True Worth and Second Chances: Social Flexibility in Persuasion
by Joyce Lee
The intricate dance and maneuvers of English society during the Regency period characterize all of Jane Austen’s writings. However, in Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel, the conventional social order shows signs of subtle but significant change in terms of increasing mobility. This motif of societal evolution affects the development of other themes throughout the novel, as well as the reader’s perception of each of the individual characters; in a larger sense, the new social mobility shapes the fundamental message of Persuasion, distinguishing it as the most optimistic of all of her works.
The novel opens with a description of Sir Walter Elliot; immediately, his obsession with lineage and looks becomes clear: “Sir Walter Elliot… never took up any book but the Baronetage….Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter’s character”(1,2). Sir Walter’s shallowness exposes the faults in a rigid and unchanging social ladder based on birth alone: people as ridiculous as Sir Walter and his equally shallow daughter Elizabeth are still considered persons of consequence simply due to Sir Walter’s baronetage. Gentle birth, however, cannot save Sir Walter or Elizabeth from imprudence or triviality, and the once strict rules of society that originally furnished their importance correspondingly causes them to atrophy, and they deteriorate into absurd and vain people. Moreover, the strict rules of society become increasingly flexible, which allows Sir Walter to receive his just desserts. Due to Sir Walter’s thoughtless spending, the Elliots are forced to rent out Kellynch Hall, and the consequences of Sir Walter’s profligacy are painful: “He was not only to quit his home, but to see it in the hands of others; a trial of fortitude, which stronger heads than Sir Walter’s have found too much”(35). Sir Walter’s inadequacy as a baronet produces harsh results for the Elliot family, but no more than appropriate for Sir Walter’s lavish spending.
The new justice of the increasingly mobile social system becomes even more apparent in evaluating the tenants of Kellynch Hall, Admiral Croft and his wife. The Crofts are amiable, sensible people and indeed, Anne must acknowledge that “she had in fact so high an opinion of the Crofts… that however sorry and ashamed for the necessity of the removal, she could not but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay, and that Kellynch Hall had passed into better hands than its owners”(148). The increasing flexibility of the English social system allows for mobility both ways; ascendancy to higher status for the deserving, namely the Crofts, and a shameful descent for the undeserving, namely the Elliots, excepting Anne. Austen underscores the ironic yet precise justice of new flexibility of society; gentle birth can no longer protect ridiculousness and imprudence, while amiability, sensibility, and happy manners allow those of lower rank to rise to worthier circles. Consequently, a baronet and his daughter may end up preening over “two walls, perhaps thirty feet asunder”(161), while an Admiral and his wife may end up living at a baronet’s estate.
However, Austen does not advocate a complete upheaval of the social system. In fact, she defends the values and principles of the social structure: being committed to one‘s family, conducting one’s self with gentility and amiability, remaining within one’s proper social class. However, her portrayal of the Crofts and the Elliots does advocate a new definition of the different social classes, one based on worth of character rather than birth; a meritocracy, rather than an aristocracy. She highlights the advantages of such a new definition of class by tracing Anne’s interactions with different sectors of society in Bath and in Lyme. At Bath, Anne reluctantly follows her father’s re-acquaintance with their high-ranking cousins, the Dalrymples. However, she becomes disgusted with their society in finding that in her cousins “there was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding”(174). Anne’s distaste for these supposedly superior yet awkward and stupid people contrasts sharply with her experience at Lyme, where she meets the Harvilles: “Captain Harville… was a perfect gentleman…. Mrs. Harville… seemed however to have the same good feelings”(119). Indeed, Anne finds their company so charming that she feels regret when she considers that “These [people] would have been all my friends”(119) if she had accepted Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage. Through Anne’s judgments of the people around her, the reader finds that indeed, Austen’s commitment to gradations of class remains as strong as ever; however, what changes is how those gradations are defined. Instead of blood or estate, individual merit of character should determine social class. Significantly, this new pattern of society only becomes clear in the cities, in Lyme and in Bath; at the country estates, possession of land may compensate for weakness of character, as is the case for Charles and Mary Musgrove and as was originally the case for Sir Walter. However, in an urban environment where greatness of residence can no longer hide deficiency of character, even the great Dalrymples must be exposed for their true poor natures, and consequently compare unfavorably with cordiality and warmth of the supposedly lower-class Harvilles. Therefore, the shift towards societal mobility corresponds to a similar shift from large estates to the equalizing environment of the city and town.
Most importantly, the increase in social mobility allows Anne access to love, friendship, and happiness in a fashion that could not have occurred under previous stricter conventions. Anne utilizes this new freedom when she calls on her old friend, Mrs. Smith, in Bath. Anne finds Mrs. Smith in a desperate situation: her husband’s death leaves Mrs. Smith poor, crippled, and friendless. Despite Mrs. Smith’s descent in society, Anne renews their friendship. The blossoming of Anne and Mrs. Smith’s relationship owes a good deal to Anne‘s strength of character, but the fact that the two are able to maintain a relationship at all is due in part to the flexible nature of society in the city. In the country, especially under the older, stricter rules of class, their friendship would have been nearly impossible due to the huge disparity in rank. Austen further illuminates the possible advantages of bending class rules for the sake of friendship when Mrs. Smith exposes Mr. Elliot’s true nature to Anne: “Oh! He is black at heart, hollow and black!”(227). The rewards of Anne’s willingness to move past the restraints of class and rank for the sake of a worthy friend illustrate the greater advantages of social flexibility.
However, the true significance of the flexible social structure lies in allowing both Captain Wentworth and Anne a second chance at happiness. Originally separated by differences in wealth and consequence, the two parted, albeit regretfully. However, the ability of the Navy to elevate the status and wealth of those deserving enough changes the situation entirely: “He was now esteemed quite worthy to address the daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet, who had not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him…”(279). Although Austen acknowledges the importance of social structure, she also demonstrates that such a structure must remain flexible, allowing the greater forces of social justice, friendship, and true love to prevail in personal relationships. The truer pleasure that springs from the matching of temperament rather than fortune becomes apparent in comparing the unions of Charles and Mary Musgrove with that of Anne and Captain Wentworth. Although a relatively placid marriage, the hysteria and flightiness of Mary’s nature matched with the easygoing but rather indolent personality of Charles paints a negative picture of unions dictated by society. Rather than a mark of consequence, the Musgroves' estate at Uppercross symbolizes torpor and even stagnation. On the other hand, the match between Anne’s sweetness and strength of character and Captain Wentworth’s kindness and gallantry shows the full possibilities of true felicity in marriages dictated by love and esteem. The conclusion of the novel suggests that Captain Wentworth and Anne have decided to travel in the same fashion as the Crofts, but the utter happiness of Anne and Captain Wentworth demonstrate how stability and security in matrimony are more firmly rooted in true companionship rather than any physical home.
The novel begins with a the picture of a decaying and pathetic family, simultaneously elevated above their worth and made ridiculous by the rules of an increasingly irrelevant rural social structure. It concludes with a picture of real felicity between two admirable people, unbound to estate or to any trivial social rules save for those of honor and understanding. Although Persuasion still contains Austen’s characteristic subjects of class relations and proper matches, the marked trend towards increasing social mobility gives new meanings to Austen’s social commentary: true nobility and consequence arrive from greatness of character; each individual ultimately receives what he or she deserves based on the worth of his or her nature, instead of birth; and finally, friendship, loyalty, and love must ultimately triumph over all irrelevant obstacles put up by society. The fundamental supremacy of these nobler powers mark Persuasion as one of Austen’s most romantic and optimistic works.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion, 1818. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1996.