Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 46-52
The Crofts and the Art of Suggestion in Persuasion:
Department of English, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s original ending of Persuasion was a bad idea and that the revised ending is a vast improvement. And, Brian Southam (97) and Mary Lascelles (38), among others, conjecture that Jane Austen might have revised Persuasion further if she had lived. In a letter to Fanny Knight on 13 March 1817, Jane Austen wrote: “I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence” (Letters 484). In this reference to the novel that was eventually to be called Persuasion, the use of “perhaps” and “a twelvemonth hence” suggests that Jane Austen might have put the manuscript aside for a time, thought about it, worked on it further, and perhaps have made additional revisions before it was ready for the publisher. She might, for example, have done something more with the rather awkward introduction of Mrs. Smith. She might have clarified further the Mrs. Clay-Mr. Elliot relationship. In any case, it is reasonable, considering Jane Austen’s usual practice of careful revision, to see Persuasion as an unfinished novel.
It is also tempting to consider the possibility that the cancelled chapter may have represented her original intentions for the conclusion and further that she may have been preparing for that conclusion in the earlier chapters of the novel. That is the speculation I wish to pursue.
The cancelled chapter seems to be a setup to bring Anne and Wentworth together without their prior knowledge. Admiral Croft is insistent that Anne visit Mrs. Croft even though Anne makes a concerted effort to decline. He blatantly lies when he asserts that no one else is present, he forces Anne and Wentworth to remain together after he leaves them, and he insists that Wentworth broach with Anne the subject that leads to their reconciliation.
This is a delightful scene, especially in the comic presentation of Admiral and Mrs. Croft. But it is totally out of keeping with the characters of Anne and Wentworth as they have been presented earlier. It is also unflattering to them both and particularly unsatisfactory in that neither Anne nor Wentworth is responsible for their reconciliation. Instead of acting for themselves, as they do in the revision, they are ploys for the manipulation of Admiral and Mrs. Croft. But, for all its shortcomings, the scene suggests some tempting possibilities, among them, a conspiracy of sorts on the part of the Crofts to bring Anne and Wentworth together. And assuming that this conspiracy may have been Jane Austen’s intention from the beginning, the scene suggests several other possibilities. It suggests that Jane Austen may have been preparing for the Crofts’ role in the reunion earlier in the novel. It suggests that Admiral and Mrs. Croft would have known of Wentworth’s unhappy experience seven years earlier. Indeed, since they are family, it is highly improbable that they would not have known. And it suggests that Admiral and Mrs. Croft, without Wentworth’s knowledge and certainly without his consent, have been busy, subtly and indirectly, from their first appearance in the novel, exploring the possibility of a reconciliation and attempting, by hints, indirect comments, prodding, and casually planted nudges, to bring about that reconciliation. A number of scenes in Persuasion may be read in a way that suggests this gentle conspiracy.
Anne Elliot is right in her judgment about almost everyone in Persuasion – in her initial intuition about Mr. Elliot, in her respect and admiration for the Crofts’ marriage, in her reaction to the Harvilles’ happy home, and in her quiet sense of shame about the ostentation and chilling air of superiority of Sir Walter and Elizabeth. But she is not right about everything. As she learns from Wentworth after their reconciliation, she had been wrong about his apparent interest in Louisa and wrong in her conviction that he had ceased to love only her. And she may also be wrong, in her first meeting with the Crofts, in her satisfaction that they know nothing about her earlier relationship with Captain Wentworth. Anne is pleased with her first impression of Mrs. Croft, “especially, as she had satisfied herself in the very first half minute … that there was not the smallest symptom of any knowledge or suspicion on Mrs. Croft’s side, to give a bias of any sort” (49). In fact, the Crofts may be read in their first meeting with Anne as feeling her out, as reconnoitering, in their ambiguous and perhaps exploratory comments. In this first meeting Anne is shocked and embarrassed when Mrs. Croft suddenly says to her: “ It was you, and not your sister, I find, that my brother had the pleasure of being acquainted with, when he was in this country’ ” (49). She is further struck when Mrs. Croft is referring to Mister and not Captain Wentworth. She then hears Admiral Croft tell Mary that he and his wife are expecting her brother to visit them, with the additional remark: “ ‘I dare say you know him by name’ ” (49). Which brother is left unclear. Of course, the Crofts may simply be making polite conversation. But if there is a conspiracy of sorts between the Crofts regarding Anne and Wentworth, these brief and ambiguous remarks may be read as the Crofts’ early efforts to test the waters, to introduce a delicate subject and then watch for a response from Anne.
Subsequently, at a dinner with the Musgroves, Wentworth and the Admiral discuss Wentworth’s first command; Wentworth explains that he was happy to get it, that he wanted to be at sea again, that he wanted to be doing something – and he just as clearly implies, surely inadvertently, that he wanted to put behind him the unhappiness that the break with Anne had caused him. But the Admiral’s response seems even more loaded with implication: “ ‘To be sure you did. – What should a young fellow, like you, do ashore, for half a year together? – If a man has not a wife, he soon wants to be afloat again’ ” (65). A man with a wife would not be so anxious to be afloat; and if Anne and Wentworth had been married, as they might have been, Wentworth might well have felt differently about remaining ashore. Again, Admiral Croft seems to be making a pointed remark about the past – to be hinting about what might have been – to be saying something to contribute to the flow of conversation but something which, at the same time, would have special significance for Anne.
In a later scene, after Wentworth has asked the Crofts to take Anne home in their gig, the Admiral and his wife begin talking about Wentworth, and the Admiral says of the Musgrove girls, perhaps rather pointedly: “ ‘He certainly means to have one or other of those two girls, Sophy’ ” (92). Is this simply another of the Admiral’s blunt, open, candid remarks? Perhaps. But he may also be forcing the issue, raising the subject of Wentworth’s apparent interest in one direction when Anne knows that his interest was once in her. By itself, the Admiral’s remark is potent with suggestion. It might be read as hinting to Anne that Wentworth may move in the direction of one of the Musgrove girls if he is not presented with a more desirable alternative and that if Anne herself is that alternative Wentworth might need some indication that she would be receptive to him. The Admiral pursues the matter further, and with more direct application to Anne, by commenting: “ ‘We sailors, Miss Elliot, cannot afford to make long courtships in time of war’ ” (92). There is no war at this time, but he may be suggesting that some haste might be appropriate, given the apparent possibilities with the Musgrove girls. And Mrs. Croft responds by telling Anne how quickly she and the Admiral “ ‘came to an understanding’ ” (92) – perhaps to remind Anne how soon she and Wentworth came to a similar understanding in 1806 when she and Wentworth “were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love” (26). The parallel here seems too close to be accidental – at least on Mrs. Croft’s part – and too clear for Anne to miss the application to her. And when the Admiral describes Louisa and Henrietta as “ ‘very nice young ladies’ ” (92) and Mrs. Croft responds with “ ‘Very good humoured, unaffected girls, indeed’ ” (92), Anne detects “a tone of calmer praise” which leads her to suspect that Mrs. Croft’s “keener powers might not consider either of them quite worthy of her brother” (92). The Admiral’s near disaster with a post then interrupts the conversation, but this exchange with Anne involving the possibility of Wentworth’s interest in one of the Musgrove girls, the need for sailors to have short courtships, the parallel between the Crofts and Anne and Wentworth, and Mrs. Croft’s less than enthusiastic praise of the Musgrove girls suggests that the Crofts are once again probing, prodding, hinting, and perhaps even implying that at least Mrs. Croft would prefer Anne as a sister-in-law. The evidence is beginning to accumulate, and the converging probabilities reflected in these three scenes may suggest that, tentatively and indirectly, the Crofts are up to something.
Anne does not see the Crofts again until after Louisa’s accident at Lyme and until Lady Russell returns to Uppercross when she and Lady Russell call on Mrs. Croft at Kellynch. At this meeting Anne is conscious of the special treatment she receives from Mrs. Croft: “Mrs. Croft always met her with a kindness which gave her the pleasure of fancying herself a favourite; and on the present occasion, receiving her in that house, there was particular attention” ( 126). Mrs. Croft tells Anne that Wentworth had been in Kellynch the day before and had brought the latest note from Lyme for Anne, though Anne did not know who had been the deliverer, and makes a special point to tell Anne that Wentworth had enquired about her “particularly” ( 126), as if to stress to Anne Wentworth’s increasing interest in her. And the Admiral cannot resist the temptation to refer once again to Wentworth’s apparent relationship with Louisa: “ ‘Ay, a very bad business indeed. – A new sort of way this, for a young fellow to be making love, by breaking his mistress’s head – is not it, Miss Elliot? – This is breaking a head and giving a plaister truly!’ ” (126-27). It would appear that Admiral Croft can never miss an opportunity to bring up the possible connection between Wentworth and Louisa, as if he doesn’t want Anne to forget that as at least an alternative for a man who is apparently interested in marrying.
After the Crofts arrive in Bath and after an exchange of courtesy calls, Anne encounters the Admiral in Milsom Street staring in a print shop window at a picture of what he considers a completely unseaworthy boat. When she accepts his offer to walk her home, he says to her, “ ‘I have something to tell you as we go along’ ” (169), which quickly raises her curiosity, as perhaps the Admiral has meant it to be raised, but he refrains from broaching the subject until they have reached the quiet of Belmont, perhaps to peak her curiosity even further and to give even greater significance to what he is about to say. Once again the Admiral cannot resist introducing the subject of Louisa Musgrove with Anne, as he has done previously. His news is of the engagement of Louisa to Captain Benwick, which Anne already knows, but the Crofts do not know that she knows, and for that matter neither does Wentworth. And his comment is once again packed with suggestion, though as is often the case with the Admiral, he is not very subtle:
“Well, this Miss Louisa, we all thought, you know, was to marry Frederick. He was courting her week after week. The only wonder was, what they could be waiting for, till the business at Lyme came; then, indeed, it was clear enough that they must wait till her brain was set to right. But even then, there was something odd in their way of going on. Instead of staying at Lyme, he went off to Plymouth, and then he went off to see Edward. When we came back from Minehead, he was gone down to Edward’s, and there he has been ever since. We have seen nothing of him since November.” (171)
This time, instead of testing Anne or perhaps warning her as he may have been doing in earlier remarks about Louisa, he seems to be assuring Anne that the Louisa-Wentworth relationship was never a serious one – “ ‘there was something odd in their way of going on’ ” – and that once Wentworth had been confident that Louisa would recover he had left Lyme in order to avoid allowing their relationship to become more serious than it had already become. In other words, he is assuring Anne that Louisa is not Wentworth’s interest, with the possible implication of who is. When their conversation leads them to Anne’s acquaintance with Benwick and a discussion of his character, the Admiral takes the opportunity to put in a plug for his brother-in-law: “ ‘James Benwick is rather too piano for me, and though very likely it is all our partiality, Sophy and I cannot help thinking Frederick’s manners better than his. There is something about Frederick more to our taste’ ” (172). Anne attempts to correct what she fears may be a misconception: “ ‘I was not entering into any comparison of the two friends’ ” (172). But the Admiral interrupts her, and in not allowing the discussion to go further in that direction, he suggests that his point was to make precisely that comparison and to make it in favor of Wentworth. The Admiral also tells Anne that he and Mrs. Croft had received the news of Louisa’s engagement to Benwick in a letter from Wentworth himself and that Wentworth had learned of it in a letter from Harville. Why would Wentworth write to the Crofts to tell them this? There is a reasonable answer to this question. The Crofts and the Musgroves are acquaintances and neighbors, the Crofts had observed the apparently developing relationship between Wentworth and Louisa, they know Benwick, and they know of Louisa’s accident. In that context, Wentworth’s letter is simply news about friends sent to family. But in the context of the speculations and suggestions I am considering, there are other possibilities as well. Wentworth would almost certainly know of the plans for Anne to join her father and sister in Bath. He also knows the Crofts are in Bath or he would not have written to them there. And as Wentworth tells Anne after their reconciliation, at Lyme Harville had considered him engaged to Louisa (242). He may have written to the Crofts hoping, perhaps even asking, that they would be sure the news of the Louisa-Benwick engagement would be conveyed to Anne, that the Crofts would make clear to Anne that he is free and no longer involved in an obligation to Louisa which he had unwittingly incurred, and that, as he tells Anne after their reconciliation, he had never seriously considered Louisa as a prospective wife. This last message is conveyed to Anne emphatically when she asks Admiral Croft if Wentworth’s letter contains any suggestion that Wentworth is in any way disappointed or hurt at the turn of events and the Admiral replies: “ ‘Not at all, not at all; there is not an oath or a murmur from beginning to end’ ” (172). The Admiral then ends his conversation with Anne with the most loaded and pointed comment in the entire exchange:
“Poor Frederick! … Now he must begin all over again with somebody else. I think we must get him to Bath. Sophy must write, and beg him to come to Bath. Here are pretty girls enough, I am sure. It would be of no use to go to Uppercross again, for that other Miss Musgrove, I find, is bespoke by her cousin, the young parson. Do not you think, Miss Elliot, we had better try to get him to Bath?” (173)
Good old Admiral Croft! Once again he seems to be forcing the issue by addressing Anne directly, and not very subtly, on the possibility of bringing Anne and Wentworth into proximity and in the context of Wentworth’s potential alliance with one of the many pretty girls in Bath. In view of the earlier relationship between Anne and Wentworth, the distinct possibility of the Crofts’ knowledge of this relationship, the fact that Anne has not married since then, and Wentworth’s now realized freedom from any obligation to Louisa, who is the most likely pretty girl for Wentworth in Bath other than Anne herself? This exchange may be nothing more than casual conversation between friends on a subject of mutual interest, but all readers of Jane Austen know that there is very little in her novels that is in fact merely casual; the more likely probability is that Admiral Croft, as he seems to have been in earlier scenes, is quite purposeful in conveying a message to Anne, praising Wentworth, and again raising the possibility of the reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth that he and Mrs. Croft have been hoping for all along.
In the final scene in which Mrs. Croft speaks – the second scene at The White Hart in which Wentworth writes the letter to Anne – a scene written after Jane Austen had rejected her original ending – Mrs. Croft once again makes a pointed remark. As Anne enters the room, Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Musgrove are engaged in an audibly whispered conversation about the upcoming marriage of Henrietta to Charles Hayter which will take place at once, and Mrs. Musgrove comments that “ ‘it will be better than a long engagement’ ” (230). Mrs. Croft replies: “ ‘That is precisely what I was going to observe … I would rather have young people settle on a small income at once, and have to struggle with a few difficulties together, than be involved in a long engagement’ ” (230). In this instance, Jane Austen describes her manner of speaking with the verb “cried,” suggesting that perhaps she means to be overheard. Mrs. Croft subsequently extends her disapproval to “ ‘an uncertain engagement’ ” and adds: “ ‘To begin without knowing that at such a time there will be the means of marrying, I hold to be very unsafe and unwise, and what, I think, all parents should prevent as far as they can’ ” (231). Anne feels the application of this remark to herself, and in response to this comment, Wentworth stops writing his letter for Harville, turns, and gives “one quick, conscious look” (231) at Anne, as if to suggest that he feels the application to both of them. Until this scene in the novel, the pointed comments of Admiral and Mrs. Croft seem to have been directed to Anne only. But for the first time Mrs. Croft has the opportunity to make an indirect suggestion when both Anne and Wentworth are present, and she might be read as encouraging both of them to get on with it. Is Mrs. Croft aware of the way in which Wentworth’s consciousness about Anne and himself has changed as Wentworth later describes the change to Anne after their reconciliation? Wentworth tells Anne that this change had begun at Uppercross, that it had intensified at Lyme, and that he had first felt “returning hope” and then “increasing despondence” (244) at their meeting in the Octagon Room. Does Mrs. Croft know about his feelings at this point? The novel doesn’t tell us, but we can speculate that it is possible, and perhaps even probable, that she does. The Crofts have discussed Wentworth and Louisa, Wentworth has written to them of Louisa’s engagement to Benwick, Admiral Croft has considered having Mrs. Croft write to Wentworth to get him to Bath (though he arrives before she can write the letter). In the cancelled chapter, Admiral Croft tells Anne that he and Mrs. Croft had discussed the rumors of Anne’s possible engagement to Mr. Elliot and suggests that they had not believed it. The Crofts seem to have been very much interested in Anne and Wentworth from the very beginning. Wentworth has been in Bath for ten days and has almost certainly been very much with his sister and brother-in-law. If we are to consider the lives of her characters beyond the text of the novels, as Jane Austen herself did and as we are encouraged to do, it would seem very unlikely that the Crofts were not privy to at least some of Wentworth’s feelings about Anne. In this context, Mrs. Croft’s comments to Mrs. Musgrove assume even greater significance and implication.
Every major scene in Persuasion in which the Crofts appear with Anne, and that means every scene but one in which they appear at all, includes some pointed or loaded comment by one or both of them – a question, the introduction of a subject, a general or indirect observation – which may be read as applying to the relationship between Anne and Wentworth. These comments suggest a number of possibilities. They suggest that the Crofts know about Anne and Wentworth’s earlier relationship, that they are feeling out the present state of her affections, that they are encouraging Anne to think about Wentworth by reminding her of his possible attraction to Louisa, that they are aware of Wentworth’s present feelings for Anne, that they are attempting to force the issue gently and indirectly – though not always with subtlety – and, in view of the cancelled chapter, that they are engaged in a kind of conspiracy to bring Anne and Wentworth together again if possible. There does seem to be a consistent pattern in the Crofts’ conduct, a pattern that is a persuasive one involving hints, suggestions, implications, prodding, and gentle nudges. In view of this pattern, the alternative – that they do not know about the past and that their comments on the subject are random, casual, accidental, and simply responses to immediate situations – seems far less likely.
We cannot, of course, be sure of Jane Austen’s intentions in the matter. We cannot be sure that she would have revised Persuasion further before its publication or how she might have revised it. Since she cancelled the original ending, would she have revised the novel by deleting these suggestions from other chapters? Or would she have made these suggestions even clearer? More importantly, did she even intend that the novel in its present form be read in this way? Alas, we can only speculate. But if there is a heaven, as I believe there is, and if I get there, as I hope to, and if Rudyard Kipling in his poem “Jane’s Marriage” and E. M. Forster in his story “The Celestial Omnibus” are right and that Jane Austen is there, as I believe she is, and if I have the chance to talk with her, as I hope to, I will certainly ask.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Vol. 5 of The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933.
Forster, E. M. “The Celestial Omnibus.” The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster. Modern Library. NY: Random House, 1968. 49-74.
Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1952.
Kipling, Rudyard. “Jane’s Marriage.” Debits and Credits. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1926. 148-49.
Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. London: Oxford UP, 1939.
Southam, B. C. Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts. London: Oxford UP, 1964.