“. . .strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves, —the only way women can rise in the world, —by marriage.”
(Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women 74)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of sound mind, able body, and stout heart, must be in want of a husband. This is, at least, the perception of such commentators as William Hayley, who in a 1793 essay situates Widows and Old Maids as rival claimants to the “nuptial coronet,” expounds upon their respective “right” to marriage, and never questions the assumption on which his argument is predicated: that the desire for marriage is an automatic given (Hayley 191). Even conspicuously radical writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft—today considered to be the grandmother of the modern feminist movement—seem unable to extricate ideal womanhood from the trappings of wedlock. In the Introduction to her Vindication of the Rights of Women, she describes the divide between the “alluring mistresses” that men seek to make women into, and the “affectionate wives and rational mothers” that women ought to make of themselves (Wollstonecraft 71). Marriage, in either case, functions as a finish line, a prize to be sought after by and awarded to “good” women. These understandings, moreover, seem ultimately to be grounded in an association between fidelity and feminine virtue: “good” womanhood entails a certain permanence of both disposition and personal ambition. The interplay of faith, constancy, and womanhood is explored with particular complexity in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. An author whose works largely revolve around the lives, communities, and social situation of women, Austen—herself a woman who did not marry—offers complex, multifaceted illustrations of the permutations that nineteenth-century womanhood could take. In Persuasion, faith—understood in terms of both emotional constancy and personal loyalty—is a defining factor in the concept of “good womanhood” as embodied by the novel’s protagonist, Anne Elliot. Though Anne is Persuasion’s most virtuous character, and an exemplary model of feminine deportment, she is also the one most representative of the possibility of spinsterhood, and the danger that it poses to womanhood. Austen, however, constructs Anne’s situation as one shown to be rooted in the very virtue of “faith” that was so highly prized in that very conventional womanhood. In doing so, Austen both redefines spinsterhood along positive lines, and re-emphasizes the centrality of faith and virtue to feminine “worth.” As such, Persuasion broadens the culturally-acceptable range of womanhood even as it seems to reinforce the limited number of attributes that are allowed to define it.
Gendered discourse runs rampant throughout Persuasion. Characters of both genders and varying levels of ridiculousness—from Mary Musgrove to Captain Harville—assume gender as their discursive province, and on multiple occasions speak at length on the qualities of one sex or the other. Much of the narrative’s conflict, in fact, is centered on the gendered disconnect between Anne and Captain Wentworth’s respective perceptions of the performance of ideal, faithful femininity. When speaking to Louisa Musgrove, Wentworth somewhat bitterly exclaims that “It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character, that no influence over it can be depended on. —You are never sure of an impression being durable” (Austen 63). Though Anne is not explicitly mentioned here, an earlier passage makes the target of his criticism clear: “[Wentworth] had not forgiven Anne Elliot . . . She had given him up to oblige others” (Austen 44-45). Here, Anne’s “sin” is understood as her lack of faith: her decision to place her loyalties in people other than Wentworth and, tacitly, the more general lack of faith in him in the “anxiety attending his profession” and fortune that was central to her family’s and Lady Russell’s objections (Austen 22). To be influenced, however, is expected of Anne— it is simply her refusal to prioritize Wentworth’s particular influence that is the “evil” in question. Interestingly, Anne herself takes issue with Wentworth’s “high and unjust resentment of her actions,” clearly identifying, in this description, the unfairness of his accusations (Austen 65). Indeed, Anne refuses to apologize for her decision even after the two have been reunited. “I must believe that I was right,” she tells Wentworth, “ . . . that I was perfectly right . . . I have now . . . nothing to reproach my self with” (Austen 174). Though this speech comes decidedly after Anne’s happily-ever-after (and access to conventional womanhood) has already been secured, it is a mistake to ignore “the agency [Anne] has exercised by rejecting Wentworth, even under persuasion” (Horn 237). Anne’s choice is one that she, herself has made. More importantly, it is one that she accepts responsibility for. In whatever light her decision is cast, even taking the influence of her family into account, Anne’s choice remains her own—and, though she may have been remorseful for the loss incurred, it is a decision that she stands by, even after years of heartache. Her actions, despite offending both Wentworth’s personal desires and the normative expectations he has of femininity, are nonetheless a point of personal agency and, later, an site of self-affirmation for Anne herself.
At the same time, Austen constructs her narrative—and the character of Anne Elliot—in such a way as to communicate the fact that Anne is not only quite faithful, but also that her present reality (the state of near-spinsterhood that she occupies) is founded upon that faith. Anne, as only the audience is aware, has remained faithful to Wentworth in a way that his criticism fails to account for. For, although Anne may have rejected his proposal, her feelings for him have remained steadfast. Wentworth may not have forgiven Anne Elliot, but Anne Elliot has certainly not forgotten Frederick Wentworth. In the celebrated debate between Anne and Captain Harville, she remarks that “the privilege I claim for my own sex . . . is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (Austen 166). With this statement, Anne underscores her faithfulness to Wentworth and links it to her performance of femininity, claiming this faith both for herself and her “own sex” in general. With this in mind, Anne’s conversation with Harville can in part be understood as an effort on her (and Austen’s) part to re-emphasize the validity of her own womanhood—an identity threatened not only by Wentworth’s criticism of her youthful choice, but also by the threat of spinsterhood that comes with the approach of “the years of danger” (Austen 6). Even Anne’s refusal to condemn her past decision can be understood as having been derived from her faith. Acknowledging Lady Russell to have occupied “the place of a parent,” she is adamant that “If I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more . . . I should have suffered in my conscience . . . a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion” (Austen 174). With this statement, Anne creates a definition of faith that extends not merely to the man she loves, but to her family. It becomes a “duty” she understands as intrinsic to her performance of virtue and gender. The “woman’s portion” she speaks of reaffirms the centrality of faith—this time, familial—to the construction of womanhood she has made and fought to maintain for herself. Realigning Anne’s “deviant” brand of femininity with more conventional understandings of feminine virtue, Austen validates unmarried womanhood as an acceptable identity—and choice—for women to take.
By linking faith to positive femininity, and having its truest proponent considered a spinster-in-the-making, Persuasion attempts to erode the stigma surrounding the Spinster identity. Breanna Neubauer describes the precarious position of the Old Maid within society in terms of a perceived failure—on their part—to properly perform femininity. “Spinsters defied [the] understanding of what nature had intended women to do,” she writes, “and thus they were often regarded as not fulfilling their natural role” (Neubauer 126). With Anne, however, Austen throws the aspects of this performance into question. Though Anne, by the end of Persuasion, has been “saved” from spinsterhood by her marriage to Captain Wentworth, she has spent much of the novel in roles that characterize the portion of the Old Maid, and in doing so, lends them a kind of honor not often found in them. Anne is not Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas or Emma’s Miss Bates, though she exists, necessarily, in close relation to them. Instead, she is a character who fully retains both her dignity and her identity, and she seeks within her duties the sense of self-worth that broader society (and her own family) seldom provides her. Persuasion, writes Dashielle Horn, “shows spinsterhood to be a construct imposed on unmarried women and, more radically, that spinsterhood can be a position adopted by choice” (Horn 236). Once again, Anne’s agency concerning the position she occupies is important to consider: not only has she rejected Captain Wentworth and Charles Musgrove, but later—when the threat of single old age has become far more apparent—Anne continues to avoid what might be construed as possible “solutions” to her situation. Where Charlotte Lucas settles for the absurd Mr. Collins, Anne’s own “alternative,” Mr. Elliot, is only momentarily considered a possibility—and even then, quickly dismissed. This is due to her attachment to Captain Wentworth, yes, but it is also a show of faith towards herself—an adherence to her own principles and desires. “How she might have felt, had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case, was not worth enquiry,” Anne muses, “for there was a Captain Wentworth; and be the conclusion of the present suspense good or bad, her affection would be his for ever” (Austen 135). The possibility of Anne’s spinsterhood thus becomes a function not of anything Anne lacks—bloom, youth, charm—but rather of something she has in abundance: a faithful devotion toward both “her first and only love” and toward her own mind (Hayley 192). The Spinster, understood in terms of the appropriately feminine (the result of an enduring faithfulness to one man) becomes not a failure, but an alternate type of womanhood, one that can be understood as somewhat radical, even as its characteristics—faith, duty, selflessness—fall in line with (and are made respectable by) conventional femininity.
Austen further underscores the validity of unmarried womanhood with the fact that Anne’s pseudo-Spinster identity—and the obligations that accompany it—render her among the most capable characters (and certainly the most demonstrably capable woman) in the narrative. Anne “has performed spinster duties for the last eight years . . . but these duties have graced her with a maturity, insight, and proficiency that she might not have otherwise” (Neubauer 131). Though not yet a spinster, Anne willingly assumes the office and duties typically reserved for one: she plays the piano so that others might dance, cares for children so that others might socialize, and is generally “glad to be thought of some use, glad to have any thing marked out as a duty” (Austen 25). Though subjected, in the course of these duties, to a number of degradations—such as assaults from incorrigible nephews—they nonetheless give Anne a stable sense of purpose and worth. Even more than this, her powers of efficiency and her desire to be useful prove to transcend the purely domestic sphere in the aftermath of Louisa Musgrove’s momentous fall. As Neubauer observes, “While the hardened navy men are paralyzed into inaction, only Anne” is able to maintain her self-possession; keeping her cool, and directing the actions of those around her, Anne’s experiences in the realm of the Spinster “enable her, in that moment, to be superior to England’s finest” (Neubauer 132). Where she is typically resigned only to keep the faith, she becomes, now, an object of faith for those around her. It is to her that they look, and in her that they place their faith when the crisis occurs. It is Anne whom Charles addresses in his panic: “’Anne, Anne . . . what is to be done next? What, in heaven’s name, is to be done next?’” (Austen 80). She takes on, in these moments, a mantle of power that is seldom allotted to women in general, much less in the realm of real-world crisis. It is perhaps because her sphere is not limited to the conjugal that Anne is able to so efficiently assess and address the needs of the people around her. Used to caring for others above herself, she is able to take charge in a way that is natural for her character. The faith that others place in her highlights not only the authority she is given, but also the degree to which her particular brand of womanhood is genuinely valuable and important to the community she exists within. Anne—and through her, the Unmarried Woman—is transformed not only into a worthy form of womanhood, but a superior one, essential to the society into which she supposedly cannot fit.
“Men,” says Anne, in Persuasion’s most climactic—and heavily gendered—scene, “have had every advantage of us in telling their own story” (Austen 165). This statement illustrates the main problem in the rupture between Anne and Wentworth: it is his discontent that is allowed to characterize the situation. As Anne’s speech continues, she touches on aspects of masculine advantage that almost ring of Wollstonecraftian revolution. Advantage rests not only in the telling of the story, but in the pen that writes it and in the education that enables it—all of which have also long belonged to men. She will not, she says finally, “allow books to prove any thing” (Austen 165). It is difficult, in this moment, not to be conscious of Persuasion’s origins. What does Anne Elliot mean—both in her words and as a character—as the product of an author who is telling not only her own story, but, in a way, that of an entire category of women? It would be simplistic to reduce Anne—and, indeed, Austen—to a reflection of her creat(or)(ion). Drawing biographical parallels is almost too easy, too monolithic to fully capture the complexity of either woman. It cannot be denied, however, that Anne Elliot is a character uniquely equipped to tell and defend her own story—and that Austen, an unmarried woman like her heroine, is the one holding the pen. Two inches wide or not, Austen’s story is one whose implications resonate on a grand scale. Within the diegesis, Anne forges a femininity that simultaneously defies and conforms to conventions of “proper” womanhood. Unmarried and capable, older and unequalled in mind or temperament, Anne proves her worthiness to other characters and readers alike. This is, in part, because she does so in a recognizable way. Her worth lies in her ability to enact superbly the feminine virtues that society demands: faith, in particular, becomes a defining aspect of her character. At the same time, however, she becomes representative of a womanhood that does not require marital felicity to have worth or validity—a position that, in its own right, is fairly radical. It is difficult, by the end of the story, to begrudge Anne the happy ending (and rescue from Spinsterhood) that she receives. Anne returns to—or rather, is allowed entry into—conventional womanhood. Yet, this entry does not erase the strength she has shown while she lived outside of it, as she has throughout the bulk of the novel. And while, as Mary Wollstonecraft writes, it is only through marriage that “women can rise in the world,” Anne’s character shows the complications intrinsic to so broad a statement (Wollstonecraft 287). Her position in the world, and the worth she earns towards it, are things that she achieves before the “nuptial coronet” is quite within her grasp. To say that her marriage precludes her character’s radicality is a summation that does not quite fit the woman that Persuasion has brought to life. Though Anne Elliot is Spinster no more, it is from the experience given her by that role that she is the complex, fully realized character—one almost too good for us all—we are privileged to meet. Her situation may have changed, but her character cannot, by this change, have “altered beyond [our] knowledge,” as Mary Musgrove so ineptly puts it (Austen 44). Having kept the faith for most of the novel, then, it is only fair that Anne receives her share of it from her readers, rational creature we know she is—and as we all, in the end, hope to be.