Persuasions #6, 1984                                                                                                                                            Pages 21-23





Alice Hufstader

New York, New York


Jane Austen once wrote to a favourite niece that three or four families in a country village were the novelist’s ideal materials. In those days of large families, such a scenario promised a rich supply of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and even two step-mothers. Persuasion, like the other five novels, gives us just this pattern with two county families, the Elliots and the Musgroves, and the navy families, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, Mrs. Croft’s brother, Captain Wentworth, the Harvilles, and their guest, Captain Benwick.

In these three groups we have, strikingly, it seems to me, the contrast between people who contribute to the society in which they live and those who do not. The Royal Navy has just played a vital role in defending England against Napoleon. Fortunately Jane Austen gives us dates that permit history to tell its own story. Anne Elliot met and parted from young Wentworth in 1806, the year after Trafalgar. We learn that Kellynch was let in 1814 in the deceptive peace caused by Napoleon’s brief exile on Elba. Even at a remove of over a century and a half, we know how heroic England’s sailors have been. Their contribution to Jane Austen’s world is emphasized by Mrs. Croft’s rugged conversation about her travels and the do-it-yourself Captain Harville: “He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued.” Everyone, especially the Musgrove girls, are enchanted with these resourceful heroes and “their friendliness, their openness, their uprightness.”

As we are always reminded, Jane Austen confined her pen to what she knew at first hand. Two brothers were sailors, and one of them, Frank, a hobbyist who, when confined to the house, made a fringe for the dining room curtains. She tells us that Captain Wentworth distinguished himself in action off Santo Domingo, a place she had every reason to know because it was there that Cassandra’s fiance, Thomas Fowle, died of yellow fever. Though she can report naval activities only through the conversations of her naval characters, such conversations were part of her own family patterns.

There is a dark side to this genial picture. Admiral Croft and his dashing brother-in-law, Captain Wentworth, are unrepentant profiteers. If only they have the luck to live to another war, there may be further fortunes to be made in prize money. There is no mention in Persuasion of press gangs nor of floggings, but Jane Austen was doubtless aware that Britannia ruled the waves not only with gallantry, but also with cruelty.

Now for the Musgroves: they too had “friendliness, openness, and up-rightness.” Beyond being optionally kind to their tenants, society of Georgian (by now Regency) England did not ask the gentry to make any substantial contribution to the world they occupied. As a Somerset squire, Mr. Musgrove attended the assizes; he may even have been a magistrate. According to Jane Austen, the Musgroves protect their game that it may be theirs to destroy. Presumably kindly, unimaginative Mr. Musgrove would have favoured transportation for poachers. Unlike the bereaved and poetic Captain Benwick, they read little but newspapers. Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove are affectionate and loyal sisters, a great improvement upon her own selfish siblings, Anne Elliot ruefully realizes. Jane Austen presents us with a number of amiable mediocrities. The Musgroves are among them, although I must confess to liking Mrs. Musgrove a great deal better than does her creator.

With the exception of our heroine, Anne, the Elliots are not only useless, they are parasites. Sir Walter cannot meet his creditors. Elizabeth, his favourite daughter, is cold, and Mary is consumed with self-pity and self-importance. Sir Walter is vain and selfish to the point of cruelty. Jane Austen, as a country pastor’s daughter, had probably had slights to endure from the landowning classes of Hampshire. It is quite clear that she has a very real score to settle with not only Sir Walter but such petty tyrants as General Tilney and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

R. W. Chapman, the great Austen scholar, has stated that her weak point is her handling of heredity. Somerset Maugham goes a step further. In The Art of Fiction he maintains that the disparity between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet and the three younger daughters is so great that Jane Austen should have made Mrs. Bennet a second wife, and mother to only Mary, Kitty, and that hoyden, Lydia.

This brings us to the parent-as-a-handicap mechanism of most of Jane Austen’s novels. Almost all her young people have a mother or father to be overcome with Mrs. Bennet as horror-in-chief. Sir Walter Elliot inflicts upon Anne, as does Lieutenant Price upon Fanny, that most painful of filial sufferings – humiliation.

There are, I suggest, two reasons for the absence of parent-child resemblances. With Jane Austen’s preference for only three or four families, a great many different characteristics had to be found in comparatively few people – otherwise no story. Then, too, in her letters she observes that the young people of her day were far more genteel than their parents. Her references, not always admiring, to young ladies’ finishing schools explain why Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove have received a more ambitious education than had their mother.

A family pattern surprising to modern readers is the marriage of cousins, sometimes first cousins. Walter Elliot is a cousin to Elizabeth, who wants to marry him, and to Anne, who does not. Fanny Price marries her first cousin, Edmund Bertram, as does Henrietta Musgrove when she marries “cousin” Charles Hayter. Lady Catherine de Bourgh plans to marry her sickly daughter to her nephew, Mr. Darcy, until foiled by spirited Elizabeth Bennet. Poor genetics that this is, no one minds a bit.

Here again Jane Austen is staying close to home. Her favourite brother, Henry, married their first cousin Eliza de Feuillide, whose first husband had been guillotined during the French Revolution. (If Jane Austen forbade her pen to dwell on tragedy, and she did – it was not because tragedy had passed her by.)

Two falls advance Anne’s progress in winning back Captain Wentworth, whom she rejected nine years earlier. When she is nursing little Charles Musgrove after a bad tumble, her former fiance rescues her from the patient’s boisterous younger brother. Communication, though inhibited, is restored. The second, Louisa’s fall on the Cobb, is Persuasion’s turning point. Captain Wentworth is freed from his superficial courtship of the young lady and can return to Anne. Captain Benwick, not only bereaved, but a confirmed romantic, finds consolation in a pretty invalid to whom he can explain Byron and Scott.

Again Jane Austen is reverting to the known. Although critics have called the scene on the Cobb exaggerated, she had every reason to take falls seriously. There had been a riding and a carriage accident in her own experience – in one, her friend Mrs. Lefroy, and in the other, her cousin Jane Williams had been killed. In this light, Captain Wentworth’s cry, “Oh, God! Her father and mother?” is not so melodramatic as it might seem.

There are two family incidents in Persuasion that seem to me to fail. (Both were vigorously disputed in St. Louis.) Jane Austen’s callous treatment of Mrs. Musgrove’s grief for “poor Dick” has been often deplored. Despite protests that J. A. is “telling it like it was,” I maintain that Mama’s being overweight and Dick’s not promising well could not have modified bereavement. In being realistic about Dick, Jane Austen fails to be realistic about his mother. Parents do not, with the not entirely happy exception of Mr. Bennet, see their children just as they are. Nature does not intend that they should.

The second failure to do justice to a family ethic again concerns Mrs. Musgrove, who increasingly seems to me to have something in common with Mrs. Jennings of Sense and Sensibility (both ladies of no intellectual distinction but possessed of kind hearts and practical compassion). While Mrs. Harville is nursing Louisa Musgrove at Lyme her parents invite the three little Harvilles to spend Christmas at Uppercross. This homely kindness deserved more praise than it received. The happy and, of necessity, noisy scene of children making Christmas decorations and eating brawn and cold pies is presented from the point of view of the childless woman whose response to domestic jollity is one of self-protectiveness. The question then arises as to whether this rejection is that of Jane Austen or of Lady Russell, who can think of nothing more seasonable to say than that she must remember not to call at Uppercross during the Christmas holidays again.

Jane Austen’s devotion to her nieces and nephews (including the cloyingly-named “ ’itty Dordy”) is enthusiastically documented by her nephew Edward Austen-Leigh. Surely there must have been high jinks at Godmersham! Perhaps the approaching reunion of Anne and Frederick makes it necessary for Jane Austen to suggest that the meddlesome Lady Russell is sometimes in the wrong.

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