Freedom and Social Constraints in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Anne Elliot’s persona in Jane Austen’s Persuasion subtly criticizes the effects of imposing culture and class distinction that middle-class women face in 19th Century England. These self-limiting ideals define the identity and social functions of women at the time. By addressing Anne’s perceived proper place in society, Austen exposes women’s vulnerability to the constraints of social order. She also illustrates how women, judged by their social conduct, ultimately do not have the freedom to choose their own happiness. Many of these constraints are found within the familial setting, bridling women like Anne Elliot to duties and obligations that confine them to marriages that are often empty and hollow. Juxtaposing Anne’s desires against such constraints, Jane Austen illustrates how one woman challenges these social standards and by doing so, finally achieves the freedom to make her own choices despite outside influences.

We find numerous familial influences creating deterrents for Anne. As an example, Lady Russell avails Anne to subjugate herself to these social constraints by persuading her that she has moral and familial obligations to do so. Similarly, Anne persuades herself to remain within the same social constraints when Frederick Wentworth reenters her life a second time. Alternately, there are eccentrics along her path also persuading Anne, but fundamentally influencing her toward that freedom and social growth she desires. Among them is Mrs. Smith who unknowingly plays a role in the liberation of Anne Elliot. Additionally, we find the Romantic poetry that Anne reads compels her to reject the hindrances of society’s social order to pursue her own happiness. Jane Austen uses Anne Elliot’s struggle for self-discovery to illustrate how women are constrained by the social norms of nineteenth-century England and how these constraints can be relegated to a matter of choice instead of an obligation or necessity.

Upon close scrutiny, Jane Austen’s Persuasion is socially compelling in that she expostulates about women’s rights in Regency England and a woman’s desire for personal happiness that lies outside the constraints of social order. Social movements at the time include a woman’s right to own her own property, the ideal of marrying someone who is also a companion, and the seeking of individualism. According to Claire Eileen Tarlson, “Jane Austen dramatically shifts from creating her heroine as governed by propriety and reason to being permitted and encouraged to respond and act based upon emotion and instinct, an assertion virtually unheard of in the male-dominated sphere of polite society” (2-3). Depicting England as a society of hierarchy with forbearing constraints, Austen illustrates characters in which women know their place as they are relegated to a second-class status in a patriarchal society. The novel, therefore, is a critique of British society during the 19th century in which Austen emboldens women to use self-reflection as they envision their lives within the confines of societal constraints.

Tarlson points to Jane Austen’s feminist ideas in each of her novels. As to the pertinence of this argument, she notes that “Anne Elliot … by contrast, accepts Wentworth ultimately not on the basis of anything he has done differently, but merely by the realization of her own original emotions and motives as valid” (4). Within the contexts of adherence to social norms and the constraints created by such, it is possible to argue that Austen is trying to show that a woman should not be confined by those social constraints created by a patriarchal society, but rather develop “as this individual on her own” (2). This development is ultimately a factor in liberating Anne Elliot, freeing her to choose whether she will marry Frederick Wentworth.

Captain Wentworth, at the time of their initial engagement, was without fortune or high societal ranking and Lady Russell, as a surrogate mother, thought it best to persuade Anne not to marry beneath her family’s social class. She vehemently opposed the match thinking it a “degrading alliance”. Anne, young and too kind-hearted to go against her father’s or friend’s wishes “was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing: indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it”. Austen explains the factors that motivate Anne to refuse to prolong the engagement with Wentworth but, upon close reading, we find Anne was deeply affected by her decision. The author speaks of regret and how this decision “clouded every enjoyment of youth” causing “an early loss of bloom” (Austin 20-21). This description is important in context because the “bloom” equates not only to youth, but to happiness as well. We find in later passages that Anne’s bloom returns, not only as a result of the exposure to the fresh air and sea but also from the convalescence of her spirit while at Lyme.

Equally important, Christopher Wilkes believes that Jane Austen’s Persuasion is “one of the most subtle accounts of social hierarchy, social order and social struggle of her time” (1). In his article, he discusses the implications of the relationship between literature and socio-political influence. Austen illustrates how social order and the constraints placed on Anne affect her emotionally, causing her to make decisions that are not in her own best interest. The author shows the correlation between this influence on the heroine and those decisions that lead to her discovery that happiness can only be achieved when one is free from social barriers and the restrictions that they place on women in a patriarchal society.

There are, of course, advantages to “marriage according to social customs” (Weir 785) such as social rank and maintaining familial obligations as well as financial security. With such obligations comes social expectations and logic dictates that women should maintain this order for many reasons. Among them is duty to family: Anne’s father expects her to marry suitably and to conform to the familial duties advanced by these societal standards. This conformity assures the family of the respect and esteem they have been accustomed to. Lady Russell, whom Austen uses as a parental figure, is a woman who has “prejudices on the side of ancestry” and “a value for rank and consequences” (Austen 9). Thus, any advice she gives will err on the side of social decorum. Anne persuaded herself to give up the one man she loved only later to realize “she had given him up to oblige others.” Her decision had everything to do with duty to family and social expectations but was “the effect of over-persuasion” and a decision of “weakness and timidity” (Austen 45).

Women in 19th Century England feel the necessity of heeding the advice of their elders due to societal expectations. The threat of being disinherited or losing favor is the foremost issue. They are also often scorned and cast as being loose women if they do not adhere to the constraints set forth by society. Duty, honor, and respect play important roles in decisions such as this. Austen’s awareness of these constraints is expressed in the text of her novels just as clearly as her value of marriage. To her, social conventions are a necessity of life and a woman should be able to be happy and fulfill her desires while still residing within this restrictive social order. Austen points to this premise when she writes of Anne’s admiration of the Crofts:

“They brought with them their country habit of being almost always together. He was ordered to walk to keep off the gout, and Mrs. Croft seemed to go shares with him in everything, and to walk for her life to do him good. Anne saw them wherever she went. Lady Russell took her out in her carriage almost every morning, and she never failed to think of them, and never failed to see them. Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her.” (Austen 118-119)

Mrs. Croft was indeed happy, and she had managed to find that happiness despite the constraints of domesticity. Interestingly, the author also adds that “Mrs. Croft” looked “as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her” (Austen 119). Anne’s realization that a wife of a Naval officer could be happy, was monumental in her movement toward liberation.

Believing in the legitimacy of a woman’s emotions, Austen uses romantic poetry as a plot device whereby Anne is deeply moved by these compositions, which helps educate her emotionally. Thematically, Austen moves toward Romanticism in her novel and in doing so moves Anne towards individuality. In this search for self-identity, Anne reads the great works of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron as Austen exploits the poetry as a method of giving Anne moral guidance and emotional support for her contemplations. We are at once told “she had been forced into prudence in her youth, [yet] she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (Austen 22-23). Esther Moon argues that Anne’s indulgence in romance novels functions as a catalyst to her growth stating, “romance corresponds to … Anne’s sense of what ought to be, her idealism” (par. 2). Margaret Russett, in her article in Studies in Romanticism, states, “Anne was ‘forced into [this] prudence’ with permanently debilitating consequences”. Ms. Russett further states that “‘persuasion’ is also the explicit preoccupation of Persuasion’s characters” (418).

Following this theme, Austen portrays Anne as being guilty of allowing herself to be persuaded either by others or by self-persuasion. In addition to Mrs. Russell. there is Mrs. Smith, an old friend and a gossip by anyone’s definition of the word. Assuming that Anne’s rumored preoccupation with one Mr. Elliot is true, she asks for her help in gaining favor with the man. Upon learning that this is not the man of Anne’s affections, she then on one hand “recommend[s] Mr. Elliot” (Austen 138) as a suitor, then, seeing that Anne has no interest in him, casts aspersions on his character. Her slander only serves to confirm what Anne already assumes to be Mr. Elliot’s true intentions. Austen uses these characters and others as a means of helping Anne vocalize her thoughts as she persuades herself to fulfill her own desires.

On more than one occasion, it is she who convinces herself that she must forego any thought of being content or fulfilled as a woman for one reason or another. Anne creates a list of criticisms regarding her engagement to Wentworth thinking it ill-advised and improbable for realization. Being persuaded by her own uncertainty and thoughts on social order causes her to relinquish any expectations for happiness. Her spirits dampened, she seems resigned to being forever without love. Austen emphasizes the importance of Anne’s choices or the absence of freedom to choose by using the word persuasion throughout the text. For example, we are told Anne “did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her” but, the author still highlights the importance of this theme with phrases such as “she was persuaded” (Austen 22) or “she, however, was soon persuaded to think differently” (Austen 82). The character’s restriction of choice and its consequences is further emphasized when the author illustrates that Anne realizes “she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it” (Austen 22).

The theme of freedom of choice courses through the novel and Anne is not the only character Austen uses to infer the effects of persuasion upon that freedom. Louisa, while “in the middle of some eager speech” proclaims she has “no idea of being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it”. Anne then hears Wentworth referring to her as being an “amiable creature” but lauding Louisa on her “character of decision and firmness” while adding, “if you value her conduct or happiness, infuse as much of your own spirit into her as you can” (Austen 63). However, had Anne followed her heart, there would still be a question of whether that would have been the right choice. Not just for herself, but also for Captain Wentworth. Would he have become the man of honor and rank that he became? We are told “he had distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank, and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune” (Austen 22). In his own retelling of his appointment to the Asp, he states “It was a great object with me at that time to be at sea; a very great object, I wanted to be doing something” (Austen 47).

As for Anne, she must first find her voice to achieve self-fulfillment and it is not as simple as learning to speak. She must first learn to listen to her own voice. This lesson comes with harsh consequences as we see when the author illustrates her mistakes early in the novel. We are quickly introduced to the broken engagement at the age of 19, which leads to her regret. Esther Moon argues that there are “errors that Anne must surmount but that also lead her to become the woman she is at the end of the novel” (par. 1). The author also establishes that Anne has “never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to” (Austen 34). She then illustrates that Anne, over time, learns to listen to her own self. Anne’s level of maturity, and ultimately her self-fulfillment, is linked to her determinism and to the authenticity of her voice. We see that “despite Lady Russell’s overwhelming influence, Anne gradually learns to “voice” her expression of self and gains a power of persuasion that is appropriate to her ‘elegance’ and ‘tone’ of mind” (Swanson 5). This “elegance of mind and sweetness of character” that Austen points out on page five, “should have placed her high with any people of real understanding” but, the “word” of this early version of Anne “had no weight.” It is not until seven years later that our protagonist finds her voice and her freedom.

In a sense, the “retrenchment” (Austen 10) that her family goes through is similar to the transformation that Anne undergoes. The recovery from their financial loss foreshadows what our heroine is to experience over the course of the next seven years. The author illustrates how Anne regroups as she learns new ways of experiencing life, new ways of thinking about herself and her worth. It is a path to self-fulfillment, an evolution, a growth, that brings Anne full circle to Frederick Wentworth. When she speaks to him in the end, she offers no regret in her decision to not marry him:

“I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it” (Austen 174).

Prior to this self-discovery and revelation, Anne is easily persuaded by herself and others, but the strength she finds in her own persuasion affords her a sense of flexibility. Thus, we find that “Anne, at seven and twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen” (Austen 22).

Jane Austin has created a feminine character who eventually learns to make decisions for herself regardless of the expectations of society. She has also cast her as a woman quite comfortable in the role of being a good wife in this patriarchal society. Strong, enlightened, levelheaded: Anne Elliot is all of these things and more. Jane Austen created a character that embodies the perfect woman. In writing her abstract on the novel Persuasion, Mary Weir points to the heroine’s “quiet asides, silent internal debates, and subtle re-directions” and their role in the character’s discovery of self. Despite the restrictions imposed on her by the constraints of the social hierarchy of 19th Century England, Anne Elliot “is finally able to speak and to choose a virtuous husband rather than a conventional one” (Weir 784) by the novel’s end. Breaking free of the constraints of the social norms that dictate her life as a young woman, Anne grows and learns that her feelings are valid as she becomes more self-aware, choosing freedom and individuality over those social constraints.

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