There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Balancing the Virtues in "Persuasion"

I have a theory that Austen made the heroines of her successive novels studies in contrast. Quiet Fanny follows sparkling Elizabeth, persuadable Anne follows confident Emma. According to Sarah Emsley, Anne is also a foil to Emma in truly possessing the "resources of mind and spirit... that Emma Woodhouse thinks she herself possesses" (Emsley, 145). Emsley also sees Persuasion as the most explicit of the six novels in balancing the virtues. She states, "Anne's argument at the end of the novel that she was right to take Lady Russel's advice, even if the advice was wrong, demonstrates that for Austen, ethics has to do with character rather than rules" (146).

Austen makes deliberate reference to the need for balance -- in this case between firmness and persuadability -- after Louisa's disastrous fall. This "recalls Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, in which virtuous qualities have proportions and limits. Though Wentworth himself does not realize it, he does think that to be sometimes persuadable is a good thing, as he has recommended that Louisa persuade Henrietta to be firm" (148).

Emsley also agrees with my theory that "It is Wentworth, not Anne, who must change in this novel" (149). Once again, critics who claim Austen does not deal with the minds of men are proven wrong, through Wentworth's succinct account of how he came to recognize his own pride.

In Persuasion, Anne must exercise her judgment in her treatment of her varied acquaintances -- from the prideful Lady Dalrymple, and the seemingly-charming Mr Eliot, to the humble Mrs Smith. Emsley demonstrates that in this novel right treatment of others requires consideration, not of "birth or fortune", but of "understanding and value" (153). Sir Walter and Elizabeth are notably without such judgment in their treatment of "only Anne" whose "elegance of mind and sweetness of character" should distinguish her.

Emsley presents Anne's pang of conscience while reading Mr Eliot's private letters as an example of the virtues in tension. In this situation "the code of honor that protects a man's private life and letters conflicts with the attempt of two women to establish the truth. In this case, truth must win in order for Anne to preserve her own character, and to separate herself and her family from the designs of Mr Eliot.. [T]he real virtue of truth triumphs over mere rules..." (154)

When Anne argues that women love longest "when hope is gone" she is uses no literary examples, and it is clear she is thinking of her own situation. However, her behavior throughout the novel demonstrates that she does possess hope, if not in a renewal of Wentworth's love (though this is a primary theme of the last section of the novel), then in something greater than herself. "[It] is through constancy and faith in Persuasion that [Austen] demonstrates the unity of the virtues... Constancy is the natural consequence of the uniting of the classical virtue of fortitude with the Christian virtue of hope" (156). While some critics have argued that Anne is depressed at the beginning of the novel, her consistent actions of kindness and care for others are examples of fortitude born of hope. This is hope as Paul conceives of it in Romans 5:4, "Experience [worketh] hope." Like love, it is not merely an emotion, but a way of viewing the world that motivates action toward others. In short, Anne possess Paul's trivium: faith, hope, and love. Emsley concludes that "Persuasion contains the closest thing to an explicit theory of the unity of classical and Christian virtues" (158).

These thoughts are drawn from Sarah Emsley's book Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues.


  1. There's an interesting thought here contained in the statement that Wentworth, not Anne, must change. I think that there's possibly an element of the Hollywood character formula in film adaptations of Anne - she must be shown to change, and so she goes from mousy to talking back to her father, though in reality, Anne goes through a change of confidence, rather than any change of value or real change of behavior.

    Wentworth going through change also makes me wonder about my least favorite chapter of Marylin Butler's Austen book - she made the very interesting but odd (at the time - this was almost a decade ago) argument that Wentworth is a revolutionary figure who must embrace a more communal value to deserve Anne.

    1. That's true about adaptations and I don't think it's entirely unjustified. There is a certain melancholy in the opening chapters. After all, few descriptions of P get beyond the introduction before bringing in the word 'autumnal'. ;) One of the beautiful things about the novel is the slow rebirth of romantic hope in the latter parts. But, yes, it might seem like quibbling, but portraying Anne talking back to her father misses her ethics -- her propriety (based on what people deserve), her fortitude under unkindness.

      I'd read arguments about P demonstrating democratization through the navy, but not about Wentworth having to learn that. Interesting.

  2. Ah, the "autumnal tone" or "elegiac voice." Yes, Persusion is extrordinarily beautiful in its evocation of melancholy (there's another one!)

    Austen's position on meritocracy is a vexed one, I think. She's pretty positive about the Navy in Persuasion, but it's also pretty harshly criticized in Mansfield Park, so I regard with a bit of suspicion interpretations that Austen was going full-on-democracy at the end of her career.