Persuasions #15, 1993                                                                                                                                                            Pages 200-206



Reconfiguring the Family in Persuasion



English Department, State University of New York, College at Oneonta,

Oneonta, NY


Persuasion begins with a reference to the Baronetage, the “book of books” in which Sir Walter Elliot takes refuge from “unwelcome sensations arising from domestic affairs,” and ends with a tribute to the navy, which is lauded as “[even] more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (3, 252).  While the aristocratic obsession of Sir Walter is set in opposition to the domestic, the naval profession is identified with it.  The supersession of aristocratic values by naval values which the novel records and celebrates entails a change in the prevailing definition of family.  Domesticity replaces genealogy as the favored model for family structure, and a series of what might be termed “adoptive” relations takes precedence over sanguinal ones.  The marriage plot which reunites Anne and Wentworth unfolds in the context of contrasting models of family relations and household customs.  In her last completed novel, Austen foreshadows the Victorian promotion of the domestic family.1

In Persuasion different types of family values are illustrated by the contrast between the Musgroves and the Elliots; as is customary with Austen, endorsed values are established through binary structures which allow key distinctions to emerge.  While the Elliot household is characterized by coldness, formality, and posing, visually symbolized in the plethora of mirrors that are a hallmark of the interior decoration of Kellynch Hall, the Great House at Uppercross is notable for its informality and warmth.  The Musgrove home is represented as a cozy, cluttered and vital domestic space.  Visiting there, Anne observes its “old-fashioned square parlour, with a small carpet and shining floor, to which the present daughters of the house were gradually giving the proper air of confusion by a grand pianoforte and a harp, flower stands and little tables placed in every direction.  Oh! could the originals of the portraits against the wainscot, could the gentlemen in brown velvet and the ladies in blue satin have seen what was going on, have been conscious of such an overthrow of all order and neatness!  The portraits themselves seemed to be staring in astonishment” (40).  The contrast established between the lively “present daughters of the house” and the staid figures represented in the portraits, presumably the Musgroves of yore, suggests that in the Musgrove family, the current generation’s happiness takes precedence over the veneration of ancestors.  Their home is also a place where the needs and desires of children are attended to, as is evidenced by the Christmas festivities staged for the Musgrove and Harville children which Anne observes on a subsequent visit.  On this occasion the domestic tableau is described in terms reminiscent of a genre painting, rendering the Musgrove home into a framed emblem of domesticity: “On one side was a table, occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up gold and silk paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Chrismas fire …  It was a fine family-piece” (134).

From Anne’s perspective, the greatest difference between the Musgrove family and her own is the difference in the degree of affection between family members.  Sororal friendship plays an important role in Austen’s novels, but Anne Elliot is denied the sort of sisterly companionship enjoyed by Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice or by Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.  Elizabeth Elliot is condemned as “unsisterly”; both Austen’s narrator and Lady Russell are appalled by Elizabeth’s preference of Mrs. Clay over her own sister and the fact that Elizabeth says to an undeserving friend about a deserving sister:  “She is nothing to me, compared with you” (145).  Anne is not in general subject to envy, but she does envy Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove their sisterly communion: “Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but … [she] envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters” (41).

Interchange among family members is frequent and informal in the case of the Musgroves.  Notable for their hospitality and cordiality, they do not stand on ceremony. Anne is surprised at the frequent intercourse between the senior and junior branches of the family: “The two families were … continually meeting, so much [were they] in the habit of running in and out of each other’s house at all hours” (36).  By contrast, when his daughter and son-in-law arrive in Bath, Sir Walter feels burdened by his obligation to host them, and decides to substitute an “evening” for the expected dinner invitation.  The opposition between the family pretention displayed by the Elliots and the domestic comfort enjoyed by the Musgroves is dramatized in the stifling effect the Elliots’ arrival has on the cozy scene taking place in the Musgrove lodgings at Bath: “[T]he door was thrown open for Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, whose entrance seemed to give a general chill.  Anne felt an instant oppression, and, wherever she looked, saw symptoms of the same.  The comfort, the freedom, the gaiety of the room was over, hushed into cold composure, determined silence, or insipid talk, to meet the heartless elegance of her father and sister.  How mortifying to feel that it was so!” (226).

The Elliots’ dependence upon form and ceremony to mediate family ties is suggested by the history of their relationship with the Dalrymples.  Until the Elliots’ removal to Bath, the cousinship has been expressed solely in a ritualistic exchange of condolence letters, and when the textual exchange is short-circuited at a certain point, “the Dalrymples considered the relationship as closed” (149).  This restriction of a family relationship to textual production is related to the aristocratic definition of family, scripted by the genealogical chart. It can be said that for Sir Walter, all family relations are mediated by a text.  Anne will remain “nobody” to Sir Walter as long as he has “[no] hope … of ever reading her name in any other page of [the Baronetage]” (6).  Family alliances only signify in the context of Sir Walter’s favorite book; to Sir Walter the marriage of a child is cause for an addendum to the Baronetage, and the marriage is evaluated only in terms of the impression its record will convey.  In their persons, his children signify as genetic texts, judged according to their closeness to his own.  Elizabeth is valued because she is a reprint of Sir Walter, while Anne is dismissed because her more delicate looks and manner resemble her mother’s rather than her father’s.

The aristocratic and the domestic conceptions of family entail alternate agendas for the promotion of children’s marriages.  The Elliots have prohibited Anne’s marriage to the man she loved because of his social inferiority, while in agreeing to Henrietta’s union with her curate cousin and Louisa’s with the relatively modestly circumstanced Captain Benwick, the well-to-do Musgroves seek to promote their daughters’ happiness rather than the agrandizement of their family.  Wentworth comments: “The Musgroves are behaving like themselves, most honourably and kindly, only anxious with true parental hearts to promote their daughter’s comfort” (182).  Anne also endorses their criteria: “Such excellent parents as Mr and Mrs Musgrove … should be happy in their children’s marriages.  They do everything to confer happiness, I am sure.  What a blessing to young people to be in such hands!  Your father and mother seem so totally free from all those ambitious feelings which have led to so much misconduct and misery” (218).

The contrast between familial glory and domestic felicity as possible ends towards which matches may be geared is reflected in the difference between the two projected marriages of cousins that the novel presents.  An attachment exists between Henrietta Musgrove and her cousin Charles Hayter, who have known each other since childhood.  They are cousins on the maternal side, and there is a notable disparity in the social status and material circumstances of the two families.  (Mary Musgrove, née Elliot, objects to this match for her sister-in-law because of the relative obscurity and poverty of the Hayter family.)  The other potential alliance between cousins is the match between Anne and her cousin William Elliot that is widely speculated about and ardently hoped for by Anne’s godmother, Lady Russell.  Anne is Lady Russell’s favourite because of her resemblance to her mother; Lady Russell wishes to see her in her mother’s place.  Having said no years ago to Anne’s desired love match, Lady Russell now wishes Anne to marry according to an aristocratic, genealogical script; she wants her to choose the marriage that will allow her to become, like her mother before her, Lady Elliot of Kellynch Hall: “[T]o be able to regard you as the future mistress of Kellynch, the future Lady Elliot – to look forward and see you occupying your dear mother’s place, succeeding to all her rights, and all her popularity, as well as to all her virtues, would be the highest possible gratification to me.  – You are your mother’s self in countenance and disposition; and if I might be allowed to fancy you such as she was, in situation, and name, and home, presiding and blessing in the same spot, and only superior to her in being more highly valued!” (159-60).  We eventually learn that such a marriage, had it occurred, would have been disastrous for Anne, even aside from the question of her love for Wentworth.  However, the other marriage between cousins, the union of Henrietta and Charles Hayter, does take place, and it is viewed by Anne and by the narrator as a happy circumstance.  The central difference between the two projected marriages is that the Hayter-Musgrove match is based not on considerations of family and estate integrity, as the Elliot one is, but rather on a Wordsworthian “first affection.”

In addition to the Elliots and the Musgroves, there is a third family that plays an important role in the novel’s endorsement of domestic values: the Harvilles.  The description of the Harville home emphasizes, on a much smaller scale, the quality of cozy domesticity that is also present in descriptions of the Musgrove home.  Like the Musgroves, the Harvilles are distinguished by their hospitality.  At Lyme Anne is surprised that people with such a small home would not hesitate to propose hosting as large a group as theirs; the Harvilles have “rooms so small as none but those who invite from the heart could think capable of accommodating so many” (98).  Anne is charmed by the snug comfort of their home; her initial surprise at the smallness of the house gives way to admiration of


the ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville, to turn the actual space to the best possible account …  The varieties in the fitting-up of the rooms, where the common necessaries provided by the owner, in the common indifferent plight, were contrasted with some few articles of a rare species of wood, excellently worked up, and with something curious and valuable from all the distant countries Captain Harville had visited, were more than amusing to Anne: connected as it all was with his profession, the fruit of his labours, the effect of its influence on his habits, the picture of repose and domestic happiness it presented, made it to her a something more, or less, than gratification.  (98)


Like the interior design, the emotional spirit of the household is connected to Captain Harville’s profession.  Anne associates the warm-hearted hospitality and openness of the Harvilles with naval fraternity: “There was so much attachment to Captain Wentworth in all this [welcome], and such a bewitching charm in a degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display, that Anne felt her spirits not likely to be benefitted by an increasing acquaintance among his brother-officers.  ‘These would have been all my friends,’ was her thought: and she had to struggle against a great tendency to lowness” (98).




The fraternal band of the navy, a non-sanguinal but intense brotherhood, provides a model for the sort of family circle that Anne values: a circle that is constituted by like-minded, mutually affectionate people.  The idea of a voluntary association, embodied by the naval fraternity, rather than an association scripted solely by pedigree, can be related to the role that relations which we might term “adoptive” come to play in the novel.  The Harville family, whose domestic arrangements are associated with naval customs, provides a prime example.  Captain Benwick, former fiance of Harville’s deceased sister Fanny, is an integral part of the family circle.  Significantly, the bond between Captain Benwick and the Harvilles is cemented when Fanny Harville dies, and thus when the possibility of legal or biological alliance through marriage and offspring is eliminated: “The friendship between [Captain Benwick] and the Harvilles seemed, if possible, augmented by the event which closed all their views of alliance, and Captain Benwick now was living with them entirely” (97).  The model of family relations which I am terming adoptive is found throughout the novel; Lady Russell, a friend, not a relative, of Anne’s late mother, treats Anne as her own daughter.  With her, Anne knows, she “might always command a home” (146) should her own father remarry.  In the wake of Anne’s marriage, Lady Russell “adopts” Wentworth as well: “She attach[ed] herself as a mother to the man who was securing the happiness of her other child” (249).  And Anne is absorbed into the Musgrove family.  While she is “nobody” to her own father and sister, she is decidedly “somebody” to the Musgroves.  Though to her own family the advantage of her arrival at Bath lies only in her making a fourth at dinner, she is welcomed with open arms into the domestic fold of the Musgroves.  She is greeted with “a heartiness, and a warmth, and a sincerity which [she] delighted in the more, from the sad want of such blessings at home.  She was entreated to give them as much of her time as possible, invited for every day and all day long, or rather claimed as a part of the family” (220-21).  For her part, Anne finds when she is reunited with her own family at Bath that her affections are claimed by the surrogate family: “Anne would have been ashamed to have it known, how much more she was thinking of Lyme, and Louisa Musgrove, and all her acquaintance there; how much more interesting to her was the home and the friendship of the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, than her own father’s house in Camdenplace, or her own sister’s intimacy with Mrs. Clay.  She was actually forced to exert herself, to meet Lady Russell with anything like the appearance of equal solicitude, on topics which had by nature the first claim on her” (124).  Because her natural family is such an unnatural family, Anne’s sanguinal relations are ultimately superseded by voluntary associations.  The brotherhood of the navy provides a paradigm for the adoptive model of family relations which allows friends to be absorbed as part of the family circle, and under which warmth and hospitality prevail.

The novel’s reflection on family models is relevant for Anne’s future.  Marriage is itself a vehicle for reconfiguring the family, not only because of the new family it creates in the union of husband and wife, but also because it entails a set of new connections of each of the partners.  In altering an old household and creating a new one, it often allows for a reshuffling of other family members in addition to the bride and groom.2  With Wentworth, Anne will construct the sort of domestic space that will secure their own comfort and promote the comfort of those who come within their domestic orbit.  Anne will experience the companionate marriage that is integral to the domestic ideal, a type of marriage illustrated by Wentworth’s sister and her husband, the Crofts.  The following passage shows both Anne’s admiration of the Crofts’ conjugal felicity and the fact that in her mind it is linked with their naval association:


They brought [to Bath] their country habit of being almost always together.  He was ordered to walk, to keep off the gout, and Mrs Croft seemed to go shares with him in every thing, and to walk for her life, to do him good.  Anne saw them wherever she went …  Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her.  She always watched them as long as she could; delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.  (168)


Though Persuasion promotes domesticity, it does not sentimentalize it.  While the Musgroves are praised for their genuine affection for each other and their friends, for their lack of pretention, and for their hospitality, it is also stressed that they are “not much educated, and not at all elegant” (40).  The delicate sensibilities of Anne – and of Austen’s narrator – are occasionally offended by these traits, as when at Bath Mrs. Musgrove’s “open-hearted communication” on the subject of her daughters’ recent, engagements means boring her guest with “minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals” (230).  The strongest check against any temptation to sentimentalize the family is found in the notorious passage about the late Dick Musgrove, the revival of whose name generates a maudlin parental mourning which is made the object of the narrator’s deliberately brutal irony: “He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard,’ been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead” (51).

While Austen anticipates the Victorian celebration of middle class domesticity, she does not indulge in the sentimentality that often marked its representation in Victorian literature.  In Persuasion the domestic vision must be carried out, as all things must be in Austen, with moderation and taste.  The endorsement of the domestic family is unambiguous, however, and is an important component in the novel’s promotion of the navy over the aristocracy.  The reconfiguration of the family in Persuasion is two-fold, involving on the level of individuals a reconstitution of the family circle, and on the level of the culture at large, a shift from a genealogical definition of family to a domestic one.





1 The contrast that Persuasion establishes between a genealogical model of family associated with the aristocracy and a domestic model of family associated with the navy accords with the historical change Lawrence Stone documents in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800.  Stone describes the transition from the lineage family to the nuclear domestic family, a shift which he connects to the rise of affective individualism.  Also relevant to my discussion of family models in Persuasion is Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction.  In her account of the rise of the novel, Armstrong describes the process by which gendered subjectivity replaces kinship as the most important mediator of individual identity.  Armstrong argues that “[n]arratives which seeem to be concerned solely with matters of courtship and marriage in fact seized the authority to say what was female, and … did so in order to contest the reigning notion of kinship relations that attached most power and privilege to certain family lines” (5).  Gendered subjectivity is related to the separated spheres idealogy that accompanies the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity.


2 A reconfigured family circle is often one consequence of the marriages with which Austen’s novels conclude.  For example, we learn at the end of Pride and Prejudice that Pemberley becomes the center of a reconfigured family circle from which Wickham is banished and Mrs. Bennet kept at a safe distance, while the Bingleys, Mr. Bennet, and the Gardiners are frequent visitors; the reconfigured family circle provides a domestic space in which Georgiana Darcy can be nurtured and Kitty Bennet can be rehabilitated.  At the end of Mansfield Park, Fanny’s deserving sister Susan is added to the family circle, while Maria is exiled from it.  The issue of adoption is present in that novel, since Fanny is not only a cousin but an adopted member of the Bertram family, though that adoption is neither gracious nor complete until quite late in the novel, when the reconfiguration of the family is ratified by the betrothal of Edmund and Fanny.





Armstrong, Nancy.  Desire and Domestic Fiction.  New York: Oxford, 1987.


Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  London: Oxford University Press, 1959.


Stone, Lawrence.  The Family. Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800.  London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

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