Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 53-56
Out of the Estate and into the Rescue Boat
SUZY CLARKSON HOLSTEIN
Carroll College, Waukesha, WI
Jane Austen’s fictive world has been described as one of interiors and, by extension, the protected gardens attached to these interiors.1 While many of her heroines briefly venture beyond those boundaries, all seem to find their way safely back by the end of each novel. All, that is, except Anne Elliot. If “inherited security is the birthright of the self in Jane Austen’s world,” as Alistair Duckworth has asserted,2 Anne Elliot’s inheritance has been squandered before she comes of age. In her final completed novel, Austen begins to question the secure order to which her earlier novels had always returned. The garden and the lovely interior have not yet become jungles, but they no longer provide sanctuary or certainty.
The displacement is dramatic if we compare the opening of Persuasion to its final chapter. The novel begins:
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; … there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed – this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:
“Elliot of Kellynch-Hall …”
Then followed the history and rise of the ancient and respectable family, in the usual terms: … forming altogether two handsome duodecimo pages, and concluding with the arms and motto: “Principal seat, Kellynch hall, in the county of Somerset.”3
By contrast, the conclusion of the novel celebrates the marriage of Sir Walter’s daughter. “Anne had no Uppercross-hall before her, no landed estate, no headship of a family” (252). The Elliots’ social prominence has evaporated, but we have throughout come to be persuaded that Anne’s “loss” here is indeed cause for celebration.
Emma Woodhouse, the heroine created immediately before Anne Elliot, clearly flirts with disorder: her ill-conceived projects and her failure accurately to read Frank Churchill’s behavior bring her dizzingly near the edge of chaos. But Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightley re-establishes her responsibility and consistency, and places her securely within the patriarchal order of the estate. In Persuasion, however, Austen does not create a character that threatens the social order. Instead, the work seems to raise doubts as to the value of the traditional order itself. This reversal allows Austen to examine the character’s response to such uncertainty. The questioning also points towards the nineteenth-century’s growing lack of confidence in external order. Persuasion stands as a direct precursor to the Victorian novel and it represents a distinct shift: for the first time in an Austen novel, the heroine’s personal society remains fragmented, and the heroine is an “alienated” character in the modern sense of the term.4 Unlike Emma, Anne learns very early that she has little control over events: “She was nobody with either her father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; she was only Anne” (5). Transported to the younger Musgrove home, the situation for Anne is no better: “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).5
Anne’s literal and figurative dislocation occur because the patriarchal estate, the symbol of inherited security, is lost to her. When Lady Russell pushes her to consider Mr. Elliot as a suitor, the chance to reclaim that estate tempts her strongly (159-60). The compelling vision of the past, the graceful charms of the old, beloved interior, vibrate strongly within Anne. But the temptation to restore the dead mother and reclaim the squandered estate lingers only momentarily.6 Anne cannot regain her inheritance without violating the dictates of her conscience and heart; internal and external order cannot be harmonized for her as they are for Emma.
Change and “improvement,” a key word for Austen, do not here represent clear evil as they do in most of her canon. When Anne visits the older Musgroves at the Great House, a venerable estate, the narrator ponders the thoughts of the ancestors as they “view” the lively family:
Oh! could the originals of the portraits against the wainscot, could the gentlemen in brown velvet and the ladies in blue satin have seen what was going on, have been conscious of such an overthrow of all order and neatness! The portraits themselves seemed to be staring in astonishment.
The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. (40)
Though Anne does not completely envy the Musgrove girls and the narrative clearly displays her superiority to them, still she has fondness and respect for them. Further, juxtaposed with Anne’s own sisters, the Musgrove daughters appear delightful. Perhaps most tellingly, the novel does not hold up the family as an object of ridicule or contempt. They are clearly more valued than the more “traditional” Elliot family.
Indeed, for the first time in Austen, the heroine’s family completely dissolves as the center of focus and is at last essentially repudiated. When Anne rejoins Lady Russell after the younger woman’s stay at Uppercross, Anne realizes she has “lately lost sight even of her father and sister and Bath” (124). Near the end of the novel, when Mrs. Smith exclaims, “even the smooth surface of family-union seems worth preserving, though there may be nothing durable beneath” (198), we recognize how profound is the void within the Elliot family and, more compellingly, we perceive the one who is truly responsible for that “nothing.”
For Anne Elliot’s landless position is not an effect devoid of cause. Her father’s extravagance and short-sightedness have lost the estate. The social changes present in Persuasion and Austen’s growing respect for the navy contribute to the estateless ending of the novel, but the main force behind the loss of Kellynch remains Sir Walter Elliot’s poor stewardship. While it is true that this novel, more than any other Austen work, pits the individual throughout against an unyielding and hostile social surface, culpability for the situation can be assigned. The source of order has failed, but order itself and its corresponding “social possibilities” remain an ideal within reach.7
The navy provides this alternative source for Anne and Captain Wentworth. But it is a mistake, perhaps, to read the novel as a sweeping criticism of the old patriarchy, for it implicates only one old patriarch and his successor. Though the Crofts are certainly the most admirable couple in the novel. Lady Russell, with all her flaws, and the Musgroves of Uppercross remain respected figures throughout Persuasion. Anne’s case, then, is an individual one and not the inevitable fate of all daughters of the patriarchy; it points toward changes without depicting them as inevitable.
I have called Persuasion a harbinger of the Victorian writings that lament the rapid changes of the nineteenth-century. Yet it also remains distinctly separate from the later tradition. In Persuasion, as in certain other Austen novels, enlightenment comes to the daughters in the form of disillusionment and of loss,8 and we cannot dismiss the sorrow Anne endures. Recognizing the Crofts’ management as superior to her father’s produces pain for the heroine, and she must also endure having a father who “had no affection for Anne” (248), even at the novel’s happy ending. Yet in many Victorian novels the cost of enlightenment is even higher. The Victorian heroine’s predicament becomes less a matter of an individual patriarch betraying the system and more a matter of systemic, even natural, weaknesses in the face of social change. The old ways must be supplanted by the new, and the daughters are sometimes caught in the undertow. Even fathers who love their daughters and attempt to maintain the old order cannot withstand the current.
Anne, of course, has no loving father, but Austen does not let her heroine down. First, Anne identifies herself securely with a world that makes an absolute distinction between public and private spheres and links that distinction to the male and female experience. She tells Captain Harville, “We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions” (232). Further, in assessing at last her earlier rejection of Wentworth, Anne maintains that she was right in submitting to Lady Russell’s advice. Having confronted the possibility of chaos, Anne reasserts a type of order even while she recognizes the cost of such distinctions for both males and females in general and for herself in particular. Perhaps Anne here echoes feelings Austen herself may have shared.
But the most dramatic rescue the author provides for her struggling heroine is Captain Wentworth’s renewed courtship. One critic has argued that such second-chance marriage proposals are a realization of the fantasy that the dead loved parent is still alive and will come back to the young woman.9 In any case, the reconciliation fulfills our wishes as readers and provides a sophisticated fairy-tale ending. Anne is not a Mary or an Elizabeth, as are her sisters and the honored Elliot women of the past. She will no longer reside within the familiar interiors of earlier Austen novels, but instead, she shares Mrs. Croft’s fate. As a naval wife she faces more uncertainty and more dependence on the politics and necessities of the wide world. But she undoubtedly also shares Mrs. Croft’s clear-eyed strength as the older woman emphasizes, “We none of us [ladies] expect to be in smooth water all our days” (70). In the end, the world opening up beyond Anne’s garden sparkles hopefully to her across the waves.
1 Ronald Blythe, “Notes” to the Penguin edition of Emma (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1966), p. 471.
2 Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), p. 2.
3 Jane Austen, Persuasion, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 3-4. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text.
4 Julia Prewitt Brown, Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form (Cambridge, Mass. and London, Eng.: Harvard University Press, 1979). p. 124.
5 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that this “nothingness” becomes the guiding principle of Anne’s life, and that she turns herself into a nonentity. (The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979], p. 175). They emphasize, then, more volitional diminishing of self than I do.
6 Katherine Dalsimer, Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Works of Literature (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 129.
7 Mary Burgan, “Mr. Bennet and the Failures of Fatherhood in Jane Austen’s Novels,” Journal of English and German Philology, 74 (1975), 552.
8 Brown, p. 42.
9 Dalsimer, p. 123.