Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 57-62
The Rise and Fall of the House of Elliot
North Vancouver, BC
I do not write for such dull elves
As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves
– Letters, No. 761
Jane Austen was referring to Pride and Prejudice when she paraphrased this couplet from Marmion, but Persuasion gives even better examples of the careful attention and concentration that she expected from her readers. The first two or three paragraphs of the novel are full of subtle hints about the Elliot family, mixed in with the biographical details. Skimming over this opening section, a reader would miss much information that Jane Austen is offering.
The novel opens like a piece of theatre: the curtains part and reveal the library at Kellynch Hall – dark panelled walls, heavy brocaded drapes (rather faded), rich patterned carpet (getting a little threadbare), and Sir Walter sitting at the big oak library table, turning the pages of his “favourite volume” – an enormous tome, much like one of those massive family Bibles, bound in worn dark leather, and with thin, crisp, fragile pages.
But was it such a large impressive volume? Jane Austen ends her description with the words, “forming altogether two handsome duodecimo pages.” Duodecimo means “twelve” or “one twelfth,” and one twelfth of anything cannot be very big.
Shakespeare was first printed in folios, Jane Austen herself detested “great stupid thick quarto volumes” (Letters, No. 78)2 and preferred a “neat octavo,” but what exactly did these printer’s terms mean? They are almost obsolete words now, used only by antique book dealers and collectors. They were descriptive terms for the size of books. It was not an exact measurement – they depended on the size of the original sheet of paper, and this could vary by several inches, but usually was about 19" by 25".
If such a sheet of paper is folded in half, making two leaves (or four printed pages) it is a folio. Folded in half again to make four leaves, it is a quarto; in half again, an octavo. Now it gets a little more complicated because there are several ways to get twelve leaves – in half, in half again, and then in thirds; or in half, in thirds, and then in half again, for example. The actual size and shape will be a little different in each case, but they are all called duodecimos, and would be about 7½" or 8" tall, about the size of a paperback when it was still called a “pocketbook” because it was of a size to fit into a pocket or purse.
This descriptive word “duodecimo” referred only to the number of leaves from one folded sheet of paper, not to the number of sheets used, or how thick the book would be. One could have a thin delicate duodecimo of a few dozen leaves of poetry, or a thick chunky volume of several hundred pages: both were duodecimos.
So we must revise the picture – Sir Walter was not turning over the pages of a massive dignified volume, but leafing through a thick stubby little book. Jane Austen’s readers would have known just what the Baronetage looked like, and would in many cases have had their own copies.
What was a Baronetage? Go back one step – what was a baronet? Kings and queens are magnificent, exalted beings, but in one sense they are exactly the same as us lesser mortals – they are always in need of money.
Here we need to resort briefly to history: the first Stuart kings of England were James VI of Scotland who became James I of England, and his son Charles I. Then came a period of civil war and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, when Charles I was beheaded and the Stuarts were forced into exile. After the Restoration in 1660 came Charles II, son of Charles I, and then his brother James II.
Perennially short of money, James I created a “new Dignitie between Barons and Knights” in 1611, and sold the honour for £1,000 to anyone who had £1,000 per year in landed estates, and whose paternal grandfather had borne arms. It conferred the title of “Sir” (and “Lady”) and took precedence over knights but ranked below the sons of barons. [See “Forms of Address and Titles in Jane Austen,” Joan Austen-Leigh, Persuasion, No. 12, 1990.]3 To encourage applications, the heirs apparent of baronets were knighted on coming of age, a right revoked in 1827. (Mr. Elliot was “heir presumptive” – as long as Sir Walter Elliot lived, he might have a son, who would be his “heir apparent.”) The title of baronet was hereditary, but was not considered part of the peerage (duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron).
Persuasion begins in 1814. What was the Baronetage at that time? Webster’s Dictionary of Proper Names lists [immediately after “De Bourgh, Lady Catherine”]: “Debrett common abbreviation for Debrett’s Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage ( 1802) and two other derivatory annuals …”
John Debrett’s reputation was originally based on his publication of Parliamentary Debates towards the end of the eighteenth century. He entered into partnership with John Almon, who had compiled the New Peerage in three volumes, first published in 1769. On Almon’s retirement in 1781, Debrett took over the business, and in the following years published various editions of aristocratic family names and histories.
The “book of books” mentioned in Persuasion is almost certainly The Baronetage of England with a List of Extinct Baronets, 1800 (1st edition) [Sir Walter would have the first edition] by John Debrett, London, 1808 (2 vols). Half title Debrett’s Baronetage.” The catalogue of the British Museum describes the first edition as duodecimo, in two volumes, with more than 500 pages per volume.
What was Sir Walter’s “favourite volume”? After the names of the immediate family, there followed:
… the history and rise of the ancient and respectable family, in the usual terms: how it had been first settled in Cheshire; how mentioned in Dugdale – serving the office of High Sheriff, representing a borough in three successive parliaments, exertions of loyalty, and dignity of baronet, in the first year of Charles II, with all the Marys and Elizabeths they had married … (Persuasion, p. 3)
It is easy to slide over this paragraph and get on with the story, but Jane Austen has “loaded” these few sentences with information we need if we are to appreciate fully the family history which has formed the character of Sir Walter Elliot, and also of his daughter Anne.
… first settled in Cheshire …
Why Cheshire? Many Norman French families settled in Cheshire at the time of the Conquest – a strong presence was necessary in the West to hold back the raiding Welsh. Two of these families were closely connected to Jane Austen.
Jane Austen’s mother’s family were Leighs, of Cheshire. Several were knighted, one was created a baron. One was High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, one was Lord Mayor of London. They were strong royalists before and after Cromwell’s time. Leigh wealth was merged with Perrot wealth. Mr. and Mrs. James Leigh Perrot, Jane Austen’s uncle and aunt, were in a position of status and power with reference to the widowed Mrs. Austen and her daughters, living on a small pension augmented by donations from her sons.
In a similar situation was Mrs. Lybbe Powys. Mrs. Austen’s sister Jane had married the Rev. Edward Cooper, and had a son Edward and a daughter Jane. The young Edward married Caroline, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lybbe Powys. The Austens visited the Coopers at Edward’s parsonages at Harpsden and Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire, Mr. and Mrs. Lybbe Powys spent their winters in Bath (in the winter of 1805-06, just around the corner from the Austens), and were on good social terms with the Leigh Perrots. Jane Austen had ample opportunity to know Mrs. Lybbe Powys well.
As in the case of the Leigh Perrots, Lybbe money merged with Powys money. Mrs. Lybbe Powys led a socially active life, toured extensively in England, and wrote bright, lively journals of her travels. She exudes confidence, self-satisfaction and freedom to do as she likes. In her family background in Cheshire was a “mention in Dugdale” and a High Sheriff.
Generally Jane Austen seemed contented and satisfied with her lot in life. Occasional references in her letters, however, suggest an underlying sense of resentment and humiliation at the restraints imposed by poverty and by being so often a helpless single woman.
Much of the Leigh Perrot and Lybbe Powys history is implied in the Elliot background. In Persuasion, Jane Austen may be striking back in the only way she could, by setting the origins of her foolish spendthrift baronet, whose family fortunes have been dissipated and wasted, in the same county as the wealthy connections who made her feel “a poor relation.”
… how mentioned in Dugdale …
Honours of rank and the right to bear a coat of arms were rigidly controlled by heralds. (In Mediaeval times, heralds carried messages to the commanders of opposing armies. Later they proclaimed and conducted tournaments, announcing each of the combatants: they thus had to be familiar with the crests and coats of arms of all the nobles. By the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, heralds were required to carry out periodic inspections of proofs of the right to bear a coat of arms. They became the acknowledged authority on “heraldry.”)
One of the resulting documents from the inspections was the Cheshire Visitation Pedigrees of 1663, based on the visitation of that county by Sir William Dugdale, whose title was Garter principal king-of-arms.
William Dugdale (1605-1686) was the son of a lawyer and bursar at St. John’s College, Oxford. He developed a love of antiquarian lore, and luckily found wealthy patrons who financed his studies and research. Appointed herald in 1638, he compiled histories of the antiquities of the northern counties, and lists and descriptions of monasteries and secular estates. Dugdale’s works were considered archaeological and topographical masterpieces, noted for their general accuracy and references to authorities.
During the Inter-regnum of Cromwell, Dugdale’s estates were confiscated and he received little or no financial compensation. At the time of the Restoration, however, he resumed his duties as a herald, rising through the ranks with such intriguing titles as Pursuivant extraordinary, Blanch Lyon, Rouge Croix, Norroy, and finally Garter king-of-arms, at which time he was knighted.
In 1662, Dugdale was commissioned to make a visitation of his province which included the county of Cheshire, “to reform and correct all arms unlawfully borne or assumed.” It is this Visitation Report which Jane Austen assumes would have contained the history of the Elliot family origins: wealthy and powerful enough at this period to be “mentioned in Dugdale.”
… serving the office of High Sheriff …
Elliot is a Scottish name. The early members of the family may have come south at the time James I became king of England, and settled in Cheshire. There they established themselves, acquired wealth, consolidated their position in local society, and looked for sources of prestige and power.
The office of Sheriff is the oldest continuous secular office in England (in 1992 its “millennium” was celebrated), dating from Anglo-Saxon times. In these earliest centuries the sheriff, an official of the king, had the power to arrest, raise armies, preside over courts, deal with traitors, and collect taxes and levies. With so much power, many were dishonest and unscrupulous, and generally greatly feared and hated. But gradually these powers were taken away from the sheriffs and given to other official or judiciary bodies.
By the time an early Elliot became High Sheriff, it was his duty to set the dates and oversee all elections, order the arrest of any persons disturbing the peace, apprehend any traitors, assassins or other felons, be responsible for prisons and prisoners, choose juries for civil and criminal cases, escort and entertain judges at the Assize Courts, and collect taxes and revenues (and account for the money). He was liable to heavy fines for misconduct or failure in his responsibilities. The office paid little and the expenses were high. But the honour of being selected was still great – the Elliots were moving into administrative positions and entering into elite society.
… representing a borough in three successive parliaments …
Membership in the House of Commons was an important indication of wealth and prestige. Those elected were often connected with a powerful political figure, but they were also usually people of authority and prominence in local administration, who had faithfully carried out several less prestigious offices. The Elliots were in a good position to take this next step up.
But note that this early Elliot does not represent a “shire” – the rural entity, but a “borough” or town. The representatives of cities and towns in the Commons at this period were mostly merchants of wealth and substance, not landed gentry. It is thus highly likely that the Elliot wealth was derived not from landed estates but from TRADE!
Besides its prestige, election to Parliament might bring a man to the direct notice of the king or his influential ministers, and result in various favours such as valuable gifts, grants of land or the award of profitable offices of the Crown. Election to “three successive parliaments” shows the stability of the Elliots’ rise to power.
… exertions of loyalty …
Loyalty to the Stuart kings of this period often involved battles, loss of estates, fines, exile or even death.
There is nothing in Debrett’s history of the Elliot family, or Sir Walter’s own conversation and attitude, to suggest any military valour on the part of his forebears. On the contrary, if he had had a valiant hero of the Royalist armies in his background, he certainly would have made reference to such an important connection. When the navy was condemned for “bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction,” the army – whose commissions were sold to wealthy men with no reference to seniority or service – could have been offered as a contrast (Persuasion, p. 19).
There are other ways of expressing loyalty, however. In the battles to regain his throne, Charles II needed money – to pay his soldiers, to obtain provisions, to compensate his followers who had lost their estates, and to propitiate those whose loyalty might be wavering between Parliament and Crown.
A wealthy Elliot, out of a good business sense as well as feelings of loyalty to the royalist cause, would be ready and even eager to offer a “loan” to the king – a loan which both parties knew would never be called in. Such an “exertion of loyalty” would be a very good investment indeed.
… and dignity of baronet, in the first year of Charles II.
Maintaining an administration while he was in exile, fighting a war against Cromwell’s forces on land and sea, and trying to raise revenue to restore the finances of the devastated country left Charles II with a bankrupted treasury. At the same time something had to be done to reward those who had been loyal to his father and to himself. Most of these devoted followers had lost their estates, confiscated by the Cromwellian regime and given to anti-royalists.
By the time of the Restoration, much of this land had changed hands, perhaps several times. Charles could not risk antagonizing the new owners by evicting them from estates they had acquired in good faith. And there was no money to compensate their losses financially. It was an insoluble problem. Charles could give some gifts and pensions, and award some offices, but for the most part his hands were tied.
One thing Charles could do, and did. It cost nothing to bestow a title: he created knights, baronets and peers from among those whose loyalty had been most evident. Elliot was an obvious choice, and the family now reached its peak of social prestige and status. Perhaps it was at this time that a marriage was arranged with the heiress of Kellynch Hall in Somerset.
… all the Marys and Elizabeths they had married …
Many families have favourite names, chosen time after time, through the years. But the “Marys and Elizabeths” here are not daughters and grand-daughters named by choice for an honoured forebear. These are the young ladies of various lineages brought into the Elliot family by marriage, generation after generation.
“Mary” and “Elizabeth” are Biblical names, popular and in use for hundreds of years. They are common, ordinary, usual names. Here is Jane Austen’s hint at the downward slide, the degeneration of the Elliot family. Here are men without initiative or imagination, men who all married the same safe ordinary, nondescript wives, men who never brought “new blood” into the family, men of no curiosity, no ambition, no breadth of vision. Gone is the driving force of the earlier generations, striving, creating, leading.
The Elliot family rose from ambitious, energetic, patriotic beginnings, and fell again in the depths of uselessness, idleness and decay.
Only Anne – who was not one of the “Marys and Elizabeths” – strikes out on her own, with vigor, courage and determination, marrying one of the “coming” men of England, and beginning a new family based on integrity, ambition and personal endeavour, like her distant forebears.
Don’t be a “dull elf” – read Jane Austen with the care and thoughtfulness that she expected of you.
References are to The Novels of Jane Austen ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), and Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R. W. Chapman (London: Oxford University Press, 1952).
1 P. 298.
2 P. 304.
3 P. 35.