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Austen in Transition

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and likewise that a single lady, whether or not she has a good fortune, is in want of a husband. In each of Jane Austen’s first five novels, the heroine eventually marries into the same social class or higher. In her last completed novel, however, Austen distinctly shifts her focus from marriages based on class to circumstances where class does not confine in the changing society. Persuasion’s protagonist Anne Elliot, though she has an inheritance and an estate, marries down the social ladder. In the worlds of Pride and Prejudice or Emma, this marriage would be disastrously scandalous. Yet in Persuasion, this modern outlook will actually bring prosperity. Through the characters in Persuasion who represent both traditional and changing norms of society, Jane Austen reconciles her strong belief in England’s aristocratic culture with an optimistic view of the inevitable shift towards a meritocracy.

Austen portrays unfavorable aspects of English class-based society through traditional female characters. She famously uses these archetypal characters to satirize the gentry fixation with wealth and appearances. In a culture where a person’s status determined his or her opportunities, women especially depended on good marriages for security and stability. Accordingly, though both Anne and her sister Elizabeth are of spinster age, Elizabeth is still expected to marry well because of her beauty. She may possess all the superficial requirements of a good noble wife, but she ultimately remains the unmarried maid. The incongruity of a prized female candidate for marriage unable to marry frames Austen’s perception that appearance and rank no longer guarantee marriage in this changing society. Mrs. Clay, a widowed friend of their father Sir Walter Elliot, has a youthful, if not beautiful, appearance. She is described as a “clever young woman, who understood the art of pleasing; the art of pleasing, at least, at Kellynch Hall . . . ” (Austen 36). Kellynch Hall—the Elliot’s estate—represents the old order of landed inheritance, in which property and rank guaranteed stability and respect. But the great irony of Persuasion lies in the Elliots’ removal from Kellynch Hall, which traditionally would continue to house their descendants for man generations to come. In parallel to the loss of the family home, Mrs. Clay’s skills in pleasing no longer engender the admiration she might have received more readily many years ago. Lady Russell, another family friend and Anne’s well-meaning mother figure, represents part of Austen’s struggle to unite the practices and beliefs of the past with the promise of the future. Though wise and judicious, Lady Russell’s tight hold on tradition led her to persuade Anne against accepting Frederick Wentworth’s proposal eight years earlier. As a daughter of a baronet, marrying a poor soldier would have disgraced her family. Austen clearly promotes some of the positive aspects of gentry life through the character of Lady Russell. Yet she also asserts that English society needs time to balance long-held traditions with the rise of people who earn their place and wealth.

Austen previously created characters through which she advocated the importance of true character over rank and wealth. Yet she augments her own pattern by creating proto-feminist characters in Persuasion who also exemplify women’s changing role in society. To maintain their standard of living, the Elliots decide to rent out Kellynch Hall to Navy Admiral Croft and his wife. Mrs. Croft, having lived out at sea almost as long as her husband, is depicted with an agreeable though weather-beaten face, implying Austen’s favorable view of her character (Austen 69). In her introduction to the Signet Classics edition of Persuasion, Margaret Drabble comments on Mrs. Croft’s lack of “girlish bloom”— standard of beauty— but possession of “something just as attractive and less conventional” (xiv). She differs from the other female characters in that she is more adept with business matters than her husband. Their union survived the spontaneity and uncertainty of life in the navy, perhaps because they lived their marriage as a partnership. In Mrs. Crofts’ success story, she marries a naval officer, and they have gradually become very wealthy while still preserving their good marriage. This is the kind of marriage Anne anticipated with Frederick had she not been persuaded against accepting his hand. In this way, Anne embodies a seemingly proto-modernist ideal for Austen’s time. She possesses a unique beauty—elegance of mind, patience, compassion—albeit wholly unappreciated. She takes care of Kellynch Hall, a role customarily given to men. Mrs. Croft, sincere and practical, serves as inspiration for Anne through the older woman’s unusual yet prosperous marriage and lifestyle.

Anne is older and more mature than other Austen heroines, yet she does not simply settle for tradition alone. In her dissatisfaction with vain and shallow characters, Anne hearkens back to Elizabeth Bennet. But the Pride and Prejudice protagonist eventually marries up the social ladder—to a man she loves, yes—but assuredly into greater wealth and security; Anne’s fate sails a different course. After rejecting Wentworth, she loses her youthful bloom and resigns herself to the life of a spinster as society would dictate. Laura Mooneyham details this struggle in her analysis of Anne Elliot’s name and its “conflict of interests which determine both her identity and her destiny” (156). As an Elliot, she is part of a corrupted but longstanding baronage. As Anne, she differs from the typical “Mary’s and Elizabeth’s” of her family line, particularly her superficial sisters (Austen 24). Her family thinks she will never improve her status through a good marriage. Instead, she eventually creates her own heritage through marrying a naval officer. She is liberated at the conclusion from the restrictive aspects of customary British society. The earlier Austen heroines were more than satisfied with marrying gentlemen with permanent homes. But in Persuasion Austen constructs a character who finds true love and happiness with an unpredictable life and future, in which “worth is not embodied in a permanent, stable home, but earned via new goings, piratical, nautical adventures” (Brownstein 98). Persuasion is a strong testament to her forward-looking view of marriages outside the traditional class structures.

To further her critique of established English society, Austen portrays the Elliot family males negatively to illustrate her grievances against the gentry. Mr. William Elliot, heir presumptive of Sir Walter, has all appearance of being a good match. Yet his good manners mask unforgivable rigidity and cruelty. Manners were definitive standards of respect in high society, which Austen undoubtedly endorsed. But the uselessness of Mr. Elliot’s manners “must be taken as an important indication that [Austen] is aware that the old order is rapidly losing prestige and authority” (Monaghan 76). He may be the paradigm of propriety, but Anne rejects his proposal even before learning of his malicious intentions. Austen advocates caution towards those whose excellent outward manners do not match their internal character. Mr. Elliot was “rational, discreet, polished,” but he was never emotionally open (Austen 186). Anne favored the eagerness and sincerity of the more contemporary characters. Mr. Elliot eventually settles for Mrs. Clay as his mistress, remaining rooted in traditional gentry values, as does Sir Walter Elliot.

The conceited Sir Walter represents the inherent weakness of a society that focuses solely on reputation and appearance. “Vanity was the beginning and the end of [his] character . . . Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did,” Austen states clearly as the novel opens (24). The Elliots are forced to leave Kellynch Hall because Sir Walter’s extravagant spending has pushed them into financial instability, the worst scenario for a baronet. He obsesses over the Baronetage, lists of all the nobility, including the Elliots. Because these names are only significant in a society that values hierarchy, Austen’s ridicule of Sir Walter here demonstrates her displeasure with the flawed social structure. Neither good manners nor high social standing can compensate for the irresponsibility of the gentry in discouraging unconventional values and character. This theme is evident in virtually all of Austen’s writings: that people should be judged by their character and integrity rather than social and financial status. Sir Walter’s initial reluctance to allow an officer to rent Kellynch Hall represents the old gentry view of the navy as a means of “‘bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honors which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of . . . ’” (Austen 39). He clings so desperately to the attitudes of the past for worth that he blinds himself to the decreasing weight of mere titles, and increasing importance of merit. Austen herself needs to accept that societal norms are changing, such as in the Elliots’ forced removal from their home. A new age is forthcoming—one in which accomplishment transcends rank by birth. She advocates for these changes because she recognizes the dysfunction of the old traditions. Society ultimately stagnates when the best and brightest are left outside the confines of places of power and influence.

Sir Walter pored over his Baronetage; most everyone else followed the navy list and the heroic soldiers it enumerated. Around the time Austen wrote Persuasion, the navy became highly respected because of their past achievements in the Napoleonic wars. Austen’s positive depictions of characters in the navy, also in Mansfield Park, contrast with her portrayal of the wily army officer George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. The navy’s “travel and travails on behalf of their country also gave rich naval officers an aura of sophistication that sat well with the gentry . . . ” (Drum 107-108). Austen’s opinions of the navy embodied the general viewpoint of the rest of her country. Though clerical and legal professions were also quite respected at the beginning of the 19th century (and made minor appearances in earlier novels), these vocations often still depended on the gentry. The burgeoning middle class was still relegated to essentially outsider status among the gentry. Officers of the military, especially the navy, earned good reputations and admiration because of their ability to rise through a system of meritocracy. In Austen’s time, ascending military ranks was one of the only ways a man of low birth could gain financial and social respectability. In her “portrait of Captain Wentworth and his seafaring fraternity, we glimpse the possibility of another more enterprising, more active world” (Drabble viii). As Austen watched English society shift dramatically from the era of landed gentry, she affirmed that progression wholeheartedly in crafting a world in which naval soldiers flourished.

Both Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth, the two naval officers in Persuasion, are approved enthusiastically by members of the gentry families. Admiral Croft enters as recently retired from his successful career in the navy and is ready to settle down. Though initially reluctant to rent out Kellynch Hall, especially to a non-nobleman, Sir Walter eventually allows the Crofts to rent Kellynch Hall because letting “my house to Admiral Croft, would sound . . . very much better than to any mere Mr.—’” (Austen 44). The Elliots are homeless in a society where the estate is esteemed, but the navy soldiers enter the scene and compensate where the gentry lack. Ironically, the Crofts rent Kellynch Hall when the Elliots can no longer afford to maintain their standard of living. While the traditional Mr. Elliot is “too generally agreeable,” Frederick Wentworth has a “glowing, manly, open look” (Austen 186, 81). This confident and ambitious naval officer is the perfect character to usher in a new era. Every character who interacts with him in Persuasion admires him, from simpering girls to even Lady Russell, who disliked him greatly eight years ago. Anne had severed their engagement not only because Lady Russell persuaded her it was improper, but because Anne herself thought she would impede Wentworth’s career (Austen 48). Perhaps a marriage at that time would have limited his subsequent success, as he may not have traveled so much as a married man. However, as a risk-taker, Wentworth represents the prominent difference between a society based on personal achievement, and one based on land and inheritance; he is self-sufficient. Despite freely spending his war prizes, he knows he can gain more money by actively serving in Her Majesty’s navy. Any young woman who catches the Captain’s eye would be fortunate to be his wife, Austen implies. Suddenly, the man who ascended into prestige from a low birth and through a precarious lifestyle is one of the best candidates for marriage. In the perspective of most of her countrymen, even gentry, Austen commends the hard-earned success of the navy with their positive portrayal.

In spite of Austen favoring society’s transition to a meritocracy, the shift of traditional English culture does not lack more complications. Anne Frey emphasizes some of these weaknesses in her critical view of Austen’s use of the navy. Frey argues that in, “rejecting the aristocracy as a class . . . Austen also rejects the model of nation the aristocracy embodies, [a model] based on organic connection to one’s country, a shared past, or shared qualities, traits, or values” (215-216). The navy’s victories against Napoleon were a “source of nationalist pride” (214). Frey suggests that Austen participates in this hero-worship without defining how the navy influences national identity. Austen is at least in part swept up in the evolution of a culture where ideas of nationalism are radically changing. In her previous novels, Austen undoubtedly views England as a nation defined by landed inheritance, but here the navy provides an alternative. Using the navy here as a source of national pride foregoes the individual in favor of government structures. Frey makes valid points on this subject: Austen hardly mentions any of the less glorious moments in navy life, and the gentry almost blindly revere Captain Wentworth. But, though she undoubtedly heard of navy life from her brothers, Austen does not describe the naval officers performing their professional duties in this novel. The navy here functions chiefly to represent the fact that society is starting to look past class and lineage, and towards respecting professionals. Austen summarizes this view in the last line of the novel: “[Anne] gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (Austen 283). The life of a naval officer necessitates constant anxiety for him and his family. Yet through a combination of both good luck and hard work, this profession is ultimately an honorable way to live. Despite the risks, Austen champions boldness and change as essential components for redefining worth within a society.

Austen knew that as this era of meritocracy fast approached, holding onto traditional values and practices would limit progress. Sir Walter, the epitome of such values, compliments both Admiral Croft as the “best-looking sailor” he ever met, and even Anne on her “improved looks” as she regains her youthful bloom (Austen 52, 170). But Austen still perseveres in some aspects of her longstanding belief in England’s aristocratic culture, especially the value of family. Though Anne did not consider Mr. Elliot’s proposal, the idea of “having the precious name of ‘Lady Elliot’ . . . of being restored to Kellynch, calling it her home again . . . forever, was a charm which she could not immediately resist” (Austen 185). The prestige of an esteemed family name and estate does not just disappear with the rise of professions. After Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth finally reconcile and affirm their love for each other, “ . . . they returned again into the past . . . exquisitely happy” in preparation “for all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow” (Austen 271). Austen is not supporting a complete abandonment of the traditional order, but rather supporting the idea that the old is opening to a new component—an acceptance of meritocracy as maybe strengthening the culture in its egalitarianism. Achievement in an honorable realm such as the military is as attractive and important as noble lineage. At the end of the novel, Austen’s characters appreciate the positive aspects of their past while looking forward to the future. At the end of her own life, Austen likewise values tradition even as she welcomes the rise of a meritocracy.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane, Margaret Drabble, and Diane Johnson. Persuasion. New York: Signet Classics, 2008. Print.
  • Brownstein, Rachel M. “Getting Married: Jane Austen.” Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels. New York: Viking, 1982. 81-134. Print.
  • Drum, Alice. “Pride and Prestige: Jane Austen and the Professions.” College Literature 36.3 (2009): 92-115. JSTOR. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.sfpl.org/stable/pdfplus/20642039.pdf?acceptTC=true
  • Frey, Anne. “A Nation without Nationalism: The Reorganization of Feeling in Austen’s Persuasion.” A Forum on Fiction. 2/3 ed. Vol. 38. N.p.: Duke UP, 2005. 214-34. JSTOR. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.sfpl.org/stable/40267625
  • Monaghan, David M. “The Decline of the Gentry: A Study of Jane Austen’s Attitude to Formality in Persuasion.” Studies in the Novel 7.1 (1975): 73-87. JSTOR. Web. 8 Oct. 2014. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.sfpl.org/stable/pdfplus/29531705.pdf?acceptTC=true
  • Mooneyham, Laura G. “Loss and the Language of Restitution in Persuasion.” Romance, Language, and Education in Jane Austen’s Novels. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988. 146-75. Print.
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