Jane Austen, Joan Didion & Self-respect
Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Don’t you think Persuasion the best Jane Austen novel ever? It’s by far my favorite.
That’s kind of a joke because most characters in Persuasion are so persuaded of the fitness and rightness of their own preferences and opinions that they can hardly attend to or acknowledge other people’s preferences and opinions.
But Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel and having just reread it as a New Year’s treat I am struck once again by how much a good novel gives. Every time I read it I notice new things. The margins of my book are bursting with notes-to-self in different colored inks. (Plus the book holds the ticket stub from the Lagoon Cinema’s 1995 showing of the movie version starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. One of my favorite moves ever:)
This read-through, I happen to have just read Joan Didion’s fantastic 1961 Vogue article on self-respect and I got to imagining a conversation about self-respect between Joan and Jane in the living room of my mind.
Didion places the dawning of true self-respect at the end of innocence. She writes that her own innocence lay in “the conviction that lights would always turn green for me… [and] a touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale.” A disappointment forces Didion to see a tougher reality and to look closely at her own failings and foibles. In the process, she finds self-respect which, she writes in the essay, hinges on having taken your own measure, valued your worth and invested something of yourself in what you believe is worth having.
Taking Your Own Measure
Didion’s innocent “conviction that lights would always turn green” reminded me of Elizabeth Elliot and Sir Walter, who preen themselves on their position and believe their rank should open all doors and smooth all ways. Of course, Elizabeth has suffered an early disappointment in not being able to secure the dream of marrying her cousin Mr. Elliot. But rather than facing herself honestly, we see Elizabeth turning away from the plain truth as she learns to dislike the Baronetage because it lays open the bare facts of her life.
“Always to be presented with the date of her own birth, and see no marriage follow but that of a youngest sister, made the book an evil; and more than once, when her father had left it open on the table near her, had she closed it, with averted eyes, and pushed it away.”
Elizabeth takes refuge in what Didion calls “doubtful amulets,” which for Elizabeth are her elegance and position.
Anne has also suffered an early disappointment, being persuaded to give up her engagement to Captain Wentworth. Whereas her sister pins self-respect to status, Anne’s self-respect is based in her sense of usefulness. “To be claimed as a good, though in an improper style, is at least better than being rejected as no good at all; and Anne [is] glad to be thought of some use, glad to have anything marked out as a duty.”
The Useful and the Good*
It would be interesting, if it were possible, to do Anne Elliot’s birth chart and see how much Virgo or 6th house energies she has. The drive to provide meaningful service is a strong motivation for her, but she is in danger of losing herself in the role of public utility.
Utility and a character’s attitude toward it are a means of taking a character’s measure in Persuasion. Sir Walter disdains the merely useful. Speaking of the Navy he says, “The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it.”
Many characters consider themselves “ill-used.” Captain Wentworth, when Anne breaks their engagement, “feeling himself ill-used by so forced a relinquishment.- He had left the country in consequence.” Mary “was very prone to add to every other distress that of fancying herself neglected and ill-used.”
Of course, Anne is the most frequently and thoughtlessly used person in the book. It’s a role she actively chooses and a role others have come to expect of her. Playing piano so the Musgroves can dance, “though [Anne’s] eyes would sometimes fill with tears as she sat at the instrument, she was extremely glad to be employed, and desired nothing in return but to be unobserved.”
Didion writes that self-respect involves “a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.”
Jane Austen would appear to agree. Anne is a model of such discipline and the book offers many warnings of where unruly and undisciplined behavior can lead. Young Walter, only two years old, seeing his aunt Anne bending over his brother, “began to fasten himself upon [Anne], as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him — ordered, intreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.”
Walter, as a toddler, has yet to learn proper boundaries and the need for self-discipline. But we see the same impulse in Louisa Musgrove, pushing the boundaries of sense when she forces the trip to Lyme and when she jumps from the Cobb. We see it in Sir Walter who cannot curb his spending: “While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness, and from that period he had been constantly exceeding it.”
Right-mindedness and adherence to duty may be part of the formula for self-respect, but they are not the only requirements. Anne is dutiful and good and she is the protagonist of the novel, but to herself and the other characters she’s playing a supporting role, while the hero enjoys all the attentions of center stage. Staying home to tend her injured nephew, Anne “knew herself to be of the first utility to [her nephew]; and what was it to her, if Frederick Wentworth were only half a mile distant, making himself agreeable to others!”
Didion calls this “alienation from self,” a state in which “no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we can not but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.”
Anne has too generous a nature to hold others in contempt, but as the dutiful sister, aunt and daughter she lives on the periphery of others’ lives, her life determined by others’ needs and demands rather than centered in her own self-regard and sense of direction.
We Can’t Find our Worth in a Vacuum
Didion writes that “the dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough.” Didion is right—our self-respect can't rest solely on others’ approval—but here Jane Austen might not agree completely. We are social creatures and Jane Austen, as a novelist of manners, is acutely aware of the impact society has on the individual. So while Anne has taken her own measure and pinned her worth to her usefulness, her self-respect is influenced (and eventually elevated) through her interaction with others.
Anne is resigned to a useful life in the margins, but as Captain Wentworth overcomes his hurt enough to see Anne and make efforts on her behalf, as Mr. Elliot and Captain Benwick both see and appreciate her at Lyme Regis, she begins to feel her own value to be in more than her usefulness. Lady Russell has been right about the benefits of expanding Anne’s social circle: “Anne had been too little from home, too little seen. Her spirits were not high. A larger society would improve them.”
It is through her interactions with Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove that Anne learns to appreciate her own fine qualities. The Musgrove sisters
“were of consequence at home, and favourites abroad. Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments.”
One of the fundamental tenets I learned in training as a Healing Touch practitioner is “make no comparisons,” but comparing ourselves is quite natural and it’s an effective means of gaining self-knowledge. The problem arises when we beat ourselves up for not measuring up to others. Anne doesn’t suffer from comparison with the Musgrove girls; she sees where she is wanting and where her life has fallen short (she certainly isn’t of consequence at home or blessed with bubbling happiness), and yet she chooses her self anyway. Anne has made, as Joan Didion writes, “a separate peace, a private reconciliation” with herself.
Lady Russell is seen as dangerously influential, but Mrs. Croft’s influence is also significant because she models other possibilities for happiness. While Anne has lived at the edges of life, playing piano while others dance, tending the sick while others seek society and entertainment, Mrs. Croft has lived shoulder to shoulder with her husband, staying on board his ship with him whenever possible and actively directing their carriage rides:
“... by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.”
Perception + Will = Self-Respect
Mrs. Croft combines this active ability to direct her course with a keen perception of other people which Anne recognizes in Mrs. Croft’s estimation of the Musgrove girls.
“‘Very good humoured, unaffected girls, indeed,’ said Mrs. Croft, in a tone of calmer praise, such as made Anne suspect that her keener powers might not consider either of them as quite worthy of her brother.”
It is this discriminating awareness of other people combined with the ability to work one’s will in the world that is, for Jane Austen, the foundation of self-respect. Captain Wentworth shows a fine combination of these qualities when he secures a seat for Anne in his sister’s carriage.
“She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her 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” (emphasis mine).
With her elegance of mind, Anne has always been perceptive. She sees how her family must retrench to right their money woes. She sees the threat that Mrs. Clay may pose to her family. But Anne’s will—the ability to affect others and shape her own life—is not robust. She has been well-schooled in “the art of knowing our own nothingness,” and so she cannot shape the world according to her perceptions. Perceiving the danger Mrs. Clay poses to the Elliots, Anne “spoke, and seemed only to offend.” Her concerns are dismissed by Elizabeth who tells her, “I think it rather unnecessary in you to be advising me.”
The turning point for Anne is, of course, at Lyme, when she witnesses the negative consequences of Louisa’s firmness, is seen by Mr. Elliot and Captain Benwick, knows herself to be valued by Captain Wentworth and where her usefulness pushes her from the background to the foreground.
Her improved looks suggest that Anne now has a more vitalizing sense of her own worthiness. Didion might say she had centered in self-respect: “To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent.”
We see Anne’s self-respect guiding her ability to discriminate in the way she chooses companions in Bath. She renews her friendship with Mrs. Smith because she perceives in Mrs. Smith “good sense and agreeable manners.” She’s no longer swayed by Lady Russell’s opinions. “It was some years since Anne had learned that she and her excellent friend could sometimes think differently.” So, while Lady Russell does not suspect Mr. Elliot’s motives in reconciling with Sir Walter, Anne “had the sensation of there being something more than immediately appeared, in Mr. Elliot’s wishing, after an interval of so many years, to be well received by them.”
Investing in Her Desires
Growing more confident in her own perceptions, Anne learns to value her own desires enough to actively assert herself. She gives up what D.H. Lawrence called the “eternal cultivation of the habit of going without what one wants.”
She defies her father in order to visit Mrs. Smith but she later forgoes a promised meeting with Mrs. Smith in order to attend a concert where she hopes to encounter Captain Wentworth. Anchored in her self-respect, Anne allows her desires to animate her decisions as she begins to actively put herself forward to get what she wants. As Didion says, “People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk … willing to invest something of themselves.”
At the concert hall Anne sees Wentworth and “making a little advance, [Anne] instantly spoke. He was preparing only to bow and pass on, but her gentle ‘How do you do?’ brought him out of the straight line to stand near her, and make enquiries in return, in spite of the formidable father and sister in the back ground.” Willing to risk her father and sister’s displeasure, Anne exerts her will, placing her, after all of her invisibility and nothingness, in the foreground of the family group. It’s a courageous act for Anne and her growing power is exemplified in her ability to speak and keep Wentworth near her. She builds on the power of her self-respect with her refusal to let Lady Russell’s opinions influence her treatment of Wentworth: “she did not mean, whatever she might feel on Lady Russell’s account, to shrink from conversation with Captain Wentworth.”
Even Anne’s satisfaction with usefulness is forgotten. Asked to help Miss Carteret understand the Italian singing, Anne must give up her conversation with Wentworth. “Never had she sacrificed to politeness with a more suffering spirit.” Feeling this as a sacrifice of desire to duty rather than resigning herself to her corner of life, Anne is eager to dispatch her duty and be “her own mistress again.” This is a new Anne who has come into herself. She will invest herself fully in her desire to reconnect with Wentworth and she will be “steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.” That’s self-respect.
* from Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson