Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 42-43
One thing that Jane Austen does particularly well in Persuasion is achieve a balance of character that mirrors the attractive symmetry of plot and imagery in the novel. Austen does this through the matches that she makes, the couples that she delineates so amusingly. In Persuasion, Austen shows us how a couple can both support each other and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. The main couple in the novel is a clear example of this beneficial personality disparity within a marriage. Anne Elliot is obviously a far better person than Captain Wentworth, yet she loves him and he becomes a sympathetic partner and companion for her. Stuart Tave writes of Anne, “This little woman, delicate, elegant, sweet, has the kind of force the genuinely heroic Captain Wentworth has not” (282). Austen does not complacently let the good characters love the good, the weak characters the weak. Rather, she convinces the reader that couples with dissimilar personalities do and should exist.
What is particularly refreshing about Persuasion is the high incidence of strong woman/weak man matches that are portrayed as compatible and successful. Anne and Wentworth have already been mentioned. Anne is seemingly a paragon; whatever she may lack in liveliness of personality is readily made up for by Wentworth. In contrast, Anne balances out the tendency to shallowness that Wentworth displays upon his return to Kellynch. We know that if Anne loves him, he must be a basically good man. Anne’s own parents are an exaggerated form of this. While the prudent mother was alive the wastrel father was compelled to live within his means. Austen writes that Sir Walter owed his “real respectability” to his Lady Elliot (4). Perhaps the most amusing of the mismatched couples is the Crofts. Mrs. Croft is a strong, decisive woman who is both practical and courageous. It is ironically Admiral Croft, who by definition should be the stalwart partner, who is innocently haphazard. On shore, at least, the typical roles of husband and wife seem reversed. This is apparent when Austen describes Anne riding in their carriage, watching Mrs. Croft judiciously tugging on the reins to avoid the dangers that the Admiral seems oblivious of. Anne displays “some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs” (92).
All of these strong women would seem to indicate a subversively matriarchal society. However, I hesitate to impose what seems to be a rather thin and limiting interpretation upon Austen’s rich descriptions of characters and societies. It is perhaps more accurate to argue that Austen, while acknowledging and paying due homage to the powerful roles men play, gently illuminates the equally important roles of the women. Her women are highly visible and will not be relegated to the back parlor room while men talk of important matters. “It is not enlightening,” Tave writes, “to note that she gives us no scenes in which men converse without the presence of a woman, as though one had thereby pointed out a limitation. If that fact points to anything it is to one of the defining strengths” (280). Austen proves to be supremely sympathetic to and aware of women, be they strong or foolish. Another of the comic pairs in the novel is Lady Russell and Sir Walter. Although not linked by matrimony or even by love, they are inevitably coupled in the reader’s mind simply because of their similarity in situation and their proximity. Lady Russell is self-reliant, sensible, and swift in judgment, however misguided that judgment may be. In contrast, Sir Walter lacks good judgment to begin with and is passive, vain, and superficial. In effect, Lady Russell is the “strong man” and Sir Walter is the “weak woman.” Austen hasn’t so much cunningly switched the roles as she has displayed the artificiality of defining roles at all and the reality of human quirks and strengths, whether those humans be male or female.
In Persuasion, Anne represents a fragile harmony between the masculine and feminine. She is in some respects the perfect woman. She is submissive, respectful, loyal, and industrious. In other ways she is the perfect man. Her capacity for action and quick decisions is proven by the incident in Lyme. She is also the most discerning of all the characters and holds fast to her principles. Her physical delicacy juxtaposed to her strength of mind subtly illustrates this balanced dichotomy of male and female. Anne seems to be the perfect being; however, it is the frailty of falling in love with Wentworth that makes her delightfully and solidly human. Tave describes Anne as “heroic” because she makes male/female distinctions irrelevant in the face of her overall human virtue. Although Tave writes of Anne’s heroism, it is once again Jane Austen who is truly heroic in creating an unforgettable character that men and women alike can admire and fall in love with.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1954 reprint.
Tave, Stuart. Some Words of Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1973.