Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 184-195
Persuasion and the Presence of Scott
Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON
The obvious challenge at discussing Jane Austen’s fiction for someone who works primarily on Walter Scott is to consider what the two famous contemporaries had to say to each other. Fortunately the question does not have to be treated as entirely metaphorical, a matter of silent dialogue between the novels of the two authors, for both Austen and Scott are on record with comments about each other of a direct and explicit kind. Peter Sabor, in a paper originally given at the 1990 JASNA conference, conveniently sums up the surviving references to Scott in Austen’s correspondence and novels, starting his account with her famous September 1814 remark to her niece Anna about the rumoured authorship of Waverley:
Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but I fear I must.1
Sabor then crisply summarises the other direct allusions to Scott in Austen’s works:
In previous letters she had mentioned The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), parodied two lines from Marmion (1808), and compared her small family gatherings ironically with those in The Lady of the Lake (1810). Later she took notice of Scott’s poem The Field of Waterloo (1815), his travel book Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk ( 1816), and his novel The Antiquary (1816). In Austen’s novels, too, there are several allusions to Scott’s poetry. Marianne Dashwood admires it; Fanny Price quotes from The Lay of the Last Minstrel; Captain Benwick is “intimately acquainted” with all of Scott’s poems, which Anne Elliot also enjoys; and Sir Edward Denham quotes from both Marmion and The Lady of the Lake.2
The first thing that strikes one about this list is the preponderance of references to Scott’s poetry over references to his fiction. It would be disingenuous to argue that Scott’s choice of anonymity for his novels, as opposed to the prominence with which he proclaimed his authorship of the poems, was a significant factor in the paucity of Austen references to Scott the novelist – since Austen, like many other people, clearly regarded the identity of the author of Waverley as an open secret. On the other hand, it probably was a factor that Scott had been world-famous as a poet for almost a decade prior to the appearance of Waverley in 1814, whereas he had published only three more fiction titles by the time of Austen’s death in 1817. The suspicion nevertheless remains that Austen’s relative silence about Scott’s fiction may to some extent derive from that resistance to the incursions of a rival artistic power expressed in mock-serious form in her avowed determination not to like Waverley if she could help it.
Another significant feature of the list is the frequency with which Austen invokes Scott – even Scott the poet – for parodic or ironic purposes. And while the appearance of Fanny Price and Anne Elliot among the cast of his admirers is on the face of it reassuring – given the presence of such suspect enthusiasts as Marianne Dashwood and Captain Benwick – Fanny and Anne’s actual references to Scott turn out to constitute less than unambiguous endorsements. Fanny’s quotations from The Lay of the Last Minstrel during the Sotherton chapel visit, her regret at the absence of banners “blown by the night wind of Heaven” or of signs that a “Scottish monarch sleeps below,” belong to that bookishly romantic aspect of her sensibility that Edmund is quick to undercut with his reminder of the family chapel’s recent date and private purposes.3 The novel’s second direct allusion to the Lay is self-deflating, in that it involves the comic incongruity of a comparison between the powerful and somewhat sinister figure of Scott’s Lady of Branksome Hall (Lay, I, 20) and a Fanny merely “sore-footed and fatigued” (MP, 281) at the end of her first ball. And if one turns to Persuasion, one registers that Anne Elliot, while delighted to discover that Captain Benwick shares her admiration for Scott’s poems, quickly cautions her new friend against reading “only poetry,” apparently considering some kind of health warning to be in order, at least for imbibers of Benwick’s sentimentally susceptible constitution. She is eager to prescribe for him a corrective and therapeutic course of “such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering … calculated to rouse and purify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.”4
The evidence in respect of Austen’s public response to Scott might thus be summarised as pointing to a somewhat quizzical admiration for the poetry combined with a tantalizing reticence in respect of the novels. If one looks, however, for less overt evidence of her awareness of Scott, matters become slightly more complex.
In pursuing that part of the Austen-Scott dialogue that occurs at the level of subtext rather than direct allusions I will focus on Persuasion, and begin by considering the question of which Scott novels Austen is likely to have read by the time she finished writing Persuasion in August 1816. It seems safe to assume that she read Scott’s first novel, Waverley, fairly soon after her reference to it in the letter to Anna of 28 September 1814, and a letter to her nephew J. Edward Austen of 16 December 1816 (Letters, 468) shows that she certainly read Scott’s third novel, The Antiquary, probably not long after it came out in May 1816. In these circumstances it seems to me likely that she also read the second novel, Guy Mannering, published in March 1815.
It is customary to consider Scott’s first three novels within the overall context of his amazingly successful eighteen-year career as a writer of fiction, and thus to take advantage of that long perspective which allows us to see Waverley, Guy Mannering, and The Antiquary as merely the vanguard of an extended sequence. To look back in this way over Scott’s entire production is to be overwhelmed by the persistently historical nature of the later novels, that long series of works dealing not only with events in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland but with periods as remote as the early middle ages and with locations as distant as the Palestine of the Crusaders. For us the crucial achievement of the author of Waverley is the creation of the historical novel as it was to be practised throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth.
But in 1816 a contemporary such as Austen who had read only the first three novels would have seen matters somewhat differently. It is true that the first novel, Waverley, was enacted against the backdrop of a major historical event, the 1745 Jacobite rising, but the next two, Guy Mannering and The Antiquary, involved no such public action and treated of the comparatively recent past. The Antiquary was set a mere fifteen or so years before its publication date, and while English readers would inevitably have been struck by its overall concentration on Scottish manners, its conventional young hero and heroine could well have appeared in a novel set almost anywhere in the British Isles. Readers in 1816 contemplating Waverley and its two successors as a group, as they were invited to do in the preliminary “Advertisement” to The Antiquary, and taking seriously the author’s farewell with which those prefatory remarks concluded, would have no real reason to challenge his description of the three works as “a series of fictitious narratives, intended to illustrate the manners of Scotland at three different periods,” Waverley presenting “the age of our fathers,” Guy Mannering “our own youth,” and The Antiquary “the last ten years of the eighteenth century.”5
In stressing Scott’s own emphasis on the portrayal of Scottish manners in relatively recent times and the absence from this ostensibly valedictory advertisement of any reference to public history, I do not wish to challenge the argument so persuasively presented in Ina Ferris’s recent book The Achievement of Literary Authority. Ferris sets out to demonstrate that the most striking feature of Waverley as perceived by contemporary critics was its incorporation of the masculine world of public history into a novelistic discourse that had come to seem, in the early years of the nineteenth century, a largely female domain. She cites a number of contemporary reviews of Waverley to substantiate this claim, including the British Critic’s characterisation of Scott’s first novel as “a vehicle of curious accurate information upon a subject which must at all times demand our attention – the history and manners of a very large and renowned portion of the inhabitants of these islands.”6 Given, however, the absence of major public historical material from Scott’s second and third novels, I would argue that in 1816 a reader without the prophetic vision to imagine the sequence of historical texts with which Scott was about to storm the novel-reading public – The Black Dwarf, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, and A Legend of Montrose, to mention only the titles of the next three years – that such a reader could have been forgiven for viewing the ostensibly completed career of the author of Waverley as shaped by an increasing concern with Scottish manners and a correspondingly reduced concern with world-historical events.
Austen was in any case never tempted to imitate Scott’s direct engagement with public history, though it could, I think, be argued that Persuasion does at least glance in an historical direction through its allusions to those naval engagements of the recent past by which Wentworth has made his fortune and its hints of possible future conflicts in which his life may be endangered. One might even risk a similar if more hesitant claim in respect of the specifically regional aspects of the Scott model. Though even the most ardent collector of examples of regional fiction might balk at claiming Persuasion as a representative of the “Somerset novel,” it does seem to me that Austen as consummate professional could indeed have registered the opportunities afforded by the “local colour” aspects of Scott’s depiction of Scottish manners across a wide range of social groups. And while not proposing to herself any portrayal of the farm labourers of Somerset to place beside Scott’s depiction of the smugglers and gypsies of Galloway or the fisher-folk of Fife, she might well have picked up on his detailed depiction of the style of living of middle-class figures such as the lawyer Pleydell in Guy Mannering or the antiquary Oldbuck in the succeeding novel.
It is of the “manners” dimension in Scott’s first three novels that I am reminded when I encounter Austen’s depiction of the home of the elder Musgroves with its “old-fashioned square parlour, with a small carpet and shining floor, to which the present daughters of the house were gradually giving the proper air of confusion by a grand pianoforte and a harp, flower-stands and little tables placed in every direction” (40). Austen does not of course attempt to match the specificity of Scott’s account of Oldbuck’s study, from which I quote a few selected details:
It was a lofty room of middling size, obscurely lighted by high narrow latticed windows. One end was entirely occupied by book-shelves, greatly too limited in space for the number of volumes placed upon them, which were, therefore, drawn up in ranks of two and three files deep, while numberless others littered the floor and the tables, amid a chaos of maps, engravings, scraps of parchment, bundles of papers, pieces of old armour, swords, dirks, helmets, and Highland targets. Behind Mr Oldbuck’s seat, (which was an ancient leathern-covered easy-chair, worn smooth by constant use,) was a huge oaken cabinet, decorated at each corner with Dutch cherubs, having their little duck-wings displayed, and great jolter-headed visages placed between them …. The rest of the room was pannelled, or wainscotted, with black oak, against which hung two or three portraits in armour, being characters in Scottish history, favourites of Mr Oldbuck, and as many in tie-wigs and laced coats, staring representatives of his own ancestors. (I, 51-52)
But while Austen may not attempt such density of visual texture she does seem to have registered Scott’s sharp-eyed appreciation of domestic detail conceived of in temporal as well as in visual and social terms, deliberately placing the life of the present-day Musgroves within a context which is certainly generational if not explicitly historical:
Oh! could the originals of the portraits against the wainscot, could the gentlemen in brown velvet and the ladies in blue satin have seen what was going on, have been conscious of such an overthrow of all order and neatness! The portraits themselves seemed to be staring in astonishment. (40)
Despite the temptation of the verbal parallels, I do not wish to labour the point here or to argue at all insistently for direct influence – Austen may well not have read The Antiquary at the point when she composed this passage, though indeed there is in both Waverley and Guy Mannering material that might equally have served her as precedent. I do suggest, however, that the presentation of the Musgrove family from a historico-sociological perspective, concerned with the diachronic as well as with the synchronic understanding of manners, can be fruitfully linked to the example of Scott. What seems to me to distinguish Persuasion from its predecessors in the Austen canon is precisely its heightened sensitivity to the temporal dimension of the lives of its characters, registered not only in the personal terms of the impact of time’s passage on the “bloom” of the heroine but in the larger terms of generational change.
What I have thus far been arguing for in this paper is the presence in Austen’s work of a responsive awareness of the narrative strategies made familiar to the Regency audience by the enormously successful trio of novels with which Scott opened his career. At this point, however, it may be appropriate to take more fully into account Scott’s side of their partly explicit, largely implicit, literary dialogue. For if Austen could not ignore the aggressive invasion of the territory of the novel by the famous poet, Scott for his part was acutely conscious that the territory had previously been dominated by Austen and other women novelists.
Scott, of course, repeatedly and enthusiastically expressed his admiration for Austen’s novels, above all in that remarkable review of Emma in which, as Peter Sabor puts it, he “takes the much belittled genre of the novel more seriously than could have been expected in 1816, and … looks more closely and incisively at Emma than any other essay was to do for several decades” (91). As Sabor points out, “no major British novelist before Scott had devoted an essay of comparable length and penetration to a major novel-writing contemporary” (97). Scott’s comments in the review chime with the scattered remarks in his journal and letters and with the extempore comments recorded in the Lockhart Memoirs, emphasising above all Austen’s talents as a realist, her “wonderful” ability to describe “the involvements, and feelings, and characters of ordinary life.”7 And he especially praises her portraiture of life in the middling ranks of society, comparing her technique to that of “the Flemish school of painting.”8
It may seem inexcusably circular to suggest that the very feature of The Antiquary I earlier singled out as likely to have caught Austen’s attention – that realistic presentation of the surface texture of Oldbuck’s world viewed as a product of historical development as well as of immediate social circumstance – might itself be attributed, at least in part, to the effect of Austen’s example on Scott. But we are dealing here with the reciprocal awareness of contemporaries, the sensitivity of one artist to the practice of another, and it works in both directions. For Sabor the Emma review is notable for its expression of the contrasts between the two, between the “cornfields and cottages and meadows” seen as constituting Austen’s novelistic territory and “the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape” (200) associated with Scott. But I would want to lay rather more emphasis on affinities than contrasts, on the degree to which Scott’s presentation of Fairport in The Antiquary – the novel on which he was beginning work at the very moment he was writing the review – can be associated with the admiration expressed in that review for Austen’s skill at “copying from nature” (193). The Antiquary’s Austen-like focus on two or three families of middling rank in the neighbourhood of a small town, is, to be sure, accompanied by the gothic excesses of the aristocratic Glenallen sub-plot, but that sub-plot is carefully segregated from the main narrative as the stuff of tale and legend rather than of present action, and the central focus throughout is on the lives of the ordinary inhabitants of Fairport, presented with an insistent attention to realistic detail.
A sharper – indeed, almost poignant – sense of Austen’s impact on Scott can perhaps be derived from the extended peroration on Austen’s handling of her love plots with which the Emma review concludes. It is a passage that has attracted relatively little critical comment, perhaps because it has rather the look of a generalizing flourish designed to afford the reviewer a graceful exit from his essay. The ground for it, however, has been carefully prepared earlier in the review by the plot-summaries of the three Austen novels specifically discussed: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma. In each case Scott stresses the prudential aspects of the resolution of the love plot, Elinor is described as “a young lady of prudence and regulated feelings” who has the initial misfortune to attach herself “to a man of an excellent heart and limited talents, who happens unfortunately to be fettered by a rash and ill-assorted engagement” (194), a situation that is only resolved when the “marriage of the unworthy rival at length relieves her own lover from his imprudent engagement” (194). Marianne is described as “turned wise by precept, example, and experience” and as belatedly transferring “her affection to a very respectable and somewhat too serious admirer, who had nourished an unsuccessful passion through the three volumes” (194). In recounting the story of Pride and Prejudice Scott chooses, somewhat mischievously, to report at face value Elizabeth Bennet’s own perhaps tongue in cheek explanation of her change of heart:
[She] does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice. (194)
In Emma we are told that “at Highbury Cupid walks decorously, and with good discretion, bearing his torch under a lanthorn, instead of flourishing it around to set the house on fire,” enabling the story to conclude with Emma’s marriage to Knightley, “the sturdy, advice-giving bachelor,” the two having discovered “that they had been in love with each other all along” (196).
Having summarized the Austen plots in this disenchanted – not to say slanted – fashion Scott concludes the review with a celebration of the attractions of quite a different kind of love plot – the plot of early passion and potentially imprudent desire. In life, Scott concedes, “there are few instances of first attachment being brought to a happy conclusion,” for we live “in a state of society so highly advanced as to render early marriages among the better class, acts, generally speaking, of imprudence.” But it strikes him nevertheless as an act of treachery when “that once powerful divinity, Cupid” is deserted “even in his own kingdom of romance, by the authors who were formerly his devoted priests”:
Who is it, that in his youth has felt a virtuous attachment, however romantic or however unfortunate, but can trace back to its influence much that his character may possess of what is honourable, dignified, and disinterested? If he recollects hours wasted in unavailing hope, or saddened by doubt and disappointment; he may also dwell on many which have been snatched from folly or libertinism, and dedicated to studies which might render him worthy of the object of his affection, or pave the way perhaps to that distinction necessary to raise him to an equality with her. Even the habitual indulgence of feelings totally unconnected with ourself and our own immediate interest, softens, graces, and amends the human mind; and after the pain of disappointment is past, those who survive (and by good fortune those are the greater number) are neither less wise nor less worthy members of society for having felt, for a time, the influence of a passion which has been well qualified as the “tenderest, noblest and best.” (200-01)
That this is a surprisingly personal passage to find in the pages of the Quarterly Review is, I think, obvious enough, but it is also specifically – if codedly – autobiographical, and that perhaps needs to be spelled out a little for those unfamiliar with the details of Scott’s life.9 Scott is the least confessional of writers, shying away instinctively from self-analysis and preferring always to approach self-understanding by generating a story rather than undertaking an exploration of conscious or subconscious motivation. The one sore place in his personal history that consistently arouses the kind of present pain that requires if not analytic then narrative alleviation is the loss of his first great love, Williamina Belsches, only child of Sir John Belsches of Fettercairn and his aristocratic wife. In this courtship, the penniless young lawyer had deployed all his professional and literary hopes and ambitions in a vain attempt to counter the more substantial attractions of his rival, the son of the wealthy banker Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo.10 What happens in the Emma review is that the encounter with Austen’s more prudential lovers for some reason triggers in Scott not only the memory of his loss, but the need to celebrate more generally the energies and aspirations generated by the lover’s pursuit of the beloved, even when that pursuit proves ultimately vain.
Why should his response have been so strong – possibly even to the extent of feeding into the immediately subsequent composition of The Antiquary as a compensatory fiction generated by the same memory of personal anguish? I suggest that The Antiquary and the conclusion of the Emma review were both direct challenges, the one professional and novelistic, the other personal and rhetorical, to Austen’s perceived desertion of the cause of romance and of the socially redemptive power of love in favour of the stonier if solider paths of prudence and good sense.
Persuasion, in progress when the Emma review appeared, and finally revised some four months later, has its own contribution to make to the dialogue with Scott. Its structure has, after all, faint though discernible affinities with the two-generational pattern employed by Scott in Guy Mannering and in a modified way in The Antiquary. The eight-year gap between the first and second phases of the Wentworth-Anne courtship is, to be sure, much less dramatic than the shift from the first appearance of the youthful Guy Mannering at Ellangowan to his return twenty years later, a widowed colonel with a brilliant public career and a host of private mistakes behind him. But Persuasion and Mannering are both centrally concerned with coming to terms with past events, and in The Antiquary the middle-aged antiquary, Jonathan Oldbuck, a self-appointed expert in interpreting historical relics, must reengage with his own personal history, with the experience of loss that has affected his entire subsequent life. The tribute to the memory of loss is further intensified in The Antiquary by a mutually reinforcing linkage between the gentle sadness of the Oldbuck material and the darker and more violent passions of Lord Glenallen’s dynastic tragedy.
In Guy Mannering and The Antiquary, the double focus on the aspiration story of the youthful lovers and the reconciliation story of the older figures – both implying the possibility of wider social redemption for the entire community – generates a powerful narrative structure that allows the plot of consequences, with its transcendence of regret, and the wish-fulfillment plot of the traditional love story to co-exist in the same textual space without one being erased by the other. In Persuasion, on the other hand, the focus remains resolutely single and one-generational. The triumph of love, its transcendence of the sadness and loss resulting from past mistakes, is achieved by a single hero-heroine pair and affects only themselves. It seems almost a direct result of this generational restriction that the healing power of the love plot is confined to the personal dimension, having none of that extended romance valency for the community as a whole that characterises Scott’s early novels. The impact of this restriction can be felt most powerfully in Persuasion’s handling of the father-daughter relationship, a central motif throughout Scott’s fiction and especially prominent in his first three novels.
For Scott daughters have a saving power that enables them to protect their difficult, improvident, or foolish fathers, and the happiness of the daughter is never achieved at the price of leaving the father behind. The marriage of Rose Bradwardine and Edward Waverley is accompanied by the rescue of the outlawed Baron of Bradwardine from his hunted-badger cave and his restoration to his ancestral estate and full legal authority. Guy Mannering presents two versions of the father-daughter relationship, on the one hand the recurrent Scott motif of Lucy Bertram’s faithful and protective service to her ruined father, and on the other the witty but always affectionate sparring between Mannering and his daughter Julia. The lively Julia has interesting antecedents, on which I might just comment in passing. She clearly owes something both to Shakespearean heroines of the Beatrice or Rosalind type and to the sparkling female protagonists of restoration comedy, but given Scott’s admiration for his women novelist contemporaries, it seems arguable that he is here attempting to match his female rivals on their own ground of social-comedy. The dialogues between Julia and her father certainly do not equal those of Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet, but they are powerfully imagined and engagingly articulated.
It is, however, in The Antiquary that Scott raises the father-daughter relationship to almost emblematic status in what was to become one of his most famous scenes, the source for innumerable paintings and much admiring commentary throughout the century that followed the novel’s publication. I refer to the cliff-rescue episode in which Isabella Wardour and her proud and foolish father are saved from death by drowning through the combined efforts of the hero Lovel and the old beggar Edie Ochiltree. This early episode prefigures not only Lovel’s ultimate rescue of Sir Arthur from financial ruin, but captures in essence Isabella’s entire relationship with her father – at once devotedly filial in its sedulous maintenance of conventional deference and quasi-maternal in the kind and degree of the protection and comfort continuously provided. Sir Arthur, that “baronet of ancient descent” and “embarrassed fortune” (I, 97), lamentably combining financial incompetence, delusions of family grandeur, and gullibility in the face of charlatanry, has to be repeatedly rescued in the course of the novel, but there is never any doubt that the ultimate resolution of the many plot strands will include his restoration to his estate with dignity and authority intact.
Anne Elliot is certainly a match for Isabella Wardour in both self-abnegation and determination to protect parental dignity. But where The Antiquary presents a father and daughter literally clinging to each other in loving, mutual support at a moment of violent physical danger, Persuasion never brings Anne and her father remotely within touching distance. Austen’s baronet remains blindly impervious to the virtues of his second daughter and cut off from her healing power. He belongs in the icy mirror-enclosed world he shares with his eldest daughter, and Austen sternly turns her back on any attempt to integrate him into the future Anne and Wentworth will share.
In thus parting company on the question of love’s socially redemptive power Austen and Scott inevitably take very different and indeed directly opposite paths in respect of their central plots. On the one hand Guy Mannering and The Antiquary enact a process by which the communal past is redeemed and continuity maintained between one generation and the next. In these texts Scott deploys a particular narrative pattern, involving the rediscovery of a lost heir, as a way of linking past with future and articulating the restoration of the community through the romance ending of the marriage of hero and heroine. His narratives turn on legitimacy and inheritance and the future management of that inheritance so as to benefit the ancestral community. In Persuasion, on quite the other hand, Austen alludes to this type of plot only to execute a deliberately ironic rejection of almost everything that it entails.
That she means the readers of Persuasion to take the point of this rejection I have little doubt.11 Austen counts upon her audience’s familiarity with the lost-heir plot and involves her two male protagonists, William Walter Elliot and Wentworth, in what might be called variations on a theme by Scott. William Walter Elliot, the rightful heir of Kellynch, far from being unknown and untraced, is merely estranged and unworthy. And when he enters upon the scene his identity is quickly established and does not require to be proved. In a deliberate parody of the validation ritual that crowns the lost-heir plot Austen has the family-obsessed Mary engage in a breathless recitation of all the physical details proclaiming Mr. Elliot’s credentials that were not in fact observed:
What a pity that we should not have been introduced to each other! – Do you think he had the Elliot countenance? I hardly looked at him, I was looking at the horses; but I think he had something of the Elliot countenance. I wonder the arms did not strike me! Oh! – the great-coat was hanging over the panel, and hid the arms; so it did, otherwise, I am sure, I should have observed them, and the livery too; if the servant had not been in mourning, one should have known him by the livery. (106)
Lady Russell’s fantasy version of Anne’s future would have marriage to the rightful heir follow rapidly on his re-appearance, to be succeeded in due course by the restoration of the family fortunes and the reestablishment of those social bonds that should ideally prevail between good landowner and grateful community. In such a narrative the rightful heir, though not requiring to be “discovered” as in the classic lost-heir plot, could at least fulfil something of the traditional pattern by proving to be worthy despite earlier appearances to the contrary, and the final outcome would be Anne’s taking of her rightful place as Lady Elliot and mistress of Kellynch. But Lady Russell is doomed to disappointment. What occurs in Persuasion is a fuller exposure of the fundamental worthlessness of the official heir and his ultimate entrapment by the “artful woman” whose schemes to possess the Kellynch estate he has been seeking to outwit.
Readers familiar with the lost-heir plot might see in Wentworth the possibility of a different kind of variation on the familiar theme. He has many of the qualifications of the Scott romantic hero of ostensibly obscure origins – sharing with Bertram in Guy Mannering and Lovel in The Antiquary a record for military courage and a taste for literature – and were he and Anne somehow to be brought into possession of Kellynch the combination of private happiness and social healing of the Scott endings might perhaps be achieved. But Austen’s narrative sternly precludes such possibilities. There is nothing mysterious about Wentworth’s origins; he is “quite unconnected” (23) to the Wentworths of the noble Strafford family, his connections are instead a solidly middle-class curate brother and an energetic and unconventional sister. What is more, the inheritor position in the story is emphatically not vacant. The official heir may be defeated in the competition for the hand of the heroine, but his claims to the estate are never in doubt.
Inheritance, which possesses in the plots of Scott’s early novels a redemptive power linking older and younger generations, remains in Persuasion simply an arid legal procedure. Where the fathers in Scott’s plots are granted forgiveness for past errors and the chance to participate in the renewal process at least as witnesses if not as prime movers, the father in Persuasion remains excluded from the glow associated with the heroine’s marriage. Unenlightened and unredeemed, Sir Walter stays trapped inside his past mistakes. There is no place for him in a Kellynch future that belongs to his nephew and Mrs. Clay, and there is no possibility of preempting, or even postponing, that future by some act of grace permitting his restoration, at least for an interlude, to the ancestral home.12
Wentworth and Anne have neither the power nor the desire to effect paternal restoration. And Austen, as we have seen, is at pains to make her readers aware that Wentworth is categorically not an inheritor. Far from having to do with any of the continuities articulated through the passing on of land and title from one generation to the next, Wentworth is the hero as self-made man. Instead of returning the heroine to her ancestral home he will carry her off into a wider world where family takes on an entirely different meaning in a society whose values are professional and comradely rather than aristocratic and communal. The inheritors of land in this novel remain meanwhile solipsistically estranged from their own rightful community, and it is only one of the many ironies that play around the conclusion of the tale that the unspeakable Mary is allowed the consolation of an insight whose true significance completely escapes her limited powers of perception: “Anne had no Uppercross-hall before her, no landed estate, no headship of a family” (250).13
1 Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R. W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1952) 404.
2 Peter Sabor, “ ‘Finished up to nature’: Walter Scott’s Review of Emma,” Persuasions 13 (1991): 88.
3 Mansfield Park, vol. 3 in The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 5 vols., 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1932-34) 86; The Lay of the Last Minstrel, A Poem (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; Edinburgh: A. Constable and Co., 1805) Canto II, stanzas 10 and 12.
4 Persuasion, vol. 5 in The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 5 vols., 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1932-34) 100-01.
5 The Antiquary, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co.; London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1816) I, [v].
6 The Achievement of Literary Authority: Gender, History, and the Waverley Novels (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) 83-84.
7 John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., 7 vols. (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell; London: John Murray and Whittaker and Co., 1837-38) VI, 264. The catalogue of Scott’s library indicates the presence of first editions of Emma and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (Catalogue of the Library at Abbotsford, ed. J. G. Cochrane [Edinburgh: privately printed, 1838] 332). It is clear from Scott’s discussion of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in the Emma review that he had also read and admired those two works, but there is no evidence he was acquainted with Mansfield Park.
8 Quarterly Review 14 (1815-16): 197.
9 I would argue that the masculine pronouns in this passage are deliberate rather than conventional, expressive of its grounding in direct personal experience.
10 Scott’s own account jotted down in his journal in December, 1825, as he faced financial ruin, captures the essence of the Williamina affair as well as the pain it was still capable of arousing after almost thirty years: “What a life mine has been. Half educated, almost wholly neglected or left to myself – stuffing my head with most nonsensical trash and undervalued in society for a time by most of my companions – getting forward and held a bold and clever fellow, contrary to the opinion of all who thought me a mere dreamer – Broken-hearted for two years – My heart handsomely pieced again – but the crack will remain till my dying day –” (The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, ed. W. E. K. Anderson [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972] 42-43.
11 Austen includes a joke at the expense of the lost-heir convention in the opening chapter of Northanger Abbey, where Catherine, in her role of potential heroine, labours under the disadvantage of a neighbourhood that boasts “not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door – not one young man whose origin was unknown” (Northanger Abbey, vol. 5 in The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 5 vols., 3rd ed. [London: Oxford University Press, 1932-34] 16).
12 Austen’s disenchantment with the fitness of the traditional gentry for continuing rule has been much discussed. See, for example, Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981) 108. In The Civilized Imagination: A Study of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) Daniel Cottom contests Alexander Duckworth’s claim that “the estate is a saving structure of great permanence” in Austen’s thought, seeing it merely as “a traditional reality” that is “in danger of usurpation” (96). All this contrasts sharply with Alexander Welsh’s account in The Hero of the Waverley Novels (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963) of the attitude to landed property in Scott’s fiction: “The proper hero and heroine are not individual persons but representatives of civil society: Scott carefully protects them from too close an association with ‘personal’ property and heartily endows them with real estate” (117).
13 The novels that immediately succeeded The Antiquary show Scott himself undergoing a progressive loss of faith in the power of the lost-heir fable. Either the act of personal exorcism attempted in The Antiquary failed of its intended effect, or his conservative faith in the transformative power of inheritance and improvement wavered under the fracturing pressures emerging in the post-war Britain of 1816. Rather than abandon the lost-heir motif, however, he inverts or subverts its once simple and hopeful outlines so as to produce darker and darker effects – the tragic climax of The Bride of Lammermoor or the grotesque transformation that brings back the lost heir in The Heart of Midlothian only to reveal him as a parricide fit only for permanent exile among savages.