by Tammy Tillotson
In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, manners are a primary external communicative event, which occur between characters and offer definition to the nature of relationships.
Relationships are always internal, because they exist between the mind of one person and the mind of another person. A level of attraction, expectations, and some degree of importance or significance are measurements of internal relationships. To Austen’s characters, manners are attractive, expected, and held in extremely high regard, especially within the context of courtship.
As manners are comparatively assessed and assigned meaning throughout the novel, Austen skillfully illustrates the complex nature of how humans arbitrarily define relationships based on inferences of external actions and bias within individual perception, will, and judgment. Though manners are perceived to be an accurate reflection of a character’s true self, Austen’s underlying theme and challenge is to see beyond the intentional and clever acts of persuasion.
Duality of Manners
The importance of manners is initially introduced amid an array of duality that exists within one’s own intimate family relations. “Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must’ve placed her high with any people of real understanding…” (5). Austen relates the first sentiments of Anne’s personal mannerisms by comparing Anne to the mannerisms of her father, Sir Walter Elliot, and her sister Elizabeth. Artificial sentiments are immediately implicated, as though the characteristics Anne displays should be highly regarded by understanding individuals, that is not evident in Anne’s present family circumstances. “She was only Anne” (5). Sweetness of character and elegance of mind are seemingly trite characteristics with little apparent significance. Contrarily, it is possible to assume that neither Anne’s father or her sister Elizabeth meet the qualifications of people of real understanding if they value Anne so little.
The disagreements among Anne’s family members suggest that manners are only a clever façade of complacency, which in essence, perceives to shield underlying opinions and solicitudes. If the duality of manners begins within the interpersonal relationships of one’s own family, it can be assumed that the complexities will continue to be found throughout all other relationships, including courtships.
Keeping Up Appearances
The ability to maintain appearances through manners is referred to as “the art of pleasing,” (12) though not all of Austen’s characters are as clever or as skilled at the art. Class distinction and being consciously aware of the importance of manners within society does not necessarily yield a convincingly skilled artisan. Mrs. Clay exemplifies intentional and expected communication through her polite manners, but her actions are received as somewhat arbitrary. It is Anne’s opinion that Mrs. Clay’s demeanor is merely a “matter of course” (98). Anne felt Mrs. Clay “would pretend what was proper on her arrival, but the complaisance of the others was unlooked for” (98).
Despite acting properly, Mrs. Clay lacks a sincerity of mannerisms beneath surface tension. People in societal positions of connection are valued as acquaintances worth having, and maintaining cordial relations with Mrs. Clay is more of a duty or obligation than a pleasure to the other characters. Mrs. Clay’s ability to perform the art of pleasing successfully does not surrender the courtship of her illusions and desires with Sir Walter Elliot. It is important to note that, because of Mrs. Clay’s mannerisms, Lady Russell believed her to be “a very dangerous companion,” (13) and Anne was also “impressed by the degree of their danger” (25). The cautious ladies present the idea that despite being proper, manners can be used by persons skilled at the art to breed destruction, manipulation, and persuasion toward a specific intent or motive. Ironically, manners are also characteristic of “a standard of good-breeding,” (9) and it is important to distinguish between manners that encourage “persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk” (178).
The Side of Safety
An example of persuasion on the side of safety might include Lady Russell’s advice for Anne not to marry Captain Wentworth at a young age. Though Anne does not blame Lady Russell, or herself for heeding the advice, years later Anne believes that despite all the probable misfortune “she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it” (22). Anne loved, trusted, and respected Lady Russell, so she allowed herself to be persuaded. Yet, Lady Russell did not know or understand the true sentiments of Anne’s heart. Lady Russell exerted what she believed to be persuasion on the side of Anne’s safety, yet her perception was simultaneously one that created an even greater risk for Anne, as Anne’s inner self endured great turmoil after acknowledging that someone else had ultimately swayed her decision.
Persuasion exerted on the side of safety is often a choice between the lesser of two perceived evils, and as neither is an easy decision, both are innately risks to some degree. Influencing the decision of someone can have much higher risks and longer lasting effects and consequences for the individual, as exemplified by Anne’s years of heartache.
Lady Russell perceived Mr. Elliot to be an honorable and less risky suitor for Anne, because she was persuaded by his pleasing manners, and she perceived that to be indicative of the most correct opinions and mind (181). Since Captain Wentworth’s manners were less than her personal ideals, Lady Russell mistakenly and prematurely misjudged him. If Mrs. Clay is considered dangerous for her cunning skills at the art of pleasing, then Lady Russell could equally be considered as dangerous for her sound judgment and trusted confidence. Contrarily, Anne might never have realized the pain of her sacrifice had she not been persuaded by Lady Russell to end the engagement, as intentions can inadvertently be both positive and negative depending on how the situation is assessed.
When reconciling and reflecting on past differences of opinion, Anne explains to Captain Wentworth, “I should have thought…that my manner to yourself might have spared you much or all of this” (178). Wentworth counters that Anne’s manner might only have been “the ease which your engagement to another man would give” (178). The pair learned, through near broken hearts, that an individual’s perception of his or her own manners is not always the same as what others perceive to be the intent. External actions and manners are not always accurate representations of an individual’s true sentiments, and often conversation is a more important and effective channel to ensure that messages are conveyed with clarity.
Arbitrariness of Analyzing
When defining relationships and courtships based solely on the arbitrariness of analyzing manners, appearances, and demeanor, one cannot always trust what is seen. Despite the fact that human tendency greatly leans toward, promotes, and is accepting of this practice, there is often more to relationships than that which can be seen, assessed, or explained outside of one’s inner self. An accurate reflection of a character’s true self is a vast conglomeration of complexities found amid the dualities and contradictions of human nature. As communicative events, including manners, are capable of being either intentionally deceptive or uniquely truthful, one’s own intuition should be the determiner of what is best for one’s self in the arenas of love and life in general.
It is indeed amusing, ironic, and sad how often characters feel their decisions and opinions must be supported, confirmed, or justified in some way through the agreement of social company. Agreement does little more than create just as many fears and concerns as it eases, as it encourages greater conformity within the boundaries of a social norm in exchange for avoiding internal contemplation of being alone with one’s own thoughts. Discovering the truth about love, courtship, and relationships might best be understood through listening to individuals like Anne “preach patience and resignation,” (74) yet this illuminates a mere glimpse into gleaned truths. Only through experiencing the consequences of heeding external advice, do individuals eventually learn to resign themselves within to ultimately find greater truths of their own.
In considering my personal perception, will, and judgment, I dare say I feel a capable accomplice of this concept. Like Anne, I do not allow books to prove anything, nor do I expect them to (170). Like Austen and many other great moralists, I can be eloquent on points in which my own conduct would ill bear example (74). That considered, the fearful truth is found simply in being human, and acknowledging that being human also includes rejection of that which has already been learned and recorded by many other intelligent individuals.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. New York: The Modern Library, 1995.
JASNA – Jane Austen Society of North America
Persuasion – Jane Austen E-book. Entire text available online.