I’ve used the passages from Pride and Prejudice containing Mr. Collins’s proposals to Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas to teach writing students about choosing the appropriate kinds of arguments for their audiences. Mr. Collins’s complete self-absorption and ignorance of Elizabeth’s needs and desires are clear in his carefully “reasoned” and laboriously articulated argument for her acceptance of his proposal. When compared with his successful proposal to the sensible but “‘not romantic’” Charlotte Lucas, the scenes illustrate the necessity of matching one’s appeal to the values of the audience. “‘Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman’s good opinion, because he was not so happy as to succeed with you?’” Charlotte asks (125). She then explains how the proposals Elizabeth rejected could have been persuasive to her: “‘I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state’” (125).
The only hitch in using these scenes to teach about audience adaptation is that the dialogue of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Charlotte is not reported. For my part, I suspect Mr. Collins would have seen no benefit in alteration and would have applied a nearly identical address to Charlotte, making the report of the details unnecessary. However, scanty treatment of dialogue during marriage proposals is rather the rule than the exception throughout Austen’s novels. When marriage is always the reward of the virtuous heroine, Austen’s choice to shy away from the particulars of her novels’ climatic moments is a source of disappointment, criticism, and debate for many readers. It also presents a problem for someone trying to use the text to teach about persuasive use of language. Or does it? Is there perhaps something more complex and revealing about the nature of persuasion in Austen’s almost consistent down-playing of dialogue in her proposal scenes?
Mildred Wherritt discusses Austen’s pattern of proposal “scene”1 treatment: “Although Austen presents some scenes of proposals which are comic and others which are painful or abortive, she consistently withholds scenes when proposals are joyful and successful” (244). Mr. Collins’s proposal to Charlotte is perhaps not joyful for anyone but himself, but it is successful and even believable. A few pages prior to the proposal, Austen warns that Charlotte desires to “secure [Elizabeth] from any return of Mr. Collins’s addresses, by engaging them towards herself” (121). In other words, while Elizabeth could not be persuaded by his words, Charlotte did not need to be persuaded by them; this had already been achieved. What he had to say had very little effect on her decision to marry him.
Aristotle’s best known description of the art of rhetoric calls it “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (3). Whether instances of persuasion Austen agrees with (reconciling her heroines and heroes) or ones she criticizes (Charlotte’s acceptance of Mr. Collins), Austen represents processes of persuasion that involve much more than words. So it should not be surprising that Austen’s treatment of persuasion as a complex process is very much in line with the scholarly wisdom of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rhetoricians such as Francis Bacon, George Campbell, and Hugh Blair.
My project is to investigate the processes of persuasion rendered in Austen’s novels in light of eighteenth century theories of rhetoric. I argue that Austen’s novels may be read as studies of persuasion—of choice making, of moving to action. A primary purpose of the paper is to explore how Austen, a critic of behavior, comments on these theories through her novels. My discussion will center on an obvious moment of rhetorical address, the marriage proposal. This choice is, in part, to help limit my discussion, but it is also appropriate because I believe that understanding theories of persuasion in the late eighteenth century helps provide some answers for those who criticize Austen’s treatment of her proposal scenes. The following section summarizes these criticisms and some of the defenses offered in response. Following this, I sketch the basic elements of persuasion from contemporary rhetoricians and characterize the general ways Austen’s work reacts to these ideas. I conclude by suggesting that Austen’s novels do reflect the eighteenth-century concept of persuasion, but they also convincingly work through some of its limitations.
Critiques and defenses of Austen’s marriage-proposal scenes
Austen’s retreat into paraphrase or indirect report at the moment the hero proposes marriage to the heroine, or even worse, her choice to report the agreement to marry as an accomplished fact (which she does in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park) has been cited as evidence of her artistic deficiency or even a personal inability or unwillingness to render intense emotion. Reasons offered for such shortcomings range from artistic to biographical/psychological. Wherritt’s article summarizes many of these criticisms and even includes some defenses of Austen’s choices for particular scenes, but these moves, she argues,
do not produce any evidence that Austen can, in fact, depict a tender love scene in detail. In the absence of such evidence, any assertion that she could have done so if she had chosen seems unfounded. Therefore, it seems more reasonable to conclude that she did not, and therefore probably could not, handle the intense emotion implied by a climactic proposal scene. (244)
While I have reservations about these conclusions, I also doubt that I could provide the kind of evidence of ability Wherritt wants. However, I do find several of the arguments defending Austen’s choices convincing. I’ll mention these briefly and then, with the aid of Arthur Walzer’s reading of Persuasion in light of eighteenth-century rhetoric, suggest some additional defenses of Austen’s decisions to render proposal scenes with little or no reported dialogue.
One argument claims Austen is following eighteenth-century rules of decorum that would prevent her from invading and divulging her favorite characters’ moments of unguarded sensibility (Stout 317). That Austen, a challenger and critic of conventions would feel so bound by decorum, is only credible to me in light of the fact that Austen was known to be so invested in some of her characters that they felt like real people to her.2 For this reason she might have respected their privacy, particularly, as Kathleen Lundeen suggests, to prevent some of her more reserved (and heretofore misguided) heroes such as Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars, as well as the readers, from embarrassment (67).
Arguments I find more convincing are those that ask the reader to consider the treatment of marriage and proposals in terms of the larger projects of Austen’s novels. Lundeen argues for the “thematic fittingness of the main betrothal scenes” to each novel’s own broader purpose (65). To want Austen’s explicit rendering of the proposal scene in Northanger Abbey (see Wherritt), for example, is to entirely ignore the aims of the novel. How could Austen undermine her own parody by providing the exact scene of declarations of passion a lover of Gothic novels would expect? As Lundeen argues, Catherine Morland’s experiences in the novel amount to an initiation into the real world. In his book Resisting Novels Lennard J. Davis argues that talk between two people is not like the dialogue between characters such as Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy during the ball at Netherfield.3 Real proposals are rarely as eloquent as they sound in books. Austen might have rendered the scene blandly just to make this point, but I believe she is too generous an author to do so. She wants to chasten Catherine, not discredit her or her “artless” affection for Henry Tilney.
Janis Stout sides with what she terms the “minority view of Austen’s work,” which finds Austen’s treatment of passion and expressiveness “not emotionally limited but emotionally subtle” (317). She argues convincingly that Austen is following a theory of novels and a theory of language in her conscious choice to treat the marriage proposal scenes somewhat “distantly.” Particularly in the novels with animated, witty heroines—such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and even to some extent Persuasion, the silence of the proposal scenes provides a necessary contrast to the function of dialogue and conversation in the other parts of the novel. What reveals the foolishness or immorality of an Austen character more than his or her language? And what is also the tool of Wickhams, Willoughbys, Lady Susans, and Mr. Elliots? Language disguises as much as it reveals. Stout argues that “it is largely because of this contrast between the relative speechlessness of her lovers at the moment of their revelations and their talkativeness on other occasions that we believe the scenes involved are very special and worth our imaginative filling in” (322).
Considering the pattern of treatment across the novels, Mary Alice Burgan suggests that declining to delineate an orderly proposal scene with dialogue, as well as placement of proposals in the less-restricted setting of the outdoors, is Austen’s way of deliberately emphasizing the possibility of the disorderly “for creating living value in a time and space confused by distractions and beset by the temptation to bad choices” (51).
The concern over Austen’s lack of dialogue and distancing at proposal scenes comes in part, I believe, because readers fail to consider the couples’ relationships rhetorically. The scenes are not only consistent with the general theme of each novel (see Lundeen’s discussion); taken together, they also become a commentary on the process of persuasion—a study of how people come to understand their own passions and influence the passions, understanding, imagination, and, most importantly, the will of others to act. While each novel comes at it in a different way, the latter ones particularly can be read as studies of choice-making, or more exactly, of influence—of how one chooses to use one’s own influence and how one might make a moral response to the influences.
Persuasion and eighteenth-century rhetorical theory
Rackin writes that “true persuasion, like a true moral religious belief or true prudence, results from the interaction of faculties in a single mind. . . . Moreover, such a true persuasion will finally have concrete results in the material world” (57). Although he does not consider it in these terms, his description for the “interaction of faculties in a single mind” resembles the descriptions of successful rhetoric in the eighteenth century, specifically, that the successful orator will “engage in his service all [the] different powers of the mind, the imagination, the memory, and the passions” (Campbell 77).
In the October 1995 issue of College English, Arthur Walzer argues for the appropriateness of studying Austen’s work in terms of theories of rhetoric present in the intellectual climate of her time.4 Walzer summarizes the theories about faculty psychology and persuasive rhetoric in the work of Francis Bacon, George Campbell, and Hugh Blair. Bacon, with significant clarification and promulgation from Campbell and Blair, defined a “new rhetoric” that shifted the focus from the art of composing arguments to the art of persuading an audience, of moving them to action (Walzer 690). Working early in the eighteenth century, Bacon proposed theories of faculty psychology which become widely accepted and used into the nineteenth century (Bizzell and Herzberg 639). He “divides the human intellect into the ‘faculties’ of memory, imagination, and reason . . . [and] adds two others[,]. . . the will and the appetite” (639). Bacon explained the function of language (rhetoric) as an operation of the faculties. Essentially, “rhetoric applies reason to the imagination to move the will” (639). While this formula was later revised by Campbell to include roles for the imagination and desire, the faculty of action, the belief that “reasoning was not enough to produce persuasion,” was a constant from Bacon’s time.
Blair and Campbell, both clergymen and academics, were prominent and prolific influences in public and educational forums. The “most definitive treatment in the eighteenth century of rhetoric as a study of the way the mind responds to symbols” (Walzer 690) is Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), which synthesizes the key concerns of eighteenth-century rhetorical theorists and educators: they include “the relationship of rhetoric to contemporary philosophy, the practical concern for improving pulpit eloquence, popular interest in elocution . . . , the connection of rhetoric with literature and criticism, and the long-standing claims of classical rhetoric” (Bizzell and Herzberg 654). Campbell broadens the reach of rhetoric to include four principal types of discourse: “discourse that convinces, discourse that pleases, discourse that moves, and discourse that persuades” (Walzer 690). But these types of discourse are not equal; they seem to have a hierarchy of ends. The aim of discourse that convinces is only understanding, but discourse that persuades ends in action. The only way to achieve persuasion is by appealing to (pleasing or moving) imagination and desire to move the will: Aristotle believed that “we must want something to act” (691). With the incorporation of these faculties of psychology, rhetoric is no longer engaging in agonistic debate; instead, it becomes “mechanistic” or ‘operational,’” and at times, it even appears manipulative. Walzer mentions that Campbell describes persuasion as an involuntary process, a “clockwork,” that, given a sufficient wind, functions as desired. The chain reaction begins with language that pleases the imagination, which, in turn acts on the desires, which power the will to action.
Processes of persuasion in the novels
In order to illustrate the dynamics and moments of the process of persuasion—language working on the imagination to trigger a desire that powers the will, the faculty of action—I’ll separate the novels into two groups. The first group includes Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park, which report the proposals of the hero and heroine as accomplished, with no detail of the moment. The second is the novels that have partial dialogue or indirect reporting of the actual proposals: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion.
The second group of three could also be characterized by their having heroines and other characters who must gain self-awareness and control over their own influence. The journey to this awareness makes up most of the dramatic action of the plot; the reconciliations between the heroes and heroines become confirmations that they have been persuaded to grow and change. By contrast, in the first group, where the proposals are passed over, the reader is well acquainted with the sentiments of the heroine from very early in the novel. There is little self-discovery for her; she has only to remain constant and wait for something to influence the hero’s will to act on his (usually) long established regard and propose. Because the virtuous heroine deserves to be rewarded (married happily, in Austen novels), we must know that she has been; however, in these three novels the climax and action are invested in other themes. Catherine Morland struggles to work out the lines between fantasy and fiction; Elinor struggles to maintain equilibrium in a melodramatic world (Lundeen, 67); and Fanny struggles to remain true to her moral judgment in the face of well-meant conspiracies of circumstances, family, and friends.
There are several other moments during the courtships of Austen’s characters which seem to illustrate Campbell’s persuasive formula at work from the initial charge of language to the resulting actions. The rhetorical process of persuasion is most visible in the novels where the heroes and heroines must overcome some kind of prejudice or weakness before they develop or acknowledge their love, even to themselves.
Emma, the slowest learner of Austen’s heroines, doesn’t realize that she is in love with Mr. Knightly until page 407 of a 484 page novel. Then, Harriet’s account of Mr. Knightley’s preference for herself affects Emma’s imagination which excites an awareness of her own desires. On hearing Harriet’s words,
Emma’s eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart [desires]. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion [imagination], made rapid progress. She touched—she admitted—she acknowledged the whole truth. (407-08)
At this point, as readers, if not as uncertain as Emma is of Mr. Knightley’s returning her affection, we are at least without any certain knowledge of his feelings for her. In order to learn Emma’s lessons with her, we must be kept tightly within her point of view for a good portion of the novel. It is not until the post-proposal discussions that we are told that Mr. Knightley’s experience reveals the interaction of imagination and desire as well. His awareness of his love for Emma has preceded by only a few months Emma’s acknowledgment of hers for him: “He had been in love with Emma, and jealous of Frank Churchill, from about the same period, one sentiment having probably enlightened him as to the other” (432).
In Northanger Abbey, most of Henry Tilney’s behavior toward Catherine is kind and friendly, but hardly indicative of his being in love with her. By the end of the novel, however, something has persuaded him to propose to Catherine. Austen accounts for the change by explaining that Henry was eventually won by nothing more dramatic or glamorous than the fact that Catherine liked him (243). The process begins in earnest when Henry’s sister, Eleanor, perceives Catherine’s interest in him and tells him of it. Her treatment by his family, including his father’s constant promotion of Catherine as a suitable choice for a wife (before her poverty is revealed), must have suggested the idea to his imagination. Her devotions influence his desires for marriage, and his father’s actions and words against Catherine influence Henry’s understanding and will to act, to make the journey to apologize and propose.
Even in cases where they have previously come to know their own hearts, Austen’s characters are often moved to act on those feelings by persuasion originating with a speech or letter. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Elizabeth have each acknowledged to himself or herself that they love the other well before the novel’s end. However, they have limited opportunity to ascertain the desires of the other. For both, the motivation to speak of their own feelings arises in response to what someone says or writes.
Elizabeth, who has come to realize that she does love Mr. Darcy, knows rationally that Lydia’s scandalous behavior and her own harsh rejection of his first proposal make a second proposal unlikely. Her resolution to open up as much of a conversation about their relationship as she properly can comes as a result of her Aunt’s letter. Darcy is moved to consider a second proposal by the particular care his Aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, takes in relating back to him
her journey to Longbourn, its motive, and the substance of her conversation with Elizabeth; dwelling emphatically on every expression of the latter, which, in her ladyship’s apprehension, peculiarly denoted her perverseness and assurance, in the belief that such a relation must assist her endeavors. . . . But unluckily for her ladyship, its effect had been exactly contrariwise. “It taught me to hope,” said he, “as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.” (367)
Although Darcy claims he would have come to the point without Elizabeth’s help (381), it is her expression of gratitude to him for his part in saving Lydia which moves him to offer his second proposal (366).
Campbell writes at length on the virtues of good speech: speech with vivacity and energy stimulates the imagination (the first step in persuasive process) and attracts the attention (7). In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth, recalling that Darcy had easily withstood the charm of her beauty and manner, invites Darcy to account for beginning to love her. “‘[W]hat could set you off in the first place?’” she asks (380). They account for it in a manner that is very much in harmony with Campbell’s claim for the power of energetic delivery. Although Darcy says he “‘cannot fix upon the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation,’” he admits he admired her for her “‘liveliness of . . . mind’” (380). Elizabeth says her liveliness might as well be called impertinence but that it must have provided a contrast to the deference and officious civility Darcy was used to. And even though Darcy “‘knew no actual good’” of her, she begins to think of his being persuaded by such a thing to love her as “perfectly reasonable” (380).
Perhaps the example which most reflects persuasion as an involuntary process is in Emma, where Mr. Knightley ends up proposing to Emma when he had only come to see how well she was taking Frank Churchill’s engagement. Assured that Emma was not committed to Frank, he imagines only that he may soon be allowed to persuade Emma to care for him instead. He sought her out at that time, however,
with no selfish view, no view at all, but of endeavoring, if she allowed him an opening, to soothe or to counsel her. The rest had been the work of the moment, the immediate effect of what he heard, on his feelings. The delightful assurance of her total indifference towards Frank Churchill, of her having a heart completely disengaged from him, had given birth to the hope, that, in time, he might gain her affection himself;—but then it had been not present hope—he had only, in the momentary conquest of eagerness over judgment, aspired to be told that she did not forbid his attempt to attach her.—The superior hopes which gradually opened were so much the more enchanting.—The affection, which he had been asking to be allowed to create if he could, was already his! (432)
This example, however, provides one of Austen’s reactions to eighteenth-century rhetoric: to represent processes of persuasion that are not as clearly linear as Campbell’s formula represents. For Campbell, persuasion occurs when language works on the imagination to trigger a desire that powers the will, the faculty of action. In Austen’s scenarios, desire is often already present and known, and word only sometimes functions to motivate the will to action. In Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion, the proposal becomes an official acknowledging of what is already known by most parties. The more detailed the proposal, the less knowledge the characters have of what might move their audience’s will to the desired action.
Austen’s responses to eighteenth-century rhetoric
Walzer argues that Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, “has a justifiable claim to at least a minor place in the rhetorical canon” because it “enacts the psychology of persuasion set forth in Bacon, Campbell, and Blair” and also because it “offers a counter to a rhetorical theory grounded in a rationalist ethic” (705). I agree with Walzer, but I also find that each of Austen’s six novels “enacts” and revises contemporary theories of rhetoric, and, taken together, deserve more than a minor place in the canon of the history of rhetoric.
I should perhaps clarify here, that I am not necessarily arguing for a conscious and deliberate use or revision of eighteenth-century rhetorical theory on Austen’s part. On the one hand, I am trying to demonstrate that her novels reveal the widely held assumptions about persuasion she would have been familiar with as a well-read person. On the other hand, I am arguing that Austen’s concern with influence and persuasion provides a complex and intricate exploration of the human mind and heart that informs and reacts against such assumptions.
Austen’s novels tend to represent persuasion with all its phases—moving the desires, often the understanding, to affect the imagination which can then move the will to action—as a process over a much longer period of time than Campbell or Blair usually represent. The actual moments of proposal are only the last phase. We must be assured that the characters did act, but compared to what it takes to influence the desires and understanding, acting on those desires often requires only minor persuasion (although this differs slightly from novel to novel, depending on the confidence of the hero in the heroine’s affection for him).
For those concerned with Austen’s lack of dialogue in the proposal scenes, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet actually provides reasons why they need not always be reported. During her explanation to Darcy for her refusal of his first proposal, he suggests that the character flaws Elizabeth gives as her reasons for refusing him “‘might have been overlooked’” had he not injured her pride by confessing his scruples about her family. Only made angrier by the assumption that she should overcome her family pride in order to “overlook” what she perceives to be very amoral behavior, Elizabeth corrects Darcy’s misplaced trust in the power of his language: “‘You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner’” (192). The words he chose did not significantly contribute to the success or failure of his proposal. By far, the most important actions of the novel are the processes which first persuade them of their opinions of one another and those that then lead them to change their minds. So much of this change has been accomplished prior to the moment of proposal at the end of the novel that the actual words of Elizabeth’s acceptance are simply not that important.
Characters accounting for the persuasive process
Persuasion in Austen’s novels is a more complex and less linear than Campbell’s and Blair’s representations of it. This claim is supported by one of the signature elements of her novels, the post-proposal discussion. At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy, shown before in their own witty exchanges to be skilled rhetoricians, are acutely interested in accounting for the persuasive processes undergone by each of them to reach the point of mutual regard and love, which they have just acknowledged. The lengthy discussion is appropriate to a book with the project of exploring how prejudices are formed and lost. But this is also a feature of every Austen novel except Mansfield Park.
Austen is interested in identifying the kinds of relationships likely to make good marriages. In terms of this project is it simply not important to know what words the hero and heroine exchange when they agree to marry. It is much more important that the two can reflect long and in detail about the means and rightness of their judgment. The moment of proposal merely puts them in a new relationship where they can then, quite properly and respectably, have these important dialogues. Some of these are important for us to hear, some are not. The characters, like Darcy and Elizabeth, who undergo the most growth in the process tend to have much longer and detailed post-proposal discussions. In Persuasion, we are told that many of the particulars of Anne and Wentworth’s conversation are interesting only to themselves. What we do hear of the conversation, however, is Wentworth’s accounting for his behavior and change of heart. These details are important to Austen since the lessons he has learned are central to the larger project of the novel as a revision of contemporary gendered notions of persuasion, which valued principled, autonomous (male) conviction and action over a persuadable (female) nature which allows itself to be influenced by others.
Good judgment and eighteenth-century persuasion
Walzer says that a mark of the new rhetorics is a concern with hearer, rather than the composition, of an argument. He also states that “the new model of the persuasive process has ethical implications for judging both hearers and persuaders” (692). But Campbell’s and Blair’s texts are still primarily addressed to rhetors, to those attempting to persuade. One of the most important additions of Austen’s novels to rhetorical theory is that they take up these implications of the new rhetoric for hearers. These seem to be implications that Campbell ignores; in fact, he eliminates them when he conceives of rhetoric as device that “will not permit the hearers even a moment’s leisure . . . but as it were by some magic spell, hurries them ere they are aware, into love, pity, grief, terror, desire, aversion, fury or hatred” (4). For the most part, Austen’s novels reject this mechanistic representation of persuasion and set forth the missing guidelines for judging as a subject of persuasion, for reacting to the individual and cultural arguments which surround us.
Austen novels can be read as studies of how to make good choices. Walzer quotes from Campbell’s introduction, which “maintains that the study of rhetoric ‘leads directly to an acquaintance with ourselves; it not only traces the operations of the intellect and the imagination, but discloses the lurking springs of action in the heart. In this view, it is perhaps the surest and shortest, as well as the pleasantest way of arriving at the science of the human mind’” (690). The explicit commentary by Austen’s heroines on the importance of self-knowledge in Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park point to a similarity of project in Austen’s and Campbell’s work.
Mary Alice Burgan characterizes Mansfield Park as “a stage in Jane Austen’s exploration of ways to make plain virtue artistically convincing” (33). The process of persuasion is central in this book, but, again, it is not central to the relationship between the hero and heroine. In fact, their relationship is mostly intact from the beginning of the novel. Edmund must go through his devastating relationship with Mary Crawford before he is capable of building his and Fanny’s friendship into more. Thus, the proposal scene is not a point of emphasis in this novel.
However, other significant sights for investigating the processes of persuasion emerge throughout the story. Fanny is a study of self-persuasion; she constantly argues with herself, questioning her passions and feelings in order to keep them in line with her morality. She is constant, but she is not stagnant. She is continually re-convincing herself that she has in fact acted correctly. Edmund is a bit slower. He is used to success as a rhetor, both as a clergyman and as Fanny’s tutor; however, he is much less accustomed to waging persuasive battles on the internal front. Much of Edmund’s action in the novel is an endeavor to find support to help his understanding (morality) be reconciled to his passion’s persuasion for Mary Crawford. Recall his several discussions with Fanny that rationalize and excuse the improprieties of Mary Crawford.
Edmund, along with characters such as Emma, and perhaps Elizabeth Bennet, shows that the most skilled rhetoricians are often victims of their own eloquence as they succeed in persuading their good judgment and reason to accept what their passions want. (Edmund’s study for the clergy, his position on the importance of elocution, and his understanding of what is required to win Fanny’s heart are indications of his skill as a rhetor.) Fortunately, Mary Crawford’s cunning has persuasive limits, and by the end of the book, we are assured that Edmund will undergo the remaining process of persuasion that Fanny is really the kind of wife he wants. The process of this persuasion is well underway, and since the more significant battles of influence have been fought and won, it is not necessary for Austen to recount this final one in detail.
An emphasis on self as the source of right judgment (when not blinded by rationalizations) comes up as well in Emma. In response to the birth of Mrs. Weston’s daughter, Mr. Knightley and Emma discuss indulged children, comparing the nature of the child’s probable upbringing to Emma’s. Remarking on Mr. Knightley’s “‘endeavors to counteract the indulgence of other people,’” Emma says, “‘I doubt whether my own sense would have corrected me without it.’” He answers: “‘Do you?—I have no doubt. Nature gave you understanding; Miss Taylor gave you principles. You must have done well’” (462). Likewise, Knightley predicts that young Miss Weston “‘will be disagreeable in infancy, and correct herself as she grows older’” (461). While possibly a little colored by his love for Emma, Mr. Knightley’s judgment has, by this time in the novel, long been established as sound. It is this vision of a more mature Emma, which Knightley admires, that allows readers to like Emma and wish her well, in spite of herself. Further, the process by which Mr. Knightly believes she would have righted (or perhaps did right) herself reflects the complexities and interactions of the faculties involved in the process of persuasion.
Marriage, influence, and morality
In a world where women had little power over their material lives, where what income they did have became the property of husbands should they marry, the morality by which people chose to use their power, and the means of moral influence available to those without material power, were certainly real and pertinent concerns. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth disguises a serious critique of Darcy’s character in this quip to Colonel Fitzwilliam: “‘I imagine your cousin brought you down with him chiefly for the sake of having somebody at his disposal. I wonder he does not marry, to secure a lasting convenience of that kind’” (184). While they are delivered lightly, Elizabeth’s words become serious when followed, only a few pages later, by Darcy’s first marriage proposal. From what she understands of his character, Darcy would be not only an unpleasant but also a tyrannical husband, particularly because he appears to be willfully beyond any other person’s influence. It is at Pemberley, when she apprehends the uses he makes of his power and position, that Elizabeth’s admiration for Darcy begins. While there, she contemplates Darcy’s portrait and his housekeeper’s sincere praise of him:
There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth’s mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original, than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance. . . . As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!—How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow! —How much of good or evil must be done by him! (250-51)
Having believed him proud and selfish in wielding his power, Elizabeth would not later be able to reconsider Darcy’s proposal without this kind of evidence to the contrary. Choosing well, in Austen’s novels, is about choosing not to be persuaded by the importance of rank, title, or fortune, as so many of her characters are in the marriages they enter.
However, even under circumstances of political and social inequality, Austen’s novels argue for the possibility of a marriage of equals. She does this, I believe, through portraying women as agents of influence. Even those characters who would seem to have little power often find themselves in situations where they must judge how to use their influence over others. Austen’s novels give us an insight into the female response to commonly held assumptions about the nature and spheres of persuasion. Campbell’s work assumes the occasion of public speaking—desiring to affect the passions, understanding, and will of one’s listeners. Austen refuses to limit the importance and occasions of persuasion to public, and therefore male, speech. Her work validates women’s speech by arguing for the application of rhetorical skill and sensibility in the polite, and, in a sense, public speech and conversation of social relationships.
In her worlds, women are as accountable as men for the use they make of their influence, for Austen’s female characters reveal as wide a range of morality in their influences as her male characters do. Elinor Dashwood must judge and hold her family together in Sense and Sensibility. In Northanger Abbey, Isabella and then Eleanor Tilney influence Catherine’s interpretation of the world around her. Mrs. Norris, Mary Crawford, the Bertram girls, and then Fanny herself are all clearly wielders of influence in their own circles in Mansfield Park. Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s real and presumed influence is crucial to the plot of Pride and Prejudice and is clearly judged in contrast to someone like the sensible Aunt Gardiner. In Emma, the title character is without rival, except perhaps for Mrs. Elton, as a study in the use of influence and power. And finally, in Persuasion, Lady Russell, Mrs. Croft, Louisa Musgrove, and, of course, Anne Elliot all have opportunities to influence and persuade characters of both genders.
In addition to representing women as initiators and not just victims of persuasion, Austen argues for the possibility of a marriage of equals by interrogating the grounds on which characters allow themselves to be persuaded to marry. In his reading of Persuasion, James Kastely argues that Austen is concerned with the “difficulties and recalcitrance of a world of accidental attachment” (87). He points out that Anne’s and Wentworth’s original relationship was “founded on the good luck of two people who were right for each other and who accidentally came together at the right place and time (‘he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love’)” (86). The novel shows most marriages, such as that of Mary and Charles, to be a product of accident involving what Kastely terms an “ethical loss,” a loss of self from connecting one’s identity with another who is not an equal. Mary and Charles Musgrove’s marriage, says Kastely, “inverts the novel’s ideal of marriage as a continuing conversation between equals” (75). By contrast, Anne and Wentworth’s marriage, a product of mature choosing, is a “rhetorical relationship that is grounded firmly in passion eloquently communicated” (86).
So how are people to avoid accidental attachments, since, as Elizabeth Bennet observes to her Aunt Gardiner, “‘we see every day that where there is affection, young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune [in other words, by prudence, reason, or judgment], from entering into engagements with each other’”? “‘[H]ow,’” she asks, “‘can I promise to be wiser than so many of my fellow creatures if I am tempted, or how am I even to know that it would be wisdom to resist?’” (145). Elizabeth promises her aunt “‘not to be in a hurry’” and to “‘do what I think to be wisest’” (145). Fortunately, like Anne Elliot, Elizabeth usually does have fairly good judgment, if not always good information.
A feminine rhetoric?
Walzer claims Austen offers a “counter to a rhetorical theory grounded in a rationalist ethic” in a “distinctly feminine voice” by illustrating the superiority of feeling, sympathy, and persuadability in the process of persuasion. I disagree. Austen’s characters make moral judgments based on more than the faculties appealed to by passion. If there is a feminine counter to contemporary rhetorical theory to be found in Austen, I believe it is an argument for the possibility of a comfortable balance and inclusiveness of all the available resources of judgment and persuasion in the quest to achieve reliable and moral results.
Because of their good judgment, Anne and Elizabeth are able to instruct us and the men they love in the finer points of persuasion, and in doing so, suggest some needed revisions to dominant or masculine applications of rhetoric. One of the first of these comes up in the contrast between the way Darcy and Elizabeth account for falling in love with one another. Darcy’s cannot offer much of an explanation, since he was “‘in the middle before [he] knew [he] had begun,’” but he admits he admired Elizabeth for her “‘liveliness of . . . mind’” (380). Elizabeth is not content with this, for she knows that her “liveliness” was no better than impertinence, that her behavior to him had bordered on uncivil, and that he had earlier withstood her beauty. Her best explanation is that he came to love her because she provided a contrast to the deference and officious civility Darcy was used to. She allows the explanation to stand, but gently points out that this is a questionable basis for love in her remark that Darcy “‘knew no actual good’” of her (380). Elizabeth’s judgments and feelings about Darcy are almost entirely based on the great deal of good she knows of him and the esteem this knowledge has built. But perhaps he knows more good of her than they acknowledge, since he knows her to have a better grasp of the process of persuasion than he does.
Darcy acknowledges that he learned better conduct on the evening Elizabeth rejected his first proposal: “‘Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;—though it was sometime, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice’” (367-68). Elizabeth, who “‘had not the smallest idea of their being ever felt in such a way,’” comes to understand that she had taught Darcy a great lesson in the art and process of persuasion—that it must attend to a fuller range of faculties than the orderliness of his words.
When they launch their unsuccessful proposals, Mr. Elton (in Emma), Mr. Collins, and Mr. Darcy, under the mechanistic model of persuasion, are all certain their proposals will be accepted, merely because they are offered. However, each discovers his presumption and somewhat willful inattention to the range of faculties involved in persuasion.5 The nature of this error is best illustrated by Darcy’s unsuccessful proposal to Elizabeth, because he is the only one of these characters able to take correction. The lesson comes when Elizabeth defends her curt refusal of Darcy as follows: “‘I might as well enquire,’ replied she, ‘why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you like me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?’” (190). Elizabeth, whose own persuasion to love is firmly rooted in morality, recognizes persuasion that goes against the will, the reason, and the character to be false. Darcy, presumably educated in rhetoric and persuasion, has thought Elizabeth would find the story of his desire subduing his other faculties flattering, but Elizabeth knows that good judgment will satisfy all the faculties of the mind.
Good judgment is a characteristic that several Austen heroines learn or exhibit. As the most mature heroine, Anne Elliot perhaps is the best example of the way to judge. Persuasion, in Kastely’s view, gives the passions an important epistemological role (82). Anne’s “passion” is generosity. Her openness may make her vulnerable, but it is also “what allows her to grow and to know what she needs” (82). Kastely explains how generosity and judgment function to guide Anne rightly.
Anne’s continual efforts of acknowledging and doing justice to other characters, even to Wentworth after he has cruelly wounded her, are motivated by generous feelings. If certain passions may abet a willed ignorance and create hermeneutical difficulties by allowing characters to see only the world that they want to see, a generous passion will serve as a reliable guide by attaching a character to his or her Other. This is the lesson of Romance. The generosity of her feelings allows Anne to escape most of the dangers and misunderstandings that threaten the other characters. And if she is in danger of isolating herself by seeking to repress her feelings for Wentworth, she is never in danger of attaching herself inadvertently to the wrong person, however attractive that character may appear to others. Because Anne’s feelings are generous, her judgment is secure (82).
My reading of the virtue of judgment in Austen’s novels is that it is a process of careful reading, reasoning, and right feeling. Integral to the process of persuasion, judgment seems to combine the reason and the passions.
Donald Rackin suggests that Anne Elliot’s moral superiority comes from the virtue comprising the title of the novel, persuasion and persuadability. Persuasion, he argues, can be read as a novel that works out the subtleties of this virtue. Unlike Lady Russell, who is guided only by rigid principles, or the other Elliots, who are guided only by the passions of their own pride and vanity, Anne is able to comprehend the “proportions and limits” of persuasion (136). Rackin illustrates how Anne is shown not, as Wentworth has judged her, weak-willed and persuadable like Henrietta Musgrove, but as a mature moral agent acting from her own internal persuasions, revealing the ability, unlike the other Elliots, to self-correct (58-59). He says: “if life blossoms for Anne in the autumn of her life, it does so . . . because her persuadability has aged into self-controlled persuasion” (Rackin 64). She is also able to teach these virtues to Wentworth by the end of the novel. He comes to understand that persuasion is part of mature moral action, “that mere unpersuadability is not sufficient equipment to cope with a universe in which surprises and misfortunes―moral as well as physical―are the only certainties, and an alert mind and loving heart are required of all” (55). Walzer’s reading of Persuasion also asserts that Austen’s representations reject and critique the association of resolution with masculinity and yielding, and of weak-minded tempers with femininity.
I believe Jane Austen’s treatment of persuasion simply and powerfully represents her reaction to the male rhetoricians of her time, who struggle in many volumes to explain how to affect an audience in ways that account for the operation of both reason and passion in human persuasion. As is shown in Pride and Prejudice during the early debate between Elizabeth and Darcy on the merits of Bingley’s hypothetical resolution or persuadability (48-51), Austen values those who judge and defer to others because of their relationship with them, rather than acting only on the basis of logic or commitment to an abstract principles and decisive action. As Walzer points out, Campbell’s formula of the interaction of the faculties stresses the belief that “reasoning was not enough to produce persuasion” (639).
Lessons in balancing reason and passion
To be sure, Austen has the advantage of working out credible scenarios rather than writing a rhetoric, but in my opinion she is able to work out some of the tensions that Blair and Campbell struggled to reconcile. Coming out of the tradition of classical rhetoric’s emphasis on reason as the way to truth, Blair and Campbell both show some uneasiness with the “new rhetoric’s” downplay of its role in the persuasive process (Walzer 693). In their writings they try to give it a place in persuading the listener to accept the images that are to influence the passion, or a place in providing reassuring evidence once the emotions have been convinced, or conversely, as a weapon that, “although incapable of moving the will to act, can slow or halt the movement toward persuasion and action” (693).
As I read it, Sense and Sensibility begins an important aspect of Austen’s take on the necessity of this balance in persuasion. Good stable relations are based on a combination of passion and reason, which Elinor’s character embodies. Her love for Edward is not merely an “accidental affection”; it is reasoned, felt, then tested—in a way that reveals the process of persuasion. As is not untypical of Austen’s novels, much of the dramatic action in Sense and Sensibility is built up around the actions of others that the central characters endure.6 Such actions provide a contrast that persuades the reader, if not the characters themselves, that the heroine really does have the right set of values and judgments.
Rackin’s discussion of the difference between Lady Russell’s limitation in reasoning only according to her principles and Anne’s ability to perceive morality outside of fixed belief systems such as class (70) indicates that reason is not a separate and universal process of logic, but a moral process of weighing and measuring circumstances and values. Such a perception of reason seems to describe a process Austen’s virtuous characters use in avoiding “the temptation to bad choices” (Burgan 51). Moreover, it explains the reasonableness of the rapture most of her couples feel once they become engaged, and are shortly to enjoy the “fulfillment embodied in the practical and emblematic reward of a satisfactory marriage” (52), the “moral crucible of Jane Austen’s world” (57).
Power in the language of emotion
The moment when Austen’s response to the gendering of persuasion by equating it with decisiveness or unyielding adherence to principles is most clear is in the character of Anne Elliot in Persuasion. By the end of the novel Anne Elliot is fairly confident that Captain Wentworth still loves her and is faced with the challenge of persuading him of her unchanged affection within a system of gender codes that does not allow her to bring up such a subject.7
The process of Wentworth’s persuasion is rather drawn out. His desires are in place, but it takes a few fortuitous rhetorical moments to work on his own understanding of them. The incident at Lyme, including Anne’s competent direction of the crisis, and his friend Captain Harville’s acknowledgment that Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove were considered engaged by others, persuades his understanding of his own pride and folly. However, he falls back into misreading and misjudgment when he sees Mr. Elliot’s attentions to Anne at Bath. Anne’s generous treatment of him moves him to doubt his readings. And finally, he is persuaded to act by Anne’s speech to Harville about the constancy of woman’s feelings. Wentworth writes:
I can listen no longer in silence, I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. . . . 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!” (237)
This instance of persuasion would support the arguments of Irish actor Sheridan, Campbell’s predecessor and influence, that the “language of emotions,” composed of “tones, looks, and gestures,” is the most persuasive language available (Campbell 4). These tones, looks, and gestures are to be the “same which we use in common conversation” (4). Recall that Wentworth can only hear some of Anne’s words to Harville. Instead, it is the common tones of Anne’s conversation that affect Wentworth. And he is confident in this kind of communication, for in his postscript he writes, “‘A word, a look will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never’” (237-38).
That this was not just accidental romantic description is evident from Austen’s first version of this scene in the discarded chapter of Persuasion. Here Anne and Wentworth’s reconciliation is accomplished through an inadvertent meeting and a dialogue of emotion: “He now sat down, drew [the chair] a little nearer to her, and looked with an expression which had something more than penetration in it–something softer. Her countenance did not discourage. It was a silent but a very powerful dialogue; on his side supplication, on hers acceptance” (258). I wonder if Austen’s dissatisfaction with this version might have been due to its being too much carried out through the language of emotion. It does not match that blend of reason and rapture, which she went on in this version to claim for Anne and Wentworth once their engagement is accomplished (262).
Happy persuasion: reason and rapture
As I argued earlier, Austen’s treatment of the persuasive process represents a more comfortable relationship for the interaction of reason and passions than found in the rhetorics of her day. The strongest statement of this revision is the state of her main characters following the acceptance of marriage proposals, again supporting my argument that the actual proposal is not as significant to Austen’s purposes as what follows them.
That Austen’s novels were a deliberate project to revise eighteenth-century rhetoric is difficult to assert, but I find some evidence once again, in the discarded chapter of Persuasion. Describing how Anne and Wentworth spend the afternoon after their reconciliation, Austen writes:
There was time for all this to pass, with such interruptions only as enhanced the charm of the communication, and Bath could hardly contain any other two beings at once so rationally and so rapturously happy as during that evening occupied the sofa of Mrs Croft’s drawing-room in Gay Street. (262)
That the chapter is discarded may perhaps render my claim problematic, but I believe Austen’s revised chapters emphasize rather than contradict the sense of the relationship communicated by this passage. The revision points to the couple’s “maturity of mind” and “consciousness of right” (248) in their union as well as their happiness.
The treatment of Austen’s other couples is less direct, but the knowledge that they have judged well, using the combination of reading, reasoning, and feeling Anne Elliot illustrates, is what justifies and entitles them to their happiness in each other. There is always a sense of the co-presence of reason and rationality in the happiness of the deserving. In Sense and Sensibility, we are told Edward Ferrars is “in the reality of reason and truth, one of the happiest of men” (361).
After Emma realizes Mr. Knightley loves her, we are told that Emma was “now in an exquisite flutter of happiness, and such happiness moreover as she believed must still be greater when the flutter should have passed away” (434). Emma senses that her feelings will not oppose calm and rational reflection but rather be augmented by it. For his part, Mr. Knightley is also not so carried away in his eagerness that he loses his reason, a virtue which Austen reveals by commenting on his language: “It was in plain, unaffected, gentleman-like English, such as Mr. Knightley used even to the woman he was in love with” (448).
And after all of their accounting for their remarkable changes of heart, Elizabeth Bennet begins to think the love between Darcy and herself “perfectly reasonable” (380). Indeed, Austen seems to be implying that there is a logic to love―not a rational, objective logic, but a moral one.
Critiques of Austen’s treatment of proposal scenes assume that the marriage proposal is in fact the climax of the novel and that, as faithful readers, we are entitled to a full rendering of the climactic events. Such assumptions seem to me to stem from a reading of Austen’s novels as romance novels or fairy tales. In that marriage is the reward of the deserving, they are romance novels; in that they are stories meant to illustrate morality and behavior, they are fairy tale-like; but I give Austen credit for more sophisticated purposes. She was participating in, and at the same time critiquing, philosophical and literary conventions. She knew how far she could rely on them for their effect, and knew when to depart from them, for her effect. If her stories were only about one virtue or value, love, or even about one kind of passion, then we could demand clearer rendering of the moments when these virtues or feelings are achieved. But Austen’s novels are not romance stories. They are complex moral tales of virtue and reward, vice and punishment, which become illustrations of how one may use the logic of love to judge and respond to the dynamics of persuasion in a complex moral world.
1. Wherritt argues that, according to the requirements of fiction, most of Austen’s marriage proposals would not fully qualify as “scenes.” Quoting R. V. Cassill, she says: “a scene in fiction brings ‘the action and sometimes the dialogue of the characters before the reader with a fullness comparable to what a witness might observe or overhear if [s]he had been present’” (231).
2. Austen is known to have extended her characters’ life stories beyond her novels. She also writes of trying to discover her characters as she envisioned them at portrait exhibitions. (See Austen’s letters or Tony Tanner’s introduction to Pride and Prejudice.)
3. See his chapter on character.
4. I provide additional evidence for claiming that Austen’s novels reveal a familiarity with eighteenth century rhetorical theories in an unpublished critique of his article, “Dimensions of Persuasion in the works of Jane Austen.”
5. Although I don’t have space to develop this here, I also believe Mr. Crawford’s unsuccessful proposal to Fanny Price in Mansfield Park may represent an exception. It is in fact only unsuccessful because circumstances require it to be withdrawn. Austen indicates that without the obstacle of Fanny’s love for Edmund, Fanny would probably not have always rejected Mr. Crawford (231). Crawford’s longer-term pursuit of Fanny is an interesting study in persuasion. Although he begins with an imperfect knowledge of the desires upon which he must work, he is a skilled enough rhetor to learn from experience. His behavior when he visits Fanny in Portsmouth is virtually without offense, and Fanny’s resolution never to like him appears to be significantly weakened.
6. Colonel Brandon and Marianne are both passionate and feeling people whose relationship is eventually realized through the characters learning to balance sense and sensibility.
7. See the article by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh for an interesting discussion of Anne Elliot’s behavior in terms of the propriety of women speaking perpetuated by conduct books such as Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1765).
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Reid-Walsh, Jacqueline. “‘She Learned Romance as She Grew Older’: From Conduct Book Propriety to Romance in Persuasion.” Persuasions 15 (1993): 216-25.
Stout, Janis P. “Jane Austen’s Proposal Scenes and the Limitations of Language.” Studies in the Novel 14 (1982): 316-26.
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Wherritt, T. Mildred. “For Better or for Worse: Marriage Proposals in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Midwest Quarterly 17 (1976): 229-44.