I had quite the merry weekend celebrating the college graduation of a very good friend from my own place of alum. Returning to the small, California, central coastal town always brings about the strangest mix of emotions though. The setting is beautiful, the town couldn’t be more picturesque…
…and yet there is many a painful memory mixed in with all the beauty. Despite those though, with every visit I make, I find myself loving the place and growing fonder and fonder of it for all of its trials, tribulations, and triumphant memories that re-shaped me.
In Jane Austen’s last-completed novel Persuasion, and possibly one of her least-appreciated ones, I believe Austen speaks most frankly about her views upon women’s lives: how they were forced to live versus how they desired to live, how they loved, and how a steadfast character is the most charming and endurable quality in a woman. If you’re confused by my connection between college memories and Jane Austen novel’s, take a quick look at today’s Plain Jane. In short though, the female portraits Austen paints in Persuasion, perhaps best embody the lessons I learned while navigating the strange times of college-life, and, after that, the even stranger world of office-life. If you’re facing some perturbing waters, perhaps consider reading Persuasion, I’m certain you will find some characters to pattern your navigations after, and some who will illustrate how NOT to tackle that trial. Throughout her novel, Austen makes her idea for how the ideal woman lives a life that will conclude fulfilled and happy quite clear. I have seen these female portraits (both good and bad) of Persuasion in our own world, and Austen’s truths still stand true:
#1) The finest ladies make turbulent waters appear smooth.
“But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.” -Mrs. Croft
Mrs. Croft, the wife of an admiral, is probably the most forward-thinking of all the females in Austen’s novels. Without compromising any of her femininity though, she is strong and independent, yet kind and loving. While most women of her time stayed at home and sought merely to make a good marriageable match, Mrs. Croft sails the world with her husband, and lives for the adventures she encounters on the sea. Devoted to her husband yet living out her ambitions for travel and accomplishment, Mrs. Croft is the perfect portrait of a balanced life: knowing how to love and support her husband while fulfilling her own goals and facing the troubles that arose in their travels with grace and endurance.#2) A selfish woman makes everyone miserable. “So you and I are to be left to shift by ourselves, with this poor sick child; and not a creature coming near us all the evening! I knew how it would be. This is always my luck. If there is anything disagreeable going on men are always sure to get out of it, and Charles is as bad as any of them.” -Mary Musgrove
Mary is the dissatisfied wife of Charles Musgrove and the sister of Anne, the heroine of the book and the polar opposite character of the self-centered Mary; seeking to be served and adored by everyone else, Mary is even loathe to care for her own ill child. The nineteenth-century equivalent to a modern “bimbo,” Mary is a ridiculous woman more intent on pleasure and social-climbing than the happiness of her family. Because of her failings as a wife and mother, though she believes it is her husband who gets out of “anything disagreeable,” it is actually her own character that makes everyone else’s life so very, very painful.#3) Regardless of accomplishment, title, wealth, or distinction, landing upon the proper proportions of strength and sweetness is the female’s greatest power. “When he more seriously described the woman he should wish to meet with, ‘a strong mind, with sweetness of manner,’ made the first and the last of the description.” -Captain Wentworth
Captain Wentworth is the male protagonist of the story and at the beginning of the novel has returned to visit the family of the love of his youth: Anne Elliot. Wentworth once proposed to the young Anne, but she was persuaded to reject his proposal based upon his lack of family connections and distinctions. When he returns, though he finds Anne much-changed in appearance by many years of woe over her decision to elevate title above affection, she has gained a sweetness of temperament towards even those in her family who do not deserve it, and a surety of opinion that he respects and falls deeper in love with than when she was a young, thoughtless beauty.#4) Modernity has, thankfully, allowed women to be considered estimable for far, far more than our appearance. Yet, a little fashion sense still can’t hurt. “Morning visits are never fair by women at her time of life, who make themselves up so little. If she would only wear rouge, she would not be afraid of being seen; but last time I called, I observed the blinds were let down immediately.” -Sir Walter
Sir Walter is Anne’s father and a rather backwards man who judges everyone sheerly by appearances. While he obsesses over his own clothing, decorating his home in the latest fashions, and traveling to popular destinations, he shamefully mistreats his own daughter, Anne. Anne’s strength of character is able to overcome even her father’s cruelty however. When juxtaposed against her father’s idiocy, her own sweetness of temper is highlighted and makes Captain Wentworth love her all the more for her endurance under tribulations, as he now finds her an “elegant little woman…with manners as consciously right as they were invariably gentle.”
#5) Regardless of what you desire to achieve, learning to love and be loved is perhaps the greatest fulfillment of all.“All the privilege I claim for my own sex is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” -Anne Elliot
At the conclusion of the novel, Anne and Captain Wentworth discover that they both have continued to love one another though they both considered the other’s heart hardened towards a life they could have once had together. Putting aside their situations, Captain Wentworth’s successes versus Anne’s trials, his anger and her past discrimination, they forgive and forget all. She sees he has never faltered in his love for her, and he sees her compassion, new-found strength of mind, character, and opinion, and her enduring femininity that did not harden throughout trials nor did it give up under distress. Instead, her trials produced a woman who illustrated the perfect balance of strength and sweetness and now had nothing but to “endeavor to subdue (her) mind to (her) fortune.”