One of the most extraordinary technological developments of contemporary life is the Global Positioning System [GPS], a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of twenty-four satellites and their ground stations. GPS uses these “man-made stars” as reference points to calculate positions accurate to a matter of meters. In fact, with advanced forms of GPS, one can make measurements that are accurate to the scale of a single centimeter. In a sense, this technology gives every square meter on the planet a unique address and allows us to know exactly where we are at any given moment, whether in a taxi navigating towards the Biltmore, in a tank in the Iraqi desert, or at the Pump Room in Bath. I would like to use GPS as a metaphor for Austen’s depiction of social and physical space in Persuasion, where both social and physical space is also calibrated and denoted to a precise and minute scale. In particular, the spaces of Persuasion offer a view of a consciousness—Anne Elliot’s—brought to spatial hypersensitivity, acutely in touch with her placement in relation to others, both literally and metaphorically. Further, I ask how the precisions of the geographical imagination Austen evidences in Persuasion are inflected by Anne’s embeddedness in human relations—in this novel, what sort of geography do we find?
What sort of geographer was Jane Austen, or, more precisely, what sort of geographer had she come to be by the time she wrote Persuasion? Certainly, Austen reveals an interest in being careful about geographical concerns: inches make a difference in this novel, as Louisa’s fall makes plain, as do miles, such as the (specifically) fifty miles separating the spacious interiors of Kellynch and the thirty-foot-wide rented rooms in Camden Place. Her Newtonian certainties about time and space and her affinity for reading both moral and social realities as hierarchical were adjusted, increasingly, throughout her career by her awareness that the human element introduces something relative into geographical matrixes, and that individual subjectivities operate in some sense to create Einsteinian curves in the space-time continuum. One’s character and worldview helps set one’s understanding of both place and time, a logic Anne Elliot follows relative to place when she notes, after her removal to Uppercross at the start of Persuasion, that “she believed she must now submit to feel that another lesson, in the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle, was become necessary for her” (42), or later, relative to time, that Captain Benwick’s grief has a decent chance of coming to an end: “‘He is younger than I am; younger in feeling, if not in fact; younger as a man’” (97). Anne’s awareness—and Austen’s—that time and space are to some degree relative, inflected by human values, both individual and collective, leads us to cultural geography.
Cultural geography, sometimes termed human or social geography, is the discipline that works to understand the places of the earth in relation to the human beings who find meaning in them and who are in turn partly defined by them. Recent disciplinary movements in cultural geography have brought the academy such sub-disciplinary emphases as Marxist geography and feminist geography, and we should not be too surprised to note that “postmodern geography” now bestrides the field as well. Postmodern geography posits the social construction of spatial relations, and provides a useful lens through which to view the geography of Persuasion. Though in Persuasion there are certain obdurate, unmoving physical facts, like the stone Bishop Berkeley kicked (for instance, the pavement on the Cobb won’t make way for Louisa’s imperative desire to have just one more thrilling jump), Persuasion marks itself throughout as a text concerned with the way in which geographical realities—placement, movement, longitude, latitude—are shifted and constructed by human consciousness. Throughout, Anne may know with the precision GPS provides exactly where she and Wentworth are in respect to each other, but she has much more difficulty determining how she and Wentworth are in respect to each other.
Alistair Duckworth in his Improvement of the Estate has famously and impressively demonstrated that Persuasion reveals Austen’s turning against the idea of the estate as a marker for traditional values and her openness to other institutions, such as the navy, as conveyors of what is good and worth conserving: “here the estate is not endangered but abandoned” (184). Claudia Johnson, following Duckworth, has argued that
The interests of happiness, piety, and well-being demand removal from Kellynch Hall, its proprieties and priorities. But whether moving beyond Kellynch or any equivalent bespeaks a victory of autonomy from what a great house represents, or a despair of its ever improving enough to be desirable, is hard to say. . . . Good characters depart from [stately houses] without a breach, differ from them without defiance. (165)
What follows is my attempt to extend the arguments of both Duckworth and Johnson, to argue that in this her final novel, Austen turns against the idea of any kind of place as a stable marker for human value. What becomes most important to Austen in Persuasion is the human element of space, especially what is authentic and valuable between two lovers, wherever they might be. Ultimately, I will suggest that Anne and Wentworth effect something of an escape from geography.
It’s appropriate to view Persuasion through the geographic lens because Anne Elliot is herself marked as a capable geographer of physical and social space from early in the novel. She knows that social space, unlike physical space, is relative, and knows the exact degree of difference between the status of Kellynch to its inhabitants discussing its value within the confines of its drawing room on the one hand and its status to those three miles away (the distance is marked exactly) at Uppercross. Her geographic skills are different from those of Fanny Price, whose geographic interests are brought to our attention, first in terms of her deficits (her cousins sneer because Fanny as a child thinks every island is the Isle of Wight, the only island she knows) and then later in terms of her role as arm-chair imaginist, reading in the East room about Lord Macartney’s travels to China. Unlike Fanny, Anne is a skilled geographer because she has had to be to follow the career of Captain Wentworth; she knows where the Asp and the Laconia have sailed, and where Admiral Croft has been stationed, and the byways of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, because she has been reading the navy lists and newspapers like the Naval Gazette.1
Anne’s skill as a geographer, then, has one purpose: to track the man she loves. Beyond that, her consciousness and valuation of place shifts, from a nostalgic desire to keep Kellynch as an ideal to a more forward-looking movement towards Wentworth himself. At the novel’s start, she does invest place with meaning, especially the favored “lawns and groves” of Kellynch (14). But her attitude towards place is neither aristocratic nor inflexible. In this regard, she is opposed by her family, all of whom are attached to the conservative idea that “place”—estate as well as rank—connotes value directly and irrespective of the human qualities on display. Everywhere, the Elliots and their ally Lady Russell employ the language of “degradation,” “descent,” and “disgrace” to illustrate what is at issue in Sir Walter’s leaving Kellynch or in other matters that threaten their own social prominence. For example, Lady Russell avers that “[i]t would be too much to expect Sir Walter to descend into a small house in his own neighbourhood” (14, emphasis mine). Mary too, full of the Elliot pride, has an unvarying regard for “place” in its double sense of estate and social rank. The Miss Musgroves complain to Anne “‘how nonsensical some persons are about their place, because, all the world knows how easy and indifferent you are about it: but I wish any body could give Mary a hint that it would be a great deal better if she were not so very tenacious; especially, if she would not be always putting herself forward to take place of mamma’” (46). It is left to Mrs. Croft to speak the language that undermines such nonsensical commitments to “place” as a sign of rank, as when she compares the elegance of Kellynch Hall unfavorably to a man-of-war: “‘I declare I have not a comfort or an indulgence about me, even at Kellynch-hall . . . beyond what I always had in most of the ships I have lived in; and they have been five altogether’” (69). Like Mrs. Croft, Anne opposes aristocratic values that confuse rank with intrinsic dignity; even the opening pages of the novel tell us that Anne desires “honesty against importance” (12), and later she asserts that she is “‘too proud to enjoy a welcome which depends . . . entirely upon place’” (151). Opposed to the Elliots are the manipulators—Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliot—for whom place works as one among a number of variables to be used to their advantage. Mr. Elliot’s changing valuation of Kellynch-hall follows only from ambition, though he can speak the language of privilege well enough (“‘rank is rank,’” he tells Anne ), while Mrs. Clay is entirely knowledgeable about the contextual art of flattery: “she was a clever young woman, who understood the art of pleasing; the art of pleasing, at least, at Kellynch-hall” (15).
In the center, between the extremes of the Elliots, hide-bound reverers of rank and place, and the Machiavells, Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay, stands Anne. Her assessment of the value of an estate or of any one place at all shifts in the novel, so that though by the novel’s end she will be tempted briefly by the idea of conjoining in herself the name “Lady Elliot” with a reinvigoration of Kellynch, she will also reject the idea: “For a few moments her imagination and her heart were bewitched. The idea of becoming what her mother had been; of having the precious name of ‘Lady Elliot’ first revived in herself; of being restored to Kellynch, calling it her home again, her home for ever, was a charm which she could not immediately resist” (160). “Bewitched” is the key term here, and Anne shakes off this atavistic vision as an immoral one, depending as it does on marrying a man of whom she disapproves: “The same image of Mr. Elliot speaking for himself, brought Anne to composure again. The charm of Kellynch and of ‘Lady Elliot’ all faded away. She never could accept him” (160).
Anne’s changing ideas about Kellynch are displayed against a consistent motif in the novel of missed opportunities and meetings. The novel is replete with small occasions on which the reader—and Anne—are led to expect that she or someone else will meet someone or go somewhere or that someone will come to them; again and again, these expectations are unfulfilled. These many missed meetings serve as an object lesson about impermanence, chance, and luck, and argue implicitly against holding too tightly onto a value system that connects one’s “place,” however understood, with one’s happiness. Further, the repeated trope of confounding Anne’s and others’ expectations that a given person will appear in a given place reinforces the idea that places only take on meaning as they become scenes for human action and feeling.
We begin this pattern at the famous end of chapter three, where Austen plays with the reader’s romantic expectations by allowing Anne a “gentle sigh” as she walks along a “favourite grove”: “‘a few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here’” (25). The reader is being set up in two ways. First, we are invited to conjecture prematurely about who this romantic “he” might be (the start of the next chapter humorously upbraids us by relating, “He was not Mr. Wentworth, the former curate of Monkford, however suspicious appearances may be, but a captain Frederick Wentworth, his brother” ). Second, and more important for the present argument, we are being led to expect that at some happy moment in the plot, Anne will walk through these favorite groves with this beloved, even if he is at the moment unknown. Incidentally, both here and later when Wentworth is installed at Kellynch with the Crofts, Austen couldn’t be plainer about what Anne is not thinking: how unfair it is that the man she loved and rejected is now living the high life in the house from which she has been expelled through no fault of her own. For instance, since we as readers are unlikely to be as purely good as Anne, we might well notice the point when the narrator tells us that “Captain Wentworth was come to Kellynch as to a home, to stay as long as he liked” (73). However, the very issue—envy—that would gnaw at either of her repellent sisters or lesser mortals such as us never intrudes into Anne’s consciousness at all. She is not even disturbed when Mary wonders whether Wentworth might someday be made a baronet, rising to their father’s status with more than their father’s wealth: “‘That would be a noble thing, indeed, for Henrietta! She would take place of me then, and Henrietta would not dislike that. Sir Frederick and Lady Wentworth!’” (75). In any case, this walk in the groves of Kellynch never happens, or at least, if Wentworth ever strolls there while he is staying with the Crofts, Austen never tells us about it, and Anne and Wentworth certainly never stroll there together.
The pattern of missed meetings continues apace. Anne stays away when the Crofts first tour Kellynch in the role of prospective tenants (“Anne found it most natural to take her almost daily walk to Lady Russell’s, and keep out of the way till all was over” ). She almost meets Captain Wentworth on his first visit to Uppercross, but the fall of her nephew prevents her usual morning visit to the Great House. That next evening, while Mary and Charles abdicate their parental responsibilities and leave her to tend to their wounded son, Anne is left to ponder, “what was it to her, if Frederick Wentworth were only half a mile distant, making himself agreeable to others!” (58). Wentworth himself is the agent of the next missed encounter, as he arranges things so that the breakfast occurs at the Great House rather than at the Cottage. A few days later, by pleading a headache, Anne also misses the dinner at which Henrietta and Louisa vie for Wentworth’s attentions.
Nor does Anne see Wentworth while she is at Lady Russell’s, though she expects to: being there “would place her in the same village with Captain Wentworth, within half a mile of him; they would have to frequent the same church, and there must be intercourse between the two families” (93). This half-mile Anne notes, incidentally, seems to guarantee contact, while a different half-mile, that between Charles’s cottage and the Great House, had been, we remember, at one point an insuperable barrier. The seemingly guaranteed contact, however, comes to nothing, because the intervening visit to Lyme and the accident there disrupt everything: Wentworth goes to visit his brother to create distance, both emotional and physical, between himself and Louisa. Thus Anne’s anxiety about their renewed proximity comes to nothing. As the narrator notes, “So ended all danger to Anne of meeting Captain Wentworth at Kellynch-hall, or of seeing him in company with her friend. Every thing was safe enough, and she smiled over the many anxious feelings she had wasted on the subject” (128).
If she isn’t to expect Captain Wentworth, she is to expect Captain Benwick. Charles Musgrove gives Anne every reason to expect a visit from this newly-ardent admirer. However, as Elizabeth Elliot found with Mr. Elliot many years earlier at Kellynch, the ardency of a suitor becomes suspect when he never shows up. Benwick is expected and expected, but never comes:
There can be no doubt that Lady Russell and Anne were both occasionally thinking of Captain Benwick, from this time. Lady Russell could not hear the door-bell without feeling that it might be his herald; nor could Anne return from any stroll of solitary indulgence in her father’s grounds, or any visit of charity in the village, without wondering whether she might see him or hear of him. Captain Benwick came not, however. (133)
Only many chapters later will the reader learn that his non-appearance followed from his fickle new attachment to the convalescent Louisa, and further learn that the doctrine of “location, location, location” holds in matters of romance as well as real estate valuations. Anne realizes that Benwick fell in love with Louisa because she was there. Anne queries herself, “Where could have been the attraction? The answer soon presented itself. It had been in situation” (166-67). Any young eligible woman in Benwick’s immediate orbit was thus marked to become the woman he would choose to marry. As Anne notes, “any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him, would have received the same compliment. He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody” (167). After all, when Anne had been the young woman closest to hand, Benwick had wooed her.
The vagaries of human connections are also reinforced by meetings which are unexpected. Such chance meetings include Mr. Elliot’s visit to the very inn at which Anne’s party is staying at Lyme, or Wentworth’s entrance into the same tea shop that holds Anne, her sister, and Mrs. Clay at Bath. We know that both men would have been glad of the benefits of GPS to track Anne down, but Austen’s role as providential author is sufficient to bring both Mr. Elliott and Captain Wentworth within meters of the woman they desire. Authorial providence seems to play a role as well when Wentworth catches Anne alone as she tends her injured nephew, or when the ladies’ walk to Winthrop happens to converge with the walk of the returning sportsmen, Wentworth and Charles Musgrove. In her role as one who guarantees providential meetings, Austen has been kind enough to provide a too-young dog to the hunters, who prematurely spoils their chances of killing the birds they had in view.
In one telling moment, Austen goes so far as to invoke Providence (capitalized) as the cause of such near-misses or unexpected meetings. When Mary makes a great fuss about missing an opportunity to be introduced to Mr. Elliot at the inn in Lyme, she laments the mourning requirements which made it impossible for her to discern the Elliot livery as well as the greatcoat that happened to obscure the Elliot arms displayed on the coach’s door. Wentworth’s commentary is ironic: “‘Putting all these very extraordinary circumstances together, . . . we must consider it to be the arrangement of Providence, that you should not be introduced to your cousin’” (106). His speech reminds us of Austen’s own role as the creator of providential circumstances, arranging the plot as she does to amplify the uncertainties of human contact. Further, however, Austen has played a providential role in this particular instance of plot, for had the introduction Mary seeks taken place, the incident which follows Mary’s complaint, Louisa’s fall, might not have taken place, and Louisa’s fall is key to the ultimate reunification of Anne and Wentworth.
Austen encourages the reader to participate in the expectations and disappointments felt by her characters relative to these missed meetings. For example, the first-time reader of the novel is expecting Benwick at Kellynch Lodge as much as is Anne or Lady Russell. This employment of red herrings is particularly notable toward the end of the novel, when we are led to believe that something of real significance will follow Anne’s meeting with Lady Russell, in which she expects to inform Lady Russell about the true badness of Mr. Elliot’s character. We are informed of multiple delays that hinder this meeting, each time in a way that implies this communication is vital to the narrative’s progress. The most striking passage telling of such a delay employs a metaphor from a famous meta-narrative, The Arabian Night’s Entertainment: Anne “had promised to be with the Musgroves from breakfast to dinner. Her faith was plighted, and Mr. Elliot’s character, like the Sultaness Scheherazade’s head, must live another day” (229). Only by telling the Sultan another tale each night did the Sultaness preserve her life; Mr. Elliot’s reputation with Lady Russell is preserved by Anne’s not telling a tale. More important, it never ultimately matters. Lady Russell only learns about Mr. Elliot’s rottenness after Anne and Wentworth are engaged and after Mr. Elliot has run off with Mrs. Clay. Thus, the putatively vital meeting between Anne and Lady Russell serves no function in the plot and is never rendered in a scene. Similarly, the plot of the last few chapters extends another red herring, for all of Anne’s hopes for reconciliation with Captain Wentworth seem to hinge upon whether or not Captain Wentworth will attend Elizabeth’s evening party. But a chance meeting in the street between Anne and Wentworth brings them entirely in loving accord with each other much earlier that day, and the evening party becomes nothing more than a scene for afterthoughts. By drawing the reader into a web of expectations concerning these and other events which never actually occur, Austen reinforces her point that chance plays such a large role in human affairs that happiness must be seized whenever and wherever it becomes available.
One last missed meeting comes so late in the novel that Austen can play it for full comic effect, secure in the knowledge that the pattern has been strongly established thus far. Walking with Lady Russell, Anne has caught sight of Wentworth on the streets of Bath, after a full hour of an “incessant and fearful sort of watch for him in vain” (178). Her consciousness marks him with intensity and precision: “She distinguished him on the right hand pavement at such a distance as to have him in view the greater part of the street. There were many other men about him, many groups walking the same way, but there was no mistaking him” (179). With great anxiety and anticipation, she awaits the moment when Lady Russell will also see Wentworth, and, at the last moment, is sure that Lady Russell’s intent gaze has fallen on the man she loves. So sure is Anne that she hypothesizes the train of thoughts and feelings Lady Russell is experiencing:
She could thoroughly comprehend the sort of fascination he must possess over Lady Russell’s mind, the difficulty it must be for her to withdraw her eyes, the astonishment she must be feeling that eight or nine years should have passed over him, and in foreign climes and in active service too, without robbing him of one personal grace! (179)
The moment of comic deflation arrives—Lady Russell has been looking for a certain kind of window-curtain and has not seen Wentworth at all. Moreover, because Anne has been preoccupied with watching Lady Russell, she has missed seeing whether Wentworth saw her. Austen may be expressing something of this three-way missed view (we do not learn if Wentworth saw Anne, nor if Lady Russell saw Wentworth, and Anne misses seeing Wentworth at the crucial moment) in a rude joke, as the curtains Lady Russell sought were putatively the “‘handsomest and best hung of any in Bath’” (179); the curtains’ qualities, if seen in Wentworth, would confirm his physical attractions at a level of view much lower (in both senses) than Lady Russell’s upraised gaze.2 At any rate, Lady Russell has missed both the curtains and the man.
The force of all these hypothetical meetings and missed chances is amplified by other hypothetical musings in the novel. Given the novel’s abiding interest in regret, we should not be surprised that Anne’s speech is often described hypothetically, in terms of what might have been said but has not been and cannot be said.3 For example, Anne’s sober assessment of her early decision against Wentworth is framed thus: “How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been,—how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!” (30). Similarly, we note her somber reflection on meeting Captain Benwick and Captain Harville and his family: “‘These would have been all my friends’” (98). We even have the narrator recording for Anne on the occasion of her first visit to Kellynch after the Crofts’ possession a curious hypothetical negative apostrophe to Kellynch: “In such moments Anne had no power of saying to herself, ‘These rooms ought to belong only to us. Oh, how fallen in their destination! How unworthily occupied! An ancient family to be so driven away! Strangers filling their place!’” (126). These lines are remarkable for their rhetorical complexity; not only do they imply a snobbery that Anne has never felt, they give voice to a speech Anne could only give were her family worthy of her station. The speeches which are imagined but never voiced work in parallel throughout the novel with the meetings that never occur to make genuine human connection all the more valuable.
The most important missed meeting occurs, of course, when Louisa jumps precipitately off the Cobb and misses Wentworth’s hands, waiting to catch her. By the end of the novel, we know that this accident was indeed providential, because it provides a deus ex machina by which Wentworth and Anne can come together again. Interestingly, Louisa’s leap down works to sink her appeal to Wentworth, while a few pages earlier, his interest in Anne is rekindled when she ascends some steps at the beach under the obviously admiring gaze of Mr. Elliot. Austen is not too sophisticated an author to be above having Anne go up, literally and figuratively, as Louisa goes down.
All these missed meetings are further underscored by a related pattern in the novel, the multiple prior sad histories of various characters, histories marked by grief or loss. The stillborn son who would have been Anne’s younger brother and who would have kept the estate within her own immediate family, Lady Elliot’s death, Elizabeth’s early disappointment in Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Clay’s widowhood, the death of “poor” Dick Musgrove, Charles Musgrove’s failed proposal of marriage to Anne, the death of Fanny Harville, Mrs. Smith’s widowhood and financial ruin—all create a threnody of disappointment behind the novel’s most important and foundational sad history, that of Anne’s early loss of Wentworth. All these losses have taken place before the novel even begins, a point that reinforces the moral that human connections are difficult to maintain in the face of illness, greed, vanity, death, and war. We are led to understand that Wentworth’s playful apostrophe to the nut, that symbol of constancy, should perhaps have spoken more of the providential arrangement that had secured it from the blasts of autumn. That is, the nut should not get as much credit for staying uninjured as he gives it. We are further led to understand that Anne’s eventual recompense, her reversal of loss, is both precious and extraordinary.
If happiness is indeed so tenuously gained, how does one place oneself to bring happiness into being? After all, once Wentworth returns to England, Anne no longer needs newspapers or maps to learn where he is from a geographical point of view, but she is still handicapped by propriety and circumstance from making much of their relative physical proximity. After all, what good is GPS if the person you seek is exactly next to you, but distant? The novel emphasizes, through Anne’s consciousness, the intensity of the hero’s and heroine’s mutual physical relation more than in any other of Austen’s novels, exactly in order to make clear how far apart they really are. Particularly before the scenes in Bath, the emphasis is on closeness without closeness, on the disjunction between physical propinquity and emotional alienation. The pattern begins when Anne and Wentworth first meet in the parlor at Uppercross Cottage, where Anne’s distress is so extreme that she can barely attend to the buzz of “persons and voices” (59). Anne’s thoughts just after this encounter run in circles—“She had seen him. They had met. They had been once more in the same room!” (60)—but the repetition of statements which insist on their physical nearness only emphasizes their apartness in every other respect. In this encounter, we are told, Wentworth has said “all that was right” (59), but this phrase can only denote civil nothingnesses. He will not say “all that is right” for many pages to come. As their moments of physical contiguity continue, so that they are “repeatedly in the same circle,” Anne laments what seems to be a “perpetual estrangement”: “Once so much to each other! Now nothing! . . . Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted” (63-64).
The distance between Anne and Wentworth in these scenes is charged, as when Mrs. Musgrove sits between them on a sofa, and room must be made for her “large fat sighings” (68). Anne’s thoughts make plain how unnerving she finds this particular spatial configuration: “They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him;—they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier indeed” (68). Prior to the chapters at Lyme, Wentworth and Anne even touch physically twice, or, rather, Wentworth touches Anne, but these occasions only magnify the other distances between them. When he hauls the burly toddler off Anne’s back without saying a word, or when he again wordlessly hands her into the Crofts’ carriage after the long walk to Winthrop, the chasm between the touch and the intangible barriers between them is wide and deep. Even after the accident at Lyme, when he is sitting right between Anne and Henrietta on the return carriage journey to Uppercross, he keeps his distance, turning always towards Henrietta rather than towards Anne and appealing to Anne only in the last moments of their trip, a softening of his previous aloofness which she cherishes.
The language of precise placement intensifies in the final Bath sections, where Anne becomes in charge of her own movements, maneuvering into particular vantage points within various public spaces, such as her strategic choice of the end bench at the concert, and insisting on her right to choose her own travels about town, as when she claims and acts upon her prerogative to visit Mrs. Smith in the relatively humble “Westgate-buildings.” Up to this point in the novel, Anne has been the one character without freedom of movement or choice about where she will go. Austen has focused repeatedly in the narrative on the perversity of the restrictions placed upon Anne, starting with her father’s decision to move to Bath: “There had been three alternatives, London, Bath, or another house in the country. All Anne’s wishes had been for the latter. . . . But the usual fate of Anne attended her. . . . She disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her—and Bath was to be her home” (13-14). Later, she is commanded to go to Uppercross by her sister, and the matter is settled by Elizabeth’s proclamation that no one will want Anne in Bath. Later still, Lady Russell’s social calendar determines when Anne will ultimately go to Bath. As for the trip to Lyme, the others may be “wild” to go, but Anne’s role in the trip is decided for her rather than left to her inclination. The situation is the same when it becomes a question of who will return to Uppercross versus who will stay to nurse Louisa; Anne’s inclination is again overruled, this time by Mary’s selfishness.
Anne has little or no agency, then, about her own movements until she comes to Bath. Only in Bath do we meet a character with less freedom of movement than Anne: Mrs. Smith, whose “accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour, and a dark bed-room behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance” (154). The focus in Bath, however, as many critics have noted, is on Anne’s ability to move, decide, and act for herself. There, at the evening concert, Anne is emboldened to “mak[e] yet a little advance” and to speak to Wentworth “instantly” (181). Though they are divided later that night by his jealousy of Mr. Elliot, Anne still works to catch his eye. And while Wentworth retreats, believing himself beaten by his rival, we are not at this point in the novel encouraged to believe that the retreat will be permanent. In other words, the red herring of Wentworth’s jealousy of Mr. Elliot does not carry much force here. We not only have the “tell-tale compression of the pages” to show that we are “hastening together to perfect felicity,” as the antepenultimate page of Northanger Abbey declares (250), but we also have Anne herself, steadying her own and the reader’s fears: “‘Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness’” (221).
The climax of the novel offers a particularly charged sense of intimate distance and a particularly subtle set of maneuvers, all designed so that Anne and Wentworth can return to right relation with each other. Anne’s confession of her continuing love for Wentworth, veiled as it is in generalities spoken to Captain Harville, works only if Wentworth is close enough to hear it, and Austen is at pains to keep us in suspense about whether or not he is hearing it: how close, exactly, is close enough? At the sound of his dropped pen, Anne turns, “startled at finding him nearer than she had supposed, and half inclined to suspect that the pen had only fallen, because he had been occupied by them, striving to catch sounds, which yet she did not think he could have caught” (233-34). Anne learns from his note, scrawled under the influence of her words, that he has heard her, indeed: “‘You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others’” (237). The letter prepares for their happenstance meeting in Union-street, when they can explain to each other the private ardor the narrator refrains from giving us in direct speech. All the reader need know is that here “the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed; and prepare for it all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow” (240).
Here, at the moment of romantic resolution, Austen underscores that the place, the backdrop for this scene, falls far short of the romantic venue in the Kellynch groves Anne had gently sighed for at the start of the novel. Instead, Anne and Wentworth must make do, first with a “gravel-walk” in the center of Bath, crowded with “sauntering politicians, bustling house-keepers, flirting girls, [and] nursery-maids and children” (240-41), and, second, with a few stolen moments in the Camden-house drawing rooms, only a few feet from a throng of relations and friends, as they share their intimacies next to a “fine display of green-house plants” (246). These green-house plants are there, I warrant, to remind us that this locale is expressly not the idyll Anne had formerly imagined, but, further, that where the lovers are at this point simply does not matter.
It has often been remarked, but bears repeating, that given Austen’s previous consuming interest in settling her heroines into particular spaces—estates—loaded with specific marks of cultural and moral value, it is revolutionary for her to leave to the reader’s imagination the final placement of Anne and Wentworth. In fact, they are not really finally “placed” at all, though we do learn that they have a “settled Life” (with “Life” capitalized in the original manuscript ending of the novel [251, 273]). But this “settled Life” is threatened by the prospect of another war, and the one detail we learn about Anne’s married life, her “pretty landaulette” (250), indicates that she and Wentworth will emulate the Crofts’ touring spirit. What matters is that they are together, and presumably will be even if England goes to war again, if (as seems likely) Anne emulates what has been presented to us as Mrs. Croft’s good example. If Austen has operated as a cultural geographer throughout the novel, seeking to make sense of people in relation to the places they occupy, by the novel’s end she has allowed her two protagonists the latitude to escape longitude, as it were. Anne and Wentworth are not described as being at any given point of the compass, nor are they at any particular address or estate, and surely they do not reside in any of the multiple Bath streets named in the novel, Pulteney or Union Street, Camden or Laura Place. They are not available to the reader’s positioning systems; our readerly radars are useless. For Austen and for her protagonists, this escape from our spatial reckoning must be imagined as a victory.
1. The names of Wentworth’s two ships are revealing. The Asp, his first ship, invokes the mode of suicide Cleopatra employs after Antony fails her. Wentworth, partly in jest, speaks of the Asp as a death-trap: “‘The admiralty . . . entertain themselves now and then, with sending a few hundred men to sea, in a ship not fit to be employed. But they have a great many to provide for; and among the thousands that may just as well go to the bottom as not, it is impossible for them to distinguish the very set who may be least missed’” (65). The Laconia, his second ship, was the Attic name for Sparta, and gives us our adjective “laconic.” It is an appropriate name for a ship on which the hero finds his worth through action alone.
On another note, Michael Page at the University of Nebraska has recently found in the university library, camouflaged under a 1950s binding, a scrapbook of the Naval Gazette, the paper of record for naval affairs in Austen’s day, and other newspaper clippings related to the navy’s monumental struggle against the French army of Napoleon. The compiler of this collection, one R. Chapman, lived five doors down from the Naval Gazette’s publisher (93 and 98 Cheapside, respectively, in London); he starts his collection at the first report of the Battle of Trafalgar and Lord Nelson’s death (the battle took place in October 1805 but news of the engagement didn’t reach British shores until November), and finishes it with an account of the disastrous retreat of the Grand Armée from Russia in 1812, just two years before the narrative of Persuasion begins, just after the Treaty of Paris in 1814. One of the lovely things about this homemade collection is that Chapman was plainly a man in-the-know during this period; his marginalia correct casualty reports and other matters of fact. Mr. Chapman seems to have been as attentive a reader of naval affairs as Anne Elliot, and one can imagine Anne keeping a similar scrapbook of naval postings and news during the long years between 1806 and 1814, a period that overlaps the period of this collection.
2. Jillian Heydt-Stevenson has memorably suggested that this metonymy (well-hung curtains standing in for a well-hung man) is part of a much larger system of subversive and bawdy humor Austen incorporates in her novels. Her reading of this particular moment in Persuasion argues that Lady Russell’s reference to the curtains covers (“curtains”) the fact that she had in fact seen Wentworth, and thus she unconsciously transforms his disturbing presence into the safer and concealing curtains (193-96). Lady Russell’s desire to make this replacement Heydt-Stevenson sees as following from her aversion to his modest origins (194). I am convinced, however, that the metonymy takes place only on the level of the narrative, not at the level of Lady Russell’s consciousness—were Lady Russell to have seen Wentworth, she would not unconsciously replace him in a language of avoidance and displacement with such complimentary terms. The general reading of the curtains as metonymic of Wentworth’s body, however, is reinforced by the fact that Lady Russell has been looking for curtains described to her by two friends, Lady Alicia and Mrs. Frankland (characters whom we never meet). “Alicia” can be etymologically understood as suggesting the “a-licit,” the illicit, while Mrs. Frankland’s name implies that this passage operates within the territory of the frank, the sexually candid.
3. See Seiferman for multiple examples in the text of Persuasion of this phenomenon (290).
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1969.
Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.
Heydt-Stevenson, Jillian. Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. NY: Palgrave, 2005.
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: UCP, 1988.
Sieferman, Sylvia. “Persuasion: The Motive for Metaphor.” Studies in the Novel 11 (1979): 287-302.