Tea and Sympathy, Part 1


Tea and Sympathy, Part 1

Michele Larrow

At our tea on May 6, we will discuss sympathy in Persuasion.  The following is a short discussion of sympathy in Jane Austen’s time to get you thinking about the topic.  If you have not read Persuasion, we will provide excerpts of the book for the sections we will discuss.  We hope you will join us.  Please see our Events page for more information about the tea https://jasnaewanid.org/events/ .

The most moral characters in Jane Austen’s novels balance their emotions and reason. Sympathy, which engages both “head and heart”, is central to moral relationships.  In Persuasion, when Anne Elliot leaves Kellynch to spend time with her sister Mary and the Musgrove family, she muses (in free indirect discourse) that she “must now submit to feel that another lesson in the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our circle, was become necessary for her; . . . she had expected rather more curiosity and sympathy than she found” from the Musgroves (42).  Anne next reflects on her relationship with Lady Russell, thinking “with heightened gratitude of the extraordinary blessing of having one such truly sympathising friend as Lady Russell” (42).  In Persuasion, Anne is the character who is adept at reading others’ emotions and sympathizing with their experiences, yet others rarely show her sympathy in return.  When she broke her engagement to Captain Wentworth, years before the start of the novel, he did not understand her reasons and feelings, felt “ill-used”, and left the country (28). Over the course of the novel, Captain Wentworth has to progress from anger and resentment about the past to acceptance and full sympathy with Anne before they can re-unite and have a successful marriage.

Sympathy in Austen’s time was a concept that had broader meaning than today’s usage– in some ways it might be thought of as what we would call empathy–and the philosopher Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), which he significantly revised during Austen’s lifetime in 1790, is an excellent resource to help us explore what “sympathy” meant to Jane Austen*.  “Sympathy is defined by Smith as our ability imaginatively to feel others’ emotions (9-10) as they would experience the situation, changing ‘persons and characters’ with others (317)” (Larrow 3; also Fricke 10).  Christel Fricke uses TMS to explore how Elizabeth and Darcy learn to treat each other as equals and eventually love each other through engaging in “a sympathetic process, an interactive process of moral learning” (1). When we have sympathy for others, we not only feel their emotions, we judge their emotions to be proper (Smith 10-23; also Fricke 10).  In social interaction, we want others to approve of our emotions, so we tend to moderate our display of feeling to get the approval of others.  Those who are judging others’ emotions are supposed to try to “increase their sympathetic emotions that they feel for others to be virtuous” (Larrow 5).  Austen’s novels show the challenges in fully understanding another person’s emotions and point of view and judging their behavior properly.

Like all Austen novels, characters in Persuasion vary in their capacity to be sympathetic to others. Elizabeth and Sir Walter are cold and uncaring about anyone else.  The Musgroves are well meaning and warm, but can’t imagine what it is like for Anne to leave her house.  In contrast, Admiral and Mrs. Croft are able to imagine Anne’s experience returning to Kellynch for a visit and offer sympathy.  Captain Wentworth is an interesting case and Austen has to portray him as both a warm person capable of caring, but initially unsympathetic to Anne.  He is shown as sympathetic to Mrs. Musgrove about her grief over her son, even though he experienced the son as trouble when he was on his ship.  His actions in caring for Captain Benwick after telling him his fiancé has died show sympathy and profound compassion. Yet at the beginning of the novel, his actions to Anne are unfeeling and cold.  He is probably unaware of the pain that he causes her by his treatment, but she feels the pain nonetheless. Through the course of the novel, Anne tries to infer what he is feeling for her, especially if he feels sympathy for her and forgiveness for the past.  By the end of the book, when he writes his letter to Anne, Captain Wentworth recognizes her full worth and finally can sympathize with her feelings—that is why he is “half agony, half hope” (237), because he finally sees her moral and emotional superiority to all other women and fears he has lost her.  Once Captain Wentworth is a “truly sympathising friend” (42) to Anne, they are able to marry.

* Both Larrow and Fricke review specific examples from the novels that resonate with the writings of Adam Smith in TMS. Larrow focuses on Mr. Knightley’s development of sympathy for Emma and Fricke explores how many characters in Pride and Prejudice seem to derive from Smith’s discussions of vanity and pride, as well as exploring how Darcy and Elizabeth both change morally through interacting with the other.  Please see below for links to the two articles.  If you are interested in reading Adam Smith, you can find TMS online for free.

At our tea on May 6, we will explore how Jane Austen shows the changes in Captain Wentworth’s feelings of sympathy for Anne–how he comes to understand her better and thus judge her feelings appropriately.  We will focus on several scenes that show how Anne infers Captain Wentworth’s feelings toward and sympathy for her, from his behavior (the pages refer to the Chapman edition).  We will have eight small groups discuss a scene, using a couple of questions to stir debate, and then present to the larger group.  You do not need to have read the book; we will provide a copy of the selected pages for each group.  After the tea, I will write up a summary of the discussion we had for those who are not able to attend the tea and post it on the website.  

Here are the scenes we will discuss:

  1. When Anne and Captain Wentworth first meet at Uppercross and his comments afterwards that Mary shares with Anne (59-61).
  2. When Captain Wentworth takes Anne’s nephew off her back (80-81).
  3. When Anne overhears Captain Wentworth talking to Louisa and then when he helps her into the carriage (87-91).
  4. Captain Wentworth’s talk about Anne after Louisa falls and then the carriage ride to Uppercross (114-117).
  5. When Anne sees Captain Wentworth the first time in Bath in Molland’s (175-178).
  6. At the concert, the discussion between Anne and Captain Wentworth (181-186).
  7. At the White Hart, when Captain Wentworth overhears Anne talking to Captain Harville and writes his letter (236-238).
  8. The discussion between Captain Wentworth and Anne after they become engaged again and the night of the party at Anne’s house ( 240-247).

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion. Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Fricke, Christel. “The Challenges of Pride and Prejudice: Adam Smith and Jane Austen on Moral Education.”  Revue International de Philosophe 269 (2014): 343-372. Retrieved from http://www.christelfricke.no/publications, pp. 1-21.

Professor Fricke has kindly allowed me to include the PDF of her article see below:


Larrow, Michele.  “’Could He Even Have Seen into Her Heart’:  Mr. Knightley’s Development of Sympathy”, Persuasions Online, 37 (2016): 1-14.  Available at: http://www.jasna.org/publications/persuasions-online/vol37no1/larrow/

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. MacFie. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.  A free e-book of TMS is available at:  http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS.html