What are the makings of a good marriage? What sort of character is required of husband and wife? How can a person grow in her virtue to be better suited for marriage? Jane Austen’s Persuasion follows the progression of faith, hope, and charity in its protagonist, Anne Elliot, to explore these questions. Anne begins with the seeds of these virtues, but time causes them to bloom into true virtues that she can take into her marriage.
The trio of faith, hope, and charity comes from Christian theology; they are the so-called “theological virtues.” Persuasion itself is not an explicitly religious novel, but it does presume a world with moral standards, with characters clearly displaying both vice and virtue. Therefore, the definitions of the theological virtues offered here share this view of morality. Virtues are habits of ethical behavior, usually understood to be means between two vices. For example, generosity is a halfway point between miserliness and prodigality, and courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness. But the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love differ, for rather than being the temperate choice between two extremes, one can never have too much of them. Faith is placing one’s trust in an authority, whether that be oneself or another person. In other words, faith is choosing someone in whom to believe. Confidence, or the persistent belief in something despite all odds, is more impulsive than true faith, but may grow into a virtue given time; confidence is the seedling form of faith. Hope is trusting that something good may come out of acting on faith, even if one cannot see the good immediately. Although hope is often confused with optimism, optimism is not a mature virtue. Optimism blindly expects everything in one’s life to be pleasurable, but hope involves perseverance through suffering. Hope may grow from optimism, however, when optimism does not crumble in the face of hardship.
The last theological virtue, charity, is selfless love for someone else, often undeserved. There are two misconceptions one tends to fall into when defining charity. Charity is not philanthropy, or the giving of one’s possessions and income. Certainly charity may inspire philanthropy, but the two are not equivalent. Charity may also be confused with the warm affectionate feeling one has towards people that one both likes and loves. Affection is not the selfless love of charity, although it accompanies charity at times and may serve as a foundation on which to build it. True charity is a commitment to someone, and, like hope, it can be exhausting. Just as confidence matures into faith and optimism into hope, affection becomes charity when it endures trials.
With these definitions in mind, a careful reader can discern the development of faith, hope, and charity in Anne Elliot. At age nineteen, Anne possesses the three theological virtues in their nascent forms, but she misdirects her faith and hope when she ends her engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth. Persuasion follows Anne’s journey to rebuild her faith and hope through charity, culminating in a marriage that exemplifies the theological virtues.
Eight years before the main conflict of Persuasion begins, Anne meets Captain Frederick Wentworth and is soon engaged to him, despite his lack of fortune and connections (Austen 25-26). Frederick anticipates that he will soon grow rich, and Anne shares this expectation: “Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth… must have been enough for [her]” (26). Through Anne’s belief in her fiancé’s prediction, she has a “cheerful confidence in futurity” (29). Anne is young and in love, so this “cheerful confidence” resembles optimism more than the mature virtues of hope and faith. However, the reader has no reason to believe that her inclinations will not turn into true virtues after time tests them.
Not long into the engagement, Lady Russell persuades Anne to call it off. However, Lady Russell wins Anne’s faith only because Anne “imagine[s] herself consulting [Frederick’s] good, even more than her own” (27). Since Anne focuses on her fiancé’s well-being rather than hers, she shows that her love is not mere affection, but true charity, for she is willing to sacrifice her desires for the good of another. It may seem that Anne has lost the other two theological virtues in giving up on her engagement, but these virtues have merely been diverted. The crucial point is that Anne has a great deal of trust to give to others, but none for herself; she relinquishes her belief in Frederick and submits to Lady Russell’s verdict, hoping that time will ease the pain of breaking the engagement. She retains charity, but she places her faith and hope not in herself and her marriage, but in Lady Russell and remaining single for the time being.
This hope, however, is not fulfilled. When the novel’s plot begins eight years later, Frederick is a successful young officer: “All his sanguine expectations, all his confidence ha[ve] been justified” (29). Time has proven Lady Russell’s fears unfounded, and Anne has spent eight lonely years with no reason to believe that Frederick still loves her. Yet throughout the whole ordeal, Anne’s charity has remained constant. She loves Frederick both at the beginning of their engagement and after its end (19, 25). She has even maintained a love for Lady Russell, despite disagreeing with her (28). It is this charity that sets up the action of Persuasion, allowing Anne to grow as a person, learning to put faith and hope in their proper places.
The bulk of the novel follows the ways in which unshakable charity becomes the foundation for restoring faith to Anne. Every day at Uppercross, Anne shows charity to Mary and the other members of Mary’s circle. When Anne first arrives there, Mary scarcely thanks her for coming and complains of her own troubles (38). Anne nevertheless treats her sister kindly, with “[a] little farther perseverance in patience, and forced cheerfulness on Anne’s side” that “produce[s] nearly a cure on Mary’s” (38). Here, the reader witnesses that Anne’s love for others runs deeper than has yet been shown. Lady Russell and Frederick have at least in some sense merited her affection; Lady Russell is a mother figure and loves Anne best of all the Elliots, while Frederick is a dashing, spirited young man who loved her when few others did. In contrast, Mary has nothing to recommend her to Anne, save their shared blood. Anne’s love for Mary is selfless, for Mary does not deserve it.
Soon, Mary, Charles, Mrs. Musgrove, and the Miss Musgroves, finding a sympathetic listener in Anne, ask her to mediate between themselves (45-46). In fact, she is “treated with too much confidence by all parties, …too much in the secret of the complaints of each house” (43). The word “confidence” here refers to confiding, but it may also mean “confidence” as in a form of faith. The two meanings are closely linked, for the Musgroves’ faith in Anne is the reason they confide in her. Anne further wins their trust with her cool head in times of crisis as she capably handles the injury of her nephew (52). By the time of Louisa’s accident, her patience and gentleness have earned her not only the trust of the Musgroves, but also of Frederick. Both Charles Musgrove and Frederick “look to her [Anne] for directions” in the first moments after Louisa falls (108). As the group scrambles to settle the situation, Frederick recommends that Anne stay to nurse Louisa: “[There is] no one so proper, so capable as Anne!” (111). Later, Frederick consults her on how to break the news to the Musgroves (114). The trust that Anne has earned through charity culminates here, when Frederick expresses faith in her decisions three times. She takes this faith as “a proof of friendship, and of deference for her judgment” (114). This moment is a turning point in the way Anne views herself and her powers of discernment. Since Frederick now believes in Anne, Anne can trust her own inclinations. She can value her wisdom and capability as do all those around her, even the man she loves.
Now that Anne has proper faith in herself, she is transplanted to Bath, where her father and sister undervalue her. The first test of her growing faith arrives in the form of her cousin, Mr. Elliot. All of Bath loves Mr. Elliot, especially Anne’s circle, for “[v]arious as the tempers were in her father’s house, he pleased them all” (155). Lady Russell is especially taken with him, and nothing could delight her more than his marriage to Anne (155). Mr. Elliot is a perfect gentleman, wants to marry Anne, and has Lady Russell’s support, but Anne cannot shake an uneasy feeling about him: “Though they had now been acquainted a month, she could not be satisfied that she really knew his character” (154). Even though Anne is under pressure to accept Mr. Elliot, she stands firm in her conviction about his character (188). Nineteen-year-old Anne Elliot may have been persuaded into making this seemingly agreeable match, but twenty-eight-year-old Anne trusts her instinct against him.
This faith in herself is confirmed through charity, when Mrs. Smith reveals Mr. Elliot’s true character (190-202). Throughout her stay in Bath, Anne has visited her friend Mrs. Smith, although Mrs. Smith is poor, sickly, and without connections. Sir Walter is baffled as to why Anne should choose to maintain this friendship, when Anne can gain nothing from it: “Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people… [is] inviting to you” (151). Nevertheless, Anne persists in this relationship. Although she seeks nothing in return from her friend, Anne’s selfless love does end up rewarding her when Mrs. Smith confirms her doubts about Mr. Elliot. Once again, Anne’s charity leads to an affirmation of her discernment, allowing Anne to place more faith in herself.
Now that Anne’s charity has given her faith in her own judgment, she is able to hope that acting on faith may lead to beneficial results. She no longer tries to ignore her feelings for Frederick; in fact, she talks herself into acting on them. When she first sees him in Bath outside a shop window, she decides to place herself near the door, scolding herself for wanting to hang back: “One half of her should not be always so much wiser than the other half, or always suspecting the other of being worse than it was” (168). Anne has already realized that she is the prudent, sensible young woman that others believe her to be and that she ought to do herself justice by trusting her own judgment. Here, she finally acts on her faith, showing that hope has begun to return to her life. This faith is not rash or conceited, however. Soon afterward, the reader sees Anne reflecting on her limitations. Although Anne “hope[s] she [will] be wise and reasonable in time; …alas! alas! she must confess to herself that she [is] not wise yet” (171). Anne does not think that she has suddenly become omniscient; she recognizes that she has room to grow. This accurate assessment of her own ability proves that her faith is a mature virtue, not a blind, over-confident whim.
Anne’s growing hope again manifests itself at the concert, where she seeks conversation with Frederick. When they first meet, he is “preparing only to bow and pass on, but her gentle ‘How do you do?’ [brings] him out of the straight line to stand near her, and make enquiries in return” (174). Anne has a gentle, unassertive character, but she takes a leap of faith to make this “little advance… in spite of the formidable father and sister in the back ground” (174). By refusing to let Frederick ignore her, Anne shows both faith in herself and hope for a renewal of their relationship. She analyzes their conversation, concluding with a thrill that “[h]e must love her” (178). When an agitated Frederick leaves the concert early, Anne determines “the only intelligible motive” to be “[j]ealousy of Mr. Elliot” (183). At last, faith has brought hope back to Anne, and she is able to believe that she may have another chance with Frederick.
When Frederick and Anne do renew their promises to one another, the hope that has been budding between them finally blooms. Anne learns from Frederick that she is not the only one who has had the theological virtues restored to her; Frederick, too, has begun to hope, corrected his faith, and reawakened his charity. In his letter, Frederick writes that he is “half agony, half hope” (229). This description shows that Frederick’s hope is a legitimate virtue, not merely naïve optimism, because suffering has not driven him to give it up. He explains to Anne his misplaced faith in an unpersuadable character, rectified after Louisa’s accident, when “he had learned to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind” (233). With his faith renewed, Frederick realizes his constant love for Anne, and he takes action as soon as he discovers he is not honor-bound to marry Louisa (234). Charity for one another has moved Frederick and Anne to act on faith. Now at last, they can have the marriage for which they hardly dared to hope.
Anne has gained all three theological virtues over the course of the novel, preparing her for a marriage that demonstrates faith, hope, and charity. In fact, Anne’s faith in her own judgment is so strong that she still maintains that she was correct in following Lady Russell’s counsel against their marriage all those years earlier (237). Frederick disagrees, but their mutual love prevents this difference from coming between them; Frederick even admits that he “trust[s] to being in charity with [Lady Russell] soon” (237). Although Anne and Frederick have not put their faith in exactly the same place, their charity and respect for one another allows them to have a loving relationship. This love overflows to others as well; Anne’s marriage, “instead of depriving [Mrs. Smith] of one friend, [has] secured her two” (242). Anne and Frederick do not allow their love to cut them off from the rest of the world. Instead, it spills over and helps them show kindness to others.
But their marriage does not erase their problems, for Frederick is still in the navy, and for Anne, “the dread of future war [is] all that can dim her future sunshine” (243). This chastening memento mori adds a complex note to the couple’s “sunshine” of hope. It again differentiates the theological virtue of hope from optimism, for this hope may not always be easy.
Nineteen-year-old Anne Elliot possesses embryonic forms of the theological virtues, but her faith and hope are diverted when she is persuaded to end her engagement. Afterward, she carries a foundation of charity into the main conflict of the novel, causing the Musgroves—and later Frederick—to trust her; when Frederick places faith in her judgment, she does so as well. This faith allows Anne to persist in her mistrust of Mr. Elliot, which is confirmed thanks to her charity toward Mrs. Smith. Ultimately, faith gives Anne hope to renew her relationship with Frederick, and the novel closes with a marriage that typifies the theological virtues.
Thus Austen seems to offer answers to the questions posed by the narrative: good marriages are comprised of those whose virtues blossom when they are tested. But just as life presents no easy solutions, so Austen does not end her novel with the “cheerful confidence in futurity” of Anne and Frederick’s earlier engagement (29). No doubt, the theological virtues will be tried throughout the Wentworths’ married life, but now that they are braided together in the characters of Anne and Frederick, their marriage looks ahead with a tenuous hope, strengthened by resilient faith and deep charity.