😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Eight years ago, Anne Elliot fell in love and became engaged to a young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick had little money but, at a time when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, the prospects for advancement in his career were good. But Anne’s friend Lady Russell, who is something of a substitute mother figure to Anne since her own mother died some years earlier, persuaded her that a lengthy engagement with no guarantee that Frederick would make his fortune was unwise, and so Anne broke off with Frederick. She has never forgotten him though, even turning down another more eligible suitor. Now Captain Wentworth has returned from the wars a wealthy and successful man, while the Elliots are on the brink of financial ruin. But Captain Wentworth hasn’t forgotten the hurt that Anne caused him and despises her for her weakness in allowing herself to be persuaded. And his changed circumstances and gallant bearing make him an attractive catch for the other, younger, single women in the neighbourhood.
Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn – that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness – that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.
This is the last novel that Jane Austen completed before her tragically early death, and Anne is her most mature heroine. At the age of twenty-seven, Anne is already sadly faded and has reached the age when her chances of achieving a good marriage are rapidly receding. Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father, is a member of the landed gentry, obsessed with his ancestry and his family’s social standing. Living well above his means, he has reduced the family fortune to such a low ebb that he has no option but to lease his house, Kellynch Hall, and take a much smaller place in Bath. The new tenants of Kellynch are Admiral Croft and his wife Sophy, who is Captain Wentworth’s sister. And so Anne and Frederick are thrown back into the same social circle…
There is a tendency, not helped by a rash of chick-littish covers over the last few years, for Austen’s books to be looked upon as simple romances. Of course, on one level they are. On the surface, this is a Cinderella story. Anne is the downtrodden under-appreciated daughter, complete with two sisters who might be beautiful on the outside but are pretty ugly underneath. Anne has to be her own fairy godmother – her innate kindness and patient constancy the magic she must use to win her Prince.
Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him 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 might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.
But, as in every Austen novel, there’s so much more to it than that. Austen’s insight into the society of her own time catches every nuance of how status worked at a time when it was beginning to change. Completed in 1816, the book reflects the social upheavals of the long war, when military and naval officers had won both fortune and respect and were now looking to take their place in civilian life on an equal footing with the hereditary landowners – their wealth making up for any deficiencies in ancestry. Birth is still important in this society, but character is shown as the true hallmark of the gentleman. Austen’s very positive image of the naval officers might have been influenced by the fact that two of her own brothers were seamen, each rising to the rank of Admiral in later life.
In contrast, there’s a more biting edge to her observations on the snobbishness and toad-eating of the traditional squirearchy than in her earlier novels. Anne’s father and sisters may still feel their lineage entitles them to automatic respect, but Austen reserves her respect and that of the rest of her characters for the people who have achieved their status through their own actions. Not quite a meritocracy yet, and Austen makes no explicit reference to the recent upheavals of the American and French revolutions, nor to the beginnings of the industrial age, but even her rural society is clearly feeling the first breezes of the winds of change.
And there’s something similar going on in her portrayal of the status of women. Austen’s heroines always defied the convention of making loveless matches for wealth, but the early ones, even my beloved Lizzie, wanted most of all to find a man they could love and respect but who would give them a life not significantly different to that of their childhoods. They wanted a respectable establishment in a rural society, be it a minor one like Elinor’s rectory in Sense and Sensibility or a glittering prize like Lizzie’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Emma may be the ultimate example of this – her marriage simply added a husband to the family and house she grew up in and barely changed her position or lifestyle at all.
Anne Elliot is a different kind of heroine. She has had the benefit of eight years to think about what she wants from life and she knows it’s not the small and restricted world of Kellynch, or even Bath. She admires Admiral Croft’s wife for accompanying her husband as he sailed the world, and part of the attraction of Captain Wentworth is that he will expand her horizons beyond the tiny circle in which she and her family move. Austen’s rather barbed humour about the daily intercourse between the two families at Uppercross is an indication of how small this rural world really is, and of how friendships and relationships are determined by propinquity rather than shared tastes or interests. The senior Musgroves are intriguing in their relative relaxation about whom their daughters marry – they are more concerned with their children’s happiness than their social advancement. These were the days of the first feminist writers – Mary Wollstonecraft et al – and again, without direct reference, Austen provides hints that her world may be on the cusp of change. Marriage and wealth are still key for women, but Anne looks out at a different world and finds it an enticing prospect.
“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
Of course, I don’t want to pretend that this is a revolutionary or feminist tract. Anne’s story is still one of a woman subordinate first to her father and then to her husband and subject to persuasion to conform to society’s norms. She’s not a rebel, but her stubbornness in refusing to make a loveless match and her constancy in her love for Captain Wentworth make her a strong and appealing heroine. I wish I liked Captain Wentworth more – I think the way he runs away when Louisa is injured is unforgivable, and I really dislike how his interest in Anne is reawakened only once her youthful bloom begins to return in the bracing air of Lyme. But he recognises her true worth in the end, I suppose. He’ll never be Darcy though…