The Regency Interpreter looks at Jane Austen’s Persuasion, part 1

Persuasion buttonI am starting a new Regency Interpreter’s series on  Persuasion. Before I start on the 1995 movie, I wanted to spend a few moments defending Lady Russell, on her role in Anne and Wentworth’s initial break up. 

To be honest, I think Lady Russell is a rather unpopular character with modern audiences who blame her for ruining Anne’s happiness.  However, if we step into the shoes of the early 1800’s, I believe she comes a different and more sympathetic character.

Was Lady Russell Really at Fault?

To the modern audience, Lady Russell may appear to be  class conscious, snobby and inappropriate for interfering in Anne’s life so freely. However, a closer look at the text suggests that perhaps there might have been more to Lady Russell’s advice than class-consciousness and indifference to Anne’s wishes. What motives might Lady Russell have had that would justify her near disastrous advice to Anne? Is it even possible, that her advice might have been sound?

Wentworth comes into the neighborhood as an unknown stranger and attached himself to Anne after only a very brief romance. He had neither wealth not any real connections, and his profession was the Navy. Considering the era, each of these were significant marks against the young suitor.

A newcomer in any neighborhood might be rightly viewed with a little suspicious. With no broad acquaintances, who would know what kind of man this was? What was his reputation? Did he have a dubious history? He could easily been very much like another Jane Austen character, Wickham; a man few would want their daughters connected with.

With Wentworth’s lack of fortune and connection, Anne’s future living situation would certainly have been a big question. During their early acquaintance, Wentworth appeared to spend money freely, giving an impression that he might not be a wise manager of finances. Anne’s dowry is not clearly discussed in the text. 

The inference here is that she would have little because a large dowry would have attracted notable suitors and been discussed fairly openly.  Since it was not, it seems safe to assume that Anne might be given little to nothing at marriage. Assuming this is the case, Lady Russell could have had very serious questions as to whether or not Anne would have a comfortable living situation.

Since sailors were gone for long periods of time, there was a very real possibility that Anne would be left alone a great deal of time. Adding this to the uncertainty of her living conditions paints a very concerning picture for Anne’s future.  Anne is accustomed to living on an estate, with sufficient provision and servants to assist with much of necessary work. Living in a port city, in cheap accommodations with perhaps only a young maid-of-all work to assist her could easily have been Anne’s future. Of even greater concern, in addition to all this Anne might also be pregnant and alone. With all the difficulty and danger of childbirth, such a fate for her favorite could not have been an appealing thought for a caring god-mother.

Moreover, the mortality rate of men in the navy was staggering. During the Napoleonic War, approximately 100,000 naval personnel lost their lives.  80% of the deaths were due to accident and disease, not enemy action.  There was a very good chance that when Wentworth left, he might never return, thereby leaving a widow and possibly a small child in uncertain financial conditions. Even if Anne were to return to her father’s home, Sir Walter Elliot was not in a good financial state himself and might not have been able or willing to take Anne and a child in.

 

Although Wentworth and other naval officers had hopes of getting rich through prize money, it was by no means a certainty. Prize money came in several forms.  Prize and gun money was earned when enemy ships were sunk and a reward was paid based on the number of men and/or guns on the sunken vessel.  Better payouts came when hostile ships were captured ad their cargo sod to the British government.  Proceeds from these sales would be distributed to the officers and crew. After 1808, the division of prize money generally followed: Captain(s) – 2 eighths, Captains of Marines and Army, Sea Lieutenants, Master and Physician – equal shares in 1 eighth. Lieutenants of Marines and Army, Secretary of Admiral, Principal Warrant Officer, Master’s Mates, Chaplain – equal share in 1 eighth. The rest – equal shares in 4 eighths. However, even prize money was not certain as disputes over it could spend years in Admiralty and Civil courts. Wentworth could easily have left the navy as poor as when he joined.

In the Regency era, women of the upper class, unless they were wealthy widows, were usually entirely dependent upon their husbands or fathers. Anne’s friend, Mrs. Smith illustrates this situation well. Stark financial reality led to the necessity of a husband who could provide for her and her children. Wentworth did not offer any assurances. Naturally Lady Russell would be alarmed to see the possibility of something so uncertain for her god-daughter. So, regardless of class distinction, there were excellent practical reasons for Anne to be dissuaded from such a very risky match.

A careful reading of the book, though, suggests an even more sympathetic reason for Lady Russell’s opposition to the match. Jane Austen describes Anne as very much like her mother. Lady Russell knew and esteemed Lady Elliot and was aware that Lady Elliot had married her husband in a youthful infatuation and was not happy in her marriage. Lady Elliot made the best of the difficult situation, though and managed the silliness and vanity of her husband admirably.

After the death of Lady Elliot, Lady Russell looked upon Anne as a favorite and friend. She would have wanted the best for Anne and likely saw an alarming similarity between Anne and Wentworth and Lady Elliot’s youthful infatuation with Sir Walter. Knowing the grief that it brought her friend, is it any wonder that Lady Russell was moved to persuade Anne away from making the same mistake that played out a generation earlier?

Had the most likely outcomes taken place, Wentworth dying at sea or returning home as poor as he left, Lady Russell’s advice would have been hailed as the saving of Anne Elliot. It seems to me that, without an omniscient narrator to tell her things she could not otherwise know, Lady Russell’s advice was actually quite sound. Really, her only big mistake was not predicting that Wentworth would go on to be successful enough to support a wife and family. So, far from being a meddling busy body who only succeeded in making Anne and Wentworth miserable for the years until their reunion, I think Lady Russell was a well-meaning friend, who dispensed advice which would have been considered excellent had things turned only a little different.

 

References:

In Defense of Lady Russell; or, The Godmother Knew Best by JOAN KLINGEL RAY. Persuasions #15, 1993,  Pages 207-215, a JASNA publication.

 Jane Austen and the Navy, Second edition. Southam, Brian. National Maritime Museum Publishing (2005)

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    • junewilliams7 on May 19, 2014 at 1:43 pm
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    LR could have done two things more: she could have had Wentworth investigated – find out if he was truly brother-in-law to an Admiral, check his references., see if his family would be willing to support a widowed Anne with child.

    She could have suggested they have a long “understanding” if not an outright long engagement, with conditions such as ‘you have to make this amount in prize money to be set aside for Anne’s jointure.” LR could have been the chaperone, watching Anne and Wentworth interact, so she could see that this was no repeat of Sir-Walter/Anne’s-mother. It seems that Wentworth wasn’t given this very thoughtful explanation of yours, that he was only given the refusal and rejection.

    LR might have had the best of intentions, but the execution could have used a little more thought?

    1. Those are some good points, June. As far as having Wentworth investigated, in an era without instant communications, it would have been very difficult. Private investigators still really did not exist. Lady Russell may not have had the connections necessary to do such a thing, it would have been highly unlikely. As for approaching Wenthworth’s family, that would have effectively been impossible. Without an introduction she could not have even spoken to them, and even with an introduction, she could not have possibly asked questions of so personal a nature. It simply was not done, especially by a woman unrelated to the person in question

      Not being related to Anne, she could hardly have insisted on chaperoning when Sir Walter did not, nor could she even speak to the issues you mention. Women did not have the leave to interfere in such matters one the man in charge had spoken, which Sir Walter had.

      All these options would have been appropriate in a more modern setting, but in the Regency era, they would have been largely impossible to accomplish.

      Thanks, June!

    • Deborah on May 19, 2014 at 5:04 pm
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    Very convincing Maria. This certainly shows Lady Russell as caring and well meaning. Thank you. Took bad she didn’t suggest a long engagement, though.

    • junewilliams7 on May 19, 2014 at 8:37 pm
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    Thanks for your response! Maria, what do you think the relationship was like between Wentworth and LR *after* Anne married him?

    1. I think after some time and some overall grumpiness, he would have come to appreciate that she alone seemed to offer Anne the care that she deserved. i think he would grudgingly have forgiven her, though would not want her advising Anne on much. I think she would come to appreciate Wentworth when she saw him take care of Anne as no one else ever had.

      I’m a sucker for HEA’s all around. Thanks, June!

    • Leslie on May 20, 2014 at 4:54 pm
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    I’m pleased to see your ‘Interpreter’ series has finally found ‘Persuasion.’ I think LR did give good advice, and it’s only in hindsight do we see the advice as being meddlesome.

    • Anji on May 21, 2014 at 2:14 pm
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    What a wonderful piece of interpetation, Maria.

    I have to confess to being a member of the “I Hate Lady Russell” party! I hadn’t considered all the ramifications of CFW’s atrributes and prospects at the time of the first propsoal in their historical context.

    Thank you so mich for enlightening us.

    • Deborah on July 2, 2014 at 5:15 am
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    I have read this post before when you first published it. I totally agree with you. Having read the book and knowing the outcome is what made me feel she gave poor advice. That he becomes wealthy and survived is amazing when you look at the odds against this happening. When looking at her advice with fresh eyes, after first reading the persuasive and accurate information you presented, I felt it was sound.

    I do love hiatory , and usually research the era, but due to a 50,hr work week w/a dozen 3 yr olds, the studious aspect of my life is on hold. Reading for enjoyment is my priority, so I truly appreciate these posts, as well as your History A LA Carte. And the post you did on kid’s games. Thank you.

  1. Like you, I think Lady Russell gets a bad rap. I take issue with one item of your analysis, however. Capt. Wentworth was vouched for in the neighborhood by his brother, Edward, the Anglican clergyman was was working as a curate in the local parish, so he wasn’t a total stranger.

    However, I think even Jane Austen, at one point, must have agreed with your analysis about the risks inherent in marrying a military officer during a time of war, especially a long, drawn-out world war that lasted 20 years.

    Consider the case of Miss Frances Ward, who, in MANSFIELD PARK, married a Lieutenant in the Royal Marines named Price, and, within a few years, found herself and her children in a very precarious financial situation when her husband was crippled in combat, and invalided out of the service on half-pay. And Miss Ward, by now Mrs. Price, had a very substantial dowry of 7000 pounds, while, in PERSUASION, it’s at least implied that, while he won’t forbid the match, Sir Walter will withhold Anne’s dowry if she goes ahead with the marriage (as the novel puts it, Sir Walter attached to his grudging permission “a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter.” Had the marriage taken place, Anne could have found herself in even more dire straits than Mrs. Price.

    What Mrs. Russell does to carry her point, though, is, to my mind, not quite conscionable. It’s one thing to put to Anne all those well-thought-out arguments about the inherent risks in such a union. It’s quite another to use Anne’s love for Wentworth against her (and against Wentworth) by suggesting that, if she truly loves him, she must give him up for his own good. That’s what she finally did when none of her other arguments worked, and that’s what finally convinced Anne. I think that was dirty pool, even allowing that she truly loved Anne, and truly had her best interests at heart.

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