The Flower That Blooms in Adversity: On the Value of Gentleness and Loving-kindness in Jane Austen’s Persuasion
At first glance, the quiet and reserved protagonist of Jane Austen’s Persuasion seems to fade into the background of her own story. Even the narrator, “taking her cue from the dysfunctional family”, begins Persuasion by shining the spotlight on the “self-centered Elliots”, rather than on her main character (Judge 42). However, as her protagonist prefers to linger behind the curtains in places where the Lizzie Bennets and Emma Woodhouses of the world would command the stage, Austen’s trajectory from such an introduction must then be to “bring Anne out of the shadows” in her own way (Judge 42). Anne Elliot’s personality, circumstances, and abilities do not make direct confrontations or dramatic climaxes natural or believable in the course of her character arc. The range of women Austen explores in her books results in different processes of development. Anne might seem to pale in comparison when compared to Austen’s more openly expressive protagonists, but upon closer inspection, her ‘passivity’ falls away to reveal resilience and determination of the same calibre. She is neither a wallflower nor a damsel in distress for her caring heart and introspective nature. Rather, it is that same gentleness and kindness—that resilience in times of trouble, and that determination to bring comfort and encouragement where she can—that makes Anne Elliot a force of nature in her own right.
Austen describes Anne as a woman with “an elegance of mind and sweetness of character”, who is “nobody with either father or sister; her word [has] no weight, her convenience [is] always to give way” (Austen 4). Worth in the Elliot household is determined by good looks, as well as marital and social status, and as Anne reaches none of these standards, she was, is, and will remain “only Anne” (Austen 4). Myers notes that “[Austen’s] religion and such favorite writers as Richardson and Dr. Johnson would have reinforced [her belief] that morality was not the exclusive province of men… that the ideals of virtuous, rational behavior were [above] sex” (Myers 225). In the eight years following her refusal of Captain Wentworth’s lifelong love and devotion, Anne has become a virtuous and rational woman, and is blessed with a gentle heart and a firm moral compass, unmarried and lacking in “bloom”, as she may be (Austen 4). When her story begins, however, she is almost completely isolated. “[Anne is] not only separated from [the man she loves]… [she is] at odds with the societies in which [she lives and acts]” (Shaw 290). Her father has “no affection” for her, and no one in her family “[has] any inclination to listen to her”—she is the one who listens, and who is expected to listen (Austen 290, 156). Anne, who has tried to “reconcile [herself] to the inevitability and finality of the separation” between herself and Wentworth, seems to have resigned herself to a life of being taken ill-used and ignored (Shaw 284). However, though her range of options have narrowed, Anne is constantly aware that she does have some degree of control in her life: she has the freedom to choose how she speaks and behaves.
In her article Passive Empowerment, Selene Khader separates choice into two categories: control choice, and option choice (Khader 144). She defines control choice as “when a person desires something and makes that thing, or something else that expresses that desire, happen” (Khader 144). Option choice, on the other hand, is a feature of a “choice situation”, and provides multiple “alternatives” from which the person in question may choose (Khader 144). Khader references Kabeer’s pathway to empowerment, which outlines choice in three steps: resources, agency, and achievements (Khader 145). One’s resources influence the amount of options one has to choose from, which in turn influences what one will accomplish. Anne does not have a large range of resources to draw from. She has no “guidance or support from her family”, no one to confide in, little prospect of moving to a different location, and no chance (or so it seems) of seeing her love again (Judge 41). Her options are deeply affected by “policy makers, the behavior of others, and diffuse social structures”—circumstances over which she has little or no control (Khader 147). Though her options are further limited because of these external forces, what she can control is the way she directs herself. As she only has access to option choice, she must evaluate her scope of control over the situation she is in, and “within the scope of [her] individual action”, she chooses again and again, despite being ill-used and ignored by those who take advantage of her good nature, to be gentle and kind with the people around her (Khader 159).
Anne’s gifts lie mainly in “looking and interpreting”, “[perceiving] emotional connections”, and in “[listening] kindly” (Warhol 6, Judge 46, Austen 74). While Sir Walter looks “to objectify… to evaluate the body’s surface”, she looks and listens to develop her understanding of people and of social situations (Warhol 10). She observes on one occasion that Captain Benwick is “shy” and “oppressed by the presence of so many strangers”, and so stays with him, talks to him, and after learning of his troubles, she strives to be “of real use to him in suggestions as to the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction” (Austen 115). She purposefully strives for “a little further perseverance in patience and forced cheerfulness” in difficult situations (Austen 44). Rather than evading the Musgroves when they flock to her with their complaints, she listens patiently, wonders “how [she was] to set all these matters to rights”, and does the best she can to encourage reconciliation (Austen 52). In one case, she leaned too heavily on the people she listened to. Lady Russell—whom “she had always loved and relied on”, whose first object “[is] to see Anne happy”, and who “was in the place of a parent”—initially urged her to refuse Captain Wentworth (Austen 30, 292, 30). While Anne does not regret following her advice eight years later, “much as [she] suffered from it”, she believes she was “perfectly right in being guided by [her] friend” at her age (Austen 287). Even after those eight years of suffocating circumstances, Anne believes that Lady Russell gave earnest counsel with Anne’s best interest in mind, and does not begrudge either her surrogate mother figure or herself for the consequences of that fateful day. However, though Anne chooses to take Lady Russell’s advice at nineteen, “as a woman of twenty-seven… Anne has learned to speak up for herself” (Judge 41). Her understanding of people is developed enough by this time for her to recognise Lady Russell’s love for her. Anne chooses to forgive her for a well-meaning but devastating mistake—but she also realises and begins to rely on the strength of her own intuition and judgment.
Myers claims that Austen’s heroines “[establish their] right to function on the three levels of womanhood by expanding [their] degree of self-knowledge, reaffirming [their] integrity, or demonstrating [their] capacity for independent thought and action” (Myers 228). Anne grows quietly and purposefully in all three capacities. She can easily be mistaken for being passive, as she does not readily express herself in a forward and direct manner, but as Captain Wentworth learns after Louisa Musgrove’s accident, there is a difference between firm decision and stubborn recklessness. Anne demonstrates her determination to endure and to love in ways that are more considerate and thoughtful than Louisa’s displays of spirited decision. Anne’s consistent dedication to her principles, coupled with the resilience she has developed and maintained over years of living with her family, results in her nut-like “powers of mind” (Austen 101). She gently but firmly refuses to submit to the pressure of family’s opinions and Lady Russell’s views, and does not let either the shallow, self-absorbed values of her family members or Lady Russell’s biased perspective change her own ideas about people and society. While Louisa is “impetuous”, “obstinate”, and “listens to her heart and not her head”, Anne, through tests and trials, eventually reaches a balance between listening to the advice of others, drawing conclusions based on what she knows and observes, and paying attention to her own intuition (Judge 43-4). Her actions are “based on rational judgment wedded to emotional maturity”, and she “[progresses] from the vulnerable ‘tenderness’ of an overly persuadable youth to the firm, but humane, feelings of her adulthood” (Judge 41, Brown 326).
In the course of the novel, Anne not only “recognizes her family’s failings”, “[learns] from her past”, and “[acts] upon her knowledge without betraying her own nature”, but also proves herself to be a gentle yet unyielding force (Judge 41). Though overlooked by the majority for most of the book, Anne still does her best to comfort and to encourage the people around her—she actively works to understand them, and makes deliberate and intentional choices to help and support them. As she “[was] forced into prudence in her youth” and “learned romance as she grew older”, the way she balances head and heart is largely due to the recognition of her own emotional and intuitive integrity, and the wisdom she gains from experience and observation (Austen 33). From the corner of the room and the fringes of the crowd, Anne demonstrates the extent of her emotional intelligence and caring heart, and does for others what few people do for her: she sees and hears, she observes and listens; she takes in the words and actions of others, and quietly but tenderly offers her hand to them. Her emergence “out of the shadows” is a slow but steady blossoming, and her resolve to seek out the outsider and the stranger, to forgive those who have wronged her, and to meet both joy and sorrow with hope and loving-kindness makes her a figure of unwavering strength in her own life, and in the lives of the people around her (Judge 42).
Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn calls Thailand, Taiwan, and Canada home, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth. These days, she spends her spare time writing letters, wrestling with her sewing machine, devouring her latest favourite books (this month: Wodehouse), and working on Project No. 1 (still in its writing/revising stage). You can also find her in her little corner of the world: https://herheadintheclouds.art.blog/
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