Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Persuasion (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen

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  i. The Gentry 

Persuasion, written in 1815, is Jane Austen's last completed novel. Though only forty, she is close to the average age of death at that time. She will die in two years of Addison's Disease (adrenal insufficiency), a year before the publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. More than any of her other novels, Persuasion conveys a sense not only of passing time but of lost time. Though it moves about more than any of her other novels—there are three places in it: Anne Elliot’s family home, the grand Kellynch Hall in Somerset; Portsmouth, a naval base; and Bath, and within Bath three locations—it is her quietest, most subdued novel. Anne Elliot, the heroine, is at twenty-seven her oldest heroine and, when the novel opens, resigned to a life that has known only an anti-climax and self-effacement.

She is the middle daughter of Sir Walter, an insufferably vain and shallow baronet. His youngest daughter is married and has children, his eldest is a female replica of him. Anne’s life for a brief, promising moment eight years earlier was illuminated by a young naval officer's courtship of her and a proposal of marriage. The engagement ended without either of them wanting its termination.

Every officer needs a battle to demonstrate his mettle and advance his rank, and the young Wentworth was fortunate that his career coincided with England's protracted war with France under Napoleon. Bonaparte's armies threatened to overrun Europe, and his navy challenged England's maritime domination of the world from Trafalgar to the West Indies. Wentworth assumed command of a ship, and Anne languished over the years, becoming resigned to a life of marginal usefulness. Moreover, as her father, obsessed with good looks, gratuitously points out, she has lost her looks. 

Her future, as the novel opens, will be the dreary unfolding of her present, an unmarried life in which she will be dependent for most of her pleasure upon the spillover from other people's happiness. She is at the novel's center, but everything of consequence seems to be happening not to her but around her. Lacking money and having no occupation such as Austen's writing that will provide a modest income and recognition, she will be confined to her father's and sisters' generosity, of which they show precious little.

Anne establishes Persuasion's autumnal tone, a plangent minor key established by a woman who believes herself a minor figure. To her credit, she is unsentimental and clear in recognizing her situation, capable of humor and keenness of observation, and realistic. Though young by our standards, she has crossed the divide that separates most unmarried women, those with youth and/or money from those without. This means that her prospects are, of all Austen's heroines, the gravest, a life of tedium and thankless service to people who do not inspire affection. 

Inevitably, we are tempted to compare Anne with Jane herself. Austen, too, had a brief, intense courtship that suddenly dissolved, and when she writes the novel she is committed to remaining unmarried. Until fairly recently she, too, was financially dependent upon her family to buy clothes and pay for minor expenses.  However, the Rev. Austen was a loving father and supportive of her writing. And, unlike Anne's relationship with her older sister, Jane’s with Cassandra was the most intimate bond in her life.

But one feature that author and protagonist do share is their being members of the gentry class, though Anne comes from landed and titled gentry, whereas Jane’s status is conferred by her father’s being the rector of a church attached to a large estate. The landed gentry compose the terrain and most of the population of the Austen novels, which are almost exclusively located in a country house set in the southern England’s gentle landscape. Two of the novels, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, take their titles from the house. Sense and Sensibility involves an inheritance issue that dispossesses the women from their grand country home. That will almost certainly happen in Pride and Prejudice and is about to in Persuasion. Emma, the most geographically confined of the novels, contrasts two very different estates and the men who own them.

Good land in southern England was expensive to buy, yet becoming a country squire with a prepossessing house sitting on some acres was the ambition of a great many middle- and upper-middle-class English. To achieve it is to be levitated out of the stigma of trade, commerce, or finance and to take one's place as a true-born Englishman. Land was to the English mind what roast beef was to the stomach. Even Defoe's Robinson Crusoe nearly a century before Austen consoles himself with knowing that he is the lord of the Island of Despair and envisions himself landed gentry.

The gentry's significance as a class is vastly greater than their numbers. They are only a tiny fraction of English society, about one family out of eighty in a population of some fourteen million. Amongst the gentry,  Austen’s focus is upon the so-called squirearchy. They live year-round on their landed estates and represent the solid middle ranks of the gentry—not economically pressed and yet not aristocracy. Examples are Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Knightley in Emma and at the upper reaches baronets such as Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park and Sir Walter in Persuasion.  

Austen, like most Englishmen of her day, believed that it is the landed gentry who most purely embodied England’s values and distinctiveness—not the monarchy, not the aristocracy, not the middle classes. Those values derive from baronial times and the knights and yeomen who acquired a piece of land, often as a reward for service to the baron. The gentry and the farmers just beneath them made up England's backbone, its core, at a time when the body politic is becoming gangly and the lower orders are flexing their muscles.

To appreciate the darker drama that lies just beneath the bright surface of Austen's novels, one must recognize the gentry's nearly mythic place in England then. They symbolized features of an England that was beginning to change just then owing to industrialism and its sequel, urbanization. They threw into glorious prominence a way of life that was traceable to Medieval England and moved at a leisurely, seasonal pace and serenity that defied the factory and the city. The landed gentry seemed the quintessence of Englishness, the representatives of an unbroken succession that extended back to the Norman Conquest. The country house (even the "cottage," which was often quite grand by our standards) expressed their political, social, and aesthetic values. Their "parks" and "pleasure-grounds" (the hedges and gardens immediately around the house) entailed a code that could be read by the discerning to understand the owner's idea of sincerity, display, and his relation to nature and the past (the matter of cutting down old trees is important to Austen). The country house is to the gentry what clothes were at the time to the gentleman, the definitive emblem of one's station and values. 

England invested the squirearchy and the country house with a mix of idealization, hope, and nostalgia. Austen did too, but her view is more complex. Coming from the gentry, she has both real knowledge of the life and considerable apprehension of the gentry’s attentiveness to their privileged position. She observes the strains and cracks that threaten a particular family and therefore the house’s foundation.

The country house, surrounded by land and largely autonomous, readily lent itself to seeming a perennial flower from England’s distant past, as insulated from factory and city as England was from the Continent. The house was its own little kingdom, with a clear hierarchy of class and gender that stretched from the newest charwoman to the master. Each house depended primarily on its own resources for food, drink, laundry, and entertainment. Often in Austen a particular country house is the star around which move satellites--the clergyman and his family, perhaps some lesser gentry or successful farmer, wealthy retired refugees from the city, the local lawyer and doctor, the apothecary, and perhaps those in trade, such as a respectable draper or grain merchant.  

In yet another way the gentry were quintessentially English. They, more than any other class, were the beneficiaries and the prisoners of primogeniture, the custom by which estates were entailed so that the estate’s succession was pre-determined for all time. Primogeniture meant the estate must pass intact and entire to the first-born son or, if he should be dead, to the next male blood relative. This could be a first or second cousin as seems likely in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.

Patriarchy conferred nearly total power upon the head of a wealthy landed family. The flip side is that nearly total responsibility for the family and the estate attended such privilege. That equation is at the heart of Mansfield Park, the novel in which the underlying drama is most nearly indistinguishable from the surface. Sir Thomas Bertram has been preoccupied with his sugar plantations in the West Indies, and this has compounded his neglect of his family, with consequences for his two sons, especially the elder, and two daughters. Moreover, he has had minimal expectations of his wife and her vital role in the moral education of their daughters. Allowed to sink into a mindless indolence, she has deputized her responsibility to a mischievous, mean-spirited widowed sister who lives with them. The novel opens upon a house at the edge of moral disorder.

Because the squirearchy seemed representative of England, because the landed estate was a micro-kingdom, and because the patriarchy endowed the squire with sovereign authority, Austen did not need to belabor the implicit equivalence between the estate and England. Mansfield Park’s condition is inauspicious for the nation, and in reality England in the first quarter of the nineteenth century faced serious problems, the most prominent being the Prince Regent, the future George IV. He has been reckless in his behavior (he secretly married a widowed Catholic) and an expensive royal disgrace. His father, George III, is now mad but had been beloved by the gentry, who affectionately referred to him as the Farmer King, one of their own, for he took a keen interest in the management of his lands, bred sheep to improve their lines, and experimented with developments in new methods of farming. Further endearing him to the squirearchy was that he led a comparatively austere, morally upright country life devoted chiefly to his family. The Prince Regent, however, paraded as the shameless antithesis of his father.

There were, though, darker, more endemic problems in England than the Prince Regent. England was the first country in the world to experience the Industrial Revolution, which reshaped work, employment, and to some degree the classes. Industrialism had a profound impact on demographics by forcing huge numbers of agricultural workers to migrate to the cities and their factories. Urbanization occurred with such speed and scale as to result in living conditions in Manchester and London that can only be described as barbaric and worse than anything a Medieval serf endured.

Industrialism created a new kind of poverty, that in which starvation was a possibility because factory workers no longer were able to grow their own food in small gardens in the commons. Alternatively there was an expansion of the middle classes through increased industry and trade. Opportunities for improvement of one's economic status rewarded talented artisans and enterprising shop owners, and unimagined wealth was possible for inventors, often from the artisan class, mine and factory owners, retail titans, financiers, and shipping magnates.

Political power began to follow the demographic and gravitated from the land to the city and from the voiceless farm workers to increasingly vocal factory hands. These were becoming a force to be reckoned with as they pressed for better conditions, greater security, and finally a voice in the body politic. The more far-sighted gentry could see that the times threatened to shrink their political power and that what was required of them was the active, wise management of their estates.

Yet for nearly a quarter-century England’s attention had been riveted on events outside its borders. Beginning with the French Revolution in 1789, followed by England's declaration of war in 1793, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, England was preoccupied with France. There was a collective sigh of relief when in 1798 Admiral Nelson defeated them at the Battle of the Nile, crushing Napoleon's attempt to take Egypt and expand France’s colonial ambitions. But in 1805 Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, and though the English navy triumphed in that confrontation, the year ushered in a decade of land battles across Europe and the Iberian Peninsula in which Napoleon had extraordinary successes, and even when he lost a battle remained a threat. His fortunes changed in 1812 with his disastrous attempt to take Moscow. Nevertheless, with amazing resiliency, he recovered, and it is not until June 18, 1815, that the British under the Duke of Wellington, with assistance from the Austrians, terminally defeated him at Waterloo. Soldiers and sailors came home.

Their return, which increased already high unemployment, helped to awaken England to industrialization's gathering impact upon the poor and the lower middle classes. The economic conditions worsened, exacerbated by poor harvests, and provoked occasionally violent social agitation among farm workers and factory hands. Even the normally docile urban middle classes, while deploring the menacing noises of those beneath them, became aware that they lacked a political voice and began to mutter about an extension of the franchise (the preconditions for being able to vote).

Austen, two of whose brothers were in the Royal Navy, followed the war in the newspapers and registered the national debates that were beginning to resonate through the country houses. Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion overtly refer to the Navy, to lands and to commerce outside of England, and to agricultural improvements and the management of estates at home. Pride and Prejudice and Emma to a lesser degree extend their range to London, and Persuasion ventures downward somewhat in the classes and outside the gentry.

The Austen country estate is not only isolated but also a unique phenomenon in the West, which helps to explain something of its near mythic appeal. The English aristocracy and the English poor resemble their counterparts in Europe; the English middle classes before industrialism expanded their range, resembled those in France. But the English landed gentry are sui generis, their evolution from the barons, knights, and yeomanry of the English Middle Ages making them decidedly English. There is no class in Europe or America of the time comparable to the English squirearchy. Though here and there may be an individual who sets himself up as a self-conscious imitation of a squire (and entire suburban housing developments in the U.S. have names and postures imitative of the English estate), there is no comparable gentry class outside of England, one composed of minor aristocracy as well as grandees as well as commoners (untitled, such as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) who have tenants—not serfs, not peasants, not slaves.

In centering her novels upon the landed gentry, Austen grounds courtship and love in a social drama involving the young people who will soon become adults, spouses, and parents on whom the health of the estate depends. Austen approaches their courtship dances with comic wit, but love  in her fiction is a most serious business, and it is a business involving land and money. Each Austen novel is cautionary: marriage may be the most significant moment in a life but its consequences ripple across the local society. To the pair, marriage consummates courtship; to Austen marriage is the commencement of the social contract.

When love is passionate and accelerated, or idly flirtatious, it risks cracking the architecture of manners and conduct that is intended to contain  it. Any breach affects not just the lovers but the entire social circle of which the estate is the matrix. When love develops temperately, it invites the inclusion of a balance of interests—complementary personalities, physical attraction, social suitability, economic advantage—that provide a foundation for the perpetuation of the estate and the orderly life of its residents, including the tenantry. Such a marriage promises the appropriate parenting  of children born to privilege. Though Austen's novels are compressed in time as well as place (hardly more than a few months in some cases), she is always thinking of the next generation, that of unborn or still young children. No English novelist of the time better expresses Edmund Burke's statement, "Society is a contract between the past, the present and those yet unborn." And perhaps no English politician and political theorist of the time (he died in 1797) better voices the conservative attitudes of the landed gentry.

Love especially for a woman is the most serious consideration of her life, because marriage requires her surrender to her husband of her person and fortune, including any future money from inheritance or from her own labors, such as Charlotte Brontë earned from her novels. (In the upper reaches of the aristocracy, where huge sums were often involved, the marriage contract might include an exception for some portions of the woman's property.) But not to marry leaves a woman who lacks, say, Emma's independent wealth or Austen's talent, vulnerable to a marginalized life of near penury, as Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice explains. Emma's wealth and her prominent place in Highbury society prompt her to proclaim that she never will marry. Why, she reasons, would a spirited, rich young woman voluntarily enter a legal prison and make herself a hostage to her husband's temperament?

The patriarchy is an attitude that is anchored in feudal law: upon marriage a woman cedes her personhood and becomes in the eyes of the law, and in her husband’s if he chooses to see her that way, chattel or goods, no different from his horse or gun. Crippling to women of any social class, the law was especially so for the gentry because of primogeniture, also feudal. This was the custom, written into the will, that the entire real estate of the deceased, is bequeathed to the first-born son (if none, then to the nearest male relative). Primogeniture made females ciphers in the process of inheritance. It had the effect of requiring that a wife and any daughters must vacate their home for the heir and his wife, should he have one, a prospect that figures centrally in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion.

Jane Austen suffered something analogous, and it appears to have traumatized her. She, her sister, and her mother were suddenly forced to leave the home in which Jane had been born, the rectory at Steventon, upon the death of the Rev. Austen, the only home she had known for thirty years. She suffered a depression that for the next five years stalled her writing. Daughters were not the only victims of primogeniture. The younger sons, known as "cadets," were also dispossessed. To earn an honorable living compatible with their privileged upbringing—one in which the younger son theoretically served God or country—the cadet became a clergyman, a soldier, or, more rarely, entered one of the professions, chiefly the law. 

Because primogeniture originated as a means of guaranteeing that the house and lands passed intact and entire to the first-born son, its origins are inseparable from those of the gentry, great and small. At the summit of those who owned estates was the aristocracy, in ascending order barons, viscounts, earls, marquesses, and dukes; included among the aristocracy are bishops and archbishops. This is known as the peerage. Because the peers sit in the House of Lords and because of their associations with the royal family,  many peers spend the “season” in London and are therefore more cosmopolitan in their ways and attitudes than their country cousins, the squires.

Austen rarely depicts the aristocracy but when she does she intimates their extravagance and easy, worldly morals. Unlike their European counterparts—Italian, Spanish, and French aristocrats seemed numberless—the number of English peers was minuscule: in 1803 the entire peerage was just 313, which included bishops and princes of the blood. They possessed enormous political power because of their seats in the House of Lords, but their influence was augmented by inter-marriages that knitted aristocratic families into a bloc. A number of the peerage held high positions in the government.

They extended their political sway into the House of Commons through their large estates, which enabled them to control the votes of those few who could vote. The “franchise” or right to vote was land-based: one either owned a sufficiently large piece (a freeholder) or paid a sufficiently high tax on rented land (a copyholder). The total eligible voters, all male, numbered 225,000 out of a total population in 1811 of just over fourteen million. The independence of many of the voters was nominal. Because much of their trade and various privileges and benefits derived from the lord, he was able to dictate whom they were to vote for, and there was no secret ballot. Moreover, a peer extended his power because, owing to his rank, he was generally also lord lieutenant of the county and thus possessed in addition its highest-ranking administrative post. 

The next order of landholders is composed of the baronets (not included among the aristocracy) and immediately below them the knights. There were 540 baronets (examples in Austen are Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park and Sir Walter in Persuasion), making that rank alone nearly double the size of the entire peerage. There were in addition some 800 knights, of whom one, Sir William Lucas of Pride and Prejudice, is knighted as a reward for his service when mayor in getting up a function to honor the king, who was passing through.

Third are the squires, known as “commoners” because they are untitled. Austen generally portrays the squirearchy as the most responsible and hard-working of the gentry, the people with the staunchest, most tested values. Lacking a title that tends to inflate the holder in his own estimation, the squires have a more or less unobscured view of their duties to their estates, families, and tenantry. If attentive to their responsibilities, they tend to stay in the country and outside London’s orbit, relying for their social life on local society. Being a commoner does not preclude immense wealth, such as Darcy Fitzwilliam's in Pride and Prejudice or an ancient family and home, such as Knightley's in Emma.

The squires support the status quo or, preferably, the status quo ante. They are predominantly conservative in their politics, morals, and spiritual values, and the best of them, for Austen, conservative in their aesthetics, especially when it comes to their estates' landscaping. Their conservatism does not mean that they view all reform and liberalization as necessarily bad, especially not that concerned with better farming practices, but they look upon the city and cosmopolitan attitudes as inimical to the values and traditions associated with a life rooted in the land. Austen’s responsible squires look forward to a future refracted through the past, that of the barons, knights, and yeomanry from whom their class has descended. They have an unfussy yet indissoluble relation with Anglicanism, the National Church, and wear their religion as comfortably as they do their country clothes. They are educated and informed yet not excitable, the worthier ones immune to fashions in architecture and landscape, politics and culture, as if the seasonal routines of agrarian life have grounded and tempered their minds.

The definitive separation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England is between those who own land, “real” estate, and those who possess only "portable property." G. E. Mingay's important English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century opens, "Landed property was the foundation of eighteenth-century society [and well into the 19th]....the owners of the soil derived from its consequence and wealth the right to govern. Above all, land was immovable and indestructible, and the very permanence of land gave stability to the society that was based upon it."

The squires generally had smaller estates and a smaller income than the peers, but Darcy's Pemberley is grand and his income of £10,000 per year exceeds that of the less affluent peers, who may receive £3-4,000. (To arrive at today's dollars, we can calculate £1 in 1815 as worth some $90. Darcy's annual income is then approximately $900,000, with no income tax.) Many gentry, such as Knightley, manage their own estates, and for Austen many others ought to, an issue in Mansfield Park. Farmers may sometimes be wealthier than squires, but what generally distinguishes the squire from the freeholders and farmers just beneath them is a steady stream of supplemental rents from tenant farmers and the money for the sound education of his children. Austen, an acute observer of false discriminations and critical of snobbery, represents in Emma a farmer whom Knightley addresses as a friend.  However, England is at a turning-point. An individual's place in the social hierarchy is becoming less dependent on land and on the type of work a person does. Austen refines the calculus: land, class, and money matter but what matters above all is one's moral character.

Apart from farmers, the class immediately below the landed gentry consists of tradesmen and shopkeepers, the "shopocracy," and country lawyers, apothecaries, doctors, grain merchants, and the like. For almost all of these, ownership of a piece of land is their abiding aspiration and, if they do manage it, the indisputable sign of their having become at least nominal gentry. The closer members of this class approach owning land or marrying a daughter into the gentry, the more they tend to ape the gentry's dress, manners, and attitudes, including a shift in politics to the more conservative, land-based Tories from the Whigs, and in spiritual matters to the Church of England from Dissenting chapels and non-Anglican Protestant sects such as Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists. 


 ii. Patriarchy 

Feudal law and primogeniture generated informal practices that further penalized women. As young as sixteen, having led a largely cloistered life with little or no experience of the world beyond a twenty-mile circumference, the new bride was severed from the home and community she knew as a child and compelled to move to her husband's estate. If that was more than fifty miles away, the distance meant long separations from family and friends. There was an evanescent period between the moment a young woman comes out into society and is eligible for marriage and her marriage. She had then more power than she will ever again unless she remained single.

Unmarried daughters, unless independently wealthy, were a financial burden. Yet daughters, often more than cadets, had an intrinsic worth, especially if they came with a significant dowry as well as good looks and a capacity to sing, play the piano or harp, and be witty and entertaining. Such a daughter could marry into another gentry family, thereby allying the estates, or, given her name and family connections, she was a desirable bride for the son of a wealthy middle-class family aspiring to gentry status. Daughters had, too, the capacity through a good marriage (a feature of Mansfield Park), to increase her family's "connexions," thereby assisting her brothers in their careers and her younger sisters in making a good match, or at least some match. Her chances of making a good marriage were better than that of a cadet's, for the cadet had only the family name and no dowry.

Primogeniture was an English phenomenon and differed from practice on the Continent where estates were often divided among several male heirs or, alternatively, bequeathed at the will of the current owner to the most qualified. Such discretionary choice would have prevented the sort of situation that appears in several Austen novels, where the eldest son is less qualified, or in the event there is no immediate heir, the estate must go to a distant relative. Primogeniture is indiscriminate, whether the heir is a fool or a scapegrace? He may be—the Regent might be a case in point—unqualified or unready to assume his responsibilities. The father was powerless and has only moral persuasion to prepare the heir, who may react allergically to any attempt to discipline him. Second, the lord or squire had only a "life interest" in the estate. He was a conservator or steward only. Timber could be sold, the tenants' rents could be raised, even some sort of industry such as mining engaged, but the real estate was to remain constant if not augmented through purchase or marriage.

Matters of inheritance figure with special force in Mansfield Park but they touch every other Austen novel. In each the foreground is composed of young women and men of marriageable age with physical desires and a susceptibility to eros. In the background are patriarchy, primogeniture, entail, and the need of the squire to recognize the privileges of his inherited status but at least important the potential weaknesses and dangers of paternalism.

Every Austen novel is a triptych: the wide central panel focuses upon a young woman (she may have sisters and brothers); to the left a panel depicts the prior generation; and to the right a blank canvas which we are invited to imagine the figures of unborn generation that will result from this marriage. With what values and expectations will they be reared? If the squire has no power in the choice of an heir, he does in his choice of a spouse, in his guidance of her, and in the education of their children. A grand estate may be enduring but not always stable and functional. Its wellbeing hinges upon the squire’s reasons for his choice of a spouse. Love is the inspiration but not the purpose or end of marriage and courtship only an exciting, brief prelude to the real business, the general improvement of the estate and its micro-society.

No word may be more important in Austen than "improvement." While fully aware of human frailty, often expressed in our ingenious rationalizations of our selfish desires, she remains an optimist. Upon the extended family stretching to the village social circle and to relatives in other places, a single person, even a passing outsider, can have a surprisingly large influence for good or bad. Parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and schools have nearly limitless power to shape the individual, and, conversely, the individual to improve or degrade the little society to which he or she belongs. We are in Austen's view not born good or bad but impressionable, tractable, and morally sensitive, at least up to a certain age, at least until  twenty years old or so. The people and the environment about us when we are young are crucially important to our improvement. She does not depict a great many children, but her young adults make us read backward to see the child each was and how he or she was raised. Now they appear before us at just that moment when the soft material of the child is hardening into a permanent condition, and some of her novels focus on that final formative experience that will decide the sort of adult that person will become. She judges pitilessly those, beginning with parents, who fail to instruct well. The responsibility to instruct extends to her as an author, and her fiction, which, while graceful and amusing, is at its core didactic.

Love and courtship in her novels define the transformative time in an individual's life, particularly the woman's, but marriage is the pivotal moment in the family's and the society's. The lovers want their privacy and intimacy, the family, whose conventions confine the lovers to the drawing-room and the garden about the house, wants to keep them in the public eye where erotic desire is, if not suppressed, mediated through the permissible subjects of talk and contact, such as dancing.

Sexuality is ubiquitous in Austen, as one might expect with a cast of characters in their late teens and early twenties, though the older Knightley is captivated by Emma. Erotic desire in Austen is at the very confluence where the private and public meet and must be made to serve the interests of the latter. We are in her fiction ultimately public beings, yet, given her subject, we are irradiated by desire. Sexual energy makes Elizabeth and Darcy particularly appealing, and its absence makes Fanny Price wan.

Austen is no prude. She dramatizes the role of erotic passion in individual lives and its sometimes disastrous effects on the bystanders, no less the participants. Eros in Austen shines brightly upon the young people, but it darkens ominously when eros becomes a prime factor in one's conduct and in a choice of a mate. Austen’s regard for manners and the conventions of conduct does not mean that she wished to neutralize sexuality. (She was enough of a realist to know that she could not.) She shows that the gentry’s codes and customs (for instance, no young man and woman who are not engaged are to write letters to one another) acknowledge the power of desire by making all traffic between the two public. This has for her fiction the happy effect of causing lovers or aspiring lovers to speak on two levels simultaneously, a protracted double entendre. Where Austen may differ most from us today is that she regards physical attraction as a happy bonus to affection and esteem, not a necessity.

To marry for love, with desire paramount but without money, may promise no better conclusion than marrying without love but with money. Physical attraction electrifies but it does not sustain. No one in Austen is perfect; the best marriages require that a spouse's limitations and flaws, or for that matter excessively active virtues, are compensated for by the mate's different strengths. Complementarity is a form of moral double-entry bookkeeping. The unfortunate marriages are between people who resemble one another. Their virtues add up arithmetically, but their moral flaws compound themselves. Unwise love is more problematic in Austen than merely respectful affection. In marriage at this social and economic level, the emotional cannot be divorced from the practical. The final measure of the union's success is not the parents' personal happiness but the union’s stabilizing impact on the estate as the center of a solar system for relatives and friends, and nothing is more important in the governance of the home than being able to raise children who will embody and perpetuate the gentry's best values. 


iii. Persuasion 

It is a commonplace: Austen's fathers are often unworthy of the power the patriarchy confers on them. Weak, feckless, or self-indulgent, their behavior is often amusing though the effects are serious. Ann Elliot’s father has turned self-indulgence and vanity into an art. He sunbathes in the glow of his title and centuries-old family. He and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, are exceptionally good-looking, and their looks, they believe, ratify their sense of self-importance in the social empyrean to which they try to confine themselves. Sir Walter's favorite and it seems only book is Debrett's Baronetage of England, which he is discovered reading and fondling when the novel opens. Well, in fact reading just one entry, that describing his family's genealogy. He is only a baronet, but if his rank is not high, he views the length of his genealogy to be more than an equalizer. Austen makes his and his eldest daughter's self-absorption a comic element in the novel, yet, oblivious as they are to the casual cruelty of their conduct, they are in fact detestable. Some measure of the novel's irony, always present in Austen but especially sharp here, originates in their conviction that they are centrally important to their world, when in reality they experience life shallowly and figure largely as aging ornaments.

They are preoccupied with what is called “precedence.” The baronetcy entitles them to cherished privileges, such as a forward place in the line going in to a dinner or in the carriage line following a ball. Sir Walter's title is old, much older than most, including those nobler in rank. In that sense he claims “precedence.” Pity that Sir Walter and Elizabeth cannot see themselves as Austen does. The heroine of the novel is someone they dismiss as dispensable when, to the reader, they are merely supporting actors.

Sir Walter is especially detestable because he has all of the privileges of his title and none of the virtues and responsibility. Noblesse oblige is unknown to him. Titles in Austen often nurture smugness and, as here, confidence in a precedence that has not been earned but only accidentally conferred. The future of Kellynch Hall is dim, and Austen does not weep for it. Sir Walter has no son (one died stillborn). Sir Walter, given to noticing the least blemish in a woman's complexion is so absorbed in skin that he has failed to register the systemic decline of Kellynch Hall into anemia and effeteness.

Austen's diagnosis of what is ailing the gentry is more severe in Persuasion than in Emma, where Knightly, a squire and county magistrate, embodies the virtues a title ought to promise—disciplined vigor, selflessness and service, an honest, direct intelligence, manners without affectation, and close attention to his estate. He values people for their intrinsic worth, not their station, not their complexion. His estate, noble in its unmodernized and unmanicured condition, is productive and like him presents itself as entirely authentic. Sir Walter is the end of his immediate line. This may not be bad in Austen’s eyes, for had he a son that heir would likely have been no improvement on his father.

Sir Walter is an embarrassment to his origins in the energetic barons, knights, and yeomen of Old England. He may be typical of a good many old titles, for over the centuries the original spirit has been depleted. The problem of decline is one Benjamin Disraeli, the novelist and future prime minister, observed in the 1830s and sought to combat. He helped to found a movement called Young England, meaning Old England, Medieval England, as Disraeli and others such as Thomas Carlyle interpreted the distant past, regenerated in the present. They sought to restore a sense of noblesse oblige and with it the moral bonds between men that industrialism and competitive capitalism had severed, leaving only the “cash nexus.”

Austen does not envision a resurrection of the knights and barons of old  or a resuscitation of Medieval relationships between lords and vassals. She has a different corrective: to find among her contemporaries, among the very men Sir Walter shivers with repulsion at having to associate with, the old values already present in the modern world. The paradigm of nobility, valor, duty, and service already exists for her in the officers of the Royal Navy. She knows this firsthand through two of her brothers, both of whom began serving in the navy at the age of twelve, one of whom rose to become Admiral of the Fleet, the other a Rear-Admiral. They and their cohort embody Old-Young England's virtues: stalwart, selfless service, loyalty. The officers’ ranks and titles have been earned through meritorious, often dangerous service. The result is manly manners and, moreover, a gallant admiration of women, for these men appreciate the value of a loyal woman.

Persuasion's morally strongest figures, both men and women, are socially almost all beneath the gentry or, if part of it, a marginalized figure such as Anne, the middle sister. Most remarkable among the large female population of Austen's novels is a woman in Persuasion, Anne's school friend, who has been reduced by severe illness to a penurious invalidism in Bath. She stands as an extraordinary example of female grace under pressure, an equal in her sphere to the naval officers. To mention her requires noting her nurse, Rook, an example of Austen's venturing farther down the social strata into a new, interesting terrain. With these two women and the naval officers, Austen has extended her familiar boundaries, re-balancing her fiction to acknowledge the world beyond the gentry that is vibrant and brave. It is for this and other reasons that Persuasion, though the least eventful of her novels, is also the boldest. Persuasion feels autumnal but in fact is fresh.

A word about the title. "Persuasion" means our ability to convince or be convinced by someone to think, believe, or do something. Persuasion is in fact a rhetorical matter, the result of verbal finesse. The verb originates with Latin persuadeo, to convince of a fact.  The OED gives, "The action or an act of persuading or attempting to persuade; the addressing of arguments or appeals to a person in order to induce cooperation, submission, or agreement; the presenting of persuasive reasoning or compelling arguments." A significant theme and source of comedy throughout Austen's novels is our capacity for rationalization or self-persuasion. Because it is the mind acting upon itself to satisfy its own ends—a sort of double-dealing—it requires the use of guileful reasoning in which one can transmute a selfish desire into one that one believes is for the good of others.

The novel scrutinizes the persuasion exercised by family and friends, often couched in the formulaic "it's for your own good" (when it's usually for the speaker's) and the most dangerous sort, that by which we persuade ourselves that our motives are selfless. There's much comedy and some harm to others and sometimes ourselves in such self-persuasion. But there is a more noxious sort of persuasion Austen's characters inhale daily. This persuasion, like carbon monoxide, is invisible, odorless, and deadly. It emanates from the obsolete, life-denying values of the class to which they belong. Most important to Austen and the only safeguard against ourselves, those close to us, and the society itself is our individual ability to discriminate. That—with discernment and judgment—is what Austen's novels teach above all else.


iv. A Chronology and A Select Bibliography


Jane Austen in Her Time

(Bold type delineates events involving Jane Austen)

 1770. Oliver Goldsmith's poem The Deserted Village. Practice of leaving visiting cards begins. William Wordsworth b. The "Boston Massacre": Boston citizens and British troops clash, resulting in the deaths of five colonists. Dauphin of France (future Louis XVI) marries Marie Antoinette. Ludwig von Beethoven b.

1771. Bath's first Assembly Room opened. (Sir) Walter Scott b. Henry Austen born, the fourth son, following the births of James, George (boarded out with an unspecified mental dysfunction), Edward (adopted at nine by a wealthy couple, a condition being that he change his name to Knight). The Rev. George Austen, Jane's father, was born in 1731 and died in 1805; her mother, Cassandra Leigh, was born in 1739 and died in 1827). Encyclopedia Britannica, first edition. The electrical basis for nerve impulses discovered by Luigi Galvani (connected obliquely with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). Richard Arkwright invents and establishes England's first spinning mill.

1772. Samuel Taylor Coleridge b. Somerset case: Judge Murray rules that a slave is free upon arrival in England.

1773. Cassandra Austen b. First cast-iron bridge begun, Coalbrookdale, England.

1774. Francis "Frank" Austen b. Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Formalization of rules for cricket.

1775. Jane Austen b. Dec. 16 at Steventon Rectory, Hampshire. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals.

1776. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (-1788). Declaration of Independence.

1777 Sheridan, The School for Scandal.

1778. Fanny Burney's Evelina, popular novel of manners that influences Austen.

1779. Charles Austen b. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets (-1781). R. B. Sheridan, The Critic. Posthumous publication of David Hume's Dialogues of Natural Religion. The annual Derby at Epsom Downs inaugurated.

1780. Gordon Riots, a week of rioting and mayhem against a Parliamentary bill granting some civil liberties to Catholics; bill rescinded. Riots extended to the burning of houses of suspected atheists and Unitarians, such as that of the great chemist Joseph Priestley, who fled to the U.S. Charles Dickens' novel Barnaby Rudge includes the riots. The British Gazette and The Sunday Monitor, England's first Sunday newspapers, begin publishing in London.

1781. J-J Rousseau, Confessions.

1782. James Watt, rotary steam engine. William Cowper, Poems. Fanny Burney, Cecilia.

1783. Cassandra and Jane are sent to boarding school in Southampton, but, owing to an epidemic fever that kills some children, are taken home. Great Britain recognizes American independence. William Pitt (Pitt the Younger) ministry (-1801). George Crabbe, The Village. William Herschel, Motion of the Solar System in Space. Charles Simeon's small meetings in his student rooms at Cambridge lead to evangelical fervor within the university. John Broadwood develops and patents pedals for his pianoforté. Invention enabling the printing of colors on calico.

1784. Pitt's India Act places the East India Co. under the government's control. John Wesley’s Deed of Declaration ordained preachers for Scotland, England and America, with authority to administer the sacraments, challenged the Church of England and prefigured Wesley's secession.

1785. First crossing of the English Channel by balloon.

1786. Robert Burns, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

1787. Beginning of impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India, on charges of corruption and high treason. He may have been the lover of Philadelphia Hancock, neé Austen, Jane's aunt, and may have fathered Eliza de Feuillide, whose first husband was guillotined and whose second was Jane's brother Henry. English abolitionists found colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone. George, Prince of Wales, future Prince Regent and King George IV, authorizes the construction of the Pavilion at Brighton. The style is Indo-Saracenic. About this time Thomas Rowlandson's and James Gillray’s satirical cartoons capture the public with their wit and irreverence.

1788. Fourteen-year old Francis Austen leaves the Naval School at Portsmouth and ships aboard a frigate bound for the East Indies, not to see his family for five years. George III's first attack of mental illness results in the Prince Regent's demand to Parliament that he be made king. George Gordon, future Lord Byron b. Hannah Moore, English bluestocking and religious reformer, Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to the General Society. The Times, London. James Hutton, New Theory of the Earth. Bread riots in France, and Parlement de Paris presents grievances to Louis XVI.

1789. Austen writes her first novel, Love and Freindship [sic]; A History of England (a parody), and some short stories (-91). Storming of Bastille Prison, the beginning of the French Revolution; feudalism abolished; Declaration of Rights of Man; George III recovers. William Blake's Songs of Innocence; Jeremy Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation; H.M.S. Bounty's mutineers land on Pitcairn I.

1790. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

1791. September Massacres in Paris; slaves revolt in French Santo Domingo. James Boswell, Life of Johnson. Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (Part I). George Morland's oil painting Inside of a Stable. Joseph Haydn's “Surprise” Symphony (94); the waltz, a contagion spreading from Vienna, arrives in England. William Bartram's Travels in the American South.

1792. Revolutionary Commune, Paris; French royal family imprisoned; proclamation of French Republic; Revolutionary calendar; Jacobins under Danton defeat Girondins for supreme control; France declares war on Austria, Prussia, and Sardinia. Percy Bysshe Shelley b. Paine's Rights of Man, Part II. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Gas first used in England for street lumination.

1793. Austen writes Lady Susan and Elinor and Marianne, originally an epistolary novel (-96), revised as Sense and Sensibility. Execution of Louis XVI; Reign of Terror begins; Queen Marie Antoinette executed; England declares war on France; "The Feast of Reason," the Jacobin replacement of the saints’ days, designed by the French painter, J-L David.  John Clare, poet, b. William Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice. Establishment of England’s Board of Agriculture

 1794. William Blake, Songs of Experience. Danton and Desmoulins guillotined; "Feast of the Supreme Being"; Commune dissolved; Robespierre, his brother, and St. Just guillotined; slavery abolished in French colonies. Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather) publishes Zoönomia, or the Laws of Organic Life; Paine, The Age of Reason; Pitt ministry, terrified of home-grown sedition, suspends until 1804 Habeas Corpus Act and embarks on numerous treason trials.

1795. Warren Hastings acquitted of high treason. John Keats b. Haydn composes the last of the twelve "London" symphonies. Speenhamland poor relief: all wages up to a certain point supplemented by poor relief paid for by taxes on local landholders. The Monk: a Romance, sensationalist Gothic novel by Matthew "Monk" Lewis.

1796. Writes First Impressions (-97); revised as Pride and Prejudice. Fanny Burney, Camilla. English doctor Edw. Jenner develops smallpox vaccination.

1797. British sailors on two warships mutiny at Spithead. Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, a Gothic novel. Thomas Bewick, History of British Birds.

1798. Writes Susan (-99), an early version of Northanger Abbey. Wordsworth and Coleridge publish Lyrical Ballads, which include "Lines...Tintern Abbey" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population; Nelson destroys French fleet in Abukir Bay while Napoleon takes control of Egypt and Malta. British govt. imposes 10% war tax on incomes over £200. Napoleon appointed to plan invasion of England. J. M. W. Turner begins painting in oils, one of his most darkly dramatic early paintings being Dolbadern Castle (-1800).

1799. Napoleon challenges and defeats the Directory. Discovery of Rosetta stone in Egypt, the key to the decipherment of hieroglyphics. Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa. Beethoven's 1st symphony.

1800. Napoleon First Consul. Maria Edgworth's gothic novel Castle Rackrent. Founding of Royal College of Surgeons, London. Alessandro Volta invents battery that produces electricity.

1801. The Rev. George Austen retires and moves from Steventon Rectory to Bath with his wife and two daughters. Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland. Two-volume Lyrical Ballads. John Debrett, Peerage.

1802. Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
1803. Austen sells Susan for £10 but it is stillborn, for though advertised it remains unpublished. Joseph Lancaster, Improvements in Education as It Respects the Industrious Classes.

1804. Writes The Watsons. Napoleon crowned emperor in the presence of Pope Pius VII. Code Napoleon. After decades of extraordinary accomplishments in the medium, the founding of the English Water Colour Society. Beethoven, Symphony 3, renamed the Eroica after Beethoven retracts dedication to Napoleon.

1805. The Rev. George Austen dies in Bath. Suddenly without much money, the three Austen women are forced to look for a cheaper place to live and settle in Southampton. Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Wordsworth 2-volume collection of poems.

1806. British take Cape of Good Hope and blockade France; France retaliates with Continental blockade of all British shipping.

1807. England abolishes slave trade on British ships. Thomas Moore, Irish Melodies, music by John Stevenson. Some London streets lighted by gas. Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare.

1808. France invades Spain. Henry Crabb Robinson becomes first war correspondent and reports for The Times of London on the Peninsular Campaign. Robert Southey under the pseudonym Don M. A. Espriella publishes Letters From England. Goya, The Third of May.

1809. Following four years of moving from place to place, the three Austen women settle in Chawton Cottage, Hampshire, owned by Edw. Knight (formerly Austen).

1810. Jane Austen recovers from what appears to be a protracted depression following the move from Steventon Rectory and returns to writing, beginning with a revision of Elinor and Marianne into Sense and Sensibility, followed by a revision of First Impressions into Pride and Prejudice. Scott, The Lady of the Lake. Durham miners' strike.

1811. Begins an entirely new novel, Mansfield Park, and publishes Sense and Sensibility. This novel, like the others to come during her lifetime, was published anonymously, "By a Lady." George III formally acknowledged insane, and the Prince, the future George IV, is declared Prince Regent, which begins the Regency (-20, when George III dies). John Nash, the designer of the Royal Crescent in Bath and of part of the Brighton Pavilion, designs Regent Street, London.

1812. Cantos I and II of Byron's Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. First of the Hampden clubs formed to extend the voting "franchise" (the right to vote in Parliamentary elections) in Great Britain, which was determined by how much one pays in annual rates (taxes). Charles Dickens b. Humphrey Davy, Elements of Chemical Philosophy. Elgin Marbles transported to England and in 1816 installed in the British Museum.

1813. Pride and Prejudice published. Shelley, Queen Mab. France loses a series of major battles.

1814. Mansfield Park published; writes Emma (-15). Byron, The Corsair; Scott, Waverley (the first of the Waverley novels); Wordsworth, The Excursion. Napoleon banished to Elba, and Louis XVIII assumes throne. Stephenson, first steam locomotive developed to serve a colliery.

1815. Writes Persuasion. Napoleon leaves Elba, Louis XVIII flees; Wellington and Blücher meet and join to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Wordsworth, Poems, Collected Edition; Byron, Hebrew Melodies; Scott, Guy Mannering; Nash's "Oriental" re-design of Brighton Pavilion. Economic depression descends upon Britain with high unemployment and steep bread prices, generating various protests, from peaceful to violent.

1816. Emma published. Austen recovers Susan, which is reworked into Northanger Abbey. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria. Founding of Blackwood's Magazine in Edinburgh, and, Tory in outlook, is associated with Scott. William Cobbett begins publishing the Political Register, whose cheap price guarantees a huge circulation by Cobbett’s having found a loophole to avoid the stamp duty on newspapers.

1817. Begins Sanditon; Jane Austen dies on July 18, age 41, in Winchester, where she'd gone for medical treatment of what was not known until 1849 as Addison's disease, named for the British doctor who diagnosed it. The disease is also known as adrenal insufficiency. Byron, Manfred. John Constable, Flatford Mill. Riots in Derbyshire.


A note about Austen's two brothers in the Royal Navy, careers that bear upon Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Francis, 1774-1865, was knighted and eventually elevated to Admiral of the Fleet. Charles, 1779-1852, finished his career as a Rear-Admiral.


A Select Bibliography


The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen (5 vols.), ed. R. W. Chapman.

Jane Austen: Selected Letters. ed. R. W. Chapman.
 Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life.


Altick, Richard. The English Common Reader. Beales, Derek. From Castlereagh to Gladstone: 1815-1885.
 Becker, Carl. The Heavenly City of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy.

Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement: 1783-1867.

_________. Social History of England.

Brown, Julia Prewitt. A Reader’s Guide to the Nineteenth-Century Novel.

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment (2 vols.).

Halévy, Elie. History of the English People: England in 1815.
 __________. History of the English People: The Liberal Awakening: 1815-1830.

Humphreys, A. R. The Augustan World: Society, Thought, Letters in Eighteenth-Century England.

Jarrett, Derek. England in the Age of Hogarth. Kelly, Gary. English Fiction of the Romantic Period.

 Marcus, Steven. Introduction to Emma.

Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History.

Mingay, G. E. English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century.

Owen, John B. The Eighteenth Century: 1714-1815.

Perkin, Harold, Origins of Modern English Society.

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Porter, Roy. English Society in the 18th Century.

Sambrook, James. The Eighteenth Century.

Stephen, Leslie. English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Abridged edition.

Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility.

Thompson, F.M.L. English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century. Trevelyan, G. M. English Social History.

Trilling, Lionel. "Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen."

Turner, Thomas. The Diary of a Georgian Shopkeeper.

Webb, R. K. Modern England: From the 18th Century to the Present. Willey, Basil. The Eighteenth-Century Background.

Woodforde, James. The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802.



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