Anne’s Rebellion: Family Dynamics in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

© 2009 Sean M. Donnell

            Utilizing Frank J. Sulloway’s Darwinian theory of sibling development, Peter Graham brings issues of birth order and family dynamics to literary studies in Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists.  Contrary to the Adlerian model that establishes birth order in terms of conflicts between children and parents, Graham frames the issue of birth order in terms of a Darwinian competition between siblings:

. . . family battles are not the intergenerational rivalry posited by psychoanalysts; an Oedipal son fighting his father or a daughter seeking to displace her mother in her father’s affections.  Instead of competing with their parents, siblings vie with one another for the parental attention and favor that will help them to survive, thrive, and eventually reproduce.  (48)

Known as the “resource dilution” model, Graham suggests how evolutionary psychology affects familial relationships, contending, “The family, then, can be seen as a Darwinian ‘entangled bank’ where resources are limited, competition and cooperation are different ways of gaining those resources, and a range of ecological niches are available for habitation” (48).  In this context, children compete and collaborate with one another for parental attention; as a consequence, children adapt different strategies for garnering support from parents. 

            These diverse strategies often break down into predictable behavioral patterns according to birth order.  Firstborns usually model their behavior after their parents, for that is the likeliest method, in the absence of other siblings, which will garner parental attention.  In Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives Sulloway provides an interesting description of firstborn behavior, noting that “It is natural for firstborns to identify more strongly with power and authority.  They arrive first within the family and employ their superior size and strength to defend their special status. . . .  firstborns are more assertive, socially dominant, ambitious, jealous of their status, and defensive” (xiv).  Laterborns, any children between firstborns and lastborns, tend to develop in contrast to the parental model.  Hence laterborns are considered the most likely to “rebel” against their parents’ behavioral examples: “The strong link between birth order and openness to experience is no accident.  For laterborns, openness and versatility are tactical responses to firstborn priority, facilitating ‘adaptive radiation’ within the family system” (Sulloway 105).  However, while the most likely to rebel, because they are not as physically dominant as firstborns, laterborns are also the most likely to work at cooperation, negotiation, and other strategies to mitigate competition with other siblings: “Although laterborns often manifest a decided inclination to rebel, they also work hard to improve their lot through good-natured sociability and cooperation” (Sulloway 79).  Kay Tourney Souter further observes that laterborns “as every parent is aware, have special issues, and are often negotiators” (178).  Lastborns, as the “babies” of the families, often occupy a special position in the family unit.  Hence, by virtue of their weakest status, parents have a tendency to give lastborns more attention that laterborns.  In attitude, lastborns are often the most likely to consider themselves privileged.  One result of this treatment is that many lastborns become dissatisfied as adults, for they tend to “think that other people will continue . . . pampering and spoiling [them].  Last borns, when they become adults, have to face the reality that most other people will not pamper them” (Allred and Poduska 350). 

            Jane Austen’s last complete novel, Persuasion, offers what might be considered a perfect study in birth order dynamics.  The three Elliot sisters—Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary—are perfectly spaced between two and four years apart.  Hence, in many respects, they reflect the Darwinian cultural imperatives that Graham suggests are at the root of sibling relationships in Austen fiction.  However, Anne Elliot, the heroine of the novel, stands out in that she does not consistently conform to the role of the laterborn child.  This is particularly noteworthy because, as the protagonist of the novel, we spend the majority of our time with Anne, and her narrative perspective is often the most privileged viewpoint in the novel.  Of particular concern is Anne’s “rebellion” in the novel.  According to Graham, Anne is most likely to rebel because she is a laterborn.  Indeed, Anne’s rejection of Mr. Elliot as a suitor and her acceptance of Captain Wentworth at the end of the novel certainly represent what can be construed as a rebellion in the text.  As Graham notes, “Both heart and head counsel Anne, rebellious in a genteel but typically laterborn way, to turn her back on her landed origins and commit herself to the rising meritocracy, attractively embodied in the person of her once-rejected suitor Captain Wentworth” (81).  Such an observation would be keen indeed, had this been Anne’s first opportunity to rebel in the text.  However, this configuration of Anne as “genteel but typically laterborn” in her demeanor does not satisfactorily explain why Anne did not rebel when Captain Wentworth first proposed marriage eight years prior to her ultimate rebellion.  Furthermore, this observation does not take into consideration the development of Anne’s capacity for rebellion.  Since she did not rebel at nineteen, we are to assume that, despite no significant change in her situation during the intervening years, Anne somehow developed the capacity for rebellion at twenty-seven. 

            It is clear that Anne regretted her failure to rebel at nineteen.  The narrator declares that Anne feels quite differently at twenty-seven than she did at nineteen in this respect:

Anne, at seven-and-twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen. She did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good. She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home, and every anxiety attending his profession, all their probable fears, delays, and disappointments, she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement [to Wentworth], than she had been in the sacrifice of it.  (Austen 29)

To her credit, Anne has not become bitter as a result of her loss; moreover, she does not engage in pointless blame after many years of introspection.  However, the fact that she would not offer similar advice to another in her situation suggests that she regrets being persuaded to give up Wentworth when she was nineteen.  The issue of her rebellion is further complicated, for when she finally does rebel against Lady Russell’s encouragement regarding an engagement to the heir of the Elliot baronetcy and agrees to marry Wentworth, she tells him that she was correct in refusing him when he first asked:

I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides; and for myself, I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice. But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.  (Austen 198)

Such a confession to her betrothed indicates that her duty to Lady Russell outweighed any consideration for her personal happiness, which countermands the Darwinian imperative to rebel that, as a laterborn, she should have felt. 

            In essence, Anne problematizes Graham’s assertion that she is a genteel-but-rebellious laterborn by virtue of her initial failure to rebel and her later assertion that she was correct in obeying Lady Russell in breaking off her engagement to Wentworth.  Her earlier inaction and her later defense of that inaction suggest that Austen’s conceptualization of laterborn behavior differs significantly from how Graham delineates laterborn behavior for Austen characters.  Given this, an examination of how Austen characterizes the three Elliot sisters in terms of their birth order and family dynamics in Persuasion should prove beneficial in determining the extent to which the characters in the novel conform to Graham’s model of sibling behavior.  More importantly, analyzing how Anne diverges from this Darwinian model should help to clarify how and where Austen’s philosophies regarding sibling dynamics in Persuasion are at odds with Graham’s theories.  

            An inspection of the Elliot sisters’ birth order must begin, naturally enough, with an examination of Sir Walter Elliot’s character.  Elizabeth Elliot’s position as firstborn is dependent upon demonstrating that she adopts her father’s mannerisms; consequently, we must first scrutinize Sir Walter’s behavioral characteristics in order to offer a point of comparison between him and Elizabeth.  Even a cursory examination of Sir Walter indicates that he is distinguished by his superficiality: “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation” (Austen 10).  Even as an aging man, Sir Walter casts a striking image, and the baronet definitely takes care to preserve, and to admire, his looks, virtually lining his dressing room, as Admiral Croft notes, with looking-glasses (Austen 104).  Sir Walter demonstrates his overweening sense of self-importance most clearly, however, through his profligate spending: “The Kellynch property was good, but not equal to Sir Walter’s apprehension of the state required in its possessor [Sir Walter]” (Austen 14).  While many landed gentry were having financial difficulties because of increasing taxes on landowners during the Napoleonic Wars, Austen makes it clear that Kellynch would have been solvent had Sir Walter not spent so foolishly in order to maintain the lifestyle of which he felt himself deserving.  Consequently, the necessity for abandoning Kellynch Hall as a strategy of retrenchment, which is the initial crisis in the novel, stems from Sir Walter’s stunning narcissism and petty unwillingness to refrain from indulging it.  As David Monaghan observes, “Sir Walter’s attitude to his role as the baronet owner of Kellynch Hall is, as one might expect, . . . inadequate.  Instead of regarding his estate as a source of duty, he looks to it simply for prestige.  He thus gains far more pleasure from rereading the record of his family’s past glories in the Baronetage than from attending to his present obligations to his estate and tenants” (78).  Sir Walter only wishes to revel in the prior eminence of his station; vacating Kellynch Hall as a strategy of retrenchment is, in this respect, a shirking of the duties of his baronetcy.  Sir Walter, if he were a judicious baronet, should have borne his financial troubles not just with the grace his position affords him, but also with the responsibility that his position demands of him.  From the beginning of Persuasion to the end, Sir Walter Elliot consistently presents himself as a self-absorbed, egotistical fop who only shows his eldest daughter affection because she, like his looking-glasses, reflects the image that he finds most pleasing—his own.  Unfortunately, since Anne and Mary are less like him, Sir Walter deems that his other two daughters are “of very inferior value” (Austen 11). 

            Elizabeth is clearly Sir Walter’s favorite daughter, in large part because of her resemblance to him: “ Elizabeth is valued because she is a reprint of Sir Walter” (O’Toole).  In fact, Elizabeth and Sir Walter are so closely linked with one another in Persuasion that they almost always enter and exit rooms together and are often like-minded in their thoughts and deeds; moreover, Austen conjoins their names (“Sir Walter and Elizabeth”) no less than twenty times in the novel.  Thus, Graham is unquestionably accurate when he surmises, “Elizabeth Elliot takes after her father in all ways” (80).  Perhaps more critically important, since the death of her mother, Elizabeth has, true to her firstborn status, ascended to Lady Elliot’s position as matron of the family: “Elizabeth had succeeded, at sixteen, to all that was possible, of her mother’s rights and consequence; and being very handsome, and very like [Sir Walter], her influence had always been great, and they [she and Sir Walter] had gone on together most happily” (Austen 11).  Elizabeth ’s resemblance to Sir Walter in looks and attitudes allows her to assume her mother’s role as matriarch of the Elliot family so well that she and Sir Walter had “gone on together most happily” after her mother’s death: 

Thirteen years had seen her mistress of Kellynch Hall, presiding and directing with a self-possession and decision which could never have given the idea of her being younger than she was. For thirteen years had she been doing the honours, and laying down the domestic law at home, and leading the way to the chaise and four, and walking immediately after Lady Russell out of all the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms in the country. Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded, and thirteen springs shewn their blossoms, as she travelled up to London with her father, for a few weeks’ annual enjoyment of the great world.  (Austen 12)

As a firstborn should, she aggressively and jealously defends her rights to assume the position vacated by her deceased mother, showing her firstborn tendency to identify with her parental behavioral models.  Unfortunately for everyone in the Elliot household, Elizabeth assumes the role of her mother, but she has not developed any of the wisdom, restraint, or circumspection that her mother had.  Like Sir Walter, Elizabeth seeks all of the privileges and honors, the “rights and consequences” associated with being the matriarch of Kellynch Hall.  Like Sir Walter, she eschews the responsibilities of that position.  Like Sir Walter, she lives for the pomp and circumstance of her social position in the baronetcy.  In short, Elizabeth has conformed to the firstborn role so closely that, upon the death of her mother, she superseded her place in the family and adopted her mother’s role in the family. 

            Regrettably for Anne and Mary, their eldest sister is not their mother in temperament; rather, she emulates her father, especially in his superficiality.  For instance, when informed of her father’s dire financial straights, “Elizabeth . . . set seriously to think what could be done, and had finally proposed these two branches of economy, to cut off some unnecessary charities, and to refrain from new furnishing the drawing-room; to which expedients she afterwards added the happy thought of their taking no present down to Anne, as had been the usual yearly custom” (Austen 14).  Rather than deprive herself or her father, Elizabeth suggests curtailing on charitable donations, not furnishing the drawing room, and depriving Anne of a gift.  She offers no hint of self-sacrifice, again showing her father’s shortcoming of shirking responsibility.  When these paltry offerings are decidedly not enough of a drastic measure for retrenchment, neither she nor her father were able “to devise any means of lessening their expenses without compromising their dignity, or relinquishing their comforts in a way not to be borne” (Austen 14).  Once again, Elizabeth ’s reluctance to cede her lifestyle, her dignity, and her creature comforts to her family’s financial needs, characterizing such sacrifices as unbearable, mirrors Sir Walter’s inane persona.  Elizabeth is so much like her father that the only woman capable of insinuating any kind of positive influence on her, Lady Russell, has “scarcely any influence with Elizabeth ” (Austen 19).  As a firstborn, then, Elizabeth reflects her father perfectly, much to the misfortune of Anne and Mary.  Ultimately, Elizabeth ’s firstborn tendency to assume parental authority, especially after Lady Elliot’s death, doubly deprives Anne and Mary of their mother by replacing her with a shallow simulacrum of their father, whose inherent self-centeredness can do nothing but further isolate the two remaining siblings.   

     Like Elizabeth , Mary corresponds closely to Graham’s depiction of the lastborn child.  She tends to function as that child who has been pampered by her parents, expecting others to pamper her as an adult.  Austen notes that, as long as Mary is treated well, she is happy as an adult: “While well, and happy, and properly attended to, [Mary] had great good humour and excellent spirits; but any indisposition sunk her completely. She had no resources for solitude; and inheriting a considerable share of the Elliot self-importance, was very prone to add to every other distress that of fancying herself neglected and ill-used” (Austen 35; emphasis added).  Like Sir Walter and Elizabeth, Mary expects others to recognize how special she is, how much she deserves to be the center of attention.  When this does not happen, Mary behaves very much like a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum.  From this perspective, her bouts of “illness” suggest an attempt on her part to refocus the attention on herself, which conforms to the behavioral characteristics of her lastborn status.    

     Certainly, this is not the only way to view Mary.  Jan Fergus offers an interesting examination of Mary in “‘My Sore Throats, You Know, Are Always Worse than Anybody’s’: Mary Musgrove and Jane Austen’s Art of Whining” that differs considerably from the conventional standpoint on her.  Rather than characterizing her simply as a whiner, Fergus argues that it is possible to see Mary in a different light:

Mary was evidently a neglected child.  Elizabeth was her father’s favorite, and we can infer that Anne was her mother’s as she is now Lady Russell’s.  Even if Lady Elliot conscientiously attempted to give each daughter equal love and attention, as presumably she did, Mary was youngest when she died, just eight or nine; Anne was about thirteen and Elizabeth about fifteen.  Mary is less attractive than either of her sisters, and less secure.  She feels competitive with her sisters—witness her fear that Captain Wentworth might be made a baronet at the end.  Even in her marriage she was a second choice, and perhaps knows it.

Fergus characterizes Mary as someone who, out of necessity, must fight for whatever modicum of attention and respect that she is capable of garnering.  However, Fergus’s assessment of Mary is not without its complications. 

            While Mary certainly had less time with her mother than any of the other sisters, her claim that Anne was her mother’s favorite, just as she is now Lady Russell’s, is problematic.  Turning to Lady Elliot for a moment, we find that Austen describes her in extraordinarily favorable terms:

Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose judgment and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards.—She had humoured, or softened, or concealed [Sir Walter’s] failings, and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years.  (10)

Austen further describes Lady Elliot’s judiciousness in terms of keeping Sir Walter’s spending within its limits, noting, “While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept [Sir Walter] within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness” (14).  Identifying Lady Elliot as an excellent, sensible and amiable woman, indeed, the most respectable aspect of Sir Walter’s character, noting her judiciousness, method, and moderation, Austen thus configures the Elliot sisters’ mother in such a way that it seems unwarranted for Fergus to suggest that Lady Elliot would openly favor one of her children over the others.  To further extend this line of reasoning, if Anne is as much like her mother as Elizabeth is like her father, we must then consider how patiently Anne humors Mary on her “sick” bed.  Moreover, we cannot ignore Anne’s selflessness in putting the concerns of others oftentimes before her own interests.  Anne is the only image of her mother extant in the text; consequently, if we are to judge how their mother would treat the Elliot sisters from Anne’s example, it seems highly unlikely that Lady Elliot would show the kind of preference for Anne that Sir Walter did for Elizabeth .  As a result, we must dispute Jan Fergus’s inference that Anne was Lady Elliot’s favorite, for it seems unlikely that she would openly play favorites. 

     In a similar vein, Lady Russell is described by Austen as “a sensible, deserving woman, who had been brought, by strong attachment to [Lady Elliot], to settle close by her, in the village of Kellynch; and on her kindness and advice, Lady Elliot mainly relied [on Lady Russell] for the best help and maintenance of the good principles and instruction which she had been anxiously giving her daughters” (Austen 10).  We can infer from this passage, then, that (her judgment against Wentworth notwithstanding) Lady Russell is, in most respects, as sagacious, even-tempered, and kind as Lady Elliot.  In fact, we see here how much Lady Elliot relied upon Lady Russell for both thoughtfulness and guidance.  It may even be possible to infer that Lady Russell was even wiser than the Lady of Kellynch Hall, for she did not show the same lack of judgment regarding Sir Walter that Lady Elliot did.  Despite their apparent closeness, and despite that it would have been an improvement (at least in Sir Walter’s estimation) of her social standing, Lady Russell never married Sir Walter after Lady Elliot’s demise.  Granted, there is no concrete evidence that Sir Walter openly sought a union with Lady Russell; however, the mere mention that they did not marry, despite any anticipation in this regard, opens the possibility for its consideration.  Therefore, Austen’s explanation of why Lady Russell never remarried becomes pregnant with possibilities: “That Lady Russell, of steady age and character, and extremely well provided for, should have no thought of a second marriage, needs no apology to the public, which is rather apt to be unreasonably discontented when a woman does marry again, than when she does not” (Austen 11).  Considering the word “apology” in the Platonic sense of the term, we can read this as an explanation, or “defense” of an adopted position, namely, that of Lady Russell never marrying Sir Walter.  In this context, Lady Russell did not need to offer an “apology” for not marrying the master of Kellynch Hall.  Financially secure and well-situated, Lady Russell had no need to remarry, so it is clear from the insinuation here that she exhibited the wherewithal to remain free from any marital encumbrances, choosing instead to act in the role of trusted advisor, rather than as wife and step-mother to the Elliots, retaining her independence.  In this light, Lady Russell might be considered even wiser than Lady Elliot. 

            Moreover, there is evidence that, like Lady Elliot, Lady Russell did not play favorites in her esteem of the Elliot sisters.  Lady Russell certainly favored Anne, but it is unclear whether she was her “favorite” in the sense that Elizabeth was Sir Walter’s favorite.  Consider Austen’s description of Lady Russell’s feelings for Anne: “To Lady Russell, indeed, [Anne] was a most dear and highly valued god-daughter, favourite, and friend. Lady Russell loved them all; but it was only in Anne that she could fancy the mother to revive again” (Austen 11).  In this context, “favourite” must be linked back, via parallel structure in the sentence, to the indefinite article “a” in describing Anne.  In other words, Anne is a favorite of Lady Russell, not necessarily the favorite.  One may have many favorites in this regard, not just one.  Moreover, Lady Russell’s “favor” of Anne stems from the fact that she is the most like her mother.  In other words, Anne is the embodiment of Lady Russell’s long-lost friend and confidante; no wonder Anne is a favorite of Lady Russell’s.  Finally, Austen notes that Lady Russell “loved them all.”  While she certainly loved Anne, and considered her a favorite, this is not the same as saying that she favored her more than the other two sisters.  Indeed, Lady Russell took pains to love all of the Elliot sisters, despite not necessarily receiving a reciprocal love back from them.  Regarding Elizabeth , Lady Russell “seemed to love her, rather because she would love her, than because Elizabeth deserved it. She had never received from her more than outward attention, nothing beyond the observances of complaisance” (Austen 19).  Despite not having her love returned, Lady Russell has endeavored to love Elizabeth in spite of herself.  Given her caring and wise nature, we can extend the good Lady’s love for all the Elliot children to Mary as well.  As with her inference regarding Lady Elliot, Fergus’s claim that Anne is Lady Russell’s “favorite” must be called into question.      

            Ultimately, the notion that Mary does not receive “favored” status from either Lady Elliot or Lady Russell is arguable.  A more likely scenario is that Mary, as lastborn, feels that she is being slighted by her mother and Lady Russell because they do not love her at the level to which she feels entitled.  Such would be more in keeping with her position as lastborn.  In any case, it seems more probable that both of these excellent women would exhibit egalitarianism in their treatment of the Elliot sisters, than that they would demonstrate a marked favoritism for Anne.  More than likely, any discrepancy in this regard stems from Mary, not from the two Ladies.  In “Birth Order and Happiness: A Preliminary Study,” G. Hugh Allred and Bernard E. Poduska observe that lastborn adults score consistently lower on . . . happiness indicators” (348).  The conclusion that Allred and Poduska draw is that lastborn adults tend to be more dissatisfied with their lots in life because they feel that they have not received a satisfactory level of achievement, which stems from how they were excessively pampered as children.  In Mary’s case, then, it might be that she was treated too well as a lastborn while growing up, and, as a consequence, she is now dissatisfied with her life because it does not complement her childhood expectations of what she deserved as an overly pampered lastborn. 

            Mary certainly takes pains to highlight her importance in Persuasion.  She insists on entering rooms before her mother-in-law because of her higher social station as the daughter of a baronet.  Mary insists that she is unfit to nurse her son Walter after his fall, yet she hypocritically insists on nursing Louisa after her fall on the Cobb, noting that Anne is “nothing” to Louisa, whereas Mary is a “sister” (Austen 96).  Fergus’s claim that Lady Elliot and Lady Russell favor Anne could then be Mary’s projection of her feelings that she is not being treated in a manner appropriate to her lastborn status.  In this respect, Mary is indeed in keeping with Graham’s depiction of lastborn children. 

            Turning to Anne, we see, in some respects, a concurrence with Graham’s description of laterborn children.  True to her laterborn status, Anne is clearly a negotiator and a mediator among her siblings.  Even in the extended family dynamic—with the Musgroves and various other family members, friends, and acquaintances who move in and out of the Elliot family orbit—Anne displays a gracious willingness to subordinate her own desires to others.  Anne is unmistakably a conciliator in this regard.  Concerning where they should live after deciding to give up Kellynch Hall as a part of the Elliot family’s retrenchment, Anne had a distinct preference:

There had been three alternatives, London , Bath , or another house in the country. All Anne’s wishes had been for the latter. A small house in their own neighbourhood, where they might still have Lady Russell’s society, still be near Mary, and still have the pleasure of sometimes seeing the lawns and groves of Kellynch, was the object of her ambition. But the usual fate of Anne attended her, in having something very opposite from her inclination fixed on. She disliked Bath , and did not think it agreed with her—and Bath was to be her home.  (Austen 17)   

Austen indicates that Anne had made known her preference for remaining in the demesne surrounding Kellynch Hall (18); however, as she does in numerous instances throughout the text, Austen does not allow Anne to speak here, relying upon the narrator to indicate Anne’s preferences.  Symbolically, this minimizes Anne’s relative importance to her family members in the text because she has no voice with which to forward her concerns.  Furthermore, Austen indicates, via omission, that only Lady Russell considered what Anne’s wishes were, for, despite the fact that Anne’s wishes were “known”, the text suggests that only Lady Russell felt “obliged to oppose” them (Austen 18).  In this context, neither Sir Walter nor Elizabeth felt any sense of obligation even to consider Anne’s preferences, let alone make an effort to oppose them, which is, of course, very much in keeping with how Sir Walter and Elizabeth viewed Anne: “Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight;  her convenience was always to give way;—she was only Anne” (Austen 11).  Lady Russell ultimately resolves to subordinate Anne’s desires to Sir Walter’s sense of self-importance, noting how difficult it would be for him to remain in close proximity to Kellynch Hall (Austen 18).  The text offers practically no indication of what Anne feels or how she reacts to having her opinion overlooked and overruled, yet this also seems a very pregnant silence, once again depriving Anne of a voice.  The narrator suggests that this kind of treatment was Anne’s “usual fate” in matters such as these.  Consequently, we can infer that her silence in this instance and her complaisance with what is her “usual fate” clearly materializes a conciliatory tendency in Anne.  In fact, numerous times throughout Persuasion Anne’s actions are invariably colored by her laterborn predilection for compromise.  In this sense, we see the manner in which Anne corresponds to her laterborn status. 

            At this point, however, we must regard Anne’s failure to “rebel” against her family’s wishes that she break her engagement with Wentworth as a monumental deviation from Graham’s characteristics of laterborns, who in “filling other [family] niches out of necessity, are typically more flexible, more open to new things and experiences, more rebellious against the domestic status quo” (49).  Furthermore, Sulloway argues that laterborns in cohorts of three siblings demonstrate that the laterborn child is, by far, much more likely to rebel than either the firstborn or the lastborn (99).  Given this information, Anne falling in line with her family’s desires and breaking off her engagement with Wentworth presents a marked divergence from birth order theory.

            Undoubtedly, Anne was receiving pressure on all fronts when she declared her love for and intentions of marrying Wentworth.  As the narrator indicates, when Wentworth asked Sir Walter for Anne’s hand in marriage, both he and Lady Russell were obviously not in favor of the union:

Sir Walter, on being applied to, without actually withholding his consent, or saying it should never be, gave it all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter. He thought it a very degrading alliance; and Lady Russell, though with more tempered and pardonable pride, received it as a most unfortunate one.  (Austen 27)

While Sir Walter’s influence on Anne might be questionable, he is still her father and head of Kellynch Hall.  Anne never openly questions or defies his authority in ­Persuasion.  Moreover, Lady Russell’s disfavor had to be a serious blow to Anne’s resolution to marry, for she “rated Lady Russell’s influence highly” and thought of her as “in the place of a parent” (Austen 16-17; 198).  The text infers that Anne’s strong sense of duty to Lady Russell solely precipitated her earlier refusal of Wentworth.  We see that, in her sense of duty, Anne is clearly her mother’s daughter.  Unlike her father and sister who are only interested in the honors and privileges associated with the baronetcy, Anne takes pains to honor the responsibilities of being gentry.  For instance, when she departs from Kellynch, she visits “almost every house in the parish, as a sort of take-leave,” for Anne was told village parishioners “wished it” (Austen 36).  Like her mother, Anne must take up the duties of responsibility associated with the baronetcy; Sir Walter and Elizabeth definitely will not. 

            In spite of her responsible nature, since practically every other aspect of sibling dynamics in Persuasion corresponds perfectly with Graham’s birth order imperatives, we should still expect Anne’s imperative to rebel to be stronger than her desire to be responsible.  In this respect, Anne’s failure to rebel stands out as anomalous.  Moreover, her suggestion that “duty” solely caused her to deviate from the cultural imperatives of her birth order seems a thin excuse indeed.  One possible way of accounting for Anne’s failure to rebel, and why, years later, she was finally able to rebel when given a second chance, revolves around Austen’s emphasis on the importance of family in her fiction.  More specifically, in Persuasion, Austen demonstrates a decided preference for happy, healthy families—even if those families are adopted from the outside.  From this perspective, Anne’s failure to rebel initially stems from the fact that she was not presented with a viable alternative to the family into which she was born.  Eight years later, Wentworth’s position in the “brotherhood” of the navy provides Anne with the viable family for which she has been looking.

            By all accounts, Persuasion is somewhat of an anomaly when compared to the body of Austen’s fiction.  In Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction, Glenda Hudson underscores the important role sibling relationships play in enlightening Austen’s ideology regarding familial relationships in her fiction: “Austen employs sibling relationships to negotiate within and to critique the complex ideology presented in her fiction . . . Austen embodies her moral vision by presenting a reenergized and vindicated family circle at the end of each of her novels” (2).  According to Hudson , the importance of family dynamics comprises one of the most important tropes in Austen’s fiction, and the relationships between sisters are characteristically important in much of her work.  Generally in Austen novels, sisters play a  

. . . crucial role in the development of their siblings.  The heroine forms a close alliance with a sister, a relationship that often proves highly conducive to their development as individuals.  In some ways, those sisters with deep sororal bonds owe their moral, social, and emotional education to their sisters even more than to their suitors or husbands.  ( Hudson 61)

Persuasion seems an exception to this rule for a number of reasons.  Rather than relying upon one another in the novel, all three Elliot sisters are, to various degrees, openly antagonistic toward one another, and their relationships are hardly characteristic of the better-functioning sisterly relationships in the Austen’s other novels:

In Persuasion, . . . no strong ties exist between Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary Elliot, only rivalry, jealousy, and coldness.  Arguments, disagreements, and battles between sisters constitute the dramatic structure of the novel.  Marriage and sisterhood are nowhere intertwined, and the heroine is isolated morally and intellectually.  The depiction of sororal relationships in this work . . . is far less idealistic than that of previous novels. . . .  Austen appears to be preoccupied with forging harmonious sororal structures in her early fiction . . . [however] war on the domestic front between sisters prevails in Persuasion.  ( Hudson 92)

In this respect, Anne Elliot seems somewhat of a singular figure in Austen fiction.  While other Austen novels have absent or inept parents, and while other Austen novels occasionally depict contentious sororal relationships, Persuasion is the only one of Austen’s novels with a dearth of good parental role models and a paucity of positive sororal relationships.  In other words, of all Austen heroines, Anne Elliot is the most isolated from her family; she is the one most subject to the vagaries of her dysfunctional family dynamic. 

            For varying reasons, a marriage to Mr. Elliot, Anne’s cousin and heir presumptive to the baronetcy and Kellynch Hall, is not a viable option for Anne if she hopes to escape her woeful family dynamic.  For one thing, Mr. Elliot is family.  Not only would Anne be espousing family by marrying him, but she would also be stepping into the role of Lady Elliot.  In essence, she would become her mother by marrying Mr. Elliot.  Rather than escaping her family, she would symbolically become the person responsible for creating the woeful Elliot family dynamic.  Anne’s mother, the erstwhile Lady Elliot, gave birth to Anne’s biggest rivals, her sisters; more importantly, with her death, she withdrew Anne’s only source of support in Kellynch Hall.  In this respect, marrying Mr. Elliot and becoming the next Lady Elliot would be tantamount to revisiting upon herself the “sins” of her mother’s past.  Furthermore, considering the damning evidence that Mrs. Smith offers to Anne regarding the future baronet, marrying him would be an even greater mistake than the one her mother made in marrying Sir Walter.  While an elderly, narcissistic dandy, Sir Walter never seems consciously cruel.  However, the future baronet not only possesses the capacity for cruelty, at times he seems downright conscientiously cruel, especially in his disavowal of Mrs. Smith and their previous friendship. 

            Nevertheless, Lady Russell exhorts Anne to marry Mr. Elliot, exerting a pressure that must undoubtedly be analogous to that which the well-meaning Lady brought to bear on Anne when she wanted her to break off her prior engagement to Wentworth: 

I am no match-maker, as you well know,” said Lady Russell, “being much too well aware of the uncertainty of all human events and calculations. I only mean that if Mr Elliot should some time hence pay his addresses to you, and if you should be disposed to accept him, I think there would be every possibility of your being happy together. A most suitable connection everybody must consider it, but I think it might be a very happy one. . . .  I own that to be able to regard you as the future mistress of Kellynch, the future Lady Elliot, to look forward and see you occupying your dear mother’s place, succeeding to all her rights, and all her popularity, as well as to all her virtues, would be the highest possible gratification to me. You are your mother’s self in countenance and disposition; and if I might be allowed to fancy you such as she was, in situation and name, and home, presiding and blessing in the same spot, and only superior to her in being more highly valued! My dearest Anne, it would give me more delight than is often felt at my time of life!  (Austen 129-30)

Invoking the image of her dead mother, insinuating that Anne should be like her, only better, in the role of Lady Elliot is clearly a powerful inducement for Anne to marry Mr. Elliot.  Not only can she help to restore Kellynch and the baronetcy to its former respectability, but she can also please beyond all compare her surrogate mother, Lady Russell.  Given that she has already once submitted to the pressure of Lady Russell’s influence, it seems improbable that Anne should possess the wherewithal here to rebel against her and choose Wentworth.  However, this is precisely what Anne does.  In her analysis of Persuasion, Hudson finds an ominous import in the concluding marital union between Wentworth and Anne:

Thus, at the close of Persuasion, while a sibship is imposed (as at the end of all the other novels), it is an unconventional sibship in that it lacks the organic quality of the in-family confederacies of intimate sisters and brothers.  Moreover, unlike all the other novels, the narrative movement in Persuasion is a centrifugal rather than a centripetal one; close siblings are brought in from outside the family.  Another significant difference is that this sibship entirely omits or demotes warm sororal relations.  And these unsatisfactory or absent sororal relations have profound implications dramatically and thematically.  Women who do not have the support of strong sister relationships, or who are isolated from sororal ties, suffer debilitating effects.  They do not possess the substantive moral force, nor do they share in the opportunity to educate and be educated by other women.  They suffer, that is to say, from the absence of such mutual influence and help as sisterly relations may provide.  (95)

From Hudson ’s standpoint, Anne is able to construct the healthy familial relationships that she has been lacking throughout the novel by insinuating herself into her future husband’s naval “brotherhood”.  Despite this, Hudson infers that Anne has and will continue to suffer from the lack of her biologically-determined sororal bonds.  With her concluding comments regarding her analysis of Persuasion, Hudson surmises that Anne’s woeful straits resulting from her family relationships “can only be rectified by completely removing the heroine from her unstable family and by forming a new familial unit through marriage. . . .   Anne forges no ties with her sisters, and she remains alienated even at the end of the novel. . . .  Without the usual reference points of devoted sibling ties and a structured inheritance, Anne appears disoriented, even though she gains her prince” (113).  Such a conclusion seems unwarranted, however, especially when we consider that the narrator clearly states that Anne’s lack of healthy family relationships “did not give her a moment’s regret” at the end of the novel (Austen 202).  More to the point, Anne’s decision to rebel against Lady Russell’s and her family’s wishes, her decision to eschew utterly her family and cling to Wentworth and his “brotherhood”, illustrates the pivotal importance of family to Austen.  Even a terribly dysfunctional, “fragmented and neurotic” family like Anne’s is better than none at all ( Hudson 128).  Consequently, when Anne initially allowed herself to be persuaded into not marrying Wentworth, she was clinging to the only viable family she had.  At that time, Lady Russell was the only positive familial influence in Anne’s life.  Therefore, to break faith with Lady Russell—to abandon the only real family Anne had left—was more than she could bear.  In this light, Anne’s initial failure to rebel in Persuasion demonstrates that, for Austen and her configurations of family dynamics, the imperative to maintain family ties outweighs the birth order imperative to rebel.  As compelling as the imperative for maintaining family ties is, however, the imperative to construct a healthy family is even stronger.  Via her novel’s heroine, Austen suggests in Persuasion that any family—whether an evolution from inside the natural family dynamic or a family constructed from the centrifugal force resulting from her natural family’s dysfunction—is preferable to a bad family. 

            In order for Anne to escape her poisonous family dynamic, she must find a suitable surrogate family.  Hence, marrying into the naval “brotherhood” by virtue of a union with Wentworth becomes the most viable option for Anne.  Despite a clear desire on the part of Mr. Elliot to marry Anne, and despite Lady Russell’s endorsement of the notion, Anne’s imperative to construct a healthy family outweighs any concern to maintain her natural family.  Hence, Anne is able to rebel against her family because the opportunity to do so has finally presented itself to her.  Certainly, the need to break with her family existed eight years prior, but not the opportunity.  At that time, Wentworth merely represented the potential for another family.  Nonetheless, compared to the reality of the family she already possessed, albeit a depressing reality, any potential gain in family was simply that—a potential.  When Wentworth reappears in the text, he comes back as a full-fledged member of the navy’s “brotherhood”.  Furthermore, he demonstrates, by virtue of his sister and Admiral Croft, that the naval family is prosperous, egalitarian, and, above all, healthy.  In effect, when the opportunity for rebellion occurs a second time, the imperative to cling to her family is negated by the chance to become part of a better family.  Ultimately, Anne is able to follow her laterborn desire to rebel because any imperatives that had a greater claim upon her have been removed.  Anne’s initial failure in adhering to the mandates of her lastborn status and rebelling developed because Austen had sutured a more demanding imperative into the text: the desire to maintain family relationships.  When Wentworth offers Anne a second chance at marriage, she is able to rebel because Wentworth also provided Anne with a viable family option.  In the absence of any contraindicative imperatives, Anne is able to function exactly as her laterborn status would indicate: she rebels against Lady Russell’s wishes and becomes betrothed once again to Wentworth. 

            In returning to a consideration of Graham’s theories regarding birth order and family dynamics as they pertain to Austen’s fiction, we see that, in the absence of any contrary directives arising from Austen’s personal ideologies, all three Elliot sisters act in complete accordance with Graham’s depiction of birth order dynamics.  One final thought: it seems likely that siblings in Austen fiction (at least the ones in Persuasion) closely follow behaviors associated with their respective birth orders.  Consequently, whenever an Austen character breaks with the inherent nature of her birth order, we are provided with an opportunity to examine further the nature and extent to which Austen’s personal ideologies conflict with birth order behaviors.  Hence by deconstructing these variances between her personal ideologies of familial relationships and Graham’s conceptualization of birth order dynamics in Austen’s fiction, we can find heretofore uncovered avenues of exploration in Austen studies.


Works Cited

Allred, G. Hugh and Bernard E. Poduska.  “Birth Order and Happiness: A Preliminary Study.”  Individual Psychology: The Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice.  44.3 (1988): 346-55.  Ebscohost: Academic Search Complete.  Web.  2 Dec. 2009. 

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  Oxford : Oxford UP, 2008. 

Fergus, Jan.  “‘My Sore Throats, You Know, Are Always Worse than Anybody’s’: Mary Musgrove and Jane Austen’s Art of Whining.”  Persuasions.  15 (1993): n. pag.  Ebscohost: Academic Search Complete.  Web.  2 Dec. 2009. 

Graham, Peter W.  Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists.  Aldershot : Ashgate, 2008. 

Hudson, Glenda.  Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction.  New York : St. Martin ’s, 1992. 

Monaghan, David.  “The Decline of the Gentry: A Study of Jane Austen’s Attitude to Formality in Persuasion.”  Studies in the Novel.  7.1 (1975): 73-88. 

O’Toole, Tess.  “Reconfiguring the Family in Persuasion.”  Persuasions.  15 (1993): n. pag.  Ebscohost: Academic Search Complete.  Web.  2 Dec. 2009. 

Sulloway, Frank J.  Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives.  New York : Pantheon, 1996.