2004 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
Lydia Newell
Eastern Washington University
Spokane, WA

“In Smooth Waters All Our Days”: Liminality and Mobility in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Challenging Captain Frederick Wentworth’s notions of women, Sophy Croft asserts that “we none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days”  (Austen 47).  Austen addresses this personal quest for freedom and mobility throughout her final novel.  Water—a classic image for movement and change—expresses the uncertainty of the culture that informed Persuasion. Political, economic, social, and philosophical upheavals surrounded its composition; critics often argue that the presence of the Royal Navy is a response to the “total change of conversation, opinion, and idea” that characterized the early nineteenth century  (Austen 28).  Images of the Navy, the sea, and of water itself crowd the text of Persuasion, creating an undercurrent of transition that flows through the narrative.

Austen, witnessing the turmoil of the French Revolution and its aftermath, was acutely aware of the perilous British infrastructure  (Tanner 247).  Persuasion is indeed a novel of “choppy waters.”  Injuries, disappointments, and displacements stir up the formerly calm waters of Anne Elliot’s life.  It is through these rough seas, however, that Anne charts her course to a greater sense of personal mobility and freedom. Displaced from her home at Kellynch Hall, Anne Elliot must navigate unfamiliar worlds in Uppercross, Lyme, and Bath.  A quality of liminality—a transient and flowing “in-betweenness”—dominates Anne’s progression toward a steady anchorage with Captain Wentworth.  One of Austen’s loneliest heroines, Anne is, as Matthew Arnold would have it, “on the sea of life enisled”  (Arnold 1).  She must make her way to firm ground and stable community before the novel’s end.  Kellynch, Uppercross, and Lyme are respective gateways to incrementally more complex worlds; the progression points the way to the bustling city.  Bath, as we will see, is the novel’s ultimate convergence of all social ranks.  Between the rural opening scenes and the urban dénouement, however, Anne’s personal sense of displacement mirrors that of a nation poised for drastic change.

Though the threat of violent revolution had subsided after the Napoleonic Wars, the British still feared invasion and even anarchy  (Tyler 43).  Persuasion directly engages the national importance of the Royal Navy in protecting the “scepter’d isle”—and the social results of such importance.  Paradoxically, the Navy may significantly alter the very society of the nation it defends.  The economic prosperity of men like Admiral Croft disrupts the system of inherited rank: “Wealthy naval commanders are particularly worth attending to,” remarks John Shepherd  (Austen 13).  The enduring economic message is that the Navy is the source of an emerging “alternative society” that will yield greater flexibility and opportunity (Tanner 248).

Mobility implies such flexibility, potential, freedom, and movement.  Austen explores several types of mobility in the context of the shifting society.  “In Persuasion she uses [the Navy] as the model of a system of promotion by merit, to contrast with the old-world system of heredity that Sir Walter Elliot considers sacred”  (McMaster 121).  For the seafarer, merit and effort are the keys to financial success and autonomy; Wentworth’s dialogue is repeatedly framed in terms of acquiring “liberty” and “independence”  (Austen 39, 111).  For men like Wentworth, mobility is an earned privilege.  He has “been used to the gratification of believing [him]self to earn every blessing that [he] enjoyed.”  He valued “honorable toils and rewards”  (165).  His mobility is contingent upon the professional opportunity to make his own way in the world.

Suspicious of this freedom, Sir Walter Elliot’s very objection to the Navy is that it “brings persons of obscure birth into undue distinction”  (14).  Yet the era of Persuasion seems to be characterized by a general recognition that the ruling classes had failed.  The “smooth waters” of inherited wealth are “in a state of stagnation”  (119).  When Anne marries Captain Wentworth, she “joins the active, hard-working, and prosperous pseudo-gentry rank she has learned to admire, a class of people who work for their living and know how to live within their means”  (Copeland 144).  This pseudo-gentry is a potential catalyst for the revivification of society and the socioeconomic tide turning toward prudent prosperity.  Admiral Croft, occupying Kellynch Hall for most of the novel, has become a worthy replacement for Sir Walter Elliot:  indeed, Anne feels “that Kellynch Hall had passed into better hands than its owners”  (Austen 82).  After all, for the nineteenth-century author, the novel’s province is to “represent people in their social roles, and to be precise about the differences between them”  (McMaster 128). Austen captures this conflict between old and new, between birth and merit, but is also precise about the differences of mobility and social role, particularly with regard to gender, in the liminal culture of Persuasion.

For Anne Elliot, liminal existence has been a matter of “knowing [her] own nothingness”  (Austen 28).  Anne spends the novel combating an initial image of malleability:  at Kellynch, “her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way”  (Austen 5).  She is so adaptable to others that, at Uppercross, Anne is everyone’s confidant, while no one is hers  (30). Captain Wentworth ascribes “weakness and timidity” to Anne’s former conduct  (41).  Anne, with disappointment, “saw how her character was considered,” by Wentworth and by others, as “too yielding and indecisive”  (59-60).   This perceived uncertainty of demeanor severely limits Anne’s social mobility until she takes a more active role in the drama around her.  Yet there are ripples of change when she travels to Uppercross and Lyme.

At Uppercross, Austen renews a defunct connection between Anne and the Navy.  Mrs. Croft—an important alternative to Lady Russell—is, for Anne, an ideal of feminine mobility.  Mrs. Croft is remarkably well traveled, “having been almost as much at sea as her husband”  (Austen 33).  She is locatively and metaphorically mobile and is not limited by Lady Russell’s unfortunate “prejudice on the side of ancestry”  (9).   Her connections to the Admiral and to Captain Wentworth reinforce the “wholly different scheme of values” that the Navy represents  (Tanner 248).  She has “no distrust of herself, and no doubts of what to do; without any approach to coarseness, however, or any want of good humor”  (Austen 33).  She is a striking, shrewd, intelligent counterpart to her husband, often involved equally in household business, whether it be driving their gig or evaluating Kellynch Hall  (62, 16).  Watching Mrs. Croft, Anne discovers a new precedent for life as a Navy wife.

Contrasting with Mrs. Croft’s positive mobility, Anne sees the results of uncontrolled autonomy at Lyme.  Louisa Musgrove’s “modern mind and manners” and “character of decision and firmness” have impressed Captain Wentworth  (28, 59).  This excess of “strong mind,” however, unmitigated by concern for consequences, culminates in Louisa’s grave injury when she is “determined” to jump off the Cobb wall  (74).  Wentworth later recalls that, at Lyme, he  “had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will”  (161).  Louisa, in this obstinacy, is only a prey to impulse.  Anne steps forward as “the height of perfection” in her combination of “fortitude and gentleness”  (161). At Lyme, Captain Wentworth reveals his respect for her abilities (“no one so capable as Anne!”) and the stage is set for the final sequences in Bath.  Her liminality and marginality diminish as she becomes better prepared to reach her potential as an urban, mobile individual.

After a brief return to Kellynch, Anne travels to Bath.  Persuasion is the only Austen novel to end happily in an urban setting.1 The city is the intersection between the types and degrees of mobility that Anne has witnessed throughout Persuasion.  Marilyn Butler construes Persuasion as a “nineteenth-century novel of the inner life” enveloped in “an eighteenth-century novel in search of a centre”  (Butler 227).  Yet Captain Harville establishes Anne as that centre; in conversation with her, he is “in good anchorage”  (Austen 156).  Anne is the center of consciousness for the remainder of the novel, establishing personal mobility through a prolonged firmness of ethical code tempered with her sweetness of mind.  She is “ashamed” at her father’s deference toward people in whom she can discern “no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding”  (99).  Her inclinations toward a merit-based society resonate with the kind of community that the Navy represents  (Tanner 248).  Anne’s idea of “good company” is not based on rank or wealth but “is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation”  (99).  Anchoring this alternative conception of true social happiness, Anne finds this “good company” with the Crofts and with Captain Wentworth, away from the titled elite.

The extremes of such class structures become fully visible in Bath, particularly in the female characters—from the dowager Lady Dalrymple to Mrs. Rooke.  Nurse Rooke, Mrs. Smith, and Mrs. Clay are all striking examples of potentially subversive mobility cloaked in financial immobility.  Reduced to poverty by the foolish spending and lending of her husband, and kept in poverty by Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Smith is “a poor, infirm, helpless widow”  (101).  Critics are divided about her motivation; is she a devious, scheming woman whose sole object is the recovery of her fortune?  Or is she a supportive friend who has the delicacy not to malign Anne’s potential fiancé?  Either way, by dealing in Nurse Rooke’s secondhand gossip, Mrs. Smith exercises a sort of vicarious mobility  (Galperin 232).  The conniving Mrs. Clay, though a lawyer’s daughter, and therefore low in Lady Russell’s hierarchy, also mingles with the Elliot upper crust as she exerts a social mobility founded upon “the art of pleasing”  (Austen 11).   Substituted for Anne in Bath, Mrs. Clay ascends to temporary residence in Camden Place.2 Her schemes indicate a negative striving for mobility.

How, then, can we distinguish between “positive” or “negative” personal mobility in Persuasion?  Austen does find a gulf between manipulative cunning and honest perseverance.  The paradigm seems to fall along gender lines:  men like Captain Wentworth can aim for material mobility by taking up a profession, but women become active managers of the family income.  “While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy” at Kellynch  (7).  Lady Russell, Anne herself, Mrs. Croft, Mrs. Harville, and even Mrs. Smith are influential and competent in dealing with finances.  Even Nurse Rooke, though “not in genteel society . . . knows and transmits more of what goes on there than people who are”  (127).  Unable to attain financial independence through professional excellence, women in Persuasion exert autonomy by domestic and intellectual mobility.  Mrs. Croft, after all, insists upon women being “rational creatures” instead of “fine ladies”  (47).  As rational creatures, women from Mrs. Croft to Nurse Rooke retain power and influence in alternative ways.

Financial and situational immobility are concerns for these women.  As Anne reminds Captain Harville, “We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.  […]  You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world”  (155).  In a speech slightly reminiscent of Kate’s famous Taming of the Shrew finale, Anne acknowledges the essential female domestic identity of the age.[3]  Anne is not necessarily appealing for the physical mobility she assigns to men, but rather she affirms a distinct female mobility for women.  Anne finds strength not in the physical power of her actions, but in her sense of self-worth based upon constancy and integrity.

No longer liminal, no longer “enisled,” Anne is the novel’s final narrative anchor.  Her integrity reverberates through the final chapters.  The Wentworths’ ultimate mobility is founded upon “maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune”  (165).  They may live “unshackled and free” from the system of inherited status  (111).  The novel’s waves of change signal the approach of potential new society.  In Persuasion’s world, “human worth is to be judged by standards better and more enduring than social status”  (McMaster 129).  Ruffling the stagnant waters of material complacency and hierarchy, Austen predicts smooth sailing ahead in the Wentworths’ new life together.


1. London, the ultimate city for Austen, usually denotes danger or underhand action. Lydia and Wickham escape to London in Pride and Prejudice. The city is the background for Marianne Dashwood’s disappointment in Sense and Sensibility. Even in Emma, Frank Churchill disappears to London on a secretive errand. Other cities are not exempt from negative portraits either. In Mansfield Park, Portsmouth teems with squalor. Even in Northanger Abbey, Bath is an uncongenial place for Catherine Morland, endangered socially by the presumptuous and boorish John Thorpe.

2. As the final chapters demonstrate, however, Mrs. Clay has even more social mobility than we suspect; though she has devoted herself to the Elliot household, she has also captivated Mr. William Elliot, providing for herself materially in any contingency.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “To Marguerite—Continued.” The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Victorian Prose and Poetry. Ed. Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom. Oxford: Oxford, 1973.

Austen, Jane. Emma. New York:Hyperion, 1996.

-----. Mansfield Park. New York:Doubleday, 1997.

-----. Northanger Abbey. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

-----. Persuasion. New York: Norton, 1995.

-----. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Norton, 2001.

-----. Sense and Sensibility. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

Copeland, Edward.“Money.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge, England: Cambridge, 1997. 131-148.

Galperin, William H. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania, 2003.

Johnson, Claudia L. “The Unfeudal Tone of the Present Day.” Persuasion: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Patricia Meyer Spacks. New York: Norton, 1995. 286-307.

McMaster Juliet. “Class.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge, England: Cambridge, 1997. 115-130.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew New York: Penguin, 1998.

Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1986.

Tyler, Natalie. The Friendly Jane Austen. New York: Penguin, 1999.