Patience is powerful and persuasive.
Prince Albert grew in power under his wife Queen Victoria as he patiently waited for her to decide what his role should be. He was patient, loving, and decent, a persuasive combination. Albert ended up in one of the great love matches of the nineteenth century and helped preserve Britain as a stable constitutional monarchy in very unstable time.
That’s the persuasive power of patience.
Our guide in cultivating the virtues through literature, Karen Swallow Prior (KSP), has selected Persuasion by Jane Austen as a guide to patience. My life has been greatly enriched by adopting the position that Austen is how to be civilized and content. “WWJD?” in social situations in our house means: “What would Jane do?”
Just loving a great author can get in the way of seeing the depths of her work, so KSP helps me by showing the meaning behind the message. KSP defines patience as not “merely waiting:”
The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.
I had to pause and consider this and how true it is even in small situations. When waiting in the line at the grocery store, I am inconvenienced (mildly) and patience takes this (wee bit) of pain and makes something good of the pain. There is in this broken world pain that is gratuitous, not part of God’s plan. God is patiently bringing grace, mercy, and hope to the world.
We should relieve suffering, but not all pain can be cured. My arthritis started hurting in my left shoulder at eighteen and grows a bit worse with each year. I can take some medicine, but mostly I must endure. Can I take that pain and learn patience?
This is hard, but good. KSP has reminded me of the importance of patience even when I am looking for a solution to a problem. After all:
Patience is not inaction. As the Bible says in James 5: 11, patience is not passivity but perseverance. When faced with suffering or wrong, the virtuous person responds neither with wrath nor with stoicism but with patience.
Jane and Revolutions
Patient change, doing what one can and enduring what one must, is all through Jane Austen’s novels, especially Persuasion, as KSP is about to show us. Is it too much to wonder if this virtue helped Britain avoid revolutions that roiled other lands?
There is a despair to Russian literature before the Revolution, a tempation to passivity in a novelist like Tolstoy, that is wholly missing from Austen. The heroines of Austen endure, but act. For Tolstoy, the sweep of history reduces even Napoleon to insignificance. There are no great men for Tolstoy.
The last Tsar of Russia has been accused (as a ruler) of developing a passivity in the face of problems that contributed to the Revolution of 1917. His apotheosis in his martyrdom does not excuse all political decisions. By contrast, the English monarchy and aristocratic classes showed due conservatism, but also a willingness to evolve. Did novelists like Austen and later Trollope, preachers of patient change, help create this upper class flexibility?
On Being Anne Elliot
KSP notes that some accounts of patience, such as the legendary Griselda, are horrifying. Passivity is not patience. By contrast the central character of Persuasion, Anne Elliot is endures the consequences of her being persuaded into making a bad decision. She has refused Frederick Wentworth and lived to regret the choice.
She does not, however, pursue vice or haplessly rail against fate. She endures and takes her chances as they come. Anne is not on a pilgrim’s progress, but has become virtuous before the story begins and this virtue persuades all those around her who will attend to become better than they are:
Anne is unlike most of Austen’s heroines and heroes because, as C. S. Lewis points out in an essay on Austen, she does not undergo illumination or enlightenment; but, in contrast to these other characters, she has no need to. Anne, as Lewis says, “commits no errors.” Too-perfect characters are rarely, if ever, interesting. But Anne’s passion, insight, maturity, and fortitude make her a winsome character despite her lack of a great flaw, 7 a characteristic modern readers expect.
Anne suffers fools, especially in her family, patiently. She avoids the opposing errors of passivity and impotent rage. She will not be trampled or ignore the problems around her, but she also does not try to change what cannot be changed. Anne is fully herself and that fact, in the shifting, superficial social circles of Bath, makes her monumental. As KSP notes, however, her ability to moralize depends on her humility:
She suffers, yet does not recognize the virtuous way in which she bears it.
KSP notes that Anne is not enduring evil, but the consequences of her reasonable choice. She is patient virtuously, because she is honoring her own decision not enduring some evil foisted on her. When Anne is patient, she is stating the importance of her free choice. She chose poorly, but the choice was her own. If she had tried to fix her error hastily or had ignored the consequences of her choice, she would have made herself less than adult. Anne is willing to choose and if the choice was based on good reason take the consequences.
As a result, Anne is ready for greater happiness.
KSP notes patience, giving Providence time to work, is connected to persuasion:
Persuadability, too, is connected to time. While Anne’s rival Louisa Musgrove brags that she is not easily persuaded, Anne questions whether firmness of character is always ideal, arguing that “a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute one.” 20 Here we see a hint of the connection between persuasion and patience—both rooted in time, easily subject to it but also able to transcend it.
In a cosmos where God is operating, patience is wise. Creation and even history are going somewhere and the direction is (essentially) good. KSP demonstrates that Austen’s belief in teleology (that there are purposeful causes for events and things) makes a hope for happy endings rational.
Her novels demonstrate that the “virtues and the harms and evils which the virtues alone will overcome provide the structure both of a life in which the telos can be achieved and of a narrative in which the story of such a life can be unfolded.
Life may not turn out in every detail as we would wish, but virtue will triumph if excercised. This is even true of martyrs. When the patient pursuit of justice can only be defeated by the bullet, then the martyr has won. Christian teleology makes the fairy tale ending “they lived happily ever after” deeply true whatever the short term outcome.
Anne without her Captain could have been happy. As often happens, things turned out better than this for Anne, the Captain and Anne are both ready for a mature, genuine romance and they get it. Yet, of course, the years lost are not returned and eventually the Captain or Anne will die. This too is, however, merely a prelude to the greater happy ending.
Austen is realistic in her endings:
The most perfect patience grows out of not only teleology but eschatology too. “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride. Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Eccles. 7: 8–9).
Anne is fully human in Bath, a world of rouged roues. She changes before Providence, but never before wickedness. Her virtues excercised patiently redeem all those around her. She is named rightly for Blessed Anne, mother of the mother of God. She is reverend next to the younger generation, but shows them a way forward by her character.
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