2004 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
How the Rise of the Professional Class Affects Characters in Persuasion
In Persuasion, Jane Austen presents the tug-of-war between the rural traditionalists who inherit or marry into their rank and fortune, and the urban newcomers who relocate and work their way up the societal ladder. At the center of this struggle, Austen develops the love story between Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. One is a member of a slowly fading, noble and landed family, the epitome of the traditional, country way of life. The other is a member of the progressive navy, a highly mobile community of individuals making their own worth and fortune. In bringing together Anne and Wentworth, Austen accomplishes not only the marriage of two souls, but also of two ways of life. The rise of the professional class threatens traditionalists like Sir Elliot, allows Anne to leave the confines of society, and empowers people of no connection, such as Wentworth.
The reader first experiences the conflict between old and new through Sir Walter Elliot’s eyes. Forced by his spendthrift habits to lease Kellynch, Sir Walter is belligerent and self-righteous. When his lawyer suggests a man of the navy as a possible tenant, Sir Walter throws a fit. He is particularly insulted by sailors because they are prematurely aged by salt and wind, “exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen” (21). Although the vanity of the “conceited, silly” Sir Walter is a source of amusement throughout the novel, it also illustrates a key difference between the aristocracy who can afford genteel, protected indoor lives, and the sailors who toil in the harshest elements for their country and their fortune (6). Appearances aside, Sir Walter’s main objection to the navy is that it is “the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of” (20). The men of the navy disrupt Sir Walter’s neat, organized, hierarchical world and attain dreams which should be forbidden. Sir Walter goes so far as to declare, “It is a pity [sailors] are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin’s age” (21). The tacit hope, of course, is that if sailors were “knocked on the head” before coming of age, they could never gain the wealth and status that is so threatening to Sir Walter.
In all the uproar against sailors, it is notable that Anne alone recognizes that “sailors work hard enough for their comforts” (20). Jane Austen’s personal bias towards men of the navy likely comes from her own experience. Two of Austen’s brothers were in the navy, one of them attaining Fleet Admiral ranking (Beer ix). Anne’s acceptance of sailors, despite her father’s bellowing, is an early indication of an open mind. Although Anne comes from a rural, traditional family, she obviously thinks and acts very differently from her father and sisters. In many ways, Persuasion follows Anne’s movement away from the society her family represents. As critic Tony Tanner notes, “Anne Elliot is no longer of the old nor yet does she belong to the new” (181). Austen’s England was no longer “what it was, nor yet what it was to become” (Tanner 180). Anne, like England itself, is caught between two contrasting worlds.
The rise of the navy also affects how characters relate to land. In the rural life of inherited estates, property is the essential measure of one’s rank. In a sense, sailors dare to deny property’s importance when they forsake land in favor of the sea. For months or years at a time, sailors live without regard to property at all. What is even more striking is that, upon returning to land, someone like Admiral Croft can become established at an estate like Kellynch without “earning” it in the traditional sense. While discussing Admiral Croft with his lawyer, Sir Walter states,“You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property” (24). Although Sir Walter is loathe to admit it, property is no longer the gold standard by which one measures a gentleman. The men of the navy are able to form communities of their own through land-free channels. The ragtag assortment of friends that surrounds Anne may cause the reader “to wonder just what the common bond might be which holds this assemblage together. Certainly it is not the land. With the possible exception of Lady Russell, [all have] temporary accommodations ranging in scale from the grandeur of Kellynch-hall to cramped lodgings in Bath” (Ruoff 61). As Tony Tanner points out, Jane Austen “was turning from the landed society to a group whose responsibilities are to each other and to the country but not to the existing social structure” (185-6). Persuasion presents new communities determined by friendship or occupation rather than birthright. The sailing community is “kin by salt water, not blood” (Terry xiii).
The growing effect of the world at sea is demonstrated by the nautical terms that permeate the novel. Even when the events of the story stay rooted on land, the language of the text returns to the sea. There are subtle references such as “wreck” and “burthen” as well as direct references such as “sloop,” “privateers,” and “frigate” (8,16, 61). When Lady Russell first persuades Anne to reject Wentworth, it is couched in terms of how Anne would be “sunk” by such an alliance (27). When the star-crossed lovers finally do reunite, Anne may indeed be “sunk,” but not in the way Lady Russell predicted. At the novel’s climax, when Wentworth writes his love letter, he says, “I am in very good anchorage here’ (smiling at Anne)” (219). Anne acts as the anchor for everyone around her. Although she doesn’t fully realize it, she is fixed and strong. It is a sea-change from the malleability that, many years prior, led to the ill-fated decision to reject true love.
The navy allows Wentworth to become socially acceptable in both the new and old societies. At the beginning of the novel, the traditional society deems that Wentworth has no worth, a nobody with “nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence...no connections” (26-27). However, with time, Wentworth rises through the naval ranks and makes his fortune, allowing him to rise through the social ranks as well. “Captain Wentworth, with five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him, was no longer nobody” (232). Here is an important difference between the rural life of inherited estates and the increase in urbanization and mobility. Wentworth is an active participant in his own status, his “merit and activity” place him higher in society, not the luck of his birth or a strategic marriage. By the end of the novel, the self-made gentlemen sailors stand in stark contrast to Mr. Elliot, a gentleman of the traditional society, who schemes and marries his way into wealth.
The success of the sea-going life is evident throughout the novel, as Austen contrasts traditional characters against members of the professional class. For example, she colorfully presents the “heartless elegance” and “general air of oblivion” of Anne’s father and sisters (211, 30). These harsh caricatures stand in direction opposition to the positive characteristics of the sailors, such as the poetic intellect of Captain Benwick, the abiding loyalty of Captain Harville, and the enduring love of Captain Wentworth. The bickering between Charles and his eternally complaining wife Mary is also in contrast to the marriage of the Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who “seemed particularly attached and happy” (59). Mrs. Croft also provides testimony of how successful the sea-going life can be, for women as well as men. The “mobility of habitation” is evident in her descriptions of living aboard with her husband (Ruoff 61). “I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies...I can safely say, that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship,” she tells her companions (65-6). Mrs. Croft has had the luxury of exotic locales and independence without sacrificing intimacy with her husband. In many ways, her marriage to Admiral Croft provides a template for Anne and Wentworth.
Throughout the novel, there are examples of ways in which the sailors, as metaphors for the increase in mobility and urbanization, supplant more traditional ways of life. Sir Walter’s beloved record of families, Debrett’s Baronetage, quickly loses ground to the navy list, an official register of officers and ships. The Miss Musgroves, for example, eagerly thumb through the list, looking for the Asp and the Laconia, ships Wentworth commanded (60). Their excitement over finding ships parallels Sir Walter’s excitement over finding his own name; it is as if ship names have taken the place of surnames.
The rise of the professional class slowly affects and changes the characters of Persuasion. By nature, man is fearful of change, and reluctant to give up his own methods in favor of foreign ideas. This is underscored by one of Austen’s humorous and poignant aphorisms from the novel, “One man’s ways may be good as another’s, but we all like our own best” (118). However, society slowly progresses whether we will it or not; as Jane Austen was fully aware. In writing Persuasion, Austen presents a society in flux, a gradual change from a slow, predictable way of life into something more hurried, unpredictable, and uncertain. The novel ends with foreshadowing of trials to come; “the dread of a future war all that could dim [Anne’s] sunshine” (236). Although Anne “gloried in being a sailor’s wife,” the new society will have tribulations of its own, and “pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (236).
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Beer, Gillian. Introduction and Notes. Persuasion by Jane Austen. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. ix-xxxiii.
Ruoff, Gene W. “Anne Elliot’s Dowry: Reflections on the Ending of Persuasion.” Modern Critical Views: Jane Austen. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 57-68.
Tanner, Tony. “In Between - Anne Elliot Marries a Sailor and Charlotte Heywood Goes to the Seaside.” Jane Austen in a Social Context. Ed. David Monaghan. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981. 180-194.
Terry, Judith. Introduction. Persuasion by Jane Austen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ix.