Few would rate Jane Austen among the outspoken feminists of her day. Yet in her novels of social life in early nineteenth-century England, where propriety rules, she manages to interrogate and even subvert common ideas about the roles appropriate for men and for women. In fact, through a reversal of these roles in her last completed novel, Persuasion, Austen succeeds in making Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth equals. In both independence of mind and strength of spirit, Anne Elliot is equal to Captain Frederick Wentworth. Anne finds few occasions to exhibit these traits, however, and she must often deliberately resist temptations to speak her mind openly. These qualities are expressed through her friendships. It is her independence and strength that move her to form and to maintain friendships outside of her family and, to some extent, of her social circle.
Through her focus on friendship in Persuasion, Jane Austen highlights parallels between the circle of friends that Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth draw around them. Austen employs these parallels both for their subtly ironic implications and as a means of underscoring Anne Elliot’s force of mind. It is through friends that Anne achieves the power to speak. And, ironically, it is Wentworth who, constrained by these same friends, is silent in the revised final chapters of the novel—a situation more usual for a woman. But that is just one of the many ironies that Austen plays with in what is sometimes considered to be the most socially subversive of her completed novels.
An emphasis on friends and friendship permeates Persuasion. In Love and Friendship (1993), Allan Bloom cites Rousseau’s idea that “whether there will be a proud and generous relationship to other men or one of hypocritical good fellowship grounded in murderous competition” (6) depends on one’s development of self-esteem or self-love. Lacking a true sense of self worth based on real human values, Anne’s father Sir Walter and her sister Elizabeth both exhibit the kind of “hypocritical” friendship, “grounded in murderous competition,” when they reestablish contact with their grand relation Lady Dalrymple. At the same time, Anne is renewing her friendship with Mrs. Smith. Indeed, Austen creates Mrs. Smith to give greater emphasis to the difficulties that Anne Elliot must overcome essentially by herself before her engagement to Wentworth can be reestablished. Though others may fail to recognize her value, Anne has enough confidence in herself to form “a proud and generous relationship” with many people, both male and female.
Anne’s and Wentworth’s friendships are closer to the sort that Allan Bloom describes when he repeats Aristotle’s classical definition of friendship as “a relationship between persons who are alike. The friend is a kind of true mirror in which one can see oneself” (205). Just as Wentworth has his Captain Harville, Anne has her Mrs. Smith—whom I consider to be neither the misanthropic monster that one critic so delights in demeaning nor the merely tiresome cynic that another critic sees, whose role in the novel, he implies, is mercifully short (cf. Duckworth, Mudrick). Mrs. Smith has been described as Anne’s double, “a dark mirror-image of herself” (Honan 87), though much more explicitly worldly, and Harville can be seen as Wentworth’s double, though much more openly emotional. We know, however, that Wentworth has strong feelings and acts upon these feelings, as demonstrated by his subordinating his own interests to his desire to comfort and support Benwick after his fiancée’s death. The circle of friends that Anne brings together ultimately acts as a catalyst for many of the events, including the finally successful conclusion to Anne’s relationship with Wentworth.
From Lyme to Bath, friends and friendship are the focus. In fact, in the second half of the novel we are told that Anne “was soon sensible of some mental change” (124). Through the new friendships she has established, Anne becomes so independent of her family that she no longer feels the same attachment to Kellynch, the leaving of which had been so painful for her a few months earlier. She is conscious of “how much more interesting to her was the home and the friendship of the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, than her own father’s house in Camden-place, or her own sister’s intimacy with Mrs. Clay” (124). This new mental state suggests to the reader that Anne has become, even in her own estimation, a different person from the resigned and repressed young woman so easily overlooked by her immediate family. The circle of friends that she developed in Lyme has greatly enlarged her vision of the world.
Leroy Smith also notes this change in Anne’s mood in his 1983 book, Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman. He comments on the way the patriarchal system affects women’s character development. According to Smith, such a system “discourages development of the instrumental side of women’s nature” while at the same time encouraging them “to become nurturant, responsive and kind in their relationships” (163). These last three desirable traits are also those of the ideal friend, and both Anne and Wentworth exhibit these traits equally in their friendships. However, in at least one crucial scene, Anne’s “instrumental side” also appears as highly developed as that of any male. Wentworth, on the other hand, is praised for behavior that is both “nurturant” and “responsive.” When Benwick needed both solace and comfort, Wentworth provided them, thus appropriating the female function. Wentworth “‘saved poor James’” (108), according to his friend Captain Harville. In Jane Austen and the Body: “The Picture of Health,” John Wiltshire comments that “Wentworth, in effect, nurses Benwick through the worst of his grief” (171). Conversely, after Louisa’s fall onto the pavement of the Lower Cobb, Anne assumes a male function by taking command. As Wiltshire notes, Anne “thinks quickly, resourcefully, and intelligently, making herself the effective temporary commander of this floundering human ship” (184).
In a recent study of Austen’s novels, Roger Gard suggests that in this scene on the Cobb “the relation between [Anne] and Wentworth is now one, at least, of parity” (197). Though the reader may appreciate this “parity,” both Anne and Wentworth are still constrained by the attitudes of their friends. Neither has yet seen the possibility that they could be joined in a marriage of equality. This scene is only the first of a complex series of role reversals that will finally bring that possibility to fruition.
It is through a reciprocal exchange of roles and friends that Austen brings Anne and Wentworth together, and the revisions that Austen made to the last chapters help us appreciate Anne and Wentworth as equals. By drawing deliberate parallels between Anne’s and Wentworth’s friendships in the novel, Austen emphasizes Anne’s increasing independence of mind and action and brings her finally to equality with Wentworth. Anne demonstrates both her gentleness and her strength through exercising the virtue of friendship. It is Wentworth who must learn to recognize her gentleness as integral to her strength of character. In Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood, Alison Sulloway observes: “[Anne] is constantly amused to find other people ‘caught’ in the ‘too common idea of spirit and gentleness being incompatible with each other,’ an archetype as dangerous as the assumption that separates women’s minds and hearts” (137).
The parallels between Anne’s friendship with Mrs. Smith and Wentworth’s friendship with Harville fall into several broad categories. First, when Anne and Wentworth form these friendships, both of them are for some reason vulnerable. Second, when they are reunited with their friends, after a prolonged break, the roles are reversed. It is now the friends who are vulnerable, each having experienced serious hardship. Third, each friend not only displays remarkable resiliency in his or her present difficult situation but also plays a significant role in the reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth.
Both Anne and Wentworth were most vulnerable when the friendships were formed. Anne, only fourteen, was a new student at school, “grieving for the loss of [her] mother,” when Mrs. Smith, then Miss Hamilton, “had shewn her kindness, . . . had been useful and good to her in a way which had considerably lessened her misery, and could never be remembered with indifference” (152). Only a year or so after Anne had broken off her engagement with Wentworth and immediately after he succeeded in receiving his first posting as a commander on the Asp, Wentworth met Harville. Wentworth’s comment about that first posting—“‘It was a great object with me, at that time, to be at sea,—a very great object. I wanted to be doing something’” (65)—has a subtextual meaning that only Anne can really understand. This subtext gives a second meaning to his recollection of his next posting on the Laconia and of “a lovely cruise together off the Western Islands” with Harville of whom he notes: “‘Poor Harville, sister! You know how much he wanted money—worse than myself. He had a wife.—Excellent fellow! I shall never forget his happiness. He felt it all, so much for her sake’” (67). We are not fully aware of the irony of his barely concealed envy of Harville’s good fortune in having a wife to inspire him until the next to last chapter of the novel. It is then that Wentworth discovers from Anne’s decisive “‘Would I!’” (247) that he himself could also have enjoyed the same good fortune had he been less pig-headed and written to Anne asking her to renew the engagement. Wentworth is forced to recognize that what he had considered his manly independence and strength of spirit was simply a failure to acknowledge Anne’s strength in sacrificing her immediate gratification to a higher sense of duty.
The ease or difficulty each one has in renewing the friendship underscores the freedom of movement that Wentworth enjoys as opposed to the constraints under which Anne must act. As usual, all is smooth sailing for Wentworth. First, he obviously has the freedom to travel at a moment’s notice: “Captain Wentworth’s anxiety to see [Harville] had determined him to go immediately to Lyme” (94). When his friends learn why they have missed his company for a few days, they have nothing but praise for his goodness: “His acquittal was complete, his friendship warmly honoured” (94). Louisa, who has been enjoying Wentworth’s attention, now seeing “merit in maintaining her own way” (94), is instrumental in getting a whole party to accompany Wentworth and to see Lyme for themselves. Thus, encouragement and approbation are given to a man to do what he feels is right. But Wentworth already has the means and independence to do so and does not need such public support.
Compare this to the difficulties Anne encounters in renewing her friendship with Mrs. Smith. Her ability to overcome them brings out her independence of mind on several fronts and provides an ironic commentary on her role within her family and society. It reveals her willingness to brave the disapproval of her father and sister and to act according to her own sense of duty. No other scene hitherto does that so well. She “mentioned nothing of what she had heard, or what she intended, at home. It would excite no proper interest there” (153). To the extent that she is able, she refuses absolutely to think or feel or act in any way according to the persuasion of Sir Walter and Elizabeth. Anne’s father and sister are so busy in “pushing their good fortune in Laura-Place” (152) that they apparently do not even notice Anne’s absence: “Anne had called several times on her friend, before the existence of such a person was known in Camden-place” (156). Instead of her friendship with Mrs. Smith being “warmly honoured” by her family, Sir Walter upbraids Anne roundly: “‘who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate-buildings? . . . Every thing that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you’” (157). These descriptive terms recall for the reader the actual description of the home of the Harvilles in Lyme. Its rooms are clearly too small to fit the large group visiting there, but the Musgrove party nonetheless finds it charming.
Anne must display great determination to go against her father’s wishes. Her sick friend is decried by Sir Walter as “‘a mere Mrs. Smith’” (158); and, far from planning to join her in her charitable visit, he urges Anne to “‘put off this old lady till to-morrow’” (157). Anne remains firm, and Austen’s irony makes plain that Anne clearly recognizes the flaw in Sir Walter’s arguments and that she
did long to say a little, in defence of her friend’s not very dissimilar claims to theirs [Mrs. Clay], but her sense of personal respect to her father prevented her. She made no reply. She left it to himself to recollect, that Mrs. Smith was not the only widow in Bath between thirty and forty, with little to live on and no sirname of dignity. (158)
The upshot of a rather long debate between Anne and her father is presented succinctly in the opening of a new paragraph: “Anne kept her appointment; the other kept theirs” (158).
Anne is aware that her clear-sighted judgment is not shared by her father or her sister.1 She is placed in that state of “moral isolation” that Sulloway describes: “Many of the heroines’ judgments shock their suitors and acquaintances; and this moral isolation places them in conditions of stress and loneliness quite similar to the plight of the historical feminists whose subversive ideas had reached the creators of these heroines by devious routes” (59). When Anne and Wentworth renew their respective friendships, the tables are turned. Both Harville and Smith have confronted physical and economic difficulties. Both are restricted in their movements, Harville being lame from a combat wound and Mrs. Smith crippled by rheumatic fever. Their physical surroundings are also analogous, Harville reduced to “a small house, near the foot of an old pier of unknown date” (96) and Mrs. Smith to “a noisy parlour, and a dark bed-room behind” (154).
Yet, ironically, even under these difficulties, to Anne both friends offer a hint of unlimited prospects. There is “such a bewitching charm” in the Harvilles’ style of hospitality that Anne thinks with regret that but for the long broken off engagement “‘These would have been all my friends’” (98). And in Mrs. Smith she finds “a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond her expectation” (153). Anne especially appreciates Mrs. Smith’s “elasticity of mind” and “disposition to be comforted” (154).
There is another similarity between Wentworth and Anne in that both have apparently overcome their original loss or sorrow. Wentworth has begun courting Louisa, or at least appears to be doing so, and now fills the small rooms to which Harville has been reduced with a joyous company. And by the time Anne reconnects with Miss Hamilton (now Mrs. Smith) she has begun to recover some of the bloom of her youth and has attracted the attention of not one but two very eligible men, Captain Benwick and Mr. Elliot.
Both Harville and Mrs. Smith, however, also show great resiliency in responding to their present difficulties. Thus, each provides an interesting foil to Wentworth and to Anne. Captain Harville has fitted up his home to use every inch of space to the best possible advantage through “ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements” (98). “A mind of usefulness and ingenuity seemed to furnish him with constant employment within” (99). Likewise Mrs. Smith fills her hours with useful employment and even manages with Nurse Rooke’s help to offer some relief to “one or two very poor families” in her neighborhood (155). One recent critic, Charles Rzepka, even sees Nurse Rooke as Austen’s self-portrait and as her role model for contemporary single women, but as praiseworthy as she is made to appear, her role is too limited to be seen as such. Anne is clearly impressed by the courage but also by a certain natural inclination she observes in Mrs. Smith: “that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (154). While appreciating the value of such resilience, Anne still suffers from occasional bouts of melancholy and depression over apparently losing Wentworth’s love and esteem. And Wentworth himself is still consumed with anger and resentment toward Anne for hurting him.
Austen uses links that she creates between these friends to bring about the final reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth. She develops a series of equivalent relationships in which Wentworth and Anne seem to exchange roles as sympathetic friend. What Wentworth was to Benwick in the past, Anne becomes; what Wentworth is to Harville in the present, Anne becomes. Finally, what Mr. Elliot should have been to Mrs. Smith in the past, Anne enables Wentworth to become in the future. These exchanges of roles between the central characters are also mirrored by equivalent exchanges involving Wentworth and Anne and the two minor characters, Benwick and Louisa. Just as Louisa exchanges Wentworth for Benwick, Benwick exchanges Anne for Louisa—though only Anne is fully aware of the latter exchange. Wentworth is conscious of Benwick’s superiority to Louisa in terms of seriousness and scholarship, but he does not seem to have noted Benwick’s initial attraction to Anne. What makes these latter exchanges more ironic is that Captain Wentworth acted very sympathetically toward Benwick when Benwick’s fiancée died the previous summer. Wentworth’s sympathy for Benwick’s suffering, as reported to Anne by Captain Harville, would be more aptly applied to Anne herself:
Captain Wentworth believed it impossible for man to be more attached to woman than poor Benwick had been to Fanny Harville, or to be more deeply afflicted under the dreadful change. He considered his disposition as of the sort which must suffer heavily, uniting very strong feelings with quiet, serious, and retiring manners, and a decided taste for reading, and sedentary pursuits. (96-97)
Anne’s unspoken response turns out to be the more true: “‘he has not, perhaps, a more sorrowful heart than I have. . . . He will rally again’” (97).
Anne and Wentworth begin to reach equality through these role exchanges and parallels, first in their sympathetic understanding of others and then in the debt they owe to friends for helping them understand each other. While Harville’s retreat in Lyme offers the perfect setting for Benwick to fall in love with Louisa, it is Harville’s real attachment both to Wentworth and to Benwick, along with his general good-heartedness, that moves him to offer room in his house to the psychologically injured Benwick, and then to the physically injured Louisa. Like Wentworth, Harville is attracted by Anne’s gentle spirit. Her gentleness encourages him to seek solace from her, first at Lyme and later in Bath. His seeking her out provides the opening for the crucial dialogue that allows Anne to reveal her own hitherto unexpressed feelings at last. Soon after meeting Anne again, in a rare exhibition of emotion, Mrs. Smith exclaims, “‘There is so little real friendship in the world!’” (156). But by this point we have observed Anne connecting to an ever-larger group of friends who have been drawn to her by her gentleness and strength of mind and character.
The revised chapter in which Austen presented Wentworth’s silent proposal is the climax of friendship’s role in the novel. Turning the conventional love scene topsy-turvy, Austen silences Wentworth. Actively engaged in his role as a friend to Harville and to Benwick, Wentworth sits without speaking during most of the scene, focused on a letter he is writing for Harville to save Harville pain. Austen then gives Anne, acting in her role as Harville’s friend, the power to speak at last, while Harville assumes several roles simultaneously. Initially, Harville takes on Benwick’s role as mourner for Fanny, a role that Benwick has all too soon relinquished, but he also unconsciously exchanges roles with Wentworth by voicing sentiments about love and constancy that Wentworth would reveal if he could. Finally, Harville is even ready, albeit also unconsciously, to act for Anne.
Austen gives Anne the last word by having Wentworth admit that Anne holds the power to decide his fate. Anne is now in the position of strength. Wentworth even confesses in his note that what she says “overpowers” him (237). And probably remembering how apt he was to misread her sentiments in the past, Anne fears “some mischance” even now (239). She tells herself, “it would be in her power to send an intelligible sentence by Captain Harville” (239, italics mine). So Harville could be asked to assume even Anne’s role by acting in her place.
Austen again repeats the theme of the roles and role reversals of friends in the final paragraphs of the novel. As Wentworth takes the place of Mr. Elliot in exchanging vows with Anne, “their marriage, instead of depriving [Mrs. Smith] of one friend, secured her of two” (251). Anne “had but two friends in the world to add to [Wentworth’s] list” (251). And Wentworth proves “a determined friend” to Mrs. Smith (252), whose “enjoyments were not spoiled by . . . the acquisition of such friends” (252), Anne and Wentworth, now united as friends and as equals.
1. Since Austen gives the reader such clear insight into Anne’s thoughts, I am always curious why Marvin Mudrick insists that we never see Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and Mrs. Clay through Anne’s eyes: “they are never assimilated to Anne’s story: the abuse that holds them off is so patently the author’s and generally so amusing that we . . . [never] trace it back to Anne, who seems incapable of it anyway” (219).
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-1969.
Bloom, Allan. Love and Friendship. New York: Simon, 1993.
Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971, 1994.
Gard, Roger. Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.
Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: Fawcett, 1989.
Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. Princeton: PUP, 1952.
Rzepka, Charles J. “Making It in a Brave New World: Marriage, Profession, and Anti-Romantic Ekstasis in Austen’s Persuasion.” Studies-in-the-Novel 26.2 (Sum. 1994): 99-120.
Smith, Leroy. Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman. New York: St. Martin’s, 1983.
Sulloway, Alison. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989.
Wiltshire, John. Jane Austen and the Body: “The Picture of Health.” New York: Cambridge UP, 1992.