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Jane Austen and the Legacies of Romanticism

Jane Austen’s central concern in her two later novels Mansfield Park and Persuasion is the means by which ‘strong feelings’ can be reliably communicated by characters and presented within literature itself. Through exploring the limits of language, and its inability to function at times of intense feeling, Austen refers to and engages with contemporary eighteenth-century philosophical and literary debates. This is expressed most notably by the Moral Sentimentalists and the Romantic poets, the latter of which posited the nature of literary inspiration as emotion initially ‘recollected in tranquillity’, which is later ‘contemplated’ to produce a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Frequent references, made by both the narrator and the characters themselves, to various Romantic poets and conventions (such as an exaltation of nature’s beauty) show an understanding of how particular sublime emotions cannot simply be ‘clothed with words’. In contrast to earlier more wilful protagonists, such as Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennett, the two heroines Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are painfully socially repressed. Austen explores the societal pressures acting on her heroines, specifically the restrictive early nineteenth-century cultural norms surrounding courtship and decorum, which render the protagonists unable to express their true ‘strong feelings’ for fear of transgressing societal boundaries. Characters who express insincere emotions or speak too freely (such as the Crawford siblings and Louisa Musgrove) are shown to bring about dangerous unrest in their disregard for established social customs and are contrasted dramatically with Fanny and Anne, who are capable of deeply felt, genuine emotions. Julia Kavanagh’s description of Austen’s ‘delicate mind’ attempts to render her as a conservative writer, whose satiric, detached prose (also lamented by Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain) is supposedly unable to manifest ‘strong feelings’. Such critiques fail to understand the broader aesthetic and social limitations preventing such feelings from being fully conveyed in her novels. Austen is therefore not ‘powerless’ in the presentation of ‘strong feelings’, but is instead engaging in a sustained exploration of her heroines’ intense emotional experiences and their need for sublimation through various means, including non-linguistic interactions with different bodies. Ultimately, Austen advocates for intensely felt and authentic emotion as an essential moral guide for her heroines’ happiness, provided there is an integration of passionate feeling and rational restraint, through which a common understanding between the central couples can be reached.

Romanticism influenced both Mansfield Park and Persuasion through their preoccupation with the heroines’ interactions in nature and their exploration of intense states of personal experience. Virginia Woolf described Austen in her later career as ‘beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed’, with an observation of ‘less of facts and more of feelings than is usual’ in her last published novel, Persuasion. Following this analysis of an increased emphasis on feeling and its relation to nature, it is clear that Persuasion is more Romantically inflected in contrast to Austen’s previous novels, such as Sense and Sensibility, which critiqued Marianne Dashwood’s indulgence in extreme emotions. The chief expression of Romanticism in Persuasion (also exemplified in Mansfield Park) is the sublimation of ‘strong feelings’ through contemplation of nature. Anne’s melancholic attitude to life is reflected in her emphasis on the ‘sad[ness] of autumnal months in the country’ and her references to the ‘hopeless agony’ and ‘tremendous feeling’ (Persuasion, p. 67) of the Romantic poetry of Scott and Byron. References to Romantic poetic traditions enable Anne to give structure to her ineffable profusions of emotion, either by ‘repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn’, (Persuasion, p. 56) or through reference to ‘some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth […] and spring, all gone together’ (Persuasion, p. 57). In a similar vein, Fanny is only able to truly ‘[speak] her feelings’ in the presence of nature, when either viewing a ‘deep shade of the woods’, (MP, p. 80) or while in a ‘shrubbery’ (MP, p. 143). In these moments of intense lyricism, Fanny inherits the Romantic poets’ conception of nature as morally edifying; a contemplation of the ‘sublimity of Nature’ can ‘lift the heart to rapture’ and ‘carr[y] [one] out of [oneself]’ (MP, p. 80), thus allowing the individual to transcend their narrowly egotistical view of the world to gain a more empathetic moral outlook. These interactions with nature also offer, as J. A. Kearney has argued, an opportunity for Fanny’s repressed ‘strong feelings’ to be sublimated and reflected upon. Indeed, just as Edmund Bertram erupts into an ‘ecstasy of admiration’ for Mary Crawford’s ‘many virtues’ (MP, p. 80), so too can Fanny employ a form of Romanticised ‘rhapsodising’ (MP, p. 144) on nature as a medium through which to express in a ‘sublimated form, the delight [Edmund] gives her’, thus transcending, to some extent, repressive norms of decorum which inhibit female expression.

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Austen engages with contemporary philosophical debates within Romantic thought, specifically regarding how ‘strong feelings’ can be manifested through the medium of language. Throughout the novels, both the characters and the narrator consistently allude to their difficulty in truthfully conveying their feelings in words; in Mansfield Park, there are twenty-four instances where a character’s emotions are variously described as being ‘incapable of express[ion]’ (MP, p. 14), ‘beyond all words’ (MP, p. 28) and unable to be ‘clothed in words’ (MP, p. 250). This final conceit, wherein language is conceived of as “clothing” thought, is significant; Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, following Berkeley’s notion of words as a ‘dress’ which ‘encumb[ers]’ thought, began to feel that language was an unsuitable medium to convey certain ‘thoughts’ which were often ‘too deep for words’. Thus, as intensely emotional characters such as Fanny and Anne become afflicted by a ‘thousand feelings’ (MP, p. 179), Austen’s narrator explicitly draws on the linguistic tropes of Romanticism to signal the impossibility of conveying such complex sentiments reliably through language. Despite this, with the rise of sentimental authors such as Ann Radcliffe and Frances Burney in the late eighteenth century, these novels routinely presented a characters’ emotions as ineffable to avoid the narrative difficulties associated with manifesting these consciousnesses prose. Austen is therefore careful to avoid such well-worn sentimental clichés (which she disparagingly refers to as ‘novel slang’), instead favouring the technique of free indirect discourse when describing her heroines’ ‘strong feelings’. This allows the reader to inhabit the consciousness of Fanny and Anne, and thus experience the contortions of their minds as they struggle to apprehend and finally express their emotional conflicts.

The heroines within Mansfield Park and Persuasion are often unable to express ‘strong feelings’ faithfully due to social, economic and moral impediments to female speech, which force them to retreat internally to a realm beyond publicly expressible language. Such social norms are exemplified in John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughter, which admonished young women to converse with a ‘dignified modesty’ and ‘reserve’ to gentlemen, advocating for a restraint of external emotion to prevent the ‘flutter’ of one’s ‘heart’ from being betrayed. The external appearance of women in society is shown to be of paramount importance; in Mansfield Park, a seemingly trivial performance of Elizabeth Inchbald’s play Lover’s Vows prompts Edmund to reprimand his sister Maria Bertram for her lack of decorum in expressing herself so openly – it is ‘[her] conduct’ which must ‘set the example’ of an ideal of ‘true [feminine] delicacy’ and ‘be law to the rest of the party’ (MP, p. 99). Maria must, therefore, like all female characters in Austen’s novels, learn to ‘bury the tumult of [their] feelings under the restraint of society’, specifically in superficial expressions of ‘general civility’ (MP, p. 134). Both Fanny and Anne internalise these norms, being respectively characterised according to negatives; Fanny speaks ‘in a self-denying tone’ (MP, p. 149), admitting ‘No […] I cannot act’ (MP, p. 102), whereas Anne strives ‘not to be in the way of any body’ (Persuasion, p. 56). Austen forces the reader to acknowledge Fanny’s painful withdrawal into prudent silence as a consequence of the constraints imposed on her body and speech. Sir Thomas Bertram’s detached, stoic council to Fanny, which urges her to ‘reason [herself] into a stronger frame of mind’ (MP, p. 218) fails to understand that such attempts to ‘tranquilise’ all forms of ‘excessive’ (MP, p. 181) emotion, and merely present external appearances of feminine politeness, give rise to an internalised ‘grief’ (MP, p. 215) which is clearly unhealthy and repressive. Contrastingly, Anne suffers instead from what A. Walton Litz has termed ‘a new problem of communication’. Whereas Fanny can, to some extent, express her feelings to her ‘usual confidant’ (MP, p. 82) Edmund, the increasingly modernising world of Persuasion lacks any such ‘sense of community’, forcing Anne to become ‘locked in the world of her own consciousness’, a psychological fact reflected in the fragmentary, episodic narrative structure of the novel. The effects of Anne’s oppressive situation before re-encountering Wentworth, ‘liv[ing] at home, quiet [and] confined’, (Persuasion, p. 155) are palpable; she ‘give[s] way’ to others, has no tangible experience of a ‘body’, and when she speaks, ‘nobody [hears]’ (Persuasion, p. 57). Given these externally imposed constraints, Austen’s heroines lack any reliable means by which to express themselves through the conventions of everyday language, forcing them to sublimate their ‘strong feelings’ through other non-linguistic means.

Despite the various restraints imposed within her novels, Austen also highlights the dangerous consequences of wilfully disregarding these social conventions by expressing oneself too freely or insincerely. In Mansfield Park, Austen contrasts Mary Crawford’s emotional insincerity with Fanny’s capacity for genuine feeling by having Mary echo the clichéd and superficial vocabulary of eighteenth-century sentimental fiction – she unconvincingly misses Fanny ‘more than [she] can express’ (MP, p. 287). Austen is keen to present characters who express such conventional sentimentalism as unmistakably ironic; in Pride and Prejudice, the supposedly ineffable feelings of the buffoonish Mr Collins are also described in mockingly sentimental terms: ‘words were insufficient for the elevation of his feelings’. Moreover, Mary’s external reaction to a scene of nature reflects her internal disposition; she remains ‘untouched and inattentive’ (MP, p. 143) by Fanny’s Romantic ‘rhapsodising’, and egotistically declares that she can ‘see no wonder in [a] shrubbery equal to seeing [herself] in it’ (MP, p. 144). Her inability to correctly interpret social situations is further emphasised by her lack of verbal ‘prudence’ (MP, p. 166), meaning she is unable to restrain her speech, even as she wishes certain words ‘unsaid with all her heart’ (MP, p. 196). This lack of meaningful personal reflection ultimately produces a self-deluded mind, ‘led astray and […] darkened, yet fancying itself light’ (MP, p. 249). Similarly, in Persuasion, Anne dismisses Mr Elliot’s emotional detachment and lack of any genuine ‘burst of feeling’, as a ‘decided imperfection’, in contrast to her ideal of an ‘open-hearted […] eager character’ (Persuasion, p. 106). Anne’s moral evaluation of Mr Elliot’s character reaches its climax in notably impassioned prose: she regards him as ‘a man without heart or conscience […] totally beyond the reach of any sentiment of justice or compassion’ (Persuasion, p. 132). Anne’s final exclamation: ‘Oh! he is black at heart, hollow and black! […] astonish[es]’ (Persuasion, p. 132) her through the unexpected manifestation of powerful feeling in words. Austen emphasises this rare expression of clarity as an insight into Anne’s innermost sentiments, namely, the aversion to emotional insincerity, which provides her with an ultimate guide to moral evaluations of character. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford’s privileged place in society as a wealthy, intelligent man of good birth is destabilised through his propensity towards theatrical role-playing (which make him ‘feel as if [he] could be anything’ (MP, p. 87)), cunning plots (attempting to ‘make Fanny Price in love with [him]’ (MP, p. 157)), and ‘flirt[atious]’ (MP, p. 32) expressions devoid of any ‘serious views’ (MP, p. 157). These moral deficiencies render him an incompatible suitor for Fanny, who, by contrast, feels love as a deep and sincere emotion. Similarly, in Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove’s radical actions serve as a foil for the wholly inactive Anne; in her lack of social restraint (epitomised in her assertion of her individual Romantic will: ‘I am determined that I will’ (Persuasion, p. 74)) she is inflicted with a severe concussion, and her reckless flirtatiousness threatens the ultimate happiness of Anne and Wentworth. Thus, these characters are ultimately rendered ‘powerless’ in the face of their overriding desires due to their lack of a ‘higher species of self-command’, specifically Fanny and Anne’s ‘knowledge of [their] own heart[s]’ (MP, p. 65), and their ability ‘to govern their inclinations and tempers’ (MP, p. 314).

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Austen emphasises the importance of non-linguistic, bodily communication, in order for common understanding to be reached between the central couple of Persuasion. As opposed to Austen’s earlier novels, Persuasion displays a sustained focus on Anne’s embodied sense of herself and the interactions between bodies; rather than having to learn ‘prudence’, as her more socially transgressive protagonists must (in Pride and Prejudice and Emma), she instead has to ‘[learn] romance as she [grows] older’ (Persuasion, p. 21). A key aspect of Anne’s rediscovery of romance is an awareness of her body; having been disregarded by her father and sister, Anne views herself as ‘faded and thin’, since her ‘bloom [has] vanished early’ (Persuasion, p. 5). Even Austen herself feared Anne to be ‘a heroine […] almost too good for [her]’, due to her rueful acceptance of a passionless life of saintly self-denial which strikingly contrasts her with the engaging emotional vitality of her previous heroines. Despite Anne’s continued attempts to ‘reason with herself, and try to be feeling less’ (Persuasion, p. 40), her repeated bodily encounters with Captain Wentworth, produced by the novel’s claustrophobic compression of time and space (conveyed by the ‘ceaseless buzz of persons’ (Persuasion, p. 121)), forces her suppressed emotions to manifest themselves through her body. Notably, the first moment of sudden physical interaction between the couple, where the child Walter is ‘resolutely borne away’ by Wentworth, automatically gives rise to ineffable and incomprehensible ‘sensations’, rendering Anne ‘perfectly speechless’ through a ‘confusion of varying, but very painful agitation’ (Persuasion, p. 54). Anne’s bodily reactions to internal emotions are also made strikingly evident through over fourteen references in the novel to Anne’s ‘bloom’ (Persuasion, p. 5) or ‘blushes’ (Persuasion, p. 105). This contradicts, as Judy van Sickle Johnson has argued, the criticism of later novelists such as Charlotte Brontë, who bemoaned Austen’s focus on the superficial details of ‘human eyes, mouths, hands, and feet’ rather than the heart which ‘throbs fast [and] full’. Instead of viewing to Austen as an emotionally conservative writer, ‘perfectly’ unaware of the ‘[p]assions’, Johnson sees Anne’s blushes as ‘delicately controlled manifestations of physical discomfort and repressed sexual desire’, rather than mere ‘stock images’ of conventional restrained prose. Given Austen’s previous emphasis on dialogue between her central couples as a means of gaining self-knowledge and shared understanding, Persuasion is distinct in its focus on the hermeneutics of interpreting non-linguistic bodily signs between the central couple. The novel asks a significant question: ‘how [can] the truth’ of the protagonists’ ‘real sentiments’ (Persuasion, p. 127) be conveyed within an intensely claustrophobic social world devoid of personal space? Austen highlights how powerful feelings are forced to find their chief expression in ‘momentary expressions [and] certain glance[s]’ (Persuasion, p. 45) which ‘[catch each other’s] eye’ (Persuasion, p. 70). Despite this, their ‘meaning’ is ‘perfectly [known]’ (Persuasion, p. 58) to the protagonists, highlighting the intimate non-linguistic bond of ‘strong feelings’ between Anne and Wentworth which cannot be readily communicated through linguistic dialogue. Whereas the original ending of Persuasion merely recounts the events chronologically in a detached and objective manner, Austen’s revision to the ending of Persuasion exemplifies her continued focus on the problem of presenting ‘strong feelings’ and the problem’s resolution – specifically through the inclusion of Wentworth’s climatic letter to Anne. Following Tony Tanner’s reading, the ‘sub-text’ beneath the ‘hardly legible’ letter is it being an embodiment of a ‘desperate calligraphy of the heart […] written under pressure and social constraints’. Through Wentworth’s use of any ‘means […] within [his] reach’ (Persuasion, p. 158), Austen conveys the difficulties inherent in truthfully communicating one’s ardent desires to another, and successfully dramatises the final transcendence of such social restrictions.

Following the advice of her ‘favourite moral writers’, namely ‘[Dr] Johnson in prose’, Austen advocates for the faculties of rational thought and passionate feeling to be appropriately integrated into her heroines to achieve happiness. As previously shown, the socially repressed protagonists of both Mansfield Park and Persuasion are not educated like Austen’s previous heroines (where their ‘blind, partial [and] prejudiced’ perspectives are recognised and overcome to gain a more morally nuanced view of human nature and society). Instead, Fanny and Anne display a willingness to be morally edified by seriously reflecting on their ineradicable bursts of ‘strong feeling’. Austen thus echoes Dr Johnson’s awareness of moral error fundamentally resulting from a failure to partake in a ‘serious and impartial retrospect of [one’s own] conduct’. Therefore, as Fanny and Anne experience increased emotional turmoil, their time spent in quiet ‘solitude and reflection’ (Persuasion, p. 54) increases proportionally, contrasting with the Bertram sisters, who merely ‘repress their spirits’ (MP, p. 314) without meaningful reflection. Austen thus encourages her heroines to remain open to their ‘strong feelings’, provided they are correctly reflected upon, which ultimately provide her heroines with an unassailable moral guide to their own happiness, akin to Wentworth’s description of a ‘beautiful glossy nut’, whose inner integrity can stoically outlive ‘all the storms of autumn’ (Persuasion, p. 59).

To conclude, it is clear that Austen is not ‘powerless’ in the presentation of ‘strong feelings’ but chooses to explore in both Mansfield Park and Persuasion the inherent societal obstacles and linguistic difficulties that prevent emotions from being successfully expressed and communicated. Through contrasting her heroines with more reckless characters who entirely disregard societal decorum, Austen makes clear that an awareness of the proper restrictions of freedom and self-expression imposed by society is needed in order to operate within those limits effectively. Heroines such as Fanny and Anne ultimately succeed in Austen’s novels because they can resolve the perennial debate between reason and feeling through incorporating passionate feeling within an awareness of the need for rational restraint and reflection. By harnessing a Romantic conception of emotions as a genuine guide to moral evaluations in the face of rapid social upheaval and change, which could corrupt their access to unrestrained, genuine feeling, both Fanny and Anne are able to firmly ground their moral judgements in their emotions and can thus achieve properly controlled happiness in marriage.



Primary Reading

Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park, ed. by Claudia L. Johnson (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998)

—— Persuasion, ed. by Patricia Meyer Spacks (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995)

—— Pride and Prejudice, ed. by Donald Gray (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)

Berkeley, George, Principles, Dialogues, and Philosophical Correspondence, ed. by Colin Murray Turbayne (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965)

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Poetical Works, ed. by Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)

Johnson, Samuel, Selected Writings, ed. by Peter Martin (Cambridge; MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)

Wordsworth, William, Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802, ed. by Fiona Stafford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Secondary Reading

Butler, Marilyn, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987)

Johnson, Judy van Sickle, ‘The Bodily Frame: Learning Romance in Persuasion’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 38. 1 (1983), 43-61

Kavanagh, Julia, English Women of Letters (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1863)

Kearney, J. A., ‘Jane Austen and the Reason-Feeling Debate’, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, 75 (1990), 107–122

—— ‘Tumult of Feeling, and Restraint, in ‘Mansfield Park’’, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, 71 (1988), 35–45

Lauber, John, ‘Jane Austen and the Limits of Freedom’, Ariel,10. 4 (1979), 77-96

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Litz, A. Walton, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965)

Southam, B. C., ed. Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage (New York: Barnes and Noble; London: Routledge, I968)

Tanner, Tony, Jane Austen (Cambridge; MA: Harvard University Press, 1986)

Thompson, James, ‘Jane Austen and the Limits of Language’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 85. 4 (1986), 510–531

Todd, Janet, ed., Jane Austen: New Perspectives (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983)

Woolf, Virginia, The Common Reader (London: Hogarth Press, 1929)

Young, Kay, ‘Feeling Embodied: Consciousness, Persuasion, and Jane Austen’, Narrative, 11. 1 (2003), 78–92

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