SEPT / OCT 2011: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO
He was at the time a remarkably fine young man… full of life and ardour… headstrong.” This is how Jane Austen first describes Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion. Young, confident and smart, Wentworth is one of Jane Austen’s most charming and energetic heroes… and perhaps her most emotional one. All her leading men are deeply emotional beneath the social conventions that prevailed during the 19th century but Wentworth’s feelings throughout are particularly fascinating because they affect and motivate his actions in a more apparent manner. In fact, his emotions are often far easier to read than many of the other characters in the novel save for Anne Elliot’s since the story is told from her point of view. This allows a unique perspective and understanding to his ultimate character.
Wentworth shares a past with Anne filled with pain and disappointment. Eight years before the events of the novel, he left to serve in the Royal Navy after she rejected his proposal at the persuasion of loved ones. Those eight years brought him status and wealth but not comfort or healing from his disappointment and heartache. This is apparent when he first appears on the scene, having returned to the region to visit his sister and brother-in-law, staying at Kellynch Hall. Unlike Anne, who mentally prepared herself for the inevitability of meeting him in person and encountering in the same social circles, Wentworth was not ready. Even after the initial shock of seeing her again recedes, he shows no signs of having adjusted to her presence, nor does he actively pursue any opportunity to converse with her; all remains cold and formal between them. His behaviour not only shows he is still angry over what happened between them but also that he has no intention of rekindling any relationship they had. While this is a way of protecting himself and his feelings from further disappointment it is nonetheless painful to observe, especially from Anne’s perspective. This hurt and disappointment coupled with her presence also manifests itself in other ways. He is often in the company of Henrietta and Louisa Musgroves, who are young, energetic and shower him with attention and praise. He has no history with them, which makes it easier for him to socialize with them. He announces that he is “quite ready to make a foolish match … a little beauty, a few smiles and a few compliments to the Navy and I am a lost man.” Given what Anne says about Wentworth’s personality, I cannot believe he would commit to just any woman for a wife, and the offhand remark could have very well been made only because Anne happened to have been dining with the family the evening the topic was brought up. It comes off more like a light-hearted way of convincing himself that he is ready to settle down but is not concerned as to what kind of match he makes. Had he been truly serious in the idea of marrying, he would have been more aware that the Musgrove girls were vying for his affections and therefore would have been more conscious of the impression he was giving to the girls and their family.
Despite such declarations and actions during his time with the Musgroves, he is not completely uncaring toward Anne. On more than one occasion he silently helps her out of some uncomfortable situations, illustrating that despite of his anger over the past, he cannot stand back and act indifferent as she struggles. It takes a grave accident in Lyme and an example of Anne’s levelheadedness to prompt him out of a cocoon of hurt and disappointment and remind him of all of the qualities about Anne that he loves. This impression leads to a transformation evident in the second half of the novel. When they run into each other again in Bath later on, he is far more approachable toward Anne. Whatever initial discomfort he felt in renewing their friendship vanished by the night of the concert, where they discuss a number of subjects with openness and calmness. But some of the things he says still reflect his former hurt, like when he remarks about his friend Benwick’s upcoming nuptials that “A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman! He ought not—he does not.” But this time his remarks also carry the possibility that he is ready to reach out and rekindle their relationship once more. The fact that he is also able to converse with Anne without detachment or “cold politeness” is a sign of his renewed determination.
This growing confidence and improved disposition is short-lived, for when news reaches him that Mr. Elliot intends to marry Anne, his behaviour becomes abruptly cold and distant again. This change even surprises Anne: “Jealousy of Mr. Elliot! It was the only intelligible motive. Captain Wentworth, jealous of her affection!” His jealousy not only prompts him to abruptly leave the concert halfway but renders him strangely detached when he delivers Admiral Croft’s message concerning their lease to Kellynch Hall days after. This episode unmistakably shows he was profoundly affected by the prospect of losing Anne again. His first reaction is to emotionally retreat, reminiscent of his earlier behaviour.
But the last few chapters of the novel made it clear he was merely acting out of what had happened before. The abrupt changes in his behaviour and feelings for Anne can be confusing and frustrating at times but it is easy to forget that he was not the one who ended the engagement eight years ago. His entire behaviour over the course of the story is a way of bracing himself from further pain, which in turn stems from how deeply he loved Anne. When he finally chooses to make that one last effort to win her back, he confesses this aspect of his behaviour to her: “…unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.” He also later admits he “was proud, too proud to ask again…I shut my eyes, and would not understand [her], or do [her] justice.” His feelings about the entire matter are so strong that he is unable to understand her decisions in any rational manner.
While the power of his emotions in influencing his behaviour in the first half of the story make him seem proud or even cruel, it ultimately shows that he is a person capable of feeling deeply who has his own flaws. Furthermore, his actions towards the end of the novel show that he is capable of overcoming his feelings of pride and hurt in order to find the courage to reconcile with Anne and achieve complete happiness. Compared with Mr. Elliot’s good manners but otherwise unfeeling disregard of others, Wentworth is a fully realised individual who has the capacity of emotionally connecting with other people. This is an aspect of his personality that Anne is especially drawn to, given her loneliness and isolation from the rest of her family for most of her life. She even observes at one point that Mr. Elliot has no such capacity to feel, a value she cherished in other people. His behaviour shows he is very much driven by his feelings, particularly for Anne. In a time where such feelings were conveyed only through decorum and a particular set of mannerisms his feelings of negativity dictate his actions in a way that may not have strongly affected other Austen heroes. There is a passion that runs through him that no matter how steely his resolve, made him incapable of completely masking his emotions. His actions are so often far more readable and open than Anne’s, whose own feelings of sorrow and regret remain hidden and manifest primarily through her physical appearance. Despite his flaws and his emotions ability to direct his actions, Captain Wentworth ultimately shows that he is a man complete with a range of strong and deep emotions and his own set of fully-realised flaws. ■