"In the summer of 1806" Anne Elliot the heroine of Jane Austen's Persuasion fell in love with a dashing young naval officer, Captain Frederick Wentworth. However, their happiness was short-lived, for Anne's friend Lady Russell persuaded her to break off the engagement. The tender romance which showed signs of great promise was nipped in the bud. More than seven years later, purely by chance, they are both thrown together in the same neighbourhood. The romantic relationship is revived, and "Anne [who] had been forced into prudence in her youth, . . . learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning" (Ch. 4). The lessons that Anne Elliot learns reveal to us the significant features of an ideal romance. According to Jane Austen, the intrinsic qualities of the quintessential romance as revealed in Persuasion are youthfulness and beauty (physical attractiveness), luck, sudden infatuation (falling rapidly and deeply in love), temporarily doubting the other's affection, sharing a secret intimacy, and forming an incomparable union in which two hearts beat one, despite dangers and risks. Austen sums up all these features in the phrase "eternal constancy."
Youth and Beauty
Romance is meant for the young and the beautiful. When Anne and Wentworth first meet in Ch. 4, Jane Austen describes them as follows: "He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, and Anne an extremely pretty girl." When the engagement breaks up, even Anne's beauty is affected: "an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect" (Ch. 4). On his return after more than seven years, Wentworth is contrasted with Anne, who is no longer beautiful: "no; the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages. She had seen the same Frederick Wentworth" (Ch. 7). However, as Anne gradually "learns" romance, Wentworth notices an improvement in her physical attractiveness: "she was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced. . . . [Wentworth] gave her a momentary glance . . .which seemed to say. . . ‘and even I at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again'" (Ch. 12). The fact that Anne has regained her former beauty is underscored by Jane Austen, when Lady Russell, a neutral observer, fancies in Ch. 13 that "Anne was improved in plumpness and looks" and hopes "that she was to be blessed with a second spring of youth and beauty."
Luck and Chance
uck and chance play an important role in nurturing romance and in bringing it to fulfilment. In Ch. 4, Wentworth is described thus: "he had been lucky in his profession. . . . He had always been lucky; he knew he should be so still." His faith in luck and in himself is confirmed when he returns after the breakup of the engagement as a rich naval captain (his wealth derived from capturing vessels in combat). But, more than that, it is sheer chance that his sister Mrs. Croft is now the tenant of Kellynch Hall; consequently, " from this time Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot were repeatedly in the same circle" (Ch. 8). After this stroke of good luck for Anne, the first act of kindness which he does for her happens by chance in Ch. 9, when he lifts little Walter, who has been troubling her, from her back. Similarly, the accident at Lyme in Ch.12 and its consequences bring them closer. Further, it is indeed a coincidence that Mrs. Smith, who has been cheated by Mr. Elliot, is Anne's old schoolfellow" (Ch.17), because it is she who reveals to Anne the wickedness and hypocrisy of Mr. Elliot, thus enabling her to reject him completely: "pity for him was all over" (Ch. 22). Last but not the least, in Ch.23 Charles Musgrove, who is to escort Anne to Camden Place, on the spur of the moment decides to entrust the job to Captain Wentworth, and so finally the two lovers are reunited: "Presently, struck by a sudden thought, Charles said" (Ch. 23).
Falling "Rapidly and Deeply in Love"
When Anne and Wentworth meet for the first time, they fall "rapidly and deeply in love" (Ch. 4). The same speed characterizes Wentworth's approach when he returns after seven years: "actually looking round, ready to fall in love with all the speed which a clear head and quick taste could allow" (Ch. 7). But his speed is checked and the subsequent incidents reveal how both of them learnt their lessons in romance slowly but surely: "there they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected ; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth and attachment" (Ch. 23). However, even before this point, in chapter 20, even as Anne and Wentworth wait at the entrance of the Octagon Room, Anne "had learnt, in the last ten minutes, more of his feelings towards Louisa, more of all his feelings, than she dared to think of." Wentworth, especially, is "obliged to acknowledge that only at Uppercross had he learnt to do her justice. . . [and] at Lyme, he had received lessons of more than one sort. . . . There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle [embodied by Anne] and the obstinacy of selfwill (embodied by Louisa), between the darings of heedlessness [Louisa] and the resolution of a collected mind [Anne]" (Ch.23).
Uncertainty: He (she) loves me not — He (she) loves me
The reason why Anne and Wentworth are cautious the second time is that both of them are not certain whether the other person's affection is genuine. In Ch. 7, Anne "reasons with herself . . . . What might not eight years do?" and is unable to decide: "Now, how were his sentiments to be read?" Similarly, in Ch. 9 Anne's uncertainty is obvious when she speculates, "which of the two sisters was preferred by Captain Wentworth was as yet quite doubtful, as far as Anne's observation reached." But even before Wentworth gets involved with the Musgrove sisters, Anne has made up her mind that he does not love her at all: "Now they were as strangers. . . . It was a perpetual estrangement" (Ch. 8). Only much later, when she hears of Louisa's engagement to Captain Benwick, she becomes hopeful: "She had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate. They were too much like joy, senseless joy!" (Ch.18). When she meets Wentworth for the first time after Louisa is engaged to Benwick, in Bath, her optimism is restrained because "she could not understand his present feelings, whether he were really suffering much from disappointment or not; and till that point were settled, she could not be quite herself" (Ch.19). After a few days, when they both meet again at the concert, Anne is now certain that Wentworth "must lover her" (Ch. 20).
Wentworth also experiences the same pangs of uncertainty: "I am half agony, half hope" (Ch. 23) before he is finally reunited with Anne. Wentworth confesses to her that it was her refusal of Charles Musgrove which made him hopeful and encouraged him to follow her to Bath: "I could not help often saying, "was this for me?" (Ch. 23). On his arrival at Bath, he is distressed to find her always in the company of either Mr. Elliot or Lady Russell: "Jealousy of Mr. Elliot had been the retarding weight, the doubt the torment" (Ch. 23). and "was not the very sight of the friend (Lady Russell) who sat behind you…. was it not all against me?" (Ch. 23). All his meetings with her are "marked by returning hope or increasing despondence" (Ch. 23). Finally, even in the letter that he writes to her he remarks: "I must go, uncertain of my fate" (Ch. 23). At long last, when both of them are alone together in the "retired gravel walk" they reaffirm their love for one another.
Sharing a Secret Intimacy
According to Austen's Persuasion, romantic love flourishes best in secrecy. When Anne and Wentworth were first romantically involved very few people knew about it. When she hears, more than seven years later that Wentworth's sister Mrs. Croft is going to live at Kellynch Hall, she consoles herself in this manner: "She was assisted, however, by that perfect indifference and apparent unconsciousness, among the only three of her own friends in the secret of the past (Ch. 4) For his part, Wentworth after he becomes friendly with the Musgrove sisters does not reveal his past to them. Most interestingly, when Anne accidentally runs into Mr. Elliot the second time in the inn where they are staying at Lyme, she decides not to reveal this encounter to her sister Mary: "at the same time, however, it was a secret gratification to herself to have seen her cousin. . . . She would not, upon any account mention her having met with him the second time . . . no, that cousinly little interview must remain a perfect secret" (Ch.12). When the two lovers are reunited at the end, Jane Austen foregrounds their intimacy by remarking that they are completely oblivious of the people around them during their private walk: "there, as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling housekeepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children" (Ch. 23).
An Incomparable Union
When one is in love, implies Austen, it is but natural to consider the lover as incomparably better than anyone else. For Anne, "no one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory" (Ch. 4). — hence, her rejection of Charles Musgrove. Similarly, Wentworth "had been most warmly attached to her, and had never seen a woman since whom he thought her equal" (Ch. 7) — even seven years after their separation. Anne decides to reject Mr. Elliot after comparing him to Wentworth: "Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, — but he was not open . . . . She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eagar character, beyond all others" (Ch.17). This rejection happens even before Mrs. Smith had revealed Mr. Elliot's past to Anne. Similarly, Wentworth confesses in his letter: "you alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan" (Ch. 23); and later, after they have been reunited, he tells her that "he never even believed himself to see her equal" (Ch. 23). He confesses to her how he learnt that she was incomparably better than Louisa: "he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will" (Ch. 23).
Two Hearts Beating as One
In thought, word, and deed in Austen's ideal of romance there is complete unity between the two young lovers: "it would be difficult to say which has seen highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest; she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted" (Ch .4). After Wentworth returns, Anne recollects the past nostalgically: "there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved" (Ch. 8). And when they are reunited in the end, both of them rediscover the same oneness of mind: "There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment" (Ch. 23). This unity of mind is best expressed at the end of the novel when Jane Austen remarks that Anne, a member of the landed gentry, having married beneath her social status, "gloried in being a sailor's wife" (Ch. 24).
Danger, and Risk-Taking
Taking a risk adds more spice to romantic love. Lady Russell who persuades Anne out of marrying Wentworth cautions her: "[Wentworth] had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession" (Ch. 4). This financial and social impediment is soon eliminated when Wentworth returns rich and prosperous and with future opportunities for promotion. After her marriage, however, the danger Anne faces is more serious: "the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine" (Ch. 24). The threat to her husband's life is the price Anne pays for being the wife of the heroic and affluent Captain Wentworth.
The last but the most important feature of romantic love which Jane Austen foregrounds in Persuasion is what she terms "eternal constancy" (Ch. 21). After their engagement has been broken and then, when she first hears of his return more than seven years later, Anne very confidently sets great store by Wentworth's constancy: "in favour of his constancy, she had no reason to believe him married" (Ch.4). Anne rejects both Charles Musgrove and Mr. Elliot for Wentworth. Mary Musgrove suggests twice (Ch.14 and 18) that Captain Benwick might have been in love with Anne. Finally, even in Bath, when she is not certain about Wentworth's feelings, she consoles herself by reasoning "surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long" (Ch. 22). Wentworth does not disappoint her faith in him. After he has overheard Anne tell Captain Harville that even men are capable of being as loyal and devoted as women, Wentworth passionately expresses his loyalty to her in his letter: "Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. . . . For you alone I think and plan" (Ch. 23). Even as early as Ch.10 Anne is almost certain that "Captain Wentworth was not in love with either [Louisa or Henrietta]. They were more in love with him; yet there it was not love." This conclusion is confirmed by Wentworth when he tells her that he quit Lyme as soon as Captain Harville and his friends regarded him as being engaged to Louisa (Ch. 23). It is this mutual loyalty and devotion to one another which finally unites them both as husband and wife.
It is significant that Jane Austen emphasizes these nine qualities of an ideal romance both "before" and "after" the rupture in the engagement between Anne and Wentworth. It is thus evident that the romance of Anne and Wentworth is not merely an infatuation because, even after seven long years of separation, the same nine characteristics are intact. And hence, more than anything else, these nine characteristics in Persuasionestablish thematic unity within a perfectly symmentrical plot structure.
Barthes in his essay The Structural Analysis of Narratives (1977) outlines five different types of narratologies. The type of code in which thematic elements are embedded in character is called the "Semic Code." The way Anne Elliot "learns" romance clearly shows the Semic Code at work.
Last modified 12 August 2001