- Posted by Sophia Meredith
- On September 26, 2016
- 1 Comments
I recently acquired the two-volume “definitive” biography of the Duke of Wellington by Elizabeth Longford. Sadly, they are out of print, for her work is a marvelous resource for those of us interested in a deeper understanding of the Regency period. I made an interesting discovery! The duke’s relationship with Catherine Pakenham, whom he married in 1806, has a great deal in common with that of Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliot from one of my favorite Austen novels, “Persuasion.” That novel was written a decade later at a time when the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley—fresh from his glorious victory at Waterloo—was at the height of his fame and popularity. It seems plausible that it is more than mere coincidence. After all, the famous commander’s relationship was well known in society, much like our tabloid understanding of celebrities today. Let us explore the parallels between “Persuasion” and a real world love story which seem too obvious to ignore.
Much like Anne Elliot, “with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind,” Kitty Pakenham, the daughter of the 2nd Baron Longford, was considered a lovely, vivacious girl, and quite popular in Dublin society. She was also considered bookish and apparently this was part of her great attraction to ArthurWellesley.
Wellesley is described as a man very much in the mold of Captain Wentworth, and furthermore, his and Pakenham’s early courtship—when Arthur was at loose ends unable to secure a post—bears a striking resemblance to that of Jane’s description of Wentworth’s and Anne’s: “He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit, and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly anybody to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail.”
Both young ladies fell in love with handsome, ambitious, and talented young officers. But the gentleman’s proposals of marriage were rebuffed, not by the girl’s parents—Kitty’s brother had that particular honor, and Anne was influenced against the match by her godmother, Lady Russell. Wellesley, although well-connected, was a younger son of an impoverished, Irish aristocratic family. He himself was quite poor at the time of his courtship and unable to support a wife. Nor, ironically, did his future seem to hold much promise in the Longford family’s estimation. When they decided against him, Wellesley wrote a letter to Kitty assuring her that if anything occurred to alter their decision, “my mind will still remain the same.” As Longford reminds her reader’s modern sensibilities, “To an honorable man those seven words would be binding.”
Austen reflects this sentiment in Wentworth’s near miss with Louisa Musgrove. Wentworth describes his anguish to Anne:“I was no longer at my own disposal. I was hers in honor if she wished it. I had been unguarded. I had not thought seriously on this subject before.” In 1822, long after Jane Austen’s death, Wellington echoes the same dismal fate bequeathed by his imprudent younger self when, in a letter to his friend, he writes: “I married her because they asked me to do it & I did not know myself…I thought I should never care for anybody again…In short, I was a fool.”
Over the next decade, Wellesley’s star was on the rise, as is Wentworth’s, whom Austen describes thusly: “All his sanguine expectations, all his confidence had been justified. His genius and ardor had seemed to foresee and to command his prosperous path. He had, very soon after their engagement ceased, got employ: and all that he had told her would follow, had taken place. He had distinguished himself…” The character description offered up here bears a strong resemblance to young Wellesley upon departing for India where he, too, makes his mark.
Over the same span of years, each of our young ladies’ health and looks fail her. For each, the cause is considered the failed relationship they had suffered and repined. Austen says of Anne Elliot, “her bloom had vanished early,” and now she is, “faded and thin.” Similarly, The Hon. Mrs. Calvert wrote of Kitty Pakenham, “She is now very thin and withered (I believe pining in his absence helped to make her more so).” Imagine the pain fictional Anne felt to hear Wentworth’s opinion of her after their eight year separation his words that she is,“so altered he should not have known you again,” are reported to her by an insensitive friend. (As an aside, does this remarkably rude comment remind you of another favorite Austen hero?) Similarly, Wellington—who was not to see Kitty prior to joining her at the alter twelve years after their parting—whispered in shock to his brother, “She has grown ugly, by Jove!”
Sadly, the future does not hold the same Happily Ever After for Arthur Wellesley that Jane Austen gives her own creations. No, he knew almost immediately that his marriage was a mistake; he did not love his wife and their relationship shows strain almost from its commencement. There were others however, who appropriated Kitty and Arthur’s love story to suit themselves. To authoress Maria Edgeworth, considered the “Irish Jane Austen,” and a close friend of Kitty’s, their real-life romance was “…one of those rare tales of real life in which the romance is far superior to…fiction.” Another one who imbued the tale with her own romantic ideal was Queen Charlotte, who said to the new bride during her presentation, “I’m happy to see you at my court, so bright an example of constancy. If any body in this world deserves to be happy, you do.” Perhaps Jane Austen was another lady whose sanguine pen rewrote what might have been and is rarely so.
I have always thought Persuasion to be the most personal of Austen’s novels. It is the story of a mature, unmarried lady, unattractive, submissive, and without prospects. In her family, Shuffled between her relatives, Anne Elliot is shown little respect, under-valued, and imposed upon; her life and opportunities circumscribed by her unmarried status. Timid little Anne, a shadow of her former self, lives with an agony of regret and resignation, so much so, that when Wentworth reenters her life she behaves as a chaperone for his romantic involvement with a member of her own extended family.
Persuasion was Austen’s final manuscript, written when her health was failing, and it is said she was not as fastidious in its final revisions as her other novels. Perhaps more of the author’s emotional life leaks through the pages she leaves us. The novel’s themes seem well suited to this period of Jane’s life. With her health in very serious decline, it is easy to imagine her coming to terms with her mortality and perhaps reviewing her decisions and their effect on the course of her life. First and foremost among those choices was to remain with her sister in shared spinsterhood rather than marry; she did have several opportunities to do so. Surely, there were indignities to be born even in the best of families (her’s was warm, supportive, and close-knit) and among the kindest circle of friends. One may regret the road not taken or simply wonder what lay beyond the turning. When one is a writer, there is the possibility of living countless lives through the pen. Perhaps in Persuasion, Jane Austen wrote an alternate ending of her own life and that of the doomed couple Arthur & Kitty. Have I persuaded you?
My new book, “Miss Darcy’s Companion” is now available on Amazon. There is a special giveaway of a signed print copy of the book, or a Sophia Meredith past or future e-book for those who purchase it before October 20th (details can be found in the book)