Hi, I've just finished reading Persuasion for the first time, and wondered on your opinion of Lady Russell? I feel she has way to much influence over Anne, thoughts?
I think this is the most hotly contested question about Persuasion in modern perspectives, as well as people wanting to shake Anne in the end where she declares that she doesn’t think she did wrong by listening to Lady R. And (unpopular opinion, perhaps,) I think Anne is right. I trust her and where she’s coming from.
It’s easy enough to say from a modern reader’s perspective that Anne should have stuck by Wentworth and thumbed her nose at all the world for his sake, but that’s just not who she is, or was, at nineteen.
Compared to other Austen heroines in age, then, she would have been only older than Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, and Fanny Price–and of those girls, she is the only one who lacks a mother. (Fanny’s isn’t exactly deeply involved in her life, but then Fanny is always forced to rely more on herself than the advice of those around her because those around her are terrible.)
Lady Russell is not a bad woman, and is not so much a snob that she would see Anne unhappy and alone forever. She is definitely set in place as a mother-figure to Anne, and does her best to give the best possible advice she can for the circumstances.
Consider that Anne and Wentworth’s initial romance was rather rapid, and that she was a very sheltered girl who likely hadn’t entirely processed her grief over her mother’s death and being sent away to a school where she was extremely unhappy. Like, Anne’s adolescence was extremely dark and isolating. She would have only returned home to her family in the last year or two, and Lady Russell’s fear is that Anne will too easily grow attached to anybody who shows her the least bit of kindness and regard. And given that Wentworth at the time has little money, a high risk of being killed in the course of his career, (and from what Lady R can tell, a rather impulsive character, which lends itself well to bravery but less so to staying alive and supporting a wife and family,) and knowing Sir Walter has a poor opinion of the match, what can Lady Russell imagine might be worse than that Anne (and Anne’s children, if she should have any,) might be made dependent upon Sir Walter if she should be widowed, or her husband injured and unable to provide a stable life (as we see has happened to the Harvilles.) Sir Walter’s whining remonstrances would be never-ending about the degradation Anne had brought upon herself and her family by such a connection, and home life at Kellynch would no doubt be worse than ever, and poor Anne sunk even more deeply into a level of grief from which she might never recover.
This, naturally, terrifies Lady Russell. Money and rank may mean little to Anne and Wentworth, but they mean a great deal to the people Anne would have to deal with if Wentworth is unable to provide properly for her.
For a vulnerable girl of nineteen, and a match so swift and reckless, Lady Russell would not be doing her duty as a mature woman with an eye on potential consequences if she didn’t say something to Anne. Anne loved Wentworth, yes–but Marianne loved Willoughby, too. Older women–women who have loved and lost–might understand better that it often does not do to place all one’s faith in a first romance…particularly when it’s a whirlwind.
Is Lady Russell ultimately correct? No, because we know Wentworth will do well in his career and that the love between him and Anne is steadfast. But hindsight and all that jazz. (“It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides.”) Which is why Anne insists she didn’t do wrongly to listen to Lady Russell. She knew where Lady Russell was coming from. She knew Lady Russell wasn’t being malicious, and that Lady Russell was her nearest and dearest friend–likely dearer to her than any of her living family. She trusted Lady Russell, and she wasn’t wrong to trust her. The moral of the story isn’t “ignore anything you hear from concerned friends who have your best interests in mind”. People are flawed, and so is their advice. Lady Russell is wise about many things, but it just so happened that she wasn’t wise about Anne and Wentworth in this specific case–and none of them could have known that. Lady Russell expected that Anne would mix more in society, meet more people, and perhaps find happiness with another worthy person. (We must acknowledge that the world is not filled with men incapable of rising to the standard of Captain Wentworth.) This would have been the natural way of things, but, for one reason or another–all of them beyond Lady Russell’s control–this never happened. If Anne could have been happy with Charles Musgrove, Lady Russell would have been pleased to at least have Anne settled nearby, and with a ‘safe’ match to a good man, but it is noted that her influence can’t create enough affection where it does not exist. Anne is open to being cautioned, but not encouraged.
And though there’s a rush to condemn Anne and Lady Russell, consider how their conduct is tempered in Wentworth’s own declaration: “But I too have been thinking over the past, and a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady? My own self.” Two years after the broken engagement, when he had enough money to offer a more stable living, and Anne had had time to consider that perhaps she’d been unwise to yield to Lady Russell’s advice in entirely giving up the engagement, he could have written to her and she would have renewed their engagement. Lady Russell’s advice and Anne’s acting on it caused them both a great deal of pain for two years, but Wentworth’s stubborn fit of pique prolongs it for six more years and possibly forever, until their paths cross again. The power of renewal is all his–Anne cannot reach out to him, even when she wishes she could.
In Persuasion, I think Anne does her best with what she has–which is so very little. Lady Russell’s advice fails her, but not Lady Russell herself, and it’s very much up to fate and chance unspooling over the course of years which prove Lady Russell’s cautions to have been in the wrong. While in Anne and Wentworth’s case we ultimately know that they’re meant to be together…perhaps the timing was just not right for them, before. They both had some growing up to do. There could be no guarantees. Wentworth resents that Anne is persuaded by Lady Russell’s advice, rather than his own–and while we can understand his feelings, consider if a teen girl’s mother today was like “…look, I know you’re in love for the first time, but honestly you can’t tell if these things are going to last, and I’m just not convinced he’s the best person for you, you’re so young and there’s so much more of life to see…” and then on the other side of it you’ve got the Boyfriend saying “what does your mother know? We’re in love, we should just be together and damn the consequences!”
Perhaps I’m getting unromantic in my dotage, but I feel that teen girls might do better to listen to their concerned mothers rather than their boyfriends.
Of course these folks exist in a book and all this stuff is water under the bridge before we even begin to know them, so we have the luxury of judging their past behaviour at our leisure rather than having to live through it, and live with it.