Persuasion is known among Austen’s novels for its obvious Romantic qualities and its autumnal setting and spirit.1 As a lover of both the season of autumn and Romantic writers, I appreciate this novel’s portrayal of a romance out of season, set in the realm of longing, redemption, and beautiful, if bittersweet, landscapes; yet only in my most recent reading was I struck by a sense of poignancy that endures even into the happy ending. Suffering, while resolved and redeemed in the lives of the central characters, remains a felt possibility, even as Anne practices faith and charity to the utmost.
At the start of the novel, Austen wittily summarizes the early romance of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth as a combination of factors: “Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly anybody to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail” (22, 23). The description suggests an inevitable quality to their romance, and moreover, captures its poignancy. While their mutual attraction may well have been strong enough to provoke love in any setting, Austen paints an eloquent portrait of Anne’s loneliness in one phrase, “hardly anybody to love.” In this sentence lies a fundamental tension of Persuasion: the corresponding capacities for deep suffering and great joy, and the potential for either outcome (Weissman, 90). Having known the deep joy of a romance with Wentworth, Anne, at the start of Persuasion, is both acutely aware of and painfully resigned to what she has lost. Although Austen notes that “Anne, at seven-and-twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen,” by the end of the novel Anne expresses, to Captain Wentworth’s faint chagrin, that she would not change her past conduct (25, my italics; 222).
Wentworth, the reader, and Anne herself respond to this declaration with a sigh of relief; since Anne would not change the past, the conclusion of her and Wentworth’s happiness is a narrow escape from tragedy, albeit a tragedy they had, until the time frame of the novel, accepted. This is a slightly disconcerting conclusion, which Robert Hopkins’s article explores as a prime example of the concept of “moral luck.” Moral luck, a term originating with the philosopher Bernard Williams, refers to the difficult relationship between an action, its outcome, and the resulting moral judgment (Hopkins, 147). Morally ambiguous decisions are often judged according to their consequences; in Anne’s case, her decision to submit to Lady Russell is deemed right and acceptable in light of her and Wentworth’s reunion (145). Anne and Wentworth are indeed “more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their re-union, than when it had first been projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment” (Austen, 217). The moral luck question, however, arises from the risk underlying the entire novel. Suppose Wentworth had not returned to Anne’s life? There would, of course, be no novel, for the plot hinges on the hope Wentworth’s re-entrance into Anne’s life inspires. Moreover, would Anne’s confidence in the rightness of submitting to her parental figure outweigh the regret and loneliness of the decision?
The guiding impulses of faith and charity, so integral to Anne’s character, suggest an answer. Although, as I have noted, Anne’s mindset changes with time, suffering, and age, her principles do not. Faith and charity are linked for Anne, whose “warmth of heart” compels her to meet the needs of those around her, and whose faith refutes any sense that she does so weakly or blindly, as Wentworth initially supposes (228). Out of concern for both Lady Russell and Wentworth, she rejects Wentworth; yet she does so according to a sincere faith in Lady Russell’s loving motives and prerogative as her mother figure. Eight years later, Anne continues to act according to these principles. Although her situation at Uppercross is oftentimes a cause of distress, her greatest conflict comes not from resentment of the constant appeals of her family, but their conflicting nature. She is “glad to be thought of some use, glad to have anything marked out as a duty,” and, surrounded by family members of varying needs, her charity is active (28). Her faith, however, defines her conduct in the midst of conflicting needs. “How was Anne to set all these matters to rights?” Austen asks. “She could do little more than listen patiently, soften every grievance, and excuse each to the other; give them all hints of the forbearance necessary between such near neighbors, and make those hints broadest which were meant for her sister’s benefit” (40). Such careful labor must be rooted in the faith that it is not only necessary, but worthwhile.
Hope arrives in the form of Captain Wentworth and magnifies with each kindness he grants Anne. When Wentworth rescues Anne from the grip of young Walter, she is “overcome,” and resultingly rather “ashamed of herself” (72). After a long walk he perceives her exhaustion and secures her a place in the Crofts’ carriage to get home. Anne is again overcome with feelings of “pleasure and pain,” the mingled certainty of his resentment and hope in his apparent “desire of giving her relief” (80). When they part after the near tragedy at Lyme, she is sustained by the memory of his growing warmth and respect, and by the time he arrives in Bath, she is nearly certain of his interest. The increasing evidence for hope ultimately unites with Anne’s qualities of faith and charity to bring about her reunion with Captain Wentworth.
The relationship between these qualities and the outcome is as rich and multi-layered as any exploration of the relationship between personal qualities and fate. Faith and charity not only motivate Anne’s choices, but compose the essence of her character, which is the original feature of Wentworth’s attraction to Anne; he renews his devotion to her when he at last recognizes the consistency of her nature. As Wentworth reflects when they reunite, “he had been unjust to her merits, because he had been a sufferer from them” (218). Only when he becomes aware of his resentment does he recognize that it is illegitimate. Though it is originally a formidable obstacle, once his resentment is cleared and its consequences resolved, Wentworth pursues Anne with dedication and alacrity.
Yet the attraction of charity and faith is not their only service to Anne’s future happiness. It is genuine charity for Mrs. Smith, arising once again from the warmth of Anne’s heart, that eventually brings about the revelation of Mr. Elliot’s true character and alerts Anne to his intentions (178). Anne’s charity, in fact, arises in response to Mrs. Smith’s kindness “in one of those periods of her life when it had been most valuable” (134). Once again, her charity is intertwined with faith. Anne visits Mrs. Smith in full confidence of the usefulness of going, the rightness, and the strength of the relationship. “Anne therefore lost no time in going,” Austen writes (135). She consults Lady Russell and arranges transportation, but wisely mentions nothing to her family, for she is as confident in the virtue of her intentions as she is in the indifference of Sir Walter and Elizabeth.
Anne’s approach to Wentworth, so central to the narrative, bears no exception to her attitude in all other situations. She maintains the integrity of her decision and recognizes his “high and unjust resentment,” yet readily finds examples of “proof of his own warm and amiable heart” (80). Her faith in his good character keeps her heart open to him even as he pursues Louisa Musgrove; her consistent charity toward others and himself sustains their growing, uneasy friendship. Although Lady Russell indulges “in angry pleasure, in pleased contempt, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot, should . . . be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove,” she surrenders to neither anger nor bitterness (109). Her charity and faith are well grounded; Anne does not quite possess Jane Bennet’s capacity to find good qualities where there are none. But if not for her willingness to extend undeserved charity and her unswerving faith in Wentworth’s good character, the embers of the romance may well have turned to ashes.
Yet when Anne speaks to Captain Harville on behalf of the constancy of women, it is the culmination of the faith, hope, and charity which have defined the course of the novel. Anne argues for the charity of women as the embodiment of her case: “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” (212). The preceding narrative is the evidence of her words, from the moment of Wentworth’s arrival and Anne’s dismay that “to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing” (52). Yet Anne’s words contain delightful irony, for Wentworth’s very presence is evidence that hope is not altogether gone. She speaks out of faith not only in his listening ear, but his affection and responsiveness. Within moments, faith, hope, and charity are answered by Wentworth’s agonized letter. Its beginning, “I can listen no longer in silence,” confirms that Anne’s faith is justified, and its substance attests that her charity is valued and her hope rewarded (214).
Thus, with faith, hope, and charity, Persuasion transforms sorrow into joy and loneliness into companionship. Yet if hope had not entered in the form of Wentworth, what would have been Anne’s fate? Charity and faith, the essence of her character, would endure, as Austen makes clear in the scenes prior to Wentworth’s arrival. Yet suppose her faith was misplaced and her charity unrewarded by the return of Wentworth’s affection? The answer may lie in the other glimpses of suffering Austen presents in Persuasion. Besides Anne herself, the notable sufferers of the novel include Benwick and Mrs. Smith. They share with Anne the qualities of faith and charity, and reflect a larger scheme of faith, charity, and even hope, in suffering.
Benwick and Mrs. Smith at first appear to have opposing responses to the sorrow. Anne observes in Mrs. Smith “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” (136). After losing her husband and being reduced to near poverty, Mrs. Smith displays a natural resiliency to sorrow and suffering. Benwick, however, appears to have a different disposition. He turns to poetry rather than activity in his sorrow, a tendency Anne gently attempts to check. Although he turns to poetic evocations of “hopeless agony . . .a broken heart. . .a mind destroyed by wretchedness,” even he does not remain locked in misery, but ultimately finds happiness in marrying Louisa Musgrove (89).
The evidence of charity in Benwick and Mrs. Smith lies in their openness to others in the midst of suffering. Benwick, though tending toward “abstraction” in his grief, quickly becomes attentive to Anne (89). He likewise tends to Louisa following her injury, suggesting a sensitivity to needs beyond his own. While his identification with the agony of poets suggests the opposite of faith, his willingness to engage in productive conversation with Anne proves otherwise. He listens to Anne’s recommendations of prose “with a shake of the head, and sighs which declared his little faith in the efficacy of any books on grief like his,” but he nonetheless writes down the names and promises to read them, demonstrating a faith in the potential of renewal (89, 90).
Mrs. Smith, in turn, is purposefully charitable in seeking to relieve the sufferings of others around her. She applies her craft and knitting skills to the purpose of “doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighborhood,” dwelling not on her own poverty but that of others (137). Anne observes in Mrs. Smith’s very existence a strong faith that living is worthwhile, from her continual busyness to her lively interest in human nature. She tells Anne, “To me, who live so much alone, her conversation, I assure you, is a treat” (137). Her statement is indicative of her entire attitude; while Mrs. Smith admits the loneliness of her position readily, her attention does not remain there, but moves to embrace the slightest joy.
The combination of charity, faith, and suffering in Benwick and Mrs. Smith’s narratives, does, therefore, suggest a possibility for hope, although it is not the hope of a direct reversal of their sufferings. Rather, the attentiveness to others rooted in charity, combined with a faith in life’s meaning and renewal, creates a capacity for hope. Thus, Benwick’s interest in a person outside of himself results in the unanticipated blossoming of a second romance. Likewise, Mrs. Smith emerges from loneliness and illness aware not only of her suffering, but of the kindness of her land lady, her opportunity to do good, and the “invaluable acquaintance” in the constant figure of Nurse Rooke (136, 137). Thus Benwick and Mrs. Smith demonstrate that faith and charity are not only commendable but intertwined with hope.
Anne, in reversing her particular sorrow, appears in a sense luckier in hope than her counterparts. Yet Austen suggests that Anne is acquainted with hope prior to Wentworth’s arrival. Although she feels his loss deeply, in her bleakest state of loneliness, she pins hope on something as simple as her usefulness to those at Uppercross Cottage (28). In this way, she is united with Benwick and Mrs. Smith in the process of finding hope through charity and faith in suffering; the joy, of course, is that Anne may hope for something much more wonderful than usefulness. In a flawed world in which faith can be misplaced and charity unrewarded, Austen suggests that hope does spring eternal. Austen introduces Anne, who has suffered with constant charity and faith, to the brightest of her hopes.