in that country only to Sir Walter's, and of good character and appearance; and however Lady Russell might have asked yet for something more, while Anne was nineteen she would have rejoiced to see her at twenty-two so respectably removed from the partialities and injustice of her father's house, and settled so permanently near herself. But in this case Anne had left nothing for advice to do;"

As you say, Captain Wentworth hears Louisa's version of the story, and we know that later, once he realizes that he is still in love with Anne, he takes courage from the knowledge that she'd refused Charles Musgrove: "I knew to a certainty that you had refused one man, at least, of better pretensions than myself; and I could not help often saying, 'Was this for me?'" That could be the reason that he's more courtly towards Anne after that conversation, though it isn't the first time that he comes to her aid in Uppercross - he rescues her from her nephew several chapters earlier.

Anon.:

I fail to understand how the book can be simultaneously all about Anne's search for "the best company," and yet show her "not trying hard enough to find one's own level."

Perhaps I shouldn't have used the word 'search,' then, because none of Anne's changes of scene are self-motivated. She's moved about by other people's choices. The novel's plot is kickstarted by Sir Walter having to rent out Kellynch because of his inability to live within his means, Anne stays in Uppercross because Elizabeth and Mary decide between them that she should nurse and keep Mary company, the trip to Lyme is Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove's idea, and Bath is where Sir Walter and Elizabeth have moved to.

I do agree that there's a process of awakening for Anne over the course of the novel - it's most prominently noted in the improvement of her health and appearance - but it's the result of circumstances outside of Anne's control.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

James:

I instead go very much along with the above comment that calls her depressed, unhappy in her isolation

Unhappy, yes, but depressed, especially in the sense that we use that word today, I think not. Anne's reserves of patience and fortitude are much too deep for someone in the grips of depression.

This reminded me very much of a similar line in the movie "Broadcast News," when Holly Hunter's character is sarcastically admonished, "It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room." and she earnestly replies, "No, it's awful."

I think my point is that for Anne, and possibly for Austen as well, it's both.

MJS:

I can't help but read Persuasion and feel the finality.

What strikes me is that the book was written in 1816, only a year before Austen died and at a time when she was already beginning to feel the effects of the illness that would kill her.

An interesting observation about Charlotte Lucas, whom I've come to think of a sort of sinister, shadowy figure that dogs Pride and Prejudice and indeed all of Austen's novels. It's hard to imagine Anne Elliot succumbing to that cynicism - she's written to be above those sentiments - but I suppose it's not impossible.

mariagoner:

I do feel that Anne gets saved from insipidity because the people around her truly *are* so utterly self-serving and wretched and unable to comprehend her

That, and the fact that she does have a sense of humor about herself - when she meets Captain Benwick, for example, she earnestly implores him to put the past behind him and embrace life, then observes the irony of giving that kind of advice to someone else when she's been so bad at following it herself.

communicator said...

I do think it is interesting that Persuasion was written as Jane Austen became terminally ill, because I see it as a repudiation of illness and decline. In Mansfield Park there was a suggestion that vitality was not quite proper, and that weakness and insipidity were almost equivalent to fastidiousness and good breeding.

As Austen struggles with her own illness she magnificently rejects this tempting vision. Anne is sinking into anaemic decline but through the course of the book she shakes it off and becomes full-blooded.

zumleben said...

Persuasion is my favorite entry of the Austen canon.

As you noticed, it further sharpens Austen's critique of 'sisterhood.'

It's also one of the few Austen stories where I don't wind up feeling more than a little sorry for the girl's roped-in beau at the end.

Foxessa said...

I cannot agree with your reading of Anne Eliot's character as enjoying being the smartest person in the room. I have read this novel countless times, at all stages of my life experience, and never ever got an inkling of that reading. And she is dependent, without independent financial means. What will happen when her father dies -- if she hasn't married? She will have to live, likely, with the Musgroves.

What you are reading as a flaw in in her character may be that condition of the novel itself, as unfinished, when Austen died. There hadn't been an opportunity for the last finishing touches, the corrections, the additions, the deletions.

Love, C.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Foxessa:

That Anne is a dependent is clearly important, and I don't mean to imply that she has chosen to stay with her inferiors or indeed that she has that choice. But as I say in the post, she isn't as downtrodden as Fanny Price or as frustrated as Elinor Dashwood, which leaves only two ways to read her calm acceptance of her situation as her family's unappreciated caretaker - either she's a saint, or there's a part of her that likes that position. Which, to be honest, I think is only to be expected. How could someone - especially someone who has no means of expressing their intelligence or accomplishments - help developing a dependence on other people's dependence on them, on their superiority to others?

I'm wary of assuming that Persuasion is an incomplete work. Austen finished the novel in August 1816, and at the time of her death, nearly a year later, had already started and been forced by illness to abandon another novel, Sanditon.

ibmiller said...

Fascinating reading against the grain! I've never thought to read Anne this way before - though it may well add an interesting perspective to Austen's comment that "pictures of perfection make me sick & wicked" (probably a paraphrase), and that Anne is "almost too good for me." However, I tend to think that Anne is intended as an admirable, likable character.

I tend to think Persuasion is indeed at least partly unfinished, but mostly unrelated to Anne. My reasons for feeling a lack are in the characterization of Lady Russell, who I believe was intended to be more sympathetic, and various structural elements which indicate there were going to be a third volume with at least one major event. However, the fact that there is Sanditon after Persuasion was at the very least set aside is a good point.

I am a bit confused as to your characterizing Elinor Dashwood as someone who explodes in anger and frustration - Emma Thompson's Elinor certain does this, but it's actually one of the reasons I find her portrayal disappointing, for all its skill and depth. I don't see Elinor every exploding - she does feel more than she thought she felt, but her reaction in the text seems to be more along the lines of turning very white or running out the room and crying.

Foxessa said...

Part of Anne's care taking is that she cares deeply for their home, the estate, and the people dependent upon it for their living. She is living up to her mother's memory, whom Anne evidently resembles greatly in character, if not, perhaps? in physical features?, and whose memory Anne' loves tenderly. This is one of the reasons Lady Russell so cares for Anne. She loved Anne's mother and she loves her mother in Anne.

Austen had written at least one other ending to Persuasion, btw, in which things didn't end so happily as they do in our, now, canon version. This last chapter was also 'finished' by someone else -- I don't recollect exactly at the moment -- but it wasn't really finished, as we think of finished.

From my own novel writing experience, I know I've often finished the last chapter after I turned in the ms. Rewrote it a great deal after that.

I still don't see Anne as seeing herself as self-sacrificing or the smartest person in the room.

Love, C.

SW said...

I've been waiting for you to write about Persuasion, my favorite Austen novel. Anne is the Austen heroine I most identify with--I'd like to be Lizzie, but really I'm Anne, who does the dutiful thing, but secretly harbors less than generous thoughts about the ones she's doing it for. She's a very admirable, very likable character, but not a perfect one.

The Rush Blog said...

Anne Elliot is as downtrodden as Fanny Price or Elinor Dashwood. However, a good of this behavior stemmed from Anne's own tendency to allow others - especially Lady Russell - to exert influence upon her. Because of this tendency, marital happiness with Fredrick Wentworth eluded Anne for years. I would not be surprised if this had emotionally affected her.

Only when she finally learned to think for herself - as she did in Bath when she disregarded her father's wants and decided to visit her old friend, Mrs. Smith; and when she disregarded Lady Russell's attempts to persuade her to consider William Elliot as a future husband - did Anne grow as an individual.

For me, the main problem with "PERSUASION" was the character of William Elliot. I found it unnecessary for Austen to make him another member of her gallery of rogues. This did not exactly make him an effective rival against Wentworth for Anne's affections and hand in marriage.

Anonymous said...

I've never forgotten this post, because I've never gotten over my disappointment at seeing you condemn a woman as arrogant for the crime of simply admitting her own intelligence. Anne is demonstrably clever and quick-witted; many of the people around her demonstrably are not. She observes this. Because she does not apologize for it, you condemn her. I mean, pop culture loves to tear women down for no greater crime, but my error was apparently in expecting better from you.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm sorry that this post upset you, but I don't think that your reading of it is accurate. I'm not tearing Anne down or even condemning her - I'm criticizing her. And my problem with her is not that she admits her intelligence, but that on some level it seems to me that she prefers to be the big fish in the small pond.

JulieG said...

I've only just found your blog and am really enjoying reading your posts on Austen. What you said about Persuasion being the most harsh on the idea of sisterhood makes me wonder. When young, Austen's sister Cassandra's fiance died, and Cassandra kind of hurried into a widowhood - wearing drab clothes, sitting to the side at dances, etc. And Austen stuck like glue to her, especially after Lefroy left. I wonder if by later in her life (and when Persuasion was written she was living in a house with her mum, sister and another female friend) she was simply tired of non-stop female company. It's not as though many women then had the chance for real friendship with a man, but they usually had more variety in their company at least.

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog and have really been enjoying poking around in its archives.
I'm having a little trouble understanding the point in this essay though - these interpretations of Anne seem to be two parts to a whole human. The quote about her inner thoughts at the end is quoted like an indictment, but there really is nothing like getting out from under the thumb of other people. A little "Sayonara b*tches!" seems like a pretty normal reaction, not an example of extreme smugness. It doesn't matter if she knows these people mean well for her, or the times they crush her are because of faults not intention, it's hard not to have a little resentment at being held to those whims. It's part of living in close quarters. Should she not have felt relief or vindication? I'm having a hard time thinking of any other reaction any personality could have had.
Also, if she really enjoyed being the big fish in the small pond, then it would have been a very different novel. Someone like that lowballs their company, so she wouldn't have stayed true to her heart without expectations of reward, but would have gone on to marry someone she can push around and then lord it over anyone she could. If she truly enjoyed her predicament, why would she pursue an escape when she was placed near that opportunity? It's a really long leap between knowing she's the smartest person in the room and being smug about it. I feel like it's a little unfair to criticize her for seeing these vain, grasping people she's surrounded by as anything other than they are. To forgive them would be saintly, but that would also be insufferable and...smug.
I chalked up the inordinate amount of awful people around Anne to mechanics rather than Anne not trying to find her level. As you said, she doesn't really have a choice in matters like where she is or who she associates with. The novel is about persuasion, it would be interesting to have a positive mentor or friend whose persuasions help Anne, but it would dilute that angle of the story quite a bit.
-ck (sorry for the anon, don't have a blogspot account)

nanowrimo said...

Having recently read Persuasion for what must have been the twentieth time, my obsessive nature took over, relegating me to hunt unabashedly through the internet to further feed my imagination on the stories of Anne Elliot and her world. Thereby bringing me here, to this post.
Though I'm constantly picking a new favorite Austen novel (being heavily dependent on which one I've read last), Persuasion, and Anne Elliot in particular, have always held a special place in my heart. Perhaps it is the heavily romantic undertones which I love, but I've also held up Anne, Elinor Dashwood, and Eleanor Tilney as the Austen heroines I would most like to become. I admire their intelligence, empathy, and forbearance. Or perhaps as Austen would put it, their "elegance of mind, principle of judgement, and warmth of affection".

That having been said, your evaluation of Anne was inevitably thought-provoking and interesting. Going through the novel, I can't help but notice multiple proofs of what you've said. Anne even states that she was saved "by some feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their (Musgroves) enjoyment".

And yet, I feel that I can't stop from loving Anne. I never saw Anne as feeling happy to be smarter than other people. I always understood her as feeling safe with those she already knew. After losing her mother and then Wentworth, I think Anne was afraid of what would happen if she put herself out there again. She felt safer to keep her musings and hurt to herself, surrounding herself with people whose motives she already understood so that she would know how best to hide herself from them. Her fascination with the Navy and attraction to Wentworth is dependent on their honest and frank relationships. She longs for a similar sphere where no one judges anyone else, and acceptance is found in being true to yourself. She values Wentworth's open heart to Mr. Elliot's discerning intelligence, which belies (at least to me) the notion of her smug smartness. Anne's flaws, then, are not just yielding to persuasion, but in letting the sadness of her separation from Wentworth overpower her desire to direct her own happiness.

I do, however, agree about the inconstancy of female companionship, but I think that's a general observation that can be applied to most of Austen's novels.

I apologize for the long post, but what you said really made me re-evaluate my favorite character. It's what I love about reading Austen. There is such complexity in all her heroines that one never can stop learning from them!

Christian Rodriguez said...

Here are two examples of Anne being "real",
“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.”
― Jane Austen, Persuasion
“When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme, to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.”
I think that Anne is the contradiction to the "superior" attitude her family takes, in more ways than one. Her family feels they are of such consequence, which she doesn't, (she is upset about the house being rented out, but with good reason, her dad is a douche and had no repentance) and she chooses to visit her friend instead of social engagements. I can accept certain aspects of her wanting to feel like the smart person, but when speaking with the Cpt they talk of things they both have an interest in , reading. I am not sure why her not feigning an interest in social gatherings and things of no consequence (in her mind) like when she speaks with Lady Russell about small talk, is any superiority, its more real than other characters attempts at being in social situations they might not want to be in. Anne isn't a girl, she is a women, who at that point in her life knew and accepted what she felt her place was (and I only mean in how dismissive her family was to her and how she was mostly ignored) wow I just had a thought, maybe that is a reason she was so aloof, her family treated her poorly ?...

Christian Rodriguez said...

Here are two examples of Anne being "real",
“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.”
― Jane Austen, Persuasion
“When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme, to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.”
I think that Anne is the contradiction to the "superior" attitude her family takes, in more ways than one. Her family feels they are of such consequence, which she doesn't, (she is upset about the house being rented out, but with good reason, her dad is a douche and had no repentance) and she chooses to visit her friend instead of social engagements. I can accept certain aspects of her wanting to feel like the smart person, but when speaking with the Cpt they talk of things they both have an interest in , reading. I am not sure why her not feigning an interest in social gatherings and things of no consequence (in her mind) like when she speaks with Lady Russell about small talk, is any superiority, its more real than other characters attempts at being in social situations they might not want to be in. Anne isn't a girl, she is a women, who at that point in her life knew and accepted what she felt her place was (and I only mean in how dismissive her family was to her and how she was mostly ignored) wow I just had a thought, maybe that is a reason she was so aloof, her family treated her poorly ?...

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