Is Anne Elliot Jane Austen’s most adventurous heroine? This is the question Elisabeth Lenckos addresses in her guest post for “Youth and Experience.” Elisabeth is an author, editor, lecturer, and reviewer currently at work on a novel about Marian Hastings, a seafaring adventuress. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and she has taught fiction and philosophy for seventeen years.
Elisabeth’s Austen-inspired stories were selected in the Chawton House Library Short Story Competition and published in Wooing Mr. Wickham (2011) and Beguiling Miss Bennet (2015). She wrote about Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures” for my “Emma in the Snow” blog series, and when I hosted a celebration of Mansfield Park, she contributed a guest post on flattery and charm. It’s a pleasure to share her post on “Jane Austen and Adventure” with you today.
“If adventures will not befal[l] a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”
Northanger Abbey, Volume 1, Chapter 1
“I can safely say that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship.”
Persuasion, Volume 1, Chapter 8
Jane Austen and Adventure? But we think of her world as orderly and serene, a place where accidents, hazards, and events of which we have no direction—these are Dr. Johnson’s explanations for the word adventure—rarely happen! What is more, we would not want an Austen lady to suffer mishaps, tempt fate, or place her lovely self in peril, would we? On the other hand, if she doesn’t take a risk and leave the house, isn’t life bound to pass her by?
It almost passes by Emma Woodhouse, who rarely ventures beyond the borders of the Hartfield estate. By contrast, the Dashwood, Bennet, and Price ladies have no choice other than to be housebound; since money is in short supply, they travel rarely and mostly from necessity. Yet, families and friends must be visited; husbands found elsewhere if none offer in one’s village or hamlet; and, as one’s gets older, one’s health must be improved in Brighton or Bath.
Luckily for Austen’s young ladies, her world contains patronesses with a taste for adventure, such as Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey, who is keenly aware that a young lady yearns to venture “abroad” and invites Catherine Morland to Bath. Lady Russell in Persuasion neglects her duties towards Anne Elliot, but Mrs. Musgrove corrects her oversight, as she welcomes her into the family, and—so I assume—helps foot the bill for her sojourns to Lyme Regis and Bath.
Could it be that despite her quiet nature, Anne is Austen’s most adventurous principal heroine, as well as—we must look to her future to answer that question—the one who travels more than any other? In the brief space of the novel that tells her story, Anne is transported from Kellynch Hall to her sister’s estate, and hence to Lyme Regis and to Bath; but more importantly, there is the possibility that after her marriage to Captain Wentworth, she will accompany him on his ocean voyages.
Persuasion concludes with a vision of Anne’s married life, a passage that Roger Michell, in his cinematic adaptation of the novel, translates into the romantic image of Anne sailing into the sunset with Frederick Wentworth. Anne has a forerunner: Mrs. Croft, the wife of Admiral Croft, who rents Kellynch Hall from her father. During a dinner at the Musgroves’, Mrs. Croft enthuses about traveling the seas with her husband—the statement I quote above is hers. She reports never feeling sick in their fifteen years of touring together, unless she is parted from him.
Michell depicts this moment beautifully. As Mrs. Croft relates her adventures, Anne listens intently, her eyes sparkling with secret exhilaration. Captain Wentworth’s stories about his exploits as a captain in the navy have preceded Mrs. Croft’s little speech, but her account adds something that Anne has not hitherto considered; that rather than staying home—which Anne later bemoans is the fate of women according to the epics and annals of history—a wife might venture out into the world with her husband.
Venturing out into the world with her husband—those of us who think that this is Anne’s future, might also suggest that it makes Persuasion the most modern and prophetic of Austen’s novels, as it foreshadows the century to come when British women followed their husbands, brothers, and lovers to the far reaches of the globe. During Austen’s time, however, female migration was still very rare. Her aunt Philadelphia Austen Hancock was one of the few women traveling to Madras, Bombay or Calcutta.
According to William Austen-Leigh and Richard Austen-Leigh in Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters: A Family Record, Austen wrote an early sketch about a young woman undertaking the passage to the East Indies, which they believe may have been inspired by her Aunt Philadelphia. However, by the time Austen conceived Persuasion, her seafaring adventuress had transmogrified into a captain’s wife, and luckily so, since Mrs. Croft stands as the one of the most likeable, kind, and honest personalities in Austen’s oeuvre. When she speaks frankly about her devotion to her husband, she reveals to Anne what happiness a woman of spirit might find in an untraditional marriage.
There are precious few happy couples in Persuasion apart from the Musgroves—can it be a coincidence that the most interesting harmonious relationship in the novel exists between a sea captain and his wife? I think not, as Austen considers in her final completed work the partnership of two mature people, who must base their union on something more than mutual attraction. Therefore, I would like to suggest that Anne marries Frederick because she hopes that life with him will be an adventure.
Unlike the women of legend, whom Anne pities in her exchange with Captain Harville, she will not stay home, but sojourn around the world with her man. And if her handling of Louisa Musgrove’s Lyme Regis fall is anything to go by, Anne will do more than rise to the challenge of an adventurous existence. She will come into her own; a woman no longer pitied or overlooked, but remarked upon, deferred to, and admired; in short, a true heroine.
Quotations are from The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman (Oxford University Press, 1933).
Eighteenth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Daniel Woolf, Jessica Richard, and Mary Lu Redden.