Reading Jane Austen 5

SIR WALTER ELLIOT, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; 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 – and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed – this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:


Openings are always important because they establish the plot ideas which will be the foundations upon which the author simultaneously builds the superstructure of the novel’s narrative that in turn helps shape the reader’s response. Austen proved remarkably good at openings, and especially with regard to Persuasion, which both plays a wonderful and surprisingly modern joke on the reader in this prophetic cinematic technique of regression as well as painting one of the most devastating portraits of a character in English literature.

At the same moment 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’ – part of the joke being that very soon he will no longer be able to describe himself in this way having been forced by his own incompetence and profligacy to leave the Hall and take lodgings in Bath. But this revelation, although swift in coming, arrives a little later. Austen busies herself revealing how the real joke here is Sir Walter himself – who, she makes plain, is not at all funny or amusing.

Austen is very specific: the Baronetage is the only book Sir Walter reads either when he is at leisure or when he is feeling distressed – which suggests 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’. And more than that, the book always falls open at the same page. 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 lives primarily via a constant re-reading of an official biography and seems to have no other interests or activities. 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 appeared on the page spontaneously, without any intermediary effect or conscious choice on her part. She achieves this through her mastery of the technique of free indirect discourse noted earlier. Through it she moves freely between her own narrative voice and the voices (both direct, indirect and unvoiced) of her characters. She is so successful at merging these different voices that it is sometimes (indeed, often) difficult to separate them at any given moment. The effect of this is that untroubled smoothness just mentioned where the text seems to unfold naturally through the characters and their perspectives rather than through her decisions. But what might initially appear to be superficial can turn out to explore deeper concerns.

For example, although Sir Walter’s rather eccentric reading habits do have a definite sense of comic exaggeration the very structure of this opening paragraph and its joke 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, I would suggest, deeply serious in an important area. One of the refinements in critical theory 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 well be about characters who, beset by anxiety and uncertainty as they try to ‘read’ the world around them with greater or lesser success depending on the clarity of their vision, present an outward armoured confidence that has very little validity or value – such characters set against the depiction of a few others who share empathy and embody social virtues.

Austen’s choice of vocabulary pins down important elements of Sir Walter’s character, as in why he so enjoys reading the Baronetage:

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
(my emphasis)

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 superior to those awarded for services to the country in a time of national danger. It is both a misplaced vanity (Austen’s constant word for him from the beginning – ‘Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation’ – and throughout the novel) and a subtle reinforcement of what the structure of regression really tells us beyond the surface comedy: that Sir Walter’s relationship with the world is one of frozen negative repetition. It is noteworthy that Austen maintains this image of cold negativity through the novel, and also applies it to his favourite eldest daughter Elizabeth, locked into her own inescapable fate of spinsterhood, caught as she is forever frozen in the icy pairing with her father:

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

Austen 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:

Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester; by which lady (who died in 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, Nov 5, 1789; Mary, born Nov 20, 1791.

Yet again, a paragraph made up of only the one sentence broken by semi-colons, separating out details. This precision is necessary if the supposed entry is to ring true, of course – the Baronetage is clearly a statement of historical record. But the technique, I suggest, is also 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 one individual.

By presenting the information in this way Austen not only introduces the family but also does so without overtly directing the reader’s attention. It tells us (if we wish to read it carefully) that Sir Walter at the age of forty found himself the sole parent of three young girls aged fifteen, thirteen and nine years old. Again, the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions as to what this might mean, especially given the revelations of the opening paragraph already briefly discussed above.

And notice the almost invisible, casual, almost 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 the little family history these are important plot points and deserve a little attention.

Austen makes it clear that if Lady Elliot had not died then the family would not have had to give up their ancestral home because she would have ensured that the necessary retrenchment would have been undertaken – or more likely, not needed in the first place:

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

This is a powerful indictment of Sir Walter, especially the 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 possibility of any such attempts at 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 any respectability he might have was unreal, artificial and superficial. In this sense her death can be seen as one of the mainsprings of the novel and its actions: had she lived not only would Sir Walter have been encouraged to fulfil his various responsibilities rather than fall into this spiritual torpor and inactivity but it is possible that Anne would have been encouraged to marry Wentworth from the beginning.

There are two pieces of information about his dead son: that he was ‘still-born’ and the date, ‘Nov 5, 1789’. Again, it is worth trying to see beneath the surface here: Austen could have used any number of options to explain the death; likewise, 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 we might call 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, I 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 – he is literally unfruitful, without lasting or continuing influence or force. As such, then, he is emblematic of the waning authority of a moribund class.

The modern reader might also notice that the stillborn son had three sisters (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) which immediately leads on to questions about the father’s 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 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.

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 pins down this activity precisely in its description of Sir Walter’s reading habits, of course.

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 we might term 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 striking 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 – 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 replies

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.

I would suggest that this too is 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
(my emphasis)

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.

As to Austen’s choice of date for the unnamed boy’s death it 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 England 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 expands on the printed words in the Baronetage by 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.
(my emphasis)

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. 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’ – an interesting redundancy given that the date of her death can only be either accurate or inaccurate. Sir Walter feels himself to be the supreme arbiter of events and carries on the self-regard underpinning the idea of his handwritten notes ‘improving’ rather than simply adding to the printed history. 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 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 becomes one of the major 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 that chapter. Everything we learn reinforces the suspicions raised in the opening three paragraphs and help indicate the major outlines of why and how the novel might develop. For example:

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.
(my emphasis)

In terms of these family relationships very little changes by the end of the novel. 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.

And 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 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.

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 most 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 as 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’. This, of course, makes for an interesting future plotline and narrative where some form of reconciliation or emotional tangle becomes inevitable. And despite the accusation of a mercenary attitude (which comes from the disappointed and resentful father and daughter and therefore is not necessarily accurate) 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.’

For the earlier Jane Austen it was not so much a question of property as propriety – that is, correct moral behaviour (although both words have the same Latin root proprietas). Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park means exactly that when Mary Crawford questions the value of the clergy and he replies

‘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’

Sir Walter’s final comment, of course, both shows how silly he is and how misplaced his values are regarding the definition of a gentleman – and how different they are from the two immediately preceding novels. Sir Walter represents a truly different world as does his heir, who is finally unmasked as deliberately manipulative and perhaps even criminal in his reported treatment of Mrs Smith. In other ways he is simply a continuation of that subset of morally bankrupt or careless superficially attractive young men who feature in Austen’s earlier works: the George Wickhams, the John Willoughbys, 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 …

Austen is not sentimentally romantic – she makes it clear that if Wentworth were to be removed from the situation then Mr Elliot is a serious contender to replace him in Anne’s affections. But that is why Mrs Smith is introduced four chapters earlier, in that her express plot function seems to be to enlighten Anne (and the reader) as to Mr Elliot’s core character. Even so, she is very much a latecomer whereas he is a named character from the opening chapter, as we have seen, with the strong indication of what comprises his core character in his determined pursuit of money as his reason for marriage.

However, I would suggest that Mrs Smith is important in other ways, and worthy of further consideration in her own right.

On to Reading Jane Austen 6
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© Mike Liddell 2019