Anne Elliot is an anomaly. She doesn't fit the pattern of an Austen heroine. She's not young. She's part of the nobility. And her great, sweepingly romantic story is, in some ways, over before the book begins. We see all of Austen's other heroines fall in love, but not Anne. Hers is not a story of finding a man to love, but of reclaiming the man that she chose to part from years earlier.
And unlike most of Austen's heroines, Anne spend much of the book without even the hope of eventual happiness. And she's not even merely unhappy -- Austen would say she is in low spirits; today, we would say she is depressed. Still! Eight years after she'd persuaded herself it would be a good idea to give up the man whose heart and mind she understood and loved so well, she is still low. Which isn't surprising -- she's had nothing to divert her mind, to raise her spirits. She's been living with a pair of peacocks who have zero interest in a dove like herself.
Her only friend has been Lady Russell, who is kind and well-meaning, and does value Anne, but who is the very person who punctured Anne's happiness with Wentworth. While Anne doesn't seem to blame Lady Russell for her meddling, surely being around her all the time must be a constant reminder of her painful past. Is it any wonder that Anne, by nature quiet and unassuming, is nearly invisible at the beginning of Persuasion?
Words like "quiet" and "shy" get used a lot to describe Anne Elliot. So do "helpful" and "self-sacrificing." I prefer to think of her as strong. It takes a lot of inner strength to do something you don't want to do, and Anne does things she dislikes over and over. She gives up the man she loves. She nurses her "sick" sister back to good spirits. She spends time in the company of Captain Wentworth when she'd rather be anywhere but in his presence. She moves to Bath, a city she hates. And she doesn't whine or complain about these things, but does them the way she does everything: quietly and helpfully.
Anne doesn't complain about moving to Bath even though she hates the idea. She is devoted to her retiring, uneventful life in the country, but that life of sameness has caused her to be stuck in her sorrow for eight years. She doesn't want to leave her home, but it's that very change that helps her overcome her depression and regain her cheerfulness. She finds friends who are interested in her for who she is as a person, not because they were friends with her mother. She meets a man who wants to be her friend and another who pursues her romantically. She goes on excursions, rekindles an old friendship, helps nurse a gravely injured person, and discovers that she has something to contribute to the world.
Instead of thinking of herself as the unimportant second daughter, the person who rejected love, she can reshape her identity in her own eyes. She can see herself as a helpful friend, a marriageable woman, an intelligent person who responds clearly and competently to adversities and crises. Through those realizations, her spirits rise, her happiness returns. And only then does she find love again.
In one very important way, Anne is just like Austen's other heroines: she gets a second chance at love. And like the others, she does not hesitate to seize love the second time around. When she fell in love with Frederick Wentworth as a young woman, she allowed herself to be convinced that he was not worthy of her, and she convinced herself that she was not worthy of him. When she discovers, as a more mature woman, that not only does she still love him, but he still returns her affections, she entertains no misconceptions about whether or not either of them deserves the other. No one can persuade her otherwise this time, not even herself.
This is my final contribution to my I Love Austen Week party that I'm hosting on Hamlette's Soliloquy. Go here for links to all the other fun!
(I first wrote this character sketch for a Persuasion read-along hosted at Literary Adventures Along the Brandywine several years ago, where you can still find it. -- Hamlette)