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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In Defense of: Lady Russell ~ guest post from Maria Grace

Earlier this week, you got to read an excerpt and enter to win a copy of Maria Grace's Darcy's Decision; today Maria is back, and she's asking one specific question:

Was Lady Russell Really at Fault?

Of all the characters in Persuasion, I have a feeling that Lady Russell is one of the least loved. I think many readers believe Lady Russell is at fault for persuading Anne to refuse Wentworth’s first proposal. It seems so clear, she is class conscious, snobby and should not have interfered in Anne’s life so freely. However, a closer look at the text suggests that perhaps there might have been more to Lady Russell’s advice than class-consciousness and indifference to Anne’s wishes. What possible motives might Lady Russell have had that would justify her near disastrous advice to Anne?
Wentworth was an unknown stranger who attached himself to Anne after only a very brief romance. He had neither wealth not any real connections, and his profession was the Navy. Considering the era, each of these were significant marks against the young suitor.
With Wentworth’s lack of fortune and connection, Anne’s future living situation would certainly have been a big question. During their early acquaintance, Wentworth appeared to spend money freely, giving an impression that he might not be a wise manager of finances. So, even if Anne had a good dowry, which isn’t very clear in the text, Lady Russell may have had very serious questions as to whether or not Anne would have a comfortable living situation.
Since sailors were gone for long periods of time, there was a very real possibility that Anne would be left as a young wife, pregnant and without any support system around her. With all the difficulty and danger of childbirth, such a fate for her favorite could not have been an appealing thought for a caring god mother.
Moreover, the mortality rate of men in the navy was staggering. There was a very good chance that when Wentworth left, he might never return, thereby leaving a widow and possibly a small child in uncertain financial conditions. Even if Anne were to return to her father’s home, Sir Walter Elliot was not in a good financial state himself and might not have been able or willing to take Anne and a child in.
In the Regency era, women of the upper class, unless they were wealthy widows, were usually entirely dependent upon their husbands or fathers. Anne’s friend, Mrs. Smith illustrates this situation well. Stark financial reality led to the necessity of a husband who could provide for her and her children. Naturally Lady Russell would be alarmed to see the possibility of something so uncertain for her god-daughter. So, regardless of class distinction, there were excellent practical reasons for Anne to be dissuaded from such a very risky match.
A careful reading of the book, though, suggests an even more sympathetic reason for Lady Russell’s opposition to the match. Jane Austen describes Anne as very much like her mother. Lady Russell knew and esteemed Lady Elliot and was aware that Lady Elliot had married her husband in a youthful infatuation and was not happy in her marriage. Lady Elliot made the best of the difficult situation, though and managed the silliness and vanity of her husband admirably.
After the death of Lady Elliot, Lady Russell looked upon Anne as a favorite and friend. She would have wanted the best for Anne and likely saw an alarming similarity between Anne and Wentworth and Lady Elliot’s youthful infatuation with Sir Walter. Knowing the grief that it brought her friend, is it any wonder that Lady Russell was moved to persuade Anne away from making the same mistake that played out a generation earlier?
If all this is so, then why would Lady Russell have pushed Anne to accept Sir Walter’s scheming heir presumptive, William Elliot? Perhaps it was his excellent manners that first attracted her attention. His financial security as heir of Kellynch could not have hurt his cause. But in all likelihood, William Elliot was the first person Lady Russell ever saw as truly admiring her favorite goddaughter. Granted, we, as readers, were able to see him through less rose-colored glasses, but Lady Russell had no such reason to be suspicious. To her, finally a worthy man paid Anne proper attentions.
Had the most likely outcomes taken place, Wentworth dying at sea or returning home as poor as he left, and William Elliot being just as he appeared, Lady Russell’s advice would have been hailed as the making of Anne Elliot. It seems to me that, without an omniscient narrator to tell her things she could not otherwise know, Lady Russell’s advice was actually quite sound. Really, her only big mistake was not predicting that Wentworth would go on to be successful enough to support a wife and family. So, far from being a meddling busy body who only succeeded in making Anne and Wentworth miserable for the years until their reunion, I think Lady Russell was a well-meaning friend, who dispensed advice which would have been considered excellent had things turned only a little different.

In Defense of Lady Russell; or, The Godmother Knew Best by JOAN KLINGEL RAY. Persuasions #15, 1993, Pages 207-215, a JASNA publication.

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  1. I haven't finished my first read-through of Persuasion, so I'm not certain of how accurate or inaccurate the film is, but I simply love the perspective of Lady Russell in the BBC 1971 version of Persuasion. Especially at the end as Lady Russell feels regret at keeping Anne from accepting the proposal so many years before. It was to make sure that Anne would truly be happy. I hold no ill will against Lady Russell after watching this film version. But I'll need to read the true account from Jane Austen herself to make a final judgement.

  2. I've never thought LR was wicked for her interference in Anne and FW's courtship. I think she's motivated by Wentworth's shockingly confident air, much like the air of a certain Sir Walter. The difference being that Wentworth is truly a capable man, and SW is a schlub with a title.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with you about Lady Russell's seeing similarities in Lady Elizabeth's situation and Anne's. LR knew that a pretty face can blind an otherwise intelligent woman to the truth of a man's character and abilities.

  3. I think Lady Russell was well meaning when Anne was young. The points made were valid. I don't think however that she wanted more information about this young man besotted with Anne. I don't think that she should have tried to influence her later thinking. By this time the woman should have known to go at matters a little more objectively, get Anne's opinion after all she's a sensible woman all those years later. I don't see Wentworth in any way the same as Sir Walter. Wentworth did think highly of himself but look what he accomplished and his confidence in himself was somewhat warranted. Sir Walter however thought way too much of himself and only accomplished a lot of debt. And who persuaded Anne to turn down Charles Musgrove?

  4. As I'm reading Persuasion right now, I have yet to experience any negative feelings for Lady Russell. I agree completely with this post. It's clear Lady Russell never does anything with malicious intent and really cares about Anne. And besides that, Anne is an adult! Or close enough to one when she first lets herself be persuaded not to pursue Captain Wentworth. I think it's far too easy to assign the blame to the one who does the persuading, but then that denies Anne any semblance of agency. Anne is her own person and capable of making her own decisions should she so desire to do so.

  5. I totally agree, Maria - I've always felt a certain sympathy for Lady Russell, though I do get cross with her for being such a snob. She clearly loves Anne as a mother would her own child and mothers always want what's right for their children! Once again, Jane Austen's genius is illustrated in her characterisation - everyone has faults - her people seem very real!

  6. I've never had a problem with Lady Russell, she's just trying to do her best by Anne, it's just a shame it took so many years for it to be resolved. It never occurred to me that she was trying to stop Anne from making the same mistake her mother did.

  7. Lady Russell I think shows her more endearing side having regreted her influence on Anne's decsison but it is sad that her heart was broken.

  8. I never thought bad of Lady Russell. she was giving her best advice to a friend

  9. It's been a few years since my last read of Persuasion, but I don't remember ever thinking badly of Lady Russell... great insight into why she gave the advice she did!

  10. I've read Persuasion many times. From a rational point of view, I'm convinced that Lady Russell has always had Anne's best interests in mind. Still, I find it very hard not to dislike her for being snobby and meddlesome. In general, I'm irritated by most of the "old matrons" in Austen novels. I agree that Lady Russell is way better than other elderly matrons, but still, I can't feel much sympathy towards her.

  11. while LR may have been well intentioned, she wasn't the insightful person she thought she was as evidenced in her definite lack of awareness regarding SWE. and i, for one, wouldn't trust another with the importance of such a weighty life decision!
    i believe Anne saw this as JA makes it quite clear Anne is not oblivious of the truth of SWE whilst LR def is..

  12. I totally agree with Faith Hope Cherrytea. As we see the story unfurled we see what a dimwit SWE is. LR really should have seen this. Of course it was just a part of the time period in what defines a gentleman. I always just figured that Anne felt bad about turning down CW and perhaps at 19 she hoped he'd renew his interest in her at a better time. However logically since he was in the navy he could have died at any time. Alessandra has a point also there are alot of middle aged women that don't have very good personalities. I never thought about it before. I liked Mrs. Weston, Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Reynolds, Mrs. Morland but many of the other are just to hard to digest.

  13. It seems LR was doing what she thought was in AE's best interest. The fact that FW was snarky and outspoken just made it that much easier for her lol.

  14. It is so funny because I have felt that Lady Russell has gotten a bad rap for a long time. I think her views were sound because Ann was young. She was just doing what any mother would do that loved their child and was concerned for their welfare.

  15. It's been a while since I'd read Persuasion, and while I've never "disliked" Lady Russell, I felt that she did what she thought was right by Anne in persuading Anne's decision regarding Wentworth all those years ago.

  16. I think she simply did what any mother like figure would have done. How many people have not been given the advice not to date the guy working at McDonald’s. Parents (Lady Russell had that kind of relationship with Anne) want their daughters to marry a man that they think can provide for them. We don’t hear of her making a stink once she was told about the engagement later. I think she saw that one he had a career and could take care of Anne but she probably also saw how much Anne loved him.

  17. I really think Lady Russel did what was best for Anne even though it did make Anne unhappy. She was young and wealthy and Wentworth could have been a fortune hunter or someone just as dangerous for Anne. Even Anne says she does not blame Lady Russel even though later she thinks she would have been happy. My forgiveness of Lady Russel is complete when Anne accepts Wentworth.


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