Persuasions #15, 1993                                                                                                                                                               Pages 124-130



Blair’s Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion



English Department, Dawson College

Westmount, QC


Persuasion is aptly titled, but one powerful association with the term “persuasion” which Jane Austen would have taken for granted is probably lost to most readers today.  Ever since Plato and Aristotle wrote about “the art of persuasion,” the word “persuasion” has been closely associated with the term “rhetoric,” and in Austen’s day, “rhetoric” was virtually synonymous with “Blair.”

Dr. Hugh Blair’s Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, first published in 1783, dominated schoolrooms for generations.  Selections from Blair’s Rhetoric also formed the greatest part of Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts in Prose, a one-volume anthology published in 1794 to provide, prose models in English “for reading, writing … memorizing, reciting or declaiming” (ii).  At least one of these versions of Blair’s Rhetoric must have found its way into the Rectory at Steventon.

Certainly Austen was sufficiently familiar with Blair to allude to him in Northanger Abbey as a proverbial or household name on a par with Dr. Johnson.  When Henry Tilney teases Catherine Morland about her sloppy use of language during their walk around Beechen Cliff, Eleanor Tilney protests:


“Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister.  He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you.  The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”  (NA, 108)


Eleanor mentions “Blair” in the same breath as “Johnson,” as casually as we might say “Fowler” or “Strunk and White.”  For Catherine Morland, clearly, no further gloss is necessary.

The same, however, cannot be said of us.  Blair is no longer a household name, and his Rhetoric has long been superceded by vast libraries of freshman composition and public-speaking textbooks inflicted upon hapless students by English teachers such as myself.  So let me introduce you to his Rhetoric, once so popular, and then suggest how Blair’s art of persuasion bears upon Austen’s art in Persuasion.

Hugh Blair, the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh, published his Lectures “for the initiation of Youth into the study of Belles Lettres, and of Composition.”  He made no claim for originality but rather “consulted his own ideas and reflections; and a great part of what will be found in these Lectures is entirely his own” (I. iv).  In adapting the best of ancient wisdom to modern purposes, he concentrated on issues of taste and style rather than the technical details of figures and tropes, topics and common-places so beloved of traditional rhetoric.  Blair’s emphasis upon style accurately reflects the concerns of his age, during which a new middle class was emerging into political and economic power to challenge the entrenched privilege of the landed gentry.  For Blair, like Austen, style has both moral and political implications.

As he relates, rhetoric first arose among the ancient Greek democracies:


The Athenians were an ingenious, quick, sprightly people; practiced in business, and sharpened by frequent and sudden revolutions, which happened in their government.  The genius of their government was entirely democratical.  …. Eloquence there sprung, native and vigorous, from amidst the contentions of faction and freedom, of public business, and of active life; and not from that retirement and speculation, which we are apt sometimes to fancy more favourable to Eloquence than they are found to be.  (II. 11-13)


Himself a flower of the Scottish Enlightenment, proud of his nation’s democratic traditions of education, Blair clearly admires and identifies with the vigorous, independent, democratic Athenians.

Persuasion, too, in opposing the physical and moral exhaustion of the landed gentry represented by Sir Walter to the social utility and warmth of the upwardly-mobile naval officers, shares Blair’s democratic preference for a manly, energetic, unaffected oratory over polite hot-house eloquence.  Austen’s sailors reveal the same pragmatic virtues Blair ascribes to the Athenians; these virtues, enjoyed by the Crofts at Kellynch and the Harvilles in their cozy house at Lyme, are lacking in Miss Elliot’s drawing rooms in Bath.1  Throughout Persuasion, in fact, Austen contrasts formality and informality, social snobbery and social ease.  Sir Walter’s toadying to Lady Dalrymple and Mary’s insisting upon the observance of her rank at Uppercross are sources of shame for Anne, while the casual family affection of the senior Musgroves and the good-hearted fellowship of the sailors cause Anne no small amount of envy.  Anne’s journey from the moral decay of her father’s regime at Kellynch Hall to the unsettled life of a sailor’s wife is a movement from the values of aristocracy to those of meritocracy, from the privileges of birth and rank to the privileges of courage and energy, from the false elegance of society to the true eloquence of heroism.

Rhetoric too has always recognized a hierarchy of styles: what traditional rhetoric called Ciceronian (or amplified) style and Attic (or plain) style, Blair calls “the Diffuse and the Concise Styles” (I. 371).  He observes: “Each of these manners has its own peculiar advantages; and each becomes faulty when carried to the extreme” (I. 372), but later on he leaves little doubt which he prefers: “An ostentatious, a feeble, a harsh, or an obscure Style, for instance, are always faults; and Perspicuity, Strength, Neatness, and Simplicity, are beauties to be always aimed at” (I. 375).

Although style is Blair’s chief concern, traditional rhetoric also included the study of invention (the discovery and demonstration of the truth to be communicated), division or arrangement (the most effective distribution of the parts of the speech), and delivery (the oral presentation of the speech, including memorization).  In the 16th century, however, the rhetorician Peter Ramus radically reorganized the study of rhetoric, returning the categories of invention and arrangement to philosophy, where he felt they properly belonged, leaving only style and delivery to rhetoric (c.f. Ong).

Like Ramus, Blair declines to discuss argumentation, although agreeing that rhetoric embraces both logic and ethics: “For … when we are employed, after a proper manner, in the study of composition, we are cultivating reason itself.  True rhetoric and sound logic are very nearly allied” (I. 6-7).  An orator must be virtuous as well as logical: “In order to be a truly eloquent or persuasive Speaker, nothing is more necessary than to be a virtuous man” (II. 228).  Nor is the mere appearance of virtue sufficient to persuade, as those smooth manipulators Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay ultimately discover, for “from the fountain of real and genuine virtue, are drawn those sentiments which will ever be most powerful in affecting the hearts of others.  No kind of Language is so generally understood, and so powerfully felt, as the native Language of worthy and virtuous feelings” (II. 231).

That language of worthy feelings saturates Persuasion.  The rhetoric of Persuasion conveys the emotional effects of events upon Anne in ways which recreate her feelings in readers.  When emotion blurs the clarity of Anne’s impressions, the narrator, too, withholds details, providing only blurred impressions, as when Anne first meets Captain Wentworth after their seven-year separation: “Her eye half-met Captian Wentworth’s; a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice – he talked to Mary, said all that was right; said something to the Miss Musgroves …. the room seemed full – full of persons and voices – but a few minutes ended it” (59).  We cannot see this scene, but we feel it intensely, as Anne does.

Like Blair, Anne Elliot suspects reason without passion, distrusting Mr. Elliot’s correct opinions because she cannot determine to what extent he believes his own rhetoric:


Though they had now been acquainted a month, she could not be satisfied that she really knew his character.  That he was a sensible man, an agreeable man, – that he talked well, professed good opinions, seemed to judge properly and as a man of principle, – this was all clear enough.  He certainly knew what was right, nor could she fix on any one article of moral duty evidently transgressed; but yet she would have been afraid to answer for his conduct ….  She felt she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.  (160-61)2


Logic alone may serve to convince, Blair asserts, but only passion will successfully persuade: “Conviction …. affects the understanding only; persuasion, the will and practice” (II. 3).  In the highest form of eloquence, he claims, “we are not only convinced, but are interested, agitated, and carried along with the Speaker; our passions are made to rise together with his; we enter into all his emotions; we love, we detest, we resent, according as he inspires us; and are prompted to resolve, or to act, with vigour and warmth.”  This higher eloquence, continues Blair, is “always the offspring of passion.”  Such passion, moreover, “is universally found to exalt all the human powers”  (II. 6).

Now, had Anne but recalled these words of Blair instead of her favourite poetical descriptions of autumn, she might have felt less despondent during the walk to Winthrop, for when Captain Wentworth delivers his homily on the hazelnut, he speaks more with reason than with passion.  In his sermon on firmness Wentworth introduces what Blair calls an “Explaining Comparison” or simile (I. 344).  Such comparisons, Blair cautions, do not represent “the language of strong passion”:


No, they are the language of imagination rather than of passion; of an imagination sprightly, indeed, and warmed; but undisturbed by any violent or agitating emotion.  Strong passion is too severe to admit this play of Fancy.  (I. 346)


When addressing Louisa, therefore, Wentworth speaks the language of wit, not the language of love.  To Anne, however, these are “words of such interest, spoken with such serious warmth! – she could imagine what Louisa was feeling” (88).  Anne of course is not the intended audience for Wentworth’s homily, nor does Wentworth realize that she is listening, for this is one of several scenes in Persuasion in which a speech or letter intended for one audience is overheard or read by another (Ruoff 59-60).  Nevertheless Wentworth’s rhetoric affects the eavesdropping Anne more than it does Louisa, and significantly, the metaphorical hazlenut which Wentworth flourishes is less analogous to Louisa than to Anne, who, blessed with original strength of character, has outlived (so far) the storms of autumn.  Clearly Anne’s defects rather than Louisa’s virtues are foremost in his thoughts as he speaks.

Anne is in Louisa’s thoughts as well, for when Louisa speaks again, she shifts the subject explicitly to Anne:


“Mary is good-natured enough in many respects,” said she; “but she does sometimes provoke me excessively, by her nonsense and her pride; the Elliot pride.  She has a great deal too much of the Elliot pride.  – We do so wish Charles had married Anne instead.”  (88)


Wentworth’s tone immediately shifts in response.  After a pause he abruptly questions Louisa about the date of this rejected proposal: “Do you mean that she refused him?” he asks.  “When did that happen? (89).  All traces of rhetorical amplification are stripped from his speech.  Anne, still eavesdroping, understands:


She saw how her own character was considered by Captain Wentworth; and there had been just that degree of feeling and curiosity about her in his manner, which must give her extreme agitation.  (89)


When he speaks about Anne, Wentworth reveals just that degree of feeling to his secret listener to suggest that on this subject, at least, he speaks with passion.

Eventually their shared secret produces shared eloquence in the final chapters of Persuasion, for only when driven by his passion for Anne does Wentworth become truly eloquent, and then only in response to Anne’s own eloquence.  In Chapter 4 we were told: “How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been, – how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment … (my emphasis; 30).  By the end of the novel, that potential eloquence is realized.  Austen’s rewritten conclusion to Persuasion emphasizes the importance of Anne’s active, heroic eloquence in winning back her lost love.

In the cancelled “Chapter X” with which Jane Austen originally concluded her novel, the final éclaircissement between Anne and Captain Wentworth occurs in the Crofts’s lodgings rather than in the Musgrove’s crowded sitting-room at the White Hart Inn.  In the original ending Anne once again overhears snatches of Captain Wentworth’s conversation, this time with his brother-in-law Admiral Croft, who commissions Wentworth to convey his offer to vacate Kellynch Hall in the event of Anne’s marriage to her cousin.  During the ensuing stiff, awkward dialogue, Anne denies the engagement, whereupon the estranged lovers enjoy “a silent but a very powerful dialogue; on his side supplication, on hers acceptance” (258).  In this earlier conclusion Anne responds but does not initiate, and the hitherto non-verbal nature of their courtship is reinforced.

Not only does this climax prove remarkably flat, however, but worse, it turns on the hoary plot device of a heroine compromised by false appearances and unable to get her message through to the right man.  This device served Fanny Burney but creaks badly in Austen’s novel.  Anne herself pooh-poohs this old convention by which lovers are kept apart for five volumes when, in the revised Chapter X, she reassures herself that she and Wentworth are not characters in a Burney plot:  “ ‘Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long.  We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness’ ” (221, Bander 53).

The revised conclusion compels Anne to woo Captain Wentworth through the art of persuasion, for as many critics have pointed out, their roles are now reversed: Wentworth now is the eavesdropper, Anne the eloquent speaker, employing the formal diction of argumentation (Marshall 44).

To bolster his case, Captain Harville invokes the voluminous tradition of antifeminism:


“But let me observe that 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 of 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.”  (234)


As a debater Captain Harville thus falls back upon ready-made arguments in books.  Now, although Blair, like Ramus, declines to say much about “invention,” he does speak to the ancient rhetorical practice of consulting inventories of ready-made arguments called topoi – that is, topics, or common-places – by the Greeks:


These Topics or Loci, were no other than general ideas applicable to a great many different subjects, which the Orator was directed to consult, in order to find out material for his Speech ….  At the same time, it is evident, that though the study of common places might produce very showy academical declamations, it could never produce useful discourses on real business ….  What is truly solid and persuasive, must be drawn … from a thorough knowledge of the subject, and profound meditation on it.  (II. 180-82)


Anne possesses a thorough knowledge of enduring, hopeless love and has meditated profoundly upon this subject.  Her eloquence, fuelled by passion, rhetorically outweighs the kindly Captain Harville’s commonplaces, the more so since their debate was prompted by the example of Captain Benwick’s rapid recovery from a broken heart.  Like that much earlier resident of Bath, Chaucer’s Alisoun, Anne perfers the authority of her own experience to the authority of books written by men (c.f. Harris 273 ff; also Gilbert and Guber 11).

The Wife of Bath is not, however, the only medieval echo in this passage.3  The debate between Anne and Captain Harville suggests the rhetorical tradition of the medieval disputation.  Blair himself believed that classical eloquence died with the Roman Republic, and although he acknowledged “a new species of Eloquence” which resulted from the rise of Christianity, he lamented that “none of the [Church] Fathers afford any just models of Eloquence” (II. 36).  As for the ages of Aquinas and Abelard and the great flowering of rhetoric in the medieval universities, Blair asserted “there is nothing … that occurs to me, deserving particular attention in the middle age …”  (II. 37).

We need not share his eighteenth-century bias against the middle ages.  In the still largely oral, book-poor culture of the medieval university, rhetoric flourished; there apprentice scholars held debates, or oral disputations, in which they presented arguments for and against (sic et non) a given proposition before a judge or magister (Ong 60-61, 154), just as Anne and Harville debate before the listening Captain Wentworth, who becomes, in effect, the magister of this disputation on woman’s constancy.

Earlier Captain Wentworth had exchanged a significant look with Anne as they both heard Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft discussing the evils of long engagements (231).  Now, with every indication that Captain Wentworth is once again listening, Anne responds “eagerly” to Captain Harville’s arguments:


“I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble 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.”


She could not immediately have uttered another sentence; her heart was too full, her breath too oppressed.  (235)


Except for Blair’s gender-bias, the following account of a passionate man’s  eloquence could describe Anne’s heroic persuasion of Captain Wentworth:


A man, actuated by a strong passion, becomes much greater than he is at other times.  He is conscious of more strength and force; he utters greater sentiments, conceives higher designs, and executes them with a boldness and a felicity, of which, on other occasions, he could not think himself capable.  But chiefly, with respect to persuasion, is the power of passion felt.  Almost every man, in passion, is eloquent.  (II. 6-7)


Captain Wentworth’s hastily scrawled response to Anne also displays the eloquence of a man in passion: “I can listen no longer in silence.  I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach.  You pierce my soul ….  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you ….”  (237).

Anne has passed the supreme test of an orator: she has persuaded her judge, her magister,  Captain Wentworth, to act.  Her eloquence elicits Wentworth’s declaration of love.  She has won her debate.





1 But c.f. Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, ed. Charles W. Hagelman (New York: Norton, 1967) 45-46: after lamenting the deleterious effect of garrisoned soldiers upon the morals of a country town, she adds: “Sailors, the naval gentlemen, come under the same description, only their vices assume a different and a grosser cast” (45-46).  And let us not forget Admiral Crawford with his Rears and Vices!


2 We might also compare Emma, who comes to love everything that is open, with the circumspect Jane; or compare careful Mr. Elliot to the Crawfords, who do allow their tongues to slip so significantly.


3 Harris also suggests, among others, the Loathly Lady (275 ff), but I think Anne bears more likeness to Patient Griselda.





All references to Jane Austen’s works are to The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1933-34.


Bander, Elaine.  “Jane Austen and the Uses of Silence,”  Literature and Ethics: Essays Presented to A. E. Malloch.  Ed. Gary Wihl and David Williams.  Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1988: 46-61.


Blair, Hugh.  Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.  Ed. Harold F. Harding.  Foreword David Potter.  2 vols.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.


Collins, K. K.  “Prejudice, Persuasion, and the Puzzle of Mrs. Smith.”  Persuasions, 6 (1984): 40-43.


Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar.  The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.  New Haven: Yale, 1979.


Harris, Jocelyn.  “Anne Elliot, the Wife of Bath, and Other Friends.”  Jane Austen: New Perspectives: Women & Literature, Vol. 3: New Series.  Ed. Janet Todd.  New York: Holmes, 1983: 272-94.


Knox, Vicesimus.  Elegant Extracts in Prose.  London, 1794.


Marshall, P. Scott.  “Techniques of Persuasion in Persuasion – A Lawyer’s Viewpoint.”  Persuasions, 6 (1984): 44-47.


Ong, Walter J., S. J. Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958.


Rackin, Donald.  “Jane Austen’s Anatomy of Persuasion.”  The English Novel in the Nineteenth Century.  Ed. George Goodin.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972: 52.


Ruoff, Gene W.  “The Triumph of Persuasion: Jane Austen and the Creation of Woman.”  Persuasions, 6 (1984): 54-61.

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