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We first meet Anne as part of the Elliot family, and not a very important part. While her elder sister Elizabeth has the power of being her father’s favorite, and younger Mary has the benefit of being married, shy Anne is lost in the middle. Her family’s severe undervaluing of her, however, soon becomes apparent in her intelligent and thoughtful reaction to her father’s financial troubles. While Sir Walter is stuck in useless "why me?" moping, Anne works with family friend Lady Russell to come up with a new budget that comes down on "the side of honesty against importance" (2.3). When her father decides to ignore her suggestions completely and move to Bath instead, Anne has no choice but to go along with the plan, despite Bath being her least favorite place in the world.
Things change a little, however, when Anne finally gets to Bath, after a lengthy detour to stay with Mary and her family. In Bath, Anne starts to carve a space for herself that pushes the boundaries of what her family wants. A good example of this is that, while Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and even Lady Russell are all over Mr. Elliot, Anne doesn’t quite trust him.
He certainly knew what was right, nor could she fix on any one article of moral duty evidently transgressed; but yet she would have been afraid to answer for his conduct. (17.26)
All Anne has to go on is a private hunch that Mr. Elliot’s not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But even though she can’t put her finger on why her instinct tells her to keep him at arms’ length, or come up with any evidence to prove her case to others, she still trusts her own judgment more than the good opinion of her family and Lady Russell.
Perhaps it’s her experiences in Lyme, or perhaps it’s a confidence boost from feeling that Wentworth still respects her, but something gives Anne a spark of spunk in Bath that she didn’t have before. When she insists on turning down Lady Dalrymple to visit Mrs. Smith, Anne is also taking a stand against her family’s values and for her own. And when Anne steps forward to talk to Wentworth at the concert while her father and sister glare daggers at her back, she even manages to drag them a tiny bit closer to her way of seeing things, as they actually bother to recognize Wentworth’s existence (shocking!).
Even though the Elliots eventually stop turning up their noses at Captain Wentworth, Anne’s marriage to him is a definite step away from her family and towards independence (especially since Mr. Elliot, the heir of Kellynch, is the main alternative). It’s uncertain at the end of the novel just how much Anne will continue to deal with her family now that she’s not dependent on them for food and shelter anymore, but it’s pretty clear that any little Wentworths won’t be encouraged to grow up to be just like granddad Elliot.
It’s easy to imagine why Anne first fell for Wentworth. His openness and lack of vanity or snobbishness must have been like a breath of fresh air to a girl raised in the stuffy Elliot household.
It’s less easy but still possible to understand why she gave him up. She was young, she wanted to do the right thing, and she trusted Lady Russell to know what the right thing was. While she manages not to get bitter at Lady Russell for cheating her out of what turned out to be her big shot at romance, she also spends the next eight years replaying those scenes in her head and wishing they had turned out differently. Was it really the right thing to do? Now Anne thinks not, but who’s to say how things would have gone if she had gone against everyone else and married Wentworth?
When Wentworth finally turns up again to give her the chance to do things better in a sequel, Anne has pretty much given up on their ever getting back together. So, having him around live and in person raises a possibility that is as tantalizing as it is painful. Should she dare to hope that he still cares about her, or would that just be setting herself up for a disappointment even worse than the failure of their first relationship? Does their past involvement give her any right to special treatment from him, or has so much time passed that they’re now reset to strangers?
When it becomes clear to Anne that Wentworth is taking the approach of pointedly ignoring her in a way that makes it obvious he’s neither forgotten nor forgiven, she tries to deal with the situation by bottling up her own emotions and pretending they don’t exist. When Mary’s son Charles injures himself, Anne jumps at the chance to nurse him – and to get out of what would have been her first reunion with Wentworth.
She knew herself to be of the first utility to the child; and what was it to her if Frederick Wentworth were only half a mile distant, making himself agreeable to others? (7.20)
What was it to her indeed? Only enough to make her skip the party, spend her time while she’s taking care of young Charles thinking about what Wentworth thinks of her, and blush whenever his name is mentioned. In showing us the contrast between what Anne has persuaded herself she should feel, and what her actions show about how she actually does feel, the novel suggests that Anne is fooling herself in thinking she could ever be indifferent to Wentworth.
Why, then, does she try to hide what she feels, even from herself? The lines quoted above suggest that Wentworth’s presence disrupts Anne’s quiet, useful, humdrum life that she’s had since he went away. While this might be exciting, it’s also terrifying. There’s also the potential pain and embarrassment of acting on those feelings and coming on to Wentworth only to be rejected, not to mention having everyone find out her secret suffering, making it even harder to bear. While Anne’s attempts at self-delusion may seem pathetically pointless, as a coping mechanism it’s certainly understandable.
Finally, thanks to Louisa’s head trauma and subsequent engagement to Captain Benwick, Anne is finally able to acknowledge to herself that she still loves Wentworth. What’s more, she realizes that, wonder of wonders, he loves her too.
So why doesn’t Anne just go to him and say, "I’ve got a thing for you, you’ve got a thing for me, let’s make this thing happen"? Perhaps after eight years, a few more weeks to make sure she gets it right this time don’t seem so bad. Alternatively, maybe she wants him to make the move so she can be certain he really wants her back.
Whatever the reason, Anne takes the indirect approach, making comments to others about her indifference to Mr. Elliot or women’s unchanging affections, in hopes that Wentworth will pick up on her true meaning. If he does, Anne can know that he’s just as observant of her as she is of him. Which he is – so much so that in the end she doesn’t even need to tell him she still loves him, since he can tell just by looking at her. Is she being more obvious, or has his vision improved? Perhaps a little of both.
Anne would make a really bad reality show contestant, as she’s not one to take center stage and show off. The action of the novel is mostly driven by other people, while Anne observes, listens, and responds. It’s like everyone else has a blog, but she’s stuck just leaving comments. At home with her father and sister, she is "nobody": "her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne" (1.9). Perhaps being "only Anne" is a wise choice in the Elliot household – if Anne were suddenly start making demands, it seems more probable that she’d end up in an armed standoff against her family than that she would be any more likely to get her way.
But Anne’s self-abnegation runs deeper than just keeping the peace in a house already too crowded with egos. When her sister Mary demands a visit, she’s downright glad to go play nursemaid to a whiny hypochondriac.
To be claimed as a good, though in an improper style, is at least better than being rejected as no good at all; and Anne, glad to be thought of some use, glad to have anything marked out as a duty, […] readily agreed to stay. (5.9)
Thanks to her family’s constant dumping on her, Anne’s baseline for considering her time well-spent is very low indeed. Since happiness isn’t really an option under the circumstances, duty becomes the next best thing. And what is duty? Here, it’s doing something useful – but useful for others.
Once Anne settles in at Uppercross, she continues to get used, as everyone takes advantage of Anne’s listening ear to share their troubles, and she does her best to offer sympathy. Anne’s focus on making herself useful at the expense of having any time to herself appears to those around her as a virtue (to the extent they even notice). It also means that she doesn’t have much freedom to grow and develop as an individual.
Then comes Lyme and Louisa’s accident, and Anne is all set to do what she does best: selfless sacrifice to people who don’t deserve it. But then, through her sisters Mary’s selfishness, she is first sent back to Uppercross and then joins her father and sister at Bath. Instead of patiently mopping fevered brows at her rival’s sickbed in service to unrequited love, she finds herself the object of attentions from the man who is, in her family’s eyes, the most eligible bachelor in the world.
When Louisa is safely engaged to Captain Benwick, Wentworth joins the fun in Bath, and soon barely-noticed Anne has the eyes of two men on her. Bringing the action out of the familiar Kellynch-Uppercross axis and into the unknown world of Bath gets Anne out of the same old groove of invisibility and duty, opening up a space for Anne to see herself as more than a tool whose only value is in its usefulness to others.
When Anne finally manages to overcome all the obstacles in her path and get together with Wentworth, it seems that her days of self-sacrifice are finally behind her, and she’s able to be happy for her own self instead of seeing happiness as a spectator sport. Perhaps Anne’s blissful ending suggests a little selfishness can be a good thing after all.