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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Jane Austen's Lady Russell: Sundry Speculations

When led to believe that Wentworth has fallen in love with Louisa, Lady Russell's heart revels in 'angry pleasure, in pleased contempt'. This is difficult to understand. Though Lady Russell's sentiments are hardly noble, her 'contempt' in seeing that Wentworth - in his maturity - valuing Louisa more highly than he once valued Anne, is perhaps credible; but why 'angry'? What Wentworth does with his life is none of her business. Why should she feel 'angry pleasure'? Does she subconsciously now wish that Wentworth should offer himself again to Anne? There is no evidence of this in the text, but we have to interpret Lady Russell's emotion in this way. If Jane Austen had lived long enough, perhaps she would have written more to explain her ladyship's psychology.

Possibly Lady Russell, having been the cause of her dear surrogate daughter's eight years of misery, is pleased to hear evidence of her having been 'right' after all. It is solace from that guilt. Possibly, Wentworth represents an affront to her own snobbery and timidity (an interesting combination). Why exactly has this intelligent widow never remarried? Perhaps because no Wentworth ever entered her life. So in a horrible but totally unconscious way was she jealous of Anne? However, this explanation leaves the reader to make far more inferences than are usually necessary with Jane Austen. It contributes to a picture of Lady Russell as a none-too-pleasant, embittered person, which is hard to reconcile with the earlier presentation of her as a friend and supporter of the family (introduced in Chapter 1 with such words as 'sensible, deserving', 'of steady age and character'). Couple this with the big question whether Anne was right to reject Wentworth and 'Persuasion' becomes not just one of the world's most moving love stories but also strangely disturbing. After Wentworth and Anne, Lady Russell is the novel's most important character.

It is unusual for Jane Austen not to be explicit in such matters. For example, in the chapters that follow, Anne is ambivalent in her attitude to the soapy young Walter Elliot, while he behaves ingratiatingly, quite out of accord with his character as previously known. But Jane Austen fully explains these attitudes. 

In the Christmas scene at Uppercross, Jane Austen makes use of 'noise' both ironically and as a link to what comes next - the scenes in Bath. Lady Russell snootily dislikes the din in the Musgroves' household while Mrs. Musgrove regards it as 'a little quiet cheerfulness'! Then Lady Russell, who could not stand the noise at Uppercross, hears nothing unpleasant when greeted by the din of Bath (and how vividly a few words introduce us to that city!). Who were the 'bawling ... muffin men'? We seem to have an example of the modern craze for take-away fast-food. 

‘How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!' I entered that quotation in my commonplace book many years ago and later forgot where in Jane Austen it came. Countless times in daily life I observed its truth in relation to so many people, including myself. I thought it probably came from a moment where a self-centred young lady (such as Lydia Bennet) was arguing to get her own way. It was a pleasure to rediscover it, though a disappointment to find it applied only to a private thought of Lady Russell's!