Anne Elliot spends the majority of her life before Persuasion shuffled between her father’s house and her sister’s house. As Anne shifts between each home, she assumes a different role to fulfill the needs of the people within that location. Each of the roles that Anne fills are true to her own nurturing personality, but neither role allows Anne to express herself in her entirety. Instead, Anne constrains her own desires and development in order to meet the needs of the people around her. However, when Anne visits Lyme Regis she is introduced to a new location, and that new physical space allows her to express her personality in untapped ways. The repetition of Kellynch to Uppercross and back again, and the personal stagnation that accompany that cycle are broken by a trip to Lyme. This change in location provides Anne with the opportunity to assume authority over her own life.
Within Sir Walter Elliot’s house, Anne is an unfortunate necessity. Her role is to fulfill the practical obligations of Kellynch with as little inconvenience to Sir Walter and her sister Elizabeth as possible. Anne does not reflect her father in looks or temperament like Elizabeth does, so the two almost consider Anne as neither daughter nor sister. Despite her inferior status to the rest of the family, Anne is the one who seeks rigid retrenchments because she considers it an “indispensable duty to clear away the claims of creditors” (Austen 16). Anne understands the obligations attendant to the Elliot’s role in the community, and that, plus her basic decency, drives her to pay off the family debt. Anne plays a necessary role in Kellynch, handling the practicalities so that Sir Walter may continue to believe that it “had not been possible for him to spend less; he had done nothing but what Sir Walter Elliot was imperiously called on to do” (14). Anne’s role is to understand the reality of her family’s situation and address it as best as she is able, allowing Sir Walter and Elizabeth the luxury of continuing to live in denial.
Despite the necessity for Anne’s practicality to keep the house afloat and the Elliot name intact, Anne’s opinion is regarded as less than nothing to her family. In developing the plans for retrenchment, Lady Russell does “what nobody else thought of doing, she consulted Anne, who never seemed considered by the others as having an interest in the question” (16). Sir Walter and Elizabeth regard Anne as so little a part of their lives that it does not cross their minds to involve her in the retrenchment process. When the family does decide to depart, Anne hopes for a “small house in their own neighborhood . . . But the usual fate of Anne attended her, in having something very opposite from her inclination fixed on. She disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her—and Bath was to be her home” (17). Anne is not considered pleasurable company by her nearest relations, and “nobody will want her in Bath” including them (32). Anne’s role in her father’s home is not actually as a member of the family but as their gentility secretary. She handles the practical aspects that come with their family’s station while Sir Walter and Elizabeth spend the money.
While Anne is at Uppercross with her sister Mary and the other Musgroves, she fills the role of peacemaker and intermediary between Mary and her in-laws. Anne is the one everyone comes to with their complaints, acting as a ready ear for them to air their grievances and suggesting alternatives that might restore tranquility. Anne “could do little more than listen patiently, soften every grievance, and excuse each to the other; give them all hints of the forbearance necessary between such near neighbors, and make those hints broadest which were meant for her sister’s benefit” (42). The reader gets the impression that Anne is called to Uppercross to mend fences when tensions between Mary and the Musgroves get too high. Anne’s role of group therapist at Uppercross is different than the gentility secretary she is at Kellynch, but it still stems from the exploitation of her urge to nurture. With Anne as their peacemaker, the Musgroves are able to temporarily restore their familial peace without actually changing their interactions to achieve it.
As with the Elliots, Anne and her nurturing spirit are necessary for life at Uppercross, but the Musgroves fail to realize just how dependent on they are on her. The Musgroves all speak well of Anne, with Louisa confiding in Wentworth that they “do so wish that Charles had married Anne instead . . . [They] all should have liked her a great deal better” (75). But this fondness for Anne does not extend to treating her as more than her role of a helper preferable to Mary. Anne arrives at Uppercross and goes from person to person hearing their complaints while no one stops to ask Anne how she is handling the turmoil of moving away from her family home. Anne stays away from a family dinner to take care of little Charles because she is “the properest person” for the job, despite not being Charles’ mother (50). Soon after, Anne plays the pianoforte rather than dance because the whole family assumes “she has quite given up dancing. She had rather play. She is never tired of playing” (62). Despite the high praise, the Musgroves have for Anne, and the necessary role she fills as peacemaker, they fail to consider Anne’s own interests and concerns in the same manner as the Elliots.
The roles Anne occupies in both of these places allow her to retain her innate nurturing spirit, but the roles also confine her to prevent the complete expression of her personality. Although the Elliots and Musgroves value Anne to varying degrees, they both place a higher value on the roles Anne can fill for them rather than what might be best for her. However, the cycle of Kellynch to Uppercross, and the roles that come with them is broken by Anne’s trip to Lyme. This new location is largely free of the individuals who have so thoroughly dominated the other places in Anne’s life and established the roles she assumes in them. Lyme provides Anne with the opportunity to carve out a role that she chooses for herself.
At the beginning of the trip to Lyme, Anne’s traveling companions mean that she retains the same role that she holds while with the Musgroves. The trip is originally conceived by Wentworth as a visit to his friends and seized upon by Louisa as an excursion for all of them. While the others are “wild” to go on the trip, we can assume that after trying so hard to avoid spending time with Wentworth in Uppercross that “Anne’s role in the trip is decided for her rather than left to her inclination” (79; Mooneyham). From prior patterns of behavior in the novel we can assume that Charles was invited on the trip, while Mary invited herself, and the Musgrove girls insisted that Anne accompany them to fulfill her role as peacemaker for Mary. However, despite this intention, the new location of Lyme provides Anne the opportunity to move beyond her established roles.
The transition to Lyme enables Anne to still express the nurturing personality she has in other locations, but to do so in her own way. Because it is in her nature, Anne still mediates relationships and tends to an ailing Louisa, but during her time in Lyme Anne stretches beyond the role she occupies at Uppercross. The first step outside her role involves looking after Captain Benwick. This interaction coincides with Anne’s natural propensity to care for others, but only tangentially does that caring benefit the Musgroves. The conversations Anne has with Benwick are actually discussions revolving around their shared interests in literature, rather than fulfilling Anne’s Uppercross role as peacemaker. Another step Anne takes outside her role is her engagement with the Harvilles. The time Anne spends with them enables her to see what life might have been like if she had married Wentworth. Again, Anne forming a friendship with the Harvilles does not fulfill her role of peacemaking for the Musgroves. Spending time with Captain Benwick is largely Anne’s own desire, but it still might improve things for the Musgrove girls by freeing up Wentworth’s time. Making friends with the Harvilles, however, does not fulfill Anne’s Uppercross role. Instead, dealing with these friends of Wentworth’s allows Anne to engage with them for her own reasons, stretching beyond the bounds of either role she has been confined to play.
While the concerns of others control Anne’s behavior in the two locations that she usually inhabits, the Harvilles and Lyme place no such demands on her. They offer a location with a “setting suited to the unpretentious amiability of Wentworth’s fellow officers, a place where Anne can escape from the hierarchies that constrain her inland, whether she’s at home or away” (Graham 39). The location that the Harvilles represent is not one where Anne is relegated into a role for the benefit of others, but where she is allowed to express her personality traits in a way that best suits her. The freedom of Lyme and the “sea breezes Anne enjoys there bring some color back to a complexion faded by eight years of lonely, cloistered penance” (39-40). Physically and behaviorally Lyme grants Anne the opportunity to break the stagnant cycle of Kellynch and Uppercross.
Into this new location and the freedom it provides Anne from the limiting roles she has thus far occupied, comes Louisa’s fall on the Cobb, which Maggie Lane calls “the most dramatic incident in the whole of Jane Austen’s writing outside her childhood burlesques” (105). This incident allows Anne the opportunity to act wholly and independently of the roles that have controlled her. Thus far, Anne has stretched the boundaries of her roles, but in the aftermath of Louisa’s fall Anne seizes control of the situation and acts in the way she chooses rather than what is needed. Anne is still her compassionate and nurturing self, but she engages in this behavior on her own terms. While still on the Cobb in the aftermath of Louisa’s fall, it is Anne who takes charge. She assumes this role even above Wentworth—a decorated naval captain—and Charles—the presiding male of the family. Both of these men are traditionally the ones who should assume command of the situation and tend to Louisa. But instead, Anne’s desire to nurture rises to the forefront. Anne has been relegated to secretary and peacemaker in her other locations because those surrounding her are either unable or unwilling to heed her counsel and change their behavior. With this new location and without her constraining roles, Anne finally makes herself be heard. She does not do this because everyone else is incapable or unwilling to handle the situation—we can assume that after a moment either Wentworth or Charles will assume control—but because now she can. “If Anne can see Wentworth at his best among his peers, the friends who would have been hers had she married him, he can see her at her best in the emergency that calls forth her nerve, zeal, and thought—qualities damped down or repressed in her daily round of country life as visiting spinster sister or trapped-at-home younger daughter” (Graham 39). Without the constraints of her established roles pressing down on her, Anne rises to the occasion. Lyme offers Anne a chance to express her personality independent of the roles that have thus far dictated her behavior while surrounded by people who actually listen to her advice. In that moment at Lyme, Anne is allowed to be herself, rather that the version of herself that best suits the will of the people around her.
After Lyme, Anne is quickly shuffled off to Bath to rejoin her father’s household. Despite Bath as an alternate location, Anne is still returning to her father’s house and the people who created her primary role as gentility secretary. However, Anne’s experiences at Lyme are enough to alter her behavior. She is still the same caring Anne, but her authority over her own life is changed. “The focus in Bath . . . as many critics have noted, is on Anne’s ability to move, decide, and act for herself” (Mooneyham). She is listened to on the Cobb, and having her opinion take precedence is enough to inspire Anne to be heard in her other roles. Rather than succumb once again to the wishes of Sir Elliot or the Musgroves, Anne is able to put aside their concerns and follow her own will. She acts against her father’s wish to visit the Dalrympes and instead goes to see Mrs. Smith in the Westgate-buildings. Anne then puts aside Mrs. Musgrove’s concerns about getting her home to instead track down Wentworth. Anne’s experiences at Lyme render returning to her prior roles unacceptable to her. Instead, breaking the cycle of Kellynch to Uppercross allows Anne to exert control over her own life. That control enables her to move far beyond the locations that have stymied her for so long and eventually venture on naval vessels far beyond the confines of England, and beyond the character confines that have kept her stagnant.