Reading Jane Austen 4

Persuasion. Not ‘Persuasion and …’ – Resistance, Refusal, Rebellion, for instance. Just Persuasion. In previous titles using abstract nouns Jane Austen had deployed pairs. This time the debate, the struggle, the contestation, the contrarieties and ambiguities are all in the one word. As they are all in, or concentrated on, the one girl. Anne Elliot is the loneliest of Jane Austen’s heroines. Persuaded by others, she has to repersuade herself.

In his essay In Between: Persuasion (in his 1986 volume Jane Austen) Tony Tanner makes a powerful point. Titles matter. Technically, they are the text’s first semantic system that the reader encounters. As such they have several obvious functions: predicting content; catching the reader’s interest; and reflecting the tone and slant of a piece of writing. In more transactional writing the impact of these functions is immediate; it is apparent before opening the books that Erich Fromm’s Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought is an analytic assessment by a third party of Freud’s psychological insights; whereas Freud’s own Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is exposition rather than analytic assessment of his work.

Literary titles are a little different, as Anne Ferry explores in her 1996 work The Title to the Poem. She suggests that the reader of a literary text cannot help but be affected by the title in some way when referring to the work as a whole. Tanner demonstrates this very clearly in his summation of what Austen’s title tells us: that the reader is likely to concentrate his/her focus on the heroine, Anne Elliot, and whether she will end by being offered and accepting a deserved second chance of (rekindled) love.

If Ferry is correct then it follows that a literary title is not neutral. And if so, then it can be interrogated hermeneutically. That is to say, it can carry a force of meaning that helps shape the reader’s interpretation of the text at each moment in the process of reading. And if Tanner is correct then the reader’s interpretation of Persuasion in all its events and characters is shaped through the filter of how they affect Anne and her story, subordinating whatever autonomy and significance they might have in their own right – ‘they are all in, or concentrated on, the one girl’. It is not surprising that most readers (and film and television producers) see the individual love story between her and the newly returned and prosperous Captain Wentworth as the central if not overpowering element of the novel.

As Tanner suggests, Persuasion as a title may well fall within that group of titles used by Austen which presents related pairs of abstract qualities even though it itself doesn’t form part of a pair. “Persuasion” as a word appears some fourteen times in the text to the best of my recollection, and twenty times more in its various forms. But Austen the novelist remains interested in exploring what Tanner calls “the debate, the struggle, the contestation, the contrarieties and ambiguities” – all of which are conducted within the hidden tangles of communication. Language is the means by and through which characters in the novels come to reach their opinions, convictions and conclusions – and language controls their interactions with and understanding of other characters. Austen, that is, is still concerned with how we use language and how language uses us. It is one of the characteristics of the novel as form and one of the foundations of her novels. Indeed, we need look no further than the opening pages of Sense and Sensibility to see the truth of how important persuasion as a defining concept of human interaction is to Austen. She lays out in chilling detail by the end of Chapter Two how John Dashwood reneges on his promise to his dying father to protect his mother and half-sisters financially and in other ways by allowing himself to agree with his wife to do as little as possible to alleviate their circumstances:

This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before; and he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out.
(my emphasis)

That said, the consequence for the reader of the single word as title is the problem of how to balance the inevitable tension between this effect of foregrounding Anne’s narrative while subordinating other elements in the novel that have functions outside Anne’s narrative even as they contribute to it. Many readers – like those film and television producers mentioned earlier – become more focused on the fact that Anne was once persuaded to give up her relationship with Wentworth – something she regrets – and are increasingly emotionally involved in how she rediscovers that earlier happiness. They push to one side such aspects as how Austen chooses to present the persuasion which is the root of Anne’s narrative (for example, it first substantially appears in Chapter Four, so what are the first three chapters concerned with?) and the who and why of the situation.

Despite the importance of the issue of persuasion that is central to the view of the novel as deliciously autumnal romantic and uplifting (and the fact that Austen devotes more time to the topic than she did in Sense and Sensibility) it is not only delayed but when it does appear it is merely reported through Austen’s default narrative technique of free indirect discourse. There is no direct or dramatic description of any conversation or confrontation, only the narrator’s voice speaking through Lady Russell’s and Anne’s supposed memories of their thoughts and feelings. We read that Lady Russell was “continually advising” Anne to end the engagement. And whereas “it might yet have been possible to withstand her father’s ill-will” this sustained onslaught from one “whom she had always loved and relied on” eventually carried the day with “such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner” that Anne did change her mind, breaking off the engagement with Wentworth and imagining herself “consulting his good, even more than her own”.

A few paragraphs earlier in the chapter we discover that Lady Russell’s conviction that the engagement was wrong is clear-sighted and based on her experience both of how social position creates influence and also how things can simply go wrong. We read in the first of these paragraphs:

Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession; would be, indeed, a throwing away, which she grieved to think of! Anne Elliot, so young; known to so few, to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence! It must not be, if by any fair interference of friendship, and representations from one who had almost a mother’s love, and mother’s rights, it would be prevented.
(my emphasis)

But even while acknowledging the validity of her knowledge and experience things are more complex, for it is clear that at root her concerns are also to do with Wentworth’s relative social and financial status. Lady Russell is inevitably constructed by notions of the importance of status, connections and influence that is such a feature (and potential failure – one of the themes of the novel) of her class. Nonetheless, Austen is at pains to support her awareness of the possibility of disaster by reinforcing the point later (albeit at one remove) through such things as Dick Musgrove’s death and Captain Harville’s career-ending injury. Young Wentworth is most definitely in a dangerous and uncertain profession.

Further, by aligning her narrative voice with her character’s thought processes in her usual unobtrusive way Austen captures how insidiously Lady Russell’s ability to imagine the worst leads her to overstep boundaries. Her genuine concern for Anne leads directly (and she believes quite impartially) to her decision to prevent the marriage. Austen points up the complexity of the emotion at play by calling this “interference”; and Lady Russell’s conviction that she has the obligation to act in this way because of “a mother’s love, and mother’s rights” is tellingly undermined by that little word “almost”.

The second paragraph emphasises that, however rational Lady Russell assumes her advice to be, it is not based purely on experience but also on her emotional responses and preferences regarding Wentworth’s self-confident demeanour and intelligence – she doesn’t like him:

Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it, must have been enough for Anne; but Lady Russell saw it very differently. – His sanguine temper, and fearlessness of mind, operated very differently on her. She saw in it but an aggravation of the evil. It only added a dangerous character to himself. He was brilliant, he was headstrong. – Lady Russell had little taste for wit; and of any thing approaching to imprudence a horror. She deprecated the connexion in every light.
(my emphasis)

It would be difficult to find a clearer statement of how human beings, whatever their intelligence, character and efforts to act altruistically, all fall victim to the tendency to persuade themselves that their opinions are founded on percipience rather than constructed and conditioned by unconscious preferences nurtured by their upbringing.

These paragraphs not only indicate the weight of the pressure the younger Anne faced and the destructive effects it had on her emotional life thereafter (and so seem to foreground Anne’s situation in the novel), they also offer another perspective that both links to ideas suggested in the opening three chapters as well as being somewhat diminished by the emphasis on this particular persuasion that itself has constructed the Anne Elliot we first meet. For these paragraphs reveal not just the darker side of the reasons behind Lady Russell’s advice but also simultaneously show (albeit subliminally on her part) what might be termed Wentworth’s significance beyond the unacceptability of his proposal to Anne. If one looks beyond the apparent dominance of Anne’s narrative here, Wentworth clearly undermines and threatens the prevailing authority represented by the landed gentry who cannot accept and so frustrate his intended marriage.

He is depicted as forceful, confident and above all active, qualities regarded as unpleasantly forward if we note the vocabulary Austen gives Lady Russell. Lady Russell is by no means painted as a malign or malevolent character along the lines of, say, Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, but she sees the world from the viewpoint of her class. In the previous chapters Sir Walter, as I will suggest later, demonstrates this in an even more exaggerated way – and where Wentworth is forceful, confident and active Sir Walter is complacent, contemptuous and very much passive in his social and parental obligations and responsibilities. As the novel progresses this stark difference takes on more weight, with Wentworth’s vigour (and by extension, the growing importance of the navy) contrasted with Sir Walter’s empty life in Bath. Having had to leave Kellynch Hall for lodgings in Bath because of his financial social and general carelessness, he is content to be fulfilled by concerts, card parties and the smallest acknowledgement from his distant cousin Lady Dalrymple – who seems to have nothing to recommend her apart from the hauteur of her more socially important title. I would argue that as the novel progresses these characters from the gentry and minor nobility unmistakably and increasingly represent a fading elite who, had they been in France, would almost certainly have found their way to the guillotine. And within the terms of Anne’s narrative, of course, they become less and less important.

But I would also argue that they are important to the text as one of its interlocking themes and structures – how people generally are constantly persuading and being persuaded by others and struggling to understand each other; how the text is built on a series of intersecting family circles that each have a representative function in the depiction of the society Austen creates; how the text outside Anne’s narrative increasingly demonstrates that society’s desperate need for change; and how, despite the individual success of the rekindled recognition and love between Anne and Wentworth, and their role as offering some hope for the future, very little actually changes.

It seems to me that if Austen had originally intended the novel to be primarily about Anne Elliot then her working title might well have been something akin to Emma: perhaps Anne. It would have meant only some minor restructuring, such as opening the novel with Chapter Four. But the problem with Anne as opposed to Emma is the fact that Anne has already gone through the angst and confusion that is a major element of Emma’s learning process; Anne has essentially come to an accommodation with herself and the world, however muted. Likewise, the other obvious pattern of Austen’s titles (if patterns can be said to exist across only six completed novels) making the setting central to her exploration of characters and events and their implications, as in Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, is not available here because of her father’s refusal to retrench which results in the loss of Kellynch Hall; Anne’s peripatetic life has no fixed centre – her narrative is one of constant dislocation. So while Persuasion is certainly an adequate title it seems to me that it cannot help but fail to encompass these wider perspectives. Interestingly, Deidre Le Faye’s 1989 Jane Austen: A Family Record reminds us that Austen family tradition has it that her preferred working title for the novel we know as Persuasion was, in fact, The Elliots. And also that Persuasion was not, in fact, Austen’s final choice but selected by her brother Henry after her death.

How is this relevant?

Well, Gerard Genette, in his 1988 paper Structure and Functions of the Title in Literature (in Critical Inquiry 14: 692-720) makes the point that titling is a form of communication, and

As in the case of any instance of communication, the title at the least is composed of a message (the title itself), a ‘destinateur,’ and an intended recipient

The writer’s (the ‘destinateur’s’) choice of title, then, is a message to the reader, indicating the writer’s core intention or focus. For most readers, perhaps, Persuasion essentially suggests an interest in an ongoing social, emotional and linguistic process foregrounded in Anne’s attempts to achieve autonomy and happiness outside of or despite her family; on the other hand, The Elliots locates her struggle within the encompassing context of family and how it operates – in this case, a specific and named family whose various members in their different ways structure and define wider aspects of that struggle which becomes the focus of the exploration of the family as well as of Anne. And I would argue that this helps explain why the love story element of the novel does not raise its head until Chapter Four and why the novel opens not with Anne and the clouded sense of regret and unhappy memories of failure but with a quite devastating portrait of her father and a potted history of the Elliot family.

Further, of course, in Genette’s terms Persuasion as a title cannot fulfil its role because, as it was chosen by her brother, there can be no ‘message’ from the author. Persuasion’s ‘message’ is merely a statement of one reader’s interpretation of his sister’s intention. Ibrahim Taha, Professor of Arabic Literature and Literary Semiotics at the University of Haifa in Israel, would seem to agree; in his 2009 paper Semiotics of Literary Titling: Three Categories of Reference he argues that if the literary title is not proposed by the author but by another authority, this title is not binding, not even on the practical level of discussion. I would suggest, however, that this admirable purity potentially prevents worthwhile discussion of a text especially if there is some evidence – as here – of a possible clue as to what the author’s working title might suggest as to original intention. After all, if it is the case that, as suggested at the beginning of this section, the title helps shape the reader’s interpretation of the text at each moment in the process of reading it is equally possible that the title (or the working title) helps shape the writer’s approach to the text at each moment in the process of writing. Or as Eco might put it, there is surely a constant interplay between the initial intentio auctoris and the developing intentio operis as the text progresses and subtly modifies first ideas.

Sadly, we do not know whether Austen would have changed her working title to something else before arranging to get her last (almost) completed novel published. What we do know is that on 13 March 1817 she wrote a letter to her niece Fanny Knight in which she said:

“I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence”

The slight hesitation in “perhaps” and the timescale of “about a twelvemonth hence” might well imply that although “ready”, she felt that the novel was not yet quite finished and could benefit from some revisions in the mode of the cancelled chapter for which Chapters Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three were substituted in the eventual published text. Some eighteen weeks later, on 18 July 1817, she died – and took a definitive final title with her to the grave.

If we make the judgment that The Elliots is the nearest likely approach to Austen’s definitive final title how does that change the focus of an interpretation of the novel beyond what has already been suggested – that Anne’s narrative is no longer foregrounded but assimilated within the larger canvas of the Elliot family? After all, every novel that Austen published displays her awareness of what the modern reader might call the vexed issue of family dynamics. In one way or another every novel demonstrates how families complicate the lives of her heroines – usually connected to some form of parental failure, be it negligence or indifference or a willingness to sacrifice their happiness on the altar of grossly unsuitable marriages. But none of her previous novels uses the family groups they contain and explore as a title. Each of them presents the family of the heroine as a personal and restricted set of influences within a narrow self-enclosed setting that has no wider effect on the themes and issues the novel examines. However problematic, obstructive or negligent family members may be ultimately they do not affect the outcome: the heroine marries the man she loves, even if her friends (such as Charlotte Lucas) have to marry for different reasons.

It seems to me that if Austen had used The Elliots as the title for the novel we know as Persuasion the major implication would concern the reader’s understanding (so far as that might exist) of what the author’s intention might be. Certainly the novel would still continue many of her established canonical themes and interests as established by her earlier works, but the act of foregrounding the idea of ‘the family’ inevitably moves it beyond questions of internal family dynamics to exploring a symbolic, social and even a quasi-political significance given the historical context of the novel’s action (the brief peaceful interlude between Napoleon’s exile to Elba after the Treaty of Fontainebleau in April 1814 and his escape from Elba in February 1815, his return to Paris the following month to gather an army and take on Blucher and win at Ligny a matter of days before his final defeat at Waterloo in June 1815). In this sense, the novel can justly be seen as both consonant with her earlier works and a radical enlargement of them.

It also seems to me that the opening chapter of the novel supports this reading of the working title’s implications and the initial idea for the work. I propose to look at that opening chapter in more detail a little later, but the fact that it opens with Sir Walter Elliot and quickly outlines his family history shows that Austen is very much at pains to pin down the family background and dynamics in all its horror; and perhaps also introduce at least part of the main cast of characters whose fortunes will intertwine and play out over the narrative. Indeed, by the end of the fourth chapter we have heard the names of almost all the major characters with the exception of Wentworth’s naval friends and the late introduction of Anne’s old school friend Mrs Smith.

We learn that Sir Walter is a widower after some sixteen years of marriage; that he raised three young daughters by himself (though with some assistance or interest from his late wife’s friend Lady Russell), all identified as to his assessment of them (Elizabeth, the eldest, described as ‘very like himself’ while Anne and Mary ‘were of very inferior value’; though Mary had at least ‘merely connected herself with an old country family of respectability and large fortune, and had therefore given all the honour and received none’); and the revelation that his ‘heir presumptive’, William Walter Elliot, had been intended to marry Elizabeth but instead ‘had purchased independence by uniting himself to a rich woman of inferior birth’ and thus caused Sir Walter to cut him off (‘all acquaintance between them had ceased’).

As mentioned earlier, another aspect of the plot structure of the novel that supports the working title is the fact that the characters are carefully arranged into family groups: the Elliots (including by extension Lady Russell; and, through her friendship with Elizabeth, Mrs Clay); and through Mary’s marriage the Musgroves; and through the renting of Kellynch Hall to the Crofts Wentworth’s family via his sister Mrs Croft. Even the naval connection through Wentworth’s friends coheres around notions of the family: Captain Harville and his wife, and Captain Benwick, who had been engaged to Harville’s sister. Even the latecomer, the widowed and immobile Mrs Smith, is presented with a detailed family background.

Through this widening circle of social interrelationships the ‘family’ forever renews itself; and because of the tendency to foreground Anne’s narrative and her emotional involvement with Wentworth it is sometimes easy to forget or ignore the fact that at the close of the novel there are three new marriages performing this function of widening social circles: Anne and Wentworth; Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick; and Henrietta Musgrove and Charles Hayter. I would argue that this also has its part to play in Austen’s decision to end the novel – literally – with the two last apparently casual words “national importance”. Superficially (and almost certainly personally, given that two of her brothers went on to have substantial and illustrious careers in the Royal Navy) it is part of a reference to Wentworth and his little knot of naval friends; but it has deeper resonances, for the family unit is often seen as the primary foundation of both the individual and eventually, of society itself. In terms of the effect of the family on the individual, Robert Plomin and Denise Daniels (in their 1987 joint article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol 10, Issue 1 titled Why are children in the same family so different from one another?) say of their research that:

One of the most important findings that has emerged from human behavioral genetics involves the environment rather than heredity, providing the best available evidence for the importance of environmental influences on personality, psychopathology, and cognition. The research also converges on the remarkable conclusion that these environmental influences make two children in the same family as different from one another as are pairs of children selected randomly from the population.

And in a comment made to The New York Times when the newspaper reviewed the research findings in July 1987, Dr Daniels summarised them as:

All the psychological theories point to the family as the basic unit of socialization. If so, you would expect children from the same family to be largely similar. But it is really quite the opposite. The assumption that the family environment operates the same for all children in it does not hold up.

The immediate relevance to Austen’s portrayal of the three Elliot daughters is, I think, self-evident.

At the very least, then, the reader conscious of the novel’s two titles, one actual the other potential, has the opportunity to see some of the possible drivers of the fascinating creative tensions within the text – and possibly arrive at a more balanced view of what Austen has achieved.

On to Reading Jane Austen 5
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© Mike Liddell 2019