Almost Too Good for Austen

Jane Austen wrote her niece, Fanny Knight, that the protagonist in the novel she was writing, later titled Persuasion, “is almost too good for me.” While she allowed that her niece “may perhaps like the heroine,” she averred in the same letter that “pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked.” Apparently the character of Anne Elliot, Austen’s protagonist in the novel, was too good for Netflix as well. In its recent adaptation, years after her heartbreak, a not-flourishing Anne consoles herself by swilling wine directly from the bottle (sitting on the floor all alone), and shedding self-pitying tears in bed, bath, and beyond.

But in roughing up Anne’s character, Netflix’s adaptation misses the weasel word in Austen’s opinion of Anne, that Anne is “almost too good for me.” And in missing that, the adaptation misses Austen’s portrayal of Anne’s devastatingly reactionary virtue; a virtue that provides a slap-in-the-face challenge to almost all of modernity. That said, it’s not just Netflix. None of the adaptations that I’ve viewed—including the superior 1995 BBC production—includes the stunning turn Austen writes for Anne’s final, mature assessment of her decision to give up her beau eight years earlier.

Years before the start of the novel’s narrative, Fredrick Wentworth, then a penniless sailor, proposed marriage to Anne, and Anne accepted. Anne was then “persuaded” to give up the match not only by her father’s (Lord Elliot) indifferent support for it, but also—pivotally—by the active opposition to it by Lady Russell, a strong mother figure for Anne in the years after the death of her natural mother. Lady Russell opposed the match on the pragmatic grounds that Wentworth had neither the current means nor the future prospects to support Anne.

The future smiled on Wentworth, however. Just two years later he met with great success on the high seas, earning promotion up the ranks and becoming rich with prize money. Wounded by Anne’s rejection, he did not return to Anne to renew his plight. Serendipitous events five or six years later, however, brought Anne and Wentworth back in proximity to one another. After several fits and starts, and the constraints of early nineteenth-century courting forms for the upper class in Britain, Wentworth learns that Anne still loves him—and has always loved him. He proposes again, and Anne accepts (with everyone’s support this time).

But eight years earlier was a different matter. And Anne’s decision to reject Wentworth resulted from Lady Russell’s disapproval. Anne’s father—a vain man and an indifferent father toward Anne—did not withhold his consent for the original proposal. But he did not support it either. He “gave it all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter.” Nonetheless, the silver lining to Lord Elliot’s indifference toward Anne is that it seems he didn’t care enough actually to nix Anne’s marriage to Wentworth.

But Anne at age 19 did allow her opinion to be “guided” by Lady Russell; she was persuaded. Anne agreed at age 19 on the imprudence of the match. It was only years later, at the start of the novel, that Anne had come to a different opinion. “Anne, at seven and twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen”:

She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home and every anxiety attending his profession, all their probable fears, delays and disappointments, she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it (emphasis added).

And here all the adaptations leave the matter (at least the adaptations that I have seen): Anne regrets her choice; she would have been happier if she married Wentworth despite Lady Russell’s objections.

But that was not Anne’s final assessment of the matter.

Unlike today’s adaptations of the novel, Austen does not have Anne leave her judgment as she expressed it at the beginning of the novel. Anne changes her mind again at the end of the novel, conceding that she would have regretted deciding to marry Wentworth at age 19 in the face of Lady Russell’s opposition. And yet Anne does not change her judgment that Lady Russell’s counsel to her at age 19 was in fact wrong.

In a remarkable passage, Anne’s fully mature judgment is that she was correct as a matter of conscience to defer to Lady Russell’s opinion at age 19 and to break off the engagement despite Lady Russell’s mistaken judgment:

I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend [Lady Russell at age 19]. . . . To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice . . . . But I do mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. (emphasis added)

This is the turn that modern adaptations ignore. It’s critical to follow the changing assessments Anne makes at different ages regarding whether she should have married Wentworth when she was 19: [1] Anne accepts Wentworth’s proposal at age 19; [2] within a short time, persuaded by Lady Russell’s reasons for the imprudence of the match, Anne changes her mind and rejects Wentworth’s proposal; [3] by the beginning of the novel (presumably before her current age of 27) Anne has again changed her mind and believes she would have been happier had she accepted Wentworth’s proposal despite Lady Russell’s counsel to reject him. Finally, then, in her fully mature assessment at the end of the novel: [4] Anne believes she should have submitted to Lady Russell’s counsel as a matter of conscience and rejected Wentworth’s proposal at age 19, despite still disagreeing with the grounds of Lady Russell’s counsel to reject him.

The surprising turn in Anne’s final assessment here—surprising at least to the modern ear—is that Anne asserts she “was right in submitting” to Lady Russell’s counsel eight years ago despite our mature Anne continuing to believe that counsel was wrong.

At age 19, Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell to reject Wentworth’s proposal. She was persuaded to agree with Lady Russell’s assessment of the match’s imprudence. Eight years later, Anne says she still should have submitted to Lady Russell’s counsel despite now disagreeing with that advice. Rather than being persuaded by Lady Russell’s advice, the mature Anne would still have had 19-year-old Anne submit to Lady Russell’s counsel out of “conscience.”

Anne’s changing assessments reflect not indecision but the oftentimes practical difficulty of negotiating between our desires and our duties.

Honor Thy Mother and Father

But why would Anne’s final and fullest assessment of her actions conclude that she should have submitted to Lady Russell’s counsel as a matter of conscience, despite disagreeing with her advice?

The answer comes in a Judeo-Christian virtue now perhaps more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Recall that Austen was the daughter of an Anglican rector. A religious judgment is at least hinted at in and after the passage quoted above—not only in Anne’s appeal to “conscience” but also in an oblique reference to the influence of fallen human nature when we assess our own behavior. She steps back from a statement that she has “nothing to reproach” herself in turning down Wentworth at age 19 with the qualification “as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature.” It is a nod to the natural inclination to excuse and justify our own behavior. As the Proverb puts it, that “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight.”

Lady Russell developed a strong bond with Anne as a mother figure after the death of Anne’s natural mother (who was also Lady Russell’s best friend). That Lady Russell is repeatedly identified as a mother figure to Anne points us to the Fifth Commandment (as Anglicans and other Protestants count the Ten Commandments, the Fourth Commandment for Lutherans and Roman Catholics). It teaches to “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20.12, Deuteronomy 5.16).

The important Reformation-era Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—with whom Jane Austen would be familiar, and whose works her father almost certainly studied—taught that the Fourth/Fifth Commandment instructs children “not to despise your fathers and mothers; but to obey them with all your heart, and be subject unto them.”

To be sure, Lady Russell was not Anne’s natural mother, even as Anne received her fully as a stand-in. Yet deference in this type of relationship is comprehended within this commandment as well according to Cranmer: “They are not only called our parents, of whom we are begotten and born, but they are also called to the honor and title of this name who help them to bring us up in virtue and learning.”

Of particular application to Anne’s situation in Persuasion, Cranmer expressly included parental approbation for a marriage within the parameters of the Fourth/Fifth Commandment: “Especially you must avoid this most detestable kind of disobedience, which now-a-days is very common, that you entangle not yourselves with marriage without the knowledge and consent of your parents.”

Needless to say, this view of parental authority—and of authority more generally—is almost incomprehensible in this day and age. Objections come to mind immediately, particularly with respect to the ill use of authority, as Anne concedes Lady Russell’s counsel was.

And, to be sure, authority must be exercised responsibly by parental “superiors” for the good of “inferiors.”

Yet rubber-meets-the-road deference only bites when we disagree with a decision of the authority above us. If we agree with what an authority counsels us, then we would consent to the action and don’t need to submit. We’re persuaded. The challenge of Anne’s assessment of her behavior at the end of the novel is that she would have followed Lady Russell’s counsel out of conscience, even though she thought it misguided, even though she wasn’t persuaded by it any longer.

How does that work? Or is Anne (and Austen and Cranmer) proffering us only brute subjection to authority as an ostensible matter of conscience?

In answering this it would be useful to note that traditional interpretations of the Fourth/Fifth Commandment have “father and mother” referring not only to parents in the family, but to all in authority. Cranmer taught, for example, that the commandment included not only parents, but

Tutors, schoolmasters, preachers, pastors, curates, . . . and also magistrates and common officers. For the Holy Scriptures doth call all these fathers. And, therefore, when God saith, honor thy father and thy mother, he comprehends within the bounds of this commandment all those persons before rehearsed.

This understanding is not Cranmer’s idiosyncratic overreading of the commandment. Cranmer’s view is taught similarly by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the Lutheran  Large Catechism, and in Presbyterianism’s Larger Catechism, and in numerous commentaries.

Of significance is that all of these catechisms discuss the obligations of those in authority to use that authority to advance the well-being of those under their authority, as well as the obligations of those under authority to submit. And there are manifest limits on authority. Even limits to authority in which disobedience is permitted, if not actually required in some cases. The Apostle Peter famously tells the religious authorities in his day that “we must obey God rather than man.” Similarly, Thomas Aquinas teaches that unjust commands “do not bind the conscience.”

Authority and Conscience

But that leaves the very practical problem that Austen has Anne address in Persuasion, of behavior when these principles come in conflict with each other: How to understand these requirements when the one under authority believes that the one in authority has not made the right decision?

There are at least two answers to this that make sense of Anne’s judgment on Persuasion.

First, if there is disagreement between the superior and the inferior, but the one in authority has made a judgment that is reasonable under the circumstances, then there is a duty to submit to the superior’s judgment. In Persuasion, for example, while disagreeing with Lady Russell’s judgment, Anne concedes that Lady Russell’s judgment was a reasonable judgment at the time it was made. (“It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides.”) If there are reasonable arguments on both sides of a question, then out of deference to divine derivation of human authority—out of “conscience”—the benefit of the doubt goes to the authority.

Secondly, however, even when a judgment is definitely wrong, conscience may still dictate submission to the judgment. Taking from a different context—although still relating to the Fourth/Fifth commandment as it is commonly construed—Aquinas noted that even an unjust law can bind the conscience in some circumstances:

[Unjust] laws do not bind in the court of conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should give up even what is rightfully his . . .

The divinely granted order of power does not extend to [a law which inflicts unjust harm upon its subjects], and so a man is not obliged to obey the law in such cases, if he can resist doing so without scandal or creating a more grievous hurt.

Anne might have thought that rejecting Lady Russell’s counsel would cause a scandal or perhaps injure the close relationship she had with Lady Russell, a relationship Anne valued dearly. So Anne would still submit to Lady Russell’s advice if she had to choose over again, despite the fact that she regarded it as wrong-headed and would not in fact have been persuaded by it as she was when she was 19 years old.

I would guess that Anne’s considered judgment that she should have submitted to Lady Russell’s wrong-headed counsel “out of conscience” is almost incomprehensible to Americans today. No wonder modern adaptations of the novel ignore this bracing moment of retrospection and have ignored it despite the pivotal role it plays in the novel’s evolving narrative on Anne’s decision.

Many modern Americans, no doubt, will wave away Anne’s reconsidered judgment, her submission to a parent figure out of conscience, as an irrelevancy of a long bygone age, and good riddance to it.

But others, including Christians today, might want to wrestle more with Jane Austen’s posthumous chastisement, even conceding that Anne “was almost too good” for Austen. Perhaps wrestling with it in other domains rather than household relationships—I confess I have a preference for what Tocqueville identified as the more democratic connection of friendship between parents and grown children relative to the old world’s understanding that parental hierarchy continues after the children are grown. (But then perhaps I’m just too modern to receive Austen’s point as well, at least as regards the family.)

But there is the broader scope of the Fourth/Fifth commandment, including ecclesial and civil authorities, that would nonetheless continue to press on us.

There is, for example, the Apostle Paul’s claim, paralleling Anne’s claim, that it is for the sake of “conscience” that the Christian need be “in subjection to the governing authorities” (Romans 13.1-5). It is a teaching I hear rarely these days. And when I do, the upshot is often why we don’t actually need to be in subjection to the governing authorities despite what Paul wrote. Often these days, it seems that, even among Christians, mere disagreement with the governing authorities is proffered to justify disobedience. And don’t even start with the suggestion that verbal dishonor, such as insulting civil authority, violates Christian teaching. In railing judgments, insults, and mocking of civil authority today, even among—or especially among—Christians, “anything goes,” as the old Cole Porter song puts it.

To be sure, Paul does not counsel what he is often taken to counsel in Romans 13, which is blind obedience to authorities no matter what they command. Paul after all identified the vocation God set for civil authority, that it “is a minister to you for good” (emphasis added). Thomas Aquinas rightly plumbed the implications of Paul’s teaching: If the authority is not pursuing our good, then obedience is not a requirement of conscience. And we should keep in mind that civil authority is not the only authority in town.

But we can also make the judgment to disobey too easy on ourselves. As Anne recognized, there is “in human nature” the inclination to excuse ourselves rather than to “reproach” ourselves. As the proverb has it, “every man’s way is right in his own eyes.” In Anne Elliot, Jane Austen gives us an example of a conscience that, after mature consideration, would defer to that wrong decision of her parent figure rather than violate her own conscience. Her changing assessments reflect not indecision but the oftentimes practical difficulty of negotiating between our desires and our duties or conscience.

Anne Elliot was “almost too good” for Jane Austen. Indeed, she is perhaps almost too good for us as well.