Persuasions #4, 1982                                                                                                                                            Page 2





John Hart

English Department, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon 97219

Peachum’s comment in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera that the highwayman Captain MacHeath “looks upon himself in the Military Capacity, as a Gentleman by his Profession,” points up the ambiguity in the status of officers. Looking upon oneself as a gentleman is hardly ever sufficient; required is more general agreement. In Mansfield Park and Persuasion gentility is not simply a given of one’s profession. The elder Lieutenant Price and Commander Wentworth are both “officers and gentlemen,” but Price to the Bertrams, and Wentworth to Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell are nobodies, without fortune, interest, or connections. What graces “our rich Navy officers” in Persuasion, as Sir Walter readily acknowledges, is sudden enrichment through prize money, the reward for the capture and sale of enemy ships.

The tenuous relationship of profession and gentility is remarkable in the conversation that includes Sir Walter’s famous objections to the navy – that it brings “persons of obscure birth into distinction” and “a sailor grows old sooner than any other man.” Mrs. Clay responds with a short discourse on the hardships particular to each profession. A lawyer’s daughter, she lumps all professions – soldier, sailor, lawyer, physician, clergyman – with those landed gentlemen, distinguished only by “living on their own property, without the torment of trying for more.” Her father, Mr. Shepherd, echoes this sentiment soon after when he calls Admiral Croft “quite the gentleman in all his notions and behaviour.” Sir Walter denies this easy equation of gentility and profession when he rejects Shepherd’s description of a curate as a “gentleman who lived at Monkford.” He retorts: “Mr. Wentworth, the curate of Monkford. You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property.” But this all takes place in a conversation that prepares for the occupancy of Kellynch Hall by the Crofts; the mere distinction of rank above profession dissolves in the face of new money.

Once acceptance is acknowledged, the focus shifts to aspects of character in the officers that Anne Elliot has noted from the outset, their unaffected manner, warmth, and openness. Breaking with the traditional stereotype of the jolly tar, Jane Austen carefully individualizes her sailors: Wentworth for his confidence, bearing, and sensitivity to those around him; Harville for his hospitality and domesticity; Admiral Croft for his liberality and good nature. The distinctive characteristics of the officers, admirable in contrast with the prejudices and guarded reserve of the gentry, gain significance as we observe their convergence with the character of the heroine, Anne Elliot. The bridge may be Mrs. Croft, who, like William Price in Mansfield Park, is unencumbered by self-distrust: “Her manners were open, easy, and decided, like one who had no distrust of herself, and no doubts of what to do.” More than any other woman in the novel, Sophia Croft suggests for Anne Elliot, and the reader, the woman Anne will likely become. Wentworth likewise suffers no self-distrust: “confident … full of life and ardour …. Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth.” This is, of course, Wentworth as seen in 1806 when Anne had been persuaded against their engagement. As we come to know her, some eight years later, she has realized she “should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement.” Yet she has not given in to the gnawing uncertainty of perpetual doubt. Her manner of coming to terms with error impresses us for its poise, for our sense that however isolated, however desolate her prospects, Anne Elliot is not consumed by the past, by self-pity or remorse.

Jane Austen presents the complexity of Anne’s perspective in a key passage that underscores not so much her love for Wentworth, as it points up the degree to which she continues to share with him an outlook on how one engages future events and prospects. She sides with “a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence.” This stance is tested, and we certainly sense the depth of her suffering as she confronts again the pain of blighted possibility – for instance, the intensity of her reflection at the Harvilles’: “ ‘These would have been all my friends’ was her thought; and she had to struggle against a great tendency to lowness.” But she does not yield, and we observe the integrity of her stance throughout, most forcefully in the dignity and balance of her review to Wentworth of her reflections on the earlier engagement. Here is prominent that even view of the past, its costs, and its continuity with the present and future. It is a thoughtful balance, nicely set against Wentworth’s remarks on the pitfalls of thoughtlessness, unreflective confidence.

This unprejudiced address to the present, this regard for the responsibilities and possibilities the future may pose, has offered critics intimations of a social vision in “that Profession which is – if possible – more distinguished in its Domestic Virtues than in its National Importance.” Duty to family, a companionate intimacy in marriage, care for one’s fellows translate domestic virtues to the network of obligations that represent the economic and social extensions of the household or estate, the sea-going metaphor for which may be the ship. The spectrum of commentary runs from Nina Auerbach’s “seemingly open world and a cleansing, even a Utopian, society”1 to Alistair Duckworth’s more reserved “the improvement of the landed order by the infusion of new naval blood”2 – that is, a naval elite may assume and revitalize, though not transform, the values and obligations of the gentry.

Historians like Daniel Baugh and Michael Lewis support a more dynamic background, echoing one strain of Sir Walter’s objection to the navy. Since the 1730’s government policy has been directed toward elevating the status of naval officers as gentlemen. New men could in fact rise through the navy, and even those officers with ties to the gentry could achieve wealth and prestige they would be hard-pressed to gain otherwise. Generally, the critics have not seen the changes evident in Persuasion as having much duration. Even Duckworth, so sensitive to the social resonance of the novels, argues that Jane Austen “utilizes a temporary phenomenon – the return of a large number of naval officers from the wars – to illustrate professional dedication.”3 Yet the movement of naval officers into society, assuming in some cases landed estates and titles, had been evident in Britain for three-quarters of a century; note Horace Walpole’s complaint in 1761 that those new men thrusting themselves forward were “West Indians, conquerors, nabobs, and admirals ….” The idea that the naval officers represent a cohesive set of values, whether merging with the gentry, co-existing as an enclave, or founding a new social order, gains dimension if we perceive that Jane Austen’s imaginative vision has a duration – a past as well as a hopeful future – that exceeds the historic moment the novel represents.

1 Nina Auerbach, “Jane Austen and Romantic Imprisonment,” Jane Austen in a Social Context, ed. David Monaghan (Totawa: Barnes and Noble Books, 1981), p. 26.

2 Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1971), pp. 202-03.

3 Duckworth, p. 203.

Back to Persuasions  #4 Table of Contents

Return to Home Page