The Normal Girl of Jane Austen: How the Lens of Irony and Judgement Showed Me Women Can Be Emotional and Strong
By Micaela Freeman
My favorite piece of writing of all time (possibly besides Paradise Lost) is the evocative Persuasion by Jane Austen. Published after her death in 1817, the novel faced a lot of differing opinions. The first time I read it was in an 18th Century Lit class my first year of college. I have read it a handful more times since then, and everytime it teaches me something I did not know. The day it was introduced to me, my professor lectured on years of history, feminism, and Austen before pulling out the thick grey novel that was not Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. I even expected Emma. But after forty minutes of eager history and anticipation, the class began to dive into the novel I now call my favorite. It is intelligent, provoking, and even humorous at times. It’s also emotional, simplistic in the best way, and thoughtful. The biggest undercurrent, however, is that it is Austen’s most underrated novel. Austen gives the reader a different type of heroine in Persuasion, and a plot that might be, yes, predictable but is woven with bits of mental health awareness. Let’s just say that Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is no Lizzie Bennett, nor as funny and bold as Emma Woodhouse. She isn’t sociable like Lydia or as daring as Louisa Musgrove. But, the vitality of the novel, what makes it so intriguing to discuss is just that. Austen crafts a heroine that has a dark history, is emotionally tired (to apply modern context), and sees herself as more comfortable being single than taken.
Austen’s narration, something of indirect discourse, allows both the novel and Anne to take an intelligent stance, offering Austen’s audience the most “mature” literature from her oeuvre. For the first time in Austen’s shelf of rather stunning literature, Persuasion offers a relatable heroine. We admire Elizabeth for her ambition, and Lydia is the girl we sometimes want to be, and Louisa Musgrave is just plain fun; Emma is the ultimate Pisces, caring and daring, and the perfect match maker. But with Anne, Austen offers us a character that has depth to her. She is notably pretty, but does not allow her features to ever be defining aspects of her character. She is, arguably, one of the smartest heroines from Austen’s work, being “almost too good,” even for herself. It is known that Austen found Anne to be a better version of herself and someone that was just plain “good.” She is a balance of intelligence and passion. The plot revolves around her life as well as her wealthy family members, as Captain Wentworth (not so) smoothly re-enters into her life. Anne’s only crux, and the plot of the novel, is her ability to be persuaded by others. However, she is practical, and does not hold back in her narration to tell us that. Austen’s use of irony and oppositional traits creates a sense of comfort with Anne. She is not a woman other women long to be; she is most women. She is regularly overwhelming with her intelligence and conversational tone. Austen often utilizes ironic literary techniques to perform radical evocation, but to me, I like the simplicity you get from reading Anne’s character. She narrates through thought before action, and doesn’t stray from being honest:she acknowledges that shit sucks sometimes. And though she admittedly tells the audience she is still in love with the dashing Captain Wentworth, she finds herself content, yet questioning of her rejection of him seven years prior, chalking it up to, well, powers of persuasion.
Anne openly and attractively retracts from the shallow tendencies of her family members, profusely reminding the reader of the realities of life, what “good company” is, and her own struggles as a woman. Anne’s perpetual internal turmoil over battling the idea of whether persuasion ruined or perfected her life is an Austenian cry for help,an urge to push women to talk to both themselves and one another about not-so-perfect emotions. In comparison to the rest of the Elliot bunch, it is easy for the reader to categorize Anne as boring and attainable, with her fairly straightforward history that occurs solely before the novel actually begins, but that is exactly what I like about her. It is her tiny nuances, seen through Austen’s narration and her own thoughts, that proves Anne worthy of marriage and internal happiness, as well as worthy of satisfaction from the reader. She takes pride in her education as well as her own practicality, saying that she did not marry Wentworth because it would be a “disadvantage” to his family and not “prudent” of her. Though the definitions of both of those words are up for debate, as neither I nor someone else can truly define them, it is reasonable to give Anne the coin for that one. She’s right. She is a considerate and independent bachelorette. I sometimes wonder if Anne Elliot has Capricorn in her.
After all, the beauty in this character I have so openly fallen for is the blatant normalcy Austen gives her. She is never mentioned to be gorgeous, or daring; she is beautiful in so many other ways with her strong mind, her sense of independence, and her desire to be different than that of her shallow and uppity family members. Austen makes Anne endearing in a way that makes you want to reread bits to make sure you catch all the details of her life. She is lovable with her “flaws,” and I can only imagine Austen said, “She is human, after all, not a picture of perfection,” with a light smile and confidence in her most mature heroine.
University of Dallas Ph.D. candidate Esther Moon summarizes Austen’s intentionality with Anne in an eloquent and academic tone; “Anne’s errors and struggles to overcome them are enriching not only because they lead her to realize more fully her best self but also because they lead the reader to realize that Anne’s beauty of character and clarity of vision are attainable.”
Consequently, scholarship around Anne’s nature has grown into that of a regularly covered conversation when discussing Austen. Yale’s American literary critic Harold Bloom almost perfectly defines Anne’s character in another way; she has, according to Bloom, a “Shakespearean inwardness” about her, allowing her will and noticing society's dysfunction around her. She is inward and private yet psychologically daring—like Hamlet minus the chaos.
This character, though she might be rather “small” in the English cannon, means a lot to me. For the first time, I saw a character who struggles, and talks, and shares herself and her emotions. I saw vulnerability and instead of daydreaming about wanting to be like her, I relate to her. This is an important lesson Austen (knowingly or not) fronted. Women, or anyone in fact, do not need to be extravagant to be happy or feel successful. Sometimes making your bed or going outside is success. Sometimes getting a Ph.D. is success. One does not disqualify the other, and an introvert can be just as talkable as an extrovert. Both can love and be wonderful company. Anne Elliot is all of these things. She’s bright, and easy, and simplistically beautiful.
So, let this be my ode to Jane Austen and her many female heroines, though I only explored Anne here. But to Elizabeth Bennett: thank you for teaching me how to juggle chaos and be eloquent whilst doing so (and that it is okay to sometimes not be eloquent). To Emma Woodhouse: thank you for showing me how to love so naturally and confidently and for telling me feelings are valid. Thank you for showing me how to be clever, how to flirt, and that it’s okay to put yourself first sometimes. To Lydia Bennett: I want to take you out for a drink, and to Louisa Musgrove: you, too.
But, to Anne Elliot of Persuasion: thank you for showing me that loneliness does not make me any less successful or capable. That it is okay to feel lonely in a crowded room, or to take a step away when it’s best for you. That I can have many emotions, and none at all. That it is okay to not want to be like society, and it is okay to love who you love.
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Persuasion. Ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank. Cambridge: CUP, 2006
Moon, Esther. “Almost Too Good for Me”: The Seasoning of Anne Elliot’s Idealism, Volum 31. Winter 2017.