Persuasion’s Men

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…

46 comments

  1. If you would allow me to indulge my ego, I have a story to tell that is somewhat on topic: Last weekend I was having lunch with my daughter (brilliant young woman, SMU ’06, Phi Beta Kappa, insanely well-read, etc.) and she brought up the question of what I would like to do to celebrate my birthday next week (I will be 63 next Tuesday). My spirits dropped and I launched a self-pitying reverie that went something like this: “Ah, Charlotte, once I was Mr Darcy and now I am Mr Bennet; once Captain Wentworth, now Sir Walter; once Allan Woodcourt, now John Jarndyce…” This could have gone on a while but she put her hand on mine and said, “Dad, for me you have always been and always will be Colonel Brandon. Now, about your birthday…” Such a sweet girl.

      1. Thank you, you are very kind. I am sorry to learn of your own Colonel’s passing; he raised a gracious daughter and the world can ill afford to lose such men.

    1. Oh Charles! What a lovely story – and what a lovely daughter you have! My dad wouldn’t have a clue what I was on about if I referred to him as a Colonel Brandon, bless him!

  2. Great post! The Crofts are probably my favorite couple anywhere. I also want to put in a good word for Charles Musgrove. That poor man. He came off like such a decent, solid guy and he got stuck with Mary. I don’t think he and Anne would have suited, but still, that poor, poor man!

    1. I LOVE the Crofts too. Such a wonderful couple – one of the best I have come across in fiction. I love how they just take such delight in one another.

      Oh yes – Charles Musgrove is wonderful. I love how he doesn’t take any of Mary’s nonsense and won’t indulge her behaviour – unconsciously he is making her a better person. He has a lot to put up with – I do wonder what he saw in her in the first place!

  3. Well I have reread ‘Persuasion’ (had a couple of days of feeling poorly and couldn’t face ‘The Golden Bowl’) and I completely retract my earlier prejudice against it and bow to your superior taste and wisdom. Had it not been for your read-along, I doubt I’d have reread it for years so am MOST grateful to you. I can only assume I was in a filthy bad temper when I last read it.

    I enjoyed this post as all your others on ‘Persuasion’ and you make lots of great points. It is a good thing that people keep mentioning Captain Wentworth’s noble naval activities because otherwise all this flirting with Henrietta and Louisa and being rude to Anne would make him really quite unattractive. I noticed also this time around just how many men, in contrast to Anne, are not ‘faithful’ to their first love: Captain Wentworth (well, he is eventually, but he doesn’t behave as if he is for much of the book), Captain Benwick, Charles Musgrove (who proposes to Mary quite soon after Anne), Mr Elliott (not that he was sincere to either Elizabeth or his first wife). (Henrietta and Louisa balance things out a bit for the women.) And then of course Anne and Captain Harville discuss this very point. In fact, only Sir Walter does not remarry, though not I assume through melancholy at the loss of his wife.

    1. Well Helen, I am so glad that you have seen the light! You are very welcome – I would thrust Persuasion in random people’s faces if it wouldn’t probably get me arrested, so much do I believe in its powers!

      That’s a very interesting point, actually, Helen, and something I hadn’t noticed before. I wonder whether that is supposed to say something about men’s constancy, and that Wentworth is different because his love never wavers?

      Interesting indeed!

  4. Can only agree with all you have said. I would add Captain Harville is a good friend to Captn Wentworth (and with his wise counsel at Lyme, to Anne too), stabilising and loyal. Captain Benwick sounds about as much fun as a wet weekend in Brighton, I cannot think how he could appeal to a young flibbertygibbit like Louisa, even captive in her sick bed with the only sound of him reading his morbid poetry! It also makes me wonder how having a father like Sir Walter, and sisters like Elizabeth and Mary, Anne can turn out to be the rounded and sensitive woman she is. Persuasion is like a grown up Cinderalla. Both Anne & Cinderella have a clueless father and no mother, both are at the mercy of their two ‘ugly’ sisters and both are left at home to do all the work! Thank goodness for Princes and Captains.

    1. I did not think of comparing Persuasion to Cinderella but not that you’ve brought it up, it makes sense. Perhaps Walter have the opposite influence on Anne. I think it was Anne’s mother that make Anne the way she was. I don’t remember if the book mention when Anne’s mother died but I think she has some influence on Anne. And also Lady Russell.

      & I agree with you on Benwick. Perhaps he was never the poetry-reading, sorrowful fella as he was now. Perhaps Louisa brought out some charming part of him out again?

    2. Yes indeed, Lilac – I should have mentioned that. Wentworth comes across as a very decent man through and through – a very good friend and a sensitive and tactful man when it comes to things like ensuring Mrs Musgrove didn’t hear the bad bits about her son who was killed at sea.

      What a fantastic analogy about Cinderella – that is exactly it! Anne is the exception in her family and it is always mentioned that she is just like her mother – thankfully she inherited all of her traits, clearly!

  5. You sum it so brilliantly. I think my focus has been more on Wentworth than any of the other men in Persuasion but now that you brought the up, here’s my few thoughts on them.

    I think Charles Musgrove could have been a good match for Anne as he is the most sensible of all the other men. And he surely makes Mary a much better woman by marrying her.

    Mr. Elliot, even from the beginning, I thought he would never end up with Anne. Cousins marrying cousins has always makes me feel a bit odd. But as it was done in those days regularly, I suppose no one really gets nervous (not quite the right word?) Mr. Elliot, like you said, just seems to be too good to be true. Perhaps Anne is the person – the caring, the honest, the kind person – that he wanted to be but wasn’t. I think people choose partners with qualities that they often lack. That’s is why Mr. Elliot wants to marry Anne. At least I think so. I do wonder if he truly loves Anne.

    And poor Benwick (I always gets Benwick & Harville mix up for some odd reason). Benwick lost his beloved before he had a chance to marry her, almost like Wentworth except gets a second chance. I guess in those days, if you have no money, you could not marry the one you want. I get this impression that Benwick wasn’t quite present. But somehow subtly told of through other people. But that may be because I pay too much attention to Wentworth.

    Okay, I’ve already said enough. Wonderful discussions here. Will come back for me.

    1. Thank you Lissa, and thank you for your brilliant thoughts!

      Interesting what you say about Mr Elliot – somehow I think his motives were a little more mercurious than that but I like your take on him! Perhaps deep down he did want to be improved by a good woman!

      Yes Benwick gets a second chance – but I can’t help but think Louisa will end up being a bit of a disappointment when she is no longer bedridden!

      I love how the whole novel is about second chances…no one is shown as being really irredeemable, I don’t think. Even Sir Walter!

  6. Really interesting stuff, thanks Rachel. I sometimes think Sir Walter is overdrawn, it’s hard to understand what Anne’s mother saw in him – but I feel different about it every time I read the book.

    1. Thanks Hayley! I know what you mean – I think Sir Walter has definitely got worse with age and without a wife to temper him. His odiousness is so bad because he’s never challenged, I think. Everyone panders to him and supports his image of himself of being this amazing and righteous man who deserves everyone’s honour and respect.

  7. While, like any reader, I melt at Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne, I’ve never been able to warm up to the man himself. He feels so distant and closed-off from the reader’s perspective (and Anne’s) and his behaviour towards Anne when they meet again is so immature and petty that I’ve always wondered how it didn’t immediately put an end to Anne’s love for him.

    I think I’d be far happier with the straight-forward Charles Musgrove or the loyal Admiral Croft, both sensible men who seem unlikely to let small disagreements fester into silent suffering, which is just the kind of thing one could see happening to the equally uncommunicative Wentworth and Anne!

    And I know I shouldn’t, but I always come away from Persuasion admiring Mr Elliot’s cunning. He is not a good man, certainly, but he does seem to be a clever one who knows how to work an angle and I rather like him for that, however corrupt his aims may be.

    1. That’s interesting, Claire – I can see what you mean, but I think I do quite empathise with him. I would be rather annoyed if someone I loved was so easily persuaded not to be with me when I knew deep down they wanted to. I think it’s actually quite endearing that he loved her so much to still be so angry so many years afterwards! But perhaps that’s just my romantic heart!

      Oh yes – Admiral Croft would make a wonderful husband! I’m not so sure about Charles Musgrove though – he seems to be rather uncommunicative which would really bother me! I think Anne and Wentworth both needed time to grow up before they married and that their marriage will be sweeter for the time they spend apart.

      Oh absolutely – he’s a very clever man and he knows what he wants and how to get it. He has got some taste as well – I love how he doesn’t even bother with Elizabeth – he’ll stoop low, but not that far!

  8. You know, I hadn’t really thought about it, but you’re quite right, there are no good patriarchs in Jane Austen! There’s that mean old father in Northanger Abbey, and then Mr. Bennet, and Emma’s father who’s so whiny, and in Sense and Sensibility the father dies and the brother decides not to give any money to the girls, so I guess the Mansfield Park father is the best of a bad lot? And he’s away all the time and treats Fanny like a pet dog. Huh. Interesting! Did Jane Austen have a terrible father? I know so little about her life…need to get around to reading her letters!

    1. Jenny I didn’t remember him beig terrible from reading the biography ‘Becoming Jane’, but all this talk of terrible father characters had me thinking I must be mistaken. But no, from this short bio it seems that he was wonderful and well loved: http://janitesonthejames.blogspot.com/2007/06/jane-austens-father.html I imagine him a bit like Mr Bennet, well meaning, educated, but with too many children for his means. Oh and I’ve only skimmed this but interesting ideas about Austen’s dislike of permissive parents and keenness on authoritarian parents (influenced by the necessities of the day) are here: http://www.pemberley.com/papers/famaust.htm I expect her father characters were often so, to allow Austen to express more ideas about the best kind of character and how that might be raised.

      1. Thanks for those links Jodie – yes I agree, from everything I have read, Austen had an excellent relationship with both of her parents. She must have witnessed a lot of ineffective parenting however, as it features so heavily in her books that I can’t help but feel she is trying to make a point about it!

    2. Yes – none of them are any good at all! Emma’s father is adorable and loving but very restrictive and selfish at the same time. I think he’s the best of a bad lot if you ask me!

      No I don’t think she did have a bad father – from what I know he was very supportive and encouraging of his daughters getting an education and of Jane’s talents. I don’t really know why she always puts fathers in such a bad light…I should read some more criticism on her. Get on with those letters!

  9. Lovely post and an interesting discussion. I agree about Anne’s father and I was somewhat amused by him and his actions and I felt by the end of the novel Anne had realised just what he was like and I think then Captain Wentworth restored her faith in men, even after behaving perhaps irrationally when seeing Anne with another man! Shock horror! I have experienced the man that cannot express himself or make his mind up despite my best efforts, he has yet if he ever will be my Captain Wentworth.

    Love reading all the comments and have popped across to some blogs I had not discovered before. I have covered Persuasion and the Navy on blog in recent days if anyone wants to pop across to have a read. And I am hoping to watch a TV adaptation soon (this Saturday for UK residents) and perhaps write something up about that, as the nights draw in and autumn seems to have finally blown in!

    1. Thanks Jo – glad you have been enjoying reading and taking part. It’s interesting that Anne goes as far from her father as she possibly can when choosing a husband, isn’t it? I also like the fact that she knows she won’t get better than Wentworth and hangs onto him in her heart.

      Oh haven’t we all dealt with Inexpressive Man, Jo? So infuriating!!!

      I really enjoyed your post on Persuasion and the Navy – very interesting angle. Autumn is the perfect time for period drama isn’t it? I really like the Sally Hawkins version of Persuasion but I am aware that quite a few purists don’t find it as good as the Amanda Root. So you must decide for yourself!

  10. I’m still learning to read with a *discerning* eye so when I’d initially read the book my focus had been entirely on Capt. Wentworth. I hadn’t understood many of the undercurrents in this book. And it used to be so frustrating to read about Wentworth’s insensitive ways. In hindsight, it is the faults that make the characters interesting and believable.

    1. Read with a pencil, Geetanjali – that’s what trained me! You have to be very conscious about it at first otherwise you won’t notice anything, then after a while you can put the pencil down and you will just pick up on things naturally. I was trained at university to analyse constantly while I read so I can’t claim it is all just my brain!

      Indeed – if a character has no faults then they are just a cardboard cutout and impossible to relate to. This is what makes Austen’s books so interesting and rewarding because you will read them once and notice one thing, then read them again and notice another, and so on and so forth. They are so multilayered, and no matter how familiar you are with the story and the characters, you’ll never fail to notice something new when you pick one of her novels up, even for the fifteenth time!

    1. Charles, you are not alone. I’ve been reading along too. I can certainly recommend Jo’s post regarding Persuasion and the Navy – and not only because I have just commented on it!

      Do I recognise in myself the six qualities that, according to the article you mentioned, are typically found in men who appreciate Austen books? Perhaps it is not for me to say. For a start, I can find “strong women” quite intimidating, though I guess strength reveals itself in different ways. I think I would struggle with a strong woman of the Lizzie Bennett variety, but I find the quiet strength of an Anne Elliott quite appealing.

      1. Thanks for jumping in with another male perspective, David! I find it interesting what you say about ‘strong’ women – is that because you feel your personalities would clash? I am definitely more of a Lizzie than an Anne unfortunately! Opinionated is my middle name!

  11. Loved this post, especially your points on Wentworth’s flaws. You’re right that Austen is skilled at creating both male and female characters who are works in progress shall we say and all the more interesting for it.

    The only place I find we disagree is over Charles Musgrove. He seems like a sensible chap, but I find his relationship with Mary less ‘won’t put up with her nonsense and has prevented her behaviour from becoming more unpleasant.’ and more ‘is very often out shooting’. He strikes me as an absentee husband, much like Mr Bennet, who leaves his wife to her drammatics as much as he can. His failing is to allow her to have her own way, as long as he can have some peace (although, like Mr Bennet with his wife, he tries to curb her, when her drammatics and unfeeling behaviour impinges on others he loves, like Anne).

    1. Thanks Jodie – glad you enjoyed it!

      I very much see your point about Charles Musgrove – I don’t entirely agree though. I get the impression that he has tried and has half given up with her because she is so impossible. I think he needs to get away from her to keep his sanity! I do think he tries – he reasons with her and explains when she is being unreasonable and how her behaviour looks to other people, such as when Mary is quite happy to leave Anne alone with their sick child and go to dinner – but she is so selfish that she’s never going to get it. I do wonder why on earth he married her – perhaps she changed after they married?

      1. I would suggest it was the money and the Elliot connection (otherwise it seems a bit odd to go from Anne to her sister, they’re so different). Not that that’s done them any particular good as her father seems to have forgotten about Mary (one thing I can’t blame him for, although he’s more concerned with her face than her character which continues to make him unforgiveable). Luckily Charles seems to realise the value of his own family, even if maybe he once hoped to improve their standing through marriage.

  12. Fascinating post and comments😀

    Re. the inadequacies of the fathers in Austen’s novels, I’m now pondering whether this is part of a larger whole … inequalities in parental marriages (social, intellectual, moral) in the books. Needs more thought!

    I was never particularly taken with Wentworth … I think Captain Harville would be the man from Persuasion for me, although please don’t ask me to articulate why!

    1. Thanks Annie!

      I think there is much to be explored when it comes to Austen’s depiction of marriages and parents in her novels. Something I find particularly interesting is her insistence on having all the sensible mothers die off and all the foolish ones stick around to cause mischief – the only exception I can think of is Sense and Sensibility, where the kind but foolish father dies (foolish in that he doesn’t make adequate provision for his family before he dies). The fathers are either absent and disinterested in their children or indulgent but misguided – I can’t think of one married couple with children who are depicted as being very happy and equally matched. Perhaps Isabella and John in Emma?!

      Oh really?! That is interesting, Annie! I love Captain Wentworth…but perhaps only because he reminds me of a certain someone!

      1. Harville is tall, dark, “a perfect gentleman, unaffected, warm, and obliging”. He’s kind, modest, useful, hospitable, injured (and on first reading the novel in my impressionable teens a wounded man who might need nursing had a certain romantic appeal), He makes “ingenious contrivances” (just like my Dad). “He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children, he fashioned new netting-needles and pins with improvements …”. He’s no reader, but then neither is my husband, I can forgive him that. Harville is calm and commanding in an emergency. He is both entertaining and caring. Perhaps the portrait is rather two dimensional but then he is a minor character. Nonetheless Austen makes it clear that he does not wallow in his own distress, despite having good reason (that wound, the death of his sister, his reduced circumstances), instead he sets himself to making others happy, which I suppose makes him my kind of man ;D Interestingly his is I think an equal marriage!

      2. Well Annie – you have opened my eyes! You have picked out some marvellous quotes…I never really thought much about Captain Harville before. He does indeed sound like a total dream man! Perhaps he illustrates Captain Wentworth’s good taste? He is his best friend, after all!

  13. Thanks for sharing your tip with Geetanjali, Rachel. I was thinking the same thing…my reading is usually self indulgent and the story simply plays out. I accept ‘what is’ far too often without analysis which is why blogs such as yours are like a mini-university class for me.

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