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The Grace to Deserve: Weighing Merit in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

When Captain Wentworth has wooed and won Anne Elliot a second time, he confesses that his pride has led to years of “‘separation and suffering [that] might have been spared’” (Persuasion 247).  The realization brings him “‘a sort of pain’” new to him.  Wentworth’s words “‘I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve’” (247) are the last he speaks in this novel, and the final words any character speaks in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  The word “deserve” defines the very core of this novel.  From the political fallout in England at the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the heavy heart of Anne Elliot, who moves like a nomad through spaces not her own, Austen’s Persuasion considers the worth of different classes of people, the worth of any individual, the weight of words, and the grace of earning one’s blessings.  The novel implies that deserving comes from character and actions, and it champions those who, at least, try “‘to earn every blessing’” (247).  Before they fully deserve their mutual happiness, both Anne and Wentworth will need to weigh their own merits and decide which words deserve to be spoken and heard.  Captain Wentworth must learn to hear and acknowledge the words of Anne Elliot, whose words have “no weight” (5) with her father and sister, and Anne must learn to find the grace and courage to speak the words that will secure her own future. 

In weighing the worth of different classes of people, Persuasion favors the Royal Navy of Admiral Croft and Captains Wentworth, Harville, and Benwick over the baronetcy represented by the Elliots and the aristocracy represented by the Dalrymples.  Roger Sales asserts that Persuasion debates “who will, and who deserves to, win the peace after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars” (171).  During the roughly twenty years of war with France, Napoleon Bonaparte gobbled up county after country.  If the Royal Navy had not preserved England’s freedom, sovereignty, and commerce, it might have been the French, rather than his creditors, who would have driven Sir Walter Elliot from Kellynch Hall.  When, in order to pay those creditors, he seeks a tenant to rent his ancestral home, Sir Walter in “cold suspicious inquiry” asks, “‘who is Admiral Croft?’”(21).  Anne’s response, “‘He was in the Trafalgar action’” (21–22) neither interests nor impresses Sir Walter.  He finds the navy “‘offensive’” on “‘two strong grounds’”:  “‘as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, . . . and . . . as its cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly’” (19).  Sir Walter objects to the navy on his two points of personal conceit—his looks and his rank—and he considers a naval man “lucky” rather than deserving of living in an estate such as Kellynch (17). 

Anne Elliot finds the navy more deserving than her father does, and in her first speech in the novel, she praises its virtues and deserts:  “‘The Navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give’” (19).  After Kellynch Hall has been let to Admiral Croft and his wife, Anne admits to herself that she has “so high an opinion of the Crofts . . . that . . . she could not but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay, and that Kellynch-hall had passed into better hands than its owners’” (125).  The regret Anne experiences at Lyme, at the humbler abode of the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, reveals to her not only the man she has lost in Wentworth but the naval community lost to her as well.  Anne finds a “bewitching charm” (98) in the openhearted generosity and hospitality of the family.  She compares their dinner invitation “from the heart” to the cold civility of “give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display” (98) of her own family.  The same visit to the Harvilles causes Louisa Musgrove to rhapsodize on the navy, claiming “that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved” (99). 

Louisa’s attitude towards the navy reflects the change in thinking within her own family, the Musgroves, who now judge the navy by the individuals they have met, such as Admiral and Mrs. Croft and Captain Wentworth.  Before the appearance of the Crofts and Captain Wentworth at Uppercross, the home of the Musgroves, the family’s sole use for the navy consisted of dispatching to it their ne’er-do-well son, Dick, “sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; . . . very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved” (50–51).  Now, when Captain Wentworth, with his “charming manners” (58) and with the £25,000 he has earned in the war, arrives for dinner at the Musgroves’, they search out information about his past commands in the Navy List, in “their own navy list, the first that had ever been at Uppercross” (64).  The 1814 arrival of Captain Frederick Wentworth impresses the Musgroves as it had not impressed Sir Walter when Wentworth petitioned him as Anne’s suitor in 1806, not only because of the fortune Wentworth has made but because the Musgroves also appreciate his qualities as a man. 

Eight years before his return, Wentworth had yet to earn his £25,000, but he had already distinguished himself and received a promotion because of his participation in the February 1806 action off Santo Domingo.  The British parliament voted its thanks to the officers and men who had achieved the victory (Southam 53).  This action off Santo Domingo remained close to the heart of Jane Austen, for her older brother Frank, flag captain of the 80-gun Canopus, won a medal for his service in the fight (53).  Sir Walter, differing in attitude from both Parliament and Jane Austen, reacts to Wentworth’s 1806 proposal to Anne with “all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter” (P 26).  Without her dowry, if Wentworth had perished at sea, Anne could have become destitute because her father deemed a marriage to Wentworth as undeserving of his regard. 

By the end of the novel, Anne will “glory” in “that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (252).  Austen paints a mostly idealized and heroic portrait of the navy in Persuasion.  Her readers, and indeed, Austen herself, would have known that in addition to its “domestic virtues” and “national importance,” the navy was also known for dockyard corruption, brutal floggings, and roving press-gangs.  Despite its rigid hierarchy, however, the navy offered, to some extent, a meritocracy.  Men of merit, whose actions and accomplishments deserved to be rewarded, such as Admiral Nelson and Captain Wentworth, could rise out of the class from which they had been born to positions of distinction.  Wentworth, though proving in battle and command the “worth” that his name implies, has at the beginning of the novel much to learn about meritocracy, especially where women are concerned.  When he explains that he does not carry women aboard his ships because of the lack of comfortable accommodation, his sister, Sophy Croft, chides him:  “‘I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures’” (70).  Not until Wentworth can see Anne as a rational creature whose words deserve to be heard and heeded, will he—worthy though he is as an officer in the Royal Navy—begin to deserve her as a man. 

While Wentworth has established his public worth, Anne Elliot has had her words and her worth almost totally discounted within her own family, who does not find her deserving of recognition.  One of the unusual aspects of Persuasion is how long it takes the narrator to fix our attention on Anne Elliot.  The first mention of Anne Elliot occurs in Sir Walter Elliot’s favorite book, which chronicles his family’s “history and rise” (3).  Anne appears here as the mere “issue” of Sir Walter; she has neither Elizabeth’s precedence as eldest daughter, nor Mary’s “artificial importance” (5) as Mrs. Charles Musgrove, for whom Sir Walter picks up his pen to add the date of her marriage.  Because Anne’s words have “no weight” (5) in the beginning of the novel, the narrator initially distances Anne from readers.  If we think of the narration in cinematic terms, we have, first, a long shot of the Elliots with Anne unfocused in the background, but, in time, the narrator pulls in so tightly to Anne’s mind that readers may find it difficult to know where the narrator’s voice leaves off and Anne’s mind begins. 

Instead of beginning the novel with Anne, the narrator presents Sir Walter Elliot, a baronet and Anne’s father, and readers learn his criteria for judging worth:  rank and personal appearance.  We learn, later, from Admiral Croft that Sir Walter surrounds himself with many mirrors in his bedchamber, so, not surprisingly, Anne, who does not resemble him in looks, has “nothing in [her] . . . to excite his esteem” (6).  Instead, Sir Walter favors his daughter Elizabeth, who mirrors him in appearance and attitude.  To both Sir Walter and Elizabeth, the narrator tells us, Anne “was nobody” (5), but the narrator counters this view with a higher evaluation of Anne, “with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding” (5).  Since we know Elizabeth and Sir Walter consider Anne as “nobody,” and not deserving of their attention, we conclude that Elizabeth and Sir Walter are not people of “real understanding.” 

The one person early in the novel who seems to understand some of Anne’s value is Lady Russell, to whom Anne was “a most dear and highly valued god-daughter, favourite and friend” (6).  Ironically, Lady Russell’s valuing Anne so highly leads her to discourage Anne’s engagement with Wentworth.  First, through the eyes of the narrator, we see Sir Walter’s reaction to Wentworth’s proposal and then Lady Russell’s:  “He thought it a very degrading alliance; and Lady Russell, though with more tempered and pardonable pride, received it as a most unfortunate one” (26).  In the next paragraph, however, when the text slips into free indirect discourse, we hear Lady Russell’s thoughts rather than those of an objective narrator: 

Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him; . . . would be, indeed, a throwing away . . . ; to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependance!  (26–27) 

Informal words such as “snatched” and “throwing away” and “sunk” indicate that we have moved inside Lady Russell’s mind.  The three characteristics that come from Lady Russell’s consciousness, characteristics that describe Anne at the beginning of this paragraph, are “birth, beauty, and mind.”  This is the order in which Lady Russell views Anne’s attributes, so even Anne’s greatest champion, who does value Anne, values her birth (or rank) first, rather than the qualities that make Anne deserving in herself. 

No person surrounding Anne values either Anne or Wentworth for his or her individual merits.  Lady Russell and Sir Walter judge the young Anne and Wentworth based on rank or their connections in society.  Lady Russell devalues Wentworth because he has “nothing but himself to recommend him.”  Sir Walter sees the same alliance as “degrading” because Wentworth with neither rank nor money would have degraded Anne and therefore, by connection, degraded Sir Walter himself (26).  In this equation, Wentworth, like his brother, the former curate of Monkford, is “‘nobody’” (23) and has nothing but himself to recommend him as a match.  Sir Walter, on the other hand, has nothing in himself to win the love of a deserving woman.  Instead, Sir Walter’s “good looks and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment; since to them he must have owed a wife of very superior character to any thing deserved by his own” (4).  Austen uses the word “deserve” here to remind us of what Sir Walter does not deserve, including the “sensible and amiable” Lady Elliot (4).  Wentworth and Sir Walter represent opposite choices for a woman.  In 1806, Wentworth has substance, but no rank; Sir Walter Elliot, rank, but no substance. 

When Wentworth returns in 1814, his external worth has risen, at least in the eyes of the Musgroves.  He has not only “himself,” with his “glowing, manly, open look” (61), and his rank of post captain in the Royal Navy but also £25,000; Charles Musgrove, therefore, deems him a “‘capital match for either of [his] sisters’” (75).  Like Sir Walter, Wentworth also has a book that trumpets his importance, the Navy List, which the Musgrove girls pore over to learn the names of his ships.  As he gains in seniority, he will rise in the Navy List until he reaches the rank of Admiral, but Anne has no book or list that acknowledges what she deserves.  Not surprisingly, once the “faded and thin” (6) Anne leaves Kellynch, the place where she has lost her mother, her fiancé, her home, she begins to rise and to value herself more. 

The Musgroves value Anne more highly and find her more deserving than her own family does.  After leaving Kellynch, she does not follow Sir Walter and Elizabeth to Bath because, as Elizabeth says, “‘nobody will want her in Bath’” (33).  Anne determines to leave Kellynch behind mentally and learn what is important at Uppercross.  When she travels to Uppercross to spend two months with her sister Mary Musgrove, Anne must “submit,” must learn “the art of knowing [her] own nothingness beyond [her] own circle” (42).  In this endeavor, Anne has particular talent.  Wendy Jones describes Anne as “Austen’s most brilliant character in terms of social intelligence,” with “the most developed sense of empathy” (33).  Jones argues that Anne “uses her mind reading skills with wisdom and compassion” (339).  Anne’s words have weight with the Musgroves, and, unlike her own family, they seek her opinion.  Anne’s gradual rise is upset, however, when, after eight years, Wentworth reenters Anne’s world, and he finds her “‘[s]o altered that he should not have known her again!’” (61).  Surely, he never did completely know her. 

The narrator’s flippant tone in the introduction to Anne and Wentworth’s brief romance suggests that one or both of the parties may have lacked qualities necessary for a successful marriage.  After we hear that Wentworth was remarkably fine and intelligent and that Anne was pretty and gentle, the narrator ironically states, “Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love” (26).  When we flash forward to 1814, Wentworth decides to marry—anyone but Anne, anyone, a generic female, perhaps “either of the Miss Musgroves” (61).  Like the Admiral, and even Charles (“‘either of my sisters’”), Wentworth, initially, can hardly differentiate between Henrietta and Louisa.  He jokes to his sister, “‘Any body between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking.  A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man’” (62).  The more serious description of what he wants, “‘A strong mind, with sweetness of manner’” (62), matches Anne closely, except that he thinks she lacks “‘strength of mind’” because she allowed herself to be persuaded against him by her father and Lady Russell (88).  Wentworth himself may have gone from being nobody to being somebody, but in his choice of women, he has merely progressed from having nothing else to do to being ready to marry anybody.  To deserve Anne, he must alter his own knowledge of her, and see and hear her as somebody in particular. 

We never hear the words Anne uses to break her engagement with Wentworth, but even though she believes herself “consulting his good, even more than her own,” her words do not convince Wentworth:  he goes away “totally unconvinced and unbending, . . . feeling himself ill-used” (28).  When he returns, she twice excuses herself from meeting him to stay with her injured nephew.  This deferral seems a selfless act, but it is a failure of nerve:  she cannot face the man whom she rejected but still loves.  When she finally does see him, she can hardly speak or look at him.  Anne lurks in the background, playing the piano while other women dance.  At Uppercross, however, we become privy to Anne’s anguish over her spiritual separation from Wentworth.  She internally laments that “they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted.  It was a perpetual estrangement” (64).  Anne and Wentworth have something to learn before they can deserve their happiness; as they do, Anne begins to rise in confidence and the estimation of others, and Wentworth begins to help her do so. 

The novel begins in the fall and abounds with literal and metaphorical falls and consequent rises, and such rises and falls enable Anne and Wentworth better to evaluate and eventually deserve each other.  A child falls from a tree; Anne helps lift him to health.  A child weighs down Anne’s neck; Wentworth lifts the child off her back.  Anne tires after the long walk to Winthrop; Wentworth hands her up into his sister’s gig.  When Anne ascends the steps at Lyme, Anne’s cousin, William Elliot, notices her beauty, and in that moment Wentworth, although he has not yet paid full attention to her words, begins to see Anne as somebody. 

Captains Benwick and Harville, however, highly value Anne’s words at Lyme.  She makes reading suggestions of “memoirs” and “letters” as Captain Benwick listens “attentively” (101).  Captain Harville justly praises her for drawing Benwick into conversation:  “‘you have done a good deed in making that poor fellow talk so much’” (107).  Finally, when Louisa Musgrove falls from the steps of the Cobb at Lyme, and Wentworth in “despair” cries out, “‘Is there no one to help me?’” (110), it is Anne, the “nobody,” whose words have had “no weight,” and Anne, only, whose words deserve to be heard, who knows what to say and do to help Louisa and Wentworth.  Within hours, Wentworth turns the negative “‘no one’” into a positive when he declares that there is “‘no one so proper, so capable as Anne!’” (114).  Anne has learned to speak more decisively, and Wentworth has learned to give her words more weight, but after this brief moment of recognition, Anne must face moving to Bath, the place to which she went after losing her mother and losing Wentworth.  Ironically, Bath becomes a place where she finds the words to redeem herself and Wentworth. 

Anne’s time in Uppercross and Lyme gives her confidence in her own deserts, and at Bath Anne chooses for herself whose words deserve to be heard.  When she visits her old school fellow Mrs. Smith, who suffers from illness and reduced circumstances, Anne listens to gossip, so often overlooked by men, the delicious but undervalued words of women, which Mrs. Smith calls, “‘entertaining and profitable, . . . a treat’” (155).  Such gossip, which she receives from Nurse Rooke, combined with old letters saved by Mrs. Smith, provides Anne with the key to unlock the mystery of William Elliot’s interest in her and his changed attitude toward her family.  Anne’s father sees nothing to value in Mrs. Smith, whom he deems, “‘a mere Mrs. Smith, an every day Mrs. Smith’” (158), in other words, another nobody.  Sir Walter and Elizabeth cannot understand why Anne prefers to visit Mrs. Smith rather than to accompany them on a visit to their cousin, the Dowager Viscountess Lady Dalrymple.  Anne has formed her own opinion of these Dalrymples, whom she deems “nothing in themselves” (150).  In place of people whom she considers nothing, Anne describes good company as “‘clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation’” (150).  Although her words have become stronger, she has not yet spoken the words she must to Captain Wentworth, the words that will let him know she still loves him. 

When Wentworth arrives in Bath, Anne dares to approach and speak with him in front of the disdainful eyes of her sister Elizabeth at a confectionary shop in Bath.  Soon after, before both her father and sister at the concert in the Octagon Room, Anne speaks and acts even more decisively toward Wentworth, but he fails to approach her again.  The seemingly agreeable Mr. Elliot blocks her way, and Captain Wentworth has become jealous of him.  Anne’s challenge becomes letting Wentworth know of her constancy.  She wonders, “How was the truth to reach him?  How . . . would he ever learn her real sentiments?” (191).  The opportunity arises suddenly when Anne speaks from the heart to Captain Harville. 

The beauty of the revised ending of Persuasion lies in both Anne’s and Wentworth’s finding words that deserve to be heard.  Anne must find words of weight to speak, and Wentworth must distinguish Anne’s words from every other sound in the room, and that is exactly what happens.  Anne’s words must have the weight to knock the male pen from Wentworth’s hands, and they do.  Anne converses with Captain Harville while, across the room, Wentworth composes a letter.  Anne and Harville banter about who loves longest, men or women.  He defends his sex; she defends hers.  She tells Harville (though she hopes Wentworth will hear) that it “‘would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved’” to forget the man she loves, but she also praises the hard work men do and excuses men if their feelings do not last as long as women’s (232).  She is so overcome by the thought that Wentworth might be listening that she can hardly speak, but despite her vulnerable emotions, she forces herself to tell Harville,  “‘You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers. . . . It would be too hard . . . if woman’s feelings were to be added to all this’” (233).  A slight noise across the room alerts Anne to the falling of Wentworth’s pen, and of all the falls in the novel, this falling pen surpasses all others in significance.  Anne’s spoken words have stopped Wentworth’s written ones. 

Wentworth, who would not adequately listen to the nineteen-year-old Anne, has learned to listen to the woman she has become, and Anne Elliot, with no book or list to acknowledge her deserts, has learned to have confidence in the power of her own words.  When Wentworth picks up his fallen pen again, he addresses his written words to Anne.  Across the room, Harville claims that books all tell of “‘woman’s fickleness’” (234), but in fairness adds, “‘perhaps you will say, these were all written by men’” (234).  Anne agrees that “‘[m]en have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. . . . [T]he pen has been in their hands’”; she “‘will not allow books to prove any thing’” (234).  Anne deserves Wentworth because she believes her own words are worth hearing, and Wentworth deserves Anne when she becomes to him not just any woman, but the particular woman he desires to hear:  “‘You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others’” (237).  Instead of being “totally unconvinced and unbending” (28), as in 1806, he can now admit to Anne, “‘I did not understand you.  I shut my eyes, and would not understand you, or do you justice’” (247).  Wentworth has become a man who can give and receive the grace to be heard.  By the end of Persuasion, Anne and Wentworth have found their proper worth, in themselves and in each other as well as in the community of the Royal Navy.  With their worth, Anne and Wentworth find their happiness—even if Wentworth so charmingly states that he has more happiness than he deserves. 

Austen began to write Persuasion on August 8, 1815, seven weeks after the second defeat of Napoleon, and she set her novel back one year before, after the first defeat and exile of Napoleon in 1814.  Therefore, Anne’s fear of a future war would have been present for Austen’s contemporaries.  Brian Southam argues that Austen partly wrote Persuasion as a “morale-boosting novel” to reestablish the reputation of the navy after the Army’s victory at Waterloo (265).  Southam draws readers’ attention to the fact that the first words Anne speaks in the novel praise the navy (5).  Anne finds her value and worth with her own naval captain.  A deeper meaning, however, lies in a prayer Austen composed for herself and for her family, in which she asks God for the grace “to deserve to be heard.”  “Give us grace almighty father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our hearts, as with our lips” (Minor Works 453). 

Anne’s marriage forces Sir Walter Elliot to acknowledge Wentworth as a somebody and to pick up his own pen to enter Anne’s name and the date of her marriage in his book.  Anne still ends the novel a nomad, the only Austen heroine not to have a named home at the conclusion of the novel.  She is, instead, “the mistress of a very pretty landaulette” (250), an expensive carriage.  Anne may end the novel on the move, but she will control the means of getting there, and she will deserve to get there in style.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.
  • Austen, Jane.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
  • Jones, Wendy.  Jane on the Brain.  New York: Pegasus, 2017.
  • Sales, Roger.  Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England.  London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Southam, Brian.  Jane Austen and the Navy.  Greenwich: National Maritime Museum, 2005.
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