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Charity Begins at Home: Empowerment through Giving and Making in Persuasion

Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for her proto-feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but her first published text was a conduct book for women entitled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). In a chapter of this book called “Benevolence,” she encourages women to participate in material almsgiving and suggests that “faith, hope and charity, ought to attend us through our passage through this world,” but charity should be the “constant inmate of our breast through all eternity” (Wollstonecraft 137-8). Jane Austen, Wollstonecraft’s younger contemporary, might have encountered these ideas in Thoughts or in other popular eighteenth-century conduct books that encouraged charitable work, including visiting and making gifts to and for the poor.1 Conduct books for gentlemen, like Thomas Gisborne’s An Enquiry Into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society (1794), also encouraged men to take a charitable interest in improving the lives of tenants, workers and impoverished people on their estates.

Reaffirming these popular expectations about charitable behavior, Austen’s Persuasion frames charitable connections as central to demonstrating character and facilitating the novel’s happy ending. However, Persuasion also redefines charity so that it is not solely the passive exchange of monetary support between a well-to-do benefactor and a needy recipient. Instead, the novel portrays charity as an empowering opportunity linked to creative making and granting agency to female and differently-abled bodies. Though Anne Elliot’s patient and benevolent nursing and visiting activities suggest the charitable gentility and femininity endorsed by conduct books, Mrs. Smith and Captain Harville’s domestic craftwork, generous actions and unique relationship to the circulation of narratives and goods demonstrates a different perspective on charitable work. In the novel, charitable attitudes and exchanges occur alongside and through the making of handicrafts by the very characters who seem in need of charity. However, this work empowers Mrs. Smith and Captain Harville to straddle the domestic economy of charity and the public/professional marketplace. Balancing between similar limitations because of her social status, gender and deteriorating health, Austen mirrors her experience and frustrations as genteel but not-quite-affluent female writer through these characters and this reimagining of charity.

A model of gentility, Anne Elliot’s generous attitudes and behaviors suggest an investment in charity that conduct book writers would applaud. She even recommends books of edifying advice to Captain Benwick, suggesting “such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering. . .and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances” (Austen 130). Early on, the novel develops the reader’s understanding of Anne’s charitable character by contrasting it with her family’s selfish and irresponsible behavior. For instance, while Anne and Lady Russell draw up a thoughtful plan for economizing at Kellynch, her sister Elizabeth suggests “cut[ting] off some unnecessary charities” and taking “no present down to Anne” (52). When they finally leave the estate, Anne is left to go “to almost every house in the parish, as a sort of take leave”—an act that Sir Walter, as the lord of the manor and important benefactor to the community, should have completed himself (76). Furthermore, by running up debts, Sir Walter not only forces his family to rent their ancestral home, he also fails in his role as leader, employer and benefactor of the community in and around his estate. In contrast, Mr. Knightley’s attentions to his tenants and neighbors, like Miss Bates, in Emma and Mr. Darcy’s enthusiastic praise from servants, like Mrs. Reynolds, in Pride and Prejudice illustrate the expected role for the owner of a landed estate. Anne suggests the Crofts will cultivate a similarly charitable influence and repair the Kellynch community, when she reflects that she “felt the parish to be so sure of a good example, and the poor of the best attention and relief . . . and that Kellynch Hall had passed into better hands than its owners” (149). At her other sister Mary’s home, Anne is again left to take on the charitable role of nurse to her sister’s injured child despite her observation that “a sick child is always the mother’s property. Her own feelings generally make it so” (91). An association with nursing was part of the charitable involvement endorsed by the conduct books and charitable visiting guides that persisted well into Victorian times, so Anne’s desire for this role suggests her exemplary ability to sympathize with and care for others, both in her family and in the larger community (Prochaska 140). Also at Uppercross, the boisterous Musgrove family seeks entertainment through dancing and shooting, but Anne is generous with her time and listens to grievances of the family, plays music, and is generally “glad to be employed, and desir[ing] nothing in return than to be unobserved” (104). The repeated association of words like “usefulness,” “work” and “employment” with benevolent characters like Anne further reinforces the value of her activity and altruism throughout the text.

Once in Bath, Anne’s most notable charitable activity is visiting her old school-fellow Mrs. Smith, “a poor, infirm, helpless widow” that her father and sister dismiss with disgust (174). They are shocked that Anne prefers “everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations”—in other words, the very conditions that demand charitable intervention (177). Anne’s visits to the crippled Mrs. Smith along with her “visit[s] of charity in the village” near Kellynch, suggest her penchant for conduct-book-inspired charitable visiting to assist and comfort the poor (156). However, the novel makes clear that Anne’s visits are motivated by genuine friendship rather than ideals of conduct and that she benefits more from Mrs. Smith as a moral exemplar rather than the reverse. Charitable visiting guides advised visitors to teach those they visited about “the facts of domestic economy and the path to heaven,” but Mrs. Smith already demonstrates “that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment, which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone” (Prochaska 136; Austen 175). Anne Elliot places Mrs. Smith in a larger tradition of finding purpose and agency in physical and economic suffering, when she reflects that Mrs. Smith is “one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, [Mrs. Smith’s optimism and resiliency] seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want” (Austen 175, emphasis added). Anne’s understanding of Mrs. Smith’s extraordinary emotional and psychological buoyancy not only demonstrates a more complex understanding of charity than that offered in advice manuals, but it also foregrounds Mrs. Smith’s understanding of her own ability to perform generous acts because of, rather than in spite of, her physical and economic difficulties.

Mrs. Smith lives in impoverished circumstances and Anne can “scarcely imagine a more cheerless situation in itself than Mrs. Smith’s” (174). Nonetheless, she not only has a positive outlook, but she also does charitable work alongside her efforts to support herself by recovering her economic resources. In an act of generosity, Nurse Rooke teaches Mrs. Smith to knit after her illness and she makes “these little thread cases, pin cushions and card racks,” which “supply [her] with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighborhood” (175). Interestingly, Mrs. Smith finds solace in knitting, doing something active and at least partly altruistic, in contrast with Sir Walter who turns to the passive activity of reading the Baronetage in times of distress (45). Through Mrs. Smith’s character Austen cleverly balances the economic imperative (Mrs. Smith does not have enough income to give money directly) with the signifiers of genteel status (the leisure and excess income to craft items for the poor). Austen is careful to distance Mrs. Smith from the taint of the public marketplace by having Nurse Rooke, herself a lower-status woman already engaged in trade, sell and distribute Mrs. Smith’s wares to her patients—another act of generosity on her part (175). The surname “Smith” also associates Mrs. Smith with a craftsperson, such as blacksmith or metalsmith, who contributes to the local community and to the circulation of goods as the maker of horseshoes and carriage components. Although Mrs. Smith is denied agency in her husband’s monetary affairs and because of her physical impairment, handicraft allows her to both supplement her income and participate in the genteel economy of charity herself.

Although his surname does not offer such a direct connection to handicraft, Captain Harville creates a unique parallel to Mrs. Smith because of his physical disability (he is “a little lame”), domestic DIY projects and his charitable attitudes (127). Captain and Mrs. Harville are generous: they nurse Louisa Musgrove, recuperate grieving Captain Benwick, and accommodate many of their visitors despite having small rooms. Harville is a gentleman, who “invites from the heart” and exhibits “a degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations” (127). The well-to-do Captain Wentworth undertakes to visit Harville in an action parallel to Anne’s visit to Mrs. Smith. This contact could be viewed as charitable condescension given the Harvilles’ situation, but again the text makes it clear that their relationship goes beyond its charitable underpinnings. Captain Harville labors in domestic space making crafts and other improvement projects: “he drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children, he fashioned new netting-needles and pins with improvements; and if every thing else was done, sat down to his large fishing-net at one corner of the room” (128). Austen’s verbs pack this sentence describing Harville’s craft labor, filling it with activity and echoing the Harvilles’ hospitable desire to cram their limited space with visitors. Like Mrs. Smith, who finds solace in making as a result of her limited mobility, Captain Harville’s “lameness prevented him from taking much exercise; but a mind of usefulness and ingenuity seemed to furnish him with constant employment within” (128). A parallel to Mrs. Smith’s knitting, Captain Harville’s netting and other craft work blends the commercial labor economy with the unpaid domestic economy associated with charitable work. His home and activities reflect “the fruit of its labours” as a naval captain and “the effect of its influence on his habits,” including the craft skills he may have developed to pass the time during long voyages (128). His blending of the professional naval work with domestic labor also brings additional meaning the novel’s much discussed final sentence, which refers to “that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (258). Naval officers in Persuasion are generally self-made men, who contribute to national welfare as well offering a charitable model of productivity in domestic life that can accommodate physical limitations.

In addition to offering models for agency and industry through charitable making that transcend gender and disability, Captain Harville and Mrs. Smith’s most important contributions to Austen’s narrative are conversations that focus on agency (that is, the ability and desire to act, participate or circulate). Besides being a maker of knitting, Mrs. Smith is a maker and keeper of narrative, who shares her knowledge both to help Anne and to solicit charitable intervention for herself. Her central story and grievance are about female economic agency and the failure of Mr. Elliot’s expected compassion. Her complaints about his unwillingness “to act” for her demonstrate the injustice of a legal and financial system that does not allow her to act for herself as a claimant to her husband’s investments or as an executor of his will (222). Similarly, during Captain Harville’s important final conversation with Anne, they discuss women’s lack of opportunity to make narratives and participate in public life. Harville begins the conversation by ruminating on getting a miniature set by craftsperson, a charitable act on behalf of Captain Benwick. He later refers to narrative craft when he points out that women are rarely allowed to create their own stories and Anne agrees that the “pen has been in [male] hands” (243). This moment intersects tellingly with Wentworth’s dropping of his pen, the same pen that he about to change of the course of the narrative with by writing to Anne. Anne also suggests that women are physically limited by being “at home, quiet and confined,” though Anne locates in this lack of agency the development of characteristics like faith and hope in women (241). The novel highlights these conversations because they drive the plot, but they are also important because they are discussions of the economic, physical and creative limitations on women articulated by characters, who have located in charity and crafting, an alternative form of agency for themselves.

These characters, their charitable and handicraft practices and their concerns align suggestively with the domestic activities and difficulties in the author’s life and family at the time she was writing this text. Captain Harville’s character may have been based on Austen’s brother, Francis, a naval man and a keen woodworker, whose carved book covers and writing cases are still extant. Austen herself undertook handicraft work, and her family biographers were careful to portray Austen as a genteel maker of both charity and of narrative. In Anna Lefroy’s “Recollections of Aunt Jane,” she describes talking with the author while “she sat busily stitching away at a work of charity” (Lefroy 159). Similarly, in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen he describes how Austen was an accomplished needlewoman and made clothing both for herself and “for the poor” (78-9). He also claims that “money, though acceptable, was not necessary for the moderate expenses of her quiet home” and when she received payment for her writing she “considered it prodigious recompense for that which cost her nothing” (Austen-Leigh 106). These comments misleadingly suggest Austen’s writing belonged to the same economy as charity because Austen was not in need of extra income and that as a “humble” woman interested in “home duties” and “domestic affections” rather than “applause” she did not expect payment for her literary labor (Austen-Leigh 130). Austen’s decision to publish anonymously upholds these ideas and parallels Mrs. Smith’s strategy of having Nurse Rooke peddle her knitted wares to her patients—both tactics allow the women makers to distance themselves from but still participate in the larger economic and public marketplace. However, Austen likely saw herself as a working writer preparing texts for publication in hopes of both monetary compensation and a wide readership when she was composing Persuasion in 1816. During this time, the author would have been peculiarly empathetic to the plight of Mrs. Smith and Captain Harville because her letters reveal that she was beginning to feel the debilitating effects of her final illness. Confined by this illness, she would have been working on her manuscript of the text domestically, but with the aim of its circulation in the national literary marketplace.

In addition to Anne’s generosity, Mrs. Smith and Captain Harville’s model of agency, creativity and charity would have resonated with Austen because of its applicability to her own situation and its inclusion in her final completed novel may have allowed her to give voice to her experience. Written when charity as a conduct-book and Christian virtue would have been familiar to most readers, Persuasion celebrates a heroine who is defined by her generous actions. The novel then expands on this conception of charity to make it more flexible, inclusive, creative and productive—a site for liminal characters with limited mobility to give to others and make themselves in their maker’s image.


1Based on the comments in Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra of 30 August 1805, it is likely that she read at least one of Gisborne’s conduct books (Bree 281).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Edited by Linda Bree, Broadview Press, 1998.
  • Austen-Leigh, J. E. “A Memoir of Jane Austen.” A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 1–134.
  • Bree, Linda. “Introduction to Appendix D: From Thomas Gisborne, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex.” Persuasion, Broadview Press, 1998, pp. 281.
  • Lefroy, Anna. “Recollections of Aunt Jane.” A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 155–164.
  • Wollstonecraft, Mary. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Thoemmes, 1995.
  • Prochaska, F. K. Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England. Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1980.
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