Persuasions #15, 1993                                                                                                                                                                 Pages 131-138



Private and Public in Persuasion



Department of English, Boston University, Boston, MA


I would like to speak today about an essay I have been working on on Persuasion, on what I will call the new historical experience of privacy in Austen’s world.  My thoughts at this stage are centered on three areas of concern: moral, philosophical, and biographical.

I have no neat thesis.  In the biographical area, I’m interested in the relation between Austen’s personal or private life and her public ambition as an artist.  In moral terms, I’m interested in the way private and public experience is judged in Persuasion.  And in philosophical terms, my focus will be on the terms nearness and distance, philosophical and aesthetic categories that are very present in Persuasion.  Private and public are not synonymous with nearness and distance.  The relation between the moral and biographical meanings of private and public and the philosophical meanings of nearness and distance is of course very complicated.  I have yet to work this out fully.  All I want to point out today is that there is a homologous relation among these three categories; they seem to correspond in position, value, or structure.  The relation between Austen’s personal life and her art, between private and public in Persuasion, and between nearness and distance in Persuasion are all paradoxical relations; they represent polarities that define one another.

A good place to begin is with the word private.  This word is often used in descriptions of Jane Austen’s world in a way that constitutes a major misconception.  It has often been said in criticism of the novels, for example, that they are too narrow in their exclusive attention to the private marriage decisions of a single class; this complaint is found in traditional and feminist critics alike.  Even when it is not used as criticism, it is taken for granted.  Yet this use of the word private is based on a later conception of social organization, with its separation of the public and private domains.  The word private is itself applied anachronistically to her world.  What is its opposite?  Is it perhaps public?  Yet for much of the nineteenth century, the public authority of the state was only in the process of extending its territory to include all that it would encompass in this century.  For most people living in Austen’s society, it could be argued that all of life was private, because it was centered on the private estate.  Of course there is a sense in which at least for the man, this could mean that all of life was public.  In Emma Mr. Knightley speaks of his responsibilities as a magistrate in the same breath as his deliberations about the plan of a drain.

Perhaps we should define the opposite of private as social or communal and then see if we can locate this nonsocial, noncommunal presence in Austen’s novels, especially within the institution that she places at the center of society: marriage.  Austen permits us to overhear so-called “private” conversations between husband and wife in several novels, and there we notice that even when alone, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet address one another as “Mrs. Bennet” and “Mr. Bennet,” suggesting a social and formal dimension with the “private” experience of marriage that has all but disappeared today.  At the same time, the fact that Austen makes us privy to such conversation points to one of her greatest overriding themes: the growing privatization of marriage.  In Austen’s earlier novels, marriage is linked to the general functioning of society and to the land; in her last, it is separated from the land and from stable community.  In Persuasion particularly we see the origins of modern marriage, with its intense focus on the private “relationship” that a secular society imposes and its anticipation of the egalitarian marriage of companionship, represented by Admiral and Mrs. Croft.  This shift from marriage as a public, social institution to a private relationship is apparent in all the novels and is attended by Austen’s ever increasing attention to what we might perhaps fuzzily call the “private self,” most particularly in her rendering of the heroine’s inner life.

Austen understood privacy in its deepest historical and etymological sense to be a social concept.  The experience of privacy arose simultaneously with the emergence of a public domain.  It is a social concept, probably going back to the Romans; the word itself comes from the Latin privatus meaning simply not in public life – that is, not a positive state in itself but merely the state of not being public.  Privacy cannot be articulated alone, it implies a public world from which we withdraw, retreat, or from which we may be excluded, but a public world with which we are in relation in spite of and because of the fact we are severed from it.  The adjective privatus comes from the verb private which has two antithetical meanings: first, to deprive of, and second, to free from.  The etymology suggests that to be private is to be in a state of both freedom and deprivation.

The contradictory character of private experience makes itself felt in earlier novels but in Persuasion gains a new clarity and complexity.  Take, for example, the remarkable passage at the end of the novel which envisions the reunited Anne and Wentworth together outside on a street in Bath:  Their “spirits dancing in private rapture” (240), Austen writes, at the prospect of being left alone by Charles Musgrove, they seek a secluded place, a “quiet and retired gravel-walk” where they can speak intimately.  “And there, as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling house-keepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children, they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgements, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest” (241).  This passage may be unique in Austen.  I can think of no other passage in earlier works in which she places an image of private, intimate reunion of hero and heroine in what is so clearly a public, democratic milieu, on the busy street of a town with its “sauntering politicians” and its Dickensian vision of a lively, anonymous population.

The closing image of the novel repeats this dichotomous, private-public image:


His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less; the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine.  She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished for its domestic virtues than in its national importance.  (252)


By means of the reference to Navy life and the possibility of another war, the lovers are placed in relation to English history, specifically to what Austen knew would occur about six months after the story closes: the Battle of Waterloo.  This image of the sustaining private love of two people, of atomistic personal life, understood in terms of its polar opposite: large scale political history and war, brings to the mind the close of Arnold’s famous poem, “Dover Beach,” in which a private relationship is placed in a world-historical perspective, defined and justified by it.  In both instances, private life is realized only by means of public, historical consciousness; that is, we feel private and near only when we are conscious of a public history and a distant perspective.  Or, to word it more exactly given Austen’s lines: we feel private and near only when we are conscious of being unconscious of what is public and distant.  (In the passage just read Austen keeps emphasizing what the lovers do not see and hear, rather than what they do.)   In both Arnold and Austen, to be private is to be in a state of both freedom and deprivation, to be free from public life yet deprived of it.

The moral implications of the new historical experience of privacy in Persuasion further confirm this antithesis.  The traditional question posed by ethics – how to live one’s life – is given no clear answer in the novel.  To the moral questions related to privacy such as: how private, solitary, or introspective should I allow myself to be?  Is the more extroverted life superior to the more introverted one? – no answer is suggested.  Instead of a clear ideological or partisan position on these questions, we find a finely wrought, absolutely irresolvable set of contradictions.  At every point at which the novel suggests that privacy is bad, for example, it also suggests that privacy is good.  The private “seclusion of Kellynch” and solitude within an unsympathetic family have led Anne to be too passive and self-pitying, unwilling and unable to make Spring come, as the farmer she gazes at during the walk to the Hayter’s farm is doing as he tills the field.   At the same time, the private and secluded character of Anne’s life has led to the cultivation of inwardness, and it is precisely this inwardness that makes her the heroine, that makes her morally superior to the other characters.  With all the criticism of Anne’s estrangement then, she is surrounded by people who are seen as shallow and coarse precisely because they cannot be alone, because they have no inner life.  Her sister Mary cannot be alone for more than a half hour without whining, and Mrs. Musgrove is ridiculed partly because she cannot be alone with her grief.  The two houses at Uppercross get together continually, as Anne notices, because neither can bear solitude.  The shallowness of social intercourse at Uppercross fully acknowledged, Anne nonetheless “admired again” the necessity of “every thing being to be done together” (83).  There are as many moments in the novel in which we cannot “admire again” the necessity of everything being done together and are in fact invited to sneer at it, as there are moments in which we can.  We are continually invited to deplore Anne’s estrangement yet feel contempt for all the characters in the novel who would lack the moral strength to sustain it.  In other words, no Aristotelian ethical mean is put forth as a solution – in the way it is repeatedly in relation to all sorts of ethical questions raised in Pride and Prejudice, from mercenary vs. prudent marriages to how responsive one should be to the request of a friend.  Instead, unsatisfactory ethical choices are represented – a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t perspective.  The separation of private and public has brought about two unsatisfactory states of being.

The ethically undecidable rendering of solitary life in Persuasion is perfectly embodied not only in the character of the heroine but in that of Benwick, whom Anne encounters as a minor reflection of her own strengths and weaknesses.  Later Wentworth praises Benwick in the highest terms for his character and intelligence: Louisa Musgrove is “very amiable,” he admits, but “Benwick is something more.  He is a clever man, a reading man …” (182).  Yet we know from an earlier scene that, like that of Anne, Benwick’s reading has made him introspective to the point of neurotic.  To say, as Anne does to him, that he should read less of some authors and more of others, is no answer – i.e. achieve an Aristotelian balance – because Austen suggests that Benwick’s reading has made him what he is.  Much like Anne’s inwardness – her liability and her strength – which has made her what she is.  Her friends “could wish that tenderness less,” as Austen writes at the close of the novel, but all they can do is wish.  In other words: while characters in Persuasion often behave as if there are moral choices to be made, the narrator is showing us there are none.

There are many more examples of this “solutionlessness,” as it were, like the Medieval debate at the end of the novel between Anne and Captain Harville on the relative constancy of women and men.  This is one thing that distinguishes Persuasion from earlier novels.  For example, in Pride and Prejudice, the traditional values represented by Pemberley and Darcy and the new, democratic values represented by Elizabeth are synthesized in their marriage and in their life at Pemberley where they receive the Gardiners, representatives of the new business class.  Both Darcy and Elizabeth consciously admit to mistakes in their point-of-view; they educate one another.  All of this has of course been written about at length.  What is remarkable is how thoroughly Austen abandons such syntheses in her last novel.  The heroine won’t even admit that she was wrong in taking Lady Russell’s advice.  In the private-public polarity in the novel (Wentworth has a public life; she has only a private one) no compromise is made.  She was right, she says, to give way to her passivity, her emotional vulnerability to her dead mother’s friend – to all the things associated with the secluded, private, withdrawn life at Kellynch.  Whereas at the end of Pride and Prejudice, an ideal vision of community is offered in the vision of life at Pemberley, where traditional English values are revitalized by new ones, the community controlling the end of Persuasion, ironically, is a military institution, a “community” to be sure, as institutional communities are, but limited by the fact of its institutional and military purpose and character.  Only “the dread of a future war” we are told can disturb the idyllic domestic life enjoyed by those in this community in times of peace, a qualification that Austen’s readers must have taken seriously, given the moment in history at which Austen chooses to end the story.

Persuasion is like Pride and Prejudice in having a marriage that brings together the lower aristocracy or high gentry and the rising middle class.  But the hero and heroine don’t change one another – no real inward revitalization has taken place.  And at the end of the novel they are heading, not for an estate or a secure place in the social structure, but for war.  The classical balance of Pride and Prejudice gives way in Persuasion to a world of determined paradox, in which private and public, inner and outer, peace and war, the self and history are at something of a deadlock.

Written at a time of increasing separation of private and public, the novel records all the social and psychological dangers that come with this separation: both for England and for the individual.  The passage I read earlier which envisions a public population of “sauntering politicians, bustling house-keepers,” and “flirting girls” is almost Pickwickian; it resembles the cheerful vision of social life in the early chapters of Pickwick Papers published 18 years after Persuasion.  This seems a safe world, yet like Pickwick Papers, it really is not.  The novel is full of curious and rather dark prophecies.  The Musgroves lose a son in the war, have a daughter who cracks her head, and a grandson who breaks his collarbone.  Why is it that this most traditional English family – whose Englishness is alluded to more than once – is so accident prone?




I would like to use Louisa Musgrove’s accident as a jumping off point for the second area of concern: philosophical and aesthetic.  The power of this remarkable scene has a lot to do with the fact that in it Austen overcomes the opposition of nearness and distance, showing them to be intertwined, categories that belong to one another.  In terms of psychological and moral themes, the way to put this is to say that it is only within the most expansive landscape that Anne and Wentworth finally make close contact.

When her characters arrive at Lyme, Austen emphasizes vista: “its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country … its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs …” (95-96).  Words like chasm, rock, and cliff place the characters in a grand and distant frame.  The accident itself occurs next to the ocean on a sunny and windy day.  Earth, sky, water, and wind provide a vast context for the first moment of real intimacy between Anne and Captain Wentworth.  The accident, that catapults every person present into a state of vertigo or disorientation, strips Wentworth of his defenses, and only under these conditions does he turn to Anne, as she knows, when he cries out, “Is there no one to help me?” (110).  Our attention is finally on the lovers in this scene, not the accident or Louisa.  Their mutual sense of distance is as great as the sense of nearness at the moment of crisis.  “Is there no one to help me?” he cries, as though alone in the world, yet the cry itself, the loss of his defenses, binds him to Anne.

The accident itself is also rendered in antithetical images of high and low, up and down, perfectly summed up in the antithetical image of the “steep flight” of stairs.  A great deal more could be said about the temporal and spatial genius of this scene: for example, it is a symbolic reenactment and reversal of the mistake that was made eight years before the novel opens, when Anne was not precipitate enough in falling into Wentworth’s arms.  Fittingly, the lovers come back together in the same critical atmosphere in which they parted.  But I would like to turn instead to the latter half of the novel in which Austen’s equation of nearness and distance intensifies.

In Persuasion, what is nearest is paradoxically most remote.  From the first appearance of Anne, the ordinary linear conceptions of time is shown to have little to do with her sense of what is near.  “Alas! with all her reasonings, she found, that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing” (60).  Measurable distance in either time or space is not what is important.  To give an everyday example of this philosophical problem, as one critic suggests: when we speak on the telephone, the telephone speaker that we hold to our ear is far more remote than the distant party to whom we speak.  Or, the eyeglasses resting on my nose are never as close, as present to me as the things I see through them.  Such objects come to seem strange in their very familiarity if we meditate on them.  Although they are literally present in our world and always near, they are also always absent and far.  Presence, or what seems present or near to us, is what is being meditated.  In Anne’s case, Wentworth is present when he is absent (“To retentive feelings, eight years” are as nothing) and absent when he is present: Dining in his company Anne can think: “Once so much to each other!  Now nothing!” (63).  Anne puzzles over the fact that “Now they were as strangers” (64).  She observes him: “When he talked, she heard the same voice, and discerned the same mind” (64) yet he is nonetheless absent, a stranger.  (Physically, you could say that he is like the telephone receiver.)  Anne can “find” Wentworth in this scene only through memory: “she heard the same voice” and his conversation with Louisa Musgrove “reminded Anne of the early days,” Austen writes, in which she had had similar conversations with him.  It comes as no surprise that Virginia Woolf tied this novel to those of Proust.

The interplay of near and far, past and present is constant in Persuasion, and especially concentrated in the latter half of the novel.  Seeing Captain Wentworth walk down the street, Anne starts: “For a few minutes she saw nothing before her.  It was all confusion” (175).  The surprise of seeing him is “blinding” to her.  Later, in the concert scene as Anne senses their impending reunion, “Anne saw nothing, thought nothing of the brilliancy of the room” (185).  And finally, in the reunion scene itself, “Anne heard nothing distinctly; it was only a buzz of words in her ear, her mind was in confusion” (231).  The cognitive order of Anne’s visual, aural world is effaced in these scenes in which the distinction between inner and outer, past and present, near and far is virtually erased.  The word “nothing” is used repeatedly.  Anne’s experience of Wentworth is a blank: both a nothing and an everything.  “Presence,” in other words, is what is here but also what is out there.

What Austen shows here is that we are never simply “here” but by virtue of our ranging concern, we are first of all “there.”  We come to a “here” only from afar.  Thus, we exist as individuals in a field of concern, in which near and far are at every moment potentially intertwined.




Jane Austen was dying when she was writing Persuasion.  The telescoping of experience, the compressing inward of distant objects, may belong to such a time.  Similar and far more explicit interplay of near and far, past and present, up and down, going and coming, expanding and contracting takes place in Tolstoy’s study of the mind of a dying person, “The Death of Ivan Illyich.”

Of Jane Austen’s life we know very little; she was very private, and her works were published anonymously, “by a lady.”  Very possibly, Austen’s gender and social class played a role in the decision to publish anonymously, as has been argued.  But we should not rule out the possibility this was something Austen herself may have actively chosen.  Not all women writers published anonymously.  Perhaps Austen wanted privacy.  We know that she withdrew from an introduction to Mme de Stael, and it used to be thought that she did so because she objected to Mme de Stael’s reputation.  But in his excellent biography, Park Honan gives evidence that it is very likely that Austen withdrew from other literary introductions as well: she was probably in Bath when Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth were there but withdrew from these introductions.  To speculation as to why Austen never married, the most convincing answer, since we know that she had more than one proposal, is that she chose not to in order to devote herself to her art.  All of Austen’s drive for public attention was located in the ambition to see her works in print.  She evidently had no desire for personal attention.  But her interest in how people read her work is proven by the fact that she carefully saved the most offhand comments upon the novels from friends and acquaintances.

Austen needed privacy to write, because privacy provides the condition for solitude.  She probably had to lay claim to privacy for this reason in the way a male writer would not have had to.  A man would have been given the time to write, because he would have been given the time to work.  In this sense, Austen’s privacy was her career.  The further she withdrew from the public, the closer she came to fame.  The more personal and restricted her life, the wider its sphere.  In other words, the paradox I have pointed to earlier in Austen’s conception of private and public, nearness and distance is at work in her own life.  Austen’s privacy is intimately bound up with her public ambition – the two must be seen together.

I should like to close with a few speculations concerning the larger implications of what I have said as they relate to the current state of Austen criticism.

Private and public are historical categories, whereas nearness and distance are metaphysical and ultimately perhaps theological ones.  For example, it has often been remarked that archaic societies do not experience the distinction between “public” and “private,” but nearness and distance are categories of thought that can be recognized in their art and ritual.  These categories predate the separation of the private and public domains; ideas of nearness and distance, for example, are very strong in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels.  It is my sense that the source of these paradoxes in Austen is Biblical, as it is in Tolstoy’s story mentioned earlier.  That Austen was a seriously religious person is suggested by various kinds of evidence – her sister’s commentary and the prayer she wrote are two examples.  I am not suggesting any sort of Church-going, institutional Christianity.  We are familiar with her unrelenting satire of English church in almost every novel, and of her well-known sympathetic comment about the more primitive Christians known as Evangelicals.  Austen’s Christianity, which may have had more in common with that of the late Tolstoy than with that of (for example) Dickens, has received almost no attention.  There is only one book on the subject.  Gene Koppel’s excellent book, and that book received very little attention because its interests fly in the face of the overriding neo-positivist orientation of current criticism.

What I have suggested here – in arguing a homologous relation between historical categories and metaphysical ones – is that the historical and the metaphysical, as dimensions of human existence, need not exclude one another, and may in fact be studied together.





All quotations from Persuasion are from R. W. Chapman (ed.), 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933).

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