Reading Jane Austen: Part Five



The previous section considered how the opening paragraphs of Persuasion brilliantly bring into focus – through his idiosyncratic reading habits – the major flaws clouding Sir Walter Elliot’s character which so damage his daughters and which help shape so much of the novel’s more sombre tone outside of the final triumphant catharsis of the recovered love between Anne and Wentworth.

But this is not the only achievement of the opening paragraphs, which reverberate throughout the novel in one way or another. For Austen also introduces one of the novel’s constant underlying character threads and wider concerns in the first twenty or so words:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage

The revelation that his favourite reading matter for ‘amusement’ was not history, philosophy, or literature but a very niche publication indeed – the Baronetage, first created in 1611 as the Baronetage of England and replaced by the Baronetage of Great Britain in 1707 – is where the thread and wider concern emerge and which, given the likely demographic of Austen’s contemporary audience, were probably recognised as significant despite the understatement.

The rank of baronet was a relatively new creation, established by letters patent in 1611 as ‘a new dignitie between Barons and Knights’ simply because James I was desperate for funds, ostensibly for the support of the troops in Ulster. Candidates for the baronetage – which is one level below a baron, the lowest rank of the peerage – were required to pay the king a sum which would maintain thirty soldiers for three years. In 1611 that was calculated as £1095. The probable modern equivalent of paying merely the wage bill for thirty soldiers at the median salary of £25005 (as per current figures based on Army salaries quoted by the website would likely be some £2,250,000. So although candidates may have had to have a history of some respectability and possibly public or royal service – Austen carefully grants the Elliots the distinction of ‘serving the office of High Sheriff, representing a borough in three successive parliaments, exertions of loyalty’ – the rank is fundamentally based on wealth rather than on any required merit. Some modern readers might think it a remarkably familiar aspect of the novel.

Awareness of the historical circumstances of the creation of the rank might help modern readers notice a subtle criticism emerging with regard to Sir Walter’s different emotions when reading the Baronetage:

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

where the positive feelings of ‘admiration and respect’ towards the first families raised to the honour turn to the negative ‘pity and contempt’ when reading about the more recent entrants – who would most likely have earned their promotions through military or other service, as per Mary’s thought in the final chapter:

and if they could but keep Captain Wentworth from being made a baronet, she would not change situations with Anne.

(Given that Mary is the youngest of the three daughters and therefore the one with the least benefit from her mother’s influence, Austen is careful to show that the damage her upbringing has inflicted on her extends far beyond the irritations of her hypochondria and petty complaints about what she sees as her status within the Musgroves. Throughout the novel and at every opportunity Austen aligns her closely with her father in terms of her own peevish self-regard and utter disregard for the autonomy of others.)

Austen’s achievement in these two short passages is to capture precisely both the pomposity of Sir Walter’s and Mary’s unvoiced thoughts and the consequent exaggeration it creates, suggesting that something is profoundly wrong and unbalanced within what might be termed ‘the Elliot view’. Further, this dismissive attitude pays no attention whatsoever to the reality and exigencies of the time. Valuing ‘the limited remnant of the earliest patents’ more than the ‘(endless) creations of the last century’ is neither viable nor sustainable.

This also possibly offers an extra edge to the description ‘limited’ regarding the remnants of those original families who first paid for the elevation to baronet. The sub-text resides in the vocabulary – that they are not only limited in number but in other ways too, especially in their current contribution to the social good.  Beneath the surface comedy of the overblown language and stupidity of Sir Walter’s and his daughter’s complacent misplaced self-congratulation lurks a withering criticism.

This becomes even more transparent a little later, in Chapter Three, when Austen has Sir Walter explain his ‘two strong grounds of objection’ to the navy in the most supercilious fashion:

‘First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man; I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line.’

As characterisation the precision of vocabulary once again condemns Sir Walter’s utterly pernicious silliness and overweening self-regard; as social and moral comment it quietly develops Austen’s unremitting and unforgiving authorial vision of one of the major weaknesses of the society she is describing via the Elliots: its constant concern with notions of superiority and privilege coupled with a complete disregard of any moral or social awareness and no human interest in or empathy towards the impact of the effects of such a sense of entitlement on others. The navy – and its tradition of prize money – clearly offers social mobility; but the ‘pity and contempt’ with which that mobility is greeted does not suggest that achieving significant social change through such avenues as the navy will be quick or easy.

So it can be argued that from the very first paragraphs Austen indicates how the novel will explore the ways her characters either try – or fail to try – to adapt to the demands raised by this specific process of transition at this almost end-stage of the Napoleonic Wars. Replacing the uncertainty of more than a decade of war with the different uncertainty of the adjustments to peace and finding a way to navigate the changing circumstances may be essential, but hardly unproblematic.

Austen’s technique of aligning characterisation and social comment captures some of this sense of shifting priorities in the way it creates a particular density of language and structure whose complexity is smoothed over by her default free indirect discourse. Within the flow of the steady procession of characters and events she quietly reveals how stratified and circumscribed is the society in which they are embedded. Sometimes it is through simple statements (‘Herself, the widow of only a knight, (Lady Russell) gave the dignity of a baronet all its due’). Sometimes the statements are more obscure, such as that Mrs Clay was ‘a daughter of Mr Shepherd, who had returned, after an unprosperous marriage, to her father’s house, with the additional burthen of two children’. What might ‘an unprosperous marriage’ entail? Her friendship with Elizabeth is thought by Lady Russell in Chapter Two to be ‘quite out of place’, suggesting not only Lady Russell’s class attitude but also raising relevant questions as to Mrs Clay’s social status – whether she is still married or separated or divorced or widowed. Further, her moral status is dubious given that her two anonymous children are an ‘additional burthen’ and apparently to be happily abandoned when their mother later moves to Bath with Sir Walter and Elizabeth without any apparent hesitation or the encumbrance of their presence. (Indeed, they are totally invisible and not mentioned anywhere else in the novel). Chapter Two’s final paragraph succinctly integrates all of these doubts in Lady Russell’s further thought:

From situation, Mrs Clay was, in Lady Russell’s estimate, a very unequal, and in her character she believed a very dangerous companion

Some readers might well interpret this clear correlation between inequality and danger as carrying a resonance far beyond the specific relationship to which it refers.

(Of course, in the penultimate paragraph of Chapter Two Austen comments that

Lady Russell, indeed, had scarcely any influence with Elizabeth, and seemed to love her, rather because she would love her, than because Elizabeth deserved it … Elizabeth would go her own way

anticipating the later suggestion that any danger is down to Elizabeth’s sense of her own importance and refusal to take advice. As already suggested, however, nothing in Austen is quite so simple or straightforward as it might first appear. The reader learns in Chapter Four that Lady Russell also thought Wentworth dangerously reckless – and that Anne, unlike Elizabeth, would not ‘go her own way’ but followed Lady Russell’s advice and refused his offer of marriage, thus establishing the structurally necessary major emotional tension in the novel. It is, perhaps, not accidental that Austen states her opinion of the negative aspects of the Georgian class (or caste) system most clearly in her remark that Lady Russell’s judgements can be powerfully influenced by her

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

This highlights a concern beyond Lady Russell, of course, made even more apparent if the reader stops after the first nineteen words. The current system founders on the social blindness that privilege generates.)

Important as Lady Russell is to the machinery of the novel there are other early statements reflecting the attitudes of ‘rank and consequence’. These include among others Elizabeth’s insistence on ‘baronet-blood’ in any potential suitor, Mary’s insistence on precedence over Mrs Musgrove on social occasions, and Sir Walter’s studied confusion over what constitutes a ‘gentleman’ with regard to Captain Wentworth’s brother the curate. This is deliberately echoed later when Mary gives her opinion on the suitability of Charles Hayter (another curate) as a husband for his cousin Henrietta. Austen provides Mary with language eerily reminiscent of her father’s:

Charles Hayter, whose pretensions she wished to see put an end to. She looked down very decidedly upon the Hayters, and thought it would be quite a misfortune to have the existing connection between the families renewed – very sad for herself and her children.

‘You know,’ said she, ‘I cannot think him at all a fit match for Henrietta; and considering the alliances which the Musgroves have made, she has no right to throw herself away. I do not think any young woman has a right to make a choice that may be disagreeable and inconvenient to the principal part of her family, and be giving bad connections to those who have not been used to them. And, pray, who is Charles Hayter? Nothing but a country curate. A most improper match for Miss Musgrove, of Uppercross.’

It is a wonderful example of Austen at the top of her powers in its combination of satire, exaggeration, and the wilful blurred vision of a blinkered upbringing while at the same time referencing important issues central to the novel’s concerns around personal freedoms and the responsibilities required to maintain and develop them.


The portrait of the pernicious effects of social inequity becomes a main driver in the final section of the novel when Austen introduces the character of Mrs Smith, Anne’s former schoolmate. This also possibly offers a glimpse of how Austen might have developed a more openly subversive polemical satire had she lived. As with Penelope Clay Austen chooses a resonant surname for her new character that Sir Walter cannot resist:

‘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. But surely, you may put off this old lady till tomorrow. She is not so near her end, I presume, but that she may hope to see another day. What is her age? Forty?’

This immediate fantasy that Mrs Smith must be old and living in squalid conditions amongst other inconsequential people reinforces his total lack of social concern and human empathy. Austen redoubles this a few moments later by concentrating on his obsession with signs and names, anticipating de Saussure and semiology once again:

‘Westgate-buildings must have been rather surprised by the appearance of a carriage drawn up near its pavement!’ observed Sir Walter. – Sir Henry Russell’s widow, indeed, has no honours to distinguish her arms; but still, it is a handsome equipage, and no doubt is well-known to convey a Miss Elliot. – A widow Mrs Smith, lodging in Westgate-buildings! – A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and forty – a mere Mrs Smith, and every day Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her, to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs Smith, such a name!’

In the novel Mrs Clay thinks it ‘advisable’ to leave the room at this point while Anne, out of ‘her sense of personal respect to her father’, says nothing about the fact that:

Mrs Smith was not the only widow in Bath between thirty and forty, with little to live on, and no sirname of dignity.

which at least answers one question about Mrs Clay’s social status. But the point Austen makes here with admirable clarity is that it is perfectly acceptable in Sir Walter’s worldview for Lady Russell to be a widow, whereas for Mrs Smith – and by implication, Mrs Clay – it is a matter for contempt simply because of their surnames.

Thus Sir Walter and the other members of the Elliot family (with the exception of Anne) are the principal conduit through which Austen highlights the damage perpetrated by what might otherwise seem superficial aspects of the prevailing social hierarchy. She does not hesitate to reveal – through Sir Walter’s sense of deference towards his Anglo-Irish aristocratic cousins the Dalrymples – how demeaning it can be whatever one’s position on the social scale. Anne’s reaction to the behaviour of her father and sister and their ‘agony’ surrounding ‘how to introduce themselves properly’ is one of embarrassment:

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.

Austen strengthens this disappointment by expressing Anne’s view of her cousins after having met them. Unlike, say, the presentation of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, where the vision of the aristocracy is decidedly grotesque, here the language is more muted, more mundane, and thus more powerful in its social commentary:

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. Lady Dalrymple had acquired the name of ‘a charming woman,’ because she had a smile and a civil answer for every body. Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden-place but for her birth.

This sense of nothingness, of vacancy, is reflected in the fact that they have no meaningful function in the narrative except to serve as part of the social background when they appear again at the concert ‘for the benefit of a person patronised by Lady Dalrymple’. The ambiguity of the verb brilliantly captures the slippery nature of social interaction.

Another aspect of the background social realism of the novel is to be seen in how Austen carefully uses the contemporary topography of Bath symbolically. Sir Walter’s first reaction to the news of Mrs Smith (the accusation that she must live alongside ‘low company’) reflects something more than merely a demonstration of his appalling snobbery. At this time Bath had been expanding up the northern slope away from the river and the Old Town where the hot baths were located. Offensive as he is, Sir Walter is quite correct – Mrs Smith is indeed physically low in terms of the town layout and in contrast with the Elliots’ lodgings at the top of the hill in Camden-place or the Dalrymples’ in Laura-place. This has the advantage of creating a significant pointed irony, for when Anne visits her old schoolfriend she is literally going down in the world; but by so doing she exercises her moral sensibility and acknowledges her social obligations and responsibilities in a way her father does not and cannot comprehend. It also redeems Lady Russell somewhat in that she happily provides Anne with transport.

(Austen uses this topographical accuracy to pin down precisely where her various characters reside when visiting Bath so as to show their social standing. Essentially, they are ranked as to how far up the northern slope their lodgings are. But there is one notable exception – Mr Elliot’s address is never given. He is, quite literally, outside the established social hierarchy of the novel – a resonant emblem of his lack of any settled or moral centre and essential rootlessness coupled with the practised insincerity and air of calculating intrigue that increasingly surrounds his character at this stage of the narrative.)

However useful Mrs Smith may be as a means of developing even more the appalling social carelessness of Sir Walter and, by implication, of the ruling elite of Georgian society, she has another great relevance despite her late appearance. The carefully detailed description of Mrs Smith’s poverty, even destitution, is a significant departure for Austen. It is introduced indirectly through Anne’s recollection of the description given to her of Miss Hamilton (now Mrs Smith) and her history in an almost random contingent meeting with their former teacher, who has apparently said of Miss Hamilton that:

She was a widow, and poor. Her husband had been extravagant; and at his death, about two years before, had left his affairs dreadfully involved. She had had difficulties of every sort to contend with, and in addition to these distresses, had been afflicted with a severe rheumatic fever, which finally settling in her legs, had made her for the present a cripple. She had come to Bath on that account, and was now in lodgings near the hot-baths, living in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society.

The effect of this on Anne is radically different from Sir Walter’s response. Anne immediately resolves to visit her former schoolfriend and to see in her ‘something more’ as opposed to Sir Walter’s complacent determination to see in her something less:

here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

The deliberate religious vocabulary here underlines the important moral dimension that moves the passage beyond simple character delineation into something more general, part of Austen’s counterbalance to the Sir Walters. This indirect introduction – via a remembered conversation in an almost accidental meeting – is quickly replaced by the most detailed and direct statement of what it is to be poor and ill when Anne pays a second visit:

In the course of a second visit she talked with great openness, and Anne’s astonishment increased. She could scarcely imagine a more cheerless situation in itself than Mrs Smith’s. She had been very fond of her husband, – she had buried him. She had been used to affluence, – it was gone. She had no child to connect her with life and happiness again, no relations to assist in the arrangement of perplexed affairs, no health to make all the rest supportable. Her accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour, and a dark bed-room behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance, which there was only one servant in the house to afford, and she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath.

This description of Mrs Smith’s constricted and pain-filled life is far more radical and graphic than anything Austen had attempted in her earlier works. Some readers might interpret the force of such unvarnished flat language as representative not only of Anne’s clear-sightedness but also, as suggested earlier, as the author’s tentative first steps towards developing the more polemical tone of later Victorian novelists. Although brief, these passages seem to indicate a genuine shift in awareness and purpose, and sound a darker note amid the approbation of Anne’s praiseworthy engagement with an old friend.

(The more radical nature of this treatment of poverty and illness emerges in comparison with the much more cursory, detached and generalised approach in Emma, say, even considering the different overall purposes of the two novels. Consider how Emma and Harriet pay a charitable visit to a poor sick family in Chapter Ten:

Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will.

This is the tone of pragmatic reportage rather than any attempt at deeper exploration or understanding of the plight of the people involved and the reasons behind it. Despite Emma’s compassion her role is that of a beneficent superior dispensing largesse. Even in the specific circumstance of the visit there is a deliberate lack of detail:

In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could give comfort or advice, she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away,

‘These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good.’

Of course, the main purpose of the passage is to demonstrate both Emma’s good instincts and her failings while at the same time remaining incidental to the need to prepare the ground for the chance encounter with Mr Elton:

The wants and sufferings of the poor family, however, were the first subject on meeting. He had been going to call on them. His visit he would now defer; but they had a very interesting parley about what could be done and should be done. Mr. Elton then turned back to accompany them.

So Emma is not the only one with failings – and given Elton’s position in the community his failings here are more marked. This is certainly thinly disguised social commentary and even criticism, but Austen is more concerned with other things and does not take the reader inside the cottage to actually meet the poor and sick people in need of help – they are of only marginal importance to the novel. This is not the case with Mrs Smith in Persuasion.)

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that just as Lady Dalrymple’s reputation for being ‘charming’ is founded on the most superficial social graces of smiling and being civil to others, so Austen is careful to embed her social critique in language rather than in any description of active malevolence. Even Mrs Smith seems anxious to attribute Mr Elliot’s inaction regarding recovering her part of her husband’s estate to the carelessness of a busy man rather than as deliberate malice. Though Austen quietly suggests in the final chapter that the difficulties surrounding such a recovery were ‘petty’ and fairly easily and quickly resolved when Wentworth undertook to help. Yet again, the choice of vocabulary has a resonant ambiguity: the difficulties were small, but Mr Elliot’s behaviour was also petty in the sense of mean-spirited and small-minded. He shares the Elliot family trait of indifferent carelessness, as Anne had already surmised. Although she admitted to herself in Chapter Sixteen that when she first arrived in Bath she felt that ‘she saw nobody equal to him’, she quickly concluded that his ‘value for rank and connexion’ was ‘greater than hers’ to such a degree that:

It was not merely complaisance, it must be a liking to the cause … which she thought unworthy

When his time comes, the new Sir William will be no less proud and complacent than the old Sir Walter.


The Elliot family, then, is used to illustrate the deficiencies of a social class without any concern beyond their own comforts and amusement. Their focus is only upon themselves. Everyone else is as insignificant as Mrs Smith. In terms of the central dialectic of the novel – how can this society progress and prosper? – they are the negative side of the argument. Anne is the exception, providing a constant corrective reaction to what she sees and hears, and thus integrating the dialectic with the personal as she wrestles with her emotional confusion over Wentworth.

Structurally, any countervailing positive argument offering a more optimistic vision of how Georgian society might adapt to these new circumstances after more than a decade of war has to emerge from a depiction of the attitudes and behaviour of the other major families and groups in the novel, coupled with a continuing focus on the intricacies of communication.

Austen’s technical problem is that these other families exist alongside the Elliots within a narrow network of intermarriage, other relationships, regular social interactions, and personal and professional friendships. This results in a commonality of familiar experience that inevitably limits any counterbalancing of ‘the Elliot view’ given that, however different individual values and behaviours may be, they all exist within the same prosperous elite.

(This tightness of acquaintance reflects Austen’s famous comment to her niece Anna (in a letter written in August 1814) that ‘Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on’, though Persuasion’s peripatetic structure and range of locations somewhat disguises the similarity in terms of geography if not psychology. Part of the reality underpinning Austen’s work is the sense of an ever-present danger of the claustrophobia of living so much among a small group of people – perhaps best captured in Emma’s entrapped carriage-ride with Mr Elton in Chapter Fifteen of the novel that bears her name, where she is offended by his protestations of love and he in his turn is offended by her assumption that he could be interested in Harriet Smith:

He was too angry to say another word; her manner too decided to invite supplication; and in this state of swelling resentment and mutually deep mortification, they had to continue together a few minutes longer, for the fears of Mr. Woodhouse had confined them to a foot pace. If there had not been so much anger, there would have been desperate awkwardness; but their straight-forward emotions left no room for the little zig-zags of embarrassment. Without knowing when the carriage turned into Vicarage-lane, or when it stopped, they found themselves, all at once, at the door of his house; and he was out before another syllable passed. – Emma then felt it indispensable to wish him a good-night. The compliment was just returned, coldly and proudly; and, under indescribable irritation of spirit, she was then conveyed to Hartfield.

In such confined social space ‘the little zig-zags of embarrassment’ could easily comprise the experience of everyday life. And to a degree such is the case in Persuasion, especially in the early scenes at Uppercross where Anne and Wentworth are inevitably forced together in wider company and seek to hide their mutual history of love and rejection.)

This tightness of interaction between the major families means that Austen has to use them to present both sides of the argument about how best to live in this new world, this clash between old and new ways of being. It is tempting to read this as reflecting a simple continuum from one extreme (the Elliots), through the acknowledged ‘state of alteration, perhaps of improvement’ of the Musgrove family, to the more positive depiction of the naval families (as per the Crofts and the Harvilles) and the wider attitudes and behaviours of the naval characters we meet. However, it cannot be so simple because alongside the commonality of familiar experience they all share similarities of expectation – of prosperity, of material comfort, of place – which inevitably blur the sharpness of the argument.

This, perhaps, helps explain the increasing centrality of the emotional force of the rekindled love between Anne and Wentworth. This increasing centrality brings into clearer if personal focus the very important differences between those virtues of inclusivity and care that so define the navy and the icy exclusivity and disdain for others which so marks the Elliot family’s arrogant belief in their unquestioned entitlement to privilege. Austen never goes so far as to suggest that Anne’s family support in any especially malicious or intentional way the deliberate inequalities of the social structure from which they benefit; they merely live unquestioningly within the cocoon of the vast carelessness and self-satisfaction of privilege. Anne’s narrative thus becomes something more than just a love story in its sense of the optimism of the possible because it is the primary route whereby the naval instinct of social responsibility rather than indifference is revealed.

One of the important elements of the trip to Lyme is expressed by the Harvilles in Chapter Eleven, first in their offer of dinner:

nothing could be more pleasant than their desire of considering the whole party as friends of their own, because the friends of Captain Wentworth, or more kindly hospitable than their entreaties for their all promising to dine with them

and secondly by the realisation of what that would mean when two paragraphs later their house is described most carefully:

On quitting the Cobb, they all went indoors with their new friends, and found rooms so small as none but those who invite from the heart could think capable of accommodating so many. Anne had a moment’s astonishment on the subject herself; but it was soon lost in the pleasanter feelings which sprang from the sight of all the ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville, to turn the actual space to the best possible account, to supply the deficiencies of lodging-house furniture, and defend the windows and doors against the winter storms to be expected. The varieties in the fitting-up of the rooms, where the common necessaries provided by the owner, in the common indifferent plight, were contrasted with some few articles of a rare species of wood, excellently worked up, and with something curious and valuable from all the distant countries Captain Harville had visited, were more than amusing to Anne: connected as it all was with his profession, the fruit of its labours, the effect of its influence on his habits, the picture of repose and domestic happiness it presented, made it to her a something more, or less, than gratification.

This is a beautifully constructed contrast to the situation with which the novel opens, of course, where Sir Walter and Elizabeth cannot contemplate any ‘ingenious contrivances’ that would help them tailor their lifestyle to their income. They are content to make no effort to adjust to the circumstances created by their self-indulgence. And the inevitable outcome is that there is no ‘repose and domestic happiness’ in their lives, merely ‘unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs’. A more straightforward writer might have pointed up this contrast by some kind of direct comparison – such as having Anne’s unvoiced thought include some reflection on how the household so differed from Kellynch, or how the Harvilles were so different in their ideas of hospitality. Anticipating Umberto Eco by some hundred and fifty or so years, Austen leaves the text open for the reader to supply the sub-text. Instead, Austen allows Anne simply to recognise the emotional quality of the Harville household in its own terms – ‘Anne thought she left great happiness behind her when they quitted the house’.

It is a typically quiet appreciation that mirrors her almost sotto voce observation earlier in Chapter Three that:

 ‘The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, 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. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow.’

This is not too far removed (except in tone) from Louisa’s uninhibited response as they leave the Harvilles:

Louisa, by whom she found herself walking, burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy – their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved.

where once again Austen captures the exuberance and passion of youth both on the personal level of Louisa’s enthusiasm and on the more general level of how it is the younger generations who champion change by being unafraid to challenge established ideas of behaviour, social values and worth. Louisa comes from a family in transition whereas Anne – despite her personal values – is still constrained by notions of core respect for her father qua father, which tends to mute the tone of her positive feelings towards the navy. Austen captures both the similarity and difference between both these expressions of positive regard, enlarging the characterisation while at the same time gently but firmly indicating the disparity between the family upbringings they have experienced.

In terms of the plot, of course, this outburst prepares for Louisa’s future accident at the Cobb caused by her determined headstrong insistence on jumping before anyone can dissuade or stop her; and at the same time the perceived naval qualities she so prizes help explain her marriage to Benwick after he has nursed her back to health. The fact that, as her brother Charles tells Anne in Chapter Twenty-Two, Louisa is

‘… very much recovered; but she is altered; there is nor running or jumping about, no laughing or dancing; it is quite different. If one happens only to shut the door a little hard she starts and wriggles like a young dab chick in the water; and Benwick sits at her elbow, reading verses, or whispering to her, all day long.’

might also be subliminally interpreted as an acknowledgement that change is not without problems or an easy or quick undertaking even for the enthusiasm of youth. Although some readers might feel that there is little doubt that Austen is very much in favour of her society adapting to the new circumstances of the time it is also clear that she does not expect change to come about immediately or without determined resistance of all kinds.

(This is not to deny the strength of another interpretation, in that accidents or illnesses that afflict and profoundly affect her characters’ behaviour occur elsewhere in her work – usually to return them within acceptable bounds of conformity – and can be seen almost as punishments for daring to behave or question such norms. Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility is perhaps the most prominent of such characters – and a feminist perspective can argue that even Emma Woodhouse’s marriage to her Mr Knightley expresses a sense of her hubris in trying to arrange other people’s lives (clearly a masculine behaviour) being corralled into a more seemly domesticity.)

Charles Musgrove also performs a vital function by offering a nuanced portrayal of the intricacies of belonging to the novel’s prosperous elite. An interesting as well as amusing character, he shows how it is possible to share the Elliot appreciation of the value of hierarchy and wealth without being supercilious towards others less fortunate. Some readers might interpret this as being a transition of sorts. Austen rather glosses over the fact that before marrying Mary he had proposed to Anne, who had been able to reject him without suffering those agonies of doubt that had been the consequence of rejecting Wentworth. Charles is the archetypal pleasant, pragmatic but somewhat unpolished countryman who accepts the reality of rejection without rancour, shrugs his shoulders and approaches Mary instead. When the unlooked-for consequences of this second choice emerge (Mary being not only her father’s daughter in terms of her self-regard, social status, and agreeing with him that she had ‘given all the honour, and received none’, but also reveals herself as profoundly hypochondriacal and querulous in addition) Charles remains very much his own man. If Mary clearly complicates the general felicity of their marriage despite their children, his penchant for country pursuits – while demonstrating his general affability and approval of the various naval officers who join in at different times – might also be read as a form of relieved escape. Austen always presents him as someone who is very conscious of the practical benefits of property and land rather than the social privileges they might bring in their train. In the discussion in Chapter Nine about Charles Hayter’s suitability as a husband for Henrietta, Mary considers him ‘A most improper match’ but Charles does not hesitate to disagree:

‘Now you are talking nonsense, Mary,’ was therefore his answer. ‘It would not be a great match for Henrietta, but Charles has a very fair chance, through the Spicers, of getting something from the Bishop in the course of a year or two; and you will please to remember, that he is the eldest son; whenever my uncle dies, he steps into very pretty property. The estate at Winthrop is not less than two hundred and fifty acres, besides the farm near Taunton, which is some of the best land in the country.’

Though this might be interpreted as part of the general philistinism of Austen’s focus on money matters so disliked by some readers, this pragmatic assessment of the reality of Hayter’s appeal as a husband completely undercuts Mary’s  view, which is based solely on social pretension – and as such, represents both the essentially irrelevant values of the Elliot family alongside his own less self-involved outlook, which very much reflects at least some of the basic principles of the ‘new’ philosophy of Utilitarianism.

The portrayal of their marriage is a well-observed illustration of the intricacies and compromises of the wider union between the old social order based on class and the newly emerging ‘modern’ view of how things need to be organised and maintained to work to the best advantage. From Sir Walter’s perspective Charles Musgrove can be viewed as an ambitious upstart seeking social status through marrying the daughter of a baronet – and thus remarkably similar to the young Wentworth; whereas Charles already regards himself as of sufficient status to be an acceptable suitor – after all, Lady Russell in Chapter Four regrets Anne’s refusal of marriage, describing Charles as ‘the eldest son of a man, whose landed property and general importance, were second, in that country, only to Sir Walter’s’. Of course, in purely social and financial terms it is a classic example of impoverished social privilege marrying wealth – at the cost to Charles of having to put up with the narcissism of his wife’s family. His easy interaction with and enjoyment of the various naval officers he meets suggests that the future more likely rests with his family rather than his wife’s as the world changes in so many ways. Structurally, the marriage might be seen as a half-way house between the blighted and defunct marriage of Sir Walter and Lady Elliot and the clearly happy naval marriages based on the sense of partnership demonstrated by the Crofts and Harvilles and which prompts the encomium of the novel’s final sentence:

She (Anne) gloried in being a sailor’s wife but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.


It is understandable that many readers happily accept as a straightforward simple contrast Austen’s positioning of the navy as the counterbalance to the negative portrait she presents of the prevailing elite. After all, the idea of the navy is introduced alongside Sir Walter’s need to retrench, as per the opening conversation of Chapter Three between Mr Shepherd and Sir Walter where the navy are praised as paradigms of responsibility in direct contrast to Sir Walter’s careless behaviour (such that he is described in the final chapter as a ‘foolish spendthrift’):

‘I must take leave to observe, Sir Walter,’ said Mr Shepherd one morning at Kellynch, as he laid down the newspaper, ‘that the present juncture is much in our favour. This peace will be turning all our rich Navy Officers ashore. They will be all wanting a home. Could not be a better time, Sir Walter, for having a choice of tenants, very responsible tenants. If a rich Admiral were to come in our way, Sir Walter -’

It is, perhaps, easy to overlook the significance of Sir Walter’s reply:

‘He would be a very lucky man, Shepherd,’ replied Sir Walter, ‘that’s all I have to remark. A prize indeed would Kellynch Hall be to him; rather the greatest prize of all, let him have taken ever so many before – hey, Shepherd?’

Mr Shepherd laughed, as he knew he must, at this wit …

But the joke, however lightweight, is nonetheless a serious signal of the character’s (and the author’s) immediate focus on the importance of money in this society.

For all the navy’s positive elements of activity, social responsibility and courage, the system of prize money so well-known to the original readership means the navy cannot be seen as a major engine of any shift in sensibility. Its necessary professional structure is hierarchical and based on seniority of rank – as is the system of prize money as reported in The London Gazette and others on a daily basis. While the social attitudes and behaviour of its representatives in the novel are very different from those of the Elliots, it is clear (as discussed earlier) that Austen knew all too well that any meaningful change in social attitude could only come about by a process of attrition – until the ‘limited remnants’ were subsumed by the ‘endless creations’ of the war. Even then the basic financial and other costs of joining the upper ranks of society would remain the same – and even the most radical of the new members would face the same problems of maintaining the outer trappings and other obligations incumbent upon them in much the same way as the Sir Walters that they might otherwise oppose.

It is tempting to interpret Sir Walter’s joke as an indicator of Austen’s grasp of this. The man secure in his hereditary honour, property and land, is able to laugh at the notion of prize money. But the joke – like Sir Walter – is not funny so much as an early marker that the difference between those whose wealth and status is generational and therefore passive and those who have actively fought for and earned their rewards is not so very wide after all.

Against this is the fact that in terms of the novel all this is irrelevant to the optimism of the story: whether or not the actual new-made members of the Georgian Establishment were at all interested or involved in changing social attitudes matters not at all. In exactly the same way, the fact that neither Croft nor Wentworth would have grown wealthy had they not been of senior enough rank is unimportant.

Much modern commentary on the role of the navy in Persuasion relies heavily on research by three authors in particular: J R Hill’s 1999 work Prizes of War: Prize Law and the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815, where he sets out in some detail the mechanism of prize money; N A M Rodger’s 2005 publication The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815, which offers a detailed breakdown of the prize money awarded for a particular event, the capture of two frigates; and James Henderson’s 1994 book The Frigates, which translates the prize money awarded into 2020 monetary equivalents. Together they help the modern reader towards a deeper understanding of the significance of Sir Walter’s joke. More importantly, they might help explain Austen’s decisions within the narrower context of the novel and its themes.

The salient points common to modern commentaries on the novel can be summarised as follows. Essentially, the value of any prize money awarded for the capture of enemy ships and cargoes was decided by a Prize Court or Prize Commissioner and then distributed (after the deductions of Customs duties and the like) under the terms established by the then current legislation – essentially, by rank. A proclamation of 1812 changed the allocation of monies, so after that date senior officers (such as admirals and captains) would jointly receive a smaller share than before – only one-quarter of any prize money, with the admiral receiving one-third of this sum. Ships’ masters and lieutenants and the various warrant officers received one-eighth of the prize money. The rest of the crew below the rank of warrant officer shared one half of the prize money, but this was distributed again by sub-divisions into several grades from senior petty officers down to the ships’ boys, the higher grades benefitting more. 

The rewards could be substantial indeed. When four British frigates captured the Spanish frigates Thetis and Santa Brigada in 1799 the prize money was assessed at £652,000. Each of the British captains received £40,730 (of which a third was due to the commanding admiral, whether or not he was actually present at the battle); each lieutenant received £5,091; each warrant officer £2,468; each midshipman £791. Each sailor or marine received some £182 4s 9¾d, the equivalent (according to Henderson) of fifteen years’ pay. In contrast, the prize money paid to each of the four captains (without deducting the admiral’s share) was equivalent to at least two hundred and seventy years’ pay.

Translated into 2020 equivalent money the sums are staggering: the admiral’s share (one third of each of the four captains’ prize money) would be some £5,400,000; after deduction of one third to the admiral each captain would be around £2,750,000 better off; each lieutenant garnered around £500,000; warrant officers gained over £240,000; midshipmen collected around £70,000; and ordinary crewmen were rewarded with £1,188.

Such figures help explain why Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth – in Chapter Eight – seem unequivocally in favour of war. As the Admiral casually comments to his wife: ‘if we have the good luck to live to another war’; and Wentworth reminisces about his time commanding the frigate Laconia: ‘How fast I made money in her.’ Understandable it may be – but their happy acceptance of the mechanics of distribution does not seem too far removed from Sir Walter’s sense of his own importance and self-interest. 

Most commentaries are concerned with trying to work out how much money Wentworth has made, and many seem to cohere around a sum of £25,000 – which would equate today to some £2,500,000, more than enough to justify marriage to a foolish spendthrift baronet’s middle daughter. Interestingly, the only rather oblique reference to how much money Wentworth had made comes in Chapter Nine, when Charles Musgrove’s reported speech comment on the previous evening’s dinner party says that he

had never seen a pleasanter man in his life; and from what he had once heard Captain Wentworth himself say, was very sure that he had not made less than twenty thousand pounds by the war. Here was a fortune at once; besides which, there would be the chance of what might be done in any future war

So Wentworth’s fortune in 2020 terms would be at least two million pounds – or as Charles further reportedly comments, ‘Oh! it would be a capital match for either of his sisters.’ Some readers might interpret this concern as evidence that Nabokov’s stricture quoted in the first section of this discussion

No doubt can exist that there is in Jane Austen a slight streak of the philistine. This philistinism is obvious in her preoccupation with incomes’

is both accurate and valid. Others might regard it as a necessary part of both the background realism of the novel and its plotting – for Wentworth’s success and the prize money it garnered raises his social value when he returns into the orbit of the Elliot family and so opens the way for renewing his relationship with Anne. After all, it would be a sorry end if renewing that relationship meant a life of penury and privation.

In this it knits together the dialectical aspect of the novel expressed by the themes Austen chooses to put forward – her sense of the cruel inadequacy of a moribund decaying elite, the inevitable momentum for change despite this, the constant renewal and refreshment of society through marriage, and the possibility of different modes of being – with the intensely personal focus through Anne on unswerving moral commitment and the courage to speak truly in the face of irritation, adversity, and convention that characterises the love story.

Some might see in this a core irony of Austen’s vision, for one interpretation of the novel might well argue that for society to make progress towards equal happiness and fulfilment involves the acceptance of responsibility and change, whereas for the individual the achievement of happiness and fulfilment requires the acceptance of responsibility and constancy. Such an interpretation might well hover behind the brief authorial summary of Lady Russell in the final chapter. The initial separation of the two lovers was in large part down to her influence, of course, and her misreading and misunderstanding of Wentworth’s potential:

a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession

when he had already been promoted even then to Commander, only one rung below the rank of Post-Captain – the rank which, if one avoided death, disgrace or disfigurement, guaranteed eventual elevation to Admiral. Austen’s comment in Chapter Twenty-Four seems blunt enough:

There was nothing less for Lady Russell to do, than to admit she had been pretty completely wrong, and to take up a new set of opinions and of hopes

and might well also address the society Lady Russell represents; but it is quickly followed by a more personal and softer tone:

She loved Anne better than she loved her own abilities; and when the awkwardness of the beginning was over, found little hardship in attaching herself as a mother to the man who was securing the happiness of her other child.

And that little phrase, ‘securing the happiness’, might well stand as the problem the novel, in all its elements, seeks to address.

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© Mike Liddell 2019