Lady Russell - a 'very good woman'

The significance of Lady Russell

The whole tale of Persuasion hinges on Lady Russell's past advice to Anne, advice which has devastated the happiness of the heroine. Lady Russell is a flawed character who overvalues tradition and rank. Only at the end of the book does she admit that ‘she had been pretty completely wrong'. In the former part of the novel she seems unable to regret mistakes and learn from them, or wish the past ‘undone'. Nevertheless, Jane Austen presents Lady Russell in such a way that the reader feels ambivalent towards her.

Positive aspects

  • Lady Russell is introduced in a positive light as a wealthy woman of dependable character who has been a surrogate mother and good friend to Anne
  • Anne is ‘only Anne' to her family, but Lady Russell esteems her as a ‘highly valued god-daughter, favourite and friend' (Ch. 1)
  • During discussions of retrenchment, Lady Russell does what ‘nobody else thought of doing, she consulted Anne', thereby giving weight to Anne's word (Ch. 2)
  • Lady Russell rightly judges Mrs. Clay as ‘unequal' and ‘dangerous' (Ch. 2)
  • Lady Russell often takes Anne to Mrs. Smith's despite Mrs. Smith's lowly position (Ch. 17/ Vol. 2, Ch. 5), indicating that she is able to appreciate good character, regardless of situation

Negative aspects

  • Lady Russell lacks judgement, demonstrating a narrow-minded attitude to society which is similar to Sir Walter's:
    • She is a flawed character whose undue concern with status and wealth ‘blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them.' (Ch.2)
    • Her initial dislike of Mr. Elliot wears off, and she is won over by his skin-deep good manners
  • Her self-interest is shocking as Anne's desires and happiness are brushed aside:
    • They move to Bath against ‘her dear Anne's known wishes' because Lady Russell was ‘fond of Bath' (Ch. 2)
    • She tempts Anne away from Wentworth with the prospect of being mistress of Kellynch
    • When Lady Russell learns of Captain Wentworth's attachment to Louisa, ‘her heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased contempt' (Ch. 13 / Vol. 2, Ch. 1).

Moral development

Ultimately the reader accepts Lady Russell because she cares for Anne. When the engagement is announced in Ch. 24, she suffers, ‘some pain in understanding and relinquishing Mr Elliot,' and ‘struggles to … do justice to Captain Wentworth.' However, she does so for the sake of her surrogate daughter. The narrator summarises that:

‘She loved Anne better than she loved her own abilities; and when the awkwardness of the beginning was over, found little hardship in attaching herself as a mother to the man who was securing the happiness of her other child.'
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