Jane Austen’s last novel was quite a different take on the romance genre during her time. It was expected of Austen’s art of writing to direct her irony in her novels about expectations in women, aristocracy, and social customs. Austen herself was a keen observer of the economics of her class and herself of the landed gentry but mostly from the perspective of the marginal female member of the field.
In Persuasion, the canonical theme of marriage in a romance novel was concluded with a predictable ending and resolution. However, marriage and romance in the case of Anne Elliot did not execute with the traditional approach in comparison to previous texts, on top of being a heroine that challenges the female protagonist archetype herself. Accompanying those grounds, Austen — who often wrote with realism in mind — incorporated the reality of societal expectation while challenging these traditions in Persuasion, which gave it a mature and sensible taste to the novel. The conflict between romance and the reality that Austen had written in Persuasion made the novel with an unlikely romance trope, which can be seen through Anne’s self-conflicting character as a heroine and how other women in the novel view the idea of marriage and wealth.
A pattern that was evident in the discussion of women and marriage was the cost of marriage for these women and how that influenced each woman’s value of her dignity and personal interest in the novel. Austen had drawn in on the idea that women often sacrifice their education and intellectual value after marriage. This idea also leads to the point of what women seek or consider for marriage. The nature of the aristocratic circle of Persuasion, in which most of the characters were levelled in on similar grounds, were often pursuing to benefit in status and materialism; lesser on the emotional and spiritual connection with their partners when it comes to marriage. This is to say that the importance of marriage as a contract to wealth and status causes women to elude from their dignity in the intellectual and emotional property. For example, the most obvious female character that beared this tendency was Mrs. Clay, whose plans to court Sir Walter Elliot was for the benefit of property inheritance and status.
Marriage was imperative for translating wealth and property in the aristocratic society of 18th Century Britain. The circle of the aristocrats and landed gentry was often the main purpose for marriage rather than the latter being about genuine love and romance. Sure enough, although Anne’s feelings for Wentworth was genuine, Louisa might have been Anne’s rival in that sense as well but, as we can see, the naïve younger woman simply admires the captain; on top of the notion that her position with the handsome and wealthy navy captain was ideal to those around her, including herself. Louisa’s vehemently declared to Captain Wentworth, quoting “that she would always remain by the man she loves, as Mrs Croft would of the Admiral, and would rather be overturned by him, than driven safely by anybody else”, indicating her conformity to the social custom and tradition willingly. This implies that Austen intended to portray how deep-rooted the tendency of women’s willingness to conform to the conditions of marriage was; which likely means to them an end to their freedom of interest and developing assets such as education and intellectual achievements. Thus, Louisa might have been made to be quite oblivious about the reality of the Crofts’ marriage life as she was closer to the customs of the elites such as the Elliots. A quote from Mary, baring her Elliot pride, mentioning about Henrietta also proves the tendency of this mindset was prevalent saying that she “cannot think Charles Hayter was to be a fit match for Henrietta at all” and that Henrietta“has no right to throw herself away”. Mary also mentions in the same scene that “a young woman has no right to make a choice that may be disagreeable and inconvenient to the principal part of her family”, further implying the dire importance of wealth, status, and connection in marriage for a woman over the emotional aspect of it in their society.
However, even with such tradition that was canon in novels prior to Austen’s, not only did she give us a heroine of such, thus, an exemplary couple in the novel that challenged this notion as well; that is Mr. and Mrs. Croft. Austen depicted the ideal dynamics of the Crofts metaphorically in a scene in which the Admiral and Mrs. Croft were on their way home on their horse chaise. Mrs. Croft had lent her hand for the Admiral in steering the carriage into stable grounds, avoided falling into a rut. In a sense, Austen had portrayed the Admiral and Mrs. Croft’s teamwork as, ideally, the exemplary power couple with a functional, happy marriage; despite not being among the elites and the wealthy. Mrs. Croft had made them aware of their compatibility in her conversation with the admiral (and Anne in the backseat) quoting that they “should not talk about it for if Miss Elliot were to hear how soon we came to an understanding, she would never be persuaded that we could be happy together”, and that Mrs Croft “had known the Admiral by character long before”. Mrs. Croft, despite not being as educated as to the Elliot sisters and the Miss Musgroves, managed to retain personal happiness and intellectual balance with her husband after marriage. Presumably, Mr. and Mrs. Croft falls under Austen’s successful-couple list as to address her idea at the possibility of such marriage. It is also Austen’s jab at going against the trope that success and happiness can only be attained by marrying into wealth and seeking social statuses in the genre.
Seeing how there was a contrast between the female characters’ value and means of marriage in the novel, Austen had made Anne to be put on the fence in this matter. This was, of course, a conflict reaching until the falling action of the novel. Anne was a self-contradicting character for a start. She was acknowledged to be intelligent, educated, capable, sensible, able to stand her ground most of the time but only to a certain extent. She was kind and helpful to those around her, but she gave herself away too much that what matters to them about her was whether she was needed or not. She gave way to others for convenience and that she deliberately made herself to fade into the background while other characters with starker and livelier personality were put in the spotlight, at least to hers and their perspectives. Why would a lead heroine do this to herself? This was all, perhaps, Austen’s intention in addressing the matter, that even the docile yet sensible protagonist fall victim to the need for conformity in social customs. Knowing that she has much passed her blooming age, Anne chose to fall back among others. We could see that she was a woman of “strong mind, with sweetness of manner”, which was a quality desired by Captain Wentworth in his woman, yet she lacks self-driven force when it comes to her desires. Ironically, she had mentioned during her conversation with Captain Benwick quoting “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands” and how she “will not allow books to prove anything”.
However, when it comes to solving the burden of others, she otherwise displayed capable and sensible leadership traits. She was able to attend to the Musgrove’s son’s fall injury with first aid skills, she had always been the one to be sought for nursing attention, she took the lead as she just knew what needed to be done when Louisa took her fall resulting to a concussion to her head; despite the notion that Louisa was her rival. As with the struggle to satisfy the public with marriage for wealth and other accomplishments, Anne struggled with herself against conforming to the expectation of those around her while trying to stand up for what she truly desires for herself. Perhaps, this was all Austen’s deliberate portrayal and the imposition of a sensible woman’s dignity and her dilemmic struggle in the aristocratic society, just as how women in history had to face over the century with marriage and wealth being the critical factor.
To conclude and coming in full circle of the initial statement, there was much to say about women’s willingness to sacrifice their value and intellectual achievements in turn for marriage, and that the marriage they were bound to be often out of spite for wealth and the satisfaction of achieving social statuses. Nevertheless, Anne was able to overcome the pressure of conforming to social expectation that surrounds her self-conflicting character at the end, which still makes her another of Austen’s heroic heroine as she was able to conclude her happiness with marriage to her true love in Austen’s (arguably) most mature romance novel.