Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 251
The Reversal of Gender Roles in Persuasion
JOSHUA J. MASTERS
Department of English, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
In Persuasion women play a central part in the maintenance of both the family’s respectability and economic stability, while they are also looked to in the moments of greatest crisis throughout the novel (especially Anne and Mrs. Croft). For instance, Lady Elliot managed to keep Kellynch Hall and its proprietor (with all his failings) respectable for seventeen years. “While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had kept him [Sir Walter] within his income; but with her had died all such right mindedness” (9). The foolish mothers like Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Price, and Lady Bertram, have been replaced by a new version of woman overcoming the satirized conventional stereotypes of “wife” and “mother.”
Anne is not allowed to take her mother’s place as the head of Kellynch Hall, however; yet she still acts to maintain the dignity of the family name by taking on a number of stereotypically male duties. In taking leave of the tenantry, Sir Walter offers a few “condescending bows” (36) and retires to Bath. Anne does what her father should have done, “going to almost every home in the parish, as a sort of take-leave” (39), assuming the role of the manor’s proprietor. Anne fills dual gender roles on several occasions during the novel (often in times of crisis), exemplified in her care of little Charles. Both father and mother use their gender as a way to divorce themselves from responsibility. Mary claims, “My being the mother is the very reason why my feelings should not be tried” (56), while Charles feels it is “a female case” (55). Anne steps in and fills the role of father and mother, emptying the binary gender stereotypes that both parents rely on to escape their obligation.
Because of her entrance into the male dominated discourse of commerce, Mrs. Croft is perhaps the most striking example of a character who has transcended conventional gender roles. When the Elliots meet with Mr. Shepherd about leasing Kellynch Hall, he observes that Mrs. Croft “asked more questions about the house, terms, and taxes, than the admiral himself, and seemed more conversant with the business” (22). She has entered into the world of business, asserting herself as more than just a domestic companion, but also as a “partner” taking on the responsibilities traditionally held by men. Like Anne, Mrs. Croft also maintains her composure during times of crisis, as we see her counteract the Admiral’s driving blunder “by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself;” thus, “they happily passed the danger” (92). The woman’s role as “student” and “companion” (a role filled by Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price) has been supplanted by a position of power and importance.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933. Vol. 5 of The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 6 vols. 1982.