Some way into Jane Austen's Persuasion, heroine Anne Elliot is deeply distressed when she overhears a conversation between her former fiancé, Captain Wentworth, and the girl he has been flirting with, which makes it clear that Wentworth considers Anne weak-willed, and holds her in disdain for breaking off their engagement eight years ago, when he was a penniless lieutenant with no prospects, on the advice of her mentor Lady Russell. Mind churning, Anne is glad when the three are joined by the rest of their group, thinking that "Her spirit wanted the solitude and silence which only numbers could give." That line seems to me to sum up Anne, and indeed the whole of Persuasion, perfectly. Anne Elliot is exactly the sort of person who is always most alone in a crowd.
Persuasion is an odd entry in Austen's bibliography. Her last novel, it is the most sober of the six, with very little of the sharp, acidic humor that characterizes most of her writing. In other Austen novels, characters like Anne's vain father Sir Walter, whose chief enjoyment is reading and rereading his family's entry in the Baronetage, and her sisters, proud Elizabeth and self-pitying Mary, would be figures of, admittedly quite barbed, fun. In Persuasion, they are grotesques, and their ridiculousness is more often used to evoke horror rather than humor--that the petty concerns and selfish passions of these worthless people should proscribe and direct nearly every decision in Anne's life. Persuasion is also the most blatantly romantic of Austen's novels. Its plot is a straightforward Cinderella story--an unappreciated but superior young woman longs for a prince to whisk her away from her unhappy life, and then he does--and the terms in which it is related are earnest and heartfelt. "You pierce my soul," Captain Wentworth writes Anne at the end of the novel. The same writer who in her other novels could never seem to write a confession of love without either stepping away ("Elizabeth ... immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change ... as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.") or poking fun ("exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire."), and usually both, here gives us such protestations as "I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you."
What's most unusual about Persuasion, however, is that unlike all of Austen's other novels it doesn't revolve around the protagonist's growth. Anne Elliot, who is unique among Austen's heroines for being a woman rather than a girl, is a finished person, and one that Austen quite obviously finds admirable. There is in Persuasion none of the not-so-gentle authorial poking and prodding that Fanny Price--probably the Austen heroine who comes closest to Anne's mixture of self-possession, selflessness, and moral rectitude--endures in her own novel, because Anne has none of Fanny's flaws. She's mature and confident enough to know her own worth and can hold her ground when it really matters. Neither does Captain Wentworth undergo a Mr. Darcy-like transformation, though one might very well be in order given that he spends the first two thirds of the book coldly ignoring Anne, insulting her to her face, and flirting with another woman in front of her (and in the process leading that woman on). Most of this is inadvertent or unwitting, but that's not usually an excuse for an Austen hero. Persuasion, however, keeps making excuses for, and trying to downplay, Wentworth's behavior, and his journey is mostly about letting go of his anger towards Anne and realizing that he still loves her. Even this revelation isn't the source of the novel's tension. There's never much doubt that, if they can only keep from attaching themselves to anyone else (never a great temptation), Anne and Wentworth's reunion will happen--"We are not boy and girl," Anne thinks, "to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment's inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness."
What Persuasion is actually about is Anne's search for a place, a group, in which she no longer has to feel alone. In one of the novel's most famous exchanges, Anne's cousin Mr. Elliot asks her what her idea of good company is. Upon hearing Anne's requirements of "clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation," he laughingly replies that "that is not good company, that is the best." But the best company is exactly what Anne, who is terribly lonely, terribly unappreciated, and terribly under-stimulated, is looking for, and Persuasion is made up of set pieces in which she moves from one social group to another (each time observing how completely the social mores and priorities change, how what seemed vital in one setting becomes a trifle in another), looking for that perfect fit. She doesn't find it in her father's cold, unloving house, where family
pride trumps manners and propriety, nor among her brother-in-law's
family, the Musgroves, who though warmly appreciative of her are not on
her intellectual level, nor in the stuffy drawing rooms in Bath, where the gossipy, fashion-obsessed chatter rises to a deafening din. Anne finds her place among the retired officers of the British Navy.
Persuasion is a book-long paean to the navy, whose officers are described as friendly, courtly, virtuous, loyal, and intelligent. Anne is struck by these qualities in Captain Wentworth and his brother-in-law Admiral Croft, but upon falling into a whole set of former officers at Lyme, she feels "such a bewitching charm in a degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display, that Anne felt her spirits not likely to be benefited by an increasing acquaintance among [Captain Wentworth's] fellow officers. "These would all have been my friends," was her thought". Of course, Anne can't enter the society of the navy on her own power. It's her reconciliation with and marriage to Wentworth that achieve this, and so the novel's central romance is actually a means to the end of finally placing Anne in that best company she's been longing for, of finally ending her loneliness.
There are two points that mar my enjoyment of Anne's journey from loneliness to the society of her peers. The first is that, whether intentionally or not, this journey is also one in which Anne rejects relationships with women--which dominate the circles she moves in in her father's house, among the Musgroves, and in Bath--in favor of those with men. Sisterhood, whether literal or figurative, is never an unalloyed good in Austen's novels. Even in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, in which the heroines' relationships with women are often deeper and more significant than even the driving romance, there are negative examples of sisterhood--Lydia, Kitty, and Mary Bennet, or Lucy and Anne Steele--and in novels like Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey positive relationships between women are often drowned out by toxic ones. In Persuasion, however, there is not a single example of positive, nurturing female friendship, and most of the female characters other than Anne are deeply flawed. There are wicked, selfish women in the novel--Elizabeth, Mrs. Clay--and foolish ones--Mary and the entire Musgrove tribe--but even those women Anne thinks highly of turn out to be unsuitable as friends and confidantes.
Lady Russell is the most obvious example--the whole of Persuasion is concerned with Anne establishing firm boundaries between herself and the woman who has been like a mother to her, and whose influence over her she now views as a source of harm. Lady Russell's attempts to exert a similar influence on Anne in the second half of the novel, by persuading her to marry Mr. Elliot, are met with steely, unbending refusal, as well as a subtle weakening of Anne's regard for her mentor for failing to doubt Mr. Elliot's intentions as she does. Mrs. Smith, with whom Anne appears to have struck a friendship of equals, and who seems to be acting as Anne's friend when she provides her with concrete proof that Mr. Elliot is a cad, is actually one of the most designing characters in the novel. Even knowing Mr. Elliot's character, she encourages Anne to marry him in the hopes of advancing her own interests through their marriage, and only reveals the truth once it's clear that she has nothing to gain from lying. Given her dire straits, it's hard to blame her for grasping at any available straw, but she's hardly a moral character or a good friend. The only truly admirable female characters in the novel are the ones Anne sees from a distance, from whom she is separated from by the lack of an entry pass into their world--the navy wives, Mrs. Harville and Mrs. Croft (the latter may very well be the coolest female character in an Austen novel--she has sailed as far as the East Indies with her husband, and calmly takes the reins from him when they're out driving in their carriage). It is, however, significant that even in the absence of that pass Anne manages to strike up an intimacy with a navy man, Captain Benwick (who may be the only character in the novel she considers an intellectual equal), and that the most open, honest and emotional conversation she has with any character in the novel is with another naval officer, Captain Harville.
My second issue with Persuasion is with Anne herself, and with the fact that, at some point over the course of the novel, her loneliness comes to seem less like a predicament and more like a choice. Anne is, as I've said, a Cinderella heroine, someone who is put-upon and unappreciated. But Anne is no Fanny Price, an emotionally battered, financially dependent, mousy person who probably can't bring herself to speak out against her mistreatment. Neither is she Elinor Dashwood, who suffers silently until she's dealt one blow too many and then explodes with anger and frustration. It's true that her position as a single woman in Regency England means that the choices available to Anne are not so much broader than the ones available to Fanny. She can't just pick up and leave a setting that doesn't suit her, but I'm not sure that she wants to. I think that Persuasion wants us to think of Anne as saintly, someone who can put up with her father's vanity, her sisters' pride or dependence, her in-laws' silliness, without losing her patience or composure, but the superiority with which Anne views almost everyone she encounters in the novel belies this approach. There is something off-putting about being the sort of person who spends their life believing themselves to be superior to everyone else and detaching themselves from their surroundings because of that belief, even if it is entirely justified. It smacks of not trying hard enough to find one's own level. Anne seems to enjoy being the smartest person in the room, the one who sees and silently laughs at everyone else's foibles and weaknesses, a little too much, and the novel lets her get away with this.
We are enjoined, of course, from mistaking characters for their author, and lord knows that Jane Austen has suffered from this fallacious tendency far more than most, but it's impossible to know more than a little of her life and not wonder just how much of Austen, or of her idealized image of herself, there is in Anne. It's easy to imagine Austen as the smartest person in the room, as someone whose superiority over others was a source of both pleasure and loneliness. Is this why Anne is missing the flaws that makes Austen's other heroines so human and so real? Is this why she's inhumanly saintly where a real person in her position would be just a little bit wicked? I'm dipping my toes in forbidden waters and so I'll stop, but whether or not I'm on the right track, the fact remains that there's something not quite right about Anne Elliot, something that stops Persuasion, despite being one of Austen's finest technical achievements, and one of the most romantic stories I've ever read (I swoon at Captain Wentworth's letter. Every time), from quite working. In the novel's penultimate chapter, Anne glides through her father's house in Bath, rapturously waiting for Captain Wentworth to formally ask for her hand in marriage, benevolently observing the characters who have imposed on her throughout the novel: "Mr. Elliot was there; she avoided, but she could pity him. The
Wallises -- she had amusement in understanding them. Lady Dalrymple
and Miss Carteret -- they would soon be innoxious cousins to her.
She cared not for Mrs. Clay, and had nothing to blush for in the
public manners of her father and sister." Ignoring them, she finds a quiet corner, and talks about the past with Captain Wentworth. It's hard not to think that, instead of finally finding her good company, Anne has found someone with whom she can feel superior, someone to be alone in a crowd with.