Essays and Criticism
Reflection of Revolutionary Age
In an article in British Writers, Brian Southam presents an overview of Jane Austen's work and concludes that her fiction reveals a firm sense of time and place. He argues that Austen's novels "communicate a profound sense" of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, "when the old Georgian world of the eighteenth century was being carried uneasily and reluctantly into the new world of Regency England, the Augustan world into the romantic." Gary Kelly, in his critique of Austen's works for Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that British society was influenced by the revolutionary fervor surrounding the American and French battles for independence during this age and finds that zeitgeist was represented "as a progressive dialectic of gentry and professionals."
Austen's novels join this dialectical discussion, for they focus specifically on the changes in the country's social fabric as strict hierarchies of class were being challenged. The sense of this historical moment as a period of transition becomes most evident in her last novel, Persuasion. In her depiction of the members of the Elliot family and their circle, Austen not only chronicles the changes that were occurring in the British class system during this period, but she also appears to support them.
Austen begins the novel with a description of Sir Walter, the patriarch of the Elliot family, and his class obsession, evident in his constant perusal of...
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Rationality and Rebellion: Persuasion and the Model Girl
Of all six completed novels Persuasion most resists a late twentieth-century reader's attempts to exonerate Austen from charges of prescriptiveness and didacticism. If Anne Elliot was 'almost too good' for the author, a reading based on an assumption of Austen's attachment to conventional contemporary wisdom will certainly leave her too good for us. Marilyn Butler, among others, avers that 'Anne comes near to being dangerously perfect' and much modern criticism finds her somewhat tediously fault-free. Curiously, though, it is the one work of Austen's which attracted prompt contemporary criticism on moral grounds; in 1818 the following was included in a review in The British Critic:
[The novel] contains parts of very great merit; among them, however, we certainly should not number its moral, which seems to be, that young people should always marry according to their own inclinations and upon their own judgement; for that if in consequence of listening to grave counsels, they defer their marriage, till they have wherewith to live upon, they will be laying the foundation for years of misery, such as only the heroes and heroines of novels can reasonably hope ever to see the end of.
These two attitudes, nearly two hundred years apart, provide us with a bewildering paradox—is the novel supporting or rejecting contemporary rules of conduct? What was Austen up to in Persuasion? Various answers...
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The success with which Emma accommodates its imaginative heroine in a traditional community invites us to read Jane Austen's conservative commitment as a sincere response rather than a conventional cover or camouflage. Unlike Emma, however, Persuasion (1818) does not bring its heroine to a defined social place and role; and in the last novel the attitude to social heritage differs subtly, if not in the end radically, from that communicated in the earlier novels. Though Anne Elliot becomes the wife of Captain Wentworth and the delighted mistress of a "very pretty lan-daulette," she has (as her status-obsessed sister Mary observes with satisfaction) "no Uppercross-hall before her, no landed estate, no headship of a family." Persuasion marks a new direction in Jane Austen's search for accommodations. Her deliberate decision not to provide Anne with abbey, house, hall, place, park, or cottage on her marriage to a man who has gained a fortune of £25,000 from prize money does not indicate—as the failure to finish The Watsons did—an oppressed sense of insurmountable difficulties to be overcome. The nature of the problem has changed, as has the kind of accommodation sought.
One way to describe the new direction of Persuasion is to compare Anne Elliot's role with that of Fanny Price. Like Fanny, Anne is often made aware of her "own nothingness." Fanny, however, becomes involved despite herself in issues of social...
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