“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:13 (New International Version)
In the famous passage from the New Testament book of I Corinthians, the qualities of faith, hope and love are singled out as qualities that “remain” or “abide forever.” In older translations of the Bible, such as the King James Version (1611), “love” is translated as “charity,” from the Latin caritas. The original Greek word in the text is agape, a term for unconditional, all-encompassing love that resembles the divine love of God for humankind, but can also be manifested between two human beings (Collins and Harrington 479). In Jane Austen’s novels, the path to true love and agape seldom runs straight; misunderstandings, deceptions, and personal character flaws combine to create storms that her characters must navigate successfully if they are to reach a state of true understanding and generous equanimity. For much of Persuasion, it seems doubtful if the stormy factors that separate Anne Elliot from Captain Wentworth can be resolved. The problem, in part, resides in Anne’s character, and her distinctive passivity. In comparison to other Austen heroines, such as witty, bright Elizabeth Bennet or high-spirited Emma Woodhouse, Anne is mild and self-effacing, at times even resigned. Within her family and community, she is frequently overlooked, seldom encouraged, and is susceptible to self-sacrificial sabotage. Anne’s seeming inability to stand up for herself can sometimes be frustrating for the reader, who, like Captain Wentworth, may be tempted to view Anne’s character as weak and overly timid (Austen 38). Anne is not a hopeful or high-spirited heroine in Persuasion; yet, in spite of her hopelessness, Anne’s quality of faithful integrity and her capacity for agape love are steadily revealed and eventually rewarded. By the novel’s end, the lesser qualities of hope and faith are subsumed into Anne’s spirit of charity and agape love, thus bringing the estranged lovers together.
It is an absence of hope, rather than the presence of hope, that is significant in Persuasion and provides a context within the plot for the qualities of faithfulness and charity that emerge. Throughout most of the novel, Anne holds no hope that her former romance with Wentworth will be reignited. Her lack of hope and the toll that this hopelessness has taken are evident in the description of her physical appearance:
A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance; but not with a few months ended Anne’s share of suffering from it. Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth, and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect. (18)
Anne’s “faded and thin” aspect reflects the debilitating effect that the failed romance with Wentworth has had on her, and her subsequent lack of hope in terms of restoring their former relationship (18). The sense of resigned hopelessness expressed in her looks also reveals itself in her inner life when she is forced to hear others talking about Captain Wentworth, creating “a new sort of trial to Anne’s nerves. She found, however, that it was one to which she must inure herself” (32). Her reactive desire to “inure” herself is significant; Anne does not set out to win Wentworth’s heart again. Rather, she is determined to numb herself, to “teach herself to be insensible” in regard to Wentworth (32). As is true of any person who has loved deeply, however, her efforts to be insensible are not entirely successful, however scant her hopes of reconciliation may be. Anne is frequently emotionally “agitated” by Wentworth’s presence and his words, yet she remains hopeless and largely convinced of his intentions towards Louisa Musgrove. One of the most poignant passages in the novel occurs when Anne is out walking with Wentworth and the Musgrove girls. Anne overhears Wentworth affirm Louisa’s spirited declaration regarding her views on love and fidelity, with emotionally devastating results for Anne:
The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by, unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory. She roused herself to say, as they struck by order into another path, “Is this not one of the ways to Winthrop?” But nobody heard, or at least, nobody answered her. (52)
Hope, for Anne, is associated with springtime and youth; she is painfully aware of her own physical decline and her lost chances of happiness with a man she loves. She attempts to “rouse” herself and to throw off her melancholy, only to find that she remains at best unheard, and at worst, unacknowledged. She is faced with the increasingly isolated position of irrelevance and loneliness that spinsterhood offers her in Regency-era England. Thus, it is against a backdrop of hopelessness and despair that Anne’s steadfast faithfulness reveals itself.
In the context of Persuasion, “faith” can be interpreted as synonymous with the outward expression of integrity, dependability, and good character, rather than as belief. The emotional link between Anne and Wentworth is reinforced through the observations that both make regarding the other’s faithfulness. For Anne, a pivotal moment of observation occurs shortly after the nadir of hopelessness that she experiences during the aforementioned walk in the woods. Wentworth is barely on speaking terms with Anne, yet he goes out of his way to ensure that she receives a ride home with the Crofts:
She was in the carriage and felt that he had placed here there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest…She understood him. He could not forgive her, but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her and becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief. (56)
Anne rightly interprets Wentworth’s action as “an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart” (56). Wentworth’s integrity is his faithfulness; his character is faithful and unwavering in its good nature and right intentions. Such faithfulness contrasts strikingly with the faithlessness and falsity of young Mr. Elliot. While she recognizes Wentworth’s integrity, Anne instinctively senses this faithlessness in the other; while Mr. Elliot appears to be “a sensible man, an agreeable man,” she finds herself full of distrust and “afraid to answer for his conduct” (98). In particular, Anne distrusts precisely the lack of warmth and amiability that she so greatly appreciates in Mr. Wentworth: “Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others” (98-99). For Anne, the “frank, open-hearted” character is prized above all others, with the sincerity and faithfulness it implies (99).
Just as Anne appreciates Wentworth’s steadfastness and faithfulness in terms of character, Wentworth, too, is moved by the quality of faithfulness in Anne. Anne’s reliability and strength of character becomes most evident when Louisa Musgrove jumps and injures herself. Anne is the quickest of the party to act and does so with “strength and zeal” (69), proving herself more than adequate when it comes to dealing with a serious crisis. Her steadiness in a time of emergency does not go unnoticed, and Wentworth, unaware that Anne overhears him, expresses his recognition when he says that there is “no one so proper, so capable as Anne” (71). Given the book’s chronology, it can be argued that the accident with Louisa is a pivotal moment in the plot. Up to this point, there has been some evidence that Wentworth truly has some genuine interest in Louisa Musgrove. In Chapter 7, Austen tells the reader that it “was now his object to marry,” and that Wentworth’s heart was open for “any pleasing young woman to came in his way, excepting Anne Elliot” (38). Louisa’s high spirits and passion are appealing to Wentworth’s own open nature, and he harbors some resentment towards Anne. Wentworth’s rejection of Anne as a possible spouse is in response to her earlier rejection of him, which he believes is the result of her “feebleness of character” (38). Wentworth’s belief at the novel’s start is that she is full of “weakness and timidity” (38), a belief that prevents him from allowing the possibility of a reunion. In emphasizing Wentworth’s anger and his interest in Louisa, Austen creates a situation in which Anne’s faithfulness and the integrity of her character are obscured from Wentworth’s view. The incident in Lyme-Regis with Louisa, however, reveals these perceptions to be false, and contrasts the younger girl’s impetuous rashness with Anne’s cool headedness and maturity. It is at this point that Anne’s faithfulness is revealed and Wentworth’s resentment and misconceptions are altered in a meaningful way.
While hopelessness creates a context for the gradual revelation of faithfulness, it is through charity that the plot of Persuasion is brought to a happy climax in which the trio of virtuous qualities culminate in a united whole. Charity, or love, plays a crucial role in straightening out the confusion between Wentworth and Anne and revealing important pieces of information that might otherwise have remained hidden from view. If one takes charity in the most literal sense, as the word is commonly now used in English, it is Anne’s charity and lovingkindness towards Mrs. Smith that eventually causes the ugly truth about Mr. Elliot to be revealed, changing the course of events in a definitive way. Charity can be understood as a free and altruistic giving of one’s time, energy, or money, and Anne’s charity is entirely consistent with her character. Austen repeatedly illustrates that Anne is naturally charitable and loving in the midst of an uncharitable, selfish family. It is Anne who shows charity by remaining with little Charles Musgrove when his back is injured; it is she who shows charity in her willingness to nurse Louisa Musgrove. When Anne hears that Mrs. Smith would get “satisfaction” from a visit, Austen tells us that she “lost no time in going” (93). The significance and reward of Anne’s naturally charitable spirit is revealed later, when Mrs. Smith discloses Mr. Elliot’s true nature. Austen makes it clear that Anne was not, by any means, entirely out of Mr. Elliot’s grip until this point: “Anne could just acknowledge within herself such a possibility of having been induced to marry him, as made her shudder at the idea of the misery which must have followed. It was just possible that she might have been persuaded by Lady Russell!” (130). Coming at this late point in the novel, this is a remarkable concession on Anne’s part. It reveals that, even now, she is not above being persuaded by the considerations of others, especially Mrs. Russell. It is evident, however, that all of Anne’s decisions, including those that are influenced by others, are conducted out of a sense of charity and self-sacrifice. Austen explains that the heroine’s initial rejection of Wentworth is done from a sense of “self-denying, principally for his advantage” (18). Similarly, her susceptibility to Mr. Elliot’s advances does not stem from great personal affection, but rather from a knowledge of the security that such an alliance might give to her family. Anne is almost undone for a second time through her natural charity and self-sacrificial love for others, but it is this same quality of charity that saves her through her friendship with Mrs. Smith and the revelatory truth this friendship brings.
Charity in its most commonly understood sense, as kindness and altruism towards others, is evident in the instances described above; however, charity as agape love in its highest, most sublime sense is an important quality that underpins the entirety of the novel and Anne’s character. Of the youthful courtship between Wentworth and Anne, Austen writes, “It would be difficult to say which had seen highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest; she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted” (17). It is the act of seeing “highest perfection” in the other that is closely aligned with the quality of charity, or love. The earlier part of the 1 Corinthians passage quoted above states, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no account of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, NIV). In Anne, this description of love, which in the earliest English translations is translated as “charity,” finds perfect expression. Anne does not resent or find fault in Wentworth when he is angry with her; nor does she openly criticize or show disrespect to her abominably rude family members. She is the first to show compassion and tenderness towards others, though she receives little of it in return. Even when she argues on behalf of women in expressing the strength and constancy of a woman’s love, she shows great charity towards the opposite sex:
You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with. You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home, country, friends all quitted. Neither time, nor health, nor life, to be called your own. It would be hard, indeed…if woman’s feelings were to be added to all this. (144)
Anne concludes by saying that the only privilege that she claims for women is “that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (145). It is arguably in this moment that the process of reconciliation, which began with Louisa Musgrove’s accident, is brought into full fruition. Anne again expresses, this time outright, her own sense of hopelessness; at the same time, she indicates the longevity and tenacity of her love. Happily, Wentworth’s subsequent letter to her reveals feelings of an equal order: “I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant” (146). Overall, Wentworth has not always behaved charitably towards Anne, or from a spirit of agape; his emotional distance from her has arisen out of pride and a sense of injury. His fundamental faithfulness, however, is borne out in the expression of love when he sees and is moved by the true essence of her character.
When the lovers are at last reunited and all misconceptions are cleared away, Austen catalogues the qualities of their love in a way that mirrors the 1 Corinthians passage:
There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their re-union, than when it had first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other’s character, truth and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting. (149)
The years that have separated the lovers have not been wasted, Austen argues. Rather, in spite of hopelessness, the long period of separation and misunderstanding has served to enhance the faithfulness of each character, giving rise to the qualities of love that are most valuable and important in any human relationship. The happiness between Wentworth and Anne is magnified and enriched because their love, true agape love, has now been tested, tried, and found true.