In Defense of Inconstancy: The Rewards of "Second Attachments" in Persuasion

By West, Carol L. | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2018 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Inconstancy: The Rewards of "Second Attachments" in Persuasion


West, Carol L., Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


PERSUASION'S AFFIRMATION of undiminished hope and constancy in love is indeed worth celebrating. Anne Elliot's belated second chance at love with Captain Wentworth affirms the rightness of the first attachment that drew them together when Anne was only nineteen. We have every reason to feel assured that their upcoming marriage will be as happy, compatible, and enduring as that of Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who represent a marital ideal in Austen's novels. Nonetheless, Persuasion's apparent rewarding of constancy in first loves isn't necessarily the prevailing pattern of Austen's fiction--indeed, even of Persuasion itself. This theme irresistibly conjures thoughts of opposing examples, most notably that of Sense and Sensibility's famous championing of "second attachments." If Sense and Sensibility doesn't go quite so far as advocating inconstancy, it does expose the misguided nature of many first attachments, the benefits of resilience (or "moving on"), and the frequent superiority of second attachments to first loves--most notably in the cases of Edward Ferrars, Marianne Dashwood, and Colonel Brandon. Despite the two novels' apparent opposition in their rendering of romantic constancy versus multiple attachments, the relationship patterns in Persuasion suggest a greater degree of alignment than of contrast. Constancy proves to be, at best, a problematic virtue in Persuasion, revealing unexpected rewards in characters' pursuits of new loves. Indeed, the benefits of second attachments in Persuasion play a crucial role in enabling the happy ending and the culminating union of Anne and Captain Wentworth.

Constancy to first attachments emerges as a problematic position in Persuasion's first chapter, inviting speculation about the widowed Sir Walter's and Lady Russell's long-standing failures to remarry. In Sir Walter's case, any assumptions about his "constancy" and prior "attachment" are quickly rendered questionable by the narrator's summation of his marriage to a wife far superior in character. Rather than assessing the marriage from Sir Walter's perspective, the narrator focuses on the late Lady Elliot's brave adjustment to disillusionment with her spouse, whose failings she had "humoured, or softened, or concealed" (4). Although Sir Walter's degree of attachment to his wife is left unaddressed, the contextual description implies that his self-love has superseded all other emotions. If the late Lady Elliot's humouring of her husband had lacked sufficient flattery and deference, she presumably failed to inspire a sustainable affection. Sir Walter's minimal regard for Anne, the daughter who most resembles her mother, also implies a lack of attachment to his late wife. More explicitly, the narrator construes Sir Walter's long-term widower status as the result of a few rejected marriage proposals and a subsequent decision to remain single for the benefit of his eldest daughter. No construction of Sir Walter's constancy attributes it to a sense of inconsolable loss or unwavering attachment to his late wife. More reticent about Lady Russell's motives for remaining a widow, the narrator alludes only to her being "of steady age and character, and extremely well provided for" (5). Her constancy to widowhood has apparently endured for decades, though seemingly motivated by her proximity and devotion to the late Lady Elliot's family rather than inconsolable grief for Lady Russell's unmentioned husband. Indifference to second attachments is thus rendered a doubtful virtue from the outset of Persuasion, calling into question the status of the Elliot and Russell marriages as true attachments.

Persuasion's canvassing of problematic attachments, whether first or subsequent, finds its primary focus in the romantic prospects of Anne Elliot, specifically among a trio of prospective suitors with whom she is uneasily paired. Charles Musgrove, Anne's subsequent brother-in-law, represents the earliest of these potential attachments. …

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