When we talked about North and South last fall, I nattered on about identity and the ways different aspects of Margaret Hale’s life and identity shift in the early chapters of the novel. Throughout Persuasion, Anne’s identity changes, too, but her story is different than Margaret’s journey.
To start thinking about Anne’s identity, we can look at what Austen says about her early in the book. When Austen introduces this character in Chapter 1, she writes, “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.”
The first descriptions of a character are always important. Just like in life when we meet someone new, we will form important first impressions. Authors know this as well as anybody, and so their initial descriptions of characters will always tell us something useful. In this case, we learn that in her family, Anne is neither respected nor cared for, and you might even go so far as to say she lacks an identity. Anne, after all, “was nobody.”
But then we get some surprising information: a few years earlier, Anne “had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early . . . now she was faded and thin.” So, *that’s* interesting—Anne used to be quite pretty. What happened that caused her bloom to fade?
(Austen answers this directly, by the way, a few paragraphs into chapter 4, when she repeats that idea—early loss of bloom—as the result of some past events.)
Austen gives us these pieces of information right next to each other, separated only by the brief introduction of Lady Russell. Because these two descriptions of Anne are so close together, it is perhaps not too big of a leap to see a connection between Anne’s physical appearance (“faded and thin”) and Anne’s personality (“Anne…was nobody”). We might keep that relationship between physical attractiveness and perception of personality in the back of our minds as the book continues.
So, if you remember Margaret Hale, her identity was destabilized when all of the different aspects of her life were changed due to the move to Milton, and she had to reshape her identity in the face of enormous change. For Anne, things are a bit different. She still faces changes (specifically a change of location, just like Margaret), but she starts the story without a defined identity—she is nobody. The Big Question for her is not “Can she reshape her identity?” but: Can she be anybody at all?