Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Austen's "Providence" in Persuasion

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Austen's "Providence" in Persuasion

Article excerpt

Hope is the certain expectation of future glory; it is the result of God's grace and of merit we have earned. (Paradiso 25.67-69)

Jane Austen might have been "among the least proselytizing of Christian novelists" (Knox-Shaw 9), but the subtlety with which she treats matters of religion has been misunderstood in recent years. For some readers, Austen's subtlety--especially in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice--indicates religious skepticism. Even in the mature novels, readers Find it difficult to come to a consensus about Austen's presentation of religion. For instance, in Persuasion "Providence" appears as an agent to which the action of ordering the lives of characters is attributed. Yet in his controversial essay, "Moral Luck and Judgment in Jane Austen's Persuasion," Robert Hopkins has argued that luck, chance, fate, and fortune are also identified, problematically, by various characters--and even by the narrator--as organizing principles of human affairs. It behooves readers who are not satisfied with Hopkins's unsettling thesis to discover precisely what Austen means when she uses the word "Providence." This term is mentioned explicitly three times in the novel: first, when Anne tacitly criticizes Lady Russell's distrust of it (32); again, derisively, by Captain Wentworth when he criticizes the heroine's proud sister Mary Musgrove for her regret at not having been introduced to her estranged cousin Mr. Elliot at Lyme (115); and by the narrator in the final chapter in a critique of the heroine's father, Sir Walter, for his failure to fulfill his duty as a resident landholder (270). We will consider each passage carefully in order to demonstrate the crucial role Providence plays in the overall design of the novel. In Persuasion, Austen shows that human happiness is contingent upon both merit and grace: the degree to which a character exerts himself or herself in collaboration with Providence is the degree to which he or she might hope to achieve happiness.

AN EQUATION FOR HAPPINESS: "EXERTION" AND "TRUST"

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, a young woman who at nineteen falls in love with Fredrick Wentworth, a gallant, spirited naval commander. The two become engaged to be married, but when the news is broken to her vain, proud father Sir Walter, he, "without actually withholding his consent ... [gives] it all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter" (28).

More disconcerting still, Anne's great friend, confidante, and godmother, Lady Russell, also disapproves of the match. Lady Russell's two professed objections are that Wentworth is totally unconnected (he has no family connections, he is unknown) and that his character is questionable (he is head-strong and inconstant in her eyes). Lady Russell's apprehensiveness is by no means unfounded: Wentworth, "spending freely, what had come freely, [has] realized nothing" (29). He has not yet earned the trust of the only sensible advisor Anne has left in the world. Lady Russell's error, however, lies not in exercising reasonable skepticism, but in forming a hasty and intractable judgment. Rather than allow Wentworth to persuade her over time that he is worthy of attaching Anne, Lady Russell uses her influence (both her own ethos and her appeals to Anne's firm sense of filial duty) to "persuade" Anne to relinquish the attachment.

Yet in truth, Lady Russell's rhetoric is coercive rather than persuasive. In narrative colored by Lady Russell, we are given a sample of the kind of "persuasion" she exercised against Anne:

   Anne Elliot, so young; known to so few, to be snatched off by a
   stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a
   state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependance! It must
   not be, if by any fair interference of friendship, any
   representations from one who had almost a mother's love, and
   mother's rights, it would be prevented. … 
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