Thursday, July 31, 2008

"She learned romance as she grew older..."

"They knew not each other's opinion, either its constancy or its change, on the one leading point of Anne's conduct, for the subject was never alluded to; but Anne, at seven-and-twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen. She did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good. She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home, and every anxiety attending his profession, all their probable fears, delays, and disappointments, she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it...

How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! How eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."

from Jane Austen's Persuasion (Chapter 4)

* * * * *

Anne Elliot is my favorite Austen heroine. I agree with Jacqueline Reid-Walsh when she writes that the tone of Persuasion is not autumnal but rather spring-like. Or, it could be said that it transitions from winter to spring as Anne moves from a period of sadness and regret to experience a second chance at happiness in love. At twenty-seven, Anne is the eldest of Austen's heroines and I find her the most easy to sympathize with and relate to. She is past her first bloom of youth (as the novel explicitly tells us - see Footnote 1) and her chances of marriage, and with it a home and family of her own, have all but vanished.

Eight years before the novel begins Anne was engaged to a young naval officer but she relinquished the attachment upon the advice of an older and, supposedly, wiser family friend - thus the context of the quote above and the recurring theme of 'persuasion.' Since I read Emma and Persuasion right after the other, I can't help but compare the charming, very youthful Emma to the wiser, steadier but no less passionate Anne. While Emma goes through a series of errors of judgment, often humorous ones, Anne's predicament is pitiable rather then amusing. Her acceptance of the advice of her elder friend results in a life-altering mistake that causes her great pain and sadness. While Emma is certainly pained while she believes Mr. Knightley to be in love with Harriet, her experience is very brief compared to Anne's period of remorse which lasts eight long years.

Interestingly, once Anne has experienced pain, has 'learned prudence,' she is finally able to pursue romance when presented with the opportunity: a second encounter with Captain Wentworth. Wiser and more experienced, Anne seems quietly determined not to let this second chance pass her by. As Jacqueline Reid-Walsh puts it, when Wentworth comes to Bath, Anne "instigates a delicate pursuit of Wentworth which bends the conduct book rules," 'stretching and even overturning the rules concerning proper ladylike behavior.' While remaining true to the feminine ideal of the time, she exercises assertiveness - going so far as to deftly announce her constancy in front of Wentworth. The interactions between Anne and Wentworth are beautiful and amusing to read and in the process of her 'delicate pursuit,' Anne enters into a "second spring of youth and beauty," regaining that blush which she had lost prematurely:

"Anne saw nothing, thought nothing of the brilliancy of the room. Her happiness was from within. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks glowed; but she knew nothing about it. She was thinking only of the last half-hour, and as they passed to their seats, her mind took a hasty range over it. His choice of subjects, his expressions, and still more his manner and look, had been such as she could see in only one light. His opinion of Louisa Musgrove's inferiority, an opinion which he had seemed solicitous to give, his wonder at Captain Benwick, his feelings as to a first, strong attachment; sentences begun which he could not finish, his half-averted eyes, and more than half-expressive glance, all, all declared that he had a heart returning to her at least; that anger, resentment, avoidance were no more; and that they were succeeded, not merely by friendship and regard, but by the tenderness of the past. Yes, some share of the tenderness of the past! She could not contemplate the change as implying less. He must love her." (Persuasion, Chapter 20)

Check out the full Jacqueline Reid-Walsh article: "She Learned Romance as She Grew Older”: From Conduct Book Propriety to Romance in Persuasion. It was only by reading some of the passages from the conduct books that Reid-Walsh references that I was reminded that while Anne may seem rather timid and restrained to me, she was actually acting quite boldly; particularly when doing something so seemingly tame by today's standards: initiating a conversation with a male acquaintance (Wentworth at the opera) instead of waiting for him to speak first.

IMAGE: Detail from "Portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan" by Thomas Gainsborough

1 "A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance; but, not with a few months ended Anne's share of suffering from it. 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." (Persuasion, Chapter 4)

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