Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 101-110
Department of English, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Apart from its name, Lake Louise seems a strange place to be celebrating Jane Austen. It’s a place of the Romantic sublime, a landscape that seems very far from Lyme or even Cheddar Gorge, and closer to the Gothic world of Mrs. Radcliffe, where, as one contemporary reviewer noted, it was always full moon, for she never did things by halves. And then too not all the visitors to the Chateau are as caught up as we are in the Austen milieu. I was at the book exhibit yesterday when a young woman stopped to ask what was going on. “It’s a conference on Jane Austen,” she was told. “Oh, Jane Austen,” she echoed. “And was she Canadian?”
But while Austen and the Canadian Rockies are not a perfect fit, Persuasion begins with a little problem of cash flow that any tourist would find all too familiarly modern. At Kellynch Hall, the “method, moderation, and economy” of Lady Elliot is gone, and through vanity and carelessness, Sir Walter Elliot has grown “dreadfully in debt.” Despite its substance, the property is unequal to his “apprehension of the state required in its possessor,” and as his tradespeople and his agent become more pressing. Sir Walter plaintively appeals to his eldest daughter Elizabeth for advice: “Can we retrench? does it occur to you that there is any one article in which we can retrench?” In “the first ardour of female alarm,” Elizabeth applies herself to the question, and comes up with “two branches of economy:” “to cut off some unnecessary charities,” “to refrain from new-furnishing the drawing-room,” and to take no yearly present to her sister Anne. Indeed, both Sir Walter and Elizabeth react to debt by feeling themselves “ill-used and unfortunate;” they are totally stumped by the need to cut their expenses without “compromising their dignity,” “relinquishing their comforts,” or losing “any indulgence of taste or pride.” But in the end Sir Walter and his agent decide that rather than change his life style in any substantial way, he should quit Kellynch Hall and settle in Bath, where “he might … be important at comparatively little expense.”
This aristocratic scenario of retrenchment has a familiar ring in the Nineties, as we have become accustomed to talk of cutbacks and reductions, elegant economy and downward mobility. Shall we stiff the United Fund, pass up the new rug, downsize the Christmas list? Only a week ago, in fact, I had a telephone call from a persistent reporter on the Boston Herald, who wanted to know what I thought of the proposition that the conspicuous consumption of the Eighties had given way to the more politically correct consumption of the Nineties. Instead of buying BMWs, she wanted to know, weren’t people now just buying Land Rovers? As someone who drives a ten-year-old Toyota I found it hard to come up with a reply. But for some years in the universities, in government, and in private life, there has certainly been a feeling that retrenchment is in the air. In his novel Cuts, the British novelist and literary critic Malcolm Bradbury puts it this way about England in the summer of 1986:
Every morning when you opened the morning paper … “cut” was the most common noun, “cut” was the most regular verb. They were incising heavy industry, they were slicing steel, they were … axing the arts, slimming the sciences, ... reducing public expenditure, eliminating over-production and unnecessary jobs … They were chopping at the schools, hewing away at the universities, scissoring at the health service, … slashing at superfluity, excising rampant excess … It was a time for doing away with too much of this and a wasteful excess of that. It was a time for getting rid of the old soft illusions and replacing them with the new hard illusions … And everyone was growing leaner and cleaner, keener and meaner, for after all in a time of cuts it is better to be tough than tender, much more hardware than software.
“All this,” Bradbury notes, “was helped by the useful ambiguity of the handy word ‘cut’,” which could mean anything from a surgical incision to a social rejection. In 1817, the word “retrenchment” had a similarly handy and ambiguous range. It primarily referred to pruning, trimming, excising, curtailing, limiting and cutting down expenditure, a usage that entered the English language in the 17th century. But it also had a number of additional usages, from being a synonym for physical cutting-off, as in this sentence from 1654: “if I should deprive her of the crown without the retrenchment of her head”; to referring to deleting, editing, or eliminating passages of a text, as in the introduction to Sir Walter Scott’s The Abbot, a few years after Persuasion, where he admits “that my retrenchments have been numerous and leave a gap in the story.”
“Retrenchment” is so useful and versatile a metaphor for the themes of Persuasion and so significant a problem for its cast of characters that it might well have served as the title of the book. Persuasion opens with the necessity for economic retrenchment, and with an account of the various recipes for reduction put forth by some of its leading characters. More importantly, retrenchment is also a metaphor for psychological withdrawal and recovery, for the ways that the various characters, and especially Anne Elliot, deal with loss and personal defeat. If the proper sort of financial retrenchment can renew one’s fortunes, then the proper kind of emotional retrenchment can enrich one’s spirit.
How a person chooses to retrench in Persuasion becomes a test of both values and maturity. Indeed, as John Wiltshire astutely explains in Jane Austen and the Body, this is a novel about trauma and “the art of losing.”1 “Every character in Persuasion,” Laura Mooneyham comments, “has suffered loss or adversity” in at least one of five areas: property, status, connections, health, and love. As we move through the novel, the ways that Austen’s characters respond to their losses become a cross-section of how “the human personality copes with adversity, disappointment, and lost opportunities.”2 To be a good loser, one who knows how to retreat and retrench, is eventually to be a victor in Austen’s terms; and in looking at the ways that her characters retrench, Austen displays her “intense interest in the resources of the human spirit in the face of affliction.”3
The least introspective of the characters in Persuasion are Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot, who quickly absolve themselves of any blame or responsibility for their debts and project the problem on to others with elaborate conditions for its solution. When they consult Lady Russell for advice on retrenchment, she too has difficulty reaching a decision, because she is divided between her sense of integrity and her solicitude for the position of the family. In her view, the “schemes of retrenchment” must be carried out “with the least possible pain,” over a period of seven years of economy. This combination of realism and a lingering classbound blindness makes Lady Russell an ineffectual presence at best, and a destructive one at worst, as in the romance of Anne and Frederick Wentworth.
But Anne Elliot is not content with these half-way measures and opts for “a severe degree of self-denial”: “She wanted more vigorous measures, a more complete reformation, a quicker release from debt, a much higher tone of indifference for every thing but justice and equity.” Anne’s recommendations for financial retrenchment are similar to her psychological program for recovering from the wreck of her romance with Wentworth: “vigorous measures” and “severe self-denial.” More than one critic has suggested that in the first volume, Anne is “attempting to live the life of the Christian stoic,” as depicted in Johnson’s essays, trying “to argue herself into a state of emotional aloofness from outer hazards.”4
Thus Anne refuses to brood on her unhappiness; she will not make a display of her feelings, go into a decline, or become a recluse. For years she has not spoken of Wentworth with Lady Russell, much less reproached her for bad advice. Instead she tries to achieve contentment through self-mastery, determining to “harden her nerves,” to “teach herself to be insensible,” and to combat depression through long walks and good works. She makes an effort to avoid painful situations; when the Crofts visit Kellynch, for example, she takes care “to keep out of the way till all was over.” When the Elliots go to Bath, she is saved by her sister Mary who needs help at Uppercross Cottage. “To be claimed as a good, though in an improper style, is at least better than being rejected as no good at all; and Anne, glad to be thought of some use, glad to have any thing marked out as a duty, … readily agreed to stay.” There is even a sense in which she gets some pleasure from her routine, from “the influence sweet and sad of the autumnal months in the country,” so symbolic of her life. But in general Anne chooses the least conspicuous, least self-dramatizing course of action.
For modern readers, especially women readers steeped in self-help literature about learned optimism, co-dependency, recovery from the loss of a love, and women who love too much, like nineteenth-century readers looking to fiction for such advice, Persuasion, as the Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant wrote in 1882, is “the least amusing of Miss Austen’s books but perhaps the most interesting.”5 Austen anticipates contemporary studies of sex differences in depression which suggest that there are two basic ways of responding to bad news and depressive symptoms, the ruminative and the distracting, and that these are loosely correlated with sex. According to psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, “People who engage in ruminative responses to depressed mood [such as self-criticism, isolating oneself to dwell on the feelings, writing a diary, and repeatedly telling others how bad one feels] will experience amplification and prolongation of the mood, whereas people who engage in distracting responses … [like blaming the problem on others or external events beyond one’s control, engaging in a physical activity, working on something that takes concentration, or spending time with friends] will experience relief.”6 In a variety of studies, women appeared more likely to be ruminators, men to be distractors.7 In large part, ruminating or distracting are learned cultural behaviors or acquired sexual responses. “Being active and controlling one’s moods are part of the masculine stereotype; being inactive and emotional are part of the feminine stereotype.” But in some modern religious communities, where “self-centeredness in any form is considered a sin,” there are lower general levels of reported depression and no sex difference in how they are handled.8 In extreme forms, the masculine response of distracting may be maladaptive; Sir Walter distracts himself splendidly by denying the problem, and one popular distracting response is through alcoholism. But to avoid depression in daily life generally, modern psychologists advise, it is better to be a distractor than a ruminator.
Yet in Austen’s world, as now, it is difficult for women to distract themselves and easy for them to ruminate. In her famous speech to Captain Harville, Anne cogently analyzes the circumstances that make women depressed beings, when all the circumstances of their cloistered lives conspire to keep them from diversion: “We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are focused 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.”
Well done Miss Anne!
It is impressive to see how hard Anne works to find continual occupation, and how ingenious she becomes in distracting herself. Before leaving Kellynch, for example, she makes a full routine of makework and minutiae: writing out a duplicate of the catalog of her father’s books and pictures; consulting with the gardener about the plants, arranging and packing all her own “little concerns,” and visiting every house in the parish “as a sort of take-leave.” All these activities, a Peterson’s or Murphy’s Law of the empty life, “take up a great deal of time,” and killing time is part of Anne’s strategy of retrenchment. Art cannot fill the gap left by love; although she is a good musician, without “fond parents to sit by and fancy themselves delighted,” her musical gifts are not supported and are only a social resource and escape at parties. It is perhaps around the subject of music that Austen makes her strongest statement about the radical nature of Anne’s retrenchment and the isolation in which she must find her way: “she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged, by any just appreciation of real taste.”
Yet Anne’s motherless state becomes less a source of self-pity than a spur to finding surrogate parents and mothering herself. In sharp contrast, her sister Elizabeth suffers acutely from “the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness of her scene of life … a long, uneventful residence in one country circle.” Her hypochondriacal sister Mary, who fills her empty house with imaginary illnesses that demand attention, is a whining ruminator, whose imagined illnesses are only transparent self-delusion. Only Anne, as Nina Auerbach has noted, “is provided with a significant and autonomous inner world, which is strong enough to pull her from the incessant conflicts around her.”9
Yet at the beginning of the novel, Anne seems worst off of the three motherless sisters, and her stern advice about retrenchment reflects her own tough-minded experience in handling depression, for if the Elliots are facing seven years of retrenchment on an economical level, she has endured seven years of retrenchment on an emotional level. Her wrecked romance with Frederick Wentworth has left her without hope, for “she had to encounter all the additional pain of opinions, on his side, totally unconvinced and unbending, and of his feeling himself ill-used by so forced a relinquishment.” Her every “enjoyment of youth” has been clouded, and “an early loss of bloom and spirits” has been the “lasting effect.”
There is present in these circumstances, as Elizabeth Bowen wrote, “everything that could have made a warped creature. Do we not all know women with poisoned temperaments in whom some grievance or disappointment seems to fester like an embedded thorn?” In contemporary society, Bowen observed in 1957, “with a hundred careers open, it is or should be easier to forget – but Anne, condemned to the idleness of her time and class, has not an interest or an ambition to distract her. Endlessly, if she so willed, she could fret and brood. But no: she shows an unbroken though gentle spirit, and with that, a calm which does not fail.”10 It is the spirit she shows in adversity that makes Anne Elliot so great a heroine, despite the fact noted by W. D, Howells “yet never was there a heroine so little self-assertive, so far from forth-putting.”11
Indeed Anne is so good that Austen has set herself a difficult task in making her sympathetic. “She is almost too good for me,” Austen herself famously confessed in a letter to her niece.12 The Cinderella theme, as D. W. Harding has explained, is “inevitably difficult to handle. For one thing the fantasy of being mysteriously superior to one’s parentage is rather common … and commonly unjustified. And the crushed dejection (masking resentment) of the self-cast Cinderellas of real life always provokes a sneaking sympathy for the ugly sisters.”13 Austen has to proceed by enforcing the reality of Anne’s depression in the first half of the novel, and securing an interest in Anne without caricaturing her oppressors or making Elizabeth and Mary the underdogs.
Most important, Austen makes clear that Anne’s labour of self-mastery is not wholly the result of injustice. Rather than being a victim, or “a passive sufferer of entirely unmerited wrongs,” Anne “has brought her chief misfortune on herself through a mistaken decision.” Thus, as D. W. Harding observes, “ we start … with a much more mature Cinderella, more seriously tragic herself in having thrown away her own happiness, more complex in her relation to the loved mother, who not only made the same sort of mistake herself but now, brought back to life in Lady Russell, shares the heroine’s responsibility for her disaster.”14
Since Anne is not a passive victim, she must do more in the novel than simply ward off depression. Unlike her father and sister, who evade confronting responsibility for their dilemma, Anne must right the balance by taking active steps to heal the breach with Wentworth. She must find ways to speak with him in private, and must risk showing him how she feels about constancy, even though her assertiveness in these matters, and Austen’s view of it, seems to violate the precepts of eighteenth-century feminine conduct.
Much of Anne’s progress through stoic retrenchment to assertive strength comes from her study of the behavior, both positive and negative, of others around her and indeed one of the main ways she keeps herself busy is to observe them with the novelist’s ironic detachment. The visit to Uppercross, in addition to giving her busy work to fill the hours, also teaches Anne another useful lesson of retrenchment: “the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle.” Lesson two here is observation and adaptation: “with the prospect of spending at least two months at Uppercross, it was highly incumbent on her to clothe her imagination, her memory, and all her ideas in as much of Uppercross as possible.”
Among the bad examples at Uppercross is Mrs. Musgrove. Austen’s famously brutal remarks about Mrs. Musgrove’s “large fat-sighings” over the death of “a son whom alive nobody had cared for” have shocked many generations of critics. D. A. Miller, for example, scolds Austen for her satire of “the semantically uncooperative body,” “the semiotic outrage” of a “fat-phobic society” expressed by an “anerotic and anorectic” narrator who “will never cease invigilating over what she puts into her mouth.”15 And yet for Anne, “fat sighings” are incompatible with genuine grief, which demands some sign of retrenchment in the body. If Anne herself has lost her bloom, or as her father more bluntly states, grown “haggard,” from the loss of a love, then Mrs. Musgrove’s “comfortable substantial size” should be somewhat reduced by the loss of a son. In contrast to Anne, Mrs. Musgrove is a ruminator, someone who chews her cud and her grief. Her public display risks seeming showy and sentimental. Indeed, notes Mary Lascelles, “one might almost take Persuasion for a satire on the frailty of human sorrow and the support it seeks from delusion.”16
Similarly, Captain Benwick’s romantic intensification of his sorrow through tremulous recitations of “the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness,” strikes Anne as a dangerous form of rumination. She recommends “a larger allowance of prose in his daily study, and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering … as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.” Although Anne fears that “like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination,” we feel that the reading-list she prescribes for Benwick is the one she uses often herself.
Louisa Musgrove, Anne’s imagined rival for the affections of Wentworth, also plays an important role in Anne’s study of others, especially in her accident at Lyme. With regard to the fall, John Wiltshire makes the brilliant suggestion that it should be seen from a Freudian perspective as “an instance of the psychopathology of everyday life.”17 According to Freud, “ falling, stumbling and slipping need not always be interpreted as purely accidental miscarriages of motor actions. The double meanings that language attaches to these expressions are enough to indicate the kind of phantasies involved, which can be represented by such losses of bodily equilibrium.” If Louisa cannot discipline her body to conceal the fantasies of her mind, Anne never allows herself to slip.
Persuasion is also unusually rich in women who are strong potential role-models. But the most inspiring model is Mrs. Smith, whose astonishing resilience, self-reliance, and ability to develop new networks and skills leads Anne to meditate on the capacity for survival:
Her accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour and a dark bedroom behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance, which there was only one servant in the house to afford, and she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath. – Yet, in spite of all this, Anne had reason to believe that she had moments only of languor and depression, to hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? – She watched – observed – reflected – and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. – A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was the elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven.
In the terms of current psychology, this “heavenly gift” of optimism can be learned, and whether or not Anne has received it from heaven, she masters it on her own. Yet even for such an adept student, optimism is never perfectly mastered. As Anne discovers when she is consciously trying to “be feeling less,” the eight years of her separation from Wentworth, although almost a third of her life, “can be little more than nothing” to a person with “retentive feelings.” She still finds that “her eyes would sometimes fill with tears,” even though she conceals them by hiding at the piano, and playing “mechanically.” When Wentworth rescues her from young Walter, she is “speechless” with “disordered feelings,” in “a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation.” “She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was; and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.” She cannot resist “repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn,” with images “of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope and spring all gone together.” She cannot help trying to overhear snatches of conversation when Captain Wentworth is talking to the Musgrove girls. She cannot conceal her joy when she begins to realize that he still loves her.
But this emotional retentiveness, in addition to endearing her to the reader, only enriches her emotional development. In the second part of the novel it is Anne’s initiative with Wentworth that leads to their reconciliation. Through years of disciplined self-control, Anne reaches a maturity which enables her to speak out. But in this respect, the process of retrenchment brings its final rewards. The first romance of Anne and Captain Wentworth, Austen suggests, was superficial and circumstantial, “for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love.” But Anne’s seven years of retrenchment, of having love cut off, of reducing emotional expense, makes her a stronger, more self-sufficient woman. As Margaret Oliphant pointed out, “Anne Elliot would have lived and made herself a worthy life anyhow, even if Captain Wentworth had not been faithful.18 But her manner of handling their “division and estrangement” had also deepened her ability to make a free and loving choice. They will be in their reunion, Austen tells us, “more tender, more true, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.”
One of the most moving ways they are made equal, partners to go shares in all things, like the Crofts, is that by the end of the novel Wentworth too has accepted responsibility for their loss and has shouldered half the responsibility for the years of separation. Originally he scorns her maidenly doubts about their marriage as “feebleness” and weakness. Wentworth is convinced that what he seeks in a wife is firmness. But he too comes to understand that “Anne’s submission to Lady Russell was neither a symptom of weakness, nor cold-hearted prudence,” but a well-intended mistake for which she has paid in suffering and fortitude.19 Moreover he sees that he has been more of an enemy to their union than Lady Russell, for pride has prevented him from renewing his proposal to Anne many years since. “This is a recollection,” he tells her, “which ought to make me forgive everyone sooner than myself …. It is a sort of pain too, which is new to me. I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honorable toil and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses, I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.” In this final paradoxical understanding of retrenchment, not only Wentworth but her family and her readers must finally come to “do Anne justice.”
The movement between retrenchment and advancement is one of the reasons that Persuasion has had such a mixed response from readers and critics. “This is at once,” wrote Reginald Farrer in 1917, “the warmest and the coldest of Jane Austen’s works, the softest and the hardest. It is inspired, on the one hand, by a quite new note of glacial contempt for the characters she doesn’t like, and on the other, by an intensified tenderness for those she does.” Though it “moves very quietly, without sobs or screams, in drawing rooms and country lanes,” Farrer concludes, “it is yet among the most emotional novels in our literature.”20
So perhaps it’s not so strange after all to be talking about Persuasion under a sunny mountain next to a glacial lake, with flowers and snow at the same time. As Austen’s contemporary critics, perhaps leaner, keener, and meaner in this age of cutbacks than is entirely compatible with pleasure, we must also subdue our minds to our fortunes, and learn to brook in Persuasion, being happier than we deserve.
† The color image has replaced the original black and white image for the on-line edition of this essay. – C. Moss, JASNA Web Site Manager
1 John Wiltshire, Jane Austen and the Body, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 196.
2 Laura G. Mooneyham, Romance, Language, and Education in Jane Austen’s Novels, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988, 147, 146.
3 Wiltshire, 166.
4 Wiltshire, 175,176.
5 Oliphant, The Literary History of the Nineteenth Century, quoted in Brian Southam, ed., Northanger Abbey and Persuasion: A Casebook, London: Macmillan, 1976.
6 Susan Nolan-Hoeksema, Sex Differences in Depression, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990, 161.
7 See, for example, Martin S. Seligman, Learned Optimism, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, 85-86: “When trouble strikes, women think and men act. When a woman gets fired from her job, she tries to figure out why; she broods and she relives the events over and over. A man, upon getting fired, acts: He gets drunk, beats someone up, or otherwise distracts himself from thinking about it. He may even go right out and look for another job, without bothering to think through what went wrong. If depression is a disorder of thinking, pessimism and rumination stoke it.”
8 Nolan-Hoeksema, 171,174.
9 Nina Auerbach, “O Brave New World: Evolution and Revolution in Persuasion,” in Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, 45.
10 Elizabeth Bowen, London Magazine IV (June 1957) 47-51; quoted in Southam.
11 Howells, quoted in Southam, 142.
12 Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. R. W. Chapman, 1952, 487.
13 D. W. Harding, quoted in Southam, 194.
14 Harding, 195.
15 D. A. Miller, “The Late Jane Austen,” Raritan X (Summer 1990): 60-64.
16 Lascelles, quoted in Southam, 157.
17 Wiltshire, 187.
18 Oliphant, quoted in Southam, 141.
19 Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, 276.
20 Farrer, quoted in Southam, ed., Northanger Abbey and Persuasion: A Casebook, 148-49.