A crowded shop scene in Jane Austen’s Persuasion causes spectacular tension between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth on a rainy day in Bath. (It’s worth re-reading here if it’s been a while.) Anne and the others in her party step into Molland’s to escape the rain. There, Austen drops a subtle hint about Captain Wentworth’s feelings toward Anne.
As Anne waits near the window, Captain Wentworth comes into Molland’s. They speak, and it’s awkward, but then he tries again and they make a bit more headway. When he learns she’s planning to walk home in the rain, he immediately shows concern for her well-being.
Then Captain Wentworth makes a bold move:
After a moment’s pause, he said: ‘Though I came only yesterday, I have equipped myself properly for Bath already, you see’ (pointing to a new umbrella); ‘I wish you would make use of it, if you are determined to walk; though I think it would be more prudent to let me get you a chair.’Persuasion, Jane Austen
Here, Austen reveals something important about Captain Wentworth. During Austen’s lifetime, men often carried an umbrella when escorting a woman. Though some men did carry umbrellas when walking alone, it’s quite possible Austen placed an umbrella in hearty, seafaring Captain Wentworth’s hand for romantic reasons.
What Captain Wentworth may be saying, then, is that he has equipped himself properly for walking in Bath with a lady. At the 2018 JASNA AGM, Dr. John Mullen even went as far as to say Wentworth’s umbrella is proof that he’s in Bath for the express purpose of courtship.
Could a single man in Bath, especially a sea captain, have another reason for an umbrella?
Austen tells us Captain Wentworth’s reason for going to Bath at the end of the novel. His purpose was, in fact, to try to win Anne:
Within the first five minutes I said, ‘I will be at Bath on Wednesday,’ and I was. Was it unpardonable to think it worth my while to come? and to arrive with some degree of hope? You were single. It was possible that you might retain the feelings of the past, as I did; and one encouragement happened to be mine. I could never doubt that you would be loved and sought by others, but I knew to a certainty that you had refused one man, at least, of better pretensions than myself; and I could not help often saying, ‘Was this for me?’Persuasion, Jane Austen
Alas, Captain Wentworth doesn’t have the chance to walk Anne home that day. And once she leaves, Captain Wentworth overhears gossip about her relationship with Mr. Elliot, causing even greater misunderstanding that Austen resolves on another day in another way.
But what if Wentworth had escorted Anne home that day? What if they’d had that romantic, rainy-day walk? Perhaps that’s a Jane Austen Fan Fiction story for another time, but the painting I’ve included today is what I imagine that walk would have looked like . . . if they’d had it.
Near misses in romantic novels are classic. Misunderstandings and complications always arise. In this case, Austen uses clever plotting to bring Anne and Wentworth one step closer to reuniting.
What do you think Anne and Captain Wentworth would have talked about, if they’d had that walk in the rain?
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