Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 89-100
Persuasion: or, The Triumph of Cheerfulness
Department of English, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB
I began working on this lecture fifty years ago – a fact I only discovered last summer. An aunt of mine told me she remembers me as a small child rushing up and down the Cobb at Lyme Regis, tearing around, enjoying myself. She remembers thinking, If that child doesn’t look out, she’s going to fall and hurt herself.
When I got round to reading Persuasion, I was bothered by the scene where Louisa does just that – and by what that might convey about the author’s attitude to enjoying oneself. GIRL PLAYS ON STEPS, DIES. Of course I assumed she was dead: “taken up lifeless!” (129). That’s what “lifeless” is supposed to mean: dead. As a punishment for enjoying yourself (even if, in the Freudian reading, this fall signals illicit enjoyment), death is surely excessive. Even for stealing the hero from the heroine, being put to death is excessive punishment. I was shocked, as if someone gentle and funny – the author – had said something cruel and vindictive.
As you know, I discovered two pages later that Louisa isn’t dead at all (although everyone thinks for a while that she is). I was not relieved, but on the contrary indignant with the author for cheating me: as if she were saying, “Oho, April fool! you thought she was dead, didn’t you!” As it turns out, Louisa isn’t punished; her fall turns out well. But we readers are tricked. We think we’re getting a heavy-handed piece of poetic justice; what we get, after going through the agony and suspense of Louisa’s apparent death and slow recovery, is a devious and complex joke.
Now, there are adult novels of this date in which female characters are punished just as savagely as that for failing to obey the rules, and the rules did include a prohibition of displays of physical energy. Thou shalt not run and jump. And in too many books written for the improvement of Jane Austen’s female contemporaries, characters who are careless of decorum, or forward with men, are quite likely to be brought to heel by such drastic means as accidentally causing someone’s death.1 And even if Louisa were punished for enjoying herself, it’s not the pure instinctive enjoyment of a child (as An Accident at Lyme made very clear); she must “be jumped” by Captain Wentworth, and it’s “to shew her enjoyment” that she goes back up the stairs to jump again. Her motive is flirtation, not sheer physical exuberance.
Some would say that if Austen had had time to revise the novel, she wouldn’t have left us for two pages thinking Louisa is dead. In parenthesis, a novel which the author hasn’t been able to revise is a terrible temptation to critics. You get it with Persuasion and with Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. Is there any particular detail you would have liked to be different (like the author’s response to Dick Musgrove’s death)? No problem: you just say, if she’d lived she’d no doubt have altered that! I think we ought to resist this temptation; but it’s good to remember that the novel as we have it is unrevised. It should remind us what a very tentative process literary criticism ought always to be.
But I’ve gradually come to accept the trick that Austen plays on us in the text as we have it over Louisa’s apparent death. I believe she does not clobber Louisa for physical energy or even for showing off. She does it because Louisa has to be got out of Anne’s way; and she does it with a word – “lifeless” – which might tip us off to the joke at our expense: at the expense of our melodramatic expectations from plot and our over-punitive expectations from morality. Louisa falls not to her death but to eventual marriage and happiness, though also to a character-change which Anne is in due course to find amusing (178).
All this is to maintain that in Persuasion suspense and horror may intrude, but cheerfulness prevails over them. Just in the same way, the “declining year” has already tried to impose “poetical despondence,” and been frustrated by the forward-looking farmer, who has been not only ploughing but also repairing the footpath, and “meaning to have spring again” (107-08). Since Austen so deliberately juxtaposes melancholy and cheerfulness here, their conflict is a legitimate subject of debate. Some critics ignore that ploughman, and find the novel autumnal, wistful. Its author, they say, already suffering from the disease that was to kill her almost exactly a year after she finished its first draft,2 created a heroine who suffers too, whose distinguishing mark among Austen’s heroines is her propensity to suffer.3 I think they’re wrong.
It’s already apparent from my remarks about Louisa’s fall that I think that we as readers invest a good deal in every incident in Austen’s plots, and especially perhaps in this last plot. What happens to Louisa will tell us what Austen thinks of a woman who acts the little girl with her suitor. Anne Elliot, the last heroine, is even more likely than usual to stand as signifying not just Anne but Womanhood. We don’t think Northanger Abbey is telling us that all girls are hooked on romantic fantasy, or Mansfield Park that they’re all timid and downtrodden. But in this novel Anne Elliot herself says that it is the “fate” of women in general to be preyed on by their feelings, which, more than men’s, subject them to despair and suffering (236).
Anne attributes this to society, not biology. Women “live at home, quiet, confined”; they are not “forced on exertion” by “a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other.” Anne is generalizing from her own personal experience; but she is saying what most of her contemporaries would accept. Maria Edgeworth scribbled her agreement in the margins of her copy of Persuasion here: “our mind is continually fixt on one object,” she wrote; and beside Anne’s point that change will weaken earlier impressions she wrote, “That it does.”4 But Edgeworth was a conservative, didactic novelist whose works urge women to stay at home. The women in Persuasion, on the contrary, are permitted a number of variations on the “quiet, confined” home; and they have pursuits and exertion, sometimes opposed to home and sometimes not.
They represent a great variety, too, in innate, biological temperament or “spirits.” The single vignette of Anne as a girl shows her away at boarding school after her mother’s death: she was “of strong sensibility and not high spirits” (165). The level of spirits is often measured in this novel. Much is made of the high spirits of the Musgrove family, the low spirits of Mary. High spirits are the gift of nature, though they may be lost or destroyed as Louisa’s are by her accident and convalescence. The Musgrove high spirits are connected with their clannishness, their enjoyment of a family crowd, while Mary’s low spirits are fostered by loneliness. Anne, who struggles against low spirits on principle, is forced to do so when she reflects on the community she has missed being a part of by not marrying Wentworth (119).
Mrs. Smith, another intensely social person, has an inexaustible “spring of felicity” in “the glow of her spirits” (253). Even when bereaved, alone, and crippled, in dark, noisy, cramped accommodation, she has “a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond [Anne’s] expectation.” She has “moments only of languor and depression, to hours of occupation and enjoyment,” not from fortitude or resignation only, but from “that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone” (166-67).5 She shares Anne’s capacity for amusement, for hearing “something that makes one know one’s species better … the newest modes of being trifling and silly” (168). Unlike the more vulnerable Anne, she could not be the protagonist of a triumph-of-cheerfulness story; cheerfulness comes too easily to her for that.
Anne must learn, without natural high spirits, to be happy or cheerful. These words are not synonymous: “happy” and “happiness” cluster about Anne as soon as she and her lover are reunited; but they cluster also about Sir Walter and Elizabeth once the two are established at Bath. They are happy about their superior furniture, the number of visiting cards they receive, and the flattery of Mr. Elliot (152). These terms, it seems, are capable of being devalued; the “pursuits, business of some sort or other” which women need can be debased, and produce a debased kind of happiness. I have not found “cheerfulness” being subjected to such debasement.
Anne’s remarks on women’s social circumstances and women’s feelings, addressed to the brotherly and sympathetic Captain Harville, have become perhaps the most familiar passage in Persuasion to today’s readers. They speak to so many pressing late twentieth-century concerns. Are women different from men, and how? Can we safely believe what male-authored texts say about them? Are women more prone to emotional suffering? If so, is this tendency innate or socially constructed?
This debate at the White Hart in Bath, which now seems so inevitable, arose only on second thoughts. It comes from the one section in Persuasion which illness allowed Austen to subject to what Roger Gard calls her “long indwelling and detailed revision.”6 But it would have sounded familiar to many readers even at its first appearance, for it reviews and refashions some influential remarks about women and fiction which date from the outset of Austen’s publishing career.
As Anne is debating with Captain Harville, Austen is debating with Anna Letitia Barbauld, who had become the leading critic of fiction in 1810 on publication of her ground-breaking edition of The British Novelists. This was the first standard or canonical set of English fiction. I saw it this summer in two country-house libraries, one English and one Irish: literary time-capsules, where the books stand on the shelves in apparently the same order they did in Austen’s day. Her female contemporaries were there, higgledy-piggledy in odd copies with different sizes and bindings; but her predecessors, both male and female, showed their authorized status in Barbauld’s handsome, uniform, 50-volume set.
This edition was clearly a status-raising as well as a commercial venture. It sought to promote the novel from a circulating-library milieu to that of the lady’s or gentleman’s specially bound, book-plated collection. It came equipped with Barbauld’s introduction “On the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing,” and her “Prefaces, Biographical and Critical” on individual authors. You may remember that “Prefaces, Biographical and Critical” was the earliest title of what later became known as Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets. Barbauld was doing for novelists what Johnson had done for poets: placing them in the great tradition of literature. But unlike Johnson she was swimming against the current in hoping to prove that “this species of composition is entitled to a higher rank than has been generally assigned it.”7
Barbauld presents a gradual feminization of the novel: eight of her twenty-one novelists are women, and they cluster towards the modern end of the span. Chronologically, she begins with Robinson Crusoe; five novels by men follow before the earliest woman’s novel, The Female Quixote, thirty-three years after Crusoe. Out of seven novelists who get selected twice, the first three are all men, ending with Henry Mackenzie, and the last four all women; and the first of those canonized women, Frances Burney, first appeared the very year after Mackenzie’s second appearance. From after 1790 Barbauld includes seven novels by women and only one by a man. She explicitly remarks, and with approval, that the baton has passed from male to largely female hands.8
The feminine novel which Barbauld admires, however, is the sentimental novel of “distress.” Men, she says, prefer to read and write fictional action, satire, humour; women prefer sentiment. And she speculates as to why this might be. For a couple of moments she sounds almost like Anne Elliot talking to Captain Harville. Do women, she wonders, “suffer more”? Because they are barred from “mixing at large in society” like men, have they “fewer resources against melancholy”? And does all this qualify them by their gender to become sentimental novelists?
Is it that women nurse those feelings in secrecy and silence, and diversify the expression of them with endless shades of sentiment, which are more transiently fell, and with fewer modifications of delicacy, by the other sex?
But between her comments on women feeling distress and her comments on their expressing these feelings in fiction, Barbauld inserts two sentences which sound very unlike Anne, totally unlike Austen. She seems to suspect that men’s mixing in society gives them an advantage as novelists; that they write not just a different but a better kind of novel. Do they, she wonders,
have a brisker flow of ideas, and, seeing a greater variety of characters, introduce more of the business and pleasure of life into their productions? Is it that humour is a scarcer product of the mind than sentiment, and more congenial to the stronger powers of man?
When this was published in 1810, Jane Austen was newly settled at Chawton Cottage, and on the brink of her most productive years as a novelist. She was probably reworking Sense and Sensibility for the press;9 if so, the relation of humour to sentiment in her stories must have been much in her mind. She was striving with might and main to become a published novelist, and here was the editor of the prestigious collection of novelists, a woman like herself, attributing all Austen’s own specialities – humour, flow of ideas, variety of characters, the business and pleasure of life – to “the stronger power of man,” and leaving for the woman novelist nothing but diversifying the expression of feeling with endless shades of sentiment!
Austen could not have read that passage without indignation and resistance. I’m assuming she did read it, and did so not long after it first appeared. The British Novelists would have been beyond her means, but it would be just the thing for her brother Edward’s library at Godmersham, where on visits Austen would sit sewing or reading – and jumping up to write.10 One might regard much of her novelistic career as an answer to Barbauld, designed to prove that she could do humour, flow of ideas, etc., and refuse to do the endlessly diversified shades of sentiment, and still write like a woman, not like a man.
But even if her whole oeuvre is a kind of reply to Barbauld, Anne Elliot’s speech to Captain Harville is a more specific reply. (And Anne is a keen reader who would not have allowed The British Novelists to pass her by.) Anne agrees that women have fewer resources against melancholy, and that mixing at large in society gives a brisker flow of ideas. But Anne’s story explicitly demonstrates that she, a woman, stands to benefit by that kind of mixing in society, that her lover’s male emotions are not more transiently felt, and especially that humour is something entirely congenial to the feminine minds of herself and her creator.
In short, what Austen shares with Barbauld is the idea of gender difference as having social causes; what she challenges is the idea of it as innate. Barbauld, with tentative question-marks, holds together these two opposing possibilities in a reassuring package. It was the latter part of the package – the received ideas of men’s strong creative power and women’s lack of humour – which was the more deeply embedded part of the ideology, or let us say the consensus, of her day. Anne’s words to Captain Harville raise the issue of social causes; Anne’s whole story lays claim to humour as a female quality capable of healing the ravages of feeling.
By writing her created world, by writing the business and pleasure of life, and by writing humour, Austen carries her dissent from Barbauld into every cranny of her oeuvre. But in Persuasion especially, with her own failing health (one might think) making humour more difficult and sentiment more tempting, she both addresses Barbauld directly in an important scene, and attacks the binary “male humour, female sentiment” in the very bones of her plot. This novel poises itself on the edge of that sentimental situation which Barbauld evokes (sensitive, suffering woman, without external resources; man mixing at large in society) while simultaneously contradicting Barbauld’s package through its depiction of woman’s taste for humour, woman’s strength, and woman’s creative power. Woman indeed has sentiment – or the heroine has – but no more than the hero. And even Anne, with her suffering and her sensitivity, is almost an anti-sentimental heroine.
As the story opens, she is situated in the singleness of her broken but remembered love affair, in the isolation of her unloving family; she is shut away from all resources outside herself, never “forced on exertion” since her father and sister deny her any role. Her escape from this situation is measured by her growing capacity for humour. Humour, I believe, is not the cause of her recovery, but is the gauge of it. When Mr. Elliot, occupying the next room to the travelling party at Lyme, hears “mirth continually” (157) it is no doubt the Musgroves’ mirth, not Anne’s, that penetrates the wall. Yet she is (though no-one would guess it from the published criticism) more alert to find amusement in the spectacle presented by her fellow-creatures than any Austen heroine since Elizabeth Bennet. She does not wait to be loved and happy before she can feel amused; she begins to feel this way as soon as she begins to mix at large in society. Indeed, for lifting her melancholy and offering her resources, being anxiously in love seems almost as effective as being happily in love.11
Austen endorses a couple of Barbauld’s central points: that women lack “resources against melancholy,” and that humour is a rarer and stronger quality than sentiment. But she brackets to the first proposition something like “so women need access to resources,” and to the second something like “so women have a talent for humour.”
She superimposes her unexpectedly humorous heroine against a background of role-reversal of every kind. From the beginning to the end of this novel, men and women unmistakably contradict the stereotypes of what male and female ought to be. We begin with Sir Walter Elliot’s vanity about his beauty: the kind of vanity women are supposed to have. We end with Anne speaking up for her sex while Wentworth is forced to listen in silence, with no voice, but only suspense and concealment. He even conceals his writing under the blotter, as we are told his creator did herself.
In between we have Mrs. Clay declaiming against any kind of gainful employment for a man on grounds that it will spoil his looks (50), which was a favourite argument of conduct-books against either jobs or study for a woman. Anne’s mother possesses solid judgement except for a “youthful infatuation” (so natural in the heroine’s father, like Mr. Bennet; so unheard-of in a heroine’s mother!); later, on her deathbed she agonises about handing over parental responsibility to the “authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father” (36). Not only is Admiral Croft a rotten driver and his wife a good one; on their first appearance she “asked more questions about the house, and terms, and taxes, than the admiral himself, and seemed more conversant with business” (52). Captain Benwick pines away for love, and damages his spirits by romantic reading, like a girl.12 Anne lectures him about moral duties, and is emboldened to do so by “feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind” (121 -22), which reverses the whole conduct-book tradition of men advising women.13
The first mention of amusement for Anne doesn’t sound exactly riotous. After the loss of Kellynch, she faces the prospect of two months with the Musgroves: in Mary’s children, she “had an object of interest, amusement, and wholesome exertion” (70). This brings together what I’ve been saying (that amusement is good for you) and what Anne is to say to Harville (that being “forced on exertion” is good for you), but in a rather medicinal way. We know the children are going to be hard work. What is most striking here is the novelty of any prospective amusement for Anne: her other sister, this paragraph reminds us, is “repulsive,” “unsisterly” and “inaccessible.” I wouldn’t want to say that Mary’s tendency to be distressed14 actually makes Anne feel better; but something rather like that happens when Anne remarks “cheerfully” that she will soon make Mary cheerful too (65).
She very soon acquires more active sources of amusement; indeed, this happens as soon as the author has had time to record her digesting the distress of meeting the now-apparently-indifferent Frederick Wentworth. Her new amusement (unlike that of the children) results directly from seeing other people as comic – and therefore, unavoidably, herself as superior to them. Austen daringly or riskily ascribes this highly anti-sentimental attitude to her heroine in the context of the elder Musgroves’ reminiscences about their dead son. Whatever you think of this chapter,15 Anne does not laugh at their grief, but at their remodelling Dick in memory into somebody entirely unlike what he actually was alive. When Anne “suppressed a smile” it’s when Mrs. Musgrove says that if Heaven had spared him he would by now have been “just such another” as Captain Wentworth (89).
Only one other person present is amused: Wentworth himself. For him too, it is in the gulf between Dick in fact and Dick remembered that he finds something comic; like Anne, he overcomes the momentary “self-amusement” of his own clearer memory, to offer serious and respectful sympathy to the grieving, misremembering mother. Only Anne, because she knows him so well, perceives the outcropping of this satiric amusement. Her secret participation in his feeling is highly significant, establishing their likeness to each other, their potential sympathy. Instinctive sympathy between two unusually sensitive characters was a favourite device in the sentimental novel: but not sympathy in sardonic amusement. (Anne’s anti-sentimental sharing of comedy, not pathos, extends to Wentworth’s relations: though amused herself by the Croft’s style of driving, she later counts on them to share her amusement at the news of Louisa’s engagement to Benwick: 112, 178.)
So amusement throws out the first filament of present connection between Anne and Frederick. It does so at a moment when we are still eager for clues to the character of this long-expected male lead; and, having just read how he “could not deny himself the pleasure of taking the precious volume [the navy list this time, not the baronetage] into his own hands …. and once more read aloud” the passage pertaining to himself (91), we may have had a disagreeable suspicion that he might turn out very like Anne’s father. His self-amusement about his own past actions (something way outside Sir Walter’s range) is reassuring. So we have a hero who is quizzical, whose superior amusement is legible for just a moment in “a certain glance of his bright eye, and a curl of his handsome mouth” (92). This splendid masculine humour is wholly traditional for a hero; but Anne was amused first, and such amusement in a heroine is much more unusual.
This section of the book is generally read as developing Anne’s long-drawn-out distress as she sees more of Wentworth, loves him more, and becomes more certain that she has indeed lost him. This is true enough. But also she is surrounded by people, playing the role of extra or at least audience in the affairs of all the Musgroves, and now she’s begun to find people amusing there’s no stopping her. Her amusement at the Crofts’ driving is nothing in itself, but it becomes remarkable when you remember she’s only just suffered the blow of overhearing Wentworth delivering his moral parable which likens her to a damaged hazel-nut, dropping without coming to fruition, trodden under foot (110). Even the pain of this decisive rejection, she finds, can be lightened at least for a moment by affectionate amusement.
For such amusement is clearly a mark of affection and acceptance. Anne “suppressed a smile and listened kindly.” Jane Austen found amusement in picture galleries;16 Anne finds amusement in people who are good-hearted; the Musgroves and the Crofts, all of them kind but in one way or another obtuse. At Lyme, Anne “smiled more than once to herself” at Henrietta’s artless self-interest on behalf of her fiancé’s career; and she is variously amused by the changing attitudes of Henrietta and the other Musgroves to Lady Russell (124). It is immediately after this that Mr. Elliot sees and admires her restored bloom and her “animation of eye” ( 125). Amusement, it seems, can improve your appearance.
Henrietta at this point would amuse almost anyone (anyone who didn’t find her tiresome) but it would have been easy for a friend of Lady Russell’s to be offended by the Musgrove view of her. Anne is by now seeing the funny side not only of Henrietta or the Crofts but of things that closely concern herself. She is “amused in spite of herself” at Admiral Croft’s comments on her father’s vanity (143); she “could not but be amused” at finding herself laying down the moral law to Benwick while “like many other great moralists and preachers” not following her own advice (122); she repeatedly finds something funny in tributes to her renewed beauty, even in her lover’s U-turn on this subject (139, 156, 245). She even “smiles over the many anxious feelings she had wasted on” the prospect of running into him at Kellynch, after it becomes clear that this will not happen (143). And she “looked down to hide her smile” at the Admiral’s manner of reporting his letter about Louisa’s engagement (182).
Anne, that is to say, is including her own feelings (her real, heartfelt pangs of love), and the behaviour of her lover himself, among the human foibles and contradictions which she reads as comedy, not tragedy or pathos. This is not necessarily a trait to win her everyone’s admiration, but, again, it emphasizes her likeness to Frederick. He is capable of smiles and half-smiles and “a momentary look of his own arch significance” (186, 191) as he recalls his own involvement with Louisa.
He even mock-heroicizes his most important learning experience in the novel: that he is not wholly self-made and self-reliant but also lucky: “Like other great men under reverses ... I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve” (249). This echoes Anne’s self-mockery in “like other great moralists.” Anne was thinking, “I’m just like Johnson!” Frederick is thinking, perhaps, “I’m just like Napoleon!” They are the only two people in the book who laugh at themselves.
Or perhaps there is one other. The narrator shows her oneness with her amused heroine when, for instance, Mrs. Musgrove, in the midst of the “domestic hurricane” of three families of small children, discourses to Anne of the benefits of “a little quiet cheerfulness at home” (149). The amusement here, unattributed, is not exclusively Anne’s; and this brings me to another crux of Persuasion. Without warning, the heroine is suddenly made the butt of authorial satire. It happens when Anne has become aware of Mr. Elliot’s serious designs on her, but tells herself that her love for Wentworth, even if not reciprocated, would prevent her ever accepting another.
Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate-buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way. (200)
This is another moment that might make critics say, “She’d have changed that in revising.” Myself I think not. It is not Anne’s love in itself which is being mocked, any more than was Mrs. Musgrove’s love for her son. The target is now, as it was then, a failure of self-knowledge.
When Austen describes Anne’s love, she does it in quite different terms, with simple assertion that gives no handle for ridicule. “Anne saw nothing, thought nothing of the brilliancy of the room. Her happiness was from within. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks glowed, – but she knew nothing about it” (194). Or, when she first guesses that Wentworth is jealous, “For a moment the gratification was exquisite” (199). Later again comes a passage that relates the emotion of passionate love to an ongoing spiritual life. “An interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of every thing dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment” (247).
There is the word “high-wrought” again. Highly wrought, that is elaborately worked. It seems it is the working over of emotion that Austen sees as fair game for amusement. If we look back at the context of the purification-and-perfume sentences, we find that Anne’s musings there are not about her love itself, but about her hypothetical faithfulness until death even if she should lose Frederick a second time: “be the conclusion of the present suspense good or bad, her affection would be his for ever. Their union, she believed, could not divide her more from other men, than their final separation.” This frame of mind, predicting the future and making vows or resolutions, is risible in a way that love itself is not.
This frame of mind also separates the character from her creator.17 About Anne’s first disappointment in love Austen wrote, “No second attachment, the only thoroughly natural, happy, and sufficient cure, at her time of life, had been possible to the nice tone of her mind, the fastidiousness of her taste, in the small limits of the society round them” (57). That is to say: if Anne could have escaped her limits, her female “secrecy and silence,” as Barbauld says, to “mix at large in society” like a man, she would not have worn the willow all those years for Wentworth. (Austen continues neatly to evade any invidious comparison between the sexes. Anne’s isolation from eligible men during those faithful years has been no greater than Wentworth’s isolation from eligible women. It’s another reason, seldom attended to, for Austen’s choosing a naval hero for this plot.)
That sentence about second attachments is so unobtrusive that it can use some unpacking here. The usual grammatical form for maxims or aphorisms or Truths Universally Acknowledged, like the one which opens Pride and Prejudice, is statement. That is the form the Roman poet Ovid used when he wrote, “all love is vanquished by a succeeding love.”18 Jane Austen, virtually paraphrasing Ovid here, conceals her Truth Seldom Acknowledged in an appositional phrase. If we rejig her syntax we get the statement, “A second attachment is the only thoroughly natural, happy, and sufficient cure for lost love” (at her time of life). This is a very odd aphorism to discover embedded in a novel which is all about fidelity, and the almost magical restoration of first lost love, as good as new.
In Persuasion the only second attachment on view is that of Benwick to Louisa Musgrove, a comic one in several ways. It is a startling twist in the story-line, highly convenient for the couple we care more about than we do for this one; it seems to be produced merely by enforced proximity, that is by happenstance. It involves Benwick in a hasty retreat from an attempt to attach himself to Anne, and Louisa in a transformation of personality which is said to result from her fall, but which looks to me like satire on the way girls were supposed to be able to make themselves over to fit in with whatever might be a prospective husband’s requirements. Altogether it makes the couple concerned look like the puppets of Fate or Chance.
Another sort of shadow second attachment is hinted at, in Anne’s real pleasure in finding herself admired by Mr. Elliot, in Mrs. Smith’s firm conviction that she won’t be able to resist him, and in the narrator’s ostentatious refusal to enquire how “she might have felt, had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case” (200). I believe we are being told that Anne, cheered and stimulated by mixing in society and having been forced on exertion, would now have been ready to love a new man if the old one had not been available. (We are also being told, more wryly, that this new love would have been the very reverse of a happy ending.) This comes close to making Anne and Frederick the puppets of Fate or Chance as well as Benwick and Louisa.
What Austen gives us is the real happy ending: love restored and longing satisfied, under the best possible conditions for rational happiness. We hear nothing in the final chapter of Anne’s amusement. Its last appearance comes in the chapter before that, as she sails through her father’s and sister’s awful card party, buoyed up by “sensibility and happiness,” with “cheerful or forbearing feelings for every creature around her”; and on that occasion the people who evoke her “amusement in understanding them” are the Wallises, the ones she knows about through Mrs. Smith (247).
Amusement is perhaps in the last resort a defensive feeling, not called for on the heights of happiness. The narrator reappropriates amusement for herself as she opens her last chapter with an aphorism which she cheerfully admits to be bad morality: that two young people who are bent on marrying each other will manage it no matter how their elders disapprove. It may be bad morality,19 but it is another shrewd blow against the ideology of sentiment, which had wrung many a long story from the helpless suffering of correct young lovers in the face of parental disapprobation. In this novel Austen reshapes the creed of sensibility to embrace cheerfulness: “sensibility and happiness.”
The warmth of Anne’s heart, she says, is a spring of felicity comparable to Mrs. Smith’s flow of spirits. At the conference we have heard various terms for the way Anne defeats melancholy: to distraction and activity I want to add amusement, play of the mind. Anne comes to embody these things before she is granted happiness in love; none of them is within the reach of the heroine of sensibility, or even of Woman as Barbauld describes her. In the final sentence I believe Austen takes a parting shot at Barbauld. She says Anne will “belong to” the naval profession by virtue of her position as a sailor’s wife. All this, and a profession too. Anne and her creator have done the things that Mrs. Barbauld says women cannot do.
1 E.g. Amelia Beauclerc, Disorder and Order, 1820.
2 She finished the draft on 16 July 1816 and died on 18 July 1817 (Jan Fergus, Jane Austen, A Literary Life, London: Macmillan, 1991, 164, 170).
3 Woolf wrote that Austen is seeing life “through the eyes of a woman who, unhappy herself, has a special sympathy for the happiness and unhappiness of others” (“Jane Austen” in The Common Reader, 1925: first series, annotated edition, ed. Andrew McNellie, San Diego, New York, London: HBJ, 1984, p. 144). This view of the novel is crisply evoked and disposed of by Claudia L. Johnson (Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 144).
4 Copy at UCLA. I owe this information to Claudia L. Johnson (p, 160).
5 Cf. Elaine Showalter, “Retrenchments.”
6 Jane Austen’s Novels, The Art of Clarity, New Haven and London: Yale, 1992, p. 186.
7 “On the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing,” p. 1. Her two predecessors in criticism of fiction, Clara Reeve in 1785 and John Moore in 1797, had both referred to Romance, not novels, in their titles. See Catherine E. Moore, “ ‘Ladies … Taking the Pen in Hand,’ Mrs. Barbauld’s Criticism of Eighteenth-Century Women Novelists” in Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, eds., Fetter’d or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, Athens and London: Ohio University Press, pp. 383-97: 384.
8 “Origin,” p. 58-59. Her full list is Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719, Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews, 1742, and Tom Jones, 1748, Richardson, Clarissa, 1748-49, and Grandison, 1753, Francis Coventry, Pompey the Little, 1751, Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote, 1752, Johnson, Rasselas, 1759, John Hawkesworth, Almoral and Hamlet, 1761, Frances Brooke, Julia Mandeville, 1763, Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, 1765, Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766, Smollett, Humphry Clinker, 1771, Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling, 1771, and Julia de Roubigne, 1777, Richard Graves, The Spiritual Quixote, 1773, Frances Burney, Evelina, 1778, and Cecilia, 1782, Clara Reeve, The Old English Baron, 1778, John Moore, Zeluco, 1786, Inchbald, A Simple Story, 1791, and Nature and Art, 1796, Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest, 1791, and Udolpho, 1794, Charlotte Smith, The Old Manor House, 1793, Robert Bage, Hermsprong, 1796, Edgeworth, Belinda, 1801, and Modern Griselda.
9 “Origin,” pp. 44-45; Jan Fergus, Jane Austen, A Literary Life, London: Macmillan, 1991, p. 127.
10 Park Honan, Jane Austen, Her Life, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987, pp. 332-33.
11 Claudia L. Johnson remarks something of “disturbing relevance to Persuasion” in Mr. Bennet’s cynical remark, “a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then …. It is something to think of” (quoted p. 159).
12 I owe this point to Bruce Stovel.
13 It is of Anne’s relationship with Wentworth that Gard writes, “in her modest form we recognise, if anywhere in this novel, the ‘mentor’ figure of whom literary scholars like to write” (p. 198).
14 Jan Fergus diagnoses whining where Mary herself would surely choose a word which might refer to sentimental as well as social or bodily ills.
15 Some are horrified. Marvin Mudrick writes, “this savage caricature – without pretext itself – serves as a pretext for abusing Mrs. Musgrove” (Irony as Defense and Discovery, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, 153-53).
16 Peter Sabor, “ ‘Staring in Astonishment’: Portraits and Prints in Persuasion.”
17 Noted by several critics, e.g. Thomas P. Wolfe. “The Achievement of Persuasion,” SEL, 11, 1971, 687-70.
18 “Successore novo vincitur omnis amor” (Remedia Amoris, line 462: translation from Loeb Library, 208).
19 Austen’s erased notes for this idea are longer: “Bad Morality again. A young Woman proved to have ... more discrimination of Character than her elder – to have seen in two Instances more clearly what a Man was ... But on the point of Morality, I confess myself almost in despair” (Persuasion, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, revised, p. 282, n. 23; quoted by Claudia L. Johnson, p. 155).