Jane Austen Persuasion
The Authorial Voice and the Heroine's Point of Viewby Ian Mackean
Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote comic novels about domestic and provincial life among the privileged classes in England in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. Her subject matter is narrow compared to that of many other novelists, and she has sometimes been criticised for this, on the grounds that she disregarded the wider political and social issues of her day.
There is no doubt that the world of her novels is limited, but this was deliberate on her part. She portrayed the section of society and types of character with which she was most familiar. She wrote in a letter to her sister that, 'three or four families in a country village is just the thing to work on', and likened herself to a miniaturist, describing her books as: 'little bits (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush'. [Quoted in Southam]
There are many arguments in favour of her decision to work within these limits. One is that the kind of women she is describing would almost certainly not have discussed political issues, so it would have been unrealistic to have her female characters do so. The men may well have discussed politics, but not with the women, and Jane Austen never writes scenes with only men present, for the simple reason that she could never have witnessed such a scene herself.
Another argument in her favour is that her novels are masterful works of art, containing nothing superfluous, and to have introduced material that was not directly relevant to her central theme - personal relationships between people - even if it made them more socially relevant, would have spoiled their formal unity and made them lesser works of art.
Perhaps the best vindication of her methods is the praise given her by Sir Walter Scott, the best-known novelist of her day:
'That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of description and sentiment, is denied me.' [Quoted in Watt, Intro]
Within her self-imposed limits, and perhaps because of them, she created some remarkably life-like and penetrating portraits of human nature.
Jane Austen was a moralist as well as an entertainer. She was quite a harsh judge of the society in which she lived, and in her novels she presents us with her own carefully considered judgements. She presents her views via her characters, either by their actions (dramatically) or by her direct authorial comments about them. In Persuasion (1818) she gives us an explicit comment on Sir Walter Elliot:
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character. Vanity of person and of situation.
Later she portrays his vanity in a dramatic situation:
Sir Walter prepared with condescending bows for all the afflicted tenantry and cottagers who might have a hint to shew themselves.
By her use of irony in this comment Jane Austen gives a moral judgement on Sir Walter, and all who possess his qualities of vanity and stupidity, without being censorious or didactic. Her irony is amusing, one of the chief sources of entertainment in her novels, but also has a moral point.
The main aspects of society which come under Austen's critical eye are the family and marriage. It is evident that she favours characters who are dutiful towards their parents, and who marry for love rather than as a social contract. William Elliot, the 'villain' of Persuasion, falls short in both respects. We learn from Mrs Smith that he has not only rejected his family, but also been an appallingly cruel husband. Jane Austen describes him as:
a man without heart or conscience, a designing, wary, cold blooded being who thinks only of himself.
The heroine of the novel, Anne Elliot, marries for love:
they were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love.
Anne is dutiful towards Lady Russell, who plays the part of mother substitute for her:
I must believe that I was right, to me she was in the place of a parent.
This is in spite of the fact that the advice she considers herself to have been right in accepting from Lady Russell was bad advice, which caused Anne seven years of unhappiness.
Throughout the novel we are presented with a series of marriages which are to varying degrees satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The marriages which are most successful are those in which the couple have shared interests and a degree of connectedness.
Another major theme of Jane Austen's novels is that of learning by experience and gaining self-knowledge. In her other novels the heroines progresses along the path of self-knowledge by learning form their mistakes. In Persuasion Anne has in fact learned her lesson (not to blindly accept the judgement of Lady Russell) before the novel opens. It is Captain Wentworth who has a lesson to learn, and it is the gradual reuniting of Anne and Wentworth which provides the main plot, suspense, and human drama of the novel.
To present a moral viewpoint on characters, and to show them changing over time, a novel needs a relatively fixed point of reference. In relation to the novel as a whole the point of reference is Jane Austen's authorial voice, and, within the story, the point of reference is Anne Elliot.
In this way Anne's role is very close to that of Jane Austen, though their roles differ in that Jane Austen remains a detached observer of events, whereas Anne is influenced and changed by participation in the story.
In his essay 'Control of Distance in Jane Austen's Emma' Wayne Booth writes,
'In Emma there are many breaks in the point of view because Emma's beclouded mind cannot do the whole job. In Persuasion, where the heroine's viewpoint is faulty only in her ignorance of Captain Wentworth's love, there are very few. Anne Elliot's consciousness is sufficient, as Emma's is not, for most of the needs of the novel which she dominates.'
Where Anne's viewpoint is not sufficient Jane Austen takes over, but it can be argued that Jane Austen did not entirely succeed in keeping the two viewpoints separate. In places she has used Anne as a mouthpiece for her own views, blurring the distinction between the authorial voice and character's viewpoint, and making Anne a less well-defined character than her other heroines,
The story is told largely as seen by Anne; her observations and reflections provide the serious elements of the novel, and Jane Austen prompts us to sympathise with Anne and accept her moral standpoint right from the start.
. . . but Anne, with an elegance of mind, and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding . . .
Thus readers who wish to consider themselves people of 'real understanding' must rate Anne's qualities highly.
At times Anne is presented with ironical detachments, showing a clear distinction between the author's and character's viewpoints. Here, for example, Jane Austen mildly mocks Anne:
She now felt a great inclination to go to the outer door; she wanted to see if it rained. Why was she to suspect herself of another motive? Captain Wentworth must be out of sight. She left her seat, she would go, one half of her should not always be so much wiser than the other half, or always suspecting the other of being worse than it was.
But there are many places in which the distinction between the two viewpoints is not so clear. For example:
This was very wonderful if it were true; and Lady Russell was in a state of very agreeable curiosity and perplexity about Mr Elliot . . . Anne was not animated to an equal pitch by the circumstance, but she felt that she would rather see Mr Elliot again than not, which was more than she could say for many other persons in Bath.
This last line implies an attitude towards people which is not in keeping with Anne's benevolent and tolerant character. Jane Austen is interpreting Anne's thoughts for us in a way contradictory to Anne's usual reactions.
The roles of author and Anne are too close for us to form an opinion of Anne in the way we form opinions of more distant characters. We know all about Anne's thoughts and emotions, her desires and judgements of other people, but we witness all this so much 'from the inside' that we do not have a very clear idea of what she is like as a person. We are told a lot about her actions and thoughts, but we rarely hear her speak, except towards the end of the novel. Clearly she is a shy, introverted person, but due to their closeness Jane Austen cannot give us a judgement of Anne 'from the outside'.
In contrast, in the opening chapters of Mansfield Park, the heroine Fanny Price is presented to us with as much humour and detachment as the other characters.
Another example of the merging of Jane Austen's and Anne's viewpoint is seen in this extract from near the beginning of Chapter 10. Anne is in the company of the Miss Musgroves, Hayter, and Wentworth:
Anne longed for the power of representing to them all what they were about, and of pointing out some of the evils they were exposing themselves to. She did not attribute guile to any.
Perhaps here we get a glimpse of Jane Austen's own feelings, giving us some insight into her own motives, suggesting that she is 'representing what they are all about' by writing the novel, and that she sees her ability as a 'power'.
She does not make Anne perfect, but gives her limitations. In the carriage going away from Lyme Anne thinks:
How the long stage would pass; how it was to affect their manners; what was to be their sort of intercourse, she could not foresee.
This uncertainty applies to the whole of Anne's future relationship with Captain Wentworth, after the pivotal incident on the Cobb at Lyme. Anne does not know what will happen, and by making Anne ponder the question Jane Austen invites the reader to guess. Jane Austen gives the reader hints of possible directions the story could take, then goes on to prove Anne to have been right by subsequent developments of the plot.
Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him [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 might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character
This passage encapsulates the main argument of the novel, the point Jane Austen wants the reader to be thinking about. She presents it in the form of, 'Anne wondered . . . ' though it seems unlikely that Anne would be thinking in exactly those terms. The passage is another example of how the roles of author and Anne have merged at the expense of Anne as a realistic character.
Jane Austen herself said of Anne that she had created a character who was almost too nice for her. She is presented as a person with consistently good intentions and an almost obsessive desire for self-sacrifice. She feels self-pity occasionally, and she is gratified when she knows that others think well of her, especially when she knows that she has made Captain Wentworth jealous.
The difference between Anne and most of the other characters is that Anne has an unshaken faith in human nature. She derives real pleasure from human relationships and can only see her life's desires being fulfilled by marriage to a man with whom she is in love. She has not been disillusioned and cannot accept the substitutes such as wealth, vanity, pride and selfishness to which the others have fallen prey.
Jane Austen portrays Anne as a good kind-hearted woman, as was her mother, but also a woman whose personality is not allowed full expression because of the unfavourable circumstances of her life - having lost her mother:
She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation; excepting one short period of her life, she had never since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to; or encouraged by any just appreciation of real taste. In music she had always used to feel alone in the world.
She is alone in the world. She is alienated from her own family and, apart from Lady Russell, she has no contact with people to whom she can relate. It is only through her own faith and strength of character that she is gradually able to prove herself and win the happiness she deserves.
On visiting Lyme and meeting the Harville's and Benwick Anne finds people with whom she has a lot in common, and here Jane Austen is showing us the kind of marriage and life Anne is likely to make and lead. During the incident of Louise's accident on the Cobb Anne proves her abilities to herself, and gains confidence in herself. From this point on she starts to 'open up'; she speaks her own mind more often, especially with a little prodding from Mr Elliot, and is more appreciated by others.
After witnessing Anne's actions during the incident on the Cobb Wentworth begins to appreciate her real qualities, until at the end we learn:
he had learned to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self will.
He also has to learn to recognise his own part in their lengthy separation:
I was proud, too proud to ask again. I did not understand you. I shut my eyes and would not understand you, or do you justice.
© Ian Mackean, March 2007