Monday, 8 August 2016

Jane Austen's 'Persuasion': The Relationship between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth

Persuasion is often considered autumnal in mood and setting. The Bath scenes take place in the Winter, leading to the prospect of joy with the coming of Spring. However, this novel is also different in that the story centres on the thoughts and feelings of Anne Elliot, who has already gone through her Spring and Summer of experiences before the novel starts. Unlike other heroines, she knows her mind before Page 1. She has arrived at full maturity. Also, the autumnal feeling comes from the sense that now is the time of harvest - the product of work done in the Spring and Summer.

Anne's error lay in a wrong estimate of Wentworth. She did not realise that his moral and mental qualities were such that it would have been prudent to marry him, even at the age of nineteen. Jane implies that right feeling is an integral part of good sense. Perhaps Jane's head had matured sooner than her heart. Though she could still regard love with a touch of irony, this was softened by a new mood of pensive sympathy. In this novel the tender autumnal weather reflects the tender autumnal mood. There is rich illustration - quite apart from Anne - of love versus prudence in the novel. So it has a dramatic and spiritual unity.

What makes Anne fear Captain Wentworth will marry Louisa? Much of the damage is done by the well-meant but painful speculation of her friends and relatives. 'Anne had to listen to the opinions of her brother and sister': Charles and Mary discuss which of Henrietta and Louisa is likely to be preferred by Captain Wentworth. Then, shortly after Captain Wentworth has handed her into their gig, Anne has to hear the Admiral tell his wife: 'He certainly means to have one or other of those two girls, Sophy..'. Nobody ever says: 'Frederic needs a wife. Anne would be ideal.' Wentworth himself has fuelled the flames by telling his sister: 'Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match...'. But this is light-hearted and not spoken in front of Anne.

It is clever of Jane Austen to make speculation do so much. It prevents her from having to show Wentworth becoming even more deeply involved with Louisa.

Captain Wentworth is angry when he learns that his plan to keep Anne in Lyme has been thwarted by Mary's selfishness. Wentworth's ostensible motive for keeping Anne close to himself is to employ her nursing skills on Louisa. However, in view of the Captain's recent attitude to Anne ('.. no one so proper, so capable, as Anne!') and what he says later (in Chapters 23 and 24) about his feelings for her, what Wentworth really wants is to keep Anne close to him not only in Lyme but for all time. As for Wentworth's supposed 'love' for Louisa, it turns out that he did not think her good enough even for Benwick!

If Captain Wentworth had succeeded in keeping Anne in Lyme, they could have renewed their engagement in Chapter 13, married in Chapter 14 and we would all have got to bed a lot earlier! However, we would have missed all those wonderful moments in Bath.

Alternatively, Anne might have married Captain Benwick. They get on well, having much in common - personal sorrows, a tendency to introversion and a fine taste in literature. In Lyme they almost become 'a pair'. He is 'considerately attentive to her' and she hopes with pleasure that their 'acquaintance' may continue. Later, at Uppercross, Charles Musgrove gives Anne strong hints that Benwick has fallen for her: Benwick would have accepted an invitation to Uppercross if Anne had been living there; instead, on a pretext of admiring local church architecture, he is likely to visit her at Kellynch, according to Charles. Anne does not seem averse to the prospect.

Now, if only Wentworth had stayed in Lyme and married Louisa, and if only Benwick had turned up at Kellynch, Anne could have become Mrs. Captain Benwick in Chapter 15. She would have married into the profession she loved and she would have had a perfect soul-mate.

The subtle unfolding of the relationship between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth shows Jane Austen's craftsmanship at its most mature. There can be few better realised moments in English literature than that in which Captain Wentworth, in a crowded room, overhears Anne discussing with Captain Harville the comparative constancy of men and women in love, and is moved by what he hears into writing to her to declare his love. C.V. Wedgwood [Annual Report of The Jane Austen Society, 1966] wrote: 'Under the surface calm of this scene the controlled passion of the two protagonists seems to electrify the atmosphere, so that the absurd intrusion of Charles Musgrove is a welcome relief of tension'.

In that famous discussion of the relative constancy of men and women, the comments made by Anne are uncannily similar to lines in Washington Irving's The Broken Heart (from 'The Sketch Book', which was published almost immediately after Persuasion.) He wrote: 'To a man, the disappointment of love may occasion some bitter pangs; it wounds some feelings of tenderness, it blasts some prospects of felicity; but he is an active being - he may dissipate his thoughts in the whirl of varied occupation, or may plunge into the tide of pleasure; or if the scene of disappointment be too full of painful association, he can shift his abode at will, taking, as it were, the wings of the morning, can fly to the uttermost parts of the earth, and be at rest. But woman's is comparatively a fixed, a secluded and meditative life. She is more the companion of her own thoughts and feelings; and, if, they are turned to ministers of sorrow, where shall she look for consolation? Her lot is to be wooed and won; and if unhappy in her love, her heart is like some fortress that has been captured and sacked and abandoned and left desolate’. 

Captain Wentworth normally speaks articulately and clearly. Yet in the final paragraph of Chapter 9 Anne hears him simply making 'noises'. Two-year-old Walter Musgrove has clambered on to his Aunt Anne's back, while she is kneeling by her patient. Little Walter ignores rebukes. Then - quite a shock for his infant system - he is suddenly picked up by a strange man (Captain Wentworth) who does not even speak any calming words to him. Obviously he screams. But Jane Austen edits that out. This is when Captain Wentworth makes the 'noises'. Anne thinks he is trying to blot out any thanks she might express. Possibly he is actually saying under his breath to the little boy words which had better not be repeated. By the way, what was little Walter screaming? 'I want my Mummy!'? No.