I 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.
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)