My favorite Jane Austen novel is always the one I’m reading at the time, but Persuasion has a special place in my personal literary pantheon for several reasons. First, it contains what is arguably the best love letter of all time (“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…”). Second, I am very fond of the 1995 movie version, one of the finest Austen adaptations ever filmed. And third, I always thought that Captain Wentworth was Austen’s most desirable hero, with Mr. Darcy a close second and Mr. Knightley in third place (yes, I have given considerable thought to this topic).
Watching a movie adaptation of a beloved book can create cognitive dissonance when the actors don’t match your mental images of the characters. I never could reconcile myself to the idea of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (2005). And much as I revere the 1995 Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, I’ve never seen a Darcy that matched the one in my head. But every character in the 1995 film Persuasion, from Anne Elliot, to Sir Walter and Lady Russell, to Captain Wentworth himself, seemed to me to have sprung straight from the pages of the novel.
The plot of Persuasion is simple enough. Eight years ago, nineteen-year-old Anne Elliot broke off her engagement because the naval officer she loved, Frederick Wentworth, was deemed by her family and friends too lacking in wealth, connections and prospects to be a suitable match for an Elliot of Kellynch Hall. But now the positions are reversed. Anne’s father, a spendthrift baronet, has been forced to economize by renting out his ancestral home to Wentworth’s sister, the wife of an admiral. Wentworth, meanwhile, has profited handsomely from the war and is now considered a matrimonial prize, the equivalent of a millionaire in today’s money.
Austen specified the financial status of each character in her books, and she undoubtedly judged the eligibility of potential spouses –at least in part– by their fortunes. The condition of the poor in the early nineteenth century was horrific, and women were barred from making their own way in the world. When a woman of modest means chose a husband, she was simultaneously choosing her future standard of living, her health insurance, and her retirement plan. To be sure, Austen never cheered on the gold-diggers of her society (male or female). In Persuasion, she suggests that the most desirable qualities in a partner are not looks, money and connections, but personal integrity, refined sensibilities, compassion, and shared understanding. And yet this story is a fantasy fulfillment in which Anne Elliot, who was quite willing to marry Wentworth when he was penniless, is rewarded in the end with a rich husband who also happens to be sexy and strikingly handsome.
Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel, and it contains some of her most biting satire. The selfishness and vanity of Anne Elliot’s father and sisters is breathtaking. Her father, Sir Walter, is in love with his own reflection in the mirror, and measures everyone’s value by physical appearance and social standing.
A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early; and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her, (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own), there could be nothing in them, now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem. (-Chapter 1)
When the film came out in 1995, a great deal of attention was (ironically) paid to the supposedly unhandsome looks of the two actors cast as the leads. Amanda Root, especially, was excoriated as not pretty enough.
She lacks the charm with which even much homelier performers have been known to enchant an audience (John Simon, National Review, 23 Oct 1995, 58-9, quoted in Collins 83)
She has pleasant eyes but a grim mouth. (Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic Oct. 1995, 26-7, quoted in Collins 83)
From the number of times Amanda Root’s thin lips are mentioned, one suspects that these people are actually Restylane salesmen in disguise. Or Sir Walter in disguise.
The movie suffered by comparison with the much prettier, glossier, and more heavily adapted version of Sense and Sensibility (written by and starring Emma Thompson) that emerged about the same time. By contrast, Persuasion feels realistic. Ladies do not wear makeup. Skirts are muddied, and clothing is wrinkled. Indoor spaces are often cramped and dark. Men are interestingly unshaven in the later hours of the day…
One disapproving critic wrote:
In their attempts to purify the movie of Hollywood sheen and give it an air of naturalism, the producers… have too zealously ripped away the romantic gauze. The distressing results are an unappealing Anne Elliot, a pockmarked Captain Wentworth, a greasy-necked Captain Benwick, and a slovenly-looking Lady Russell. (Brooke Allen, The New Criterion, Sept. 1995, 15-22, quoted in Collins 85-6)
Happily, time has proved these critics wrong, and Persuasion has received the recognition it deserves for its restrained screenplay, elegant direction, fine acting, and fidelity (for the most part) to the original.
But what of the looks of the two principal characters, as Austen envisioned them? Although Austen satirizes Sir Walter’s preoccupation with good looks, the relative sex appeal of Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth forms an important theme in the novel. Anne Elliot, now 27, is a woman who has “lost her bloom.” She is described as thin, faded and haggard. Upon first seeing her after eight years, Wentworth confides to others that she is so altered, he would hardly have recognized her. Later, however, the sea breezes of Lyme Regis and the admiration of another man combine to increase her beauty in Wentworth’s eyes:
She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced. It was evident that the gentleman, (completely a gentleman in manner) admired her exceedingly. Captain Wentworth looked round at her instantly in a way which shewed his noticing of it. He gave her a momentary glance, a glance of brightness, which seemed to say, “That man is struck with you, and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again.” (-Chapter 12)
Wentworth himself is always described as a man of unusual good looks. When he returns to the district, he is greeted by a “little fever of admiration” from the Musgrove sisters.
Anne herself is impressed that his physical attractions are, if anything, even more apparent after eight years:
No: the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages. (-Chapter 7)
At the concert in the Octagon Room, Captain Wentworth stands out among a cluster of other men. His good looks are acknowledged by none other than Sir Walter himself:
“A well-looking man,” said Sir Walter, “a very well-looking man.”
“A very fine young man indeed!” said Lady Dalrymple. “More air than one often sees in Bath. Irish, I dare say.” (-Chapter 20)
Austen hints strongly at Wentworth’s sexual charisma by describing his masculine cockiness, which had been irresistible to the nineteen-year-old Anne, but offensive to Lady Russell:
…full of life and ardour, he knew that he should soon have a ship, and soon be on a station that would lead to everything he wanted. He had always been lucky; he knew he should be so still. Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it, must have been enough for Anne; but Lady Russell saw it very differently. His sanguine temper, and fearlessness of mind, operated very differently on her. She saw in it but an aggravation of the evil. It only added a dangerous character to himself. He was brilliant, he was headstrong. (-Chapter 4)
And now we come to the interesting question of sexual wordplay and symbolism in Persuasion. Given the high standards of decorum in her novels, we might not expect Austen to use bawdy wordplay. But according to at least one Austen scholar (Heydt-Stevenson 2000), there is a joke in Persuasion about the size of Captain Wentworth’s… ehhm, mast. When Anne, walking with Lady Russell in Bath, catches sight of Wentworth in the street, she is seized with anxiety about how Lady Russell will react to him:
she was yet perfectly conscious of Lady Russell’s eyes being turned exactly in the direction for him–of her being, in short, intently observing him. She could thoroughly comprehend the sort of fascination he must possess over Lady Russell’s mind, the difficulty it must be for her to withdraw her eyes, the astonishment she must be feeling that eight or nine years should have passed over him, and in foreign climes and in active service too, without robbing him of one personal grace! (-Chapter 19)
Lady Russell, however, chooses not to speak of Wentworth directly, but instead turns to Anne and says:
“You will wonder,” said she, “what has been fixing my eye so long; but I was looking after some window-curtains, which Lady Alicia and Mrs Frankland were telling me of last night. They described the drawing-room window-curtains of one of the houses on this side of the way, and this part of the street, as being the handsomest and best hung of any in Bath, but could not recollect the exact number, and I have been trying to find out which it could be; but I confess I can see no curtains hereabouts that answer their description.” (-Chapter 19)
In other words, certain foolish ladies may find themselves transfixed by the sight of that which is said to be “the handsomest and best-hung in Bath,” but Lady Russell does not count herself among their number.
Upon first reading Heydt-Stevenson’s argument, I was skeptical, but she demonstrates (2000.314, 334) that there is a very clear joke in Mansfield Park about sodomy in the navy (involving Rear- and Vice- Admirals), and that Austen’s own letters contain a witticism about an Admiral “whose legs are too short and his tail too long” (tail being a euphemism for penis, which itself means “tail” in Latin). Furthermore, one of Jane Austen’s favorite books was Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a book characterized by very bawdy, typically eighteenth-century humor and wordplay.
I still found it difficult to accept that Jane Austen could make such an indelicate joke, until I ran across strong evidence that Heydt-Stevenson is correct. Wentworth’s rival for Anne is the scheming William Elliot, heir to Sir Walter. Mr. Elliot is generally thought a fine-looking man because of his superior address and manners, but the discriminating Sir Walter has doubts about his appearance:
He did justice to his very gentlemanlike appearance, his air of elegance and fashion, his good shaped face, his sensible eye; but, at the same time, “must lament his being very much under-hung, a defect which time seemed to have increased; nor could he pretend to say that ten years had not altered almost every feature for the worse.” (-Chapter 15)
I take “under-hung” to refer to a receding chin. A jutting, prominent chin may be perceived as a sign of confidence and masculinity, while a small chin indicates the opposite. Both Captain Wentworth and Mr. Elliot have been absent for several years, but the virile good looks of the former have only been magnified, while those of the latter have apparently suffered a certain… shrinkage. In both cases observations about the respective rivals’ endowments are made by persons addressing Anne. Their opinions reveal exactly how the two men are perceived by those around them.
According to the OED, the word “hung” was used as early as 1611 to describe men with massive members. Austen uses the term adjectivally only twice in Persuasion, once to refer (albeit indirectly) to Wentworth’s charms and once to refer to Elliot’s lack of them.
The phallic theme is not neglected in the film of Persuasion (Richards 2003.123). At one point during her stay in Bath, Anne unexpectedly meets Wentworth in a tea shop on a rainy day. They exchange a few words, and it is clear that Wentworth’s interest in her has been reignited. On learning that she is to walk home, he offers her his umbrella and she accepts. Then the ingratiating Mr. Elliot appears to escort Anne home, and she awkwardly hands the umbrella back to Wentworth, taking Elliot’s instead.
The umbrella symbolism continues when Captain Wentworth, overhearing a conversation between Anne and Harville that moves him deeply, writes the fateful love letter.
He leaves the room with Harville, then returns, giving the excuse that he has forgotten his umbrella. This strategem gives him the opportunity to draw Anne’s attention to the letter lying on the writing desk. In the novel, it is his gloves that Wentworth “forgets,” but in the film, the umbrella is symbolic of Wentworth’s desire for Anne, and his anxiety about whether she will accept him. His masculine pride has already been wounded to the quick, yet he summons the courage to bare his vulnerable… soul to her again.
Once an understanding is achieved between them, Captain Wentworth kisses Anne. This is one of the film’s anachronisms (there is no kiss in the original, and a public kiss would have violated accepted standards of decorum). It’s a bow to modern taste, after the enforced emotional and verbal restraint that impedes the lovers in most of the film. At the end of both Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, Austen’s happy couples conduct long conversations about their feelings, once their betrothal makes it safe to declare themselves. This is a substitute for physical affection. Cinematically, however, one image must stand in for the detailed post-game analysis of the books. The kiss in the film is chaste, brief– and extremely satisfying.
Collins, Amanda. 2000. “Jane Austen and the Pitfalls of Modern Nostalgia” in L. Troost ed. Jane Austen in Hollywood. University Press of Kentucky. 79-89.
Heydt-Stevenson, Jill. 2000. “‘Slipping into the Ha-Ha’: Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 55.3.309-339.
Paulette Richards. 2003. “Regency Romance Shadowing in the Visual Motifs of Roger Michell’s Persuasion” in G. McDonald and A. McDonald eds., Jane Austen on Screen. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 111-126.