1. Like all Austen’s novels, Persuasion ends happily with a marriage between the heroine and the man she loves. In Persuasion, however, numerous types of marriages exist, from good to bad. What does Anne Elliot learn about marriage from observing the various marriages of the people around her?
Anne Elliot has ample opportunity to observe and contemplate the marriages of both family members and friends, and she is able to form her own very firm opinion about marriage: love is the most important ingredient for a happy marriage.
Within her own class—and thus within her own family—Anne knows that marriages are often made for other reasons than love. Sir Walter, the narrator tells readers, he attracted a wife with his rank and good looks, but that wife soon realized how vain he was. Anne’s mother “was not the very happiest being in the world herself,” but she was at least wealthy and comfortable. Elizabeth, Anne knows, hopes to marry someone who can maintain her lifestyle, if not add to its prestige. Elizabeth “felt her approach to the years of danger, and would have rejoiced to be certain of being properly solicited by baronet-blood within the next twelvemonth or two. Mary and Charles Musgrove’s marriage offers Anne a living example of a marriage based upon social suitability rather than true love and happiness.
Anne was persuaded that she could not marry Wentworth because he was not of her rank, nor did he have means to support her as the daughter of a baronet should be supported. But as she observes the happy marriages around her, she determines that, if he will ask her again, she will marry Wentworth despite such persuasions. Lady Russell had persuaded Anne that being a sailor’s wife would be fraught with youth-killing worry, but Anne observes no such thing in the Crofts’ marriage, nor in the Harvilles’ marriage. The wives in each case have born up under worry and separation because they loved their men and were willing to risk becoming widows. Risk is part of marriage, and sometimes a woman loses, as Anne sees so clearly in Mrs. Smith’s marriage. But Mrs. Smith never says she regrets marrying her husband; in fact, she speaks fondly of him and misses him, even though he was foolish with money and left her a poor widow.
When Wentworth comes back to her and again proposes, Anne responds with a resounding affirmative this time. She has learned from the marriages around her that love is the most important ingredient in a good marriage.
2. In many of Austen’s novels, some characters serve as foils for others. A “foil” is a character whose personality and behavior contrasts with another character’s and thus highlights that character’s qualities. How is Louisa Musgrove a foil for Anne Elliot? And how does Louisa’s being a foil for Anne impact Wentworth’s changing views of Anne?
In Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove serves as a foil for Anne Elliot, and when Wentworth contrasts Louisa with Anne, he discovers that Anne is truly the woman worthy of his love.
In many ways, Louisa is the complete opposite of Anne. She is much younger than Anne, who is considered something of an old maid and thereby marginalized by others; they look upon her as a kindly, useful woman past her bloom. Anne is slight of frame and gentle in manner. Louisa, on the other hand, is always front and center, boldly flirting with Wentworth, vying with her sister for his attentions, putting herself forward as robust and spirited, especially when she discovers that Wentworth seeks a woman who is independent and strong. He compares Henrietta to Louisa and commends Louisa for her “‘character of decision and firmness’” and urges, “‘If Louisa Musgrove would be beautiful and happy in her November of life, she will cherish all her present powers of mind.’” Anne, overhearing this conversation, understands what Wentworth is really saying: I was once disappointed by a young lady who did not know her own mind, and I don’t intend for that to happen again.
But it is Louisa’s very determined and firm character that, in comparison with Anne’s character, finally convinces Wentworth that Louisa is not the woman for him. Louisa’s firmness is revealed as foolish, childish waywardness when she insists on jumping from the steps of the Cobb and injures herself. In that moment, Anne’s cool head and ability to issue sensible orders for help contrast directly with Louisa’s showy brand of bravery and firmness. And when Mr. Elliot notices Anne with admiration at Lyme, Wentworth, too, notices that Anne, while not showy and bold like Louisa, still possesses a quiet beauty.
In Bath, Wentworth has further opportunity to contrast Anne with Louisa. Although he is free of Louisa, who had turned her quixotic affections to Captain Benwick, Wentworth does not yet know if Anne still loves him. Anne seeks ways to show him that, unlike Louisa, she is constant—she has always been constant in her love for him. He tests the waters when he talks to Anne about Benwick’s inconstancy to the memory of Fanny Harville; “‘a man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman,’” he tells Anne, “‘He ought not—he does not.’” Encouraged by Wentworth’s pronouncements on constancy, she seeks her opportunity to let him know of her constancy when she knows Wentworth overhears her conversation with Captain Harville about Louisa’s and Benwick’s engagement. Anne pointedly tells Captain Benwick that women have the capability of “‘loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’”
Anne’s subtle, intelligent way of communicating her love to Wentworth speaks volumes to him, much more effectively than Louisa’s adoring, fawning pronouncements to him. When at last they can openly declare their love to one another, their declarations are not those of starstruck young lovers, like Louisa and her Benwick, but those of lovers who are “more tender, more tried, more fixed in knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.” Anne, not Louisa Musgrove, is the woman for Wentworth.
3. When Anne Elliot and Captain Harville discuss the differences in constancy between men and women, Anne tells him that women “live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.” Her observation states a truth about the lives of women of the upper classes in eighteenth-century England. How is this statement true of Anne’s life—and that of other women in the novel?
Anne’s statement reveals a social truth about women during Austen’s time: few careers were open to women of the upper classes. Women were expected to marry and preside over a household, a “job” that confined many women to homes and the narrow confines of their neighborhood. As Anne asserts, such a narrow existence forces women to dwell on their feelings because they have no active occupations to distract them from those feelings. Such an existence is certainly true of Anne, but it also applies to other women in the novel.
Anne, of course, remains unmarried after refusing Wentworth’s first proposal and is forced to live at Kellynch with no real occupation or power. She is expected to socialize in the neighborhood, appear at church, adorn the drawing room, make conversation, dance, play the piano. When she is applied to for her opinion on saving Kellynch from debt, her practical solutions are ignored; when she visits relatives like Mary, she is welcomed as a useful person, not as a guest to fuss over. Because her life is so quiet and confined, she has ample time to mull over the mistake she made by refusing Wentworth. Her regret ages her and diminishes her spirits, preying upon her like a disease. Wentworth, when he returns, is handsome and hardy and searching for a wife. While he still harbors hard feeling toward Anne, he has weathered his regret far better than she has weathered hers.
Other women in the novel also are forced to dwell in quiet lives in which their regrets and sorrows prey upon them. Elizabeth may be lady of a great house, but that life means she is also greatly confined to a prescribed life. When she is disappointed by Mr. Elliot’s not proposing to her, she carries that disappointment for years. “Such were Elizabeth Elliot’s sentiments and sensations; such the cares to alloy, the agitations to vary, the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness, of her scene of life—such feelings to give interest to a long, uneventful residence in one country circle, to fill the vacancies where there were no habits of utility abroad, no talents or accomplishments for home, to occupy.” Mrs. Smith, likewise, is confined by her widowhood and poverty, forced to dwell on the husband she loved and the costly mistakes he made that caused her to lose her security in life. Her one constant occupation is figuring out how to force Mr. Elliot to help her regain some lost property and income.
Persuasion offers a glimpse into the truth of upper class women’s lives at the time. Having money and status came with a price, and that price was a very prescribed, narrow life.
4. Austen is famous for her use of irony in her novels. In Persuasion, she directs that irony in particular at Sir Walter. How does Austen use irony to reveal the character of Sir Walter and make a statement about men like Sir Walter in general?
Irony is broadly defined as saying one thing while meaning or showing the opposite. Austen treats Sir Walter with irony from the beginning paragraphs in the novel, in which she describes with perfect seriousness his devotion to reading—“with an interest that never failed”—about himself in the Baronetage. He “improves” the listing for the Elliots by adding recent births and deaths to it. When he understands that he must “retrench” because of debts and decides upon living in Bath, he does so because “he might there be important at comparatively little expense.” Then, when he finds that a naval officer, Admiral Croft, is to rent Kellynch, he does not object to such a man based upon concern for Kellynch and whether the tenant might abuse it. No, his main concerns are that such a man has come from “‘obscure birth into undue distinction’” and such a man has a bad complexion because sailing “‘cuts up a man’s youth and vigor most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man.’” Such concerns, delivered perfectly seriously by Sir Walter, reveal that his rank and wealth have not made him a sensible, respectable man—only a vain and shallow one.
There is a seriousness to Austen’s ironic treatment of Sir Walter, however. His lack of true concern for his estate—and for the people supported by that estate—as well as his lack of concern for those to whom he holds money make him an object of true derision. His objections to naval men, and to Wentworth in particular, are part of the reason Anne was forced to give up Wentworth and then endure eight years of loneliness and grief because of her decision. His prejudices blind him to Anne’s true worth; instead, he allies himself with Elizabeth, who serves only to mirror his vanity and opinions. And his vanity makes him prey to some very serious dangers in the form of scheming Mrs. Clay and irreverent Mr. Elliot. His self-consequence blinds him to reality.
The greatest irony of the novel is Sir Walter’s reasons for finally accepting Wentworth as a son-in-law. Once Sir Walter finally deigns to acknowledge Wentworth, and “repeatedly saw him by daylight and eyed him well, he was very much struck by his personal claims, and felt that his superiority of appearance might be not unfairly balanced against [Anne’s] superiority of rank; and all this, assisted by his well-sounding name, enabled Sir Walter at last to prepare his pen with a very good grace for the insertion of the marriage in the volume of honour.” Austen’s use of irony here turns full circle back to the irony of the opening pages of the novel, showing that vain and foolish men remain vain and foolish men. They never change.
5. Persuasion was the last novel that Austen completed before her death, and Anne Elliot was the last of her heroines. Earlier heroines, such as spunky Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, passionate Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, and proud Emma Woodhouse in Emma, ended by making happy marriages to prosperous men. While Anne makes an equally happy marriage at the end of the novel, she is not, in many ways, a typical Austen heroine. What is different about Anne, and why might Austen have made her different?
Persuasion in general is a more pensive, somber novel than Austen’s other novels, which are flavored with irony, wit, and humor. Irony abounds in Persuasion, but it is a more biting irony than in the other novels. And Anne is a more somber heroine whose situation is imbued with a sadness that Austen’s other leading ladies do not encounter.
At twenty-seven, Anne is the oldest of Austen’s heroines. She is not, like Marianne Dashwood, beautiful, nor is she in command of her own life, as Emma Woodhouse is. Hers is a sad life, tempered by her grief over losing Captain Wentworth and her valueless existence within her family. At first, Anne shrinks on the page, rather than grows; she is described as slight, quiet, modest, and faded in beauty. She can play the piano for a crowded room of dancers, yet melt into the furniture while doing so. She adores the poignancy of autumn, a season so fitting to her perpetual sadness and fading youth. She can talk fluently of melancholy poets with Captain Benwick. Physically, her stamina is low. She cannot fend off her nephew from rough play, and she tires easily on her walk with the others from Uppercross. Her aging, unmarried state is almost equated with being ill.
All of Austen’s heroines are well-read, or at least love reading, and Anne is no exception. But her tastes in reading reveal a romantic propensity that links her to a different time period from the other heroines. The literature she discusses with Captain Benwick is the literature becoming popular in the first decade or two of the nineteenth century, when the Romantic period of English literature (1798-1832) was replacing the more classical literature that Austen’s earlier heroines read. She discusses Byron’s Giaour and Sir Walter Scott’s Marmionand The Lady of the Lake with Captain Benwick, recognizing herself in Benwick’s enthusiasm for “the tenderest songs of one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other” and the “broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness” of another. Anne is well read in the new Romantic poets, but she is not carried away by them. She also recommends to Benwick a “larger allowance of prose in his daily study.” Austen does not treat Anne’s reading tastes or her love of nature ironically, as she does that of Marianne Dashwoodin Sense and Sensiblityor Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland, who both get carried away with literature—to embarrassing ends.
Anne Elliot, created by Austen at the end of her life, while she was ill with what has been thought to be Addison’s disease, possesses amore worldly, wiser view of her surroundings and situation than Austen’s other heroines do. She begins the novel with experience in love, whereas the other heroines learn love through the course of the novel. Unlike ElinorDashwood, however, she does not fight to moderate her feelings, and she does not wait for her lover to come back to her, as Elinor waits for Edward Ferrarsto come back to her or Fanny Price waits for Edmund Bertram to realize he loves her. Anne takes charge of her destiny and subtly but daringly defies social convention and goes after Wentworth. She is, in this sense, the bravest of Austen’s heroines.