Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Her Happiness Was from Within": Courtship and the Interior World in Persuasion

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Her Happiness Was from Within": Courtship and the Interior World in Persuasion

Article excerpt

TOWARD THE END OF Persuasion, Captain Harville, speaking to Anne Elliot, famously says, "'[A]ll histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse.... I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy.'" Anne just as famously replies, "'Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.... [T]he pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything'" (234).

Anne was in earnest, but her creator knew better. In addition to her genius, Austen had a crucial advantage in telling women's stories--the courtship plot. From the time she began writing fiction at age 12, she structured her work using this plot. Amelia Webster ("an interesting and well-written tale") in Volume the First of the juvenilia ends with three marriages (78). In this burlesque of a courtship narrative the marriages follow the letter-borne mention of the heroines and heroes to each other but omit every intermediate step between acquaintance and betrothal.

Those intermediate steps form the essence of Austen's mature work. In all six of the novels published during or shortly after her lifetime, the narrative skeleton for each is the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines. In my recent book, I define this sub-genre of comedy and lay out those intermediate steps--the genre's eight essential but little-studied narrative elements: the definition of a corrupt society which the betrothal of heroine and hero will help reform, the meeting of the heroine and hero, their attraction to each other, their recognition of the rightness of their choice of each other, their declaration of love for each other, and the betrothal itself. Two other elements, the barrier between heroine and hero (the reasons they do not plight their troth on page 3 of the novel) and the point of ritual death (the point at which their union seems least likely), are rich, unexplored repositories of meaning in this sort of narrative (30-39). In Persuasion Anne Elliot's survival of ritual death and eventual freedom from the barrier to her union with Wentworth demonstrate the truth of her thinking and the constancy of her feeling. Here Austen employs ritual death and barrier-like lasers to illuminate this novel's great theme: the minds of women are true and their hearts unvarying.

The courtship narrative is suspect among critics. This plot, Rachael Blau DePlessis claims, "muffles the main female character, represses quest ... [and] incorporates individuals within couples as a sign of their personal and narrative success" (5). In this view, the form itself is guilty--the movement from meeting to betrothal, for the heroine, is a journey to her own effacement. Wayne Booth presents a similar argument about the plot of Emma in which he condemns its form, the same form that Austen employed in Persuasion. He fears that "many readers will succumb morally to what was simply required formally," that the form's requirement for a "resounding ending"--the marriage--forced Austen into a sacrifice of morality to formal convention (430-31). I argue that instead of sacrificing her meaning to the formal requirements of the courtship novel, Austen deploys the elements of courtship, especially barrier and ritual death, to illuminate her great theme of women's mindful and heartfelt constancy. Instead of a moral surrender, this plot vindicates the morality of Anne's--and by extension, women's--unwavering mind and heart.

SOCIETY AND THE EXTERNAL BARRIERS

The barriers in Persuasion reflect three sweeping social movements as they apply to women that inform the courtship narrative as it develops in English beginning as early as 1741 (Pamela): the slow recognition of women's right to own property, the spread of the ideal of companionate marriage, and the rise of affective individualism. At the time Austen was writing, a married woman had no property rights under marriage--her husband owned every asset she might have brought into the marriage and any that she acquired while married to him: she was, in the legal term, a feme covert, invisible before the law of property. …

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