She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel to an unnatural beginning.
Anne Elliot, Austen’s most mature heroine, delights the reader not only with her quiet usefulness and self-reflective meditations but also with her tenacious insistence on what ought to be. Her convictions on honorable retrenchment, her definition of “good company,” her friendship toward Mrs. Smith, and her long-denied love for Captain Wentworth reveal a seasoned idealism that is all the more attractive because it does not deny life’s difficulty. The fact that Anne, ignored and underrated by her shallow family and the man she loves, achieves this noble and hopeful perspective on the world is truly heroic . But Austen is not in the business of better-than-life heroines graced with superhuman virtues by happy chance or fairy godmothers. Her women are humans who struggle, often against their families and environments, to be their best selves. Anne, who is significantly older than Austen’s other heroines, has advanced farthest in the struggle to realize her ideal character, and, as many scholars have noted, she is in the unique position of having had her first, defining encounter with her hero before the action of the novel begins. For these reasons it is easy to think that Anne’s exceptional character is static, that she must always have been as mature as she is in the action of the novel. Fortunately, Austen is neither so unrealistic nor so unhelpful. Instead she reveals in the story of nineteen-year-old-Anne’s broken engagement the errors that Anne must surmount but that also lead her to become the woman she is at the end of the novel, offering the reader insight into both Anne’s growth and the means by which the reader can grow toward her seasoned idealism.
What did Anne do wrong in the first episode of her romance with Captain Wentworth? For those who hesitate to find any fault or variation in Persuasion’s Anne, it is worth remembering Austen’s comment on the novel in a letter to Fanny Knight: “You may perhaps like the Heroine, as she is almost too good for me” (23–25 March 1817). Coming as this does a few sentences after her famous assertion, “pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked,” one can only conclude that Anne is not a picture of perfection, being only almost too good for Austen’s taste. I am well prepared to admit that Anne is almost perfect, but this “almost” must have an explanation. Unlike the state of criticism when Ann Astell assessed the conversation on Persuasion in 1987, many critics now are ready to agree that Anne shows development or progress during the novel—instead of “maintain[ing] a clear-sighted, morally elevated, central but static position throughout,” she undergoes some kind of education (2). Education implies improvement, but scholars disagree on what exactly needed to improve. Astell convincingly delineates Anne’s learning of romance, the “natural sequel” to her “unnatural beginning”; romance corresponds to what I am describing as Anne’s sense of what ought to be, her idealism. But what Anne lacked at nineteen that makes this education in romance necessary has not been fully explained. Whether on the side of young Anne marrying Wentworth or not, many critics solve, or rather skirt, the problem of young Anne’s unnatural prudence by arguing that Lady Russell is responsible for Anne’s decision to break off her engagement to Wentworth. While Lady Russell deeply influences Anne’s decision, it is still Anne’s decision, and her acceptance of Lady Russell’s principles connotes a self-interest she must give up in order to be equal to her happy ending.
Anne’s decision to break her engagement to Wentworth rested on Lady Russell’s social values of prudence, propriety, and predictable success, which became Anne’s temporary guiding lights. Anne defined herself by these values when she broke her engagement because it was “indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it” (30). Discretion or prudence, Lady Russell’s byword, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to recognize and follow the most suitable or sensible course of action; good sense in practical or financial affairs; discretion, circumspection, caution.”1 Anne’s mother epitomized this prudence by instituting “method, moderation, and economy” in a family devoted solely to enjoying its inherited luxuries—a life Austen describes as “prosperity and . . . nothingness” (9–10). Propriety at best translates to acting in accord with what is good or right, but at worst, blindly accepting society’s definition of what is good or right. For Lady Russell, however, both these values depend on a third: success, that is, wealth and status that promise or actually deliver a life of which reason and society, prudence and propriety, approve. Lady Russell persuaded Anne to see her engagement as “hardly capable of success, and not deserving it” because she could not predict its success; Wentworth’s wealth is all wit and potential, not quantifiable, not valid currency in Lady Russell’s view of society. While Wentworth confidently prophesied his success, Anne’s prophetic nerve, her own innate sense of what ought to be, failed her when it jarred against Lady Russell’s social values. Austen shows us just how deeply Anne absorbed these values when she sums up Anne’s list of objections—imprudent, improper, incapable and undeserving of success—with the overarching statement, “[s]he was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing” (30): not impractical, not premature, but “wrong,” with all the force of moral judgment.
Critics generally acknowledge that Anne was persuaded by the arguments of Lady Russell, which focus almost exclusively on Anne’s duty to herself: “Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; . . . to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependance!” (29). Rather than highlighting Wentworth’s lack of title as objectively degrading, as Sir Walter does, Lady Russell describes the practical risks associated with having no status or money, impressing on Anne the danger to Anne’s own future and happiness. By pushing Anne to be defined by her potential for social and financial success, however, Lady Russell denied her not only a real, promising man but also the chance to define herself by her own ideals. Lady Russell’s prudence is an “unnatural beginning,” “forced” on Anne in the sense that Anne’s innate ideals are not Lady Russell’s, and yet she is persuaded to adopt them.
Of course, it would not have been wrong for Anne simply to do what she thought would make her happy. In fact, if she had said, “Frederick, I’m afraid that getting married now with such uncertain prospects will stress me out,” Wentworth probably would have understood. Anne, however, was not honest with Wentworth or herself about her motives. Austen alerts the reader to Anne’s dishonesty in a few subtle sentences colored by Anne’s voice:
But it was not merely a selfish caution, under which she acted, in putting an end to it. Had she not imagined herself consulting his good, even more than her own, she could hardly have given him up.—The belief of being prudent, and self-denying principally for his advantage, was her chief consolation. (30)
By denying that Anne acted “merely” from selfish caution, the narrator implies that selfish caution was a significant part of Anne’s motivation. Tellingly, the narrator says she “imagined” herself to be acting for Wentworth’s good, implying that she was not, and that perhaps in reality she was consulting her own good. Such a preponderance of qualifiers should give us pause. Finally, we hear that Anne was chiefly consoled by the “belief” that her prudence and self-denial were “principally for his advantage” (30). Austen’s rare use of emphasis tells us that Anne especially stressed that Wentworth, not herself, was the one who would benefit from her prudence and self-denial. This assertion that Anne was acting for Wentworth’s advantage rather than her own stands out in position and emphasis as a point particularly important to Anne. Anne needed the consolation of believing herself to be acting for Wentworth’s good, especially when Wentworth himself disagreed that the break was good for him.
But if Anne truly were considering Wentworth’s advantage, what would her reasons be for why their marriage would hurt him? She never says. Perhaps the responsibility of supporting a wife might wear on him or cause him financial difficulty, but Anne never seems to detail, in her own mind or to Wentworth, how their marriage would disadvantage him. And, tacked as it is to the end of a list of Anne’s questionable imaginations and beliefs regarding her decision, the assertion that Anne was acting for Wentworth’s sake is even more suspect. We know Lady Russell’s advice was not “in vain” and that this advice was all on the subject of Anne’s potential for a good match and the dangers for her of a bad match (30). Though Anne convinced herself she was acting virtuously for Wentworth’s sake, the narrator subtly reveals that she was in fact thinking of her own good, though she felt the need morally to justify her decision by calling it self-denial for Wentworth’s sake.
Anne’s decision is problematized further by this moral tone: she made a matter of mere practical prudence into a question of right and wrong. In Anne’s decision-making process Lady Russell’s social values grew into Anne’s moral virtues, allowing her to rest in the mistaken conviction of having done “the right thing.” Perhaps she adopted this moral tone to stiffen herself up to the act, because it is clear that she called off the engagement in opposition to strong feelings for Wentworth. If two people are free to marry, however, their decision is based on preference and practical concerns; rarely does moral obligation enter into the question. It is irrelevant to ask, “Should Anne have married Wentworth?” unless we mean it in an amoral sense: did she like him? Would she be happy? Could he support her? Take the example of the novel’s initial cautionary marriage tale, Lady Elliot and Sir Walter: Lady Elliot was not immoral for marrying the “remarkably handsome” Sir Walter, merely imprudent in her “youthful infatuation,” an imprudence that even Lady Russell must recognize long before she intervenes to rescue Sir Walter’s finances with a plan of retrenchment (4). However, “though not the very happiest being in the world herself, [Lady Elliot] had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life”: even after an imprudent choice of spouse, Lady Elliot was still able to fulfill her moral obligations (4). If Anne learned anything from her mother’s case, she should have learned that practical prudence and morality are distinct. Instead, Anne conflated the two and ended up morally convinced of an opinion that, as she realizes by end of the novel, is “‘perhaps . . . good or bad only as the event decides’”—good or bad not in a moral sense but a practical one (268).2
Anne’s adoption and moralistic revision of Lady Russell’s opinions mark her complicity in the “forced” prudence that Austen and later Anne reject. That Lady Russell’s reasons and Anne’s justification of her decision are so different—one upholding Anne’s self-interest and the other all self-denial and regard for Wentworth’s interests—alerts us to the fact that Anne, though persuaded by Lady Russell’s arguments, felt the need to reframe them, to reconcile them with her own idealistic notions. In this sense young Anne’s prudence was “forced” on her not only by Lady Russell but by Anne herself as she attempted to reconcile the opinions of which Lady Russell convinced her with her own sense of what ought to be. Anne was not only a victim forced by external powers to deny her true desires; she was also a moral agent who chose to be persuaded into self-interest.
But how does Wentworth, and more importantly how do we, reconcile young Anne’s temporary espousal of Lady Russell’s calculating, ambitious prudence with the idealistic, unselfish person we know her to be from the action of the novel? Anne at nineteen was young, inexperienced, and temporarily attracted to the vision of success that Lady Russell offered: it was an ideal of a kind, one that appealed to her idealistic nature and to her human nature as well. Concurrently, the “over-anxious caution” (32) that Lady Russell inculcated in Anne by her calculations on Anne’s interests must have seemed to idealistic Anne like the harder and therefore higher road (we know that Anne thinks whatever is “most right, and most wise, . . . must involve least suffering,” even if it is something that promises to involve a lot of suffering, like moving to Bath or giving up Wentworth ). As Kathryn Davis argues, Lady Russell “distrust[ed] Providence” (214); instead she tried to predict the future based on firm facts, like Wentworth’s lack of connections and money, and she convinced Anne, with her naively idealistic sense of duty, to calculate rather than trust, too.
If this seems too harsh a judgment of Anne, we should remember that we are not looking at a “picture of perfection”; also, it is a mark of Anne’s valuable idealism that she feels the need to reconcile Lady Russell’s advice with her conscience. If Anne did not possess a strong mind and sense of duty to her ideals, she would not find her chief consolation in the belief that she did the right thing for Wentworth. Unfortunately, Anne’s misapplication of moral duty seems to have been the final straw for Wentworth in an unflattering rejection: the very idealism which we, and eventually Wentworth, most love in her must have grated horribly when Anne stuck to her “duty” in breaking the engagement, thereby making herself and Wentworth miserable. Even Wentworth, who understandably was unconvinced by Anne’s insistence that she broke off their engagement for his sake and whose opinions to the contrary were “unbending” (30), eventually realizes that she tried to act according to her sense of what ought to be, a trait that defines her: he has begun to understand this when he says at Lyme that there is “‘no one so proper, so capable as Anne’” and when he shows “deference for her judgment” on the way home (123, 126). After their reconciliation he says, “‘I did not understand you. I shut my eyes, and would not understand you, or do you justice’” (268). At nineteen, Anne was just becoming familiar with herself: she had not had the time or experience needed to cultivate her sense of what ought to be. Even so, in attempting to reconcile her convictions with the advice of her best source of wisdom, she showed the beginnings of the conscientious idealism that later defines her. Even in a weak moment, as she consults her self-interest in rejecting Wentworth, Anne reveals her love for the ideal, for what ought to be, that drives her to the more mature idealism she shows later.
Though Anne never blames Lady Russell for her decision, she comes to see the error of Lady Russell’s position.3 At the beginning of the novel, one burst of silent exclamation reveals how Anne’s estimation of the position she was persuaded to adopt has already changed: “How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been,—how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!” (32). Later Austen presents an example of this new perspective in Sophie Croft, who cheerfully braves dangers and inconveniences with her husband:
“While we were together, you know, there was nothing to be feared. . . . The only time that I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal. . . . I lived in perpetual fright at that time, and had all manner of imaginary complaints from not knowing what to do with myself, or when I should hear from him next; but as long as we could be together, nothing ever ailed me, and I never met with the smallest inconvenience.” (76–77)
Sophie’s experience parallels Anne’s in that both are miserable away from the man they love; for women who feel deeply, like Sophie and Anne, being overly cautious or consulting their own interest exclusively leads to misery, not comfort. After hearing of Sophie’s miserable winter alone and her happiness with her husband, Anne’s eyes repeatedly fill with tears as she plays dancing tunes at the piano (77). Anne is rarely overcome by her emotions; this response to Sophie’s story suggests that she is deeply affected by it. Anne has caught the parallel to her own life in Sophie’s situation, and such strong evidence of Sophie’s happiness when she abandoned practical, selfish concerns in favor of being with her husband causes Anne tears of regret. Here, when presented with the happy, idyllic partnership of Admiral and Mrs. Croft, Anne repents of consulting her own safety in breaking off her engagement.
By the time Anne and Lady Russell disagree in their opinions of Mr. Elliot, the narrator says, “It was now some years since Anne had begun to learn that she and her excellent friend could sometimes think differently” (159).4 But given her position at nineteen, was she wrong to take Lady Russell’s advice? Practically speaking, Anne’s response to Lady Russell was the appropriate, natural response of a nineteen-year-old to her maternal advisor on the occasion of making probably the most important decision of her life. Anne herself says afterwards that she was not wrong to be guided by Lady Russell:
“I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. . . . I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice. But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.” (267–68)
Anne makes a delicate distinction: she says that submitting to Lady Russell was right because Lady Russell was like a parent to her, not because the advice was good advice; in fact, now she disagrees with the advice. Though Anne says she was right to follow Lady Russell’s advice because of the duty she owed a parent figure, however, she did not feel this same duty toward Sir Walter, who disapproved just as strongly; therefore, Anne’s conception of duty to a parent seems to connote a certain kind of parent, one whose guidance she judges to be worth following. Though Anne had “always loved and relied on” Lady Russell (30), she also, as we have seen, agreed with the content of Lady Russell’s advice: she did not blindly trust its source; she employed much more discretion in her decision than this speech seems to allow. Anne did not submit dutifully on principle; rather, she was persuaded by Lady Russell’s reasons but not by her father’s; she was willing to brave her father’s cold, dramatic, prejudiced opposition but not Lady Russell’s warm, steady persuasion that seemed so reasonable.
Not only do the facts of the story contradict Anne’s assertion that she was simply being dutiful, but Anne’s qualifying words once again reveal that her motives were more complex than she would like to believe: “‘I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right,’” she insists (267, my emphasis).5 This “must” suggests that Anne’s self-justification has been achieved through much careful thought, as if to say she keeps reaching the same conclusion every time she analyzes her decision. But it also suggests that Anne feels compelled to believe that she was right—that for her own peace of mind she must maintain the belief that she did the right thing eight and a half years before. And to vindicate her past decision as “perfectly right” when it was characterized by an unnatural prudence that contradicted her own ideals of trust in Providence, “early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity” seems inconsistent (32). Readers often use Anne’s striking assertion that she has “‘nothing to reproach [her]self with’” as proof that she is indeed nearly perfect, forgetting the broad qualification attached: “‘as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature’” (268). Anne knows, and Austen knows even better, that perfection is not allowable in human nature, and while complete self-vindication is a pleasing sentiment, an attractive ideal, it must be seasoned by an acknowledgment of human imperfection.
Anne’s self-vindication at the end of the novel reveals a similar narrative control on Anne’s part over her past actions as in her reasons for breaking her engagement at nineteen. We know from the action of the novel that Anne has great control over her own thoughts and emotions: when she goes to Uppercross, we hear Anne’s powers in the sentiment, “it was highly incumbent on her to clothe her imagination, her memory, and all her ideas in as much of Uppercross as possible” (46). Anne habitually composes her thoughts and emotions with a consciousness that reveals her self-knowledge and self-control (95–96, 125, 190, 201, 221, 232, 258, 266). This ability to control her thoughts and emotions is a great strength of Anne’s and goes hand in hand with her idealism; however, readers should be aware of the way that Anne “clothes” her narrative. At the end of the novel, when Anne justifies taking Lady Russell’s advice as fulfilling her duty, it seems that she still cannot openly acknowledge her self-interested motives for breaking her engagement. Despite her nod to the limitations of human nature, Anne is still simplifying her past motivations in order to have “‘nothing to reproach [her]self with’” (268).6 Indeed, barely two pages before, when Anne accepted Wentworth’s second proposal she said, “‘When I yielded [to Lady Russell’s persuasion], I thought it was to duty,’” another qualification that allows for some suspicion on Anne’s part that she might not have been acting out of duty (266, my emphasis).
Anne is not consciously deceiving herself or Wentworth, I think, but she has yet to face the full complexity of her agreement with Lady Russell at nineteen. Anne was not in the end interested in the social and financial success that Lady Russell offered, but she was briefly tempted. Idealist that she is, Anne prefers to believe first that she broke her engagement for noble reasons (for Wentworth’s sake) and then that she submitted to Lady Russell for noble reasons (duty), but the reality is that Anne’s ideals at the time were sadly inadequate and mixed with selfish concerns. The nuances of Austen’s picture reveal a much more human Anne, endearing in her very flaws, of whom I can see Austen saying with a smile, “she is human, after all, not a picture of perfection.”
Anne’s errors and struggles to overcome them are enriching not only because they lead her to realize more fully her best self but also because they lead the reader to realize that Anne’s beauty of character and clarity of vision are attainable. The reader’s progression toward understanding Anne mirrors Anne’s progression toward a seasoned idealism: by relinquishing simplistic characterizations of her motives we are freed to comprehend Anne’s maturity as the result of hard work, not happy accident or supernatural heroism. Anne’s idealism finally is not “unnatural”; as she relinquishes “forced,” inorganic, and oversimplified versions of what ought to be, she is freed to rediscover her ideal of life with Wentworth but this time “more equal to act, more justified in acting” (32, 261).
1It is useful to keep in mind the drastically different connotations “prudence” has: in eighteenth-century novels, a prudential marriage often means a financially beneficial one; however, prudence is not always merely economical. On the other end of the spectrum, Aristotle defines prudence as the ability, gained through experience, “to deliberate nobly about things good and advantageous for [one]self, not in a partial way” (1140a26-7). The prudence that Lady Russell urges on Anne is more partial and financially-motivated than Aristotle’s prudence, which is concerned with “things just, noble, and good,” but Anne, learning from experience, moves from Lady Russell’s prudence to Aristotelian prudence (1143b23-4). It is worth noting this distinction between kinds of prudence and hearing an echo of Aristotle’s words, “there will be no correct choice in the absence of prudence,” in reference to young Anne’s decision (1145a4-5).
2Robert Hopkins notes the discrepancy between Anne’s moral language and her later statement that in this case advice should be judged good or bad by the outcome, exclaiming, “This is an extraordinary statement! How can a subsequent event be the determinant of whether a moral decision is right or wrong?” (144). Hopkins concludes that Anne displays a moral relativism (“consequentialism”) that belies the conventional morality and trust in Providence that Anne—and Austen—seem to support (145). The simpler answer is, of course, that Anne realizes her decision was not a moral one at all, and thus any advice pertaining to it is merely prudential.
3It is not until Lady Russell “lament[s Anne’s] refusal” of Charles Musgrove that her fallibility is confirmed, although the reader and even Anne may suspect it earlier: Lady Russell hardly knows Anne at all if she thinks she would be well matched with Charles (31). Charles is “of good character and appearance,” eldest son of a man second in local importance only to Sir Walter, and “however Lady Russell might have asked yet for something more while Anne was nineteen, she would have rejoiced to see her at twenty-two” settled so well (31). Anne's potential is decreasing as she ages, according to Lady Russell—a practical, if unflattering, assessment. Charles is not good enough for Anne; even at first description he is far inferior to Wentworth, who did not need his family's status to bolster his character and appearance (31). But where the narrator—and Anne—passes over Charles with indifference, Lady Russell mourns: to her, Charles is the best Anne can hope for at twenty-two, and she would “rejoice” to see them matched (31). Lady Russell also displays her “prejudices on the side of ancestry” in Charles’s case, who although he is not an aristocrat is the closest to satisfying her “value for rank and consequence” of Anne’s suitors to this point (12). Lady Russell’s paradigm for valuing or denigrating connections comes to vulgar fruition in Sir Walter’s and Elizabeth’s pursuit of the Dalrymples: as Mr. Elliot remarks, they are “nothing in themselves,” but “‘rank is rank’” (162–63). Lady Russell’s response to Charles reveals just how little help she had been and would be to Anne in realizing her ideals, owing to her own prejudices and lack of quickness to comprehend Anne’s intelligent and thoughtful idealism.
4Anne’s resistance to Mr. Elliot as a marriage option shows that she has now sufficiently developed her own ideals. Anne must have felt the temptation to become her mother in a sense and win back Kellynch by marrying Mr. Elliot, and this match certainly would have been prudent in Lady Russell’s and society’s eyes. Anne is dissuaded from this temptation, however, by her sense that Mr. Elliot is not quite what he ought to be: “she would have been afraid to answer for his conduct” (174). The thought of Mr. Elliot dispels the “charm of Kellynch and of ‘Lady Elliot,’” and not only because Anne is in love with someone else: “her judgment, on a serious consideration of the possibilities of such a case, was against Mr. Elliot” (174). Anne’s decision to distrust Mr. Elliot is a victory of her judgment, her prudence, over Lady Russell’s, and it reveals how independent and discerning she has become.
Anne teasingly denies us our sigh of relief with her paradoxical insistence that Lady Russell had been wrong in her advice, yet she herself had been right to follow it. We want to agree, yet we are left frowning; like Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas, we are being asked to drink from the mouth of the Nile even as we drink from its source. Anne’s defense of her terrible error feels like a flirtation with disaster even as the novel is about to close, grinding against her miraculous, precarious rescue. (90)
Though I agree that Anne’s argument is inconsistent, the fact that Anne’s idealism matures throughout the novel contradicts Weissman’s opinion that Anne is still flirting with disaster at the end. Anne and her happiness are more secure than ever at the end of the novel, whatever her remaining imperfections; her happy ending is not the result of a miracle but rather the natural result of her maturity.