In Persuasion Jane Austen looks forward to where the novel must go – and suggests a path for her successors to follow….
My last Austen essay – on my favorite Austen novel.
My laptop died about ten days ago. Luckily this came at the end of the academic term so I had finished my classes. Unluckily, this occurred at the beginning of my holiday vacation time. In the holiday rush of shopping, cooking, gatherings, etc., I lost the thread on writing of all sorts as is wont to happen this time of year. Coming as this did on the heels of the busyness of the end of the academic term, I now find myself woefully behind on writing that I have meant to do this month.
Thus it is that I find myself far nearer the end of the year as I begin this last round of essays on works I have read (or in this case re-read for perhaps the, oh, I don’t know, 15th time?). This does not reduce my pleasure in writing about Persuasion: indeed, it probably enhances it.
Yes, I am one of those people who saves the cherry on the sundae until last.
The story of Persuasion is the story of love lost – and found again. The heroine, Anne Eliot, is 27 years old – ancient for an Austen heroine (compare Catherine Moreland’s, Fanny Price’s, and Marianne Dashwood’s 17; Elinor Dashwood’s 19; Emma Woodhouse’s 21; Elizabeth Bennet’s 20). She is an unappreciated, unloved, unhappy person:
…Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way — she was only Anne.
At the age of 19 Anne breaks her engagement to naval officer Captain Frederick Wentworth upon the advice of her friend Lady Russell who sees the alliance to a “mere naval officer” as unsuitable for one of her background. Eight years later, regretful of her decision, Anne and Captain Wentworth meet again under very different circumstances; Anne’s family fortunes have declined and Captain Wentworth has returned from the Napoleonic wars a wealthy man. Moreover, though both still love each other, Wentworth has suffered bitterly – and has struggled to forgive his beloved’s rejection of him even as he has moved on with his life:
He could not forgive her – but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.
Anne has become the comforter, the solace, the friend and confidant of even those who hurt her – accidentally or purposefully. In one of Austen’s cruelest ironies, Anne finds herself the comforter of Captain Wentworth after an accident leaves the young woman he seems likely to marry seriously injured. Unbeknownst to both Anne – and the reader – Frederick Wentworth is still in love with her. In the most beautiful – and indirect – proposal scene in all of Austen, he writes Anne a letter asking her to reconsider and give him her hand. Even as she defends the constancy of women’s affections to Wentworth’s friend Captain Harville, he counters thus:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. 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. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant…. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating….
Given a second chance at happiness, Anne does not hesitate. Despite the misgivings of her family and the tacit disapproval of her misguided friend Lady Russell, Anne believes in Frederick, in herself, in love. She accepts Frederick – and happiness.
This is not the fairy tale ending of Pride and Prejudice or the didactic lesson of Emma: Frederick and Anne have been hurt by each other and have hurt each other – and have overcome this to deal with their failures and limitations and accept each other not as they once were but as they are.
Modern love – Jane Austen style.