Thursday, May 28, 2015

Anne Eliot VS the Modern Perky Heroine

Last night I attended a book club I have joined. This month's book was Jane Austen's Persuasion.  The book was chosen because some of the members thought they should read an Austen book and because was a shorter novel.

It was a diverse group. Several members were great Janites, while other had never read Austen before. The format for discussion consisted to each member rating the book and explaining why they did or did not like it, bringing up aspects that appealed to them or that gave them problems.

I was surprised by how many enjoyed the 'historical' aspect of the book illustrative of a specific time period. I had never thought about Austen as 'historical fiction'. Quite a number were impressed by Austen's writing quality, the perfection of her language and word choices. Several thought the story line could be easily updated: a girl's parents don't approve of her boyfriend and separate them; they meet later each thinking the other is already engaged; everything is cleared up and they get back together. And quite a number couldn't cope with the exposition, the arcane manners and social observances, the number of characters and how to tell them apart.

A comment that came up over and over was that they wished Anne Elliot showed more pluck. Why didn't she stand up for herself? Why was she so passive? They wanted  Anne Elliot to be more like Austen's Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, or even Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

On the drive home I thought about how few plucky heroines were around when I was a girl and how today they predominate books and screen. My husband was re-watching The Hunger Games yesterday. Today we want a Katniss. a gal who steps up to the plate and uses her head and stays in for the win. Is Anne Elliot, or Fanny from Mansfield Park, too passive, too archaic, to appeal to the post-modern world changed forever by feminism?

I think that Anne won back her former lover's attention by being what she always was, demonstrating her good sense and willingness to help others--even when they are not deserving. She has a moral integrity that does not require acting out or getting even; she never feels superior; she accepts the foibles of other. She is well spoken, socially intelligent, sensible, and consistent. Captain Wentworth finds Anne unchanged.

"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."

Anne is as low as a gal can get. Anne was nineteen when her surrogate mother Lady Russell persuaded to break her engagement to a man she was attached to, but whose future was uncertain. Unable to forget the man she gave up, she has become thin and listless and resigned to spinsterhood.
"She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."
Anne is insignificant in the eyes of her father and elder sister Elizabeth. After their mother's death Elizabeth took over the role of female family head, but has none of their mother's good sense. She like their father is shallow, vain, and full of the 'Elliot Pride' of self-importance. Anne is taken advantage of by her hypochondriac married sister who relies on Anne's good sense to solve all her problems.
"How was Anne to set all these matters to rights? She could do little more than listen patiently, soften every grievance, and excuse each to the other; give them all hints of the forbearance necessary between such near neighbours, and make those hints broadest which were meant for her sister's benefit."
Their father, with Elizabeth complicit, has mismanaged his money. They are in debt. It is decided that they have to rent out the only home Anne has ever known. They are to move to Bath, a resort town of leisure where society's shallow values, based on rank and connections, reign.

Jane understood Anne. When Jane lost her father the family had to vacate the vicarage. They moved to Bath for a while, a place she hated, and where she did little writing. Luckily her brother Edward had been adopted by a childless relative and was able to offer them a little cottage in the country.

As Jane was writing Persuasion she was suffering from the mystery illness that killed her and which left her listless, with back pain, fever, and destroyed her looks, leaving her 'black and white'. Persuasion was the last book she wrote.

Dr. Toby Olshin taught us that Persuasion was 'wish fulfillment.' It has a fairy tale ending. Anne gets her second chance. (Which Jane would never live to get.)

The war is over. Captain Wentworth returns holding all the aces; on top of looks, wit, and self-confidence he now has wealth--and is looking for a wife. He tells thrilling tales of life at sea. The Musgrove girls throw themselves at him. He is vain enough, and angry still about Anne's backing out of their youthful engagement, to lord it over Anne.
"He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity. He had been most warmly attached to her, and had never seen a women since whom he thought her equal; but, except from some natural sensation of curiosity, he had no desire of meeting her again. Her power with him was gone forever. It was now his object to marry."
Captain Wentworth is enjoying being the center of all this female attention. Until he realizes that these silly young girls lack the maturity and constancy and good sense Anne still shows.Louisa Musgrove proves that being too head strong, and not persuadable to a better judgment, has disastrous consequences.

Anne's looks have improved since the Captain's return. The fresh Lyme air restores her color. Being near her love makes her eyes sparkle. And she is suddenly noticed by other men again--in particular her cousin Mr. Elliot, heir to her father's estate. And Anne knows she is admired, and it adds to her restored beauty.

The Captain has understood that Anne is engaged Mr. Elliot, who is interested in her for all the wrong reasons--none of which include love and esteem. Luckily Anne has taken up a girlhood friend whose fallen on hard times, but who has connections into the Bath rumor network. If you have ever lived in a small town you will recognize how it works. Knowledge is power. Anne learns the truth about Mr. Elliot.

The Captain overhears Anne in a conversation about constancy in love and learns that Anne's heart is true. He slips a letter for Anne to find. Oh my, what passion!
Captain Wentworth leaves a letter for Anne, proclaiming his love

"You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you."
So what kind of Anne Elliot do women want today? Had Anne stuck to her guns and married Captain Wentworth against her family's advice what would her life had been like?

She would have been alone with her husband away at sea during the Napoleonic wars, capturing prize ships and getting rich. Perhaps she would have become pregnant, raising children alone. She could have died in childbirth. Her husband could have died at sea. These scenarios are partly what caused Lady Russell to persuade Anne to break off the engagement. Dread of a new war carrying off her husband is the only pale on the happiness Anne finds at the end of the novel. Austen had two brothers in the British Navy. She was well acquainted with the fears and concerns of having a man at sea.

What if Anne had married her cousin Mr. Elliot, heir to the estate, as her family had hoped many years ago. She would have been exceedingly unhappy with an unworthy husband who did not love her.

What if Anne stayed single and fought for living on a budget, paying off their debts, and retaining the family estate? What if she said, I'm going to do the dancing and not just play the piano? And told her sister Mary to stop whining, she was as healthy as any of them? Would this Anne have won back her true love? She would no longer be the Anne that Captain Wentworth had fallen in love with--amiable and sweet natured.

What she has to offer the Captain are stellar qualities. She offers no real money. No estate. She is not a raving beauty, a clever conversationalist, a wit. She is not sexy. He loves her for the very qualities that make her unappealing to today's reader.

I very much appreciate the modern perky heroine, so lacking when I was a girl. There were precious few female writers or heroines around back then. and truthfully they are still a minority today.

But let's not diminish the other qualities that can make a heroine. Moral sense, compassion, wisdom, tenderness, and constancy are needed as much today as ever. Perhaps they are needed now more than ever.

Persuasion can be read free:

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