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“I Wanted to Be Doing Something”: Freudian Sublimation and Regency Gender Roles in Persuasion

Readers meet Anne Elliot eight years after the disintegration of her engagement with Frederick Wentworth, the driven young sailor who embarked on a career in the Navy and subsequently earned his socioeconomic ranking during the Napoleonic Wars.  Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell were resolutely opposed to the match, chiefly because Frederick Wentworth had neither social connections nor enviable prospects in his profession.  Anne was “persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing—indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it” (30).  Anne’s obligation to seek a suitable match to compensate for her lack of dowry and to spurn any prospects decidedly beneath her station burdens her with the regret of being persuaded to end a relationship based on mutual affection instead of equal status.  As a result, she suffers “an early loss of bloom and spirits” (30) and lives a life of quiet despondency.  When Captain Wentworth returns to British soil, he is bitter and reticent and likewise lives a life considerably encumbered by a sense of mourning.  While spending time in the same company at Uppercross, both the hero and heroine are faced with the challenge of coping with feelings of loss and heartbreak. 

The polarity between the rules of Regency decorum and the desires of the sexual drive prompts Anne and Wentworth to sublimate their romantic feelings while continuing to uphold societal gendered practices.  In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud explains that one begins sublimating when “the sexual function has been accompanied by a repugnance which cannot further be accounted for, and which prevents its complete satisfaction” (28).  When one sublimates, he or she channels sexual energy into a physical output or performs productive tasks. 

Embracing womanhood requires Anne to make choices for others’ sakes.  When she ended the engagement with Captain Wentworth, for example, she was primarily concerned with how her actions were beneficial to him:  “The belief of being prudent, and self-denying principally for his advantage, was her chief consolation” (30).  Similarly, at Uppercross Anne’s generosity to her family satisfies her need to be dutiful and “domestic” while also allowing her to sublimate her love for Wentworth, especially since the rules of Regency society dictate that as an unmarried woman in her late twenties, her primary concern should be caring for her family.  In “Advice to a Lady” (1731), George Lyttelton, 1st Baron Lyttelton, writes: 

A woman’s noblest station is retreat;
Her fairest virtues fly from publick sight,
Domestick worth, that shuns too strong a light.  (51–54) 

While she resides at Uppercross, Anne fulfills a desexualized maternal role.  Tending to her sister Mary and caring for her nephews, Anne hopes to achieve a sense of security for she is doing what is expected of her.  By focusing on those duties, she distracts herself from the desire to act on her sexual attraction to Wentworth.  Freud explains this hunt for stability and moral conviction:  “The task . . . is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world” (28).  Anne’s devoted attention to Mary and the other Musgroves is an example of her sublimating her sexual longing in a societally approved way. 

Anne’s life as a woman in the upper class is built upon rules that were first taught in childhood and then continuously reiterated throughout adulthood.  Young, well-bred women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in addition to being disciplined by their governesses, had instructional guides available.  William Kenrick’s The Whole Duty of a Woman, an early eighteenth-century text that remained popular into the late nineteenth century, played a role in configuring gendered behaviors, especially for young women.  Kenrick’s work articulates the idea that a woman must strive for moral decency or else be corrupted.  Kenrick cautions women against sullying their reputations and virtue by indulging in flirtation: 

Every indecent Curiosity or impure Fancy, is a deflowering of the Mind, and every the least Corruption of them gives some Degrees of Defilement to the Body too. . . . She that listens to any wanton Discourse has violated her Ears, she that speaks any, her Tongue; every immodest Glance vitiates her Eye, and every the lightest Act of Dalliance leaves something of Stain and Sulliage behind it.  (71–72) 

Kenrick’s writing denigrates women who express sexual interest.  Merely because she does not express her attraction to Wentworth, Anne’s inherent sexuality should not be questioned.  Her filling the desexualized maternal role illustrates how deeply affected she is by the ideology of the English gentry and how willing she is to yield autonomy for the sake of tradition. 

While at Uppercross, Anne’s desire for Captain Wentworth begins to transform to a powerful drive towards action, which results in her working more diligently as a homemaker.  In preparation for her two-month stay with the Musgroves, Anne “clothe[s] her imagination, her memory, and all her ideas in as much of Uppercross as possible” (46).  This mental effort prepares her for coping with the presence of Wentworth.  The more Anne wants to reconnect with Wentworth, the more immersed she becomes in the work she is required to perform.  The only way to cut ties with her past is to find purpose in her role as both caretaker and companion to her family members in greater need than she is. 

Persuasion is a study of the behavioral distinctions between men and women.  Anne’s and Wentworth’s respective means of sublimation reflect the gendered conventions of the day:  the ultimate measure of a man is the courage he exhibits in the face of adversity; a woman’s value is rooted in her humility.  In The Whole Duty of a Woman, William Kenrick encourages men and women to become paragons of the virtues that pertain to their gender:  “supreme valour in men, and extreme modesty in women” (144).  If neither Anne nor Wentworth can satiate their sexual longing for each other, they can resolve to be content in their duties as man or woman in nineteenth-century England.  The danger in exploring the depths of one’s sexuality at the cost of one’s virtue is manifested through Louisa’s fall at Lyme, in which her moment of unguarded pleasure in physical touch has an almost tragic result.  Not until Wentworth perceives the flaw in the dichotomized understanding of the genders does he pursue Anne. 

Since a woman’s source of pleasure and sense of purpose should reside in her domestic duties, Anne is expected to abstain from selfish desire.  As a man, Captain Wentworth is granted more scope for personal fulfillment.  Anne and Wentworth live in a society that supports separate gendered spheres and consistently enforces the idea that men are entitled to more freedom than women.  Rather than being expected to stay home to care for his family, as a young man he was encouraged to leave, become a sailor, and make his fortune. 

Although there are considerable limitations on analyzing Wentworth’s interior life, it is clear that his urge to conceal his vulnerability is rooted in the societal expectation of masculine stoicism.  Upon being rejected by Anne, Captain Wentworth used his civic responsibility as a means of sublimating his pain.  Command of a naval ship during wartime necessitated his full attention, distracting him from the heartbreak he was not yet comfortable confronting.  At Uppercross Wentworth recounts his motivation to depart:  “‘I was as well satisfied with my appointment as you can desire.  It was a great object with me, at that time, to be at sea,—a very great object.  I wanted to be doing something’” (70).  Captain Wentworth coped with his heartbreak by refocusing on his role in the war. 

While Wentworth craves sexual pleasure, the reality of his situation does not allow him satisfaction.  In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud remarks on the instinctive drive to satiate sexual desires and the principle that prevents one from doing so:  “under the influence of the ego’s instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle.  This latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction” (1).  When Captain Wentworth set sail years ago, he was conscious of the impossibility of achieving sexual satisfaction since Anne had rejected his proposal of marriage.  Postponing satisfaction, he distanced himself from Anne, the person who incited his instinct to satiate his sexual drive.  In the British Royal Navy, Captain Wentworth sublimated his love for Anne as love for his country.  He clings to a sense of betrayal and a bitter distaste for the social customs he believes convinced her to abandon him.  In so doing, he successfully quiets his sexual desires but does not completely eradicate them. 

Wentworth assigns blame in an attempt to disconnect himself emotionally from Anne.  He is a self-made man who is guided through life by the sheer will to work, earn, and achieve his goals.  After the broken engagement, Wentworth promptly pursued an alternative to marriage that did not include Anne:  “His genius and ardour had seemed to foresee and to command his prosperous path.  He had, very soon after their engagement ceased, got employ” (32).  Because he has not had to live by them, Wentworth underestimates how important social customs are to the upper class and is enraged by their power over Anne.  He assumes she is easily persuaded by her family, and his mind was fixed on what he perceived as a flaw in Anne’s character:  he was “totally unconvinced and unbending, and . . . feeling himself ill-used by so forced a relinquishment.—He had left the country in consequence” (30).  Withdrawing from Anne, he focuses on his rage instead of his love for her, asking himself how he could ever love someone who does not know her own mind. 

For Wentworth, the abrupt end to the romance with Anne had jolted him into a state of sexual frustration, a predicament he sought to overcome through vigorous work in the navy.  Later at Uppercross, Wentworth enjoys the company of Louisa Musgrove.  Her sexual attraction is principally illustrated through her determination to be jumped by Wentworth from stiles during their country walks and down the steps at Lyme.  Through his somewhat careful flirtation with Louisa, Wentworth sublimates his still-existing sexual longing for Anne, but he keeps himself sexually restrained. 

Notwithstanding these efforts at sublimation, there are moments of intimacy between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth throughout the scenes at Uppercross that convey a sexual connection despite the latter’s “cold politeness” and “ceremonious grace” (78).  Wentworth resists interacting directly with Anne; however, when a playful Walter seizes Anne, Captain Wentworth relieves her of her burden: 

In another moment . . . she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though [Walter] had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it. 

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless.  She could not even thank him.  She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings.  (86–87)

Anne is overcome by this brief physical encounter, and the scene is rife with sexual tension as Anne hurries to arrange her feelings, so flustered is she by Captain Wentworth’s gesture. 

Later, Anne is once again stirred by Wentworth’s physicality.  After observing her exhaustion during the journey homeward to Uppercross from Winthrop, Captain Wentworth lifts Anne into Admiral Croft’s carriage: 

Yes,—he had done it.  She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. . . . It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.  (98) 

Physical touch is crucial in these instances.  Moreover, Wentworth’s gaze, seems to seek out Anne in every setting.  He watches her as she cares for Walter, as she tires from exercise, and, later on at Lyme, as Mr. Elliot admires her returning bloom.  Anne is sensitive to Wentworth’s gaze, as she is to his touch: 

Captain Wentworth looked round at her instantly in a way which shewed his noticing of it.  He gave her a momentary glance,—a glance of brightness, which seemed to say, “That man is struck with you,—and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again.”  (112) 

Although both Anne and Wentworth experience a sexual connection throughout the story, they both work to disguise their feelings for one another. 

Indeed, Anne’s impression that Captain Wentworth is courting Louisa Musgrove inspires her to continued sublimation.  Courtship rituals were well-established and enforced.  Deirdre Le Faye writes that “when in public the slightest expression of interest in or concern for a member of the opposite sex—‘being particular’—could be taken by onlookers as an indication of matrimonial intentions” (113).  The group at Uppercross expects Captain Wentworth and one of the young Miss Musgroves to court each other:  “Charles gave it for Louisa, Mary for Henrietta, but quite agreeing that to have him marry either would be extremely delightful” (81).  Louisa soon becomes the obvious candidate for wifehood, as Henrietta is ostensibly attached to Charles Hayter.  Overhearing Wentworth and Louisa during the group’s stroll to Winthrop, Anne analogizes autumn to declining happiness against “the images of youth and hope” associated with spring; Anne’s youthfulness has waned, but Louisa’s youth, to Anne’s dismay, appears to attract Wentworth (91). 

Through his acquaintance with Louisa, Captain Wentworth sublimates his still-existing sexual longing for Anne, but he keeps himself sexually restrained.  While the walking party retreats from Winthrop, Anne observes the physical closeness between Captain Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove, comparing their dynamic to that of the acknowledged lovers, Charles Hayter and Henrietta Musgrove:  “Every thing now marked out Louisa for Captain Wentworth; nothing could be plainer; and where many divisions were necessary, and even where they were not, they walked side by side, nearly as much as the other two” (97).  Anne has earlier observed the freedom with which Louisa expresses her views on love and constancy to Captain Wentworth:  “‘If I loved a man, . . . I would be always with him, nothing should ever separate us’” (91).  Louisa Musgrove and Wentworth are seemingly enraptured by each other. 

The greatest evidence of physical intimacy between Wentworth and Louisa is her insistence on being jumped down the steps at Lyme by Captain Wentworth.  He is cautious and reluctant to give in to libidinal urges, while Louisa delights in the pleasure of falling into the arms of a capable captain.  His comparatively dispassionate response to the activity denotes a sense of restraint.  Up to this point Captain Wentworth’s relationship with Louisa has been illustrated through lively chatter as he walks by her side near Winthrop and strolls with her at Lyme.  These moments with Louisa provide opportunities for physical closeness that he has largely avoided with Anne.  As a result of Louisa’s passion and urgency, Captain Wentworth is unable to catch the girl before she crashes into the pavement.  Henceforth, physical touch is de-eroticized as Captain Wentworth “knelt with her in his arms, looking on her with a face as pallid as her own” (118), embracing what is ostensibly her dead body.  At this point Captain Wentworth, after having so long watched Anne from afar, gazes at her in earnest, seeking her guidance—“look[ing] to her for directions” (119), “eyes . . . turned towards her” (120), “turning to her and speaking with a glow, and yet a gentleness, which seemed almost restoring the past” (123).  This glance signifies an even greater intimacy between the hero and the heroine, as Captain Wentworth unabashedly allows Anne to know that, despite his cold civility and estrangement, he needs her. 

Louisa’s fall at Lyme marks the point when Captain Wentworth begins to understand how he feels about Anne Elliot.  During their reconciliation at Bath, Captain Wentworth recalls that while at Uppercross “he had imagined himself indifferent” and refused to recognize Anne’s merits (262).  Captain Wentworth acknowledges that she was the foremost thought in his mind throughout the acquaintance with Louisa Musgrove: 

In his preceding attempts to attach himself to Louisa Musgrove (the attempts of angry pride), he protested that he had for ever felt it to be impossible; that he had not cared, could not care for Louisa; though, till that day [of Louisa’s fall], till the leisure for reflection which followed it, he had not understood the perfect excellence of the mind with which Louisa’s could so ill bear a comparison.  (263). 

Wentworth admits that at Lyme he had “begun to deplore the pride, the folly, the madness of resentment” (263).  He now realizes that for the past eight years, his avoidance of Anne was a result of thinking she was at fault for the demise of their relationship. 

Captain Wentworth comes to realize that there was no lack of honor in Anne’s rejection and that the forces that persuaded her were more powerful than he believed.  Though jealous of Mr. Elliot as a result of the meetings at Mollands and the concert, the conversation he overhears a day later between Anne and Captain Harville at the White Hart instills within him a clarity of purpose:  he must admit his feelings to her or risk eternal separation.  During this conversation, Anne argues to Captain Harville that it is in the nature of a woman never to forget whom she truly loves: 

“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.”  (253) 

Throughout the novel Anne sublimates her love for Wentworth by acting as a caretaker and companion—“‘at home, quiet, confined’”—roles suitable for women in the nineteenth century but insufficient when yearning for true fulfillment.  In turn, Wentworth sublimates his love for Anne by embracing the masculine profession of a sailor, but his attempt to forget her through hard work was also done in vain.  In addition, his pursuit of distraction through Louisa’s company ultimately proves ineffectual, as he is disturbed by both his resentment of Anne and his contradictory attraction to her.  However different the means of sublimation, both Anne and Wentworth are ultimately consumed by their feelings for one another.  At the White Hart, Wentworth hastily records his romantic profession to Anne, claiming that man does not forget sooner than woman, and that he has loved none but her (257). 

When there is no longer a risk of violating rules of duty, Anne responds to Captain Wentworth’s romantic proclamation.  During their first acquaintance, Anne “was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing” (30).  When she and Captain Wentworth meet at Uppercross, his anger and then his potential relationship with Louisa Musgrove pose limitations on how they are able to interact with one another.  While at Bath, Anne is saddened by the assumption that Louisa Musgrove will marry Wentworth; she is resigned to her fate as a “spinster.”  According to Dashielle Horn, “British culture of the time understood women as either married or unmarried: wives or widows, maids waiting to marry, or spinsters doomed to their fate by an inability to attract a husband (237).  Aware of this compartmentalization, Anne is willing to fill the role she understands is most applicable.  In choosing, as Horn suggests, the spinster role, Anne might seize a kind of power of which she has been robbed when Wentworth leaves in anger; having been persuaded against his merits, Anne was denied the freedom to choose her husband.  True happiness is attained as Anne chooses the now acceptable role of Wentworth’s wife—“more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their re-union, than when it had been first projected” (261). 

Persuasion, more thoroughly than any other novel in Austen’s oeuvre, assesses the instinct to sublimate one’s feelings.  Suppression—avoiding a confrontation with the truth—is not met with scorn and biting wit; rather Jane Austen reflects on it with melancholy, as the hero and heroine are unhappy and unfulfilled despite finding distraction through gendered practices.  The ways in which Anne and Wentworth sublimate are indicative of the nineteenth-century social constructs defining male and female identity and occupation.  By retreating into the Regency-crafted gender roles, Anne and Wentworth deny themselves sexual freedom and emotional expression.  The potential tragedy of the novel is that Anne’s thoughts of Wentworth do not cease as she takes on her role.  And Captain Wentworth, although he is forced on exertion and might always have “a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other,” is likewise unable to recover from his romantic feelings.  They can pursue a relationship once more only when the circumstances of their relationship align with the rules of society, when sublimation is no longer a necessary defense mechanism.  Anne Elliot’s and Captain Wentworth’s love story demonstrates how complying with the rules of society is not necessarily conducive to happiness.  They learn that happiness, as elusive as it might have seemed in the preceding eight years, is attainable only when one allows heart and emotion to win over reason and tradition.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  Ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank.  Cambridge: CUP, 2013.
  • Freud, Sigmund.  Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Seattle: Pacific Publishing Studio, 2010.
  • _____.  Civilization and Its Discontents.  London: Penguin, 2004.
  • Horn, Dashielle.  “Choosing Spinsterhood: Enacting Singleness in Persuasion.”  Persuasions 38 (2016): 236–44.
  • Kenrick, William.  The Whole Duty of a Woman, Or, An Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex.  London: Reed, 1737.
  • Le Faye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels.  London: Lincoln, 2003.
  • Lyttelton, George.  “Advice to a Lady.”  The Poetical Works of George Lord Lyttelton: With Additions to Which Prefixed an Account of His Life.  London: Cadell, 1801.  56–62.
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