Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Making It in a Brave New World: Marriage, Profession, and Anti-Romantic Ekstasis in Austen's 'Persuasion.' (Jane Austen) (the Romantic Novel)

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Making It in a Brave New World: Marriage, Profession, and Anti-Romantic Ekstasis in Austen's 'Persuasion.' (Jane Austen) (the Romantic Novel)

Article excerpt

Little more than twenty years ago, Nina Auerbach helped inaugurate the current ideological re-assessment of Jane Austen by enthusiastically comparing Persuasion to Shakespeare's The Tempest: "It introduces for the last time motifs and events that have furnished the author's universe from the beginning, but which are joyfully transformed in the crucible of a brave new world" (p. 113).(1) This new world, writes Auerbach, will be "guided by emotion and vision" and "governed by nature and by human desire." The old, landed interests "who cannot accommodate themselves to these laws . . . are threatened and deprived of power" by "those who represent feeling" (pp. 116, 117), the most notable example being "the dispossession of the Elliots" from Kellynch Hall by their new renters, Admiral and Mrs. Croft. Indeed, writes Auerbach, "the navy is Jane Austen's vision of a brave new world" (p. 123), and its accession to power indicates a "revolution of values in Jane Austen's mind" and "in her society" (p. 117) that Auerbach identifies with the impassioned, self-expressive Romanticism of Keats and Shelley (p. 128). Austen's "utopian hopes" even have "peculiar affinities to Shelley's in Prometheus Unbound" (p. 120).

How Shelley would have received Auerbach's comparison of his own "brave new world" to Austen's, we can only guess. Prospero's rejoinder to Miranda might strike him as apt: "|Tis new to thee." Carried away by her own "revolutionary vision" (p. 128), Auerbach seems blithely unaware that the new post-war world policed by Austen's naval officers included the Bourbon restoration, the Quadruple Alliance, the Indian Raj, and the Peterloo Massacre. She is particularly enthusiastic over Austen's vision of the "new woman" in this "brave new world," as epitomized by the weather-worn, plain-speaking, sea-going wife of Admiral Croft. "In the Crofts' exemplary marriage," says Auerbach, "the wife shares her husband's life of exertion and exposure; she no longer lives in a woman's world, and she has no children" (p. 123). Accordingly, Austen's heroine, Anne Elliot, will, "like Mrs. Croft . . . be liberated' after her marriage. She will go to sea" with her new husband, Captain Frederick Wentworth (p. 127).

Auerbach appears certain of this outcome despite ominous hints in the final paragraph of the book concerning the newlyweds' immediate future:

Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain

Wentworth's affection. His profession was all that could ever make her

friends wish that tenderness less; the dread of a future war all that could

dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor's wife, but she must pay

the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if

possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national

importance. (pp. 253-54; emphasis added)(2) The events of Persuasion transpire during the lull in fighting between the initial capture and imprisonment of Napoleon in 1814 and his escape from Elba and final defeat at Waterloo the following year. Apparently, Anne will be paying the "tax of quick alarm" for being "a sailor's wife" rather sooner than later. Auerbach interprets that "alarm" as applying to Anne's own person, since she is now, presumably, to join her new husband on a man-of-war, where together they will face "the possibility of violent death" (p. 128). Of all Austen's novels, says Auerbach, "Only in Persuasion is the sea world allowed to . . . carry off the heroine, with all its romantic excitement, and all its attendant danger" (p. 119).

In the following pages, I will take issue with this rather melodramatic conclusion, not only because Austen's readers would have known that Anne's "quick alarm" was unwarranted (there would be no "romantic excitement" or "attendant danger," since no significant naval engagement took place during the period between Napoleon's escape and decisive defeat), but also because Austen has provided numerous clues that however great Anne Elliot's admiration for the Crofts, she will not be filling the professional role of a "sailor's wife" with anything like the same degree of elan and intrepidity as Sophia Croft. …

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