Early on in Persuasion, Jane Austen provides her readers with a description of Anne Elliot’s thoughts that provocatively links the novel’s engagement with temporality to its heroine’s mind-set and disposition.
How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been,—how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! (30)
Austen’s emphasis here on the stifled nature of Anne’s “eloquence” reinforces what readers have already been told: “her word had no weight” (5). Reflecting on her past, Anne believes her future irrevocably altered; her eloquence is stymied, just as are her romantic prospects. The “cheerful confidence in futurity” that she yearns to defend stands in contrast to her regrets about the past and the stasis of her present. Nearly every Austen heroine comes equipped with a cheerful disposition—it seems almost a requisite component of every heroine’s character—but to have “cheerful confidence” about one’s future is something else again. It is precisely the uncertainty about the heroine’s prospects, a future in which most often she must marry for economic security but in which marriage options are limited, that Austen’s plots trade on. Her heroines typically feel anything but a “cheerful confidence” that a bright and secure future beckons.
Jane Austen’s novels unfold squarely in the present. Austen most often reserves overt consideration of the future for her novel’s conclusions. There readers learn of, say, the vague but satisfying “perfect happiness” that Emma and Mr. Knightley have to look forward to (484), or the gratitude that Elizabeth and Darcy will continue to feel towards the Gardiners for bringing them together (388). The reference to “futurity” early on in Persuasion stands out, not least because the word itself is unusual in the Austen canon, although the idea of “futurity” evokes a cluster of kindred concepts more familiar to her readers—e.g., prospect, optimism, and hope, among others. The narrator’s invocation of “futurity” in this description of Anne’s thoughts links it to confidence (Wentworth’s) and suggests that, when coupled with exertion, it is virtually certain to produce a favorable outcome. Notably, these traits stand in opposition to “caution,” an ideal that one might assume Austen to embrace. Whereas in a work like Sense and Sensibility readers most often align Austen with Elinor’s more circumspect nature (remember Elinor’s wise understanding that for her mother and Marianne “to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect” ), Persuasion offers up to readers early on a compelling case for confidence and an embrace of “futurity,” an optimistic belief that things will work out.
Yet if Persuasion seems to embrace Romantic themes of enthusiasm and hope, it—like the novels that preceded it—devotes the lion’s share of its attention early on to Anne’s diminished prospects for a future, particularly if we equate her future to marriage. Eight years before the action of the novel commences, Anne was persuaded to say “no” to Wentworth’s offer of marriage. At twenty-seven she finds herself having lost her “bloom,” the botanical metaphor underscoring the blighting of her romantic prospects, and, with those prospects, her future (6).1 In nearly all of Austen’s novels, in fact, an idea of the future—if not bleak, at least uncertain—infiltrates the present through a focus on the heroine’s marriage prospects. With the exception of Emma Woodhouse—the only heroine who has sufficient financial resources to maintain independence—Austen heroines understand that to have a future one must marry. Although born to a family of aristocratic standing and privilege, Anne Elliot’s situation in this respect is murky at best, as her father is depicted as “growing distressed for money” and averse to “the claims of creditors” (9, 12). Summarizing the climate of economic instability that Austen grew up in, Edward Copeland notes that marriage, her “narrative mainstay,” was “a legitimate and common means of gaining access to all-important capital” (317). Marriage is the presumed solution available to solve the problem of the heroine’s economic dependency in most Austen novels; it is the best guarantee of a bright future.
In this essay we explore the subtle ways that Austen develops the idea of the future as haunting the present via her attention to marriage prospects, the word itself linking romantic options to the future.2 The emphasis is clear in Sense and Sensibility when Elinor muses about “how blank was her own prospect” and “how gladly she would engage in the solicitude of Marianne’s situation to have the same animating object in view, the same possibility of hope” (159). Although drawing on several Austen novels, we ultimately focus on Persuasion because its representation of issues surrounding marriage and “future thinking” is integral, despite the novel’s preoccupation with the past.3
Moreover, Persuasion is an encapsulation of key ideas about economics and the heroine’s prospects for a stable and promising future that run throughout Austen’s oeuvre. E. J. Clery’s recent biography of Austen foregrounds the “dynamic new England” within which she grew up and wrote; it was not only a nation “galvanised by a long period of war” and “centred on a metropolis which was in the process of becoming the world’s financial capital” but was subject to “rapid cycles of boom and bust, hyperactive investment and enterprise and waves of bankruptcy” (7–8). The economic climate looms large in Persuasion and helps to contextualize its reworking of standard plot lines. As Lisa Hopkins summarizes in “Jane Austen and Money,” in Persuasion “the traditional financial positions of hero and heroine are effectively reversed: it is Anne’s family who possesses land and the accompanying status, and Wentworth who presents actual cash liquidity” (78).4 Explaining the thinking that led Anne at nineteen to follow Lady Russell’s advice and reject Wentworth’s offer of marriage, Austen writes simply that “Captain Wentworth had no fortune” (P 27). In Lady Russell’s imagination, we learn, Anne would have been “snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune” had she recklessly engaged herself to a man “who had nothing but himself to recommend him” (27, 26). His fortune (or lack thereof) was her future. Although without inherited wealth, Wentworth cannot be condemned for fortune-hunting in his early courtship with Anne; his confidence that he “should soon be rich” protects him from the charge to which so many of Austen’s characters have been vulnerable (27).
Describing money in Austen as a “language,” Ian Sampson writes that it “talks: it not only enables all the necessary connections and communications between characters, greasing the wheels of every curricle and barouche-landau, it enables all the ends eventually to meet; the books after all, are about fortunes finding wives, and vice versa.”5 Austen’s earliest fiction established well that marriage and money would be a dominant interest, the well-known bit of Austen novelistic advice to concentrate one’s attention on “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” (9–18 September 1814) notwithstanding. In Lady Susan the financially vulnerable and unscrupulous titular character seeks nothing but to marry her daughter to wealth and to find a new husband for herself. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne loses her imagined future with Willoughby once he realizes that he must marry a woman with wealth and deserts her. Elinor can marry Edward only after he is freed from responsibility to greedy Lucy Steele. The issue is yet more front and center in Pride and Prejudice, introduced in the famous first line and accentuated in the episodes involving Charlotte Lucas’s sober if questionable decision to accept an offer of marriage from the tiresome Mr. Collins. As the narrator explains, “Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want” (122–23).
If a language of money is imbricated throughout the novels and inflects Austen’s treatment of marriage, what happens when one thinks not of “fortune” but of “future” hunting? Attention to Austen’s nimble use of economically inflected language (conveyed through her frequent recourse to words such as value, credit, esteem, prospect, and worth, among many others) helps answer the question, as she encourages readers at the basic level of vocabulary choice to apprehend the fundamental intertwining of fortunes and futures.6 Additionally, Austen develops in subtle ways the relationship of the finances-and-futures theme to ideals of character appreciation and assessment. Depending on how it was used, the word fortune connoted to Austen’s readers both actual wealth and the idea of the future, much like prospect, a word connoting the likelihood of something happening in the future as well as an opportunity for economic success.
Austen consistently makes use of multivalent economic language in her fiction to depict her heroines as they grapple with marriage prospects and ponder their futures. In many an Austen plot what start as financial considerations for the heroine become instead matters of “worth,” a semantic category that better enabled her to emphasize the value of character, rather than wealth, as the best guarantee of a secure and prosperous future. For example, as Sense and Sensibility comes to an end, Mrs. Dashwood, recounting Colonel Brandon’s assistance during Marianne’s illness, declares that “‘his coming for me as he did, with such active, such ready friendship, is enough to prove him one of the worthiest of men,’” while Willoughby’s conduct makes him a “‘worthless young man’” (337). The clear contrast laid out in just a few lines of the chapter showcases not only that both men have been re-evaluated but that their morals become the defining factor of their “worth.” Emma offers another example of this trademark Austen emphasis; at the novel’s end Emma has nothing to wish for “but to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgment had been ever so superior to her own. Nothing, but that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in future” (475). Focusing as she so repeatedly does on calculations of character that lead to reconsiderations of worth is, we argue, one of the most robust ways that Austen reworked the restrictive marriage plot.
Persuasion offers an especially intriguing treatment of this theme. Mark Schorer long ago observed that Persuasion’s stylistic base derives “from commerce and property, the counting house and the inherited estate” (540), and Austen develops that stylistic base in ways that enable her to showcase Wentworth and Anne simultaneously engaged in processes of character assessment and revaluation to determine each other’s (as well as their own) worth. In its opening chapters, Persuasion paints a bleak picture of women reliant on marriage to secure their futures through its depiction of Anne’s oldest sister, Elizabeth. Explaining Elizabeth’s dissatisfaction with her status as a woman unmarried at twenty-nine, Austen writes: “Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighborhood afforded” (7). As Claudia Johnson observes of Elizabeth and the Baronetage, “Every reading mercilessly reiterates an ever-receding birthdate and an unchanging status as spinster” (159), a life without the promise of a future. The economic language that Austen infuses in the passage here is striking; the reference to a “ball of credit” and what a “scanty” neighborhood “afforded” to Elizabeth during her marriageable years combine (with myriad other economically inflected terminology) to accentuate the extent to which financial considerations were embedded in the social world as well as the emotional costs of the marriage market. The anxiety is linked directly to Elizabeth’s fears for her future. “[S]he felt her approach to the years of danger, and would have rejoiced to be certain of being properly solicited by baronet-blood within the next twelvemonth or two,” the narrator reports (7).
Anne’s future is initially assayed through the perspective of her father, who believes his two younger daughters “of very inferior value” (5, emphasis ours). After her bloom vanishes, we are told, there was nothing “to excite his esteem” (even that standard Austen keyword, esteem, is linked etymologically to economic ideas of estimation and value), and he had despaired of “ever reading her name in any other page of his favourite work”—i.e., the Baronetage, which would record her marriage, if she married (6). Lady Russell too, valuing “rank and consequence” expects that Anne will marry one who knows “the value of an Anne Elliot,” the phrase hinting at the mercenary implications of her appreciation of Anne, and for years has nursed an “anxiety which borders on hopelessness” that Anne will marry (11, 125, 29). Anne is, as Mary Favret has written, “the would-be spinster” (377). Whereas her bleak future is established through such rhetoric of hopelessness at the novel’s beginning, Wentworth—seen through Anne’s perspective—is indubitably linked to the future: “All his sanguine expectations, all his confidence had been justified. His genius and ardour had seemed to foresee and to command his prosperous path” (29). The “handsome fortune” that he has won through naval distinction is the basis for that prosperity (30); it secures his future and it is rendered as a just reward for the character traits that initially attracted her to him.
Austen places much emphasis in Persuasion on establishing that Wentworth represents a new kind of wealth. When her father is discussing possible tenants for Kellynch Hall, the home they must vacate to relieve the financial pressures of debt, he is instructed that “[m]any a noble fortune has been made during the war” (17). Charles Musgrove, contemplating Captain Wentworth as a marriage prospect for one of his sisters, thinks, “‘Here was a fortune at once; besides which, there would be the chance of what might be done in any future war; and he was sure Captain Wentworth was as likely as a man to distinguish himself as any officer in the navy. Oh! it would be a capital match for either of his sisters’” (75). As Edward Copeland summarizes, “In her final novel, Persuasion, Austen abandons the landed estate altogether to replace it with a vision of prosperity in the professions” (325). Admiral and Mrs. Croft, the sensible, much admired couple who occupy Kellynch Hall and befriend Anne, represent part of that “vision of prosperity,” but it is Wentworth, the self-made man, who most fully embodies it. Crucially, Wentworth does not stand alone as emblem of a new economic and social order. As Deidre Shauna Lynch has written, “Anne in fact is less intent on preserving the traditions of an ‘ancient family’ like her own than she is curious about the globetrotting that Mrs. Croft has done under the Navy’s auspices, about the elasticity of mind that enables Mrs. Smith, though crippled and confined to two small rooms, to find ‘employment which carried her out of herself,’ about Mrs. Rooke’s working life as a ‘nurse by profession’” (xxvii).
Persuasion is heralded as Austen’s most emotional work, the novel that places the highest premium on feeling, and much of this emotion is conveyed through careful calibration of Anne’s response to Wentworth’s return, a return that prompts her to revisit her past, ponder how his feelings toward her have altered, and in doing so to consider their separate prospects in light of their changed situations. Early in the novel we learn that “Anne, at seven and twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen” (29), and subsequent responses once she actually encounters Wentworth are seen through this lens of regret. Initially she imagines him indifferent, and when told that he has described her as “‘so altered he should not have known [her] again’” (60) she acknowledges it as true, believing him “the same Frederick Wentworth” and her “destroyed” of her youth and bloom (61). Overhearing him talk to Louisa Musgrove about decisiveness and strength in the much vaunted hazelnut speech, Anne “saw how her own character was considered by Captain Wentworth” (89). Upon meeting Captain Benwick early in the visit to Lyme, she thinks to herself, “‘I cannot believe his prospects so blighted for ever. He is younger than I am; younger in feeling, if not in fact’” (97).7 It is only the most overt statement of what is everywhere implied in the novel’s early episodes: Anne thinks of herself as having no romantic prospects, no future.
Indeed, before Anne is able to imagine a future for herself, she ponders those of Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove, and her thoughts enable Austen to tie the financial and emotional possibilities of marriage together. When Anne learns that both women are getting married soon, she tells Charles that she is happy, as “‘the pleasant prospects of one should not be dimming those of the other—that they should be so equal in their prosperity and comfort’” (217–18). Rephrasing her opinion, with “prosperity and comfort” taking the place of “pleasant prospects,” Austen implicitly equates the two, placing economic security squarely in the middle of the possible happiness that marriage offers. Moreover, her use of the word “comfort” in connection with economic security conflates emotional and financial well-being.8 Austen’s combination of the economically laden word “prospects,” with its connotations of forward-thinking, and “prosperity” enables her to underscore the vital role of money in contemplation of their marital futures.
Anne’s understanding of her own future changes dramatically during the aftermath of Louisa’s fall. For much of the novel prior to the Lyme episode, readers assess Wentworth’s understanding of and feelings about Anne indirectly, through her surmises. It is left to the narrator, not Anne, to summarize Wentworth’s initial character assessment of Anne; we learn that he believes her rejection of him had “shewn a feebleness of character” and “the effect of over-persuasion,” attributes opposite to his own “decided, confident temper” (61). The critical role that Anne plays in the chaotic aftermath of Louisa’s fall forces Wentworth to reckon with the reasons that he instinctively turns to Anne for guidance. Although at one point Anne thinks that in Captain Wentworth’s eyes “she was valued only as she could be useful to Louisa” (emphasis ours), the novel’s second volume charts her increasing awareness that he has re-evaluated her and come to a more proper understanding and appreciation of her character (116).
Given Austen’s emphasis on character assessment as the cornerstone of evaluating a marriage prospect, it’s fitting that much of Wentworth’s conversation with Anne, upon coming to Bath, concerns change, his beliefs about a possible future dependent on an apprehension of what the past has wrought. When he says that “‘[y]ou did not use to like cards; but time makes many changes,’” she cries in response, “‘I am not yet so much changed’” (225), as if to emphasize that what he formerly appreciated about her is still worth valuing. Describing Anne’s intense happiness after her conversation with Wentworth in the Octagon Room, Austen writes:
all, all declared that he had a heart returning to her at least; that anger, resentment, avoidance, were no more; and that they were succeeded, not merely by friendship and regard, but by the tenderness of the past; yes, some share of the tenderness of the past. She could not contemplate the change as implying less.—He must love her. (185)
Anne’s thoughts emphasize the value of his feelings toward her, that value subtly affirmed by her use of the term “share” with its subtle economic undertone. At the same time Austen emphasizes the rational judgment at work in Captain Wentworth’s reflections on Anne. To validate his conclusion that “[h]er character was now fixed on his mind as perfection itself” (241), Austen summarizes for her reader the focal points of his thought process after the tumult prompted by Louisa’s fall subsided. In Lyme, we are told,
he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind. There, he had seen every thing to exalt in his estimation the woman he had lost, and there begun to deplore the pride, the folly, the madness of resentment, which had kept him from trying to regain her when thrown in his way. (242)
The word “estimation” looms large in this passage, anchoring for Austen the idea that both Anne and Wentworth must take the measure of each other’s characters anew and revalue their relationship.
Austen’s final descriptions of Captain Wentworth are suffused with the economic language so vital to the novelist’s understanding of marriage and futurity. He tells Anne, “‘I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses, . . . I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve’” (247, emphasis ours). His own estimation of his change in fortune is, however ironically, matched by communal perception. Wentworth “was now esteemed quite worthy to address the daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet, who had not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him” (248). The economic language Austen takes care to avail herself of affirms again, as the novel closes, the foundational connection between finances and futures. Worth, while linked in some minds solely with rank and financial status, is, in the case of Captain Wentworth and Anne, instead an indicator of the value of each other’s character, the guarantee of their secure and prosperous future. Indeed, the last paragraph of the novel reminds us that “Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth’s affection” (252).
The language of fortunes, futures, and character assessment that percolates through Persuasion helps us appreciate anew the nuanced understanding of marriage in an era of aristocratic decline that Austen embraced near the end of her life. Although rewarding Anne and Wentworth with each other at the novel’s conclusion, she emphasizes their union in terms that deliberately draw from the novel’s fund of economic rhetoric but that simultaneously highlight Anne’s emotions:
Anne . . . had no other alloy to the happiness of her prospects than what arose from the consciousness of having no relations to bestow on him which a man of sense could value. There she felt her own inferiority keenly. The disproportion in their fortune was nothing; it did not give her a moment’s regret; but to have no family to receive and estimate him 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, was a source of as lively pain as her mind could well be sensible of. (251)
Anne’s future, secured through marriage to Wentworth, is nevertheless colored by a thwarted desire to believe that she has returned to him the gift of a respectable and harmonious extended family, a community that can properly appreciate his value and understand what makes him an exceptionally worthy match for her.
When Austen begins the final chapter of Persuasion with a rhetorical question—“Who can be in doubt of what followed?”—she might initially seem to follow the same playful script of other novelistic endings that point to the future (248). One thinks of Northanger Abbey, with its teasing references to the role that parental tyranny plays in the marriage plot, and Mansfield Park, with its coy invitation to the reader to choose his or her own timeline for when Fanny and Edmund married. Yet her reference to the inevitability of Anne’s marriage to Wentworth is complicated in the chapter’s closing paragraph, which sees Anne’s “sunshine” dimmed by “the dread of a future war,” the glory of being a “sailor’s wife” undercut by “the tax of quick alarm” (252).9 War was, of course, Wentworth’s path to prosperity; the cessation of war the trigger for a return that facilitated renewed feeling and, as vitally, reconsiderations of character. Yet Persuasion, so often read as nostalgic, ends as it begins, with an emphasis on “futurity.” The war that Anne imagines brings with it dread only because the future looks so much brighter in the present of her life.10 With her invocation of the “tax of quick alarm” that Anne pays as she (and we) look ahead to her future with Captain Wentworth, Austen memorably re-engages the economic rhetoric that animates the novel, recalibrating as it does the fortunes and futures equation so vital to all of Austen’s writing as one of character and worth.
1Mark Schorer links this moment in Persuasion to Austen’s economic language, writing “When Anne’s blighted romance is called ‘this little history of sorrowful interest,’ we hardly forget that a lack of money was the blight” (542).
2According to the OED, prospect derives from the Latin prospectus, meaning “consideration of the future, foresight, anxiety.” In Austen’s era the term prospect had also come to denote outlook, forethought, and expectation. It was also an important term in the study of landscape and art, connoting an idea of expanse and view. Barbara Britton Wenner links Austen’s use of landscape to her emphasis on the range of reflection of her female protagonists.
4Stuart Tave provides an interesting interpretation of the ways Persuasion inverts Austen’s more usual formulas, writing of Wentworth: “It is he who has what is conventionally the central role of a comedy or romance: the young man who, because he acts foolishly or weakly or is blind to the truth, finds himself attracted to and involved with the wrong young lady; when he arrives at the realization of how wrong he has been, and he understands himself and understands the real value of the right young lady, he transfers his affections and secures his happy ending” (280).
5Shannon Chamberlain offers another perspective on Jane Austen and finances, arguing that Austen “was a fortune hunter, after a fashion,” and showing the centrality of Adam Smith’s thought to “Austen’s young adulthood.”
6Schorer identifies the wide range of economic terms running through the novel but rendered “so perfectly within the order of English idiom” as to be natural and unobtrusive (544). In addition to the words we focus on in this essay, he discusses rates, tax, rewards, resources, interests, accounts, and many other terms with economic valence.
7It’s noteworthy that readers are told very little about Captain Benwick’s actual financial status; Anne’s consideration of his “prospects” here implies that he not only has sufficient resources to make an offer of marriage but also the funds of feeling that would enable him to fall in love.