If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may remember Maggie Arnold’s guest posts on Mansfield Park and Emma, along with one she wrote last fall on L.M. Montgomery’s novel The Blue Castle. Welcome back, Maggie!
Maggie and I read Pride and Prejudice together in a high school English class—and I remember discussing Persuasion with her not long after that, on a walk through Point Pleasant Park (which happens to have been one of L.M. Montgomery’s favourite places in Halifax).
The Rev. Dr. Maggie Arnold is the Associate Rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Massachusetts. Her book Christ’s Chosen Preacher: Mary Magdalene in the Era of Reformation will be published this fall by Harvard University Press. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.
According to Chaucer’s famous pronouncement, what women most desire is to get their own way in everything. At first glance, it would seem that this is what Anne Elliot gains through her perseverance in Persuasion: keeping faithful to Captain Wentworth despite rejection of the relationship by her family and friends, until at last he proposes again and she can marry the man of her own choosing. And yet, there is more at stake than a mere triumph of the will in Persuasion, or an exercise in delayed gratification. Over the course of the eight and a half years between their first love affair and their ultimate marriage, Anne comes to know her place in the world, she finds a sense of her own usefulness, and it is this discovery that allows her to accept Captain Wentworth and to make a life of her own, with him.
The agency of her choice is confirmed, at the end of the novel, by her assertion that she was, in fact, right to refuse Captain Wentworth initially. A simpler treatment of her character as being too influenced by others would have had her show regret for the wasted time they had spent apart. Instead, she maintains that she was right to have mistrusted their brief relationship, and to have relied on the judgement of her family and especially of Lady Russell. She concludes in her defense that “a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.” She and Captain Wentworth were certainly in love when she was nineteen, but he was a young naval officer who had not yet proved himself—his early promise and energetic temperament were as yet untried. Anne herself was inexperienced, a weakness which only time could correct, as she comes to know more people and to witness their failures and successes.
Over the years she observes the effects of the interaction of character and circumstances. She sees her father and sister’s family pride and vanity undermine their financial situation, causing them to lose the stability of Anne’s childhood home. They have failed in their vocation as landed gentry, neglecting the stewardship of their inheritance, their leadership in the community. She watches the only example of marriage available to her in her family circle, that of her younger sister, Mary, and is disappointed by Mary’s selfishness, seeing how it erodes the respect of her husband and her judgment as a parent. Anne’s developing insight leads her to withhold approval from Mr. Elliot when he comes on the scene, though her family and Lady Russell are seduced by his wealth and elegant manners. Her ambivalence is justified by the story of her friend, Mrs. Smith, who inspires Anne with her courage and industry in the face of illness, poverty, and loneliness.
The opposite of Anne’s idle and vain family, useless to themselves and others, is demonstrated in the group of Navy families that surrounds Captain Wentworth. Admiral Croft and his wife are devoted to one another, models of a union in which each partner values the other’s gifts and both serve the best interests of the family’s chosen calling, traveling together to keep up morale, bravely exploring in the far-flung ports where they are posted. In the crisis of Louisa’s injury, Captain and Mrs. Harville are hospitable and supremely capable, efficiently nursing the patient in stark contrast to Mary, who is hysterical and must be taken out on walks by Captain Benwick so that she does not get in the way in the small but ship-shape house.
All of these impressions combine with Captain Wentworth’s professional stature so that Anne can clearly see the path of her desire as the life to which she can commit herself, now with the maturity of “a collected mind.” She knows her own worth, and others acknowledge it, too: “Mrs. Musgrove’s real affection had been won by her usefulness when they were in distress” (Volume 2, Chapter 10). Like her husband-to-be and his colleagues and friends, she is steady and resourceful, a member of an emerging aristocracy of merit, those on whom the world will rely. In choosing her heart’s desire, a marriage and a life in which she can be useful, Anne is able to move beyond the pettiness and provinciality of her small, local sphere, to a life of duty and service to the nation and the dawning empire.
Quotations are from the Penguin edition of Persuasion, edited by Gillian Beer (2003).
Twenty-third 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 Hazel Jones, Maggie Lane, and Judith Sears.