In Defense of Inconstancy: The Rewards of "Second Attachments" in Persuasion.
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degree of attachment to his wife is left unaddressed, the contextual description implies that his self-love has superseded all other emotions.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. Though consigned to the distant past, this failed courtship nonetheless sheds light on standard expectations about marriage. If not quite as rapid as Mr. Collins's series of transfers of attentions from Jane Bennet to her sister Elizabeth to Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, Charles's rebound from Anne's rejection to a successful courtship of her younger sister, Mary, reveals his pragmatism as a suitor. He obviously wanted a wife, preferably an Elliot, and was willing to court either sister in his pursuit of" a marriage that Pamela Regis has described as having "dynastic overtones" (64)--namely, one that prioritizes the union of wealth, property, and social status, rather than personal affection. Charles's transfer of courtship from Anne to Mary therefore hardly qualifies as inconstancy to a first attachment, nor can his marriage to Mary be accurately termed a second attachment. Their relationship portrays an uneasy coexistence, lacking any authentic emotional connection or deeper affinity. Despite its limitations, the younger Musgrove marriage doesn't portend any future infidelity or dramatic rupture: to this pair, moderate or minimal expectations become the marital norm. Rather than constituting a first or second attachment, Charles Musgrove's relationships with Anne and Mary signify the absence of any true attachment.
Appearing in quick succession and in significant proximity to the reappearance of her first love, Anne's later suitors further complicate Persuasion's assessment of second attachments. The timing and convergence of these romantic prospects are meaningful: Captain Wentworth's re-entry into Anne's immediate sphere activates a new phase of her emotional life--and of male interest in her. Amidst her painful witnessing of Wentworth's flirtation with the Musgrove sisters, Anne unwittingly becomes an object of interest to prospective suitors of her own: Mr. Elliot and Captain Benwick, both recently bereaved and potentially on the rebound. Sharing a spontaneous attraction to Anne, Mr. Elliot and Benwick otherwise present contrasting trajectories of the failures and latent rewards of second attachments.
Though viewed as an embodiment of "unmitigated evil" by Tony Tanner (227), Mr. Elliot warrants reassessment as a more complex character than that of a thorough villain. Not the least among Mr. Elliot's redeeming features is his spontaneous attraction to Anne--an exception to Elizabeth Fiedler's characterization of Mr. Elliot as one whose "body language and speech are tightly and deliberately controlled" (165). Their chance encounter at Lyme, when neither knows the identity of the other, nor has any expectations of doing so, is a memorable and transformative moment, even drawing the notice of Wentworth: "He gave her a momentary glance,--a glance of brightness, which seemed to say, 'That man is struck with you,--and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again'" (104). Mr. Elliot deserves credit for being the first to register that Anne is still worth admiring. His unspoken tribute instigates a subtle shift in the way that Anne perceives herself and is viewed by others. However superficial its basis, Mr. Elliot's admiration has the virtue of being authentic: this reflexive response isn't part of a calculated scheme of flattery or self-advancement. His instinctive attraction to Anne creates a positive first impression of him--and rightly so.
Mr. Elliot's characterization as a calculating villain is likewise called into question by the fact that his interest in Anne survives his reintroduction into Sir Walter's family amidst his plan to counteract the influence of Mrs. Clay. If Mr. Elliot's only goal were to insinuate himself into the family for the purpose of wielding influence over Elizabeth and Sir Walter, thereby banishing Mrs. Clay, the surest way of achieving that outcome would be by marrying Elizabeth. (Anne initially attributes Mr. Elliot's attendance on the family to an interest in Elizabeth [as, apparently, do Elizabeth and Mrs. Clay], although none ascribes ulterior motives to this intention .) As Elizabeth's husband, Mr. Elliot would be ideally positioned to ease Mrs. Clay out of the picture. Given his intelligence, he's surely aware that Sir Walter and Elizabeth have minimal regard for Anne, who has no influence with either (5). Mr. Elliot's choice of courting Anne, not Elizabeth, indicates that a genuine attraction to and a preference for Anne prevail over his seeking a solely dynastic marriage. Elizabeth would have been the more strategic choice, but--to his credit-Mr. Elliot simply prefers Anne, presumably appreciating what her father and elder sister fail to value. Indeed, his courtship of Anne is notably described as "his best plan of domestic happiness" (250), though its failure results in the debased--and comically ironic--Plan B of a future with Mrs. Clay as mistress and potential wife.
Illustrating indirect benefits of second attachments, Mr. Elliot contributes significantly--albeit unwittingly--to Anne's happy ending with Wentworth. Her interactions with this cousin help Anne to clarify what she truly values, reaffirming her feelings for Wentworth and her inability to love Mr. Elliot. Her reservations about the latter's lack of warmth and spontaneity (161) also serve to highlight the Tightness of Anne's instincts and judgment, including her appreciation of Wentworth's authenticity. In turn, Mr. Elliot's role as rival has positively affected Wentworth from their first encounter: "The passing admiration of Mr. Elliot had at least roused him" (242). Wentworth's consequent jealousy assists his realization of his true feelings for Anne. In his unsuccessful attempt to attach Anne, Mr. Elliot thus serves as an inadvertent catalyst in advancing the mutual understanding of Anne and Wentworth.
An even greater--and unlikelier--contributor to Anne's happy ending, the bereaved Captain Benwick is yet another incipient suitor and potential second attachment. Benwick is the rare character who has experienced a genuine first attachment based on mutual love and true affinity; initially, no one doubts the depth of his love and grief for his lost betrothed, Fanny Harville. Interestingly, Anne's private assessment of Benwick's bereavement is divergent from the prevailing view: '"I cannot believe his prospects so blighted for ever. He is younger than I am; younger in feeling if not in fact; younger as a man. He will rally again, and be happy with another'" (97). Though mainly self-referencing her own situation and, by implication, Wentworth's, Anne's projections about Benwick's resilience prove to be uncannily accurate. Even Anne's prescience, however, cannot foresee her own role in Benwick's emotional recovery or his timely contribution to securing Anne's future with Wentworth.
A reportedly heartbroken man, Benwick nonetheless evidences a budding attachment to Anne that accommodates multiple constructions. Perhaps he's simply in need of bonding with a sympathetic listener and a fellow reader, albeit in the interesting situation of a man and woman discussing Romantic poetry and its attendant passions. Even in the aftermath of Anne's abrupt departure from Lyme, Benwick is not forgotten: his attentive behavior to Anne makes her hopeful "of continuing their acquaintance" (115). Charles Musgrove later claims that Benwick's attraction to Anne has become a topic of notice back in Lyme, jovially reporting that Benwick admires Anne "'exceedingly'" (131), evidenced by his praise of her sweetness, elegance, and beauty Even Mary, jealous of anyone's preferring Anne to herself, seems angrily conscious that Benwick might have the temerity to be "in love with an Elliot" (130). These accounts all point to symptoms of Benwick's incipient attachment. Anne, in turn, "boldly acknowledged herself flattered" (131), though exhibiting no apparent disappointment when Benwick makes no further efforts to act on this attraction.
Despite its brevity, Benwick's embryonic attachment to Anne produces larger repercussions within Persuasions canvassing of romantic constancy and inconstancy. Initially, Benwick's attraction to Anne affirms her ability to inspire the romantic interest of a worthy man--and likewise confirms Anne's suspicion that he is hardly as inconsolable as his friends had assumed. Nonetheless, Benwick's failure to pursue Anne beyond Lyme reflects an attachment that exists merely in potential--one that Anne later minimizes as merely a "dawning of tenderness toward herself" (167). His quick redirection of his "tenderness" from Anne to Louisa Musgrove forges a relationship based on proximity paired with poetry--and, in this case, a successful courtship. In foreseeing the likelihood that Benwick would find a second chance at love, Anne proved to be mistaken about the means. In advising Benwick against indulging his passion for poetry, she was warning him off the very foundation of his bond with Louisa: "of course they had fallen in love over poetry" (167). Susan Allen Ford's attention to Benwick's fondness for Byronic heroes "defined by their constancy in love and their despair at the loss ... of the beloved" (79) invites recognition of a further irony: while reading to Louisa about the devotedly constant lovers in Byron's poetry, Benwick falls in love with her and thus becomes inconstant to his own lost beloved.
Mitigating circumstances notwithstanding, Benwick's relinquishment of his first love is indeed a significant violation of constancy. Fanny was, by all accounts, an exceptional woman, and theirs the deepest of attachments. Sheila Johnson Kindred has persuasively connected Benwick's bereavement to a personal tragedy in Austen's life: the sudden death of her brother Charles's young wife, Fanny, in September 1814. Austen's recent witnessing of her brother's intense grief in his loss could have inspired her rendering of Benwick's initial mourning for Fanny Harville, as Kindred suggests (204). A bittersweet contrast, of course, resides in Benwick's readiness to find consolation only six months after his betrothed's death, casting doubt on the quality of his heart. In its harshest construction, Benwick's pending marriage to the comparatively ordinary Louisa qualifies for demotion from a second attachment to a rebound relationship, likewise debasing the premise of a genuine attachment in his prior engagement to Fanny.
Perhaps reflecting her own potential benefits resulting from Benwick's new romance, Anne's kinder assessment of his motives proves both generous and inadequate. "He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody" (167). Who, after all, should criticize the possession of an affectionate heart? And yet--surely there is deeper satisfaction and a truer bond in an attachment that isn't so readily transferable, one that resists viewing objects of love as potentially interchangeable. Benwick's willingness to love any receptive woman distinguishes him from Wentworth, even though the latter reenters Anne's sphere with the expressed purpose of finding a new love. Intentions aside, Wentworth cannot realign his heart as easily as Benwick does. Wentworth's attentions to Louisa Musgrove never progress into genuine attachment, although he and Louisa are paired in the public's perception. The subsequent revelation of Benwick's engagement to Louisa is therefore an unexpected gift to all. It removes this pair from incipient attachments to partners who couldn't have reciprocated their love--Anne, in Benwick's case; Wentworth in Louisa's. The new pair's inconstancy to former loves--or, in a more positive construction, their emotional resilience--proves to be a circumstance of widespread good fortune. The engagement between Benwick and Louisa--ironically, the happy result of inconstant hearts--conveniently releases Captain Wentworth from all prior claims: Louisa no longer poses an obstacle to his pursuit of Anne.
Benwick's fortunate inconstancy confers an even greater benefit in Persuasion-, it instigates crucial discussions of second attachments and the nature of love, loss, and hope. Benwick's example, whether construed as inconstancy or resilience, introduces second attachments (versus the inability to form them) as a theme of conscious debate in Persuasion: not merely an issue enacted in the characters' lives, but one on which they take and argue positions. In this context, Persuasion follows the model of Sense and Sensibility, which likewise engages the theme of second attachments as both a fore-grounded topic of conversation and a lived experience for multiple characters.
Persuasions debate about second attachments nonetheless begs the underlying question of what constitutes an authentic attachment. Many characters' ability to form genuine attachments is doubtful: relationships based primarily on self-interest, expediency, or a determination against remaining single don't convincingly qualify as attachments--though they may pass as such for the characters in question. Austen's fiction doesn't pretend that a deep love based on esteem and true affinity is anything other than a rarity. That's why the reaction to Captain Benwick's inconstancy is so intense: having experienced the joy of mutual love in a genuine attachment, Benwick seems inexplicably satisfied with a replacement that portends so much less. As Wentworth exclaims, '"His attachment to her was indeed attachment. A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman!--He ought not--he does not'" (183). Benwick's troubling reversal conveniently--and fortunately--prompts Wentworth's spontaneous words of self-disclosure. This outpouring is really not about Benwick but about Wentworth himself, as Anne recognizes. An instance of the characters' reticence noted by Elizabeth Fiedler (163), Wentworth's coded language conveys his own definition of a true attachment, expressing his devotion to Anne in words that are simultaneously indirect yet unambiguous.
Instigated once again by Benwick's new attachment, Persuasion s culminating debate on constancy of the heart receives its fullest and most conceptual canvassing in Anne and Harville's conversation at the White Hart. This dialogue introduces the theme of romantic constancy versus second attachments in a new context: a reflection neither on personal character nor on the quality of the prior attachment, the ability to move on is recast by Anne as a product of gender. Anne posits that women are less emotionally resilient than men (or, in a more positive construction, more constant) because they have less opportunity to be otherwise. Men benefit from an expansive sphere of action, greater mobility, and greater agency to initiate change, contrasting with women's restriction to a static world with too much scope for dwelling on the past (232). In such a context, women can take little credit for their greater constancy in love, since it's more of a life-sentence than a choice. There is no moral high-ground here for either sex--thus tempering Persuasion's affirmation of constancy into a less celebratory mode.
Though having much to support it in both theory and example, Anne's scenario of gender roles remains a contested position. While refuting her argument, Harville does affirm the idea that gender is a determinant of romantic constancy--but only to claim that each sex's emotional capacity corresponds to its physical strength: '"as [men's] bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings'" (233). Anne, in turn, points out that "'[m]an is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments'" (233). This gendered debate recasts constancy to a first love as problematic: it may be merely situational (a matter of circumstance rather than volition), or it may be as innate as a physical trait. However construed, emotional constancy has become a condition to be regarded with ambivalence: each gender claims it as their own, but each also acknowledges it as a burden rather than a blessing. This debate on gendered constancy has no winner.
Despite the clear positions advanced by Harville and Anne, her language also has a veiled application, resuming the recourse to coded language through which Anne's and Wentworth's deeply personal feelings are expressed through indirection and generic references. Correctly interpreting Anne's words about women's lasting attachments as referring to their own relationship, Wentworth is emboldened to write and act. His spontaneous letter's confirmation of his love for Anne is the most decisive step toward their full reconciliation, mutual understanding, and happy ending. As the deleted original ending for Persuasion demonstrates, Austen certainly had other options for arriving at this romantic denouement, but the revised ending brilliantly unites the verbal debate on constancy with an active embrace of loyal love as a reaffirmed ideal. Theme and plot appear to reach a seamless convergence here.
In other contexts, though, Persuasion's culminating debate about gender and constancy remains unresolved, inviting further reflection about its relevance to Anne and Wentworth. Anne's proposed scenario of men's enlarged sphere of action versus women's restricted agency doesn't fully apply even to her own case. Despite the comparatively limited scope of Anne's world, she has nonetheless attracted the romantic or marital interest--albeit unsought--of three other suitors, each representing a potential second attachment. In turn, Wentworth has redirected his emotional energies to achieving his professional success, acquisition of a fortune, and consequent freedom of marital choice. He has every advantage in being able to initiate a second attachment, his declared goal (62). Yet he doesn't find a different love, even amid very receptive women. Anne's and Wentworth's failures to reflect the exigencies of gender posited by Anne's own argument demand a reassessment of gendered difference in Persuasion, particularly at moments when gender is foregrounded.
In this context, two key conversations illustrate the paradox of gender's emphasis and erasure. Captain Harville laments Fanny's replacement:
"Poor Fanny! She would not have forgotten [Benwick] so soon!"
"No," replied Anne, in a low feeling voice. "That, I can easily believe."
"It was not in her nature. She doated on him."
"It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved." (232)
Anne's words echo yet invert the earlier gendered language of Wentworth's response to Benwick's inconstancy: '"Fanny Harville was a very superior creature; and his attachment to her was indeed attachment. A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman!--He ought not--he does not'" (183). Each claiming to speak on behalf of their own gender (and, by implication, voicing their personal experience), Anne and Wentworth separately declare that no woman and no man, respectively, could recover from a deep attachment of the heart. Taken together, the implications of these avowals transcend gender: men and women are indeed alike in their inability to move beyond a genuine love, a true attachment. What's applicable to the heart of woman is equally applicable to the heart of man. Jocelyn Harris has aptly noted that "Austen constantly erodes gender boundaries in Persuasion" (106), echoing Claudia L. Johnson's attention to the progressiveness of gender roles in Austen's novels (153). If Austen portrays the qualities that deserve admiration and esteem as undifferentiated by gender, those virtues surely include the capacity for devoted love. In the case of genuine attachments, a focus on gender differences obfuscates that which transcends gender: the equivalency of the partners' hearts.
Persuasion's culminating celebration of love embraces further paradox: the attainment of its happy ending relies significantly on the readiness of various characters (especially Benwick) to move on to new attachments, and the consequent union of Anne and Wentworth itself qualifies as a successful second attachment. While this pair retrospectively deems their love as having been latently constant throughout their years apart, neither, in fact, had serious expectations of its renewal. Not until Wentworth coincidentally and unintentionally enters Anne's sphere at Uppercross does such a possibility resurface. Even then, recognizing that Wentworth hasn't forgiven her, Anne has no immediate anticipation that his earlier love for her has somehow survived. Wentworth himself consciously wishes to find a new relationship with anyone but Anne. Arguably, his greatest focus of constancy has been adherence to his view of Anne's presumed weakness and betrayal, a tenacity of aggrievement noted by critics such as Elvira Casal (148) and Johnson, who refers to Wentworth's "icy vindictiveness nursed over a period of eight years" (157). Wentworth's sense of grievance against Anne has endured much longer than the brief span of their initial romance. A belated process, his renewal of love has had to overcome his own longstanding resentment and their differing understandings of their shared past. For this pair, mutual love has not been an unbroken continuum.
Anne and Wentworth's final betrothal reconfigures their relationship as a second attachment in the best senses: both a true attachment (a rarity in Persuasion) and one that improves upon its earlier incarnation. Unsurprisingly, Anne and Wentworth have both changed during the lapse of eight years; life experiences, greater maturity, and altered circumstances have given them much to process about themselves and each other. Their ultimate attachment culminates a progression of self-discovery and a new mutual understanding and appreciation, not a mere realization of feelings that existed all along. Austen's narrator notes their truer mutual happiness the second time around: "more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting" (24041). Anne and Wentworth are not the same people as their earlier selves, and their new relationship is both different from and better than their first love. Fittingly assisted by other characters' inconstancy in love, the happy union with which Persuasion culminates may constitute Austen's strongest case for the rewards of second attachments.
Carol West, who received her Ph.D. from Yale University, is Professor of English at Hendrix College, where her teaching includes a senior seminar course on Jane Austen.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-1969.
Casal, Elvira. "More Distinguished in His Domestic Virtues: Captain Wentworth Comes Home." Persuasions 26 (2004): 146-55.
Fiedler, Elizabeth. "A Devoted Reticence: The Art of Telling and Not Telling in Jane Austen's Persuasion" Persuasions 26 (2004): 159-69.
Ford, Susan Allen. "Learning Romance from Scott and Byron: Jane Austen's Natural Sequel." Persuasions 26 (2004): 72-88.
Harris, Jocelyn. A Revolution Almost beyond Expression: Jane Austens Persuasion. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2007.
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: UCP, 1988.
Kindred, Sheila Johnson. Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2017.
Regis, Pamela. '"Her Happiness Was from Within': Courtship and the Interior World in Persuasion" Persuasions 26 (2004): 62-71.
Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.
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|Title Annotation:||AGM 2018: Kansas City, Missouri; Jane Austen's "Persuasion"|
|Author:||West, Carol L.|
|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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