books, education, Fiction, Jane Austen, literature, Persuasion
“Anne at the beginning of Persuasion has nothing to learn, no knowledge to gain from ‘till this moment I never knew myself’-style epiphanies,” writes Jessica Richard in today’s guest post for the blog series I’m hosting in honour of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Jessica is Associate Professor and Chair of English at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She’s the author of The Romance of Gambling in the Eighteenth-Century British Novel (Palgrave, 2011) and editor of Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Broadview, 2008), and she’s co-founder and co-editor of The 18th-Century Common, a public humanities website for enthusiasts of eighteenth-century studies. It’s a pleasure to introduce Jessica’s guest post for “Youth and Experience.”
The scholar Eve Sedgwick once lambasted Austen criticism for “its unresting exaction of the spectacle of a Girl Being Taught a Lesson”; critics of a certain era seemed to be obsessed with performing disciplinary-didactic readings of Austen’s works. Sedgwick pulls lines from Tony Tanner to illustrate this, though he’s hardly the only offender:
“Emma… has to be tutored… into correct vision and responsible speech. Anne Elliot has to move, painfully, from an excessive prudence.” “Some Jane Austen heroines have to learn their true duties. They all have to find their proper homes.” Catherine “quite literally is in danger of perverting reality and one of the things she has to learn is to break out of quotations”; she “has to be disabused of her naïve and foolish ‘Gothic’ expectations.” Elizabeth and Darcy “have to learn to see that their novel is more properly called…” (Tanner, Jane Austen , quoted in Sedgwick “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” Critical Inquiry 17.4 , with Sedgwick’s emphasis).
Yet Anne Elliot’s learning process does not take place over the course of Persuasion; it does not anchor the novel’s plot; rather it happened before the novel itself begins. Indeed, this significant change in her views—“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older”—is stated but not explained, described but not accounted for. We are told at the outset that “Anne, at seven and twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen,” but we don’t know exactly when this change took place, what prompted it, what stages of reassessment Anne may have undergone during the eight years “since this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close” (Volume 1, Chapter 4). It seems clear then that Anne’s lesson-learning is not of narrative interest to Austen. Instead, Anne at the beginning of Persuasion has nothing to learn, no knowledge to gain from “till this moment I never knew myself”-style epiphanies (Pride and Prejudice, Volume 2, Chapter 13).
Not only does Anne already know herself thoroughly at the beginning of Persuasion, understanding completely (now that such knowledge is irrelevant) that an engagement to a man with an uncertain future would have made her happier than the “certain immediate wretchedness” of breaking it off. She also knows Wentworth thoroughly as soon as he crosses her path after an eight-year separation. Anne reads his smallest gestures with complete accuracy. When he declines an invitation to breakfast at Uppercross Cottage, “Anne understood it. He wished to avoid seeing her” (Volume 1, Chapter 7). When Mrs. Musgrove sighs over the fate of her late son Richard, Anne reads in “a certain glance of his bright eye, and curl of his handsome mouth,” Wentworth’s real opinion of the hapless younger Musgrove. “It was too transient an indulgence of self-amusement to be detected by any who understood him less than herself” (Volume 1, Chapter 8). When he silently compels her into the Crofts’ carriage after an exhausting walk to Winthrop, “She understood him. 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 desire of giving her relief” (Volume 1, Chapter 10).
When they meet in Bath, Anne comprehends that Wentworth’s “sentences begun which he could not finish—his half averted eyes, and more than half expressive glance,—all, all declared that he had a heart returning to her at least; … She could not contemplate the change as implying less.—He must love her.” And by the evening’s end she understands that “jealousy of Mr. Elliot! … [was] the only intelligible motive” for Wentworth’s hasty departure before the concert concluded (Volume 2, Chapter 8). Every narrative declaration of Anne’s complete comprehension of Wentworth’s inner thoughts is confirmed by subsequent action or by Wentworth himself. Eventually, even Wentworth realizes that Anne has read him thoroughly: “I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine” (Volume 2, Chapter 11).
Yet neither the reassessment of prudence that Anne undertook before the novel began nor her repeatedly demonstrated understanding of Wentworth bring her the tiniest bit closer to happiness. For this she is entirely dependent on the chance circumstances that nudge Wentworth into self-knowledge and consequent understanding of Anne. Luck brought Wentworth back into Anne’s life (through the chance encounter of Admiral Croft and Mr. Shepherd when he was looking for an estate to rent); luck released him from the seemingly inevitable union with Louisa (through her injury and Benwick’s proximity during her recovery). Anne’s passive constancy, her woman’s “privilege” of “loving longest, when existence or hope is gone,” is rewarded by Wentworth’s belated recognition of her merits (Volume 2, Chapter 11). But this happy ending can hardly be said to be earned by Anne through lessons learned. Austen goes out of her way to undermine a didactic interpretation of the novel by making use of the narrative resources of improbable romance (luck, chance) rather than probable realism. And the novel’s concluding paragraph highlights the instability of this happy ending, this romance. No amount of self-knowledge or knowledge of each other can reduce “the dread of future war” that clouds Anne and Wentworth’s horizon.
Quotations are from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Persuasion, edited by James Kinsley, with an introduction and notes by Deidre Shauna Lynch (2004).
Twentieth 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 Carol J. Adams, Mary Lu Redden, and Hazel Jones.
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Sarah Rose Kearns said:
Oh, what a wonderful topic! Yes, to Anne’s thoughtfulness and wisdom, of course! And to her consistently (mystically?) accurate reading of Wentworth. And to the motif in Persuasion (as per Emma’s fears:) of “chance and circumstance (as second causes) [tending] to direct the human fate.”
I would argue, however, that Anne does undergo a big transformation over the course of the novel — regarding which, she is indeed an agent — though it’s not the same kind of elucidation that Emma, Catherine, Elizabeth B., and Marianne experience.
I question the “constancy” of Anne’s own self-assessment: on the contrary, over the course of the novel, she comes to flirt with and entertain some degree of sexual interest in both Captain Benwick and Mr. Elliot. This ability to consider marriage with a person other than Wentworth seems to be new and different for her. (We know that she rejected Charles Musgrove, and that she hasn’t ever tried to meet anybody else by, say, going to Bath with Lady Russell).
It’s a result of his return into her life: after eight years of mourning (and, perhaps, of what we might call clinical depression), she is confronted with the reality of his presence, which somehow enables her to process the trauma of 1806 and move on.
(And the fact that she does this, surely, is linked to the return of “bloom” that so many other characters notice, starting at the midpoint of the story — and which is also a factor in Wentworth’s reviving sexual interest in her, as shown in the incident with Wentworth and Mr. Elliot on the Cobb.)
After the concert, Anne’s decision that a union with Wentworth “could not divide her more from other men, than their final separation,” is in this light a new thought. She is actively choosing him, because she believes that they will be good together, not merely because she is still trapped in the past.
Jessica Richard said:
Thanks for your comment! I’m certainly not arguing that Anne is static or unchanging (nor is she trapped in the past). I agree that she deliberately recommits to Wentworth and rejects Elliot (a fit of romance that the narrator gently smiles at as “Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy”). It’s interesting that this rejection of Elliot comes before Mrs. Smith’s revelations of his past, and renders them irrelevant — another instance where knowledge is superfluous. Anne already knows Elliot is not for her, even before Mrs. Smith details his perfidy.
My interest here is in the juxtaposition of Anne’s prior knowledge and the tropes of rejuvenation. Anne’s returning bloom is not something she effects internally ; it comes about through her increased socializing and communal engagement, rather than any interior development or growth.
I’m thinking in my larger work on Austen about how she uses forms of didactic fiction and I’m interested in Persuasion in thinking about what drives the plot when the heroine is already full of wisdom before the book begins.
I’m very intrigued by your play and sorry I missed it at the Jane Austen Summer Program last June!
Sarah Rose Kearns said:
Ah, I get it! Thank you so much!
If you have a moment — I’m curious what your opinion is, of Anne’s rather equivocal final statement that she was “right in being guided by” Lady Russell, even though Lady R “erred in her advice.” It strikes me, maybe, as Austen hedging her bets, not wanting to be accused of “rewarding filial disobedience” (as per the joke from Northanger Abbey). “I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with,” feels to me like an uncharacteristically priggish tone for Anne Elliot to take.
I don’t know much about the broader context of didacticism in women’s fiction at that time; would you say it was stylistically innovative for Austen to create heroines (I’m including Elinor and Fanny) who don’t especially learn a lesson?
Lona Manning said:
In “A Note on Jane Austen,” (1954), CS Lewis sets aside Fanny Price and Anne Elliot as two of six Austen heroines who do not have a significant moment of self-realization. (the four being Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Morland). “Having placed these two novels apart from the rest because
they do not use the pattern of ‘undeception’, we can hardly fail to notice that they share another common distinction. They are the novels of the solitary heroines.”
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Lona Manning said:
I think Austen also experiments with some instances where Anne, preoccupied with Wentworth, misinterprets what other people do or say, notably when she is riding with Lady Russell in her carriage, and Anne spots Wentworth and supposes that Lady Russell is staring at him, when she is in fact looking at curtains.
Judith Sears said:
This was a very interesting post, to which I have a number of not particularly related thoughts.
1. I always heard that relying on coincidence or luck in a plot is a “bad” thing. Frowned upon. Is Austen at fault here, in your view, or leave herself open to fault because she has let important events come to pass through happenstance?
(I’ve been told, okay to start with a coincidence because that is, in fact, life. But, the story should not work itself out through luck.)
2. Much as I fairly worship Jane Austen, I also noticed a huge element of luck in the plot of Pride & Prejudice. We can let go the fact that it’s luck that brings Bingley & Darcy to the Netherfield/Longbourn area – that occurs safely in the beginning and so is excused under the proviso mentioned above. However, it’s a HUGE coincidence that the Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins, has the parish of Darcy’s aunt. If that weren’t the case, the whole story would end, full stop, when Darcy & Bingley leave for London. They’d never see each other again. Granted, Austen is clever enough to introduce Mr. Collins early & make much of him as a character and the world seems so tightly woven, but, still…
3. So, do you think that Austen is purposefully using luck to underscore a point in Persuasion or might it just be, um, not optimal plotting, perish the thought!
4. If you think she did it purposefully, to “undercut didacticism” as you say, what point was she trying to make? That if you make a mistake with a guy when you’re young, your only recourse is to get lucky? There is the element of luck in all of life but I think Austen’s concern, as a novelist, is to dramatize the best way to live, luck or no luck.
5. I think I disagree that she’s “undercutting didacticism.” I do agree that Anne’s already pretty much completed her journey of self-knowledge at the outset. So, it’s not Anne’s education, but the author studies very intently the necessity of family ties, yet, how family ties can bind, the false value some place on family ties, etc. There is much to be said pro and con. Lots of people in the novel are getting it wrong – some good people, like Lady Russell, some bad people like most of the Elliots.
6. I do think this is a story wrestling intently with a moral or morals: as to family, security, risk, true love. The only person who can clearly balance the various values is Anne – and she was too young, first time around, to come to a decision that would maximize her happiness.
6. Anne’s “knowing better,” btw, is put to the test. She may rely on luck to bring Wentworth back to her vicinity, but her knowledge is put to the test. So, in Bath when Wentworth comes to the concert, Anne, in one of those subtle Austen moves that always slay me, takes a step or two away from Elizabeth and Sir Walter. She separates herself decidedly from the injustice and snobbery of her family. To modern eyes, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s enough. Later, at the Musgrove’s lodgings, when Mary goes on & on about seeing Sir William Elliot, Anne (who goofed her way into appearing to know rather much about Sir Wm’s plans) must go to the window and act nonchalant to communicate to Captain Wentworth that she is unconcerned. We aren’t too sure how well this works at the time, but my point is, she does take the little avenues that are open to her. And, she has to. So, Anne’s not the tutee that Elizabeth Bennet was, but she must demonstrate her mastery, her willingness to act. She has to take a little risk that she was not able to the first time around.
7. Completely unrelated, I’m with Sarah Rose Kearns in questioning Anne’s statement to Wentworth that she was “right in being guided by” Lady Russell, even though Lady R “erred in her advice.” I always, always, have a reaction of, really, Anne? You think you were right to follow advice that, with your now superior understanding you take to have been wrong? And you would not give the advice to anyone in that circumstance? She makes the argument that she would have felt conscience stricken if she had not followed Lady R. All I can say is, that is one damned fine needle you are threading, Anne.
Judith Sears said:
Nothing to do with this post, so this comment may be inappropriate, but I saw a funny Jane Austen/Star Wars mashup today that I thought others might enjoy: