Reading Jane Austen: Part Four


The previous section, in copying the opening paragraphs of the opening chapters of Austen’s six published novels, argued that Persuasion is very different – both in tone and in the starkly negative and judgemental portrait of Sir Walter Elliot as a damaged and damaging personality and father. The main purpose of that comparison was to show that the material offered in the opening paragraphs of Chapter One of Persuasion did not really support the novel’s title. It was not intended as a detailed examination and assessment of Austen’s techniques in developing her chosen material.

However, the choice and development of the material offered in opening chapters are particularly important – not least because they help establish the basic tonality of the writer’s approach regarding significant characters or plot ideas that become the foundations upon which is built the superstructure of the narrative. So opening chapters, by demonstrating the depth and range of the writer’s technical control over the chosen material, can shape and influence the reader’s expectations of and responses to the work from the very beginning. As the previous section suggested, even the opening paragraphs of Austen’s earlier novels can be seen as instrumental in offering some sense of the intended core vision.  

So what might a closer look at Persuasion offer in this regard?


It immediately introduces a remarkable narrative technique more associated with what is sometimes called ‘post-modern’ literary stylistic experimentation than with the novels of Austen’s period. At the same moment as the reader opens the novel and starts reading the text so does Sir Walter open his copy of the Baronetage and starts reading essentially the same text as the reader‘ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL’. It is an arresting and initially delightful, apparently comic beginning that aligns the reader momentarily with the character. But it also contains not so much a joke as the seeds of a profound irony, for by the end of the sixth chapter the text will no longer accurately describe the Sir Walter who is reading it. He will have rented out the Hall because of his own incompetence and profligacy and moved into lodgings in Bath, where he remains for the rest of the novel. The joke is Sir Walter himself – and from the first paragraph onward Austen gifts him attitudes and vocabulary that make it plain that he is not at all funny or amusing but deadly (and deadeningly) serious – which begins to separate him from the reader.

This separation accelerates through Austen’s very specific description of Sir Walter’s reading habits: the Baronetage is the only book he reads whether he is at leisure or feeling distressed – which tend to confirm that it is, indeed, the only book he reads. Later in the paragraph (or to be more accurate, in the sentence of some hundred words which forms the paragraph) the reader is told that the reason why Sir Walter so enjoys the Baronetage is because in its pages ‘he could read his own history with an interest which never failed’  – presumably, in something of a trance-like state. This is reinforced by the fact that the book always falls open at the same page. So not only is it the only book he seems to read, it is clear that he reads almost exclusively only the section that refers to himself. Superficially, this seems to fix him as another one of Austen’s delicious caricatures, a narcissist who apparently lives primarily via a constant re-reading of an official biography of his own life. Austen offers no hint of any other interests or activities. At this point Sir Walter seems essentially inert. But as ever with Austen, it is not so simple or straightforward as this.

One of the pleasures of reading Austen is the way she creates a balance of structure and language so smooth and untroubled that it is as if the words appear on the page spontaneously, without any intermediary effect or conscious choice on her part. She achieves this through her mastery of the technique known as free indirect discourse through which she moves freely between her own narrative voice and the voices (both direct, indirect and even unvoiced) of her characters. She is so successful at merging these different voices that it is sometimes (indeed, often) difficult to differentiate between them at any given moment. The effect of this is that the text seems to unfold naturally through the characters and their perspectives rather than through her decisions. And because of this what might initially appear to be superficial can turn out to indicate deeper concerns.

For example, although Sir Walter’s rather eccentric reading habits do have a definite initial sense of comic exaggeration the very structure of the opening paragraph and its joke actually presents someone trapped in a solipsistic universe of self-regard, unable to escape the addiction of his own grandeur and caught in the fascinating web of his own official biography. It is essentially a frozen life of endless repetition in which the only proof and validation of his own worth – his own humanity – is someone else’s words written on a page.

This misuse of the act of reading as repetition, as confirmation and justification of identity, is a symptom of what modern psychiatrists might see as an element of a personality disorder.  Although Austen did not have the advantage of such modern terminology she lived at a time of growing scientific interest in the area of ‘character’ or ‘temperament’; indeed, in the French Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert between 1751 and 1772, temperament was defined as originating from the natural constitution of the individual. And figures honoured in histories of the development of psychiatry were both contemporaneous with Austen and developing early ideas of what would now be termed personality disorders – such as Philippe Pinel (1745-1826), who described what he called ‘manie sans delire’, or mania without delusion, where ‘mania’ referred to states of agitation; or Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol (1772-1840), who introduced the concept of ‘monomanie raisonnante’, or reasoning monomania, with regard to the compulsive ritual behaviour of a female patient; or the Quaker James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848), who championed the term ‘moral insanity’ where ‘moral’ referred to affect rather than ethics. Sir Walter’s reading habits are certainly akin to some of these theories of behaviour.

One of the refinements in critical theory – as opposed to medical theories – since Jane Austen wrote her novels is the recognition of semiotics or semiology, which Ferdinand de Saussure defined as:

‘a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life.’

Interpreted from this perspective, Sir Walter’s use of the familiar text in the Baronetage to confirm his sense of identity is without reference to his social life and the various responsibilities – father, landowner, and caretaker amongst others – that involves. In semiotic terms, he mistakes the sign (the text) for what it should signify. This is an important flaw which moves beyond characterisation into plot: for it suggests that one aspect of the novel will centre on how Sir Walter fails to honour those familial and social obligations and responsibilities that his title and estate confer upon him. The difficulties such a man causes for those who know him can have important and potentially damaging consequences. One suspects from the very beginning, then, that this novel might contain characters who, despite presenting an outward armoured confidence that masks unacknowledged anxiety and uncertainty and distorts their vision as they try to ‘read’ the world around them, are revealed as having very little validity or social value. And just like Sir Walter they will be locked into their inability to accept change, so that once they have been examined by Austen’s unremitting gaze they will simply repeat themselves throughout the novel however much they encounter and interact with others who embody empathy and social virtues.

Austen’s vocabulary, in her careful explanation as to why he so enjoys reading the Baronetage, pins down these deficiencies in Sir Walter’s character:

there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt, as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century

The context makes it clear that Sir Walter’s ‘pity’ has nothing to do with empathy or compassion but is an expression of his perceived superiority over lesser mortals. These words cast a shadow over any comic aspects of his behaviour, especially in the way he counts his own inherited title (which he gained by accident of birth, of course) as more significant and worthy of greater respect than those awarded for services to the country in a time of national danger. It is a misplaced vanity (Austen’s constant word for him from the fifth paragraph – ‘Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation’ – and throughout the novel). The fifth paragraph ends with a damning summation:

He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion

in telling contrast to the ‘pity and contempt’ he reserved for those whose titles came only from service to their country. The direct authorial voice heard in the fifth paragraph is a not so subtle reinforcement of what the narrative technique of regression in the first paragraph achieves beyond the surface comedy: that, as already suggested, Sir Walter’s relationship with the world is one of frozen negative repetition. It is noteworthy that Austen maintains this image of cold negativity throughout the novel. She also applies it to his favourite eldest daughter Elizabeth, who seems increasingly locked into her own inescapable fate of spinsterhood, caught forever frozen in the icy pairing with her father – as described in Chapter Twenty-Two:

Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, whose entrance seemed to give a general chill

As mentioned in the previous section Austen then abruptly uses a different narrative technique in the second paragraph: a simple set of facts simply stated, unadorned and undeveloped, telling the reader directly what it was that Sir Walter found so absorbing to read on what seems to be a daily basis and emphasising how he apparently gains comfort and satisfaction from reading about his daughters rather than valuing their physical company. What other functions might this neutral recital of information serve?


Dates form an important element in the dissection of the family. Of course, precision is necessary if the supposed entry is to ring true – the Baronetage is clearly a statement of factual historical record rather than a commentary. The technique (yet again, a paragraph made up of only one sentence broken by semi-colons, separating out details) is a very economical, efficient, and unobtrusively naturalistic way for Austen to indicate that another of the central concerns of the novel is to be the family described here rather than the one individual the reader has met thus far.

Further, by presenting the information in this way Austen introduces the family without overtly directing the reader’s attention – the reader is free to skim the information offered without drawing conclusions as to what clues it gives about the members identified. For example, the careful reader might notice that Sir Walter at the age of forty found himself the sole parent of three young girls aged (according to their dates as given in the Baronetage) fifteen, thirteen and nine years old who had lost their mother. (Interestingly, there might be a slight anomaly some four paragraphs later when Austen comments that when Lady Elliot died the ‘two eldest (girls were) sixteen and fourteen’.) Whatever their age the careful reader might well consider the possible emotional problems this might create for them in terms of current and future relationships. But Austen’s brevity and flat impersonal tone, mirroring the preferred style of the Baronetage which their father finds so riveting, imposes no obligation on the reader, careful or not, to think about the possible effects of such an event.

This also applies to the almost invisible, casual, glossed over facts of his wife’s death – ‘which lady (who died in 1800)’and that of his one and only son, ‘still-born’ on ‘Nov 5, 1789 mentioned en passant as just more details to be included in the historical record. Inconspicuous as they are in this somewhat potted family history – for example, the reader has little idea of Lady Elliot’s age at the time of her death, and the baby has no name – the death of a brother must have impacted upon the young Elizabeth and Anne in some way despite their age, never mind the blow to their father. Both deaths are carefully unobtrusive, but the resonance of their absence grows more significant as the plot and narrative progress – and is deserving of a little attention. After all, if Lady Elliot had lived none of the events started by the renting out of Kellynch would have taken place; and the dysfunctions explored in the novel would have been somewhat softened and abated. And if the unnamed son had survived then all the narrative surrounding the roles of Mrs Clay and Mr Elliot would either not have happened or not been so important, as he would have inherited the title and the estate.

Austen’s judgement on Lady Elliot is far kinder – and shorter – than the one she delivers on Sir Walter, for

Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose judgment and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards

Austen makes no attempt to remind the reader that the three girls she leaves behind would each inherit some mixture of both parents and their qualities. But immediately following this positive description of the mother she makes it clear that the marriage proved somewhat difficult because of the different character of the husband:

‘She had humoured, or softened, or concealed his failings, and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years’

This is another powerful indictment, especially in its quiet depiction of the progress of the marriage in the little sequence of ‘humoured, or softened, or concealed’ and its sense of the need for increasing degrees of intervention. But there is no mitigation or mercy in the word choice of ‘his failings’. Austen’s subtlety of language is also evidenced in this statement of Sir Walter’s ‘real respectability’. The idea that she had provided him a ‘real’ respectability while alive implies that without her guiding hand after her death any respectability he might have was unreal in some way, being artificial and superficial.

In this sense her death can be seen as one of the mainsprings of the novel: had she lived it seems assured that Sir Walter would have been encouraged to accept and fulfil the various responsibilities his social position bestowed upon him; and thus, perhaps, retain his property and personal respectability rather than fall into that spiritual vacuum of torpor and inactivity that Austen posits as his dominant trait. Perhaps Anne might even have been encouraged to marry Wentworth from the beginning – though her mother’s experience of the consequences of ‘youthful infatuation’ make this less certain.

There are only two pieces of information about the dead son: that he was ‘still-born’ on or about ‘Nov 5, 1789’. Even so,it is worth trying to see beneath the surface here because not only could Austen have used any number of options to explain the death but also – why did she choose this date?


So why did she choose stillbirth as the cause of death? For the modern reader it is a very precise event, defined by the NHS as:

A stillbirth is when a baby is born dead after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy. It happens in around 1 in every 200 births in England. If the baby dies before 24 completed weeks, it’s known as a miscarriage or late foetal loss.

The situation was not so clear in Austen’s time, where the term ‘still-born’ could also refer to a baby who had died before being baptised – anything up to several days after birth. That is, there was an apparent blurring of the distinction between what might be called foetal deaths in labour and those (presumably frail) babies who died in the hours or days following a live birth. Because of this lack of definition, some would argue that the reference to ‘still-born’ essentially operates at one remove – its force is connotative, not denotative. The emphasis falls on the idea that Sir Walter cannot pass on his inheritance to a son – he is unfruitful, without lasting or continuing influence or force. As such, he can be seen as emblematic of the waning authority of a moribund class.

The stillborn son had two extant sisters and a third born some two years after his death, none of whom can inherit the father’s estate, of course, thanks to the notion of primogeniture and the importance of the first-born son – a recurring theme in Austen. The fact that Sir Walter successfully fathered three daughters  immediately leads on to questions about his sperm count. It is likely that current medical research would diagnose that Sir Walter suffered from the condition known variously as ‘Y chromosome infertility’ or ‘Y-linked spermatogenic failure’ or ‘Y chromosome-related azoospermia’ – a genetic dysfunction which means the lack of male children is down to the father rather than the mother.

That said, it has long been the case that mothers carry the blame when sons refuse to appear, however slight their actual responsibility might be – one only needs to recall Henry VIII’s default response when his wives could not produce a viable son. It is, perhaps, a form of displacement whereby men try to deny the psychological impact of failing to successfully produce a male heir. But the truth is that even men as self-important as Henry VIII and Sir Walter will inevitably react in some way when the longed-for son dies. So how does Sir Walter react? Is his behaviour conditioned by grief? The more sympathetic reader might say that Austen buries the deaths of mother and son in exactly the way Sir Walter perhaps buries his grief and disappointment beneath the armour of his solipsistic interactions with other people and especially his surviving family – who are all female, of course. But Austen is at pains to deny him any such indulgence, clearly stating that Lady Elliot’s death bestowed ‘an awful legacy’ as it was ‘to confide to the authority and guidance of a conceited, silly father’ the upbringing of her daughters.

In his 1917 paper Mourning and Melancholia Freud tried to address the nature of grieving, stating that the two conditions which give his paper its title are

regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved one

and characterised by

a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, [and] inhibition of all activity.

which certainly seems to fit the Sir Walter depicted in these opening paragraphs. Freud then goes on to distinguish melancholia from mourning by suggesting that melancholia manifests itself in the individual through

an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself. The patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself and expects to be cast out and punished.

In simpler terms, mourning is healthy because it is a conscious process whereby one re-establishes contact with the outside world; melancholia dwells in the unconscious and is therefore unhealthy and even pathological, finding increasing comfort and satisfaction in rituals of repetition that do not seek to maintain contact with the outside world so much as refusing its reality and responsibilities. The opening chapter in its description of Sir Walter’s reading habits certainly seems to capture some element of melancholia – but his ego is such that his emotional response seems extremely shallow and temporary.

Freud goes on to say that the symptoms of melancholia reflect a ‘narcissistic blow’, a wound to the ego whereby any loss inevitably encompasses a parallel loss of what might be termed the deeper personal being of the survivor, demonstrated by a diminishment of self in the areas of character and personality. Again, the kind reader might perhaps see some of these elements as helping to explain aspects of Sir Walter’s solipsism. Of course, it would be a mistake to argue that Austen somehow anticipated Freud’s analysis. She would not recognise the terminology for a start. But she was an acute observer of other people and had certainly had ample and personal experience of the manifold varieties of grief as the world dissolved into the conflict of revolution followed by Napoleon’s military ambition.

Her depiction of Sir Walter has some concordances with Freud’s thought but – and this is both significant and testimony to her skill in revealing character – she demonstrates her grasp of how different people grieve by also giving the reader a portrait of another person in the grip of melancholia masquerading as mourning – Captain Benwick. He too is essentially narcissistic in his display of grief for Fanny Harville, though without the sense of blight that surrounds Sir Walter – and Austen rewards him by offering him the opportunity, through his reported extended and assiduous nursing of Louisa, to escape the bookish prison of his sense of loss and guilt and resentment (Freud’s ‘pathology’) and recapture something of his true self, becoming able to fall in love with someone new. At the same time, of course, this causes Harville to wonder aloud about the fickleness of affection and opens the way for one of the truly resonant passages in the novel when Anne says quietly in the brilliant Chapter Twenty-Three

All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.

This too is surely a statement about what it is to be in mourning, this time for a love that was itself somewhat stillborn by Sir Walter’s reaction to it:

Sir Walter, on being applied to, without actually withholding his consent, or saying it should never be, gave it all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter

There is no clearer statement in the novel of the awful effects of the parenting skills (or lack thereof) of a man who, in other circumstances, might have garnered the reader’s sympathy for the double loss of wife and son.

Austen’s choice of date for the unnamed boy’s death seems pointedly symbolic: 1789 was the year of the French Revolution that threw Europe’s ruling elites into turmoil; and on November 5 of that year the French National Meeting declared all citizens equal under law (something which would doubtless have caused the Sir Walter we know to display another reaction of ‘great astonishment, great coldness, great silence’); and more powerful still, of course, November 5 is one of the iconic dates in British history, when the dangerous Gunpowder Plot to destroy Parliament and the King was foiled.

It is not, perhaps, too fanciful to suggest that Austen is suggesting by this choice of date the fact that one of the sub-texts of the novel is to underline not only the approaching actuality of change (represented by the Navy and its values) but the urgency of the need for and the growing desirability of such change. In Austen’s vision of England as expressed in the novel, that change will not come about through revolutionary violence as per the French in 1789 or the Catholic plotters in 1605, but through the natural processes of wastage, decline and impotence.


The third paragraph introduces another theme of importance by expanding on the printed words in the Baronetage through revealing Sir Walter’s own additions:

Precisely such had the paragraph originally stood from the printer’s hands; but Sir Walter had improved it by adding, for the information of himself and his family, these words, after the date of Mary’s birth – ‘married, Dec. 16, 1810, Charles, son and heir of Charles Musgrove, Esq. of Uppercross, in the county of Somerset,’ – and by inserting most accurately the day of the month on which he had lost his wife.

Again, only a single sentence where Austen subtly merges her apparently neutral authorial voice with Sir Walter’s unintentionally revealing mindset and self-regard by choosing vocabulary that seems natural and straightforward but nonetheless suggests the opposite. Thus we are told that Sir Walter had ‘improved’ the printed information (expressing in a different way that sense of superiority underpinning the first paragraph) by adding ‘for the information of himself and his family’ (note who comes first in his consideration) details of Mary’s wedding to Charles Musgrove, and ending with a final note ‘inserting most accurately the day of the month on which he had lost his wife’ – in other circumstances and with another person this would be interpreted as an expression of loving grief, whereas ‘most accurately’ here can be read as an interesting redundancy given that the date of her death can only be either accurate or inaccurate. Sir Walter certainly feels himself to be the supreme arbiter of events and the idea of his handwritten notes ‘improving’ rather than simply adding to the printed history carries on the sense of his self-regard. It may well be that he genuinely loved and misses his late wife, but the formulaic expression ‘lost his wife’ might well gently indicate a certain shallowness of feeling or suggest that the remembrance is not so much of loss as of how her death has complicated his life.

There is another more important significance in this notion of ‘improving’ the printed record by appending handwritten notes. Sir Walter ‘improves’ the printed original by the act of writing on it, by exercising his authorial power. None of his daughters would think to do such a thing because none of them has the authority (or author-ity) to do so. This question of authority – as already noticed with regard to the upbringing of his daughters – becomes one of the major underpinning themes of the novel.

These opening three paragraphs form some fifteen per cent or so of the opening chapter (which goes on to provide a brief but important background history of recent events) but set up everything that follows in the next seventeen or so paragraphs. Everything we learn reinforces the suspicions raised in the opening three paragraphs and helps indicate the major themes that might develop in terms of the Elliot family dynamics and behaviour and how they might act as a symbol of wider social issues. Austen achieves this through the subtlety of the language – for example, as in the apparently casual summary when she smoothly offers what appears to be Sir Walter’s unvoiced comments on his three daughters:

Elizabeth had succeeded, at sixteen, to all that was possible, of her mother’s rights and consequence; and being very handsome, and very like himself, her influence had always been great, and they had gone on together most happily. His two other children were of very inferior value. Mary had acquired a little artificial importance, by becoming Mrs Charles Musgrove; but Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; – she was only Anne.

but where Sir Walter’s words and perspective almost imperceptibly melt into the hostile authorial voice with regard to Anne’s ‘elegance of mind and sweetness of character’. Indeed, the structure of the paragraph – in the reversal of the normal social precedence by age of the three daughters – illustrates how the ‘little artificial importance’ of Mary’s marriage raises her above her older sister: Miss Elliot, Mrs Musgrove, Anne. Two paragraphs later it is made even more clear that they are essentially commodities for their father:

her father had found little to admire in her (Anne), (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own); there could be nothing in them now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem. He had never indulged much hope, he had now none, of ever reading her name in any other page of his favourite work. All equality of alliance must rest with Elizabeth; for Mary had merely connected herself with an old country family of respectability and large fortune, and had therefore given all the honour and received none: Elizabeth would, one day or other, marry suitably.

Yet again Austen’s control of nuance is demonstrated in the ironic pomposity of the language she gives to Sir Walter – ‘merely connected’ to ‘an old country family of respectability’ (not forgetting the ‘large fortune’). And simultaneously she sets the exact nature of what Mary has inherited from her father, this sense of having ‘given all the honour and received none’, which prepares the groundwork for when we meet Mary in Chapter Six and Anne has to listen to ‘Mary’s complaint, that Mrs Musgrove was very apt not to give her the precedence that was her due’. Indeed, Mary’s ‘artificial importance’ takes on something of the resonance of how her mother gave her father a ‘real respectability’ that has been diluted since her mother died. It raises the question of what real importance might be in this society.

But the daughter whom Austen chooses to focus on most here is Elizabeth, who is very specifically aligned with her father in the ‘blessing’ of good looks (and therefore is the polar opposite of what has happened to Anne, whose ‘bloom had vanished early’):

It sometimes happens, that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before; and, generally speaking, if there has been neither ill health nor anxiety, it is a time of life at which scarcely any charm is lost. It was so with Elizabeth; still the same handsome Miss Elliot that she had begun to be thirteen years ago

This is another subtle portrait, where the physical attributes quietly reflect an untroubled (or complacent?) life and also suggest a sense of stasis – nothing about Elizabeth has apparently changed for over thirteen years, she remains frozen not only in looks but also in the attitudes that she had adopted (‘still the same … Miss Elliot that she had begun to be’)when sixteen or so – significantly, when her mother died. In the following paragraph Austen drills a little deeper beneath this surface, pointing out that, despite her looks, she had ‘some regrets and some apprehensions’ as she approached ‘the years of danger’ and

would have rejoiced to be certain of being properly solicited by baronet-blood within the next twelvemonth or two.

Tellingly, Austen ends the paragraph by contrasting Elizabeth’s actions with regard to the Baronetage to those of her father, for being older and unmarried ‘made the book an evil’ – and

more than once, when her father had left it open on the table near her, had she closed it, with averted eyes, and pushed it away.

It is a somewhat exaggerated response, indicating just how strong are her anxieties beneath the aloof composure as she is trapped by her own sense of her social worth – unable to contemplate marriage to anyone not of ‘baronet-blood’. Austen does not hesitate to inform the reader that there is also a history of resentment and rejection (‘still, after an interval of several years, felt with anger by Elizabeth’) when her cousin, Mr Elliot, had married ‘a rich woman of inferior birth’ rather than herself – despite the fact that she ‘meant to marry him’ and her father ‘had always meant that she should.’  The careful reader might well interpret such a long-lasting rancour as rather childish and immature in the way that young children assume that what they want necessarily concords with reality. On the potentially symbolic level of the Elliots as representative of a social caste’s cast of mind, this is a negative picture equal to the opening description of Sir Walter and his obsession with the Baronetage, with all that implies of dereliction of responsibility. On the more personal family level, this portrait of Elizabeth clearly indicates how faulty has been Sir Walter’s parenting.

[The consequences of this relatively early nurturing result in a consistency of attitude and behaviour that continues throughout the novel. Just as Sir Walter is described in terms of vacuous repetition so are Elizabeth and Mary; Anne is the only Elliot who is open to and embraces the possibility of change. Indeed, in comparison with the family relationships as summarised in the opening chapter, very little changes in the final chapter when Anne and Wentworth announce their engagement  

there was little to distress them beyond the want of graciousness and warmth – Sir Walter made no objection, and Elizabeth did nothing worse than look cold and unconcerned.

while Mary clings on to her ‘little artificial importance’ by being content to ‘flatter’ herself that she had had a hand in the outcome ‘by keeping Anne with her in the autumn’and more tellingly, continues in the same vein of self-congratulatory superiority she has shown throughout:

… and as her own sister must be better than her husband’s sisters, it was very agreeable that Captain Wentworth should be a richer man than either Captain Benwick or Charles Hayter. – She had something to suffer perhaps when they came into contact again, in seeing Anne restored to the rights of seniority, and the mistress of a very pretty landaulette; but she had a future to look forward to, of powerful consolation. Anne had no Uppercross-hall before her, no landed estate, no headship of a family; and if they could but keep Captain Wentworth from being made a baronet, she would not change situations with Anne.

It is a description of self-satisfaction that recalls Henry James’s comment about ‘small and second-rate minds’ and ‘perfect little she-Philistines that opened the first section of this discussion – but we should not forget, as James apparently did, that these were consciously created by Austen – and for as profound a purpose as any character conjured by him.]

But Austen introduces what might be seen as a more profound assessment and criticism of Elizabeth and her way of life towards the end of the chapter. It falls into two stages: the essential emptiness of her life; and the effect this has when faced with the sudden need for the family to ‘retrench’. After outlining the main elements of Elizabeth’s anger with her cousin Austen delivers her authorial view of her character:

Such were Elizabeth Elliot’s sentiments and sensations; such the cares to alloy, the agitations to vary, the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness, of her scene of life – such the feelings to give interest to a long, uneventful residence in one country circle, to fill the vacancies which there were no habits of utility abroad, no talents or accomplishments for home, to occupy.

It is a withering description of a totally empty life that is all surface frostiness and social contempt. But the careful use of the word ‘utility’ lifts the resonance beyond the confines of simple characterisation and into the social world beyond, in much the same way as happened with Emma, as discussed in the opening section of these comments. It immediately references the great contemporary philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and his concept of Utilitarianism – the main axiom of which he defined as ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’ in his 1776 publication A Comment on the Commentaries and a Fragment on Government. His interests were wide-ranging: encompassing ethics, economy, political philosophy, and the philosophy of law. By comparison, of course, Elizabeth’s complacent and circumscribed existence as described is fundamentally irrelevant. Given Austen’s core concern for the position of women in her society it is likely that she was most interested in his arguments concerning individual economic freedom and equal rights for women. Elizabeth’s concerns relate more to protecting and continuing her way of life. When asked by her father to suggest how they might retrench it is significant that she proposed

two branches of economy: to cut off some unnecessary charities, and to refrain from new furnishing the drawing room; to which expedients she afterwards added the happy thought of their taking no present down to Anne, as had been the usual yearly custom

Three sentences later the reader is not surprised to discover that

She felt herself ill-used and unfortunate, as did her father; and they were neither of them able to devise any means of lessening their expenses without compromising their dignity, or relinquishing their comforts in a way not to be borne

And the chapter ends with the caustic paragraph reinforcing the moral failure of both father and daughter, who

seemed to expect that something should be struck out by one or the other (i.e. their ‘confidential’ friends Mr Shepherd and Lady Russell) to remove their embarrassments and reduce their expenditure, without involving the loss of any indulgence of taste or pride.


It is, perhaps, inevitable that most readers equate the notion of the Elliot family with Sir Walter and his three daughters and forget or put to one side Mr Elliot, the heir presumptive. As D W Harding commented in his 1965 Introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel

… the parts of the novel centring on Mr Elliot give an impression of something contemplated but not fully worked out

This is certainly true as the novel rushes towards its somewhat hasty conclusion and the rather obscure and tangled involvement between him and Mrs Clay; but without Mr Elliot the novel would lose one of its central agents in the exploration of those themes that interested Jane Austen – the social and moral changes taking place that were creating new patterns of authority and behaviour consequent upon the emerging philosophies and technologies of the time.

Austen very much includes him in the opening chapter – indeed, his name is introduced in one of Sir Walter’s handwritten notes ‘improving’ the Baronetage’s record of the family, as ‘Heir presumptive, William Walter Elliot, Esq., great grandson of the second Sir Walter’ – with the information that Elizabeth ‘meant to marry him’ and Sir Walter ‘had always meant that she should’ but that he had other ideas:

Instead of pushing his fortune in the line marked out for the heir of the house of Elliot, he had purchased independence by uniting himself to a rich woman of inferior birth

and as a consequence ‘all acquaintance between them had ceased’, much to Mr Elliot’s relief. This, of course, makes for an interesting future plotline and narrative where some form of reconciliation or emotional tangle becomes inevitable. And some readers might appreciate his recognition of the deficiencies of his relatives as a counterweight to the accusation of a mercenary attitude – which comes from the disappointed and resentful father and daughter and therefore is not necessarily accurate.

He too can be seen as representative of a wider concern for when next we meet him in Chapter Twelve he is immediately recognised as ‘a gentleman’ and a little later as ‘completely a gentleman in manner. This is an important social marker, of course, but as the novel progresses it seems a somewhat changed one from, say, the idea of a gentleman as explored in Emma. There Mr Knightley’s almost perfect judgement and sense of social responsibility make him closely aligned with the author in ways which could not and do not happen with Mr Elliot in Persuasion – despite the fact that, in terms of their interaction with the other characters in their respective novels, they present in almost identical ways as gentlemen.

The use of the term carried profound connotations for the earlier Jane Austen, of course, who allowed the liveliest of her heroines, Elizabeth Bennet, to admonish the most socially powerful of her heroes, Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice:

‘You are mistaken, Mr Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.’

But Sir Walter demonstrates the nature of the change in the use of the term in Chapter Three of Persuasion when he sarcastically says

Wentworth? Oh! ay – Mr Wentworth, the curate of Monkford. You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property: Mr Wentworth was nobody, I remember; quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Strafford family. One wonders how the names of many of our nobility become so common.’

Some readers might consider that in his role as curate, Mr Wentworth’s social value was at least equal to ‘some man of property’ thanks to the utility or social usefulness of his role. When Mary Crawford questions the value of the clergy in Mansfield Park Edmund Bertram’s response is unequivocal

‘I cannot call that situation nothing which has charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally – which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence … The manners I speak of, might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles’

Put another way, Mr Wentworth is not so much a man of property as a man concerned with and professionally responsible for educating his parishioners – and therefore the wider society – in ‘good principles’ and through them, proper conduct. ‘Property’ comes from the Latin root ‘proprietas’ – and shares its etymology with another English word ‘propriety’, creating a tension between the values the two words represent. Austen does not state this argument openly, but demonstrates through the characters of Mr Wentworth’s sister and brother that the Wentworth family are, in their different ways, active positive forces in their society. Some readers might interpret Sir Walter’s dismissive comment as reflecting the first inkling of the tension in the novel between the rather empty lives of the landed gentry and more useful and socially important groups – who may not have property, but through their good principles and conduct maintain and protect the society in which they live and serve.

Sir Walter’s comment both shows how silly he is and how misplaced his values are regarding the definition of a gentleman – and also how different his values are from those which are the bedrock of Austen’s two immediately preceding novels. Sir Walter represents a truly different world as does his heir, who is finally unmasked as manipulative in general and perhaps even criminal in his reported treatment of Mrs Smith. In other ways he can be seen as a continuation or expansion of that subset of morally bankrupt or careless superficially attractive young men who feature in Austen’s earlier works: the George Wickhams, the Henry Crawfords or the Frank Churchills. An example, perhaps, of Sir Walter’s ‘failings’ taken to extremes; but one who carries a seriously disruptive threat, even as late in the novel as the opening of Chapter Twenty-One:

(Anne) felt a great deal of good towards (Mr Elliot). In spite of the mischief of his attentions, she owed him gratitude and regard, perhaps compassion. She could not help thinking much of the extraordinary circumstances attending their acquaintance; of the right which he seemed to have to interest her, by every thing in situation, by his own sentiments, by his early prepossession. It was altogether very extraordinary, – Flattering, but painful. There was much to regret. How she might have felt, had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case, was not worth any enquiry; for there was a Captain Wentworth …

That said, Austen is not sentimentally romantic – although she makes it clear that if Wentworth were to be removed from the situation then Mr Elliot might be a serious contender to replace him in Anne’s affections (despite the fact that Elizabeth considers his new attentions are focused on her) she is not seriously concerned to really disrupt the rekindling relationship that drives the emotional narrative. That is why she introduces Mrs Smith four chapters earlier, whose express plot function in Chapter Twenty-One – to enlighten Anne as to Mr Elliot’s core character and release her from any temptation to accept him as a suitor – is credible.

From one perspective this is simply a plot device: by positing Mr Elliot as a contender for Anne’s affections it allows Austen to heighten the dramatic impact of the long revelation that follows in Chapter Twenty-One. It also somewhat indicates a certain sense of haste to get the novel finished before her health collapsed, especially in the lack of development of his dealings with Mrs Clay. But this ought not to diminish the fact that, as a named character in the opening chapter, his pursuit of money overcomes every other consideration to the point of the faintest suspicion of possible criminality in his dealings with Mrs Smith. Even as tentatively developed as this is, it perhaps illustrates Austen’s awareness that progress, however desirable, does not necessarily bring unalloyed benefits in its train. Mr Elliot might well be interpreted as offering the reader an early glimpse of a recognisably modern (and somewhat unsavoury) character in literature. Significantly, Austen the realist makes no attempt to soften the picture – for it is clear at the end of the novel that, despite the fact that his plans have been thwarted, Mr Elliot’s future is still secure. The next generation to open the Baronetage will still be able to read


Except this time the Elliot identified in the text will be Sir William rather than Sir Walter.

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© Mike Liddell 2019