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Living Amongst “Heartless Elegance” or “Bewitching Hospitality”: Charity Fostered or Forbidden by Environment in Persuasion

When confronted with the word “charity,” many lifelong denizens of the 21st century, such as myself, think automatically of celebrity benefit events, Humane Society commercials, and dropping a few dollars in the offering plate every Sunday. However, the true meaning of the word spans further than today’s connotation of commercialized empathy. Apart from its quotidian definition of “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need,” the Oxford English Dictionary also defines charity as “kindness and tolerance in judging others.” Oxford furthermore acknowledges the “archaic” form of the word: “love of humankind, typically in a Christian context.” Essentially, true charity is egalitarianism at its finest—selflessness, open-mindedness, undiscerning in empathy for others but discerning in one’s own behavior. Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth epitomize this type of charity in Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion. Despite this shared characteristic, Anne and Wentworth are markedly dissimilar in the way their charitable natures manifest themselves. However, both miraculously flourish in charity under the other’s influence. The development of Anne and Wentworth’s characters over the course of novel demonstrates that the extent to which a trait develops is wholly dependent upon the quality of one’s environment.

Dual answers to the question “nature or nurture” are apparent in the characters of Anne and Wentworth. Both possess true charity at the core of their characters, but their peripheral qualities vary drastically. Anne is the very personification of charity. Contrary to Austen characters such as Emma Woodhouse—whom the author herself admitted “no one but myself will much like”—Anne Elliot is selfless, reasonable, and seemingly likable in every way; Austen even considered her “too good for me” (Austen-Leigh X) (Austen viii). Anne’s primary concern is the welfare of others, and she treats all—even the most grating, intolerable characters (many of whom she is related to)—with kindness and patience.

However, for over a decade—since her mother’s death—these characteristics have gone largely unappreciated. Poor Anne possesses “an elegance of mind and a sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding,” yet is regarded as “nobody [by] either father or sister; her word had no weight” (5). Cohabitating with a father rivaled only in paternal ridiculousness by Henry Woodhouse and a sister whose unabashed selfishness and vanity are rivaled only by said father, Anne becomes drained physically and mentally. She is rendered meek and passive by her cold, oppressive family environment: “her convenience was to give way; she was only Anne” (5). Symbolically, she becomes physically worn as well; her “bloom” of youth and beauty “had vanished early” and at twenty-seven she appears “faded and thin” (5).

Rather than being free to cheerfully dispense her charity among those who deserve it, Anne is confined to the offices of personal nurse and therapist to her vain, demanding family members. Descriptions of Anne are riddled with passive language; she is characterized by “a severe degree of self-denial,” and “desired nothing . . . but to be unobserved” (10, 52). Her “object was not to be in the way of anybody,” she is “valued only as she could be useful,” and tends to be “very silent” regarding her own feelings (60, 83, 95). Anne constantly sacrifices her own pleasure for that of others. She soothes her self-pitying sister Mary’s hypochondria (29); stays with her injured nephew so his markedly more self-interested parents can go to dinner (41); plays music not for her own enjoyment, but so others can dance (34); engages Captain Benwick, Lyme’s resident Debbie Downer, in conversation while the rest of her party ignores him (72); and generally “soften[s] every grievance” of her significantly less self-sacrificing family (34).

Anne’s charitable nature has been taken advantage of—and taken for granted—by the all-consuming vanity and selfishness of these entitled relations whose mere presence of “heartless elegance” has the power to drain all “comfort, freedom, and gaiety” from a room and reduce it to a state of “cold composure” (160). This is apparent even to Anne, whose only envy is that of a warm, loving circle of family and friends; she longs for “that good-humoured mutual affection” of Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove “of which [Anne] had known so little herself with either of her sisters” (30). She marvels at the “bewitching charm [of the] degree of hospitality” the Harvilles possess, which Anne observes is “so unlike the usual style of . . . formality and display” she is accustomed to in the Elliot family’s social circle (71). The only unselfish love she has known since her mother’s death is that of Lady Russell, a “benevolent, charitable, good woman” who has stood “in place of a parent” for her (9, 174). Consequentially, it is unsurprising that as Anne’s only solace from her frigid family, Lady Russell was successful in persuading Anne against following the inclinations of her heart and marrying Frederick Wentworth upon his first proposal. Anne regrets this initial refusal of Frederick Wentworth, not because of his change in fortune, but because of the generosity and good-naturedness of his friends—“these could have been my friends,” she recalls in agony (71). In short, Anne is starved for love. Her heart is gold, but her environment has tarnished it, obscuring its bright and gleaming quality.

Comparatively, Frederick Wentworth’s particular brand of charity is gallant and self-assured. Like Anne, he shows compassion rather than scorn for even the most ridiculous of emotions. Even knowing the “stupid . . . unmanageable . . . thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable” nature of Mrs. Musgrove’s son Dick (37), Wentworth still displays “sympathy and natural grace” towards Dick’s grieving mother “as showed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent’s feelings” (49). Wentworth also shares Anne’s caretaking tendencies; when Captain Benwick’s fiance dies, Wentworth departs his own ship to comfort his friend and “never left the poor fellow for a week” (78). However, Wentworth is also characterized by a degree of assertiveness that Anne is loath to show. He is firm and outspoken about his opinions, such as his conviction that women do not belong on board ships (making an exception, of course, for navy wives, whom he is willing to “bring . . . from the world’s end” (50)). When he finally comes to terms with his feelings towards Anne, he unequivocally stands by them; “nothing was to be retracted or qualified” (171). Even yet, his self-assuredness does not reduce his charity; as Anne realizes, “he could not forgive her, but he could not be unfeeling” (65). And although Wentworth carries himself with the utmost confidence, he also conducts himself with the utmost humility. As befits a charitable gentleman, he never hesitates to take responsibility and admit his own faults. He considers Louisa’s accident “my doing—solely mine” and “could not leave [her] till Louisa’s doing well was quite ascertained” (129). Despite his stubborn grudge against Lady Russell for the greater part of the novel, Wentworth promises to “be . . . in charity with [her]” for Anne’s sake, and eventually admits that “there [was] ... one more person more my enemy even than that lady . . . My own self” (174). Most importantly, he also acknowledges his wrongs against Anne; he admits that he has been “weak and resentful” (170) and “unjust to her merits” (171). Rather than continuing to place the blame for his misery on Anne, as he has for the past eight years, Wentworth realizes that he has been “too proud, too proud” and “did not understand” that Anne’s self-sacrifice was a virtue rather than a vice (175). Not only does he admit his offenses, his remorse for causing Anne pain is severe; “this is a recollection which ought to make me forgive everyone sooner than myself” (175).

The contrast between Anne and Wentworth’s respective species of charity can be attributed to the disparities in their social environments. Wentworth’s ability to express and defend his charity in an assertive manner is developed and encouraged by his friends and family in a way that Anne’s never was. In contrast to Anne’s selfish and demanding father and sisters, Wentworth’s relations are warm, welcoming, and generous. His sister and her husband, the Crofts, are kindness itself; in their manner of conduct they always “gave . . . the pleasure of fancying [one]self a favorite” (88). Furthermore, they are the picture of marital equality—a picture which no doubt inspired Wentworth’s concept of an ideal marriage. They are “almost always together”—in everything from chatting with naval officers, whom Mrs. Croft matches in “intelligen[ce] and keen[ness],” to discussing the terms of renting Kellynch Hall, to sailing on Navy ships together (119, 18, 50). They symbolically share the reins in their marriage, illustrated by their practice of literally sharing the reins while driving their carriage—which Anne considers an accurate “representation of the general guidance of their affairs” (66).

This concept of a marriage in which both partners display an equality of temper and of mind almost certainly influenced Wentworth’s scorn towards Anne’s timidity and ostensible weakness. The Crofts’ sheer contrast with Anne’s family is revealed in the telling scene in which Admiral Croft complains of the sheer number of mirrors in Sir Elliot’s dressing room—“there was no getting away from oneself” (90). In this tiny disparity of preference in decoration, the vast gap between Sir Walter’s obscene vanity and Admiral Croft’s humble practicality could not be more apparent. This scene also provides a further depiction of the Crofts’ egalitarian marriage, united in common abilities and principles. The admiral jovially describes how he and Mrs. Croft worked together to have the mirrors removed: “I got Sophy to lend me a hand” (90).

Wentworth’s friends reinforce this charitable environment. His Navy comrades, such as the Harvilles, possess a charity disproportionate to their means; they urge Anne and the Musgroves to make themselves comfortable in “rooms so small as none but those who invite from the heart could think capable of accommodating so many” (71). When Louisa is injured, the Harvilles assume care of her and “silence all scruples” of the Musgroves in taking advantage of their hospitality (81). Living alongside such supportive and charitable couples, it is no wonder that Wentworth’s charitable qualities should be so much more pronounced than Anne’s.

Both Anne and Wentworth are fundamentally charitable souls, but the expression of this trait greatly depends on their company and environment. As such, their natural inclinations towards charity are bolstered and enhanced by the presence and support of each other. As the novel progresses—as they become acquainted and enamored once more—their flaws and shortcomings lessen, and their charity is amplified. Anne’s meekness, timidity, and misery fall away. Physically and mentally, her “bloom and freshness of youth” are “restored” (75). She is firmer in her opinions and judgments—of others (“Mr. Elliot . . . has never had any better principle to guide him than selfishness”) and of herself (“I must believe I was right, much as I suffered from it . . . I have now . . . nothing to reproach myself with”) (147, 174). Observing the contrast between her jealous family and the touching generosity of Wentworth’s, she finally recognizes the extent of her relations’ uncharity—“she felt her own inferiority keenly . . . to have no family to receive and estimate [Wentworth] properly; nothing of respectability, of harmony, of good will to offer in return for all the worth and all the prompt welcome which met her in his brothers and sisters” (177). Anne’s incredible kindness—her charity—becomes robust and ubiquitous, no longer confined to the whims of her selfish family; in becoming awakened to Wentworth’s feelings, she “received ideas which disposed her to be courteous and kind to all, and to pity everyone, as being less happy than herself” and expresses “cheerful or forbearing feelings for every creature around her” (130, 174). Basking in Wentworth’s bolder brand of charity, Anne joyfully realizes that she feels “all over courage,” something she has rarely felt in her father’s suffocating household (127).

Wentworth’s assertive nature had previously inclined towards stubbornness and pride in the years after his rejection, but upon his reunion with Anne this steadily transforms into a happy confidence tempered by humility. His obstinate aloofness, which had before caused Anne such misery (“his cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything”), now dwindles as his bitterness vanishes, replaced by an “exquisite . . . happ[iness]” forged by their mutual love (52, 170). As Anne becomes more assertive in her charity, Wentworth becomes more mellow. Together they strike a perfect balance, achieving an ideal, harmonious form of charity. Their united charity retains Anne’s self-sacrificing and humble nature as well as Wentworth’s inclination to remain grounded in principle and confident in his convictions.

Wentworth is brought to this end not only by his gradual appreciation of Anne’s merits, but by his simultaneous scrutiny of traits he previously believed he prized. This latter realization is developed through observing the character of Louisa Musgrove, which provides a perfect foil to Anne Elliot’s. Wentworth’s admiration of the “decision and firmness” he observes in Louisa is shattered by her tragic heedlessness in leaping off a high step, resulting in a head injury which confines her to bed for several weeks (63, 79). This sobering event prompts Wentworth to distinguish between “the steadiness of principle,” which Anne undoubtedly possesses, and “the obstinacy of self-will,” which is all too discernible in Louisa (171). He realizes that true virtue lies not in unabashed inflexibility of character, but in “the resolution of a collected mind” such as Anne’s (171). Without some degree of charity to temper her feistiness, Louisa’s character lacks the depth manifested in Anne. Anne is not headstrong, but she is not weak; she “maintain[s] the loveliest medium of fortitude and gentleness,” whereas Louisa only possesses the former trait. Wentworth’s hostility towards Anne melts away as he discovers that Anne was not malicious or even “yielding and indecisive” in refusing him, as he had believed, but steadfast “in [her] conscience,” which owed a loving duty to Lady Russell (63, 174).

Upon Anne and Wentworth’s reunion, they not only become reconciled to one another’s distinct personalities, but fully understand and even adopt some of these traits. By the time they again confess their love for one another, they have become “more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.” (170). Even before Wentworth’s pivotal letter, their understanding of each other is intimate and unjudging; Anne picks up on Wentworth’s minute facial expressions “too transient . . . to be detected by any who understood him less than herself,” and Wentworth “can distinguish the tones of [her] voice, when they would be lost on others” (49,170). Anne’s acquiescence to their reunion is signaled by only “a look . . . to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening, or never” (168). Their conjugal happiness and charity forges a relationship as egalitarian and codependent as the Crofts’; Wentworth displays a “deference for [Anne’s] judgment”, and Anne is “tenderness itself” towards him (84, 178). In the loving comfort of each other’s company, Anne and Wentworth finally realize the true depths of their charity. This well-matched couple perfectly illustrates the principle that full potential is realized in a full heart.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Second Norton Critical Edition, 2013. John Murray, 1817.
  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. 1870. Reissued by Cambridge University Press 2009.
  • “charity, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/193229. Accessed 10 May 2018.
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