Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

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Jane Austen places all her heroines in difficult situations.  Their ultimate goal is happiness and self-fulfilment to be achieved through marriage to a compatible and worthy partner, but this can be reached only after numerous formidable obstacles have been overcome.

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Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot in Persuasion (TV Movie 2007) – directed by Adrian Shergold.

Anne Elliot

Persuasion is Anne Elliot’s book.  And like other Austen heroines, she too labours under various major difficulties.  She lacks material resources and is, therefore, less eligible than she might otherwise be, particularly in a society which places a high value on financial competence in both partners in a marriage.  This is best exemplified by the fact that Captain Wentworth has no fortune when he first proposes to Anne and this fact tells heavily against him in the eyes of Lady Russell and Anne’s family.  Her own family situation is little better and, despite Anne’s best efforts to give her father prudent advice, she is ignored and he continues to live beyond his means.   There is no member of her family in whom she can confide, and her sisters are cruelly insensitive.  She has refused to marry Wentworth, the one man she can love, on the mistaken advice of her godmother, Lady Russell.  As the novel opens, seven years have elapsed since her rejection of Wentworth, who again enters her world, still resentful and bitter over her past treatment of him.  Her present circumstances seem to offer her little or no scope for achieving reconciliation with Wentworth.  Two important factors combine, however, to see her through: her own considerable resources of character and personality, and, last but not least, some good fortune.

As already mentioned Anne is central to the novel and every other character we encounter is significant only in relation to her: Wentworth and William Walter Elliot as her admirers; Lady Russel as her adviser; Mrs Smith as her informant about William Walter Elliot; Louisa as her rival, and so on.  Everything that happens is seen as having some relation to Anne’s concerns, and what the readers see, they see through her eyes and from her point of view.

The only recorded comment from Jane Austen about Persuasion was that she felt that Anne was almost too good to be true.  She is presented from the outset as an admirably sensible young woman, loyal, self-reliant, with a sound and penetrating judgement and the highest ideals.  Indeed, all she has to achieve through the course of the novel is a greater reliance on the soundness of her own judgement, and the rightness of her own principles.  She learns from her mistake in following Lady Russell’s earlier advice when she refuses Charles Musgrove, although this time around Lady Russell is in favour of the match.  Her strong feelings and sensitive, emotional nature, are balanced by sanity and intelligence.  She doesn’t give in to being over-sentimental and she doesn’t allow herself to become despondent or depressed.  She busies herself with cataloguing the books and pictures at Kellynch, visits the tenants, nurses her nephew, frequently acts as accompanist for the Musgroves, advises Captain Benwick about his reading programme, and visits the unfortunate Mrs Smith.  Her strength of character is revealed in the degree of self-discipline she has achieved during the seven-year separation from Wentworth.  Her eyes may fill with tears at the sight of Captain Wentworth dancing with Louisa, but she allows nobody to notice this.  Instead, she offers her services as a musical accompanist, ‘extremely glad to be employed, and desiring nothing in return but to be unobserved’.  Her intelligence, good sense and self-control, then, are always to the fore.

She gets a unique opportunity to demonstrate her practical good sense, quickness of wit and self-control after Louisa’s accident on the Cobb at Lyme.  While everybody around her panics and falls to pieces, and even Wentworth displays an alarming loss of nerve, she assumes control and does all the appropriate things.  There can only be one verdict, Wentworth’s: ‘No one so proper, so capable as Anne’.

But this is only one aspect of her character.  Jane Austen is successful in communicating her emotional nature, her intensity of feeling.  This is all the more impressive in the light of her normally restrained and controlled manner.  One good example of her strong feeling finding an outlet is her impassioned declaration to Captain Harville that women (for the reader and the listening Wentworth this means Anne) are capable ‘of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone’.  Again, when reconciliation with Wentworth seems to be on the cards, we learn that ‘she had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate.  They were too much like joy, senseless joy’.

Anne approaches as near to perfection as any fictional character could, while still retaining some measure of credibility.  However, she has her weaknesses.  When all hope seems lost, she plunges into a sentimental self-indulgent reverie, recalling literary works appropriate to her melancholy state, and generally feeling sorry for herself.  She has enough self-control, however, to put an end to such musings and to face reality.  Again, she experiences ‘exquisite’ gratification at the thought that Wentworth is jealous of Mr Elliot’s attention to her.  She sometimes resorts to harmless and endearing female wiles, as when she wants to give Wentworth an opportunity to talk to her at the opera: ‘by some other removals and a little scheming of her own, Anne was enabled to place herself nearer the end of the bench than she had been before, much more within reach of a passer-by’.  She is human after all!

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Rupert Penry Jones as Captain Wentworth. He starred alongside Sally Hawkins in the 2007 remake of Persuasion for TV – directed by Adrian Shergold.

 

Captain Wentworth

From a casual reading of Jane Austen’s novels, it does seem that most of the eligible men are indeed eagerly and with great enthusiasm contemplating marriage and are searching for a suitable life partner.  We all remember that famous quote from Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’.  Wentworth’s tendency in this regard is made explicit in his comments to his sister:

Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match.  Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking.  A little beauty, a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man (Chap 7).

So, we gather that Wentworth is indeed in search of a wife.  In fact, unknown to himself, he is the one being pursued, the thrust of the entire novel is towards the creation of a set of circumstances in which he must recognise the inevitability of taking Anne as his wife.  Anne may appear to be confined, Cinderella-like, to a state of immobility, imprisoned by the conventions of the time, and powerless to take direct action in her own cause, and Wentworth to have total freedom of movement, choice and initiative.  Circumstances, however, conspire to Anne’s advantage by opening Wentworth’s eyes to his true position in relation to Anne, and to his true emotional state, which he is finally forced to acknowledge in his letter to her:

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 (Chap 23).

Wentworth is an ideal hero, ‘a remarkably fine young man’, having ‘a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy’.  Socially, he represents the rising bourgeois class: independent, aggressive, speculative, becoming rich through enterprise.  In Persuasion, this class, whose other representatives are Admiral Croft and Captain Harville, is contrasted with the Elliots, who represent the entrenched establishment, inheritors rather than creators of wealth.  Like Anne, and in contrast to the other Elliots and Charles Musgrove, Wentworth has an active busy temperament: ‘It was a great object with me, at that time, to be at sea, a very great object.  I wanted to be doing something’.  This is after Anne’s rejection of him.  His reaction to this episode reveals two aspects of his character: his confidence and independence of mind which cause him to despise over-cautious temperaments, and his pride, both emerging in the following:

She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shown a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure.  It has been the effect of over-persuasion.  It has been weakness and timidity.

Wentworth is a man of considerable tact and social grace.  His treatment of the embarrassing Miss Musgrove is a model of kindness and discretion.  He attunes himself perfectly to the elegant world at Bath.  Elizabeth Elliot recognises him as a decided social asset.  His manners, conversation and commanding social presence set him apart from the other male characters.  Such is his power over Anne that she bases her judgement of all other men on the standards he has set.  What she admires in William Walter Elliot, for example, is what she has found in Wentworth; what she finds lacking in Elliot, Wentworth has exemplified.  She sees Elliot as,

‘rational, discreet, polished but not open.  There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others.  This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection … She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others.  Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still’.

Captain Harville reveals to Anne a strain of compassion and tenderness in Wentworth which may surprise us as we read.  Knowing that the death of Captain Benwick’s fiancée has plunged him into misery, Wentworth rushes top comfort his friend, he

‘travelled night and day till he got to Portsmouth, rowed off to The Grappler that instant, and never left the poor fellow for a week; that’s what he did, and nobody else could have saved poor James.  You may think, Miss Elliot, whether he is dear to us!’.

This, of course, is not his only spontaneous act of kindness; he sees to it that Anne is given a place in the Crofts’ carriage, something she owes ‘to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest’.  This affects Anne deeply, as does his consideration in removing Mary’s troublesome child from her back!

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William Walter Elliot – the least favourite Austen character?

William Walter Elliot

William Walter Elliot is a necessary part of the mechanism of the novel’s plot.  He is a foil to Wentworth and is the means of arousing the latter’s jealousy, of making him realise the strength of his feelings for Anne and eventually acting accordingly.  Elliot serves to expose the false values of Sir Walter and Elizabeth and to underline the basic unsoundness of Lady Russell’s judgement, while at the same time confirming the soundness of Anne’s judgement.  He has snubbed the Elliot family by neglecting to seek Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, settling instead for ‘a rich woman of inferior birth’.  Despite this, they all welcome him back with alacrity when he re-appears as an impressive looking widower, pleasant, courteous, anxious to please.  Anne, as we might expect, has her doubts about him, experiencing ‘the sensation of there having been more than immediately appeared, in Mr Elliot’s wishing, after an interval of so many years, to be well received by them’.  Lady Russell thinks him admirable, a fit husband for Anne, whose evaluation, after a month’s acquaintance, is perceptive.  Her conclusions tell us much about her powers of judgement, and also give us a glimpse of Jane Austen the moralist.  Her judgement, ‘on a serious consideration of the possibilities of such a case, was against Mr Elliot’, even before Mrs Smith’s revelations.  But why?  She has to acknowledge that Elliot, ‘talked well, professed good opinions, seemed to judge properly and as a man of principle’.  But the problem is that she cannot answer for his conduct, as distinct from his professions.  His past remains doubtful.  She knows that for long periods of his life he had been ‘careless on all serious matters’.  She cannot be sure that his mind has been ‘truly cleansed’.  One aspect of his doubtful past has been his Sunday travelling: an interesting reflection of the standards of Jane Austen’s day.

The real Mr Elliot emerges late in the novel.  Even Anne is astonished at Mrs Smith’s revelations of the wickedness concealed beneath the mask of gentility.  It is at this point that Mr Elliot turns from the shadowy relative into the villain of melodrama, almost too bad to be true:

Mr Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character.  He has no feelings for others.  Those whom he has been the chief cause of leading into ruin he can neglect and desert without the smallest compunction (Chap 21).

It is significant that even after this, Anne is beginning to find Mr Elliot something of a bore, despite her fleeting moment of happiness at the thought of being Lady Elliot of Kellynch.  During the concert, he flatters her excessively and makes her an oblique proposal of marriage: ‘If I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name (of Anne Elliot) might never change’ (Chap 20).  But the sight of Wentworth dissipates Anne’s interest in Elliot’s company: ‘She had no longer any inclination to talk to him.  She wished him not so near her’ (Chap 20).

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The Minor Characters

The other characters in Persuasion serve their purpose in the scheme of the story, but none of them gives a very powerful illusion of life.  Sir Walter is a caricature: one or two striking features of his character are highlighted to the virtual neglect of all others.  This is made clear in the manner of our introduction to him: ‘vanity of person and situation’, we are told, are the clues to his character.  For the remainder of the novel, he is obsessed with himself, his social position and his personal appearance, taking all of these with such intense seriousness that he becomes an absurdity.  He does not develop with the progress of events and learns little or nothing from his experiences.  In the end, he is as vain, self-obsessed and trivial as he was at the beginning.  A telling detail about his narcissistic nature is provided by Admiral Croft, who finds it necessary to remove some of the large mirrors from Sir Walter’s dressing room: ‘Such a number of looking-glasses! Oh, Lord! There was no getting away from one’s self’ (Chap 13).  He becomes reconciled to Wentworth largely because of his fine appearance and well-sounding name.  Jane Austen deprives him of Mrs Clay, his companion, and leaves him with the Dalrymples.  She cannot resist the final ironical comment on the fate of such people as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who ‘must long feel that to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in return, is but a state of half-enjoyment’ (Chap 24).

The is little that one can say about Elizabeth except that in almost everything she reflects the manners and attitudes of her father, who thinks more highly of her than he does of his other daughters because he finds her most like himself – a sufficiently damaging and damning indictment of her character!  Her attitude to Anne exposes her total incapacity for decent human feeling: ‘then I am sure that Anne had better stay, for nobody will want her at Bath’ (Chap 5).

Mary is rather more interesting.  Like her father, she is a caricature rather than a fully-rounded, vividly-realised character, but she is still a familiar and easily recognised type: spoiled, easily upset, wilful, self-centred, and a hypochondriac to boot!  When she has her way, she is pleasant; when anything interferes with her wishes, she becomes difficult, bored, ill or irritable.  True, she is not ‘so repulsive and unsisterly as Elizabeth’, but her comments to Anne are sometimes as distressing as Elizabeth’s.: ‘This is the end, you see, of Captain Benwick being supposed to be an admirer of yours’.  The cruelty here is not deliberate and calculated like Elizabeth’s: it is as a result of limited awareness, a lack of sensitivity.  Her immaturity appears in her behaviour during the November outing:

Mary sat down for a moment, but it would not do; she was sure Louisa had found a better seat somewhere else, and she would go on till she overtook her (Chap 10).

In spite of all her obvious failings, she still feels the family’s sense of social superiority, looking down ‘very decidedly upon the Hayters’.  The following passage puts her social attitudes in their place: ‘It is very unpleasant having such connections!  But, I assure you, I have never been in the house above twice in my life’.  The neurotic side of her character is beautifully suggested in a letter to Anne: ‘My sore throats are always worse than anybody’s’ (Chap 18).

Captain Benwick is the most interesting of the minor characters.  The loss of his fiancée appears to have rendered him inconsolable.  He is driven, as a consequence, to read poetry, to which he responds with profound and tender feelings.  All this is observed by Anne with amused tolerance.  His tastes are, of course, unbalanced, his poetical education still not far advanced:

He showed himself intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated with such tremulous feeling the various lines which imagined a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness (Chap 11).

He luxuriates in his own grief and welcomes any literary occasion which may seem to reflect or intensify it.  Anne does her best for him, ironically recommending ‘a large allowance of prose in his daily study’, and some ‘memoirs of characters of worth and suffering’.  Benwick, however, is reluctant to abandon the literature of distress and self-pity.  Anne is at first astonished when Benwick’s shallow grief evaporates and he turns his attention to Louisa Musgrove, but on reflection, she finds an explanation:

She was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him would have received the same compliment.  He had an affectionate heart (Chap 18).

Jane Austen treats all such self-deceivers as Benwick with the same mild irony.

She does little enough to individualise her other characters.  The Crofts are hearty, open and unpretentious; the older Musgroves pleasant, hospitable and kind; their unmarried daughters lively but shallow, and Charles decent, pleasant and unsubtle.  Lady Russell’s personality does not impress us at all: she functions as a useful and important part of the mechanism of the plot, since it is she who advises Anne to reject Wentworth, but after this, although she remains Anne’s confidante, she is of little importance in the development of events, and never really comes alive as a character.  The same may be said of Mrs Clay, whose freckles and insinuating manner are her distinguishing characteristics.  Mrs Smith seems a careless piece of characterisation, at one stage appearing harmless and long-suffering, at another cynical and worldly-wise.  Again, of course, her shadowy character matters little; her chief role in Persuasion is mainly as the means by which Anne learns the truth about William Walter Elliot.

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References:

Murray, Patrick. Persuasion in Inscapes 13, The Educational Company of Ireland, 1978

Further Reading:

You might also like to read Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

and Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

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