Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 226-234
The Slow Process of Persuasion
Department of English, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC
I start with two assumptions: one, that most readers first encounter Jane Austen through Pride and Prejudice; two, that, as my title suggests, it takes time to appreciate Persuasion. Both these assumptions originate in my own experience, to which I hadn’t given much thought, until a friend mentioned casually how much better she liked Persuasion now than she ever had as a girl. We ended up agreeing enthusiastically that it was our favourite among the novels, and I began thinking about why. Thus my focus will be on us as readers, and why Persuasion might be, as David Daiches has said, “the novel which in the end the experienced reader of Jane Austen puts at the head of the list.”1
Along the way I’m going to make a few comparisons with Pride and Prejudice to show why our reactions to each novel might be significantly different. Many readers will instantly admit that one has to be “mature” to appreciate Persuasion, but they usually mean a maturity of outlook required to appreciate Anne the person; I am going to argue that the maturity required is much more closely related to our capacity as readers, interpreting and responding to the text. My contention is that, whereas the narrative technique of Pride and Prejudice is very straightforward, that of Persuasion is subtle and unexpected, so much so that there is likely to be a great disparity between what we think we are reading, and what we actually experience during reading, a disparity which strongly affects our initial emotional response to the novel, and especially to the heroine.
Both Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice begin by introducing us to parents, the Bennets through dialogue, Sir Walter Elliot through description. But the heroine enters the narrative very differently in each case. When Mrs. Bennet is dilating upon the chance of marrying off one of her daughters to Bingley, Mr. Bennet says “I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy [my italics].” The statement demonstrates his unashamed favouritism, which is immediately confirmed in Mrs. Bennet’s reply: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.2
This is the first time the Bennet daughters are named in the text, and the order exactly parallels their order of importance to the story: first Lizzy, then Jane, then Lydia. Kitty and Mary – comparatively unimportant – remain nameless at this point. Lizzy is further marked for us because she has been singled out by her father, whom we have already learnt through their conversation to be the sensible parent. Jane has already flagged Lizzy for us as heroine.
By contrast, Anne enters covertly. Her name is mentioned first merely as an entry in Debrett, in birth order, sandwiched between her sisters, either of whom might equally well be heroine. It is not until the third page that the narrative focuses upon her, and then only for a mere half-page before shifting back to Elizabeth, for four pages. That half-page description is scant, and provides nothing of Anne speaking or doing – nothing of her in action, that is. We take the narrator’s word for it that she has “elegance of mind and sweetness of character,”3 but, although these flattering terms alert us to the probability that she is intended as the central character, they are quite without vivid associations. Whereas we already have technicolour images of Sir Walter and Elizabeth, Anne is pale.
This is a state of affairs which continues for a remarkably long time, in some quite curious and deliberate ways. In the second chapter, for instance, Lady Russell has been asked to suggest ways in which the Elliots may retrench, and does “what nobody else thought of doing … consulted Anne” (12). Austen gives us something of this scene, but not what we might expect. This would be a good moment, surely, to show us Anne in the flesh, as it were, to hear her speak with wisdom and common sense about the retrenchments. What we get instead is an odd, almost truncated excerpt, in which Anne’s views are condensed into four lines, and presented very indirectly, while Lady Russell speaks in her own voice at five times greater length:
Every emendation of Anne’s had been on the side of honesty against importance. She wanted more vigorous measures, a more complete reformation, a quicker release from debt, a much higher tone of indifference for everything but justice and equity.
“If we can persuade your father to all this,” said Lady Russell, looking over her paper, “much may be done. If he will adopt these regulations, in seven years he will be clear; and I hope we may be able to convince him and Elizabeth, that Kellynch-hall has a respectability in itself which cannot be affected by these reductions; and that the true dignity of Sir Walter Elliot will be very far from lessened, in the eyes of sensible people, by his acting like a man of principle.” (12)
By comparison with Lady Russell (and this is only half of what she says), Anne is inaudible. Indeed, we hear many other voices, and are given a much fuller sense of their personalities before Anne’s own voice is heard at all. Elizabeth Elliot, Mr. Shepherd, Mrs. Clay, as well as Lady Russell, all have more space in the text than Anne, and speak in their own voices. The text privileges them over her. It is as if, instead of being the protagonist, she were a minor character.
We recognize easily enough on a first reading how Anne is excluded by her family and their friends, but I suggest we are much less likely to notice how she is also squeezed out of the text, how the text itself seems calculated to make everyone else seem – not better – but more interesting.
Things do not improve greatly when Anne does speak for the first time, during the discussion of a tenant for Kellynch Hall. After Mr. Shepherd’s toadying comments – “Your interest, Sir Walter, is in pretty safe hands. Depend upon me for taking care that no tenant has more than his just rights. I venture to hint, that Sir Walter Elliot cannot be half so jealous for his own, as John Shepherd will be for him” – Anne intervenes, to say:
“The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow.” (19)
Her remark has no apparent connexion with what is being said. Indeed, it obviously stops the conversation dead in its tracks. You can hear the silence through Mr. Shepherd and Mrs. Clay’s attempt to cover it:
“Very true, very true. What Miss Anne says, is very true,” was Mr. Shepherd’s rejoinder, and “Oh! certainly,” was his daughter’s. (19)
Everyone is nonplussed.
The important point here is that “everyone” includes the reader. A first time reader knows nothing as yet about Frederick Wentworth. Where is Anne coming from? We don’t know, any more than Mr. Shepherd and Mrs. Clay. We are aware that we should be sympathetic to Anne, but there’s really nothing to be sympathetic about: what she says is merely baffling.
It can only be in retrospect that we realize why Anne would pick up on a remark about the navy dropped by Mr. Shepherd a whole page earlier. Later, in Chapter Four, the Anne/Wentworth story is told and it contains the explanation, but another seven pages have elapsed, and in any case what Anne said seemed so general, almost irrelevant, that we probably did not mark it as needing explanation.
Nothing else in that scene counteracts that first impression of Anne’s ineffectualness. She speaks twice more, but each time only to perform a secretary-like function, which is accepted but unacknowledged, slipping the others information about Admiral Croft (21), and then about the name of Wentworth (23).
The presentation of Lizzy Bennet is much more straightforward. She speaks much sooner than Anne (p. 6 compared with p. 19), and, although she does not say much, she is the first character to speak other than her parents. Mr. Bennet is teasing his wife by withholding the information that he has called upon Mr. Bingley:
Observing his second daughter employed in trimming a hat, he suddenly addressed her with,
“I hope Mr Bingley will like it Lizzy.”
“We are not in a way to know what Mr Bingley likes,” said her mother resentfully, “since we are not to visit.”
“But you forget, mama,” said Elizabeth, “that we shall meet him at the assemblies, and that Mrs Long has promised to introduce him.”
“I do not believe Mrs Long will do any such thing. She has two neices of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.” (6)
The reader recognizes that Lizzy speaks judiciously and is listened to, that she is trying to mediate between her parents, whose destructive sparring we have already witnessed. Her words demonstrate that she is loving and kind and sensible. By contrast, in Anne’s first words there is nothing we can admire or respond to.
Surveys have been conducted which show that as readers we are enormously influenced by what we read first, that “information and attitudes presented at an early stage of the text tend to encourage the reader to interpret everything in their light,” that we are “prone to preserve such meanings and attitudes for as long as possible.”4 Common reading habits are worth taking into account also. How long elapses between readings of a novel (even one of Austen’s)? It is often quite some time (years?) before we pick up a novel again, especially, of course, if we have mixed feelings about it, as I am suggesting may be the case with Persuasion. How well do we have to know and remember the text if we are to resist an initial, rather unfavourable impression of Anne? I suspect that the idea that she is a bit of nonentity takes very deep root.
That is also why I think it can be misleading to think of Persuasion as a Cinderella story. Certain features of the story do certainly correspond quite neatly: the two “ugly sisters” etc. But there is a crucial difference: the narrative in Cinderella always works in opposition to the story, privileging the heroine even when the story doesn’t. As a brief illustration, here is the opening of the best-known version:
Once upon a time a man and woman married. They had both been married before. By his first wife the husband had a sweet and gentle daughter. But the second wife was quite the most unpleasant and stuck-up creature in the country, and what was worse, she had two daughters exactly like herself.
The new marriage had no sooner taken place than the stepmother showed her spiteful nature. Her stepdaughter was such a happy child that it made her own two daughters seem more horrid. So she gave her all the housework to do: the washing-up, sweeping the steps, dusting, making beds … everything. She sent her to sleep up in a dark little attic, on a lumpy old mattress, while her own two daughters’ rooms had beautiful polished floors, and beautiful soft beds, and beautiful tall mirrors they could see themselves in from puffed-up head to puffed-up toe. The poor girl suffered all this as best she could.5
Although in the story Cinderella is relegated to the cinder-corner by her stepmother and sisters, in the narrative, and thus to us as readers, she is centre-stage, in the spotlight. This is conventional narrative strategy, and you can see it operating in Austen’s presentation of Lizzy Bennet.
But not in the presentation of Anne. Instead of the narrative playing in opposition to the story, much of the time Austen reverses the technique and makes the narrative mimic the story. Anne has not merely a lowly status in the story, she has also a lowly status in the narrative. I suggest that the time it takes to learn to love Anne is directly related to that unusual circumstance.
The presentation of Wentworth actually contributes to our ambivalence towards Anne. We are a quarter of the way through the text before he appears, are rarely privy to his thoughts, and naturally think of ourselves as more distant from him than from Anne. But he is preceded by good report, and when he enters the narrative it is with dash and a drumroll. There can be no mistaking the hero – unlike the heroine. All the girls love him, all the men respect and admire him, Anne still adores him. Wentworth is lucky, plucky, bright, glowing, kind, sensible, right-thinking (except about Anne). In other words, unlike Anne, he instantly commands our affection and sympathy. Bearing that in mind, consider the initial description of his feelings:
He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.
He had been most warmly attached to her, and had never seen a woman since whom he thought her equal; but, except from some natural sensation of curiosity, he had no desire of meeting her again. Her power with him was gone for ever.
It was now his object to marry … He had a heart … for any pleasing young woman who came in his way, excepting Anne Elliot. This was his only secret exception …
… and Anne Elliot was not out of his thoughts, when he … described the woman he should wish to meet with. “A strong mind, with sweetness of manner.” (61-2)
This is very endearing – a wonderful piece of tangled logic, and so exactly the way in which other people (never ourselves, of course) contradict themselves completely within the space of ten minutes. Moreover, we acknowledge that Wentworth has suffered, as well as Anne, from the broken engagement. And the breaking of it was, although not Anne’s fault, certainly her doing. If we are already lukewarm towards Anne, as I have maintained, when Wentworth charges Anne here with feebleness, weakness and timidity, it authorizes us to acknowledge, perhaps even justify, what we may have been trying to suppress: our irritation with Anne for being so stupid as to listen to that old bat Lady Russell instead of the urgings of her own true love. So what we do as readers outside the text, is not unlike what Wentworth does within it: misread Anne. That unacknowledged conflict within him is also ours.
The often-noted shift into Anne’s consciousness after twenty-five pages does not change our attitude towards her as dramatically as one might suppose. She is still presented to us largely through her reactions to others, in that spinster aunt role to which she has been consigned by the people around her. Her words and actions are still “downplayed” by the author. Her speech is still frequently summarized. When she determines to alert Elizabeth to Mrs. Clay’s designs on their father, Austen says merely: “She spoke, and seemed only to offend” (34). The voice we hear is Elizabeth’s angrily repudiating Anne’s suggestion in the better part of a page (35). Anne makes only a single direct remark: “There is hardly any personal defect which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to” (35) – two lines versus twenty-seven. Yet it is not that Anne did not speak. But the good sense of what she said, the tactful way in which she approached a difficult topic, her courage in raising it at all with that formidable sister, are something we must invent for ourselves.
This “compression” of Anne’s words and actions is especially noteworthy on the occasion of little Charles Musgrove’s bad fall:
His collar-bone was found to be dislocated, and such injury received in the back, as roused the most alarming ideas. It was an afternoon of distress, and Anne had every thing to do at once – the apothecary to send for – the father to have pursued and informed – the mother to support and keep from hysterics – the servants to control – the youngest child to banish, and the poor suffering one to attend and soothe; – besides sending, as soon as she recollected it, proper notice to the other house … (53)
What an author usually does, what readers expect, is that the relative importance of a scene will be indicated by its length: an important scene will be expanded, related in detail; conversely, that summary like this will be reserved for less important events. Thus, although the facts are presented, we are actually encouraged to pass over this account of Anne in action – pass it off, indeed, much as the people in Anne’s world do – not oblivious to her excellence, but simply taking it for granted.
The only part of this event to be elaborated is Mary Musgrove’s about-face when, having been in hysterics one day as a result of the child’s fall, the next day she argues herself into leaving him because she does not want to miss the fun at the Great House. During this scene Anne speaks, but it is Mary’s scene, not Anne’s (as the former scene was Elizabeth’s). The word-count matters here. Although the analogy is slightly faulty, it helps to think of a play: can you imagine a play in which six other characters have more lines than the heroine?
It is enlightening to compare the narration of little Charles’ broken collarbone with that much more celebrated scene, Louisa Musgrove falling off the Cobb wall. Here we have an exactly (almost oddly) parallel event: a serious accident when everyone present loses their heads but Anne. (I’m going to compress this scene in relating it to you because I’m sure you know it well already, but Austen, of course, elaborates it.) Anne is the only one of all those present who remains calm and in control. Her suggestions are brief and to the point, full, as the narrator points out, of “strength and zeal and thought” (111). Both Charles Musgrove and Wentworth seem “to look to her for directions” – which indeed, at this moment of crisis, she provides.
I maintain that a first-time (probably second and even third time reader) has to wait until this point (nearly halfway through the novel) before being presented with a scene which proves, as it were, what stern stuff Anne is made of. This delay is unrelated to the nature of what happens – Louisa’s bump on the head is, after all, no more serious than little Charles Musgrove’s dislocated collarbone – but arises from Austen’s decision to narrate the later event in full.
Moreover the scene at the Cobb follows more than one hundred pages of Anne being overlooked, not just by those in her world, but by us. As a result it may well take a while – certainly more than one reading – to perceive all its implications: that what we are seeing is not merely elegance of mind and sweetness of character, but leadership and competence of a high degree. Anne asserts herself very quietly. She uses the imperative only once. Immediately after the event, in response to Wentworth’s desperate plea “Is there no-one to help me?”, she orders “Go to him, go to him … for heaven’s sake go to him … Rub her hands, rub her temples; here are salts, – take them, take them.” After this what she says is less peremptory. The advice “A surgeon!” is framed as an exclamation, and the next instructions as questions: “Captain Benwick, would not it be better for Captain Benwick?” (110), and “Had she not better be carried to the inn? Yes, I am sure, carry her gently to the inn” (111). This is Anne taking charge while still remaining within the boundaries of female discourse – which means that she is trying hard not to sound as though she’s taking charge. That in itself may deflect us in early readings from recognizing how impressive she is.
In case I haven’t made it clear, I want to emphasize that I am not for one minute advocating that Austen should have done any of this differently. On the contrary, once we have reached this point at, let’s say, the third reading, it becomes clear that downplaying the heroine achieves something that a more usual narrative technique could not: once we have recognized our own misreading, light dawns: we might well say how clever (how unlike the fairy tale). Our inclination to misjudge Anne, almost deliberately fostered, it seems, by the text, means that our subsequent change of heart is all the greater. Believing, as I do, that when a reader engages with a text, it is as if the characters were real, our mistake imposes a kind of moral charge. We feel it incumbent upon us to make up for the error. And reading the novel again, in that spirit of apology, almost produces a different book. Recognizing that Austen is deliberately allowing Anne’s voice to be submerged, as it is in Anne’s “real” life, we start looking for her more carefully, and suddenly find she was there all the time.
This operates in two ways. We are much more alert both to the true horror of her absolute isolation within her family and society, and also to the efforts she makes to retain her identity, and, when opportunity offers, to take steps towards freedom and independence.
So, for instance, though we probably recognized the significance of the “only Anne” phrase on first reading, now other phrases and statements collect and cluster to deepen our understanding of what that really means: “she had hardly anybody to love” (26); “in music she had always been used to feel alone in the world” (47). We notice how she envies the Musgrove sisters “that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters” (41), and this in turn throws into relief Henrietta and Louisa’s later response to Captain Wentworth: “as full of glee as of love” (54). First time round, we no doubt contrast that with Anne’s position, divided from Wentworth as she is, second or third time, it also reminds us that life has denied Anne the Musgroves’ kind of carefree daily pleasures. When, much later, we hear that “Anne had gone unhappy to school, grieving for the loss of a mother whom she had dearly loved, feeling her separation from home, and suffering as a girl of fourteen, of strong sensibility and not high spirits, must suffer at such a time” (152), might we not, in new-found sympathy, add a little note that not even the highest spirits could have survived the conditions of Anne’s home life? We more fully comprehend her regret at leaving Uppercross and dread of going to Bath, for “who would be glad to see her when she arrived?” (135) She names that visit, indeed, “an imprisonment” (137).
These are direct, unequivocal statements, but they are brief, scattered, and – in a state of ambivalence towards Anne – all too easy to ignore. But once we start connecting and assembling them, we recognize a nightmarish emotional undertow, a claustrophobia, a psychological incarceration of quite horrible dimension. Anne is condemned to a daily existence amongst those with such different attitudes and interests that she can only function as a sounding-board for their problems. The frequent omission of her actual words becomes, in that light, an underlining of her isolation and powerlessness, indicated more directly in statements such as “How was Anne to set all these matters to rights? She could do little more than listen patiently” (46); and “Anne longed for the power of representing to them all what they were about” (82). Even the smallest opportunities for self-expression are denied her.
The most striking example of this concerns her relationship with Wentworth. The “only three of her own friends in the secret of the past” display “perfect indifference and apparent unconsciousness … which seemed almost to deny any recollection of it” (30) when the Crofts’ tenancy of Kellynch makes it likely that Anne will see him again. There is no one at all in whom she may confide a particle of her joy, misery and perturbation – a cruelty emphasized by the fact that between her and Lady Russell “the subject was never alluded to” (29). Anne is denied a voice in a peculiarly painful way.
Having recognized all this, when we return once more to those first words Anne speaks, that apparently irrelevant remark about the Navy, we read it entirely differently: it is not baffling at all, but Anne’s secret, small pleasure in speaking some words which refer, however obliquely, to the man she loves. They are balm to her heart.
Those few lines are the perfect example of why the narrative technique of Persuasion demands more active participation and effort from the reader than that of Pride and Prejudice. Successive readings expand and deepen our understanding of Pride and Prejudice, but they take us further in the direction we were headed from the beginning. By contrast, re-reading Persuasion makes us radically revise our emotional response to the heroine and to the events of the story. Our “delayed reaction” may not be unlike Anne and Wentworth’s eight and a half years, after which we are “more exquisitely happy, perhaps” in our re-reading “than when it had been first projected” (240) (though it does not do to forget the “perhaps”). Re-reading Persuasion does not just increase one’s pleasure, it involves – to a greater extent than any other Austen novel – a re-assessment and self-questioning. It is a slow but infinitely rewarding process, in the course of which Anne undoubtedly persuades us.
1 Qtd. Malcolm Bradbury, “Persuasion Again” (1968), Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion: A Casebook, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Methuen, 1976) 214.
2 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. revised 1965 (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1986) 4. All subsequent references are to this edition.
3 Jane Austen, Persuasion, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. revised 1965 (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1986) 5. All subsequent references are to this edition.
4 Menakhem Perry, “Literary dynamics: how the order of a text creates its meanings,” Poetics Today 1.1 (1979): 53. Qtd. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London: Methuen, 1983) 120.
5 John Fowles, Cinderella, adapted from Perrault’s Cendrillon of 1697 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974) 5.