Jane Austen

by O.W. Firkins

Chapter VI: Persuasion

Persuasion is a story without a plot. In 1811, the date of its commencement, a plot or the semblance of a plot, was imperative, and a large part of the author's ingenuity is devoted to the concealment of the omission from the eye of the analytic reader. The problem is very similar to that of Colonel and Mrs. Crawley, who undertook to live fashionably on exactly nothing a year. The original economy of mental effort in the fable has forced Miss Austen into such an expenditure of ingenuity on makeshifts and evasions that it might have been cheaper in the long run to pay her way.

Some years before the story opens Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth had confessed a mutual passion, but Anne, in deference to the will of a father and submission to the counsels of a friend, had broken off the engagement. Eight years later, at the opening of the narrative, the lovers are brought together once more. The renewal of the engagement is the obvious consequence. Miss Austen is bound to prevent, or rather postpone, the arrival of a consummation so portentous to a novelist, but her embarrassments are very great. The pecuniary obstacle to the union has disappeared, and no resource is left but the evocation of drama out of changes of heart and the demand for psychic readjustments. But here again the situation is as complacent to the lovers as it is obdurate to Miss Austen. The man and woman still care passionately for each other, though the man for a short period wilfully feigns the contrary to himself. What is left for Miss Austen to do? She temporizes, and of these temporizings the book is made.

A rival is provided for Anne and another for Captain Wentworth, but as neither of these rivals mabes the smallest impression on the incorrigible loyalty of the primary actors, the gain in drama is hardly worth the cost in trouble. Captain Wentworth is drawn into some random attentions to Louisa Musgrove. Louisa suffers a fall for which his nicety of conscience makes him answerable. He is ready to offer the restorative of marriage; but Miss Austen, who is equally anxious to insure and to postpone his reunion with Anne, becomes vastly disquieted, and snatches Louisa from Captain Wentworth by the crude expedient of a precipitate and causeless attachment between Louisa and another man. We have retraced our steps and stand once more at the point of departure.

Miss Austen's perplexity is great, but a doctor's resource for a troublesome case and a novelist's expedient for an invalid story are one and the same. They must go to Bath. At Bath people move about and bustle in the effort to hide their want of occupation. A story in the same predicament may gratefully accept a like relief. Nearly everybody goes to Bath. Anne meets a suitor, a cousin also named Elliot, a man of agreeable manners and of that designing character which agreeable manners so often overlie in the novels of Miss Austen. The jealousy of Captain Wentworth is excited. An old acquaintance of Anne, whose perfunctory rô1e in the story is adumbrated in the name of Smith, unmasks the baseness of Mr. Elliot's character. As Anne's reluctance to accept any suitor but Captain Wentworth is invincible, the utility of this disclosure remains obscure. Even the exertions of a novelist can no longer keep the lovers apart, but the contrivance by which understanding is brought about is so clumsy and artificial that perhaps it ought not to surprise us to hear that it has been warmly admired. Anne, in a rather intimate conversation with a rather distant acquaintance, expresses her deepest convictions on the subject of the duration of attachments in woman. Captain Wentworth, in the same room, at a distance so artfully planned that he can hear perfectly without being suspected of overhearing, becomes aware of Anne's unchanging fidelity. He writes a letter on the spot containing such apostrophes as "You good, you excellent creature," and such asseverations as "You pierce my soul." Anne, fortunately in a mood which makes criticism of style impossible, responds in the affirmative, and happiness, abrupt from the very length of its delay, descends upon the reunited lovers.

One episode of dramatic interest is handled with an unconcern which makes the mystery of its insertion doubly dark. A species of adventuress, Mrs. Clay, has obtained a footing in the household of Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliot, and seeks to entrap the widowed baronet into a marriage. The jealous heir to the title and estate baffles this design by diverting ber affections to himself. The woman, in spite of the projecting tooth and freckles, is artistically bardly more than a profile, her story is a mere edge, and it is hard to see why Miss Austen should have cared to make anything of a point of which she cared to make so little.

Miss Austen's work in Persuasion may be described as teasing the reader, finding excuse after excuse for withholding from him a satisfaction which she is almost as eager to grant as he to obtain. It is quite true that character and psychology find a way through the broad intervals in this loosely matted fabric, but it is also true that they make a Passage even more successfully through the compact and serried woof of a novel like Pride and Prejudice.

The book is meant to show that in the disposition of their hearts young people are often wiser than their confident and urgent seniors. The proposition is sound enough, is even stale to our contumacious generation, but in Miss Austen's time it no doubt savored of revolution, and the novelist's timidity the advocacy of courage makes her load her doctrine with disabling qualifications. She recommends independence to young people in very much the fashion in which Mr. Woodhouse recommended the questionable dishes on his table to the consumption of Mrs. Goddard and Miss Bates. "Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart--a very little bit. . . . I do not advise the custard. Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half-glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you."

We noted in Pride and Prejudice a list of sixteen characters who might almost be termed principals with a secondary list of eight whom a little persuasion or good-nature might allure into the same catagory. Mansfield Park, a family tale, retrenches this abundance, and even Emma, which is almost the chronicle of a village, is not populous after the style of Pride and Prejudice. But in Persuasion, the absence of plot which restricts the capacity of the main characters to furnish diversion, obliges Miss Austen like a spectacular dramatist, to pack the stage as an offset to the scantness of the entertainment. There are eighteen characters of appreciable value: Sir Waiter Elliot, Elizabeth Elliot, Anne Elliot, William Elliot, Charles Musgrove, Maly Musgrove, Henrietta Musgrove, Louisa Musgrove, Charles Hayter, Captain Wentworth, Captain Benwick, Captain Harville, Admiral Croft, Mrs. Croft, Mrs. Clay, Mrs. Smith, Lady Russell, Mr. Shepherd. Few of these people do much; even Anne and Captain Wentworth are by no means burdened with occupation; but not one of them, however few and brief his appearances, is a mere blank or cavity when he does appear. While this is true and interesting, it must not blind us to the fact that the sum total of effective characterization in this novel is decidedly smaller than in any other work of its creator. There is a shyness in the book which seems to place a barrier between us and the persons of the drama. The novel declines to face us; it lacks the immediacy of Pride and Prejudice.

Anne Elliot is the charm, as she is the nucleus and centre, of Persuasion. She is just the sort of placid and gentle person whose virtues are a security to every one except the novelist. In Scott's hands she would have been a Lucy Bertram, as indistinct as "water is in water," or at best a Lucy Ashton owing chiefly to lunacy her ability to excite us. Miss Austen remarks of Anne with instructive frankness: "She is almost too good for me." Anne is twenty-seven, and is supposed to have lost her bloom, but on this delicate point there is a vacillation that shakes our faith in Miss Austen's vigilance. The loss of beauty has gone so far that Frederick Wentworth, after a separation of eight years, finds her "altered beyond knowledge," or at best "wretchedly altered." At Lyme, not long after this, her appearance has mended to the point of making a deep and lasting impression on the mind of a virtual strrtnger--a cousin who sees her for the first time without knowing of the cousinship. Miss Austen feels that these are dubious procedures, and falters out something about the west wind and its reparative power upon faded beauty. It is clear that we have all underrated the west wind.

I am fond of Anne, but I suspect that she is rather sympathetic than interesting. She is really in love, and the love in her is perhaps more positive than Anne herself. There is also a core of vigor in the portrayal, an infiltration from the robustness of Miss Austen's temperament, which blends with sensibility and melancholy and fragility without either 1osing itself or nullifying them. For my own pleasure, I could wish that Anne was less subject to agitatation. I feel the same mixture of pity and irritation before the quivers and tremors that I should feel for a woman whose veils and draperies were blown hither and thither in the turbulence of a high wind. The embarrassment may be real, but the costume seems to invite it. Anne has the wisdom with which one must almost always reckon in Miss Austen's heroines without the antiseptic humor which attends it in the best of them.

Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliot, is an insolvent baronet, obsessed with his rank, and an elderly widower, infatuated with his own beauty. Among Miss Austen's extreme comic types he is the only one who approximates the bore. I think one desires tbat vanity should be nimble; Sir Walter is heavy and pompous. In one point he is a sore trial to one's faith. That a man past fifty should pique himself on his beauty is credible enough. That his demand for beauty in women should be peremptory is excusable. But that he should insist that another man--even a man past fifty--is recreant to his social obligations unless he flaunts a handsome face, is outside of nature, as nature is conceived by a Western American like myself. His company even in print is repugnant, and Miss Austen, solicitous of good measure, has added a sheer badness of heart which was hardly required for the exploitation of his Follies.

In Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, the folly is hardly comic, and it is combined with an asperity which makes the narrative thorny without furthering the plot. The third daughter, Mary, married to Charles Musgrove, is an effective specimen of the imaginary invalid type. The point in which Mary contrasts happily with her tribe is that while she complains she does not whimper. She is crisp where the ordinary self-cherisher is sodden, and there is a briskness in her protestations of infirmity which relieves the alarm of the most credulous listener. Her changes of front are rather acrobatic, but they stop short of that almost professional gusto which stamp the agilities of Isabella Thorpe. If half of Mary lies outside of nature, the other half is sufficingly natural, and the lie and the truth divide the pungency pretty evenly between them.

Charles Musgrove as a portrait is far finer, though much less piquant, than his wife. The fineness lies in the art that has kept an ordinary character from melting into the mass with which its affiliations are so plentiful. Charles is a country gentleman with a fondness for hunting. In mind he is at once rather vacuos and pretty sensible, and in his diaposition a healthy selfishness finds itself on the best of terms with an ample good-nature. Nothing in him is overcharged, not even the commonplace. Daudet remarked of a certain X: "He excels in mediocrity." Not even this form of extravagance can be charged against Miss Austen's delineation of Charles Musgrove.

The parents of Charles are little more than a background for their children, and Charles's two sisters, Henrietta and Louisa, offer little to win the attention or anchor the memory. Henrietta, indeed, is less than a sketch, but one of the shrewdest points among the secondary realisms of the book is associated with her name. Her momentary and hesitating estrangement from Charles Hayter, followed, not instantly but quickly, by an eager return to the old suitor, is wholly in the key of life. With Louisa a little more is attempted. If Miss Austen does not actually begin to draw Louisa, at least we can see her biting the end of her pencil. Louisa affects backbone, and Nemesis retorts with a fall in which the spine nearly comes to grief. Captain Wentworth has a preference for women of strong character, and the strength of Louisa's character had been growing by leaps and bounds ever since she discovered this preference in the captain. One cannot help speculating on the possible consequences of his expression of a predilection for fragile and tremulous women. In the section of the country in which I live one often sees over a vacant lot the announcement: "Owner will build to suit tenant." One cannot but feel that Louisa Musgrove's character building was regulated on the same principle.

There are four sailors in Persuasion, of whom the most prominent and perhaps the most interesting is Anne's lover, Captain Wentworth. We do not see much of the captain. He is not reserved perhaps, but he is very far from talkative. He has special reasons for effacing himself in Anne's presence, and as Anne is our conductress through fhe story, and we see and hear only through Anne's eyes and ears, our impressions are both incomplete and second-hand. We hear much of his handsome person and determined character, and still more of his agreeable and distinguished manners. Miss Austen in this novel appears to have humored in her sisters or herself that markedly feminine point. of view which regards man as a furtherance to soirées. Captain Wentworth is manly enough, but what impresses everybody in the story, including the authoress, is his being so immaculately eligible. From Congreve's Ben in Love for Love to Smollett's Commodore Trunnion and Dickens's Captain Cuttle, the conversation of sailors has been a sort of brine; indeed the sea lingo has often risen, or sunk, into a mannerism. It is rather curious that the only novelist, I suppose, in English literature who had two brothers in the admiralty should paint sailors so emphatically in their unprofessional capacity, their capacity as gentlemen. The four sailors in Persuasion mention the sea; they even discuss ships: but the profession to which they are wedded appears in appears in their conversation in much the same incidental and intermittent way in which their human consorts would appear. Their speech doesn't "foam tar," if I may appropriate and pervert a phrase of Spenser's.

Captain Harville, who enters the story under the disadvantage of being called "a perfect gentleman," never recovers from this initial bruise. I do not know whether his gentility is supposed to be reenforced by his uttering one speech with a "deep sigh," and another with a "quivering lip." He certainly qualifies himself to take part in the stilted dialogue which reveals the state of Anne's heart to the palpitating Captain Wentworth in what is almost a modernized version of a mediaeval débat.

Captain Benwick is another plaintive sailor. The recent loss of his betrothed has doubled his sensibility to the Bride of Abydos and to the charms of other women. I will not say that Captain Benwick is the male counterpart to the woman in Maupassant's story who, visiting her lover's grave in the earliest stages of bereavement, accepted the consolations of another lover on the spot. It is certain, bowever, that in less than a year after the death of Fanny Captain Benwick engaged himself to Louisa, having previously encouraged his friends to believe that he was about to engage himself to Anne. The character is uninteresting, though the psychology is probable. The mood of sentimental contemplation which fidelity induces is favorable to infidelity.

The only sailor in whom any salt is perceptible is the excellent and excellently pictured Admiral Croft. He is a natural and lovable person, full of quiet bustle and tender whimsicality, with the half-coaxing imperiousness in which an inherently modest man finds a covert for his modesty. His interest in affairs of the heart and his total inability to follow their complications endear him to the more discerning sex. He is one of the few humorous characters in Miss Austen who owe nothing to exaggeration. His wife is exactly what a wife should be--a person whose relation to him is symbolized in her place, side by side with him in the great world and opposite--not adverse--to him in domesticity.

Mr. Elliot is the man of shrewd brain and of unexceptionable manners who dispenses with the impedimenta of a heart and conscience. The exemplar of this type is perhaps the Edmund of King Lear, and it finds more recent analogues in the Rastignacs of the Comédie Humaine and the Lord Illingworths and Dorian Grays of Oscar Wilde. Miss Austen is chary in the portraiture of an only half-congenial type, and her Mr. Elliot differs from his class chiefly in the fact that he lives rather more in the salubrities of his attractive surface and rather less in the sordidness of his base interior than the beguiling hypocrite of average fiction. This seems to have the indorsement of nature. If a man's house has a pleasant veranda and a fetid living-room, common sense and human impulse would seem to indicate that he spend the better part of his time on the veranda. Mr. Elliot's relation to Mrs. Clay is something like that of Fabrice to Clorinde in Augier's L'Aventurière--the relation, in a word, of the jealous kinsman to the designing intruder. This intrigue, which is not at all in Miss Austen's way,' is reduced in her gingerly treatment to a faint outline, and a bold and brilliant sequel, which is still less in her way, is smuggled, so to speak, into eight lines of the concluding chapter. This sequel is the victimization by Mrs. Clay of the very man whose diplomacy has thwarted her designs for the victimization of his cousin. Of Mrs. Clay little is visible but her freckles and her projecting tooth; the most exacting reader craves no more.

Mrs. Smith is that virtuous woman in reduced circumstances to whom so many novels have offered an asylum. Her innocence hardly extenuates her dulness. Lady Russell is one of those exemplary persons whose judgment lends a deadly effectiveness to its own blunders.

In Persuasion there are but four characters of real value: Anne Elliot, Mary Musgrove, Charles Musgrove, Admiral Croft. As a group these are far inferior to interest to a similar quartet taken from a novel so reduced in scale and so moderately peopled as Northanger Abbey--to be specific, with such a quartet as Catherine Morland, Henry Tilney, John Thorpe, Isabella Thorpe. When this showing in character is combined with the conspicuous feebleness in plot, the secondary place of Persuasion in Miss Austen's work is unmistakable.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.