By Camilla Magnotti Komatz
with illustrations from Persuasion by C.E. Brock
Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last finished novel, is probably the one in which the narrative voice and the protagonist’s voice are most interwoven. Jane Austen’s opinions and visions of the changing times are much similar to those of Anne Elliot. The activity of the story encompasses the period of peace between the signing of the Treaty of Paris in June 1814 and Napoleon’s escape from the island of Elba and subsequent return to Paris in February and March of 1815. It was a period when society went through significant changes and, as Jane writes, “many a noble fortune [had] been made during the war.” Captains and admirals had made their fortune and so achieved a high place in society. Jane Austen’s experiences are also closely related to those experienced by Anne. Like Anne, she too spent some time in Lyme, and in many of the places Anne visits and passes through she follows Austen’s footsteps. Two of Austen’s brothers, Francis and Charles, joined the navy and were a great source of information to her. Austen’s and Anne’s opinions on the navy are the same, and, indeed, the two women have been much compared.
Regarding Austen, Ann Barret states that “Anne…was herself; her enthusiasm for the navy, and her perfect unselfishness reflect her completely” (Morrison). However, Austen described Anne as “almost too good for me”, suggesting a distance between her feelings and actions and those of the protagonist. In that sense, by projecting some of her thoughts through Anne, Austen is making Anne the voice of her own opinions.
Anne is older and has experienced much, like Austen herself. And both Anne and Austen have a deep respect and regard for the navy. By reading of the navy, of which Wentworth is a part, Anne is able to feel closer to him, while Austen can do the same for her brothers. One can sense something of Austen’s own feelings when Anne states: “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. Sailor’s work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow.” In fact, whenever Anne talks and thinks of the navy, we can hear Austen’s voice.
Austen always paints a pretty picture when talking of the naval officers and their family. The Harvilles are an agreeable, friendly couple and, when quitting Lyme, Anne is sorry to leave them and Captain Benwick behind. The Crofts are one of the happiest couples depicted in any Austen novel. Captain Wentworth, the hero of the novel, is a man of initiative who made his money in the war, instead of inheriting it, like her previous heroes. Francis Austen later stated that some aspects of Captain Harville’s character “were drawn from myself – at least some of his domestic habits, tastes and occupations bear a strong resemblance to mine” (Morrison).
Other examples of Austen lending her voice to Anne in the novel include when Anne first sees Captain Wentworth in Bath. Austen uses free-indirect speech to express Anne’s emotion: “Her start was perceptible only to herself; but she instantly felt that she was the greatest simpleton in the world, the most unaccountable and absurd!… She now felt a great inclination to got to the outer door; she wanted to see if it rained. Why was she to suspect herself of another motive? Captain Wentworth must be out of sight. She left her seat, she would go, one half of her should not be always suspecting the other of being worse than it was. She would see if it rained.”
And later, when Anne thinks of Mr. Elliot, one can see the same effect again: “Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished – but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil of good of others. This, to Anne, was decided imperfection… She prized the frank, the openhearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.”
In the second passage, one can see how Anne, even before learning more about his real character, has already rejected Mr. Elliot, and Anne’s thoughts are aligned with those of the author. Anne speaks her own mind, but it is also Austen’s mind. She sees imperfection in the lack of openness of Mr. Elliot’s manners and prefers an open-hearted, eager character, like Wentworth’s. One may see that this is also the kind of character Austen herself prefers: “Austen… admits a preference for those who can be careless or hasty, whose tongue may slip” (Jordan). In Emma, Mr. Knightley also claims to prefer a more open temper; in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is attracted by Elizabeth’s frankness and open character, and in Mansfield Park, the Crawfords enchant the Bertram family by their outspoken behavior.
Notwithstanding, Jane Austen is also not afraid of entering other characters’ thoughts, even the ones with personality far different from her own. When she does that, she distances herself from the main character’s point of view, to depict the internal concerns of another character. In this extract, Austen enters Sir Walter Elliot’s mind, using again, free-indirect speech: “It had not been possible for him to spend less; he had done nothing but what Sir Walter Elliot was imperiously called on to do; but blameless as he was, he was not only growing dreadfully in debt, but was hearing of it so often that it became vain to attempt concealing it longer, even partially, from his daughter.”
In another remarkable episode of the novel, the visit of Captain Wentworth to the Musgrove family brings Mrs. Musgrove memories of her dead son Dick, who once had been on Wentworth frigate at sea. Austen states that “the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family…, and scarcely at all regretted when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross…Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.” This is quite a harsh comment of the narrator’s. Julia Prewitt Brown states that “the sentiment of the passage comes both from a narrator (in some ways the old Jane Austen narrator appearing suddenly) and from the central consciousness of Anne… The narrator is saying that some lives really are worthless” (Morrison). Nevertheless, this seems almost too severe to be an inner though of the tender Anne we are used to in the book; it is a sarcastic voice, and almost one of dark humour, of the kind heard when Sir Walter Elliot express his disgust at the effects of living at sea: “it is a pity that they [naval officers] are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin’s age.” It may be that those lines expresses Austen’s own mind: less afraid than Anne would be of seeming harsh.
In another moment Austen “lambasts Mrs. Musgrove’s “large fat sighings” over the dead of her son Dick, not because her feelings are entirely absurd but because too much of her grief is performative” (Morrison, 2011, p.11), of which Anne is shown to be aware; when Mrs. Musgrove exclaims “Ah! Miss Anne, if it had pleased Heaven to spare my poor son, I dare say he would have been just another by this time” (Persuasion, p.48), Anne has to suppress a smile. And in another passage on the same topic, Austen writes that “a large bulky figure has as good a right
to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain, – which taste cannot tolerate, – which ridicule will seize” (Persuasion, p.51). In this passage, the voice seems to be certainly Austen’s. In regard to this passage, Adela Pinch comments that “Austen applies the language of neo-classical aesthetic judgement…to Mrs. Musgrove’s expressive body, as if she were a bad poem or book” (Morrison, 2011, p.108).
Over all, in Persuasion, Jane Austen “renders Anne’s consciousness… in a prose style that is much more lyrical and impressionistic than anything in the earlier novels” (Morrison, 2011, p.8) and that makes this novel the work where the “romanticism” emerges. This romanticism can also be seen, although to a lesser degree, in Mansfield Park, in Fanny’s “love for stars in the night sky and relics of the past” (Jordan, 2000, p.vii) (another aspect in common between the novels, as well as the praise for a carrier in the sea, depicted by William in Mansfield Park). In her introduction to Persuasion, Elaine Jordan affirms that “earlier Austen novels tend to emphasise more the values of the Enlightenment, the reason and judgement of dominant élites. In Persuasion there are many images which can be called romantic, of natural phenomena and of change over time… The tension within Anne being reasonable is however, the most romantic aspect of Austen’s representation of her” (Jordan, 2000, p.vii).
And it is this aspect of Anne’s personality that Austen sees herself distanced from; where their voices are not to be the same. In the second volume of the novel, Austen introduces to us another character, Mrs. Smith, an old schoolfellow of Anne’s and a good friend when she was suffering the loss of her mother. Mrs. Smith is much impoverished and suffers from rheumatic fever and, as their friendship is regained, she is the one who reveals Mr. Elliot’s real character to Anne. In some ways, Mrs. Smith serves to counterbalance Anne’s sentimentalism and romanticism, with her “good sense” (Persuasion, p.118).
When talking of Mrs. Smith’s nurse, Nurse Rooke as they call her, her only companion and a source of the gossips of Bath, Anne’s “tendency to romanticize” (Morrison, 2011, p.207) is shown: “What instances must pass before them [the nurses] of ardent, disinterested, selfdenying attachment, of heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation – of all the conflicts and all the sacrifices that ennoble us most”. Mrs. Smith’s response doubts the truths of this romantic view of the world: “Yes… sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial, but generally speaking it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber” (Persuasion, p.120). Austen may be using Mrs. Smith’s voice to check Anne’s; and the situations in the book show Mrs. Smith’s view to be the most accurate one, leading the narrator herself to agree with this view. This “weakness and not… strength” of character in situations of distress is exemplified by Louisa Musgroves’s accident at the Cobb and the reaction of the party, when only Anne could retain her self-control.
Austen indeed uses Anne as a means to express her points of view on particular subjects, such as their similar opinions on the navy. However, the narrator does not only hide herself behind the protagonist’s voice, entering now and then another character’s mind and expressing views detached from the characters response to situations. According to Robert Morrison, the narrator “has the freedom to voice what decorum and the interests of family harmony prevent Anne from saying, especially as regards Sir Walter’s vacuity, Elizabeth’s conceit, Mary’s carping, and Lady Russel’s ‘prejudices on the side of ancestry ’” (Morrison, 2011, p.11) . In that way, their voices can be separated and Austen is able to tell her story, despite hurting her own character’s feelings.
Camilla Magnotti Komatz: My love and enthusiasm for Jane Austen’s work and times have encouraged me to study her novels by reading various works on them and through a course dedicated for them, the Jane Austen Online course ministered by the University of Oxford, UK. I was born and live in Brazil and possibilities to study Austen’s works are limited in my country. This course has helped me see more deeply into her novels and to have access to a wide range of critical work, biographies and other materials focusing on Austen and her novels, and this piece of writing is the revised final assignment for this course.
- Austen, Jane, Emma, 2000, Wordsworth classics, by Wordsworth editions limited
- Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park, 2000, Wordsworth classics, by Wordsworth editions limited
- Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice, 1999, Wordsworth classics, by Wordsworth editions limited
- Austen, Jane, Persuasion, 2000, Wordsworth classics, by Wordsworth editions limited
- Jordan, Elaine, Introduction to Austen J., Persuasion, 2000
- Wordsworth classics, by Wordsworth editions limited
- Lynch, Deidre S., Introduction to Austen, J., Persuasion, 2004, Oxford World’s Classics edition
- Morrison, Robert, Introduction and notes in Austen, J., Persuasion, 2011, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press