Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 39-42
Jane Austen’s Persuasion and the French Revolution
School of English, Queen’s University of Belfast, BTM INN, Northern Ireland
It is a commonplace of Austen criticism that Jane Austen ignores contemporary history in her novels, placing her characters and her action within such narrow sociological, historical and geographical limits that most of “real life” is excluded.1 Whatever accusations may be made on this count with respect to her first five novels, Persuasion is obviously an exception, at least on one score. The inception of the action is firmly dated in parentheses: “(The summer of 1814.)”2 The special role of the naval personages in the novel is assured historically by this date: their recent active service against France in defence of the nation determines the eligibility of Captain Wentworth as a husband. The novel’s historical context is therefore precise and explicit – as thoroughly placed by contemporary references as many an historical novel.
Modern criticism has attempted to locate Austen more precisely in the historical context. One school identifies her as a highly conscious social historian: another presents a reading of the novels in the light of broad contemporary ideologies.3 Even these critics, however, concluded that technically the striking thing about her novels is indeed that they do not mention the French Revolution and barely allude to the Napoleonic Wars.4 Writing a book entitled, Jane Austen and the French Revolution, Warren Roberts assumes that “she made a deliberate choice not to discuss directly the events that so disturbed her world.”5
The repercussions of the Revolution on the Austen family were direct. Her cousin Eliza was married to the French Comte de Feuillide, whose attempts to secure his property during the Revolution and to move permanently to England were the matter of family correspondence. Eliza was staying with the Austens at Steventon at the height of the Terror, from which she wrote of “the tragical events of which France has of late been the theatre.” Accused of conspiring against the Republic, the Comte de Feuillide was guillotined on 22 February 1794; in 1797 Eliza married Jane’s brother Henry.6
Thus Jane Austen had immediate personal contact with the drama and suffering of the French Revolution, but did not choose to make it the subject of direct comment. As Tony Tanner notes, references to political phenomena such as the French and Industrial Revolutions, or the Napoleonic Wars, enter into her novels in the guise of “allusion … sometimes so discrete or subtle that many generations of readers and critics did not notice them.”7 The contention of this note is that one such unobtrusive, subversive allusion to the French Revolution, which has escaped the vigilance of critics, occurs on the first page of Persuasion.
This presents the reader with a hypothetical Debrett entry:
ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL
Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester; by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, Nov. 5, 1789; Mary, born Nov. 20, 1791. (p. 3)
The third Elliot child seems to have disappeared from view in critical readings of the novel, although as a son he would have been able to prevent the estate’s passing into the hands of Mr. William Walter Elliot.8 The date of his birth (and death) has likewise escaped notice. The date 1789 on its own may be merely determined by the two-yearly intervals of Elliot births. But his birthday is the fifth of November, surely a deliberately provocative date to choose.
Roberts’ s comprehensive study charts the development of Austen’s political opinions in the light of the historical events with which she was most closely associated, and critics have argued for her specific ideological affinities with the conservatism of Burke.9 The family connection with Warren Hastings would certainly have drawn the novelist’s attention to his great adversary,10 even if the Reflections on the Revolution in France and on Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event were not widely known. If Austen had actually read Burke,11 she could not have ignored what the “Certain Societies in London” to which his title refers were, nor why he objected to their “Proceedings … Relative to that Event.” The casus belli is clearly spelt out:
On the forenoon of the 4th of November last [i.e. 1789], Doctor Richard Price, a non-conforming minister of eminence, preached at the dissenting meeting-house of the Old Jewry, to his club or society, a very extraordinary miscellaneous sermon, in which there are some good moral and religious sentiments, and not ill-expressed, mixed up in a sort of porridge of various political opinions and reflections: but the revolution in France is the grand ingredient in the cauldron.12
Burke is of course referring to A Discourse on the Love of our Country, Delivered on Nov. 4th, 1789, at a Meeting-House in the Old Jewry, To the Society for Commemorating the Revolution in Great Britain,13 the initial spark in the conflagration which was to be the English debate on the French revolution, since Burke’s reply to Price was followed by Paine’s Rights of Man: being an Answer to Mr Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution and so on.14
Burke’s readers registered the occasion of his famous response and perhaps even its date. It appears likely that Austen deliberately remembered it in the birthday of the Elliot son and heir, while shifting the day by one.15 The fifth of November, Guy Fawkes Day, is an even more appropriate date, recalling an earlier subversion of the English state.
Of course Guy Fawkes did not succeed in blowing up Westminster, and the Elliot heir is still-born. Austen’s reference to radical politics is subdued, suppressed. Critics have argued that Persuasion marks a shift away from her endorsement of the status quo, to criticism and even rejection of contemporary society.16 It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that Austen’s rejection of the aristocracy (or at least of the aristocratic role in an hierarchical society) in Persuasion is not a crude, sudden gesture toward egalitarianism. But her satire on the vanity and worthlessness of the Elliots, and their aristocratic relatives Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret, is tart and unrelieved by humour. The sailors who people the novel, and the country in this interval of peace, represent a meritocracy; they have earned social prestige in their defence of the nation against Napoleon, and continue to deserve it by community spirit, as “that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (p. 252).
The Elliots’ precarious financial position which begins the novel derives from a contrasting dereliction of duty: instead of preserving the good of the nation, they have selfishly squandered and jeopardized the property entrusted to their care. Such wrongs might have been redressed by a responsible heir, but Sir Walter’s son is dead. Julia Prewitt Brown notes that “revolutions begin with a crisis of legitimacy”;17 in this case, the loss of legitimate social privilege, now forfeited by the gentry, is symbolized by the death of the legitimate heir. The action of the novel indicates that the upper class has become so corrupt that it stifles at birth any possibility of redemptive stirrings from within. Corruption so pervasive allows no room for amelioration or compromise. Anne has to leave her own society and seek in the community of sailors a new ambience, the fresh air of an alternative life-style. Anne’s own family has as effectively excluded moral values as it has stifled at birth the one possibility of a hope of gradual change from within:
Anne … had no other alloy to the happiness of her prospects than what arose from the consciousness of having no relations to bestow on him which a man of sense could value. There she felt her own inferiority keenly … to have no family to receive and estimate him properly; nothing of respectability, of harmony, of good-will to offer in return for all the worth and all the prompt welcome which met her in his brothers and sisters, was a source of as lively pain as her mind could well be sensible of, under circumstances of otherwise strong felicity. (p. 251)
This then is Austen’s version of liberté, égalité, fraternité: Louisa enthusiastically endorses the navy’s “friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness, protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England: that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved” (p. 99).
The perspective Persuasion achieves is complex and even paradoxical: the responsible conservative can no longer cleave to the landed gentry, who have so grievously betrayed their trust; she turns instead to the meritocracy of the rising middle class, in this case aptly represented by the navy. Jane Austen can hardly be styled a revolutionary (although Park Honan comments, with respect to her presentation of the navy, “Here Jane Austen is not Tory but Radical”);18 the action of Persuasion tends towards responsible moderation, an equilibrium of forces most notably achieved in Anne’s emotional psychology, between restraint and liberation of feeling, pain and happiness. But even Austen is not averse to a little subdued prodding, indicating her own awareness of the French Revolution and its significance to English society. The established order murders the infant (French) Revolution at birth, represented in the novel by the birth-death of the Elliot heir. But denying the possibility of restoration does not eliminate the need for reform; hope and responsible moderation will have to be found in the alternative English revolution, which quietly and persistently tolls the death bell of inherited privilege and aristocratic hegemony; the custodians of moral values will live, and reproduce, in the naval community.
1 Beginning perhaps with her own estimation of modest scale: “3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on” and “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour” (Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, ed. R.W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 401, 469). Marilyn Butler sums up the charge: “Of all the truisms about Jane Austen, the favourite for the past century at least is that she take [sic] no interest in the broad concerns of national life.” Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 161. See for example George Steiner: “At the height of political and industrial revolution, in a decade of formidable philosophic activity, Miss Austen composes novels almost extra-territorial to history.” George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 9.
2 Jane Austen, Persuasion, The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman, 3rd ed., 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1932-1969), V, p. 8. Further references in the text are to this edition.
3 “It is unnecessary to seek out fleeting references to the Napoleonic Wars, the Slave Trade, agricultural change or other ‘major’ issues of the time, to justify the claim that Jane Austen is a social novelist. Rather, her main subject – polite social relationships between members of the landed classes within the context of the village and the great house – is one that, far from being escapist, takes us immediately to what her society thought of as being its very heart.” David Monaghan, Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision (London: Macmillan Press, 1981), p. 5. See also Julia Prewitt Brown, Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1986) and the essays in Jane Austen in a Social Context, ed. David Monaghan (London: Macmillan Press, 1981). For the ideological readings see Butler, and Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971); also Warren Roberts, Jane Austen and the French Revolution (London; Macmillan Press, 1979).
4 Butler, p. 294.
5 Roberts, p. 7.
6 Pp. 19-20, 146.
7 Tanner, p. 13. See also the tiny fragments of information which Monaghan suggests contribute to the reconstruction of Austen’s social and historical universe (“Introduction: Jane Austen as a Social Novelist,” Jane Austen in a Social Context, p. 3).
8 Tanner begins his discussion of Persuasion with this entry in the Baronetage, highlighting “the dangers involved in seeking validation and self-justification in book as opposed to life, in record rather than in action, in name as opposed to function,” but does not notice the significance of the still-born son, who would of course have had a function if he had survived to have a name. By the end of the novel the Baronetage is, for Tanner, “a dead volume,” as the baby was (Tanner, pp. 208, 242).
9 Notably Duckworth, also Butler.
10 Duckworth, p. 45n.
11 Under the circumstances, a not exaggerated presumption. Duckworth shows a close correlation between the ideas and images of both writers, without proving direct sources.
12 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event, 2nd ed. (London: Dodsley, 1790), p. 12.
13 (London: Cadell, 1789).
14 Part I (London: J.S. Jordan, 1791), Part II (London: J. S. Jordan, 1792). See The Debate on the French Revolution: 1789-1900, ed. Alfred Cobban (London: Nicholas Kaye, 1950).
15 William Godwin also transposed this date, when recording his attendance at the Society. He wrote in his diary under Nov. 5: “Dine with the Revolutionists: see Price …” (William Godwin, MS diary, Vol. II , Abinger collection Dep. e. 227, Bodleian Library, Oxford; quoted with permission of Lord Abinger). But the mistake seems to arise from the fact that in ruling out the days in his hand-made diary, he only allocated 30 days to October, thus recording 4 November by mistake on 5 November. However, there may have been a subconscious merging of Guy Fawkes with the “Revolutionists,” the Society for Commemorating the Glorious Revolution. (He made the same error in the diary for 1790, but by 21 November realized his mistake and went back to correct the dates.) Acknowledgement to Nicholas Roe for drawing my attention to this fact.
16 For example, Joseph M. Duffy, “Structure and Idea in Jane Austen’s Persuasion,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 8 (1954), 272-89; Malcolm Bradbury, “Persuasion Again,” Essays in Criticism, 18 (1969), 383-96; Nina Auerbach, “O Brave New World: Evolution and Revolution in Persuasion” English Literary History 39 (1972), 112-27; Monaghan, Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision, pp. 143-45; Tanner, pp. 208-49.
17 Brown, p. 145.
18 Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), p. 381.