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 the Baronetage, where he notes the description of the social standing and history of his family. Sir Walter is a traditional gentleman of the landed gentry, the upper-middle level of the British class system. Through his characterization, Austen records all that she finds pretentious and shallow in the most conservatively rigid members of this group. In her detailed depiction of Sir Walter's manners and fashionable pursuits, Austen lays the groundwork for her critique of the superficialities of the middle class.
In Sir Walter's structured society, the harmony of the group depends on each individual complying with its fixed rules. The appearance of wealth and propriety are sacrosanct in his world, and Sir Walter is a firm devotee of its conventions. As a result, when his extravagant spending habits threaten to bring him to the brink of financial ruin, he cannot come up with a plan to economize. He insists that he can endure no changes to his lifestyle that will compromise his dignity or comfort or that will place him in too close proximity to the lower classes. Fortunately, Lady Russell convinces him to find a less expensive dwelling in Bath, where he can appear to be enjoying a change of scenery and retain his social position.
The shallowness of the upper classes is reflected in the attitudes Sir Walter and his eldest daughter Elizabeth harbor regarding Anne. Unable to place value on her intellectual and moral merit, they find her loss of "bloom" after suffering through her break from Wentworth evidence of her inferiority.
Sir Walter's sense of superiority is epitomized in his overweening vanity, which is "the beginning and the end" of his character, and his arrogant dismissal of anyone from the lower classes who is presumptuous enough to try to gain entry into his circle. This attitude causes his daughter Anne to suffer greatly when it results in his refusal to approve of her marriage to Wentworth, who does not enjoy the benefits of a noble birth nor, initially, of the leisure class.
Austen's critique of this society develops a harder edge in her depiction of William Elliot, their self-serving cousin who reveals himself to be "black and hollow at heart." Austen illustrates the blindness of the middle class to the faults of its own privileged and "dignified" members when the Elliot family quickly allows him back into the family after a troubled past relationship with him. When they permit him to reestablish himself in their good graces, most find his character sterling. Anne, however, with her astute powers of perception that do not depend on social standing, suspects a duplicitous nature, which her friend Mrs. Smith confirms. The narrative soon reveals that he has come to Bath and reintegrated himself with the family only to insure his inheritance.
Austen's illustration of the age's spirit of change is centered in Anne. Her openness reflects the transitional nature of Regency England, when class distinctions began to blur. As the lower-middle classes became more...
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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 have been put forward; like Mansfield Park it continues to provoke explanations, if not apologies, for its moral stance—most often critics find something wrong with it, some failure of coherence or consistency. If we examine the novel within the framework of the present study, we should be able to come close to an answer to the questions surrounding Persuasion without implying that Austen somehow did not quite achieve her aim. The five other novels, and the fragments, have all manoeuvred among available stereotypes to find a new way of presenting in fiction the problems of human interaction in life as Austen perceived it, rather than life as it might, according to contemporary conduct-theory, desirably be lived. Persuasion is no exception, but it takes a somewhat different direction.
Emma had come in for a good deal of criticism on the grounds that its heroine was no compliment to the female sex. In 'Opinions of Emma', Miss Isabella Herries 'objected to my exposing the sex in the character of the Heroine', and Fanny Knight's current admirer, James Wildman, was apparently of the same opinion. Austen replies:
Do not oblige him to read any more.—Have mercy on him, tell him the truth & make him an apology. He & I should not in the least agree of course, in our ideas of Novels and Heroines;—pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked—but there is some good sense in what he says, & I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young Ladies; it shews an amiable & delicate Mind.—And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my Works.
There was very little likelihood that Austen would, at this stage, fulfil expectation by writing an exemplary novel or create a 'picture of perfection'. What she did was to invent a character with whom no one could find fault on the grounds of manners or behaviour ('with manners as consciously right as they were invariably gentle'), who fulfils outwardly all the ideals of the conduct books, and subject her to narrow and mindless interpretations of those ideals. This heroine is thereby forced into a pragmatism which throws her back on feeling as 'her spring of felicity' and the reference-point of her judgement. But this novel is not a new, late celebration of sensibility, a 'Woman of Feeling'. Anne is deeply convinced that reason and feeling are not oppositional but complementary; what goes against feeling goes against reason also. She is more like Marianne than she is like Elinor. But she is not influenced by fashionable moral and social theory. She has come to her conclusions from experience—she has found out that inflexible adherence to rule and precept does not invariably increase the sum of human happiness and may well do the opposite. Who has gained by her sacrifice? As the result of the failure of traditional 'sensible' solutions to make sense of her life, Anne has to go back to first principles, and in the intolerable tension between what she feels is right and what is forced upon her by contemporary judgements, is nearly drained of energy; she almost fails to give her life back its meaning. The novel presents no single solution to any of her problems and the dénouement is a matter of luck rather than judgement. The best we can say of the ending is that time and chance are kind to Anne Elliot. Deserving as she may be, the reader must be aware that she could have remained disappointed and alone for the rest of her life.
In the Plan of a Novel of (circa) 1816, Austen postulates a heroine very like Anne: 'a faultless Character herself—perfectly good, with much tenderness & sentiment, & not the least Wit—very highly accomplished, understanding modern Languages & (generally speaking) everything that the most accomplished young Women learn, but particularly excelling in Music—her favourite pursuit—& playing equally well on the Piano Forte & Harp—& singing in the first stile'. Austen adds a modicum of 'Wit' and subtracts the harp and the singing (significantly, in emphasising the waste of Anne's real musical talents—'having no voice, no knowledge of the harp, and no fond parents to sit by and fancy themselves delighted'), but otherwise this is both Austen's rather contemptuous concept of the conventional heroine and Anne Elliot to the life. However, what happens to her is not according to that convention. The novel is essentially a critique of the common fictional adventures of such a girl, which were often only one degree removed from the ludicrous junketings described in the Plan. Fictional 'cant' is still the author's target.
As we have seen, Austen's admiration for the works of Fanny Burney was becoming a little detached and ironical even in 1796, just after the publication of Camilla. She remembers sending her love to 'Mary Harrison' hoping that when she is 'attached to a young Man, some respectable Dr. Marchmont may keep them apart for five volumes'. Anne and Captain Wentworth are kept apart for two—thus fulfilling a fictional expectation, but without the obsessive moralising of Marchmont and Edgar's most unlikely submission to his opinion and easy conviction of Camilla's guilt. But Burney's later publication, The Wanderer, which came out during Austen's confident period after the success of Pride and Prejudice, is clearly part of the immediate stimulus for Plan of a Novel and more seriously for Persuasion, Juliet Granville's adventures as she tries to earn a meagre living and later flies from her brutal pursuers through the English countryside are undeniably the source of the caricature heroine in Plan:
often reduced to support herself... by her Talents & work for her Bread;—continually cheated & defrauded of her hire, worn down to a Skeleton, & now & then starved to death—.At last, hunted out of civilized society, denied the poor Shelter of the humblest Cottage .. . having at least 20 narrow escapes of falling into the hands of Anti-hero—& at last in the very nick of time . . . runs into the arms of the Hero himself ...
Not an exact parallel, perhaps, but recognisable enough. Burney had many axes to grind in her novel—it is a complex examination of social attitudes which deserves a good deal of respect—but her serious purpose drives her to present thoroughly unlikely characters and situations and inflates her language, which often bears no resemblance to any recognisable human dialogue. The multiplicity and intensity of Juliet's tribulations, from which she surprisingly emerges sweet, modest and clean, producing alternately 'a torrent of tears' and 'mantling blushes', would come for Austen in the category of 'unnnatural conduct and forced difficulties' which she cites as her grounds for finding Sarah Burney's Clarentine 'foolish'. In Persuasion conduct is to be natural, the difficulties will derive predictably from common rather than extraordinary situations, and the outcome will be satisfactory, but quite independent of anyone's deserts.
At the opening of the novel, Anne has lost her moral bearings. That is not to say that she does not behave according to Christian principles of tolerance and endurance, but that she has no faith in the value of these things. She adopts approved virtues in a rather mechanical, joyless way because she has little alternative. This is due in great part to the chief difference between her and most of the other Austen heroines—her isolation. Not even Fanny Price is so deprived of a companion to whom she can speak. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, Anne is caught between two selfish and uncongenial sisters; the only person who appears to care at all whether she lives or dies is Lady Russell, a good woman of limited intelligence who relies on a set of narrow and cautious precepts and rates reason above—not equal to—feeling. In context we can see her as a responsible woman reacting adversely to what she saw as dangerous new ideas. There is more than a hint in the text that she is familiar with the radical/conservative debate; she 'gets all the new publications' and Elizabeth is bored by her interest in 'new poems and states of the nation'. When Anne accepts her advice and breaks her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, she has literally no one else to turn to, no one else with whom to discuss her life-choices. During the eight years which elapse before she meets Wentworth again, her isolation becomes total, since she can no longer communicate even with Lady Russell. In her own mind she separates her duty to submit to the 'grave counsels' of her elders from their duty to make sure their advice will lead to certain good—a hopeless expectation. She forgives herself for her submission, but at the same time blames the system within which she lives for its chill caution and ungenerous prudence. She feels sure that given the chance she would never act according to its precepts—'she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good'. So far, she has not had the chance, for her family situation deprives her of all influence and her circle of acquaintance is too narrow. She has adopted a negative and passive view of life in which she allows herself to be either ignored or used for other people's convenience. There is a sense in which she is almost punishing Lady Russell by refusing either to recover or to discuss her situation: 'But in this case [that of Charles Musgrove's proposal], Anne had left nothing for advice to do; and though Lady Russell, as satisfied as ever with her own discretion, never wished the past undone, she began now to have the anxiety which borders on hopelessness for Anne's being tempted, by some man of talents and independence'. Having initially accepted advice, Anne sees no reason to comfort her friend for its effects. She simply does not talk to her about it.
It is important for our understanding of the novel to examine the background to Lady Russell's advice and its impact on a contemporary reader. Few in 1818 would have argued against the general inadvisability of an almost penniless, though 'gently' reared, girl engaging herself to marry an actually penniless, if optimistic, young sailor on the off-chance that he might one day succeed in making enough money to keep them both—and their children. In general, Lady Russell would have been held to be right. The undesirability of long engagements was received opinion. Older and supposedly wiser heads would not depend on the first flush of love and commitment to last; suppose a girl or young man met someone they liked better? Better not to trust to the vicissitudes of time and change. After eight years, Anne no more believes this in her own case than she had done at nineteen, when she was persuaded that her love would only be a burden to him:
She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home, and every anxiety attending his profession, all their probable fears, delays and disappointments, she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it; and this, she fully believed, had the usual share, had even more than a usual share of all such solicitudes and suspense been...
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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...
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