Lady Russell’s poor discernment and resulting bad advice in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

THE THREE MAJOR CHARACTER DEFECTS IN JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION

(Bath, England)

“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! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” (Chapter Four)

The final novel penned by Jane Austen was Persuasion, a beautiful and tender love story that rests on the ebb and flow of hope and despondency until a final reconciliation is achieved in the concluding chapters and love wins out after a tremendous battle with fallen human nature. I identify in this short note three primary character defects that delayed and almost completely thwarted the union of hearts between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in loving marriage. These three major character defects in Jane Austen’s Persuasion are: Lady Russell’s poor discernment and resulting bad advice, Captain Wentworth’s pride and Anne Elliot’s “unnatural,” “forced,” or overly-cautious prudence. Anne Elliot’s culpability is significantly mitigated by the severe pressure put on her to break the engagement and the lack of formative love she received in her household growing up (which is, in itself, an underlying, likely cause of her difficulties).

LADY RUSSELL’S REALLY BAD ADVICE

I had to laugh when Lady Russell admitted to Anne in Chapter 17 that “I am no match-maker, as you well know,” and then went on to advise Anne to marry Mr. Elliot! After all, Mr. Elliot is the baddest dude in the novel and the very worse person Anne Elliot could ever marry. If there is one conclusion in the novel which is quite certain it is the fact that Lady Russell gave Anne really bad advice not to marry Captain Wentworth. Still, at the very end of the novel, there is reconciliation between Wentworth and Lady Russell which rests on the fact that Lady Russell really did love Anne and was not motivated by malice in offering her such poor advice.

Jane Austen’s glowing description of Anne and Captain Wentworth establishes quite early in the novel that they were made for each-other. Here I quote from Chapter 4.

“He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit, and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly anybody to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail. They were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love. It would be difficult to say which had seen highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest: she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted.”

Yet we know that Lady Russell convinced Anne to break her engagement to Wentworth, all of which was the cause of profound suffering to Anne in the years that followed. Of significant interest, I read in one introduction to the novel the following facts pertaining to Jane Austen:

“Literary scholar Gillian Beer establishes that Austen had profound concerns about the levels and applications of “persuasion” employed in society, especially as it related to the pressures and choices facing the young women of her day. Beer writes that for Austen and her readers persuasion was indeed “fraught with moral dangers”; she notes particularly that Austen personally was appalled by what she came to regard as her own misguided advice to her beloved niece Fanny Knight  on the very question of whether Fanny ought to accept a particular suitor….”

It is therefore not surprising that Persuasion ends with the firm conclusion that Lady Russell gave Anne bad advice. I quote from Chapter 24:

“This however was what Lady Russell had now to do. She must learn to feel that she had been mistaken with regard to both [Wentworth and Mr. Elliot]; that she had been unfairly influenced by appearances in each; that because Captain Wentworth’s manners had not suited her own ideas, she had been too quick in suspecting them to indicate a character of dangerous impetuosity; and that because Mr Elliot’s manners had precisely pleased her in their propriety and correctness, their general politeness and suavity, she had been too quick in receiving them as the certain result of the most correct opinions and well-regulated mind. There was nothing less for Lady Russell to do, than to admit that she had been pretty completely wrong, and to take up a new set of opinions and of hopes (emphasis added).

There is a quickness of perception in some, a nicety in the discernment of character, a natural penetration, in short, which no experience in others can equal, and Lady Russell had been less gifted in this part of understanding than her young friend. But she was a very good woman, and if her second object was to be sensible and well-judging, her first was to see Anne happy. She loved Anne better than she loved her own abilities; and when the awkwardness of the beginning was over, found little hardship in attaching herself as a mother to the man who was securing the happiness of her other child.”

CAPTAIN WENTWORTH’S PROCRASTINATING PRIDE

A perplexing question raised by the novel is why Captain Wentworth waited so long to renew his offer of marriage to Anne? Yet, at the end of the novel Wentworth admits that his pride and resentment were a greater obstacle to reunion with Anne  than Lady Russell’s poor discernment. I quote from Chapter 23, where Captain Wentworth is speaking to Anne:

“But I too have been thinking over the past, and a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady [Russell]? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had then written to you, would you have answered my letter? Would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?”

“Would I!” was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough.

“Good God!” he cried, “you would! It is not that I did not think of it, or desire it, as what could alone crown all my other success; but I was proud, too proud to ask again. I did not understand you. I shut my eyes, and would not understand you, or do you justice. This is a recollection which ought to make me forgive every one sooner than myself. Six years of separation and suffering might have been spared. 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 honourable toils and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses,” he added, with a smile. “I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve” (emphasis added).

Austen lets us know that Wentworth gradually came to see the “folly” of his pride and the “madness” of his resentment which had kept him “from trying to regain” Anne.

ANNE ELLIOT’S UNNATURAL PRUDENCE

“Anne must unlearn a ‘prudent’ decision she had been persuaded to make in the past, and instead ‘learn romance’.” (Adele Kudish)

“The belief of being prudent, and self-denying principally for [Captain Wentworth’s] advantage, was [Anne’s] chief consolation, under the misery of a parting, a final parting.” (Chapter 4)

The question of Anne Elliot’s culpability for the broken engagement is a difficult one to answer, ambiguous in nature, and perhaps that is the way Jane Austen intended it to be.

It can be seen, however, from what has already been discussed that Jane Austen clearly views the break-up of Anne’s engagement to be a significant mistake. What is more difficult to determine is why Anne may have been burdened with too exacting a prudence, what one commentator described as an “excessive prudence,” and another as an “economic prudence,” and why she lacked the necessary appreciation of romantic love to balance things out. We do know that Anne’s mother was known for her economy and frugality, traits that were passed on to Anne. And one could argue that Anne’s recommendations for the retrenchment of Kellynch-Hall were so severe, so austere, that she failed to take into account her father’s inability to muster up such heroic mortification and self-denial to make the plan work. In other words, I will offer up some speculations as to why Anne was missing the mark on prudence, knowing as well that it may be the case that she was forced into such prudence in a way that diminishes her responsibility. The point, however, is to demonstrate that Anne’s “forced” prudence isn’t the ideal of moderation but is, more or less, a “self-sacrificing” prudence, a “purely defensive strategy for life,” that would forever hold Anne back from self-fulfillment and “true liberty” of soul and heart. This is why she must “learn romance” to overcome an unnatural prudence.

It is quite clear, too, that Anne Elliot is the hero of Persuasion. Anne’s remarkable display of virtue in the long years following the break-up, her heroic constancy, her perseverance, her hoping against hope, her fortitude, her profound charity to others, her “presence of mind” when tragedy strikes, her gentleness, all demonstrate that she is truly quite a remarkable and virtuous woman.

It is well know that prudence is a huge virtue to Jane Austen (as seen by a number of her novels). Thus, if Marianne Dashwood, excessive in her romantic spirit, was “everything but prudent” in Sense and Sensibility and Emma Woodhouse acted imprudently because she “was led astray by her fancy” and imagination, what are we to make of Anne Elliot who seems to be the very embodiment of prudence? In Persuasion, I shall argue, the situation is reversed and an overly-cautious or “forced” prudence becomes an obstacle to true love and happiness, so much so that Anne must “unlearn” prudence and “learn” romance (the very reverse of Marianne Dashwood’s difficulties)

Psychologically speaking, the strong influence of emotional life in a child is increasingly brought under the control of the child’s emerging rational life. In some manner, and at some point, Jane Austen seems to be suggesting that this normal process of development and integration has been interfered with in the case of Anne Elliot, accomplished perhaps too quickly or with an excessive emphasis on playing it safe, an unnatural development in need of a remedy. My point here is made plausible because Austen highlights Anne’s need for a more romantic love, for a love that is more adventurous, more imaginative and even self-seeking. “She learned romance as she grew older.” 

If indeed Anne Elliot suffers from a lack of romantic imagination and appreciation, then her impairment clearly precedes her ever meeting Wentworth, and one is justified in asking what went wrong in her normal development, something which Jane Austen characterizes as an unnatural development that will only be corrected in the years after the break-up with Wentworth, when she learns romance. But by learning romance what is the deficit that Anne is correcting?

We might remember that exercising a virtue such as prudence involves (classically speaking) choosing the middle path or golden mean between two extremes. According to Tanqueray, “a true prudence holds in check two disturbing elements: prejudice and passion. Prejudice leads us to make decisions under the influence of flimsy and preconceived notions that are liable to prove groundless or unreasonable, and passion leads us to make bad decisions under the pressure of an unbalanced emotional influence.” If Marianne Dashwood acted to her detriment under an unbalanced emotional influence, Anne Elliot, in nixing her engagement to Wentworth, appears to be guided by an “unnatural” and “forced” prudence, to use Austen’s own words.

F.W. Faber says in one of his books that “to be forever safe is to be forever feeble.” And Horace says that “sometimes we must season prudence with a touch of madness.” Anne appears to lack the romantic confidence (or is talked out of it) to take a reasonable risk in the name of love. Austen comments: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.” (Chapter Four). And further, in Chapter 7, the narrator says of Wentworth (mentioning specifically Anne’s “feebleness of character”):

“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.”

It is often mentioned in the literature about Persuasion that Jane Austen feared she had created too perfect a character in Anne Elliot. But if Anne does indeed suffer from an overly-cautious, unnatural prudence, then she has constructed a mental road-block that gravely harms her chances of marrying a truly wonderful man. Of course, there is the added difficulty that Sir Walter and Lady Russell do not view a sailor boy (Wentworth) as an appropriate fit for Anne, and the politics of class struggle and “Elliot pride” surface here, and weigh heavily upon the “good” advice that will be given to Anne by Lady Russell. Therefore, I might simply argue that the prudence forced upon Anne are the rules of the established social order which she is obligated to follow.

However, and this is crucial (although again I speculate as I attempt to dig deeper), Anne Elliot suffers from the imperfection of not being adequately loved and appreciated. “She was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; – she was only Anne” (Chapter 4). “Her father had found little to admire in her…or to excite his esteem” (4). And yes, there are people all around us who are unloved and unappreciated. And so, when love finally comes their way, is it to be expected that they may not know how to respond with love? This seems to be a difficulty with Anne Eliot: she has been so well-trained in an unnatural prudence “of giving way” that she is hesitant to respond with a more courageous love. In other words, her knowledge of love, and its inherent risks, will greatly expand in the years to come (and Anne learns much from the wonderful example of Admiral Croft and his wife).

In fact there is in Persuasion a poignant and even disturbing example of Anne’s repression within her family as related to the expression of her musical talents:

“[Anne] played a great deal better than either of the Miss Musgroves, but having no voice, no knowledge of the harp, and no fond parents, to sit by and fancy themselves delighted, her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware. She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation. Excepting one short period of her life, 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 or real taste. In music she had been always used to feel alone in the world (Chapter 6, emphasis added).

This is why I said, at the opening of this note, that Anne Elliot’s culpability for the broken engagement is significantly mitigated by the lack of formative love she received in her household growing up – which is, in itself, a likely underlying cause of her difficulties. In other words, there appears to be a close connection between Anne’s repression and her forced habit of “giving way,” making her prey to the calculations of a false prudence.  Ultimately Anne convinces herself that her decision to break off the engagement is in Captain Wentworth’s best interest and that she is doing it for him (such an overly-rationalized approach speaks to Anne’s unnatural prudence). If human prudence (and human love) failed Anne Elliot, she still retained hope, and a series of fortuitous, haphazard and lucky events gave her a second chance at love: a reminder that we are not always as much in control of our lives as we may think!

Anne’s own retrenchment will involve the passage from prudence to romance, from the repressive community of her unloving household, to the larger community where her full development as a woman can progress. Prudence is not meant to repress the passions, but rather to direct them to the good of the person. In other words, prudence is not really a virtue in-and-of itself, as if the goal of life was to be forever safe, but prudence is meant to direct the passions so that we can love passionately and at the same time love morally. In all of Jane Austen’s novels it is balance which is being urged upon us. To Jane Austen the escape from an enfeebling prudence does not involve a jump to a liberality unchecked by the just moderation of the moral virtues.

Moreover, Jane Austen makes it clear at the end of the novel that it was morally justifiable for the then nineteen year old Anne Elliot to submit in obedience to the counsel of her parent-like guide, Lady Russell, even though Anne admits that she could never give such advice in similar circumstances (23). In light thereof, Jane Austen pretty much exonerates Anne of any blame, and yet Anne does say near the end of the novel, “If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk.”

Still, if the novel seems to create a contradiction regarding Anne’s culpability in the broken engagement, however mitigated it might be, it seems pretty clear that if she could redo things there would be no hesitation in marrying Captain Wentworth (“she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it….”).

Finally, to what extent external circumstances such as concerns for class superiority and economic security formed a false or excessive prudence foisted upon Anne through her Father and Lady Russell must not be lost sight of. In other words there was extraordinary pressure put on Anne to break the engagement (and she was only nineteen).

The acquisition of prudence, so crucial in other novels by Austen, is seen differently in Persuasion. In Persuasion the hazards of being prudent are mapped out by Jane Austen, albeit it in a complicated and even ambiguous manner, much being left unsaid or implied in ways that are not easy to reconstruct.

CONCLUSION

Anne Elliot marries Captain Wentworth. She “gloried in being a sailor’s wife.” She fully accepts the risk that war could put her husband in harm’s way. She is now more “fixed” in “truth” and in a “knowledge of each other’s character” and “attachment.” Prudence and romance have joined themselves together in loving marriage, and “Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth’s affections,” an “overpowering happiness,” and she “was fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.”

If love is patient and kind, if love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, then what are we to make of Anne Elliot? She is “tenderness itself,” that rare saintly quality we see in a person who has endured tremendous suffering while simultaneously being exceptionally kind to her fellow man. As Anne explained herself, “God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of my fellow creatures.”

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: I gained valuable insights from the following internet articles: “Almost Too Good for Me: The Seasoning of Anne Elliot’s Idealism” by Esther Moon; “Affective Contradictions in Jane Austen’s Persuasion” by Adele Kudish; “What Anne Knew” by Sarah Emsley; “Liberty in Jane Austen” by Katheryn E. Davis; “Persuasion: Jane Austen’s Philosophical Rhetoric” by J.L. Kastely; “Jane Austen and the Limits of Freedom” by John Lauber; and “Persuasion and Prudence: The Characterization of Anne Elliot in Persuasion” by gradefixer.

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