Modest and accomplished

The Cobb, Lyme Regis 1892

Jane Austen: Persuasion
Introduction and notes by Elaine Jordan 2000
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1993)

William Walter Elliot of his cousin Anne, after she modestly claimed minimal understanding of Italian: “one who is too modest for the world in general to be aware of half her accomplishments, and too highly accomplished for modesty to be natural in any other woman.” — Persuasion: Volume II Chapter 8

Persuasion was the last completed novel by Austen, published posthumously in December 1817 in tandem with Northanger Abbey, one of her earliest completed novels. It’s likely that neither of these novels appeared with the titles Austen gave them (Northanger Abbey was provisionally called Catherine, and in an earlier draft Susan) but I wonder how the public would have viewed Persuasion if it had in fact been published as The Elliots, a handle which Austen family tradition asserted was her original choice of working title.

You might assume then that this is a story of a family from the landed gentry when in fact our focus is almost entirely on just one member of that family, Anne Elliot. Unusually for Austen novels there is a substantial backstory, which is that eight years before Anne was ‘persuaded’ to refuse young Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage on the grounds that he had few prospects ahead of him. She has since bitterly regretted her decision but, in common with many of women of her supposedly advanced age (she is 27 when this story opens), it’s more than just due the fear that she will never get another offer: it’s that she continues to have feelings for Frederick. On top of that, her father’s poor management of the Somerset estate has necessitated the letting out of the property so that the family can live in more straitened circumstances in Bath.

We are introduced to the Elliot family via Sir Walter Elliot’s snobbish obsession with status: he is an avid peruser of his entry in Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage:

Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth,
daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of
Gloucester, by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth,
born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son,
November 5, 1789; Mary, born November 20, 1791.

(As a side issue, I’m certain that Sir Walter’s wife died, not in 1800 as the text has it, but in 1801, if the story is to work as commencing in the summer of 1814 when peace in Europe had been declared after Napoleon’s first defeat and exile to Elba in April. The error, as I think it is, has to the best of my knowledge, never been queried or corrected.)

Of his daughters, the still unmarried Elizabeth is just as vain as he is, as is the married Mary (now Mrs Musgrove, with a young family), while the middle daughter Anne has, after her early disappointment, resigned herself to spinsterhood. Anne goes to stay with her married sister at the neighbouring Uppercross Cottage while her father, Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s scheming widow friend Mrs Penelope Clay settle into apartments in the still fashionable Regency city of Bath. It is while Anne is at her sister’s that she discovers that the wife of the new tenant of Kellynch Hall is related to her Captain Wentworth, now returned after a successful and lucrative stint in the Navy and residing temporarily at her ancestral home. We’ve had the first two stages of the standard romcom narrative — girl meets boy, then girl loses boy — alluded to the opening chapters; it now takes the rest of this relatively short novel to establish whether the crucial final stage (girl and boy get back together again) pans out as it is expected to.

The problem with expectations is that we can fail to engage with characters. Fairytale elements (the modest, disregarded daughter with her two vain sisters; the handsome, rich but ‘unattainable’ suitor; the foolish parents in the form of Sir Walter and, initially, Anne’s confidante Lady Russell) and a romance plotline can conspire against our truly wanting favoured protagonists to succeed because they are worthy and likeable. Does Persuasion move us as it ought?

I think, apart from a hasty (though revised) and slightly pat conclusion, that it does. It’s very possible, given that Anne fits the less proactive ideal of womanhood prevalent in the early 19th century, that the reader feels sympathy, maybe for some readers even empathy, for Anne’s very sterling qualities. This is how Austen characterises Anne’s feelings when faced with the less than open nature of her charming but conniving cousin Mr Elliot (in Volume II chaper 5):

She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still.

Mr Elliot is decidedly not open. Earlier (in the previous chapter) Anne –whom everyone is assuming will marry her cousin — declares:

“My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation, that is what I call good company.”

Who can fail to agree with Anne’s love of the open-hearted, of clever, well-informed people? Who can disagree with the caddish cousin’s fair assessment of her as both modest and accomplished, especially when compared to some of more pushy individuals whom we are introduced to, who overestimate their abilities?

Persuasion is also very much a novel which is more rooted in the England of a particular time and of particular places than her previous novels. True, Northanger Abbey was also partly set in Bath, but here we get a more microscopic sense of the spa, especially the social contrasts between fashionable and less-regarded areas of the town. We get references to Box Hill in Surrey (Emma), Portsmouth (Mansfield Park) and to London (Pride and Prejudice for example) but I can’t think of another Austen novel where we are treated to the author voicing personal approval in the manner in which she warmly describes the real seaside resort of Lyme Regis, when visited by Anne’s party out of season (in early 1815).

Lyme is a crucial setting for a major inciting incident, the accident that befalls her sister-in-law Louisa Musgrove; it is here that Anne comes into contact with both of the men whose names are, or will be, linked to hers, Frederick Wentworth and William Elliot. And it is here that she believes she has witnessed confirmation that it will remain all over between her and the captain, her captain. In some ways Wentworth is a typical Austen hero, strong but silent until the end when he is moved to declare his love, but we are meant to prize his trustworthiness, his achievements and his constancy, even in the event of a belated recognition of the worth of the heroine.

Persuasion has a few subplots which the new reader will no doubt enjoy for themselves, strands which involve minor characters who interact with Anne and which invariably show her in a good light. This edition includes the cancelled chapter that originally took the place of chapters 10 and 11 of Volume II. It is really interesting to see how Austen, even as she neared the end of this novel, was still playing around with motivations and resolutions, and how — while an improvement — there is still a sense of a rushed tying up of loose ends, as if she was desperate to complete the narrative in the middle of 1816, just a year before her premature death.

16 thoughts on “Modest and accomplished

  1. You’ve inspired me to read this again in the lull between Christmas and the New Year. As I recall it, Sir Walter is a monster and one whom Jane Austen seems really to dislike. It’s not just toying with him. As I recall it, there’s a note of real bitterness, maybe to do with the fact that women’s lives could be ruined by this kind of male egotism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right, Gert, Sir Walter is a monster, self-obsessed, insensitive and unobservant more than deliberately cruel, but a monster nevertheless in that he seems to have little natural feeling for his middle daughter.

      He must have typified — indeed, still typifies — the male who saw or sees women as secondclass citizens, incapable of functioning fully as human beings when in fact it is he who is feckless, ignorant and a waster who believes he has a God-given right to be superior.

      It’s significant that he seems unable to redeem himself in any way by the end of the novel — luckily Anne has her captain as his complete antithesis — and is yet another example from Austen’s novels of fathers who exercise unnatural control over womenfolk, regarding them as chattels to be disposed of or ignored according to their whims or failures. Austen as social commenter? I believe so.


      1. I was interested to read in the intro to my version that Jane had been in a similar position to Lady Russell – i.e influencing an acceptance – in that her niece Fanny was inclined to accept a proposal where, like Anne, she would have had to wait some years to be able to marry, and one of her reasons for thinking of accepting was that she knew Jane thought very well of the young man. Jane was very uncomfortable at being an influence, and also concerned about her niece at a young age committing herself to someone under those conditions.

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        1. Yes, I’d read that too, Gert, and of course Jane may have her own experiences in mind too, having when younger broken off one engagement the day after, and reportedly fallen in love with another who then (I think) was lost at sea. Regrets over what-ifs are particularly poignant as one gets older.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. I intend to reread Austen but not just yet as I’ve still the juvenilia to finish, but yes, I seem to remember being irritated by a great many individuals in NA!


  2. Thanks for this review. Persuasion is my favourite by Austen and I usually have an annual re-read, but haven’t managed it this year. I think I’ve mentioned to you that one of the things I love it for is its message of hope. I think I shall spend the last week of 2017 reading it.

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    1. You did mention it before, Daphne, and yes, there is that feeling that it’s never too late to find (or re-find) true love. If I’m correct, Anne is the oldest (at 27!) of Austen’s female protagonists (the sisters in S&S, Lizzie B, Fanny, Emma and Catherine are the others, and also the daughter in Lady Susan whose name I’ve forgotten) to find their soul-mate.

      Anyway, I do hope you enjoy your reread, for the reasons you mention — Persuasion is certainly a novel I’ll reread,though mainly because I admire Anne’s sterling talents and qualities — sensitivity allied with common sense, constancy and compassion.


  3. Oh, what have I found today under my WordPress Christmas tree? Chris’s long awaited review of Persuasion. At last. I did enjoy it, very accurate, but I feel the book was somehow below your expectations, am I right? 🎄🙋

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry I kept you waiting for this, Stefy, too much else going on! Maybe my appreciation was spoiled by reading Jane’s initial attempt to resolve the plot (rather different from her final solution) but it did feel a little … gauche? self-conscious? I don’t know.

      But I did find Anne’s and Frederick’s reunion touching. Who knows, I may feel more charitable on a reread, especially with regard to subtleties and characterisations I may have missed this first time round.


  4. I enjoyed reading your post. This is my favourite Austen novel and Anne is my favourite of her heroines, maybe because she’s that little bit older and more mature than the others. I would like to read this book again, but I have a reread of Pride and Prejudice planned first as it’s been a very long time since I read that one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see the appeal of Anne as a character for us, ahem, older readers, Helen, compared to the younger Austen heroines like Lizzie, Fanny or Emma. As for me, I’m returning to Jane’s juvenilia, having only completed Volume the First!


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  7. I come to this post after reading e-Tinkerbell’s reaction. Yes, Anne is the eldest of Austen’s heroines, and yes, Persuasion is full of regret and melancholy. But it’s also, I think, one of the most complex portrayals of loneliness. Austen’s other heroines have sisters or other family members who appreciate them, but Anne has only Lady Russell.

    To me, the most powerful moment is when Anne is talking with Captain Harville and says that she claims for women only the “privilege … of loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.” It’s her honest assessment of her own situation, overheard by Captain Wentworth, that gives him hope and leads to his second proposal.

    And now I have to reread this novel. Thank you (yes, really)!


    1. Yes, you’re right about the loneliness, though perhaps I saw that as part of the melancholy that affects Anne. And I recall that Fanny Price was also very isolated, though she does get joined by her younger sister at the end of Mansfield Park.

      And yes, it’s all that quiet, unobstrusive observation of Anne’s speech and behaviour by Wentworth that convinces him the time is ripe to make his move. And, like you, it’s an inducement to revisit Austen – – though not just yet!

      Liked by 1 person

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