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Jane Austen’s Perfect Heroine:
The Use of Reserve in Persuasion
“Her character was now fixed on his mind as perfection itself.”
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Anne Elliot is often described as Jane Austen’s most mature and perfect heroine; and so she is. One is disposed to share Captain Wentworth’s sentiments when he pronounces Anne’s character to be “perfection itself, maintaining the loveliest medium of fortitude and gentleness” (226). Jane Austen’s use of reserve in her 1818 novel Persuasion is a device to set her heroine off against the people and society around her, and, most of all, to give Anne an air of perfection. By giving her a reserved character, Anne becomes the antipode of a society with decaying values. Austen speaks out against the attitude of the aristocracy, the inclination of a willful disposition, and a decreasing sense of decorum.
Sir Walter Elliot is the embodiment of the declining aristocracy in Regency England, which Anne escapes by marrying someone from the rising professional class. According to Paul Cantor “the aristocracy no longer bases its claim to rule on its intrinsic merit or superiority in virtue, [but n]ow the aristocracy’s pre-eminence rests solely on its birth, which in practice means on pure snobbery.” Sir Walter is the epitome of such snobbery; he ignores the responsibilities he has as landed gentry, and denies the old aristocratic values. However, the traditional aristocratic standards are sustained by the characters from the rising middle class, and they take over the role of the landed gentry in society and in the navy. During the Napoleonic wars the aristocracy deserted its responsibility as military leader and left it to the middle class to fight their battles. The result is a power shift which places political power and wealth in the hands of the middle class and leaves the aristocracy to perish. Anne Elliot is aware of all this and rather wishes to be associated with the professional class, than with the old aristocracy into which she was born.
“Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;-she was only Anne” (7). In the opening chapters of Austen’s novel we quickly learn that, despite her excellent character, Anne is nobody to her kin. She is put in the background, and she seems fairly comfortable being there. But even though Anne is nothing or nobody to her relatives, we learn also that her family consists merely of people of no “real understanding.” They are proud, snobbish and only interested in outward appearances. Anne is marginalized by her own family members and even she herself believes that “[t]o be claimed as a good, though in an improper style, is at least better than being rejected as no good at all” (32). Besides, her significance is here not only diminished by Anne and her family, but Austen reinforces this claim by not letting Anne speak for herself until the third chapter of the novel. Before that, we only get acquainted with her through the eyes and words of her family, Lady Russell and the narrator. Slowly but surely Anne moves to the center of the stage, as she quietly shares her observations and judgments about the people around her with the reader. In the introduction to Persuasion, Gillian Beer states that “Anne, like the reader, like her author, is an unobtrusive participant in [the Bath] scenes, her psychic drama almost entirely invisible to any other person. She can fit in and be useful anywhere, hence her obscurity” (xxi). In other words, Anne’s reserve provides her with the opportunity to criticize inconspicuously the behavior of her family, while her personality keeps growing even more admirable. As we gain more insight into Anne’s character, her aristocratic family members keep becoming more inferior to her. E.B. Moon accurately points out that the “evaluation of the heroine…becomes a test of character for others,” a test which her relatives fail miserably. Austen uses this contrast between Anne and the other Elliots to criticize the narcissistic and conceited attitude of the aristocracy, but most of all to emphasize Anne Elliot’s perfection.
By comparing Anne’s reserved and collected disposition to Louisa’s unrestrained personality, Austen, once more, portrays Anne’s superiority of character. When talking to his sister, Captain Wentworth describes the woman he would like to marry. With a persuadable Anne Elliot in the back of his mind, he declares his ideal woman should possess a “strong mind, with sweetness of manner” (58). Consequently, he praises Louisa for her “character of decision and firmness” and tells her that if she values Henrietta’s “conduct of happiness” she should “infuse as much of [her] own spirit into her, as [she] can” (81). In Wentworth’s opinion, firmness equals happiness: “It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character, that no influence over it can be depended on.-You are never sure of a good impression being durable. Every body may sway it; let those who would be happy be firm” (81). Yet, Louisa’s ‘firmness’ is merely willful behavior and eventually it turns out to be her weakness and downfall. After Louisa’s accident on the Cobb at Lyme, Anne wonders whether it ever occurred to [Captain Wentworth] now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel, that a persuadable temper [like hers] might sometimes be as much in favor of happiness, as a very resolute character. (108)
Indeed, this incident has taught Captain Wentworth “to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind” and only now does he understand “the perfect excellence of the mind with which Louisa’s could so ill bear a comparison” (227). Anne’s reserve has not made her a fickle character, but she is a level-headed young woman who knows and illustrates the value of reticence. Wentworth, finally, recognizes this quality of character in Anne, that “too good, too excellent creature,” and he realizes she is the woman he has been looking for all along (223).
Anne’s perfect sense of decorum restrains her from sharing her true feelings directly with Captain Wentworth. In her work, Austen puts great emphasis on the constraint of feeling and emotion. This may be, some critics claim, because Austen’s spinsterhood deprived her of the chance to experience such a situation herself, and she therefore avoids emotionally charged scenes in her novels. But, whether or not that is the reason, Austen did live in a society that, like her, was dedicated to decorum; a society that imposed reserve on its women. In her account of strategies of reticence in Jane Austen’s work, Janis P. Stout explains that Austen uses “reserve as a touchstone of positive valuation,” and she continues by pointing out “a striking turn towards values of openness and demonstrativeness, even spontaneity, on all sorts of social interaction” in Persuasion, but “[e]ven so, the two characters who are the hallmark of both merit and emotional honesty in a world of dissolving values speak, as they act, with a considerable, and a considered, reserve” (33-4). Once again, Anne’s disposition is made to look superior in contrast to that of the other characters in the novel (with the exception of Wentworth). During her silent ponderings, Anne reflects on her love for Captain Wentworth, but she knows she will never be able to express these feelings towards him. Then, her confident conversation with Captain Harville, which is overheard by Wentworth, provides her with an unexpected opportunity. Through her carefully chosen words, without violating the decorum, she manages to convey her emotions to Wentworth: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving the longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (221). It is in that same conversation that Anne is able to attribute her silence to the standards of decorum which resulted in “circumstances (perhaps those very cases which strike us the most)…such as cannot be brought forward without betraying a confidence, or in some respect saying what should not be said” (220). Wentworth hears and understands her statement and “can listen no longer in silence,” and so it is broken (222). Anne’s life in silence is over, as Captain Wentworth declares he “can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others” (222-3). Not only does he distinguish the tones of that voice, but also the undertones. Stout convincingly argues that “[i]t was Austen who managed to transform the discreet feminine silence prescribed by a system of social decorum into not only a thing of art but also a persuasive rhetoric,” and Anne Elliot is the perfect example of this art (ix).
Anne Elliot is Austen’s sublime model of female excellence. Her reticence sets her apart from the vain and narcissistic aristocracy; it gives her a steady and sensible character; and it shows her dedication to social values. Reserve is a recurring theme in all of Austen’s novels. It is an expression of decorum, values and good sense, and it is never a sign of weakness. One look at the Austen canon reveals that “[i]n Austen’s world, the big talker is almost always a fool or a villain, or both,” and silence is mostly portrayed as a virtue (Stout 27). Like Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Elinor Dashwood are also provided with a reserved character as a contrast to other characters, but neither of them has reached the same level as perfection as Anne has. In a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, Austen herself declares about Anne; “she is almost too good for me,” and one has to agree with Mr. Elliot who observes Anne Elliot to be “a most extraordinary young woman; in her temper, manners, mind, a model of female excellence” (149).
Austen, Jane. “Letters to Fanny Knight 1814-1816.” The Republic of Pemberley. “Letters of Jane Austen-Brabourne Edition: Letters to Her Niece Fanny Knight 1814-1816.” 14 Apr. 2006 <http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/brablt15.html#letter83>.
–. Persuasion. Ed. Gillian Beer. London: Penguin, 2003.
Beer, Gillian. “Introduction”. Persuasion. By Jane Austen. London: Penguin, 2003. xi-xxxiv.
Cantor, Paul A. “A Class Act: Persuasion and the Lingering Death of the Aristocracy.” Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999). 14 Apr. 2006 <http://muse.jhu.edu.server.proxy-ub.rug.nl/ journals/philosophy_and_literature/v023/23.1cantor.html>.
Moon, E.B. “‘A Model of Female Excellence’: Anne Elliot, Persuasion, and the Vindication of a Richardsonian Ideal of the Female Character.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association: A Journal of Literary 67 (1987): 25-42.
Stout, Janis P. Strategies of Reticence: Strategies and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.
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