8 May 2013
The Elliots are three sisters and a father Austen refers to frankly as ‘silly’. Unusually, age is a big thing in this novel. The sisters are all well into their 20s, and their father is a well looked-after 54. The clock is ticking for all of them, but he remains almost effeminately vain: ‘Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did.’ He’s also brainlessly snobbish. When, for instance, the subject of naval men comes up, we aren’t at all surprised by his description of why he doesn’t like them, however successful: a life at sea does terrible things to their looks – he delights in his anecdote of a 40-year-old admiral he took to be 60 – and the son of a nobody can lord it over a man from the higher echelons of society.
There’s a reason for him to be talking about such men: it has become necessary to rent out the family seat and Sir Walter’s lawyer, Shepherd, has suggested that an admiral made rich by the recent wars with France would make an ideal tenant. (Austen has other motives, and I’ll come back to them.) This seems to be the novel in which Austen has decided to show that the minor aristocracy is a spent force. The Elliots need to make some economies because Sir Walter, once he became a widower thirteen years ago, has had nobody to keep his spending in line with the estate’s limited income. His response in Chapter 3 to suggestions of some minor modifications to his expensive lifestyle is outrage, and his lawyer’s idea of a move into a town house – the town will be Bath – is a way to save face without it being made clear to the world that this is what is happening.
It’s one of those manoeuvres that reminds the reader that they are in safe hands with this author: Sir Walter’s progress from horror to acceptance to a belief that the project was his own idea is seamless and utterly plausible. Shepherd’s sly manipulation of his boss is a model of how some members of the aristocracy have to be treated.
There’s a lot of exposition in these early chapters. But Austen has an almost invisible technique of letting the reader know how she feels about her characters then having them speak and behave in ways that demonstrate exactly what she means. By Chapter 5 we’re pretty sure we know all we need to not only about the Elliots but about at least three other characters as well. We’ve seen this with Sir Walter and Mr Shepherd but, more importantly, we’ve seen it with the women in the novel.
Anne is the middle sister, and this is her story. She is one of Austen’s hidden heroines, constantly disregarded by everyone except a few people who recognise her qualities. She is 27, is already faded at the start of the novel… and by Chapter 4 we know why. She had been persuaded at the age of 19 that the man who is clearly made for her would not in fact be the right choice for a husband. He has neither enough status nor money for her father, and the otherwise well-meaning Mrs Russell – I’ll come back to her – is so dazzled by ‘the baronetcy’ that she confirms Sir Walter’s judgment. Inevitably, Anne has never met anybody else like him and doubts that she ever will.
We know all this because Anne realises that Admiral Croft, the new tenant, is married to a former Miss Wentworth. And she is the sister not of the colourless cleric of that name that Mr Shepherd remembers, but of Frederick Wentworth. He was a rising young naval officer seven years ago, but his prospects weren’t good enough for the Elliots. He, of course, is the man that Anne continues to carry a torch for, although nobody else realises it, and she knows that he has had a successful career in the war against France. She keeps an eye on ‘navy lists and newspapers’, and suspects that he must be a rich man now. Aargh.
Mrs Russell is the former friend and confidante of Sir Walter’s wife, the one who died when her daughters were still girls. She tries to be a surrogate mother, but she doesn’t have the cleverness of Lady Elliot that Austen is careful to tell us about. Sir Walter’s spending had been kept in check as long as she was alive – and Austen makes it clear that Anne has inherited a lot of her mother’s best characteristics. Whereas…
…Elizabeth, the eldest sister, seems to have inherited none of them, taking after her father instead. She, like him, is still good-looking – she’s 29 now – and, like him, she has the vanity and self-centredness to go with it. Naturally, she has no time for Anne, sees her as even more of a waste of space since her looks and vitality faded so quickly, and never pays any heed to anything she says. Elizabeth also once had a disappointment, but Austen presents it very differently from Anne’s. On Sir Walter’s death, the title and estate will fall to Mr William Elliot, and there is a wry description of the almost farcical ends to which Sir Walter and Elizabeth went to in order to get him to marry her. Austen presents his indifference and eventual marriage to someone else in terms that the disappointed Elliots would have used, a favourite technique of hers:
‘His [Sir Walter’s] disapprobation was expressed, but apparently very little regarded. Mr Elliot had attempted no apology, and shown himself as unsolicitous of being longer noticed by the family, as Sir Walter considered him unworthy of it: all acquaintance between them had ceased.’
There’s a short set-piece scene between these two sisters, concerning a friend that Elizabeth has made and introduced into the household. This is Mrs Clay, and Austen has shown us how she tends to flatter Sir Walter. Anne is worried that, despite her prominent tooth and freckles – freckles! – she is setting her cap at Sir Walter. She warns Elizabeth of her fears and, as she expected, is ridiculed for the very idea. But we get a classic Austen paragraph to end the discussion: ‘Anne had done; glad that it was over, and not absolutely hopeless of doing good. Elizabeth, though resenting the suspicion, might yet be made observant by it.’ That’s it with her heroines: whatever the possible embarrassment, they always do the right thing. And I’ll be surprised if Anne isn’t eventually proved right: whereas it is deemed unnecessary for Anne to go to Bath to choose and furnish a house, Mrs Clay does go. Mrs Russell, who is one of the few to value Anne, is mortified by this slight on her behalf. Anne, of course, expects nothing else.
There’s one more character for now, Mary, the youngest sister. She is married to one Charles Musgrove, lives in a large ‘cottage’ in a village three miles away, and is a pain. Like Elizabeth, she regards Anne as a waste of space. Mary tells her off for not coming to stay with her sooner following her peremptory command that she must spend time with her. (She needs Anne to nurse her through an illness that seems to be entirely imaginary.) Anne tells her that she’s had a lot to do to help prepare for the move to Bath, and Mary’s reply is typical: ‘Dear me! what can you possibly have to do?’ As Anne describes it, plenty. Not that she ever gets any thanks, obviously.
Anne spends all these chapters at Uppercross, the village where Mary lives, and is forced to endure the kinds of mortification familiar from other novels by this author. (I’m thinking of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.) Not everybody is awful, but she has to spend a lot of time with people who demonstrate one or more of Austen’s cardinal vices: selfishness, tactlessness or an obtuseness that prevents them from seeing what is blatantly obvious not only to Anne but also, far more tellingly, to the reader. Mary, who has morphed from a whining hypochondriac in Chapter 5 to a full-blown Austen monster by Chapter 10, demonstrates all of these, all the time. Her inveterate snobbery – another feature shared by all the Elliots except Anne – leads to incidents like the one in which, conscious of her proper precedence, she complains endlessly when her hostess is careless of such matters.
But the main driver of these Uppercross chapters is the arrival of Frederick Wentworth to stay with his sister and brother-in-law, the Crofts. Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate they are renting, is only three miles from Uppercross, and he comes to visit the big house there. It contains the Musgroves, the family of Mary’s husband Charles, and they include his attractive and pleasant sisters. They are Henrietta and Louisa, aged 19 and 20, and they are clearly designed to set alarm bells ringing for both Anne and the reader. Henrietta had clearly been close to an engagement with another ‘very amiable, pleasing young man’ – this is Austen’s description – but now both sisters only seem to have time for Frederick Wentworth. The young man, Charles Hayter, is so mortified by the experience of being almost ignored on several successive visits that he stops coming altogether.
In fact, it’s beginning to look by Chapter 10 that despite Frederick’s innocent attentions to the young Musgrove women – Austen is careful to let us know that he isn’t playing the kind of game that men like Henry Crawford play in Mansfield Park, and are punished for – neither of them is really the one for him. They are both perfectly acceptable, but neither has the kind of spark that Austen implies he saw in Anne all those years ago. By the end of Chapter 10 Henrietta seems to be back in with Charles Hayter. But this still leaves the other sister, and Austen uses that voice she’s so good at – it’s the voice of the world, of Society – to ratchet up the speculation about her: ‘Everything now marked out Louisa for Captain Wentworth; nothing could be plainer….’ We don’t have to believe it. Austen likes to make these sweeping statements that the reader doesn’t have to take at face value. (Think of the most famous sentence in Austen, the one that opens Pride and Prejudice.)
But, as I said at the beginning, this is Anne’s story, and I’m assuming that Captain Wentworth’s behaviour is part of Austen’s scheme to torture her for her bad decision all those years ago. As things stand shortly after his arrival, Anne has absolutely no hope of regaining her former place in his affections. This is what she expects before she meets him, and she finds ways to avoid him as long as possible. After they have met, briefly, Mary reports back: ‘You were so altered he should not have known you again.’ Thanks, Mary.
But during that brief meeting, Anne has seen enough of his behaviour to know that he is ‘the same Frederick’ – and we have seen enough of her to know that she is the same Anne. I feel almost ashamed to write it, but we know that there is only one way this novel can end. Austen’s constant presentation of Anne’s generosity and tolerance of others demonstrates that her seven years in Purgatory have turned her not only into a better person but a wise and gracious one. There’s little more for her to learn. And Austen contrives little incidents to demonstrate that Frederick sees the world as she does. Only Anne is perceptive enough to notice the complexity of his responses to the Musgroves’ rose-tinted memories of their son, now dead, who served under him, or to Mary’s selfish little complaints about the latest slight: he is briefly wrong-footed, then uses all his social graces to speak and behave in exactly the right ways.
But that description of Frederick, that he is ‘the same’, is double-edged. It comes near the end of Chapter 7, just before Mary tells Anne of his hardly recognising her. For the first and only time in these chapters, Austen goes on to give us four paragraphs from his point of view, and the chapter ends with his decisive view of Anne – which clearly has not changed at all from when she first rejected him: ‘He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shown a feebleness of character in doing so….’ He hasn’t found anybody in the meantime to match Anne as he remembers her, but ‘he had no desire of meeting her again. Her power with him was gone for ever.’
Hah. The trouble with Frederick is that however much he has learnt in the intervening years, he hasn’t learnt about women. Essentially, his views now are identical to the views he held as the very young man he was then – and any reader of Jane Austen knows that firmly held opinions like these, when they are clearly wrong-headed, are there to be challenged. Early in the novel, Austen is very careful to explain precisely what the pressures were on Anne, that the only sensible person in her life, her mother, is dead and that her replacement, Mrs Russell, is a snob. The young Frederick would have understood nothing of this, and sees it, as we know, as ‘feebleness of character’.
Near the end of Chapter 10 Anne overhears him in conversation with Louisa. There has been a tiny incident in which Henrietta has seemed to fall in with the wishes of others while Louisa has stood firm. This impresses Frederick to the extent that he compliments her on it: ‘Your sister is an amiable creature; but yours is the character of decision and firmness, I see.’ Anne later mulls this over. Not only does it ring alarm bells – he might have found someone, of exactly the age she was when she knew him, who demonstrates the firmness she didn’t – she also ‘saw how her own character was considered by Captain Wentworth’. She has broken his cardinal rule.
At the end of the overheard conversation Austen leaves Anne, and the reader, with an ambiguous snippet of an idea. Louisa tells him that Charles Musgrove had really been looking to marry Anne, and it takes a moment’s pause for Frederick to respond: ‘Do you mean that she refused him?’ Clearly, he is interested… but this is a novel, and Austen has them move away before we can hear his response to what Louisa says next, that she believes it was the snobbish Mrs Russell who dissuaded her. We know this is not the real reason. I’m guessing that it will take the remaining fourteen chapters for Frederick Wentworth not only to work this out, but also that there’s more to the choice of a lifelong soul-mate than he has any idea of now.
Since the arrival of Frederick Wentworth I’ve been describing his apparent attraction to Louisa as ringing alarm bells for Anne. In fact that isn’t what it’s really been about. She’s taken at face value his apparently decisive rejection of her, taken it to mean that all her hopes are dead, and concentrates on avoiding the embarrassment of having too much contact with him. At a conscious level – which really only means the level at which she understands herself – she doesn’t see Louisa as a rival in love because she’s convinced that he has no love for her any more. The end.
She’s still at this point during Chapter 11. She’s moved back to stay with Lady Russell in the Lodge at Kellynch – which will mean she will be forced to see more of him because she’s practically next-door to where he is staying with his sister. Except it seems he’s disappeared for a while. Phew. But Austen can’t have Anne continuing to be this faded, shrinking violet, always the piano-player at the ball and never the dancer. And while Anne remains as useful and as assiduous in her care for the needs of others as she has been so far – sometimes I wonder whether Austen lays it on too thick, just as she does with Mary’s serial atrocities – she stops playing that constant disappearing game of hers. Austen seems to be doing almost exactly what she does with Fanny Price in Mansfield Park: she turns the invisible mouse, at best offered a kind of patronising affection and at worst simply disregarded, into something new. Suddenly she is attractive to at least two different men.
For this to happen, Austen needs there to be a change of scene, which she brings about suavely now. Frederick Wentworth has been to Lyme to see his favourite old naval friend, the war-wounded Captain Harville… so that’s where everybody goes for a couple of days. Austen allows Anne, for the first time, more than one moment of self-pity, as when she contemplates the sadness of Captain Benwick, grieving for his recently dead fiancée: ‘he has not, perhaps, a more sorrowing heart than I have. I cannot believe his prospects so blighted for ever.’ I’m guessing that Austen might have been conscious of making her heroine a little too stoically uncomplaining; the self-pity makes her seem almost human – and allows us to see that she isn’t as happy about the loss of her future prospects as she might pretend.
More happens to Anne in the two days at Lyme than in the previous eight years. The bereaved Captain Benwick, a young friend of Frederick Wentworth, finds her company very agreeable. They have high-minded conversations about poetry and other improving texts – what was I saying about Austen laying it on thick? – and it’s no surprise at all a few chapters later when he changes his mind about accepting an invitation to stay at the cottage with Charles and Mary when he discovers that Anne is no longer at Uppercross.
As for the other admirer, if I can call him that…. Nobody recognises the gentleman who notices Anne as they pass on some steps: ‘he looked at her with a degree of earnest admiration, which she could not be insensible of. She was looking remarkably well, her very regular, very pretty features having the bloom and freshness of youth restored…’ and so on. The next sentence explains what Austen is doing here, or so we think: ‘Captain Wentworth looked round at her instantly in a way which showed his noticing of it.’ It’s something to stir into the mix as the half-way point of the novel approaches: perhaps he had been a little hasty in dismissing her worn-out looks…. But that’s not all. They find out that the gentleman is the same William Elliot who had turned his back on the family all those years ago when he dared to marry somebody who wasn’t Elizabeth. The reader guesses, correctly, that this isn’t the last we’ve heard of him.
The main plot interest in Lyme is the relationship between Frederick Wentworth and Louisa. They are often thrown together – one of Austen’s motives in moving the action to Lyme – but nothing much happens. There is no repetition of the overheard conversation between them in Chapter 10 and, even before the incident on the Cobb, seasoned readers of Austen novels are looking for the little hints she drops that the Musgrove girls don’t quite have what it takes. Henrietta, thinking of Charles Hayter’s prospects, has plenty to say about how the incumbent of the parish where Charles is to be curate would be far better off retiring to Bath. Louisa is just as transparent when she goes into ‘raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy; their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England…’ and so on. It isn’t subtle.
Meanwhile, as Louisa’s star wanes, Anne’s is in the ascendency. She is held in high regard by everybody and, although Austen doesn’t make a big thing of it at first, Frederick Wentworth is clearly carried along. When Louisa makes one false step too many and concusses herself, Anne is the one who takes charge: a surgeon is needed; it should be Captain Benwick, who knows the town, who should find one… and so on. Later, it is Anne that everyone wants to stay in the sick-room with Louisa, and only Mary’s babyish insistence that she should be the one to stay means that she returns to Lady Russell’s instead.
(Once Louisa is out of danger and Mary is back from Lyme, we get more details of her all-round incompetence as a mother and utter lack of self-knowledge. There’s a grotesque little scene in which she denies that Captain Benwick ever spoke about Anne once she’d left…. I’m not quite sure why Austen needs these (not terribly funny) comic monsters. Simple entertainment value? To throw her heroines into relief? It doesn’t seem terribly necessary in Anne’s case: her only fault seems to be self-doubt.)
Time for another change of scene. Anne and Mrs Russell are finally ready to make their way to Bath, and Austen is explicit in her description of why Anne is dreading it so much. She will have to spend time with her father and older sister who, unlike the pleasant company she has been in for weeks – a new experience for her – have no regard for her and take no interest in anything she says or does. But there is one person there who might be of interest, she thinks: William Elliot has made himself known to her father and sister, and seems to be going all-out for a reconciliation. According to a letter from Elizabeth herself: ‘He had called in Camden Place; had called a second time, a third; had been pointedly attentive.’
This is highly desirable to Sir Walter and Elizabeth, of course… but I’m not sure whether Austen is playing a game with our expectations. It’s hard to think of any reason why William, after the death of the wife who is supposed to have brought money to the marriage, would want to get back in with the family he was speaking of with contempt not so many years ago. No doubt we’ll see once Anne gets to Bath.
All Anne’s fears and expectations are confirmed on her arrival in Bath: her father and sister have become another pair of grotesques, and… and I don’t really what to say much more about them. It’s all about appearance and form for them, and we get a few more examples of Sir Walter’s ludicrous obsession with rank and how people look. But the arrival of William Elliot brings some necessary plot as well. Anne’s father and sister’s good mood when she first gets there has nothing to do with her arrival, obviously, and everything with this man whose name had been anathema until so recently. I had assumed that his presence is owing to his having found out that the woman he noticed in Lyme is Anne Elliot… except, in Bath, he appears to be tremendously surprised when she is introduced as such.
What I do know is that after Anne has known him for a month, and Lady Russell is lining him up as a future husband for her, ‘she could not accept him…. Her judgment… was against Mr Elliot.’ This is near the end of Chapter 17, and it is followed by three paragraphs in which Austen offers a detailed synopsis of Anne’s ‘judgment’. He refers to his own past behaviour and to people he has known that raise in Anne ‘suspicions not favourable of what he had been…. How could it ever be ascertained that his mind was truly cleansed?’ But what is most seriously in doubt is his ‘sincerity’. Everybody likes him because he is charming to everybody, including at least one person she knows he has no respect for. (This refers to the ever-present Mrs Clay, and I’ll come back to her.) He is not ‘open’.
This is one of those moments in Austen that I always find uncomfortable, when a main character becomes the mouthpiece for definitive moral pronouncements. There’s Knightley’s exegesis of Frank Churchill’s explanatory letter near the end of Emma; Fanny Price on Henry Crawford and nearly all the other characters in Mansfield Park; Elinor on Lucy Steele and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. We can be sure that Anne is absolutely right, and I’m waiting for revelations about William Elliot, perhaps that he has not been left as rich as he lets it be thought by the death of his wife, or confirmation that his ‘surprise’ on being introduced to Anne is a sham. But Austen’s insistence on the incontrovertible moral uprightness of her Annes and her Elinors gets on my nerves sometimes.
I’ve been wondering if there’s a literary term for Austen’s technique of making the moral issues clear through the thoughts of a character – for, essentially, that habit of hers of allowing a character to tell us absolutely unambiguously what she, Austen, wants us to think. She makes explicit the strict codes within which she’s working, and always makes her main characters morally unimpeachable. They might get some things wrong along the way – Emma, in fact, is almost entirely about the re-education of one the main characters by another – but Austen seems to feel obliged at key moments to confirm for us, as each novel progresses, what the dilemmas are and how her main characters are getting it right.
This isn’t all she does, thankfully, and the different ways in which the morally dubious characters reveal their true natures are always amongst the best things in her novels. But it’s never enough for Austen. She needs belt and braces to make the message both unambiguous and watertight…. The correct opinion of problematic characters is presented through the thoughts and speeches of her favourite characters – and it makes them sound dreadfully judgmental.
But where was I? Bath, and further plot developments. There’s a new character, a former school-friend and confidante of Anne’s, now known as Mrs Smith. She’s fallen on hard times, and you can imagine Sir Walter’s comments not only about her name – Smith! – but her unfashionable address. She seems to be there as another aspect of Austen’s moral scheme, to set beside certain other characters. Despite having been reduced from wealthy wife to impoverished widow, and despite rheumatic fever that has ‘settled in her legs’ and confines her to her apartments, she is endlessly cheerful: ‘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.’ She is clearly meant to represent a kind of desirable opposite to the whining, hypochondriac Mary.
But Austen makes it explicit, while Sir Walter is being sarcastic about her, that his criticisms of Mrs Smith’s lack of a respectable name or any fortune could equally apply to Mrs Clay, who has been staying with them in Bath for months now. During his tirade, ‘Mrs Clay, who had been present while all this passed, now thought it advisable to leave the room, and Anne could have said much, and did long to say a little in defence of her friend’s not very dissimilar claims to theirs, but her sense of personal respect to her father prevented her.’ Of course, we haven’t forgotten Anne’s fears concerning Mrs Clay’s motives.
But much more importantly than either of these, now that William Elliot is out of the running, is that Frederick Wentworth is back in. Anne hears from impeccable sources that Louisa is now betrothed to Captain Benwick. It’s no surprise at all to the reader but, through Anne, Austen makes sure there is a completely plausible explanation. Frederick had not spent a great deal of time in Lyme – reading between the lines, we understand that he wants to put himself out of harm’s way – and Louisa and Benwick find themselves in one another’s company over several weeks. Louisa, whom we already suspect to be not the deepest of characters, is pleased to receive the attentions of a perfectly acceptable young naval man. As for Benwick… Anne ‘was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him would have received the same compliment. He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody.’
So that’s all right then. And, in case there is any lingering doubt, Austen is careful to put paid to it. Anne is concerned that there might have been something underhand about Benwick’s behaviour, and that Frederick might feel hard done by. But we get a chapter in which Admiral Croft – now in Bath, partly to give opportunities for snobbish remarks from Sir Walter – assures her that Frederick is fine about it. Phew.
Shortly after his first arrival in Kellynch, back in Chapter 7, Frederick had declared himself ‘quite ready to make a foolish match. Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking. A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man.’ Such a resolution might do for some men – he could have been describing Captain Benwick – but, as he has now learnt, not for Frederick Wentworth.
Austen needs to get him to Bath.
Chapters 19-24 – to the end
She wastes no time. Austen. She gets Captain Wentworth on his way to Bath in the first sentence of Chapter 19, and soon Anne is able to have a short conversation with him that leads her to the definitive conclusion that ‘he must love her.’ Hah. I was immediately wondering what Austen would have to do to keep him and Anne apart for the remaining five chapters or more. (Northanger Abbey is the novel in which Austen acknowledges that readers’ minds really do work like this. But whereas near the end of that novel readers are able to see ‘in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity’, in this one we’ve got nearly a quarter of the book to go yet.) What Austen needs is an obstacle, and it comes in the form of Mr William Elliot.
Austen has prepared us so well for this that little comes as a surprise. But this doesn’t prevent her urbane choreography of the remainder of the plot – the inevitable crushing of the hopes of the unworthy as much as the fulfilment of the hopes of her favourites – from being mischievously entertaining as she gives us the ending we’re waiting for. There’s always the discomfort of the worst snobs to be enjoyed: Austen never tires of holding up their pretensions for ridicule, particularly those of Anne’s father and sisters. Elizabeth is even shown, in her vanity, pretending to ignore the attentions of Mr Elliot – the ones which, in fact, aren’t directed at her at all.
We’ve been waiting for Mr Elliot’s true nature to emerge, and it does so in Chapter 21 in a long description by Mrs Smith of his cynical, self-serving past behaviour. Basically, he rejected the Elliots as a young man because he was only interested in wealth, not the worn-out status of a minor baronetcy. But now he rather likes the idea of a title, and has moved to Bath specifically to ensure that his father will not marry Mrs Clay. Anne’s presence is a bonus: he had heard all about her from Mrs Smith herself in the days when he knew her husband – and when, as you would expect of the monster he is in Mrs Smith’s presentation of him, he was instrumental in that man’s downward spiral into profligacy and financial ruin. (Austen allows a tiny shaft of light to be revealed for Mrs Smith: her husband had some remaining ‘property in the West Indies’ that Elliot has never been bothered enough to look into despite being the named executor of the will. Captain Wentworth sorts it out in the final paragraph of the novel – because often, amongst the most admirable qualities of Austen’s heroes is a manly willingness to deal with worldly difficulties.)
So, by the end of Chapter 21, Anne has had her suspicions about Mr Elliot – the ones we’ve known for a long time were bound to be right – proved beyond doubt. The end. Except Captain Wentworth has seen how intimate they appeared to be at recent public engagements. That early suggestion of a possible return to her old closeness to the captain is replaced by coolness on his part, and Anne – and therefore the reader – realises that he’s jealous. What he’s really seen, of course, is Mr Elliot ingratiating himself into her company and Anne’s polite and open responses to a man who charms her with tantalising comments about how he’d heard about her qualities from a friend many years ago. (This friend had been, she later tells Anne, Mrs Smith herself.)
To make matters worse, ‘everybody’ knows that Mr Elliot will very soon be proposing to her – a judgment that Captain Wentworth can’t fail to have heard about. Anne hears the world’s opinion from Mrs Smith, who believes it. (She has an impeccable source, a nurse who serves the gentry, about whom we’ve known for some time as a convenient bush telegraph in human form.) It’s after Anne has put her right about her own feelings that she tells her everything she knows about Mr Elliot. Anne had already been avoiding him, and after she’s heard the whole sorry tale she decides to show him as much coldness as polite behaviour will allow.
Things are drawing to a conclusion. We’re not there yet, but by Chapter 22 plans are being made for an evening card-party at the Elliots’. Captain Wentworth, having finally been recognised sufficiently by them as a person to know in Bath, gets his invitation in full view of Anne. They are present at an informal get-together at the Musgroves’, and Austen uses it to continue her demolition job of the Elliots and all they stand for. When they arrive the atmosphere freezes into icy formality, and we get it from Anne’s point of view: ‘The comfort, the freedom, the gaiety of the room was over, hushed into cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk, to meet the heartless elegance of her father and sister. How mortifying to feel that it was so!’ I can’t think of another novel by this author in which she gives her main character permission to find her own family repugnant. Anne, as one of the most morally perfect heroines Austen has created, is clearly not to be held up for the reader to judge adversely. Austen is letting us know that rights within families – the right to be loved and respected as a father or sister – have to be earned.
It’s another one of those times when Austen leaves the plot to one side while she makes the moral position clear. She doesn’t spell out her conclusions about Anne’s relationship with the other Elliots because she doesn’t need to. Anne, after having politely tolerated a whole novel’s-worth of bad behaviour from the members of her family, has finally come to understand them – and realised that it’s ok to see them for what they are. She can do this because alongside Anne’s ‘mortifying’ recognition of her family’s true nature (and, in the previous chapter, of William Elliot’s), a better model is waiting for her. I don’t know why I didn’t quote the line at the time, but in Anne’s opinion in Chapter 4 comes all the information we ever needed: ‘No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth.’
And now, a couple of chapters from the end, Austen gets on with bringing them together at last. With a bit of manoeuvring she gets Anne and Captain Harville discussing the relative faithfulness of men and women, while Captain Wentworth writes letters in the same room. He’s near enough to overhear, is able to understand at last what Anne’s true feelings are – and he leaves. But he comes back on a pretext and gives one of the letters to her. The end.
Except it isn’t, yet. First there’s the exquisite prolonged moment of Anne’s realisation as she reads the letter. At last all misunderstandings are at an end, so now there can be all those other exquisite moments you get when an author removes the final obstacles. Anne doesn’t fall into his arms with her eyes fluttering, because what these two like to do is talk. By the end of Chapter 23 they have explained, with diagrams, exactly what each of them got wrong all those years ago – and, perhaps unexpectedly, what they didn’t get wrong. Anne insists that she did the right thing, given the advice she received from Lady Russell…. ‘I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice…’ and so on, for another 100-odd words of a long paragraph. Doth the lady protest too much? She doesn’t protest too little.
It’s this kind of stuff that makes me think that in Anne, Austen has taken it upon herself to create a morally faultless heroine. Frederick Wentworth is pretty faultless himself, aside from the ‘pride’ he beats himself up about as they talk. And I realise that this is the fantasy at the heart of all Austen’s novels: perfect love and happiness are only available to those who always do the right thing. It begins small, with the tact that her favourites show even to the most unappealing characters they are faced with… but it ends on an entirely different scale, with tireless self-sacrifice and/or hard work on behalf of others.
There are various other pairings. There’s Louisa and Captain Benwick, not an ideal match. Captain Wentworth considers his friend has been hasty, is certain that she isn’t clever enough for him, just as she wouldn’t have been for Wentworth himself. (He would have married her if she’d wanted it, obviously, having innocently given the impression that he was interested in marriage. Austen is keen to have him explain his innocence to Anne, and therefore to the reader.) And there’s Henrietta, able to marry the long-suffering Charles Hayter now that a kindly author has allowed a good living to come his way.
It’s also important – and far more entertaining – for Austen to describe what happens to those who don’t come up to the mark. Anne’s father and Elizabeth don’t find happiness: they are confined to the circle of hell in which the rapid exit of the gold-digging Mrs Clay renders them ‘shocked and mortified by the loss of their companion, and the discovery of their deception in her.’ She leaves Bath at the same time as William Elliot, who has been seen speaking in secret to her, and now she is ‘established under his protection in London’, whatever that means. I don’t know what circle of hell it is that has him keeping her out of harm’s way while she has her own plans: ‘it is now a doubtful point whether his cunning, or hers, may finally carry the day; whether, after preventing her from being the wife of Sir Walter, he may not be wheedled and caressed at last into making her the wife of Sir William.’
But it’s the favourites who get the final paragraph, and it isn’t nearly so enjoyable. How about this for a dying fall? ‘She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.’ Got that? Virtues. And that really is the end.