Persuasion opens with a man reading a book: a book in which his daughter Anne’s name appears on the first page—at least of the section he rereads obsessively—suggesting the beginning of her story. The narrator of Persuasion soon informs us, however, that Sir Walter has no “hope . . . of ever reading [Anne’s] name in any other page of his favourite work” (5). Her story will consist of a birth date and, eventually, a death date, but will include none of the events in between that could form a narrative out of those two dates. Sir Walter’s book is reductive; the only narrative events are marriages, significant not because of the dramas they invoke but because of the dynastic lines they continue. But Sir Walter’s book is a curiously fitting representation of Anne’s own feelings about her life as the novel opens. According to her father, yes, but more importantly according to Anne herself, her story is over.
While Anne Elliot, eight years from her broken engagement, has obviously lost hope in a reunion with Wentworth, her life is characterized by a more profound hopelessness, a more fundamental despair: Anne considers her narrative cut off in its prime. While Anne still believes in the existence of Providence, she has lost hope in its kind intentions toward her, its pursuit of her happiness. Anne can see that while her natural tenderness and confined situation combine to make her helplessly loyal to Wentworth’s memory, circumstances conspire to keep them apart—even when they bring them together physically. This series of events seems like a cruel joke or else a bitter lesson, consigning Anne to a life of lonely suffering that may, in time, do her soul some abstract good. The Anne of the novel’s opening has lost hope both in her narrative and in her Narrator; appropriately then, the resurrection of hope the novel accomplishes is a resurrection of Anne’s hope in the goodness of her story.
At the beginning of the novel, Anne suggests that her breaking of her engagement with Wentworth was a failure to recognize the narrative quality of her life. Eight years into her disappointment, Anne is now a strong proponent of “a cheerful confidence in futurity, against the over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence” (22). In retrospect, Anne considers the caution that motivated her to break her engagement not only a failure to trust Wentworth’s energy and industry but also a failure to consider “Providence.” “Providence” is a significant word choice, referring to God in his role as a planner of paths—as storyteller. Anne may mean that she failed to recognize the providential arrangement of her meeting with Wentworth or that she distrusted Providence to continue caring for them after their marriage, but the two doubts are related: had she trusted that Providence had brought them together with kind purpose, she would have married Wentworth in confidence, trusting that kind purpose. Anne’s diagnosis of failure of trust in her past self does not imply, however that Anne has achieved the “cheerful confidence in futurity” she lacked then. Rather, she seems convinced that her mistrust has consigned her to a life bereft of such providential good intentions—as if, disgusted by the same weakness of character that disgusted Wentworth, Providence has lost interest in her—or at least the intense, focused, purposeful interest she is conscious of in retrospect: she does not believe that Providence intends her happiness.
Anne will never come out and say as much, but we can glean it from the tenor of her expectations. Throughout the first part of the novel, Anne’s hopes and wishes are painfully modest, and she is continually readjusting them, suggesting a constant bracing for disappointment. Whether her hope is for her family’s remaining in the country (11), for a little influence with her sister (26), for an un-awkward meeting with Wentworth’s relations (23), Anne does not hope extravagantly, and the small wishes she expresses have none of the rich suggestiveness of deeper hopes undergirding them—of purpose, drive, or vision. Even the hopes she does express she holds loosely, submitting to disappointment without bitterness but also without protestation, unwilling to demand her own way. While habitual self-forgetfulness is a beauty of Anne’s character, her habitual submission suggests a disconcerting resignation.
The language Anne uses to reflect on her life also indicates hopelessness. During her walk with the Musgroves and Wentworth, Anne is reciting poetry to herself when she overhears Wentworth’s commendation of Louisa and is unable to keep her mind on poetry “unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the image of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blesse[s] her memory” (61). Anne resorts to poetry that mirrors her feelings—and this poetry reflects despair, not only about her lost love, but about the whole trajectory of her life. Poems about “decline” “bless” her. Anne will express concern when she notes a similar tendency in Captain Benwick to read poetry that feeds this narrative despair; when “he show[s] himself so intimately acquainted” with “impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony,” “a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness” (72), Anne finds the finality in Benwick’s perception of his situation not quite “[safe]” (73). But she will soon admit to herself the hypocrisy evident in the juxtaposition of these two passages: she acknowledges that “she [has] been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination” (73). Anne too has a tendency to read her life as “destroyed.”
Anne maintains a kind of faith in Providence, but it is a faith without any real hope component. When Benwick confides in her, Anne advises reading material that, rather than echo and affirm his grief, strengthens him in the face of it: books “calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances” (73). Anne is “preach[ing] patience and resignation” (73), not hope; religious writings, in contrast to poetry, encourage fortitude, toughen the soul up to endure pain, and are Anne’s antidote to the dangers of hopelessness, but not, importantly, because they offer hope or promise happiness. After she hears from the thoughtless Mary that Wentworth thinks Anne so “altered” he would not have recognized her, Anne accepts his appraisal without protesting: she “submit[s] in silent, deep mortification” (44). But she submits not only to Wentworth’s unkind (if unintentional) insult; she submits too to the unkind circumstances that have made her privy to it. Free indirect discourse reveals the tendency of Anne’s thoughts: “These were words which could not but dwell with her. Yet she soon began to rejoice that she had heard them. They were of a sobering tendency; they allayed agitation; they composed, and consequently must make her happier” (44). Anne’s phrasing here indicates that Wentworth’s words are already beginning to have the “desired” effect: the gut-wrenching understatement of “could not but dwell with her” suggests miserable composure, and the discordant “rejoice” her bleak redefinition of happiness. Anne is expressing a kind of painful gratitude to the Providence that is quick to dash her unfounded hopes, under the assumption that, in the long run, such disappointment will be good for her. Providence, accordingly to Anne, can be counted on to give you what you need to “compose” yourself, to develop strength of character.
Anne’s hopelessness is, in part, a result of fervent faith—faith in the sense of loyalty or constancy, as in “keep faith with.” She will admit as much to Captain Harville at the end of the novel, when, speaking as a representative of women but obviously expressing the burden of her own heart, she claims the “privilege” of “loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (166). Women, she insists, due perhaps to the greater “tender[ness]” (165) of their bodies and feelings, manage to keep faith with impossibilities—not only with the absent but with the dead. Although she pities Benwick, Anne also almost envies him; she considers her “prospects” more “blighted” than Benwick’s, despite the fact that the man she loves is still alive, because Benwick is “younger than [she is]; younger in feeling, if not in fact” and “will rally again, and be happy with another” (70). While she considers a reunion with Wentworth to be as impossible as Benwick’s reunion with the dead Fanny Harville, she also considers her own affections more intractable, more hardened than his. Anne makes a similar observation when she marvels at the way Mrs. Smith, the victim of loss, poverty, sickness, and pain, is nonetheless full of good cheer.
How could it be? . . . this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only.—A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counter-balance almost every other want. (108-9)
We can hear an almost bitter edge to Anne’s wonder, hear the cry of “Why did you make me this way?” under her references to the “choicest gift of Heaven” and “merciful appointment” bestowed on Mrs. Smith. Anne acknowledges that “fortitude,” “resignation,” and “submissi[on]” of the kind she has been struggling to develop—and that Providence has been giving her ample opportunity to develop—can only do so much; true happiness requires something further—a disposition to be comforted. Why should Mrs. Smith receive this Heaven’s “choicest gift” and Anne be denied it? Why cannot Anne, like Mrs. Smith, like Benwick, have the elasticity of mind to seek out other comforts, other joys? Providence seems to have doomed Anne to a life defined by an impossible love—and thus to a stagnated story.
But the irony of Anne’s profession to Harville of hopeless faith is that Anne Elliot’s man is not dead, nor permanently separated from her. He is in the room with her as she makes this statement; she is acutely conscious of his presence as she speaks, and, though uncertain whether he can hear her or not, she knows at least that he is listening, that she is speaking to a friend who may communicate with him. Her very claim to hopelessness is an expression of hope, based on Anne’s renewed conviction of Wentworth’s love for her and her eagerness to make her love known to him. The reason Anne can speak with so much poignancy is that she is now alive with hope, a hope that justifies and even ennobles the constancy that might otherwise be merely foolish or pathetic. Her narrative has moved on and developed, has re-contextualized her period of hopelessness, has driven her to this moment of convergence where she and Wentworth can finally communicate their love. The circumstances that seemed designed to torment her have actually served not only to strengthen her character but to bring about her happiness.
Anne’s real transition into hope—and her first real experience of joy—occurs not when she becomes conscious of Wentworth’s love for her, but when she begins to sense the kind intentions of Providence again. When Anne hears the news of Benwick and Louisa’s engagement, she marvels, not only at the strange event but at its significance for Anne herself. Anne is in a kind of awe at the news, almost disbelieving, almost unable to “remain in the room,” and “preserve an air of calmness” (117). Several paragraphs later will we learn that what “ma[kes] Anne’s heart beat in spite of herself, and [brings] the colour into her cheeks” are feelings “too much like joy, senseless joy” (118). Anne cannot help but read this marvelous turn of events in light of Wentworth’s—and her own—compelling concerns. As she attempts to make sense of Louisa and Benwick’s curious attraction, she concludes, “It had been in situation. They had been thrown together several weeks” (117). In her thoughts, Anne is emphasizing the fortuitous quality, the far from inevitable quality, of Louisa and Benwick’s relationship. She is sensitive to the contingency of these events and suspects that they may all be occurring for her benefit. She is on the verge of a narrative hope that she has not held for a long time.
Anne’s joy is finally perfected not by her assurance of Wentworth’s love for her but by a further conviction about her narrative. Even amidst her delight in Wentworth’s letter, Anne’s “heart prophesie[s] some mischance, to damp the perfection of her felicity” (169), and even after her meeting with Wentworth dissolves that fear, Anne arrives home “so happy as to be obliged to find an alloy in some momentary apprehensions of its being impossible to last” (173). Anne’s happiness frightens her; her rationality immediately suggests that such happiness will inevitably disappoint, as it always has before. Anne’s joy meets an obstacle in habitual dread, in an old conviction, born of disappointment, that joy does not last and must be constrained in anticipation of disappointment, that happiness “declines.” In the face of overpowering emotions, Anne makes her usual recourse to prayer,1 but the effect now is not resignation:
An interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of anything dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment. (173)
Anne’s “enjoyment” grows courageous because of gratitude—that is, because of her growing conviction that what has happened to her is not arbitrary or merely lucky but designed—is so much for her as to be a gift. Her joy is grounded but also intensified by the consciousness not only of Wentworth’s love but of the love of her storyteller. She is fearless in the conviction that her story—still going strong—is in the hands of a Providence that intends not only her “good” in some abstract sense, but her joy.
How does Anne’s story end? Is Anne’s future happiness assured? The narrator reminds us in the novel’s final paragraphs that Anne must still pay “the tax of quick alarm” on her love for a sailor, that the nature of his “profession” will sometimes make her friends wish her “tenderness” for him “less” (178). Genuine widowhood is still a possibility for Anne at the end of the novel, and will at least be a consistent anxiety. What are we to make of this little momento mori after the volley of hope that revitalizes Anne Elliot? Ann Astell suggests that the ending of Persuasion emphasizes the fact that Persuasion is “a story of love without end, a love that has been tested and become increasingly independent of outward circumstance—be it physical separation, the passage of time, the interference of others, or the outbreak of the Napoleonic War” (255). Astell is referring to Anne’s unconditional love for Wentworth; but her point holds also for the narrative love Anne herself has experienced—the love she thought she lost but has found to be at work for her happiness in spite of cruel circumstances and her own despair. Anne’s “resurrection” has taught her to trust in the Providence she once distrusted, and Austen gives us every reason to think that Anne has learned the “cheerful confidence in futurity”—the hope that combats fear—that comes from a conviction of being loved—and that knows, from experience, that a story does not end with death.
1Laura Mooneyham White cites Stuart Tave’s observation that the word “serious” in Austen’s novels has a religious connotation; “‘[s]erious’ reflection or meditation in Austen thus means prayer” (59-60).