A word of advice imparted to me at a young age was to never ask God for patience. This is due to the idea that to prove you possess this Heavenly virtue you must also be confronted with all manner of trials and tribulations in order to affirm that you have the gift to patiently handle such difficulties. In truth, I think the motivation behind praying for patience is because the trials and tribs are already present. Something else in us, though, does not want to act out in an offensive way no matter how unjust the source of our torment. So we seek the solace of a life well lived by demonstrating patience in the face of adversity.
Patience, to my way of thinking, comes from an informed conscience. Other values are already present governing our thoughts on how we are to behave based on our observations of people we both love and admire. Following the advice contained in English professor Karen Swallow Prior’s book, On Reading Well, we’ve come to learn that this admiration can be applied to fictional characters as well. This week as we discuss the virtue of patience we find that Anne Elliott is just such a person. She is the fictional creation of Jane Austen in the author’s last completed manuscript, Persuasion, published posthumously in 1817.
Anne’s story begins before we even open the book, meaning there is significant backstory to comprehend in order to explain what is happening, and why, in the present. Anne was nineteen when she fell in love with the handsome naval officer Frederick Wentworth. He proposed, but Anne rejected him on the advice of a trusted friend, hence one reason for the title Persuasion. Anne was persuaded that the marriage would be ill suited for her owing to the fact that Wentworth’s social status was beneath her. Wentworth went to sea and eight years later, when the novel begins, Anne is twenty-seven, past the bloom of youth and therefore regarded as being “on the shelf” in the colloquialism of the day.
Given this scenario and given that the novel is by Jane Austen, it’s an easy bet that Anne and Wentworth will find love in each other’s arms by story’s end. And this being an Austen novel it’s also an easy bet that the whole thing will be populated with a variety of characters, whose actions and mannerisms offer Austen much to critique for the sake of the reader’s amusement. Anne, however, is the story’s moral compass. Anne is patient and this drives our empathy for her pleasing character.
Professor Prior writes that “,,, the virtue of patience entails much more than merely waiting. The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.”
This perspective is something that the good professor and I share with Jane Austen, the daughter of a Church of England rector. It follows the pronouncement of James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote: Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:10-11)
Notice the added element of being blessed for one’s perseverance. Austen imbues that quality in her protagonist. It helps to explain one’s willingness to endure the suffering, whether emotional, spiritual or physical. Anne’s perspective is one of what we now call playing the long game; looking past the immediate in hopes for some rewarding yet undefined resolve. There is consequently the evidence of trust in Anne’s soul. She trusts in that compassion and mercy of a guiding spirit. It is further an indication that patience is a multi-layered virtue. It requires maturity to be lived appropriately.
Anne has a servant’s heart. She does not sit and pine away for what was lost. She shows compassion to others of less noble character; support for family, who are frivolous in their financial dealings; and finds joy in the small things others fail to appreciate, which might well be obscured to any of us who indulge in the more self-aggrandizing things of life. She demonstrates that patience is not synonymous with passivity, otherwise Austen could not have crafted a complete and popular novel around her. Who, then, would not welcome having Anne as an admirable friend?
Austen scholars point out that Anne Elliott is the author’s most mature creation. It is likely that an aging Jane Austen, declining in health, was able to create Anne from her own experiences. Austen herself was self-described as being “on the shelf” and would intimately know the thoughts and feelings of one pathetically consigned by others to being a spinster. Her older sister Cassandra was pledged in marriage to a man who was too poor to marry. Like Wentworth, he went to sea to make his fortune only to succumb to a yellow fever epidemic. Cassandra thereafter committed herself to a life of celibacy, accompanied by her devoted sister Jane.
Perhaps the most revealing insight into Anne Elliott’s soul comes near the end of the story, when Anne attempts to explain to Wentworth the reason behind her rejection of his initial proposal eight years prior. She feels she made the right decision, not because her friend’s advice was correct (which it wasn’t), but because of the honor she afforded her friend by accepting the advice. Fortunately this is a novel and Anne’s resolve to endure whatever unhappiness may well have come from her decision was rewarded by story’s end.
Sadly, in real life, there was no Captain Wentworth for Jane Austen.