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.