Persuasions #12, 1990 Page 69
The Ellesmeres and the Elliots: Charlotte Smith’s
Influence on Persuasion
Although Jane Austen’s indebtedness to the novels of Charlotte Smith as sources for her own work have been examined by several critics,1 the probable influence on Persuasion of Charlotte Smith’s The Banished Man (1794) has not previously been fully explored.
The Banished Man features a baronet named Sir Maynard Ellesmere, who suggests Sir Walter Elliot in a number of ways, apart from their shared rank and similar surnames. Both have fallen upon hard times, and have been forced to retrench; Sir Maynard has moved from town to country, while Sir Walter moves from his country estate to Bath in the course of Persuasion. Both are reactionary, bigoted, and knowledgeable about genealogy. But “vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter’s character”2 whereas Sir Maynard is not without his virtues; he “was a good neighbour, and affected popularity.”3
Like Sir Maynard, Sir Walter has three daughters, two of whom are named Elizabeth and Mary; in both families, the eldest is named Elizabeth, while the daughter called Mary is the first to marry. Sir Maynard’s daughters share his snobbery, and Elizabeth and Mary Elliot share Sir Walter’s. Sir Maynard’s third and youngest daughter, Theodora, has no direct equivalent in Persuasion. Elizabeth Ellesmere, like her namesake in Persuasion, is “haughty and reserved”4; but her situation also recalls that of Anne Elliot, for, like Anne, she is twenty-seven, and has suffered a reverse in love: “there was an air of melancholy about her, which was imputed to a disappointment she had met with a few years before, when a marriage between her and a young clergyman had been broken off.”5 Anne has suffered from her broken engagement to Wentworth, while her elder sister was disappointed in her hopes of marrying William Elliot. Anne’s virtuous character, and perhaps her name, recalls the heroine of The Banished Man, Angelina Denzil.
Unlike Sir Walter, Sir Maynard has sons; his eldest, and heir, is an unpleasant and unscrupulous character, living amongst the corruptions of London life, and not therefore unlike Sir Walter’s heir, William Elliot. The bias and favouritism Sir Walter shows towards his eldest daughter is shown by Sir Maynard towards his eldest son.
Both The Banished Man and Persuasion are set against the background of war with France. The hero of The Banished Man is the dashing soldier D’Alonville, an exiled aristocrat, whose situation is not unlike that of the Comte de Feuillide, the husband of Jane Austen’s cousin Eliza; he, less fortunate than D’Alonville, was guillotined. The hero of Persuasion is the naval captain Frederick Wentworth, who faces class prejudice as D’Alonville faces national prejudice. Wentworth and his brother are slighted by Sir Walter, who remarks that “Mr. Wentworth was nobody … nothing to do with the Strafford family,”6 while Mary Ellesmere remarks of the heroine’s family, “I assure you these Misses are nobody of any consequence.”7
D’Alonville’s name is partially echoed in that of Captain Harville, who, Magee noted, “is almost too hospitable for the size of his house, like Captain Caverly in The Banished Man.”8
There are sufficient similarities between the two novels to suggest that Jane Austen may have used the Ellesmeres as a starting-point from which to develop the Elliot family. She may also have intended to recall Charlotte Smith in Anne’s friend Mrs. Smith. The novelist was dead when Persuasion was written, but the circumstances of her life were probably known to Jane Austen. Both Mrs. Smiths were women of ability damaged by the ill-judgement of their husbands; though both live in poverty, each has a claim on a greater income – Jane Austen’s character from property in the West Indies, Charlotte Smith from a family trust, which was caught up in a lawsuit. Charlotte Smith included autobiographical characters in several of her novels; Charlotte Denzil in The Banished Man is one. Her dislike of the legal profession led her to portray several villains similar to the former law-student William Elliot. When Charlotte Smith wrote The Banished Man, she, like her namesake, was living in poverty and poor health in Bath. A happier ending was available for Mrs. Smith of Persuasion than was ever the case for Mrs. Smith in real life.
1 See A.H. Ehrenpreis, “Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen and Charlotte Smith,” NCF, xxv (1970-71), 343-8; W.H. Magee, “The Happy Marriage: the Influence of Charlotte Smith on Jane Austen,” Studies in the Novel, vii (1975), 120-32.
2 R.W. Chapman, ed. Persuasion 5.
3 The Banished Man, 2 vols. (Dublin, 1794), i, 190.
4 The Banished Man, i, 198.
6 Persuasion, 33.
7 The Banished Man, ii, 3.
8 Magee, 127.