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...
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