Sarah K. Green
May 1, 2003
“A state of alteration, perhaps of improvement”: New Social Structures in Persuasion
In Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion, England is one large family with two distinct branches, the navy and the aristocratic upper class—it is no accident that the two large books consulted in the novel are the Baronetage and the Naval Lists. The naval family poses a threat to the aristocratic family; in fact, undertones of social instability riddle the text, through imagery of death, illness, and accident. The marriages of Anne Elliott, Louisa Musgrove, and Harriet Musgrove reveal a gentry which can only redeem itself through intermarriage with the professional meritocratic class, symbolically taking on their values of utility and social responsibility, and abandoning an idle aristocracy in decline. In Persuasion, the only novel of Austen’s that does not center around a landed estate, the letting of Kellynch Hall shows an aristocracy ousted from its familial seats of power, in favor of the fashionable world of Bath. Landed responsibility is given up for a hollow world of rented rooms and social display. The aristocracy is replaced in their hallowed hall by members of the new meritocracy, the Admiral and Mrs. Croft.
The English navy has been world-renowned from the time of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, and played a key role in the expansion of the British Empire; not only does the navy serve as an example of Englishness, it helped create that very notion of national identity. In Persuasion, Austen domesticates the navy, portraying it as one large brotherhood. In fact, Captain Wentworth cancels a trip to his biological brother in order to visit his injured friend, Captain Harville. Officers discuss transporting each other’s wives to and fro on their boats, as if they were family. Mentions of glorious exploits are limited, and even Wentworth’s story about almost being caught in a storm is brought back to the notice his drowning would have received in a newspaper, and the readers who would have read it in the comfort of their homes. This domestication of the navy as a group renders it an alternative family to the aristocratic class; on the one hand, there is the meritocratic, sea-faring navy, and on the other, the indolent, land-holding gentry.
The embodiment of this superficial class is the Elliott family. In using the Elliotts as her prime example of the aristocracy, a family that purchased its nobility relatively recently, Austen undercuts their claim to privilege. This family serves almost as a metonym for the larger aristocratic family in general. Rather than showing the aristocratic family tree as a pyramid of increasing status with increasing responsibility, Austen portrays it as a social food chain of the flatterers and the flattered. For example, when Mrs. Clay quits Bath at the end of the novel, Sir Walter and Elizabeth are “shocked and mortified…they had their great cousins, to be sure, to resort to for comfort; but they must long feel that to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in turn, is but a state of half enjoyment” (Persuasion 220). Unlike the landholders of other novels—Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Knightley of Emma, for example—Sir Walter does not fit with Burkean models of beneficial aristocratic paternalism. His connection to the land is limited to Elizabeth Elliott’s flower garden rather than a productive estate; he enjoys the privileges of wealth and status but without fulfilling his responsibilities. When pressed by Anne and Lady Russell to cut back on his spending, Sir Walter replies that it is impossible: he equates spending money with keeping up the image of a baronet. He links his nobility to consumerism, rather than to charity or education.
With only daughters to succeed him, Sir Walter’s family is petering out; his estate will ultimately pass to their cousin William. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth, has no marriage prospects—in her other novels, Austen shores up the aristocracy’s authority through marriage. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, the aristocracy is regenerated through Mr. Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth Bennet; his alternate love interest, the sickly Miss de Bourgh, seems a product of aristocratic incest, and a marriage between Mr. Darcy and his cousin would likely have been childless, weakening the aristocratic upper class. Yet sometimes Austen does use quasi-incestuous marriages to consolidate aristocratic authority—such as Fanny Price’s marriage to her cousin Edward in Mansfield Park, and such as Emma Woodhouse’s marriage to her brother-in-law and father-figure, Mr. Knightley in Emma. In both of these novels, as noted by critic Marilyn Butler, one of the spouses has the moral strength to guarantee that their marriage will be prudent and productive for society (Butler, 285). Butler, and scholar John Wiltshire, concur that the naval “family” in Persuasion poses no threat to the aristocratic one. Wiltshire argues, “The naval class…are gentry themselves, integrated and absorbed into the existing social order, as Benwick’s eventual marriage to Louisa Musgrove exemplifies…There is no suggestion that such a society is either despicable, or in decline” (Jane Austen and the Body, 158). However, in order to make this argument, Wiltshire must ignore the overwhelming imagery of familial sterility surrounding the aristocracy— Lady Dalrymple has only a daughter, and Sir Walter (who has three daughters and one still-born son) is unlikely to remarry, having rebuffed Mrs. Clay and, as noted by Gillian Beer, lives in a sterile pseudo-marriage with his eldest daughter, who is likewise unlikely to wed (Persuasion, xiv). Moreover, Austen’s society is not a matriarchal one; as Louisa Musgrove will become Louisa Benwick, it seems counterintuitive to argue that Captain Benwick would be the spouse to become “integrated and absorbed.” Furthermore, to argue that the naval family poses no threat to the aristocratic family ignores that Sir Walter does explicitly feel threatened: he objects to the navy as “being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction…One day last spring in town…I was to give place to…a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable looking personage you can imagine” (Persuasion, 19).
In Persuasion, Anne’s marriage to Captain Wentworth does not signify a regeneration of the aristocracy through the incorporation of fresh blood; rather, it shows the heroine escaping an aristocracy that is atrophying. The wife will be incorporated into the man’s world, more than he into hers, as the wordplay concerning marriage and name changing in the book suggests: William Elliott flirts with Anne Elliott by way of telling her he hopes her name never changes, while Wentworth’s first proposal is described as him “solicit[ing Anne] to change her name” (Persuasion 26). Anne Elliott, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, regrets her rejection of her suitor; but while Elizabeth Bennet looks at Pemberley and thinks, “And of this place, I might have been mistress” (Pride and Prejudice, 236), Anne meets Captain Wentworth’s friends and thinks, “These would have been all my friends” (Persuasion 88). Rather than focusing on a landed estate, Anne views a marriage with Wentworth as opening a door into a new, and preferable, social circle. Moreover, not only does Anne yearn for a more welcoming social circle, her acceptance of this circle comes at the cost of Kellynch Hall. She resists the advances posed by Mr. Elliott, likewise rejecting the landed estate he will one day inherit. Her entry into a new social circle comes hand in hand with her removal from her ancestral, aristocratic home.
Harriet and Louisa Musgrove likewise marry outside of their own landed gentry social circle, marrying a clergyman and a sea captain, respectively. These are useful trades—some social rank is useful, of course, but merit is extremely important. The Elliott and the Musgrove who do marry within their social set, Mary and Charles, wed each other; as Mary is a hypochondriac and Charles likes primarily to shoot things, this marriage is not exactly a celebration of life. Rather, it is yet another symbol of a gentry in decline, in contrast with the large, happy naval families of the Harvilles and the Crofts. Even the Elliott heir, William Elliott, does not actually care about his family, beyond the title and the estate they will bequeath him. While the family name does continue, through a distant cousin, the concept of the aristocratic family as a unit, bound by love, rings hollow.
The presence of death in this novel further imperils the stability of the social order, by splintering the feelings of coziness and safety one typically assumes of an Austen novel. Anne’s mother dies, Richard Musgrove dies, Fanny Harville dies, Mr. Smith dies; while these characters are all “off-stage,” they, and their deaths, are crucial to the progression of the novel’s plot. There are also a couple of key accidents—little Charles’s broken collarbone, and Louisa’s concussion—which attest, “on-stage,” to the fragility of human life. Sir Walter’s constant anxiety about aging further reflects uneasiness about the effects of the passage of time. The ill-health of Mrs. Smith and her sudden reversal of fortune—from governess to matron to invalid widow—also reveal the possibility of lurking social upheaval. In Persuasion, the body, and hence England’s social fabric, are frail. In many of the families of Persuasion, a hole has been left by the death of a family member; likewise, there are holes in the larger family of the English nation. In a novel in which unexpected accidents and unavoidable illnesses pop up suddenly from around each corner, no one can be long certain of his or her social position.
The progression of the family away from the land further signals a shift away from old social structures and towards new definitions of home and family. In the beginning of the novel, the home is what defines the family; the Elliotts form a family because they all live together in Kellynch Hall. But almost immediately, Austen begins to problematize this concept, moving Anne to Lady Russell’s house and Mary’s house on the Musgroves’ estate, before sending Sir Walter and Elizabeth to Bath and shuttling Anne off to Lyme. Not only have they all now left Kellynch Hall, they have also left the familiar, surrounding countryside. For the bulk of the novel, the action takes place in rented rooms or inns—each a type of home which is only temporarily borrowed and is not surrounded by any landed estate. This rootless existence ultimately reaches its apogee when, at the very end of the novel, Anne rejects her ancestral estate and it is implied that like Mrs. Croft, she will join her husband for voyages at sea. Over the course of the novel, Anne has moved progressively further from the landed gentry, until she finally leaves the land itself altogether. Rather than ratifying the aristocracy, Austen destabilizes their authority by removing them from their ancestral seat. Members of the “naval family” move in instead—they are better at being landholders than the aristocrats, making a number of repairs to the house (114), being kind to the tenants, and removing a number of mirrors from Sir Walter’s bedroom. Meanwhile, the aristocratic Elliott family has moved to rented rooms in Bath—both the Navy and the aristocracy are living in borrowed spaces, creating a sense of liminal existence and possible social upheaval. Ultimately, the world of Persuasion is a world in which both notions of family and home are reworked—family is no longer limited to blood relations, and home is no longer a landed estate. Rather, the concept of family has been expanded to include those friends who share moral values in common, while the idea of home is now detached from a specific, geographical place; in other words, home is simply where the heart is.
May 1, 2003
“A state of alteration, perhaps of improvement”: New Social Structures in Persuasion
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Wiltshire, John. Jane Austen and the Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. 1814. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Austen, Jane. Emma. 1816. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
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