Persuasions #6, 1984                                                                                                                                            Pages 54-61





Gene W. Ruoff

Department of English, University of Illinois at Chicago,

Chicago, Illinois 60680


Readers who saw the program for the 1984 JASNA Conference will notice that my lecture has grown academic appendages since its announcement – a colon and a subtitle. When Betty Dew called me for a title in July, I had no idea what I was going to be saying. I knew only that I would be dealing with the work which I consider Jane Austen’s triumphant achievement, the novel which was the first of her writings to speak directly to me and to convince me of her greatness. From this beginning of my love for Jane Austen has come my idiosyncratic reading of her cannon; I have habitually approached her novels backwards, searching in the earlier fiction for the seeds which flourished in her last, revolutionary work. In the process, I have learned to love the earlier novels as well, but never with the devotion I feel for this youngest of her offspring.

I also knew that I would be facing an unusual audience, composed of men and women who had read and reread at least six wonderful books with pleasure. I seldom feel safe in assuming such an audience, even in a graduate seminar or in a paper before the Modern Language Association. Usual critical stratagems, then, would not suffice. I could not look for that stray oddity about Persuasion, either unexplored or infelicitously expounded by other readers, which I would cleverly articulate into an issue of overpowering importance. I decided instead to meet my experience of the novel head-on, questioning why it had the power to move me when other novels of hers which I had then read, only Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, as I recall, had somehow failed. I came up with two answers. The short version is only two words - Anne Elliot. The long version, which follows, is an elaboration of those two words.

Let me begin with an assertion: Anne Elliot is the first fully formed, fully viable woman character in English literature. I can only assert this, because I have not met them all. I will hedge on the subject of girls, who are often asked to play the roles of women, but are inherently less interesting, in fiction as well as life. Jane Austen herself has given us some of the best, but they are still not Anne Elliot. The issue I am exploring is really the fictive creation of female character, for which I need a frame of reference. I will take my framework from texts by two male writers who mattered deeply to Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. I hope that the relevance of the two texts will become apparent.

Writers of the English Romantic period acknowledged only two towering masters in their language, Shakespeare and Milton. We may safely ignore Milton as a constructive guide for the presentation of female character, however strongly the forbidden fruit may lurk behind the locked garden gate of Sotherton Park. Shakespeare’s comedies have immaturity as the very stuff of their existence. Glorious stuff it is, of course, and Jane Austen’s dialogue could hardly have attained its penetrating life without Shakespeare’s example. The history plays use their women as pawns, victims, and harpies, as Jane Austen knew very well and very early – see her own hilarious history of England. A serious writer concerned with the adult relations of men and women would have looked to the tragedies for Shakespeare’s women and, after a frustrating search, would have settled upon Othello. Only Othello gives us an adult romance between equals, neither of whom is deeply flawed at the outset, whose joint catastrophes seem to proceed from somewhere in the very natures of men and women. When feminist critics complain about Shakespeare’s women, as well they might, Desdemona may be expected to figure prominently in male rejoinders. Finally, for what it may be worth, writers of Jane Austen’s age were haunted even more closely by Othello than by Hamlet and King Lear.

As we all know, Othello is a play done in black and white, which admits little gray to its conception of human nature. From its first scene Othello and Desdemona are presented in stark contrast, Iago taunts Brabantio: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe.” Brabantio accuses Othello of witchcraft, because it seems contrary to nature that

a maid so tender, fair and happy,

So opposite to marriage that she shunned

The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,

Would ever have, t’incur a general mock,

Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom

Of such a thing as thou; to fear, not to delight.

He amplifies his astonishment in his petition to the Duke of Venice:

A maiden never bold;

Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion

Blushed at herself; and she, in spite of nature,

Of years, of country, credit, everything,

To fall in love with what she feared to look on!

Perhaps, you may be saying, the twisted sexual jealousies of Iago and Desdemona’s father do not make them our most competent witnesses of the heroine’s character.

Listen, then, to Othello as he describes for the Duke the course of his and Desdemona’s love. Othello had been asked repeatedly to narrate for Brabantio the story of his life:

I spoke of most disastrous chances,

Of moving accidents by flood and field,

Of hairbreadth scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach,

Of being taken by the insolent foe

And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence

And portance in my traveler’s history

Desdemona is fascinated by his stories.: “She’d come again, and with a greedy ear / Devour up my discourse.” At last, Othello consents to repeat the story of his life for Desdemona alone:

My story being done,

She gave me for my pains a world of sighs,

She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;

Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.

She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished

That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,

And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,

I should but teach him how to tell my story,

And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,

And I loved her that she did pity them.

This passage very nearly completes the play’s differentiation of masculine and feminine: Othello speaks, Desdemona listens; he acts, she feels; he has a past, she none; to have a story, she becomes part of his. Desdemona’s love for Othello is coincident with her fascination with a larger world, at once seductive and repellent, to which she could have no other access. Her character as a woman has been established through a massive series of oppositions to Othello’s masculine traits. She is his complement, his completion.

My text from Pope is in a different vein. It is from the Moral Essays, “Epistle II, To a Lady.” It begins,

Nothing so true as what you once let fall,

Most Women have no Characters at all.”

Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,

And best distinguished by black, brown, or fair.

Pope’s dominant theme is woman’s inconsistency. His examples are numerous, and one will do about as well as another. Here is Narcissa:

Now deep in Taylor and the Book of Martyrs,

Now drinking citron with his Grace and Chartres:

Now Conscience chills her, and now passion burns;

And Atheism and Religion take their turns;

A very Heathen in the carnal part,

Yet still a sad, good Christian at her heart.

Pope understands, perhaps even to his credit, that the characters of women are inseparable from their isolated state in life, removed from public affairs:

In Men, we various Ruling Passions find;

In Women, two almost divide the kind;

Those, only fixed, they first or last obey,

The love of Pleasure, and the Love of Sway.


Men, some to Business, some to Pleasure take;

But every Woman is at heart a Rake:

Men, some to Quiet, some to public Strife;

But every lady would be Queen for life.

All of this ultimately is in compliment to the lady whom Pope is addressing, who is set apart from her sex. Pope commends her in the following manner:

And yet, believe me, good as well as ill,

Woman’s at best a Contradiction still.

Heaven, when it strives to polish all it can

Its last best work, but forms a softer Man;

Picks from each sex, to make the Fav’rite blest,

Your love of Pleasure, or desire of Rest:

Blends, in exception to all general rules,

Your Taste of Follies, with our Scorn of fools:

Reserve with Frankness, Art with Truth allied,

Courage with Softness, Modesty with Pride;

Fixed Principles, with Fancy ever new;

Shakes all together, and produces – You.

Well might Marianne want to know that Willoughby admires Pope no more than is proper. Times and values change, and Pope’s age surely found more than we to value here. For us, her praise manages to be hardly less offensive than his blame.

However questionable Pope’s epistle may seem as theology and moral philosophy, it is superb literary criticism. God may not have created admirable women with a smattering of this and a pinch of that, in defiance of all the dread “natural” tendencies of their sex, but literature surely has. Even Desdemona is first defined through her opposition to all of Othello’s “masculine” characteristics. The naive femininity with which she begins changes by the superaddition of masculine traits, which seem to be Shakespeare’s signals of her increasing maturity. She follows her husband to Cyprus in his campaign against the Turks, facing the same awesome storm that destroys the Turkish fleet and imperils the Venetians. While remaining modest, she becomes clearly sensual, assured of her own sexuality. No longer a listener, a “greedy ear,” she becomes an articulate advocate for Michael Cassio. Pope’s God could not have done a better job than Shakespeare has.

Why, then, does Iago’s plot work? Why does Othello succumb to groundless and unreasonable jealousy? I cannot offer a startlingly new answer to this question, but I would observe that Iago has the enormous power of cultural tradition on his side. He is a mine of “proverbial” wisdom about the inconstancy of women, Iago banters with Desdemona, trading upon nuggets of hoary misogyny: “If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit, / The one’s for use, the other uses it.” “She never yet was foolish that was fair, / For even her beauty helped her to an heir.” Note that Iago’s couplets could be inserted into Pope’s “Epistle” without disturbing its tone in the least. Desdemona is vastly amused by Iago’s cynicism, but learns what we should all know by now, that misogyny is no joke. Finally, Iago has to do little more than lead Othello to understand Desdemona’s propinquity to Cassio as inherently dangerous; to see her espousal of his cause as evidence of deception; to perceive the appearance of perfect virtue as proof presumptive of vice; to think, we may finally say, like a man.

The traditional lore of which Othello and Desdemona are victims comes from no single source, and is still alive. Women are fickle, changeable, inconstant and on and on and on. “He was her man, but she done him wrong.” I really want to pursue only one observation by Pope, its applicability to Othello, and its consequences in the novels of Jane Austen.

For Pope, woman is “Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear.” The image recalls John Locke’s conception of the mind, upon which experience writes, the retentiveness of which is crucial to the development of all higher moral, intellectual, and spiritual powers: no memory, no mind. Othello is the carrier of memory, Desdemona the receptacle. You will have remarked the sexual overtones of the “greedy ear” which would “devour” Othello’s discourse. Surely it is not straining to catch in this image a fear that the female will consume male prerogative. To revert to Pope’s image, Othello finally refuses to believe that Desdemona can bear a lasting mark. To grasp the significance of this denial, we need only recollect the privilege of memory in archaic cultures, where the welfare of the tribe depends on exact preservation of rituals, in Platonic epistemology, where anamnesis is the road to truth, and in Augustinian theology, where memory and the sacred text converge in the knowledge of God. Denial of memory to women underpins male hegemony. Any number of Penelopes and Patient Griseldas cannot outweigh the social, political, cultural, and economic construct which has rationalized woman’s inferiority by proclaiming her inconstancy.

Jane Austen inherited male fictions, of which her earlier works bear obvious marks. These fictions had become exaggerated in the Gothic craze of her day, which had put on the garments of Shakespeare’s passion while leaving off all his redeeming subtlety. The result was something on the order of lobotomized Shakespeare, or grand opera. Men are experienced and mysterious; women are either inconceivably naive, improbably pure, and free of all experience, or they are corrupt. The same things that make men intriguing make women wicked. Think of the vestigial traces of this convention in Sense and Sensibility, in which every turn of the plot depends upon a male secret, based on actions occurring before the beginning of the story. Why does Edward Ferrars blow hot and cold? Why does Colonel Brandon disappear so suddenly? Why does Willoughby bolt? Elinor and Marianne are wholly subject to the male past without having pasts of their own.

Some day I hope to tell the full story of how Jane Austen undermined and rewrote the traditional fictions she inherited. For now I will only turn to Persuasion, to suggest how thoroughly she has done so. Consider two key episodes of Persuasion. In the first Anne Elliot is sitting uncomfortably in the drawing room at Uppercross, with the assembled Musgrove family, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, and Captain Wentworth. He is telling war stories:

There was a very general ignorance of all naval matters throughout the party; and he was very much questioned, and especially by the two Miss Musgroves, who seemed hardly to have any eyes but for him, as to the manner of living on board, daily regulations, food, hours, &c.

Greedy ears? Discussion turns to his first command, the Asp, for which the girls search in the navy-list they have just acquired;

You will not find her there. – Quite worn out and broken up. I was the last man who commanded her. – Hardly fit for service then. – Reported fit for home service for a year or two, – and so I was sent off to the West Indies.”

The girls looked all amazement.

Later he tells of a “hairbreadth scape” upon his return to England:

We had not been six hours in the Sound, when a gale came on, which lasted four days and nights, and which would have done for poor old Asp, in half the time; our touch with the Great Nation not having much improved our condition. Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me.

Anne’s shudderings were to herself alone: but the Miss Musgroves could be as open as they were sincere, in their exclamations of pity and horror.

The lines echo in our ears: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them.” Jane Austen is here replaying, through Wentworth’s courtship of the Musgrove girls, Othello’s courtship of Desdemona. Wentworth is Jane Austen’s first conventionally heroic hero and, with the exception of Mr. Knightley, her only conventionally masculine hero. Wentworth is a warrior, a self-made man, and an outsider. Certainly Sir Walter Elliot could hardly be more scandalized if he were black as well. Sailors do get awfully sun-burnt. The Miss Musgroves duly fall in love.

What distinguishes the scene we have been considering from its source in Othello is the presence of a woman who remembers. She remembers when she too knew nothing of naval life. She marks with pained associations “the year six” when Wentworth went to sea. She has indeed followed his career, and she would have found that small paragraph at one corner of the newspaper, and he would have been remembered. The entire present action of the novel is coloured by Anne Elliot’s deep sense of the past.

Like Othello, Persuasion turns on jealousy – Captain Wentworth’s growing jealousy of William Walter Elliot, which is in turn based on his doubts about the retentiveness of Anne Elliot’s feelings. You have already guessed my second passage. Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick have fallen in love – again. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth are trapped in one of the novel’s many crowded rooms, and Captain Harville is talking with Anne for the second time about Benwick’s broken heart, which has mended at the same rate as Louisa’s broken head. One guesses that no permanent damage could be done to either organ. Captain Harville has brought along a miniature portrait of Benwick, painted for Fanny Harville, which Captain Wentworth is arranging to have properly set for Louisa Musgrove. Triangles within triangles! Captain Harville is speaking:

I hope I can allow for him. I am not sorry, indeed, to make it over to another. He undertakes it – (looking towards Captain Wentworth) he is writing about it now.” And with a quivering lip he wound up the whole thing by adding, “Poor Fanny! She would not have forgotten him so soon!”

No,” replied Anne in a low feeling voice. “That I can easily believe.”

It was not in her nature. She doated on him.”

It would not be in the nature of any woman who truly loved.”

Captain Harville smiled, as much as to say, “Do you claim that for your sex?” and she answered the question, smiling also, “Yes. We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.”

Anne Elliot has taken up the challenge of Pope’s analysis of the characters of women, and is drawing from woman's retirement opposite conclusions. What follows is a friendly debate between Anne and Harville on the relationship between physical characteristics and feeling. Harville holds that man’s more robust frame is analogous to his feelings, which are “capable of bearing most rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather.” Anne argues that tenderness also is strength, and that as women are longer-lived than men, so are their attachments. She recites the hazards of man’s life, “difficulties, and privations, and danger,” ending, “It would be too hard indeed” (with a faltering voice) “if woman’s feelings were to be added to all this.” Of course, she has drawn upon Wentworth’s earlier account of his hazards at sea, and in the process she has told her story as well.

The debate is less remarkable conceptually than dramatically. When a noise calls “their attention to Captain Wentworth’s hitherto perfectly quiet division of the room,” we realize that we have witnessed the mirror image of the earlier scene when Wentworth told his tale. Here his are the greedy ears devouring up the discourse;

It was nothing more than that his pen had fallen down, but Anne was startled at finding him nearer than she had supposed, and half inclined to suspect that the pen had only fallen, because he had been occupied by them, striving to catch sounds, which yet she did not think he could have caught.

For the remainder of the scene, Anne is fully aware of her listener and of the effect of her story upon him.

Jane Austen neatly disposes of those hereditary tales of the inconstancy of woman. Captain Harville observes,

“ … all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

Perhaps I shall. – Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

The ironic play of this passage is delicious. Our Benwick of the phenomenal memory is, of course, the very man who inspired the debate by having forgotten Fanny so soon. The pen had indeed been in Wentworth’s hand, until Anne’s speech knocked it out. What remains for her is to put it back, by declaring her feelings unequivocally. Continuing her comparison of the feelings of men and women, she says,

I believe you equal to every important exertion and every domestic forbearance, so long as – if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”

In one sense, Anne has become the young Desdemona in this passage: she voices the “hint” that will allow Wentworth to speak. But Anne has become more. Her speech and her actions allow Wentworth to overcome a jealousy which has already been fully aroused, the very emotion against which Othello is defenseless.

Persuasion conducts a loving debate with Othello on the proper qualities of woman. Early on, Wentworth admonishes Louisa to cultivate “decision and firmness,” which Pope would certainly classify as masculine virtues from which all women could profit. In Louisa’s practice, these qualities produce only a dangerous impetuosity, which leads to her fall down the steps of the Cobb. Are these not, one may ask, just the qualities which led Desdemona to her secret marriage with Othello, a course also open to Anne Elliot seven years earlier? Can women show strength only by aping masculine traits? Are those masculine traits themselves really emotional strengths? Wentworth’s decision and firmness make him a valiant naval commander, but they also take him to the brink of an engagement with Louisa which would have been disastrous to his happiness.

In Anne Elliot, Jane Austen creates a woman who is not a compound of traditionally feminine and masculine qualities. Anne does not need to show her valour by sailing to Cyprus in a storm, because storms within require more fortitude than storms without. The Captain Wentworth who sits silently, nervously, and helplessly, waiting for Anne Elliot to give him hope, may be a sorry figure of a man, but he has become a far more valuable human being.

The great triumph of Persuasion lies in its having created a woman who belies the myth of female inconstancy. It does so by giving us a woman who seems in the past to have proven the charge conclusively, by having given up her engagement under pressure from family and friends. The novel’s audacious contribution to literature is to give woman a memory, the faculty which is the key to a continuous emotional and moral existence, and the faculty which Pope’s God, at least, forgot. Persuasion never denies that men and women are different. It only proposes that their differences become trivial in comparison to the rich human continuity which they may share. Perhaps we might close by joining Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot on the

comparatively quiet and retired gravel walk, where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed; and prepare for it all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their future lives could bestow. There they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure every thing, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting. And there, as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling house-keepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children, they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgments, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest. All the little variations of the last week were gone through; and of yesterday and to-day there could scarcely be an end.

In the glorious fusions of this scene, “he” and “she” have disappeared. There is only “they.” Such a “they” can credibly exist because, finally, woman has been created. At the risk of some small blasphemy, we might observe that Anne Elliot is as much an improvement over Eve as Eve had been over Lilith.

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