Anne Elliot is a marvellous heroine, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking about her and the depth of emotional weight she brings to the novel. However, Persuasion has some superb male characters; some whom it is easy to love, and others whom I hate more every time I read the novel. Whether you like them or not, their characterisation is very well done by Austen, who, as always, is sure to avoid stereotypes and tropes. The heroes are far from perfect, and the villains are not without their redeeming features. I don’t think we get as much of their inner life as we do of Anne’s, but it is not really their story; they are supporting players who have a vital role in that they show who Anne could have been, what she has turned away from, and what qualities will best partner hers. They illustrate how difficult it can be to choose a partner, and if one is not a wise judge of character, how it can be easy to marry someone who will degrade rather than improve your own character, tastes and quality of life.
Sir Walter, Anne’s father, is the first male character we meet. It is clear from the start that he is not going to be a favourite. Like most (maybe all?) of Austen’s fathers, he is not a particularly good patriarch; he has chosen his favourite and the other two daughters receive little of his attention or consideration. His major passion in life has always been himself, and his personal vanity and selfishness is on a par with that wonderful clergyman from Highbury, the odious Mr Elton. He is a poor manager of money, a poor judge of character, and an incorrigible snob. Elizabeth, Anne’s elder sister, has followed in her father’s footsteps, and as such has failed to develop the qualities necessary to make her an attractive friend or partner. Mary, her middle sister, has inherited her father’s selfishness and snobbery, though fortunately for her she has married a man who won’t put up with her nonsense and has prevented her behaviour from becoming more unpleasant. Anne’s personal strength of character and caring, selfless attitude is a reaction to the personalities she was brought up alongside. Sir Walter has not set a good example, but Anne is wise enough to realise this, and has gone as far opposite his ways as possible. Sir Walter shows us what Anne might have become, had she not possessed the heart and mind she does.
Mr Elliot is a key male character in the novel because he represents Anne’s only other real chance of marrying someone she esteems. We know that Mr Elliot has not always been popular in the Elliot household, but his changed behaviour after losing his wife impresses everyone, including Anne. Polite, attentive, considerate, intelligent, cultured and with impeccable manners, Mr Elliot appears to have the whole package – including good looks. He acknowledges his past failings, apologises for them, and wastes no time in working hard to mend his bridges. When Anne believes that all is lost with Captain Wentworth, she begins to seriously think about him as a marriage prospect. She enjoys his company, she appreciates his good manners and his tastes, and she is tempted at the thought of being Lady Elliot, reinstated to Kellynch Hall in her mother’s place. However, something isn’t quite right – Mr Elliot is a bit too good to be true. He is careful to say all the right things and make all the right noises, but deep down Anne knows the selfish, rude and frivolous young man who first snubbed her father is still in there, and it is all a show. She frequently wonders whether he is ‘not quite sincere’. When Mrs Smith presents her with the evidence to prove it, Anne is shocked, but it only confirms the suspicions she already had. Anne does wonder whether she might have been induced to marry him by Lady Russell, but somehow I doubt this; she never feels any particular passion for Mr Elliot, and when a woman is flattered, and other prospects appear to be hopeless, many wild fancies can start to be treated as reasonable possibilities, but they are rarely acted upon. Importantly when Mr Elliot is exposed as the liar he is, Anne realises that ‘he stood as opposed to Captain Wentworth, in all his own unwelcome obtrusiveness’. Mr Elliot is the final proof for Anne that no one but Captain Wentworth will do.
Finally; Captain Wentworth. The wonderful, heartfelt, romantic letter he writes to Anne at the end of the novel is enough to make any woman sigh at the mere mention of his hallowed name, and these words, breathlessly written while Anne stood just an arm’s length away from him, would make him perfect in many an eye. However, Austen does not write Wentworth as the perfect romantic hero. He is not a white knight on a trusty steed, and his judgement is often severely lacking. When he first arrives back in Kellynch, his behaviour towards Anne is rude at best. He remarks that she is ‘wretchedly changed’ – a comment he knows will get back to her – and is abrupt and perfunctory in his tone and manner of speaking with her. He has allowed his disappointment and anger at Anne’s refusal, eight years before, to harden his heart, and like a child, he hits out at the one he loves because he cannot articulate his feelings towards her. He runs after the silly Louisa and spends a good deal of time alone with her, apparently without realising the very obvious impression this gives to all around them. Most seriously of all, he grossly underrates Anne, and takes an incredibly long time to realise that, at the tender age of 19, being persuaded by the only mother figure she has not to marry a man who is not in an immediate position to provide for her is not really a colossal character fault but the actions of any impressionable young woman. Wentworth may be a sensitive soul and a successful, brave and dashing naval Captain, but he is also blind to a lot of his behaviours and quick to react emotionally to circumstances, untempered by reason. His wild jealousy at Mr Elliot’s attention towards Anne at the concert is another case in point; rather than wait to speak to Anne calmly about his suspicions, or rationally take on board the fact that Anne clearly only has eyes and ears for him, he storms out of the concert hall like a spoilt little boy who hasn’t got his own way, leaving poor Anne confused and bereft. Like the woman he loves, Wentworth is a flawed hero; a man whose hot temper and quick tongue belie a soft and constant heart. Anne; careful, studied, measured Anne, will be his perfect foil. They make up each other’s deficiencies and temper the other’s weaknesses. Wentworth might not be perfect; but he is perfect for Anne.
There are plenty of other interesting male figures in the novel; Admiral Croft, Charles Musgrove, Captain Benwick, to name a few; but if I go into depth about all of them I’ll never stop talking! I wanted to make the point that Austen’s men are often as well fleshed out as her women, and that they also serve a very key purpose aside from being romantic fodder for the ladies. I think Persuasion‘s men are particularly well characterised in that they are all very multidimensional, and their flaws make them as interesting as their strengths. I’d love to hear what you think…