2002 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
Janice E. Mullally
McMaster University
Hamilton, ON

JOIN THE NAVY! - Mrs. Croft’s Subversion of Class and Gender Roles in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Mrs. Croft makes but few appearances and delivers little dialogue.  Nevertheless, Austen gives her significant narrative and thematic importance.  Mrs. Croft provides a foil for several of the Elliots, while developing a commonality with the frequently ostracized Anne.  This bond between Mrs. Croft and Austen’s heroine valorizes Mrs. Croft’s radical views concerning feminism and marriage.  Beyond signifying a paradigm shift in such social morals, though, the roles of Admiral and Mrs. Croft allow Austen to subvert the dominant upper class culture.  By exhibiting superior but genuine manners, by demonstrating the complacency of the dominant culture, and by exerting their own counterculture, Admiral and Mrs. Croft expose both the foolishness and the artifice of their upper class acquaintances.

Austen clearly contrasts Mrs. Croft with Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Mary, and therein reveals the selfish and impractical nature of luxury, saying, “none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days” (50).  She admits to the confinement of a frigate, but notes that “any reasonable woman may be perfectly happy in one” (50, italics mine).  Meanwhile, Sir Walter cannot imagine life without “[journeys], London, servants, horses. . .” (10), and, for Elizabeth, “the sacrifice of one pair of horses would be hardly less painful than of both” (10).  Mrs. Croft thus highlights the Elliots’ frivolousness.  The Crofts also illustrate Sir Walter’s vanity, by moving his several looking glasses into storage, since Admiral Croft requires only one.  Similarly, Mrs. Croft exposes Mary’s self pity, allowing us to compare her health, only “a little disordered” (50) by the sea, with Mary’s hypochondria.  Mary rants endlessly over her health, complaining, “I am so ill I can hardly speak” (27), but then suggesting a country walk.  Because of this clear characterization of Mary, when we hear of Mrs. Croft’s mild sea-sickness, we admire her fortitude while recognising Mary’s sacrifice.

Mrs. Croft thus differentiates herself from Sir Walter, Elizabeth and Mary.  She also redefines femininity among these acquaintances.  Although not conventionally pretty, “neither tall nor fat” (34), she has “bright dark eyes, good teeth, and altogether an agreeable face” (34).  According to Anne, then, an unconventional woman can still be attractive.  Furthermore, to describe her “weather-beaten complexion” (34), Anne gently describes how Mrs. Croft “[seems] to have lived some years longer in the world than her real eight-and-thirty” (35).  The emphasis on living in the world, instead of on aesthetic descriptions like aged or wrinkled, indicates that Anne, (and therefore Austen), values experience and intellect, more than physical beauty.

Similarly, Mrs. Croft defies conventional notions of domesticity as the female realm.  Mr. Shepherd reveals that, while considering leasing Kellynch Hall, she “‘asked more questions about the house, and terms, and taxes, than the Admiral himself’”(17).  Thus, Mrs. Croft manages perfectly well in financial affairs.  Furthermore, Mrs. Croft does not exhibit the female delicacy, as does Elizabeth, who relies utterly on servants, or Mary, who cannot (or will not) walk by herself.  For example, when the Admiral decides to move Sir Walter’s over indulgent mirrors, he “[gets] Sophy to lend [him] a hand” (90), and when he does not attentively mind his own driving, Mrs. Croft “coolly [gives] the reigns a better direction herself” (66).  Again, Anne seems to admire Mrs. Croft’s qualities that are traditionally associated with masculinity, noting that she “[looks] as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her” (118).

However, if Austen suggests a new ideal for gender roles, she must also propose a suitable model for marriage.  In fact, she presents two marriages with which to contrast the Crofts.  Charles and Mary “might pass for a happy couple” (31, italics mine) while Benwick and Lousia “[will] soon grow more alike” (118).  Neither relationship appears idyllic.  By comparison, Anne certainly prefers, and even admires the Croft’s marriage, “a most attractive picture of happiness” (119).

Nevertheless, this achievement of absolute martial success requires alternations to the culturally dominant gender roles.  The unmarried Captain Wentworth argues that “women and children have no right to be comfortable on board” (49), whereas Admiral Croft insists that once Captain Wentworth marries, he “will sing a different tune” (50).  Similarly, Mrs. Croft emphasizes the need for change in social attitudes towards gender, when she contrasts “fine ladies” (50) with “rational creatures” (50).  The Crofts have thus built a happy, successful marriage by discarding the socially prevalent beliefs concerning the female role.

Austen emphasizes Anne’s high self esteem for the Crofts using the theme of the home.  At first, Anne mildly resents seeing her “beloved home made over to others” (34), but soon comes to reflect “that they [are] gone who [deserve] not to stay, and that Kellynch Hall [has] passed into better hands than its owners” (88).  The Crofts’ deserving may be best observed in a comparison of their manners to those of the novel’s other characters.  For example, as Mrs. Croft describes her extensive and impressive travels, she humbly notes that “many women have done more” (50).  She also emphasizes that she “only once” (50) visited the East Indies, and so avoids inflating her experiences.  In contrast, Sir Walter glorifies his relationship with the Dalrymple family.  He brags continually about “[his] cousins the Dalrymples . . . [his] cousins in Laura Place” (105), and he leaves their calling cards “wherever they might be most visible” (105).  Of course, he never mentions that until now, the two family branches have not spoken for several years, their most recent correspondence predating Lady Elliot’s death.  Compared with Mrs. Croft, then, Sir Walter certainly wants modesty.  In a similar contrast, while Mrs. Croft exhibits “feelings of great consideration towards [Anne]” (35) regarding Kellynch, Mary instead insists on continually reminding Mrs. Musgrove just who will replace her as the Lady of Uppercross.

Mrs. Croft therefore subverts the manners of the upper class characters, thereby exploiting their artifice.  However, Austen uses the Crofts to ridicule the upper classes in other ways as well.  In fact, the Crofts’ very existence allows us to see how easily Mr. Shepherd, a lawyer, can manipulate Sir Walter, a Baronet.  Mr. Shepherd has immediate “interest . . . in the reality of Sir Walter’s retrenching” (10).  He first introduces the desirability of letting a navy man, since “in the way of business, gentlemen of the navy are well to deal with” (13).  With a hint of sarcasm, Austen then tells how “[it seems] as if Mr. Shepherd . . . [is] gifted with foresight” (16) when Admiral Croft does apply.  Indeed, Admiral Croft learns of the opportunity by rumour, “just as [Shepherd has] foretold” (16), and, coincidentally, the Admiral knows of Shepherd’s acquaintance with Sir Walter.  Of course, Austen implies that Shepherd has, in fact, arranged the Admiral’s application before even mentioning the navy to Sir Walter.  However, Shepherd must then convince Admiral Croft, and in doing so, exploits Sir Walter’s superficiality.  He appeals to Sir Walter’s love of connections by speaking of Mr. Wentworth, but, “[perceiving] that this connection of the Crofts did them no service with Sir Walter, he [mentions] it no more” (18).

Perhaps the Crofts’ most significant and successful subversion of their society’s dominant culture, though, is their fortification of well-defined, undisrupted counterculture.  Austen offsets this counterculture by showing how Sir Walter not only supports the existing class structure, but actually relies on it in order to define himself.  For a man who endlessly proclaims his superiority, by birth, to men of the navy, Sir Walter needs “to know whether the Crofts [travel] with four horses” (117).  He also expresses quite an interest in where the Crofts will lodge in Bath, and “perfectly to [his] satisfaction” (119), he learns that they will stay in Gay Street, a less affluent neighbourhood than that of Camden Place.  Sir Walter’s insistence on details such as these, suggests that Admiral and Mrs. Croft threaten his sense of social worth.  He makes this more obvious when he considers that “the Admiral’s situation in life, . . . [is] just high enough, and not too high” (18) to make him a suitable tenant.  Similarly, Sir Walter insists that in Bath, Admiral Croft will only be known “as the renter of Kellynch Hall” (117).  In both of these instances, Sir Walter strives to define Admiral Croft in terms relative to himself.  Interestingly, Sir Walter places considerable weight in the Admiral’s opinion of him, since part of Mr. Shepherd’s earlier persuasion consists of asserting Sir Walter “of his being known, by report, to the Admiral, as a model of good breeding” (23).

In comparison, Sir Walter “[thinks] and [talks] a great deal more about the Admiral than the Admiral ever [thinks] or [talks] about him” (119).  In fact, the Crofts “[consider] their intercourse with the Elliots as a mere matter of form, and not in the least likely to afford them any pleasure” (119).  The Crofts certainly do not intend to be rude to the Elliots, since the Admiral politely compliments Sir Walter on the condition at Kellynch Hall.  The Crofts simply belong to their own social order that nether acquiesces nor disapproves of that of Sir Walter.  In fact, Austen carefully juxtaposes these two cultures to emphasize the social value of each.  While Sir Walter admits that “he should not be ashamed of being seen with [the Admiral] anywhere” (23), the Admiral condescends that although the “Baronet will never set the Thames on fire, . . . there seems no harm in him” (23).  These “reciprocal compliments, which would have been esteemed about equal” (23), highlight that the Admiral adheres to a different, but nonetheless equal value system that favours rank and action over birth.

Ironically, Elizabeth chooses to shun the Crofts, “[leaving them] to find their own level” (118), not understanding that they have already done just that.  Moreover, Austen seems to favour the less-dominant culture, highlighting its manners, valorizing its less traditional viewpoints, and identifying it with her heroine, while simultaneously exploiting the frivolousness, artifice and selfishness of the upper class.  However, if Austen genuinely intends Mrs. Croft as the new ideal to which young women should aspire, she problematically isolates both Anne and Lady Russell, the novel’s other two sensible females.  Anne, at the insistence of Lady Russell, initially rejects the hand of Captain Wentworth whereas Lady Croft devoutly values her quick, and undoubtedly correct, decision to marry the Admiral.  Austen sanctifies Mrs. Croft’s character to the extent that a contradiction like this could actually diminish the moral worth of both Anne and her confidant.  Austen avoids this perception by carefully calling Mrs. Croft and Lady Russell “a couple of steady, sensible women” (89), thus equating the two.  Furthermore, Mrs. Croft later qualifies her earlier inclination for short engagements by noting that “to begin without knowing that at such a time there will be the means of marrying, I hold to be very unsafe and unwise” (164), and thereby agrees with Anne’s initial decision.  She continues, adding, “. . .all parents should prevent [this type of engagement] as far as they can” (164), absolving Lady Russell of any improper conclusion.  Austen therefore depicts both Lady Russell and Anne Elliot as worthy not only of the noble relations of their family, but also of the superior culture of the Crofts.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1993. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1996.