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Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Vol. 2

September 30, 2017

Jane Austen, PersuasionI recently posted my thoughts on Volume 1 of Persuasion, which I read for my Jane Austen group’s slow reading of the novel. This post, obviously, is on the second (and last) volume. As before, I’ll be focusing on reflections from this read rather than writing a traditional review. And, again, just in case you need a refresher on the plot or characters, please check Wikipedia.

Persuasion

… and Self-interest

Last meeting, my Jane Austen group discussed Lady Russell’s advice to Anne. Some found it wanting while others felt she was justified in recommending that 19-year-old Anne reject Captain Wentworth’s proposal. In Volume 2, we get to question Lady Russell’s judgement again, when she sees Mr Elliot as a good suitor for Anne.

So, we have a conundrum. She’s Anne’s friend and supporter, but she’s also a member of the aristocracy, which is not presented positively in the book, and her judgement is suspect. What are we to make of her?

At the end of the novel, Lady Russell is treated well. Is this because her advice, poor though it is (in hindsight, particularly), doesn’t stem from self-interest? Here is Austen wrapping up Lady Russell at the end:

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.

If we agree that Lady Russell is redeemed because her focus was Anne’s happiness, not self-interest, where does this leave Mrs Smith? She was prepared not to share with Anne her knowledge of Mr Elliot’s character, her reason being:

After listening to this full description of Mr. Elliot, Anne could not but express some surprise at Mrs. Smith’s having spoken of him so favourably in the beginning of their conversation. “She had seemed to recommend and praise him!” “My dear,” was Mrs. Smith’s reply, “there was nothing else to be done. I considered your marrying him as certain, though he might not yet have made the offer, and I could no more speak the truth of him, than if he had been your husband. My heart bled for you, as I talked of happiness.

But, given her hopes for Anne interceding on her behalf with Mr Elliot, is there not some self-interest in her decision not to influence Anne? Mrs Smith’s situation was dire in a way that Lady Russell’s was not, but … Anyhow, she too is treated well in the novel’s wrapping up.

What this says to me is that while Austen gently satirises groups (such as the aristocracy) or ideas (such as persuasion/influence/advice-giving), she is not black-and-white about it. She understands humanity – and would like us to, too!

… or, being persuadable

Last post I commented on Anne’s wondering whether Captain Wentworth, after Louisa’s accident at Lyme, might have realised “that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character.” Well, in the resolution, we discover that he did!

There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind.

Meanwhile, Anne tells him that, despite the pain it caused, her 19-year-old self was right to listen to 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. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides.

This last sentence reminds me of that “good spirit” narrator in The museum of modern love (my review) who said in the opening paragraph, “It’s a human condition to admire hindsight. I always thought foresight was so much more useful”. If only Anne knew, eh, what the event would decide?

Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Elinor

Jane Austen fans love to consider her characters, to discuss who is the worst villain or the best hero, or whether character X is like character Y, and so on. So, when my Jane Austen group discussed this volume, one member hesitatingly suggested that Anne Elliot could be seen as a mature Fanny Price (Mansfield Park). Yes, I said, I had the same thought! Not so some other members of the group, but here’s the thing. Both Anne and Fanny resist pressure or encouragement to marry people they don’t love, both have strong moral codes, both nearly lose their “love” to rivals, both are relied upon by their families to provide nurturing and support. There are differences. Anne, with her “higher” social position, has more power and agency than Fanny, the poor cousin, but a couple of could see a distinct similarity.

Another member responded that she saw a likeness to Elinor (Sense and sensibility). There is some argument for that too. Elinor is also a steady, moral character who is relied on by her family, and she too nearly loses her “love” to another. And, like Anne and Fanny, Elinor does not need to learn lessons the way Marianne (Sense and sensibility), Elizabeth (Pride and prejudice), Emma (Emma), and Catherine (Northanger Abbey) do. But she doesn’t have to contend with pressure from others the way Anne and Fanny do, which is why I’d see a closer connection between Anne and Fanny.

The Navy

Anne and Captain Wentworth, Ch 20

Anne and Captain Wentworth in front of her “formidable” family (CE Brock, Public Domain)

I said in my Volume 1 post that I’d talk about the Navy in this post, but I’ve ended up talking about other things. However, it’s worth mentioning that in Persuasion, Jane Austen, who had two Naval brothers, presents the Navy positively, as family-oriented men whose values draw more from having good relationships with their families and their “brother” officers  than from status/position. Here is Anne watching Admiral and Mrs Croft in Bath:

They brought with them their country habit of being almost always together. He was ordered to walk to keep off the gout, and Mrs. Croft seemed to go shares with him in everything, and to walk for her life to do him good. Anne saw them wherever she went. …  Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could, delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

This continues her feelings from late Volume 1 when the visiting party in Lyme had spent time with Captain Wentworth and his naval friends. She saw their hospitality, their lack of “the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display” that typified her circle. “These would have been all my friends,” she thinks, and the idea lowers her spirits. It’s surely no coincidence that in this novel Austen presents some of the worst of the aristocracy with its focus on appearance and position against the best of the Navy with, as Louisa notices, “their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness”.

And then there’s the last line of the novel:

She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.

What does this mean, besides the point that being married into the Navy means you will always have the worry of war? Many have discussed the meaning of “more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance”, with some believing that it is Austen suggesting a new world in which the professional classes, the middle class, represented here by the Navy, is gaining ascendance in English life.

What do you think?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2017 10:43 am

    Might that comment about the navy’s importance have meant that she thought that armies were more important than navies in terms of national security?

    • October 1, 2017 11:37 am

      That’s an interesting point, looking at those words, Lisa. The thing is that the army isn’t mentioned at all in this book. It’s all Navy. And, I’m not sure, given that England is an island that she would have thought that?? My thought was that though the Navy is important nationally, what it can offer to domestic life is something more valuable. Still … food for thought, as Austen continues to offer us!!

      Interestingly the novel is set, unusually for Austen, at a very precise time – during Napoleon’s exile. It might be that that just gave her an opportunity to have Naval characters, or it may be that she wanted to say something more about the role of the Navy.

      • October 1, 2017 11:49 am

        Did England have a proper army at that time, or was it still when they raised an army at need rather than as a permanent force?

        • October 1, 2017 1:26 pm

          Good question, Lisa, and this is not my area of expertise, but yes I think they did, from the late 17th century.

  2. October 1, 2017 2:37 pm

    I think the army Lisa is thinking of is the militia, but there was a regular army as well (of course my source is mainly Georgette Heyer). You’ve made me think more about Austen and class. She and her protagonists were of the gentry and were eligible to marry into the aristocracy (or to be raised up a little like Lucas in p&p). Likewise the lower boundaries of the gentry were fluid too, with uncle Gardiner obviously on the way up and even the farmer in Emma not entirely contemptible. I suspect Jane enjoyed the fluidity rather than feeling protective of her own position.

    • October 1, 2017 3:54 pm

      Yes, Bill, I believe Lisa was, and I think Wickham was in the Militia. But there was the Army as well. (Don’t tell me, though, that you are citing historical fiction as you source!! Haha!)

      And yes, I think you’re right that Austen did support the fluidity, as you describe it, and certainly didn’t like snobbery or poor behaviour particularly based on status and position. Just look at her treatment of Lady Catherine in P&P

  3. October 1, 2017 8:56 pm

    Can’t pretend to know what that last line might mean. According to Patrick O’Brian (yes, my source is historical fiction too!) the army was more highly regarded than the navy, and an army career considered more prestigious, until the great naval battles of the Napoleonic wars raised the navy’s profile. But in that last line perhaps Austen (via her brothers) seems to think that the navy is still not considered to be of national importance.

    • October 1, 2017 9:55 pm

      Haha, I love the references to Heyer (loved by my Grandmother) and O’Brian (loved by her son, my uncle)!

      Anyhow, what you say is interesting. I think both services had some pretty suss recruiting techniques resulting in a certain amount of unpopularity for them both. Also, in the army you needed to buy a commission whereas you didn’t need to in the navy, making the navy a more likely career for poorer boys (like William Price in MP). Then again, I think in the Navy you could get advancement by someone speaking on your behalf, which doesn’t sound wonderfully fair either. All very messy isn’t it!

      The “if possible”, though, suggests to me that its national importance was high? It’s interesting too that she says “national importance” and “domestic virtues”.

      I’m loving these ideas …

  4. Lithe lianas permalink
    October 1, 2017 10:36 pm

    I have always been puzzled by that final sentence wondering exactly what Austen meant by being ‘more distinguished in its domestic virtues’ which seemed to me to be a generalisation arising from a limited experience, even recognising that she had two brothers in the navy who appear to have had ‘domestic virtues.’ The navy was vitally important to a wealthy nation which was an island and which was frequently eyed with evil intent by continental European nations and I had always thought it had great national importance.

    • October 1, 2017 10:44 pm

      Thanks LL. It is an intriguing line isn’t it? I can’t help thinking that she does think that naval officers are setting a new benchmark for decent living and that this is EVEN more significant than their obvious importance for national security. If that is what she meant, it’s a pretty strong statement. It’s probably her most mystifying final line don’t you think?

  5. October 3, 2017 5:43 am

    Regarding the navy comment, I wonder if it might have something to do with the fact that captains were often able to have their wives and children on board with them? I recently just read a book for review for Library Journal about Fanny Palmer Austen, Charles Austen’s wife. It was pretty good. The author suggests that Jane’s correspondence and sometimes in-person visits with Fanny gave her all kinds of insights and information about what being a naval wife was and she used that as models for Persuasion. I bet you would like the book! It’s called Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister http://a.co/8sGg8wz

    • October 3, 2017 8:05 am

      Oh thanks , Stefanie, I hadn’t heard of that book. We do know that Austen used her brothers for info about for example the ships she mentions in Persuasion, so I’m not surprised that she talked to their wives about it too.

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