Having now re-read all six of Austen’s full-length novels, each of the last three – which I take to be her masterpieces – take us by surprise given what had preceded them. After the sunny ebullience of Pride and Pejudice, Mansfield Park surprises us with its dark and sombre demeanour. After the tense drama of Mansfield Park, Emma surprises us by its smiling pleasantness, and its gentle and leisurely – one may almost say “loose-limbed” – tempo. And, after the seemingly – but only seemingly – carefree nature of Emma, comes Persuasion, a tale of passion.
This may seem a strange thing to say about a Jane Austen novel. After all, is Austen not cool and detached, aloof and ironic, forever viewing from beneath arched and amused eyebrows the frailties and follies of humanity? Well, yes, she is: the principal protagonist of this novel, Anne Elliot, comes from a hideously snobbish and self-regarding family, and Austen does not spare them. But – and this is a point I don’t think I grasped when I first read these novels – great works of art are not restricted to a single tonality. Anne herself does not share the blinkered view of the world of her father and older sister, and neither is she, as her younger sister is, a petulant airhead: she has about her a natural poise and dignity that are often considered to be innate features of aristocracy – qualities that the rest of her family, proud and self-conscious though they are of their aristocratic lineage, appear conspicuously to lack – but, beneath that exterior, she has the capacity to think clearly, to ratiocinate, and to feel. Like all Austen heroines – even, to a significant extent, Emma, who, for all her faults, has sufficient sensitivity to understand she had been wrong and sufficient humility to reform – Anne Elliot has self-awareness. She is capable not merely of conversing with herself, but also of interrogating herself, of being aware of her own weaknesses and shortcomings. Take, for instance, that marvellous passage where she tells the young Captain Benwick, heartbroken by the untimely passing of his betrothed, to read more than merely that which indulges his emotions:
…she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings that ought to taste it but sparingly. (I,xi)
Dr Johnson could not have put it better. Here, we have reason and good sense, a view of life which, while not rejecting the importance of human emotions, warns against excess, advises balance, advocates a sense that would keep sensibility under a decorous control. But later that night, Anne Elliot interrogates her own self:
…nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point on which her own conduct would ill bear examination. (I,xi)
Sense and sensibility, that had been packaged out to different characters in an earlier novel, co-exist here in a single character – and, despite outward appearance of calm and control, the sense cannot control the unruly sensibility in her mind. Anne Elliot understands how she should feel, but she knows equally well that she has not the power to act according to her understanding: passion here is not something that can be controlled by the will, any more than it can in the stresses and storms of the novels of the Brontës.
Anne is in her late twenties: this makes her considerably older than the heroines of Austen’s other novels, who are stepping out for the first time into the world of amorous and of sexual emotions. Anne, unlike the previous heroines, has a back-story: some eight years earlier, when she had been nineteen, she had fallen in love with a young naval officer, Wentworth, but, in view of his lack of a suitable family pedigree, and his seeming lack of career prospects, she had been persuaded to turn him down. Now, eight years later, Wentworth, now a naval captain and a worldly success, returns into her life; and she realises that the passion she had harboured remains still, unabated. The persistence of human passion is not a theme one would expect from a novelist often regarded as cool and detached; and, indeed, the tempests that rage are internal: Anne is far too self-collected and to poised to make an exhibition of herself. But the tempests are, nonetheless, real, and with an art so understated and so delicate virtually to defy analysis, Austen depicts a state of mind in which the slightest thing can carry with it an emotional, and, indeed, an erotic charge that is frequently startling. For, amongst other things, Persuasion is an erotic novel.
Perhaps I should at this stage clarify what I mean by this. I do not mean, of course, that the novel contains explicit descriptions of sexual acts. Of course, the mores of Austen’s time would not have allowed for this, but I don’t think Austen would have included such scenes even if she could. For the erotic and the pornographic are distinct from each other, and not merely by virtue of the fact that the former one may display openly on one’s shelves while the latter has to be hidden away: I mean, rather, that the pornographic is concerned only with the physical aspect of sexual attraction, while the erotic, while not denying this physical aspect, encompasses far more: the erotic is concerned with a desire for and an attraction to a person. And it is not to deny the importance of the physical to say that in human perception, there is far more to a person than the physical. It is not that the physical is eschewed, but neither is it the sole, or even the central feature of the erotic. And this is what Austen conveys in Persuasion: she depicts with an astonishing vividness and immediacy what it is like to be attracted to a person.
Even before Wentworth appears again into Anne’s life, Austen depicts in Anne a sense of eagerness, and also, at the same time, a sense of an overpowering uncertainty and perturbation – even dread. When they do meet, they keep a decorous distance from each other; but there are two scenes in which the erotic frisson – the “erotic” as characterised above – is electrifying. They are seemingly minor scenes: no onlooker to either scene would have detected anything approaching the erotic. But Austen understood the nature of the erotic better than most: it is, after all, a state of mind. The successful depiction of the erotic lies not in the physical detail, but in the minds of the characters.
In the first of these scenes, Anne is tending to a nephew who is ill, and, as she kneels next to the child’s bed, another child jumps on her, and prevents her from standing up. At this point, Wentworth takes the unruly child from Anne’s back. That is all. And yet, once Anne realised what Wentworth has done, a veritable storm rages in her mind:
Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room. She could not stay. (I,ix)
The second scene is similarly unremarkable – at least when viewed from the outside: Wentworth, observing Anne to be tired of walking, helps her into a carriage. And that is all. But once again, seen not from the outside but from the perspective of Anne’s fevered consciousness, the effect is electric:
Yes – he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. She was very much affected by the view of his disposition towards her, which all these things made apparent. This little circumstance seemed the completion of all that had gone before. She understood him. (I, x)
As in the previous scene, there is no physical detail at all: we are told “his will and his hands had done it”, but where those hands had touched her, and how, or, for that matter, what part his will had played, there is not the slightest inkling. Eroticism, as ever, is a state of mind, and few, one suspects, understood it as well as Austen did.
This vagueness in both scenes of what precisely was done physically reflects Anne’s own perception of the events. She cannot tell precisely where his hands had touched her, so confused is her mind, so electrified her consciousness. Neither in the earlier scene did she at first know just who it was who had relieved her from the troublesome child:
In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her … (I,ix)
“Some one,” says the narrative voice – injecting into the moment a tremendous immediacy by switching for the moment from the past tense to using the participle (“…was taking…” rather than “took”), and allowing us to discover who this “some one” is only when Anne herself does so. We do not need to be told precisely how Anne feels: the mode of the narrative itself communicates so powerfully erotic a charge that direct statement becomes superfluous.
We find this intense identification of the narrative voice with Anne’s own perceptions throughout the novel. Take, for instance, that wonderful scene where Anne once again is in the presence of Wentworth:
Her eye half met Captain Wentworth’s, a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice; he talked to Mary, said all that was right, said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to mark an easy footing; the room seemed full, full of persons and voices, but a few minutes ended it. (I,vii)
Anne’s eye only half-meets Wentworth’s, and for the rest, Anne sees nothing. She hears, but nothing she hears seems to register. And the narrative voice allows us to see no more than what Anne sees, to take in more than Anne does. Anne sees nothing of Wentworth because she has her eyes averted. The narrative does not explicitly tell us this, but it’s not hard to infer. And from this inference, we may make a further one, and discover for ourself why Anne keeps her eyes averted. The tumult in Anne’s mind needs no overt narration.
In no other novel by Austen has the focus been so intensely upon a single character. An outline of the plot would suggest that this is, as it were, an ensemble piece, but all the characters, Anne excepted, seem almost to be on the fringes. They may interest us in passing: Austen will from time to time drop some intriguing details about them; but they are never allowed into the spotlight. Take for instance the Musgrove’s elder son, now deceased; this is all we get about him:
The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, 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 … (I,vi)
It’s a cruel joke. There’s much warmth of feeling in this novel – how can it be otherwise given its themes? – but there are tonalities there also other than warmth, and Austen was certainly not averse on occasion to a bit of coldth. The passage quoted above continues:
… 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, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before. (I,vi)
There is much material here for the novelist to expand upon. This boy had been sent away because he was a nuisance to the family, but had died. Now, whatever that boy may or may not have deserved, whatever the extent to which his loss is grieved, the family that sent him to sea to be rid of him must, at some level, unless they were completely unfeeling (as the Musgroves aren’t), be embroiled in guilt. Austen could certainly have explored this had she wanted to – one can hardly imagine any novelist doing it better – but she dismisses it all with a heartless (though admittedly funny) joke. And this is because, I think, she doesn’t want any other theme or strand to compete with the theme she has placed at the centre – the reawakened passion of Anne Elliot. Where her previous novels had expanded to take in its cast of characters, this contracts, leaving only Anne at the centre, and all the others at the fringes. Even all the machinations in Bath – of William Elliot’s plots to ensure that Anne’s father does not remarry, his plans to wed Anne and secure his inheritance, and so on – are little more than sketched in, and seem barely to register. And the discovery of William Elliot’s true character seems almost perfunctory: Anne does not find this out for herself from her own experience, but is told it all by her friend Mrs Smith. (And one suspects that not all her evidence would hold up too well in court.) But Austen could afford to be cavalier with the plot, because the plot, such as it is, is not what is important here.
Persuasion was published posthumously, and the title of the novel is, I gather, the invention of Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, although we do not know whether Henry had discussed the matter with his sister before her death. It seems, though, a perfect title: the idea of persuasion, and its repercussions, both moral and emotional, runs throughout the novel in various guises. There are two major acts of persuasion (alongside many minor ones) in the novel: the first, occurring before the start of the novel, is that of Anne’s being persuaded to reject Wentworth; and the second, which forms the principal theme of the novel, is of Anne’s persuading herself that her passion is yet alive. (Wentworth, presumably, persuades himself likewise, but since the narrative focus is so firmly on Anne’s consciousness, we only get to know what Wentworth feels when he discloses himself to her at the end.) What is particularly interesting is that, despite the emotional turmoils Anne undergoes, she feels no bitterness about the past: the advice she had received, from Lady Russell, who was acting, in effect, as a sort of surrogate mother, was not only well intended, but, very possibly, good advice. How easy it would have been for Austen to have presented Lady Russell as yet another hideous snob, like Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. But Austen resists that: persuasion from a figure such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh could easily be dismissed as immoral and tainted, and if Austen does not present Lady Russell as another Lady Catherine de Bourgh, it is because she wanted the reader to take her persuasion seriously. Certainly, the reasons given for the persuasion are serious enough:
Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in the profession, would be, indeed, a throwing away, which she grieved to think of! Anne Elliot, so young; known to so few, to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence! It must not be… (I,iv)
As it happens, Anne’s youth is killed anyway:
Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth, and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect. (I,iv)
But this is not to say that Lady Russell had necessarily been wrong: there is more than one way that the enjoyment of youth may be clouded, and bloom and spirits lost, and while unrequited love may be debilitating, so may “wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence”. We can never know what really lies down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. And as if to re-iterate the possibility that what lay behind that unopened door may also have caused pain, Austen moves the narrative forward with two instances in which impetuosity leads to a fall, and subsequently, to suffering: first, when Anne’s nephew falls and hurts himself, requiring Anne to stay in Uppercross to help tend to him; and later, there’s Louisa Musgrove’s more serious fall down the steps of the Cobb in Lyme Regis that renders her unconscious, and puts, for a while, her very life at risk. Now, if Austen had used this motif only once, we could have passed it by as a mere plot mechanism, but when a novelist of her stature uses it twice, we need to take it more seriously. Impetuosity does indeed have its consequences, and they are considerable.
So aware is Anne of the possibility that, despite the emotional tempest raging inside her, Lady Russell may indeed have been right, that even towards the end of the novel, she is open to persuasion, once again by Lady Russell – sense desperately trying to overrule sensitivity – to marry William Elliot. And Anne may indeed have done so were it not for Mrs Smith’s revelations:
It is just possible that she might have been persuaded by Lady Russell (II,ix)
The moral problem with persuasion is that the persuader claims to see on behalf of the persuaded what lies behind that door we haven’t opened down the passage we haven’t taken. The right to make this claim is questionable, but so is silence in the fear of justified apprehension. Neither sense nor sensibility has here the monopoly of wisdom.
Despite the often elegiac tone of the novel – elegiac for the lost bloom of youth, for passions unfulfilled and thwarted – Austen’s view was, ultimately, optimistic. If, in Emma, the solution to not perceiving adequately is to learn to perceive adequately, so here, the solution to a bad decision in the past is to reverse that decision if the opportunity arises in the future. And here, the opportunity does indeed arise: the ending is conventionally happy. Indeed, in Anne’s declaration of the strength of feeling and of the intensity of emotion that woman can possess, it is ecstatic. All the tensions that had accumulated through the suppression of human erotic desire, this absurd but nonetheless beautiful and ennobling desire we humans have for each other, find here their release. But major key though the ending may be, the principal tonality of the rest of the novel is very much in the minor: it is a lament for human loneliness, for passion thwarted, for the lost bloom of youth. One wonders if, had Austen lived longer, her fiction might have taken a more decisive turn towards the tragic, and with a greater preponderance of minor keys. Perhaps. But one never knows: her comedy is every bit as expressive as tragedy can be; and she was, after all, constantly surprising us.