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Sharing the Reins: The Crofts’ Rare Depiction of a Blessed Union

Admiral and Mrs. Croft’s marriage is the cornerstone of Jane Austen’s Persuasion—without them to provide an example of a symbiotic, healthy romantic relationship, Anne would not be driven to pursue a similar union with Wentworth the second time around. Anne only knew marriages of economic convenience and momentary youthful indiscretion before she met the Crofts, but bearing witness to what an equally matched couple could accomplish—as she does in the scene where they share the burden of maneuvering the carriage—makes her long for what almost was with Wentworth. Any film adaptation that neglects to highlight the scene where the Crofts share the reigns of the carriage does a disservice to both the novel and the character of Anne Elliot, because before witnessing it she has little motivation (outside of economic and social ladder climbing, which are not in keeping with her character) to pursue marriage. Directors must also take care to provide the characters of Admiral and Mrs. Croft with proper casting and appropriate screen time, as the pair serves as inspiration to both Anne and Wentworth.

Although Anne breaks her first engagement to Wentworth out of deference to her family and Lady Russell’s wishes, not out of her own contempt for his low social status, there were likely some doubts in her mind about the possibility of an equally matched and happy marriage. She bemoaned her past self’s ability to be persuaded to turn down a union that could have made her happy, but prior to meeting the Crofts she had no examples of marital happiness to back up her supposition. The scene that features the Crofts sharing the burden of steering the carriage shows Anne that marriages can be happy if they are built on mutual respect and trust.

The only youthful indulgence Lady Elliot allowed herself was her relationship with Sir Walter Elliot—this unsurprisingly did not make for a happy union, and consequentially marred their daughter Anne’s view of love and marriage. Having been “forced into prudence in her youth, [Anne] learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (21). The assertion that romance is the natural consequence of youthful prudence is an unconventional one, but it supports the idea of the Crofts acting as a catalyst for Anne and Wentworth’s reunion. In the pair’s initial courtship, Anne was still feeling her way through the dark, without her parents’ marriage to look to as an example, but the Crofts illuminated the path to a happy union.

In the introduction to the novel, in which the narrator allows the reader to be privy to information that is not explicitly stated in the baronetage, the only thing that is mentioned about Mary and Charles Musgrove’s union is the “little artificial importance” (3) Mary acquired by marrying Charles. The audience later learns that Mary was Charles’ second choice for a wife, with him having initially proposed to Anne. The Musgroves do, in their own way, display the makings of a somewhat functional (if not exceptionally loving) marriage, but spending time around them only serves to make Anne even more skeptical of the possibility of marital bliss. Both Roger Michell and Adrian Shergold’s film adaptations of Persuasion highlight the failings of the Musgroves’ marriage, with each playing up the sardonic comicality of the entire Musgrove family, three generations large, being at the beck-and-call of a woman whose hysteria and self-absorption have driven her to disregard etiquette and social norms.

Due to the abundance of unequally matched marriages to which she has born witness, Anne is opposed to the possibility of a union between her father and Mrs. Clay out of disdain for the opportunism she discerns in the maneuvers of a woman of low birth. This presents us with a nuanced view of Anne’s character—while she initially does not appear to be caught up in maintaining the social stratification of the age, her reasoning behind disliking Mrs. Clay reveals that Anne is in this regard a product of her time. While this aspect of Anne’s character is likely to complicate a modern audience’s relationship with her, especially if Mrs. Clay is not portrayed as the comically tactless character she is in Michell and Shergold’s adaptations, it should be included in any adaptation on account of the humanity it lends her. Anne’s preoccupation with passing judgment on whether or not couples are equally matched is not excusive to Mrs. Clay and her father—she is also seen doing this with Louisa and Benwick.

Due in large part to the lack of positive examples of marital relationships in her life, it would be out of character for Anne to entertain the possibility of a relationship with Wentworth again had she not seen the Crofts symbolically navigating through challenges together. She is by nature reserved, and would not take the risk of another painful break from Wentworth were there not an abundance of happiness that could potentially be gained through marriage. Most of the substance Austen gives to the characters of the Crofts should be included in film adaptations if they are to be successful, because not only does the couple serve as a rare reminder that marriage can be blessed, they also serve as a catalyst to both Anne and Wentworth’s reunion and the pair’s personal growth. Had the Crofts not let Kellynch, Wentworth and Anne would likely have spent the rest of their lives with bruised egos and unmatched wits.

The discussion between Mrs. Croft and her brother about a woman’s place aboard naval ships serves to illuminate Wentworth’s lovelorn propensity towards solitude, as well as provide Mrs. Croft with an opportunity to deliver some of the most poignant lines of social commentary of the novel: “But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days” (51). These lines are significant in a number of ways, not the least of which being that they show Mrs. Croft to be an assertive, intelligent woman who is not afraid to dress down her brother in public. That this interaction happens in front of Anne is of great significance—to hear her once-beloved Wentworth decry the presence of women aboard his ships reassures her of his chasteness (at least while at sea), and to see his sister defend both women and the harmonious union of marriage as being capable of weathering the sea makes her question her own cynical view of marriage and women’s place in it.

Mrs. Croft’s heartiness of spirit makes her the perfect naval companion. She is a woman who values life experiences over her appearance, as evidenced by her “reddened and weather-beaten complexion” (34). It might be tempting for modern casting directors to change that aspect of her character, since intelligence and independence only seem to be admirable traits in on-screen women if they happen to be conventionally attractive, but to alter Mrs. Croft’s completion is to negate her practicality and sensibility as well as remove any physical evidence of her time spent at sea with her husband.

On Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville, in which she equates the pain of naval men bidding their families goodbye with the burden that women bear of “loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (175), Monica F. Cohen argues in her essay “Persuading the Navy Home: Austen and Married Women's Professional Property” “[t]hat women's love should be distinguished in this context—as the standard that emerges in connection to maritime careers—makes women's love into something like a profession comparable to the navy” (357). This distinction is especially impactful when one considers Austen’s high regard for the navy—to give legitimacy and recognition, on par with that which naval men receive, to women’s emotional labor is a rare but deserved attribution of merit.

Instead of being a passive passenger through the journey of married life, Mrs. Croft shows Anne that she can have autonomy and even authority while navigating obstacles. Mrs. Croft’s act of “coolly” and “judiciously” (68) steering the carriage away from pitfalls shows that marriages thrive when spouses act in harmony, each complementing the other. That Admiral Croft is content with his wife stepping in and redirecting the carriage shows him to be secure in his role as her husband, with nothing to prove and everything to gain by having an additional set of eyes looking out for potential dangers.

Admiral and Mrs. Croft’s respect for each other can be seen in every interaction—their love is obvious to Anne, in a time where publicly displayed affection was closely regulated. Seeing the pair defend each other, play off of each other’s strengths, and share burdens makes Anne long for a similar union with Wentworth, and eventually motivates her to pursue him again (insomuch as a woman could) by provoking him into response. The thoughtfulness and love shared by the Crofts bleeds into their interactions with people outside the marriage. Not only is the pair sensitive enough to notice that Anne is fatigued during a group walk, but they also take care to assure her that there is room for her in their carriage and proceed to “compress[] themselves into the smallest possible space to leave her a corner” (66). This selflessness is contagious, and lifts Anne’s spirits after an exhausting time spent with her quarrelling sister and brother-in-law.

The fact that Wentworth is the one who “quietly oblige[s] her to be assisted into the carriage” (66), that he “ha[s] placed her there, that his will and his hands ha[ve] done it, that she owe[s] it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest” (67), is especially significant in the face of the revelation Anne has while watching Mrs. Croft help her husband steer the carriage from danger. Without the Crofts, reconciliation would be unlikely, but without Wentworth’s thoughtfulness there would not have been a relationship to reconcile. Any successful film adaptation must make evident Wentworth’s role in persuading Anne to allow the Crofts to take her home, as it helps the audience establish the headspace Anne is in when she sees the Crofts symbolically navigate life’s challenges as a team.

As is revealed through the discussion Admiral and Mrs. Croft have as they are in the carriage taking Anne home, while the pair shared a short engagement, Mrs. Croft “had known [Admiral Croft] by character . . . long before” (67). This echoes the time between the initial courtship and second engagement shared by Anne and Wentworth, showing that in many ways the Crofts are analogous to the couple. Wentworth and Admiral Croft share more than their profession—both men display thoughtfulness, have moved up the ranks in the navy and now stand in distinction, and are open to meaningful dialogue with women. Wentworth likely looked up to his brother-in-law, and in him found a model for what a respectful, loving husband looks like. The parallels between Anne and Mrs. Croft are similarly aplenty—both women are astute judges of character, are well spoken and intelligent, and are not afraid to respectfully disagree with men in public. The parallels between the two couples make it particularly important that the Crofts are given substantial air-time in any film adaptation of Persuasion, because through the pair the audience gets a glimpse at what a marriage between Anne and Wentworth might look like a decade down the line.

Michell’s film adaptation of Persuasion does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the Crofts—they are at once elegant and hardy, proper and intimate. The carriage scene is done perfect justice, with the Crofts visibly and audibly doing their best to accommodate Anne, and both Anne’s eyes tracking and the camera panning to Mrs. Croft’s righting of the reins. Shergold’s attempt sadly misses the mark; the carriage scene is glossed over, and with that the film misses an opportunity to firmly establish the one positive marital relationship n the novel, thus removing the motivation behind Anne’s second pursuit of Wentworth’s affection. The actors charged with portraying the Crofts also fall short: Peter Wright’s Admiral Croft is absentminded and jolly to the point of caricaturing the character, and while Marion Bailey’s Mrs. Croft is likable, her performance lacks the independent spirit and zeal for life that makes the character extraordinary.

Without Admiral and Mrs. Croft to serve as both a catalyst to Anne and Wentworth’s emotional growth and an example of the joy an equally matched union could bring, the reunion between the latter becomes less of a deliberate choice to pursue happiness and more of a trite, predictable ending with little consideration given to the reasons the union failed the first time. The scene in which Anne views Mrs. Croft assist her husband with the reins of the carriage, after being persuaded to allow the couple to take her home by a compassionate Wentworth, is pivotal in Anne’s reconsideration of marriage as something that can bring joy to its participants. Without including and highlighting this scene, as well as providing the characters of Admiral and Mrs. Croft with the same substance Austen does, any film adaptation will prove unsuccessful due to its removal of Anne and Wentworth’s model for a happy marriage.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1997. Print.
  • Cohen, Monica F. “Persuading the Navy Home: Austen and Married Women’s Professional Property.” Novel 29.3 (1996): 346-366. ProQuest. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
  • Persuasion. Dir. Adrian Shergold. BBC Video, 2007.
  • Persuasion. Dir. Roger Mitchell. Sony Pictures Classics, 1995.
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