Persuasions #6, 1984 Pages 13-15
KNOWING ONE’S SPECIES BETTER: SOCIAL SATIRE IN PERSUASION
When the Elliots move out of their estate at Kellynch, Anne finds herself regretting that her father “should feel no degradation in his change” from Kellynch-hall to Bath, and should “see nothing to regret in the duties and dignity of the resident land-holder” (p. 138).1 Since her father shows little interest in the common people who work on his estate, it is left to Anne to visit “almost every house in the parish” before leaving for the city. Sir Walter Elliot, the opposite of his idealistic daughter, makes a single concession to his labourers by spending a few hasty moments giving “condescending bows for all the afflicted tenantry and cottagers who might have had a hint to shew themselves” (p. 35).
This episode carries a moral weight out of all proportion to its brevity. It tells us how to interpret the comic ironies of the first chapter of Persuasion, when the lazy, self-inflated baronet indulges himself by reading and re-reading the Baronetage, now the only book that holds any interest for him. The author does not want us to reject entirely the feudal traditions which have shaped her society in the past, but rather to see the vast difference between the self-centred Sir Walter, betraying the very traditions which provide his wealth and status, and his more socially-responsible daughter, who tries to revitalize and humanize those traditions. Persuasion is consistently conservative in its implied moral perspective, yet its satirical energy is constantly challenging readers to differentiate between the useless, self-flattering, self-serving conservatism of people like Sir Walter, and the humane, serviceable, concerned conservatism of Anne.
Like every Jane Austen novel, Persuasion uses a technique of very fleeting, occasional, but extremely provocative allusions to inequalities, injustices, lower-class sufferings, and controversial social issues of the day. For example, we must wonder what twisted social conditions could possibly result in a “farmer’s man” being arrested for stealing apples from the local curate, as we hear very briefly in the third chapter. Is this the only way that a mere “farmer’s man” could get apples? Were agricultural workers close to starvation? Were clergymen commonly seen as the enemies of the working people, and therefore as fitting victims of pilfering? Were curates so uncharitable that the hoarding of apples would seem perfectly reasonable?
Indeed, clergymen often seem mainly concerned with their own comfort and status, and regardless of community, in Jane Austen’s fiction. Charles Hayter in Persuasion enjoys “a curacy in the neighbourhood where residence was not required,” and as a result he “lived at his father’s house.” Hayter (not exactly the most promising name for a clergyman) is an absentee curate, just as Sir Walter Elliot has become an absentee landlord. Yet even the easy-going Charles Hayter is said to have “a very fair chance … of getting something from the Bishop in the course of a year or two” (p. 76).
The horrors of war would have an obvious topicality in 1816. Allusions to the recent wars are kept to a minimum in Persuasion, perhaps because too much reality would kill the enjoyment of reading. But the pleasant illusion of upper-class comfort is abruptly shattered when the narrator mentions in passing that “Captain Harville had never been in good health since a severe wound which he received two years before” (p. 94). Anne Elliot tries to tell her father that “The navy … have done so much for us,” and that they “have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give.” However, the baronet dislikes the mere mention of equality, and balks at the idea of renting Kellynch-hall to a naval man. Not only does life in the navy make men ugly, according to Sir Walter; it is also “the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction” (p. 19). Brief as these references are, they shock us into remembering the less privileged world existing outside the novel. A good reader will respond by adopting a less sympathetic and more analytic or questioning attitude towards the gentry and aristocracy depicted in Persuasion.
The subordination of women is a frequent target of Jane Austen’s satire. Throughout Persuasion we are uneasily aware of the dreary future (either poverty or William Elliot) that awaits Anne if Wentworth fails to propose to her. Women, it seems, were expected to lead protected, ornamental lives, and to accept meekly whatever social status their fathers or husbands conferred on them. Even Captain Wentworth speaks of women as rather precious, almost angelic beings, until his sister more sensibly replies, “I hate to hear you talking so, … as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures” (p. 70). The same dislike of inequality is apparent when Anne argues that “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands” (p. 234).
Anne is the one main character in the novel who always sees the essential equality of people, regardless of class or sex. Her closest friend Lady Russell has, like Sir Walter, “prejudices on the side of ancestry; she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them” (p. 11). While her father and older sister revel in their association with the vacuous Lady Dalrymple, Anne declares herself “too proud to enjoy a welcome which depends so entirely upon place” (p. 151). A minor character tells her, “I have no scruple of observing to you, how nonsensical some persons are about their place, because all the world knows how easy and indifferent you are about it” (p. 46).
Her sense of equality, her concern for less fortunate people, and her indifference to rank, are partly what saves Anne from marrying her hypocritical cousin. At Bath she visits “her former governess,” who puts her in touch with an old school friend Mrs. Smith, now a widow supporting herself by making and selling “thread-cases, pin-cushions, and card-racks.” From Mrs. Smith the heroine learns the truth about William Elliot, and she also hears of some of the stories retailed by “nurse Rooke,” stories which help "one know one’s species better.” As well as her geographic journey towards the ocean (from Kellynch to Bath to Lyme), then, Anne makes this metaphoric journey towards freedom by travelling down through the social scale, where she not only learns about lower-class life, but also sees more clearly the hypocrisy of relatively well-to-do characters like William Elliot and her own father. The knowledge Anne gains from her compassionate social journey gives her useful insight into human nature and preserves her from the obtuse inhuman snobbery of Sir Walter:
“Westgate-buildings!” said he; “and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate-buildings? – A Mrs. Smith. A widow Mrs. Smith, – and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr. Smiths whose names are to be met with every where. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. – Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Every thing that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you … ” (p. 157)
Despite these satirical attacks, Persuasion in the last analysis advocates a cautious acceptance of social hierarchy and established traditions. It asks us to reject Sir Walter’s futile and merely selfish version of conservatism, in favour of Anne’s active, community-oriented, and more moderate version. For behind Anne’s impatience with her own family, and behind Jane Austen’s satire, there stands an old-fashioned ideal of the moral obligations incumbent upon people of privilege. Both Anne Elliot and Jane Austen still expect high standards of conduct from those who enjoy the cultural benefits of middle-or upper-class life:
Anne had never seen her father and sister before in contact with nobility, and she must acknowledge herself disappointed. She had hoped better things from their high ideas of their own situation in life, and was reduced to form a wish which she had never foreseen – a wish that they had more pride; for “our cousins Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret”; “our cousins, the Dalrymples,” sounded in her ears all day long. (p. 148)
The snobbish stupidities of those around her do not prevent Anne from seeing that a social hierarchy promotes the cultivation of humane, civilized values, values which might be obliterated under a more pragmatic social structure. It is precisely the absence of these moral, intellectual, or cultural qualities which the heroine and the satirist point to in their assessment of Anne Elliot’s relatives:
Anne was ashamed. Had Lady Dalrymple and her daughter even been very agreeable, she would still have been ashamed of the agitation they created, but they were nothing. There was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding. (p. 149)
The social ideal underlying the satire of
was formed in response to early nineteenth-century conditions.
Perhaps Jane Austen would have been more liberal, if she had lived in
prosperous or more fortunate times. But it would be a great error to
try to read her novels through the tinted spectacles of
1 References are to the pages of R. W. Chapman’s edition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923).