Wednesday, November 27, 2013

267. Persuasion by Jane Austen

Writing about a Jane Austen novel, here on this blog, is like spitting into the Atlantic Ocean. There are Austen fans, Austen die-hards, Austen-scholars, Austen Societies, Austen-spawned novels and movies and anything one could imagine. However, what I take from Austen novels - I haven't read many - is that the society they lived in was not much different from other societies.

In Persuasion (Penguin Classics, 1965 (FP: 1818); 264)*, as in the other two novels of hers I have read - Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice - the theme is marriage and society's rules, obligations, and expectations surrounding that institution. Right from the beginning of this book, Austen - with her keen insight into life and the dynamics family life - exposed the biases and patriarchy of the society of the time; a society that ranked individuals of the two genders differently and further ranked people within each gender group according to their wealth, occupation, family status, name, marriage, and such others that might be laughed at today, somewhat. She discussed marriage for convenience against marriage for love; the former being the norm and prevalent, the latter being the route for deviants.

Jane introduced us to two completely similar individuals of similar ranks but of whom society's expectations were different because of their sex. Both Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell had lost their spouses; they were both moderately wealthy - though Sir Walter is on a path to ruination. But, whereas people were contented to see Lady Russell remained unmarried, they were worried why Sir Walter should remain single. The same set of people, with the same set of variables, expected different things from two people - differentiated only by sex.

Reading Austen's novels, one cannot but imagine the author poking fun at society's norms and values, the elaborateness of its etiquette, and the absurdities that emanated from these. It was these absurdities that she exposes in her books. What is more illogical than that a man such as Sir Walter should spend himself into poverty, risking the future of his children, for the sole purpose of living as his position required; that he should not only resist change but should resist any decisions his confidantes should make in an attempt to salvage the few and keep him from the final fall over the cliff into scorn? When it was arrived at that he should rent his Kellynch Hall estate and move to his home in Bath, where his expenditure would be drastically reduced, he was thinking of how this would affect his aristocratic status and was concerned with the calibre - that is the occupation and rank - of his future tenants. Thus, instead of deciding on his financial position and how to rescue himself, he was consumed with trivialities. He hated sailors and did not want one as a tenant, which in fact was what he got, because they age faster and look older than their ages and, more importantly, their occupation allowed those of 'obscure birth' to rise into ranks not before dreamt of by them or their ancestors. And this is from a man who kept mirrors in all his rooms, hated wrinkles, and considered himself beautiful. In fact, in today's world he would have been considered a metrosexual. 

And the Elliots are boastful and discriminatory! They would only want to marry into wealthier and worthier families and would obsequiously grovel before any one they deemed to be above them in the social ladder, and would equally expect nothing less from others below them. These extreme mannerisms and aristocracy exuded by the people of the time, which has not been totally erased today but if anything becoming profound, created a class society so that even siblings of the same parentage could fall on either side of the rank, which  in women is determined by the wealth and connections of their husbands. Though Mrs Musgrove and Mrs Hayter were sisters, the latter occupied a higher social ladder and was much respected; in fact, she saw herself different and better than her sister. Alternatively, since one could rise in social rank through marriage, one could also fall through divorce or death, as in the case of Mrs Smith, who suddenly became destitute after the death of her spendthrift husband.

The quest for an improvement in social rank, spawned machinations and strategic marriages and alliances against which Austen writes and which is the theme of this novel. In this novel, people were persuaded to marry people they did not love or not to marry one they did love, as in the case of Anne Elliot, the protagonist. Anne was a nonentity in the Elliot household because she had not the Elliot pride, that is she was not boastful and did not look down to people. When Anne fell in love with Wentworth, family and sympathisers opposed it and Anne was persuaded not to marry him. To the Elliots, Wentworth had no connections, he was not set in life, and was poor; to Lady Russell, he would not make Anne happy, he had not so good mannerisms and social etiquette, and would not place her in the status similar to her mother's. And the young Anne was unable to hold her own against these forces. Years later, Wentworth returned from sea, a captain with wealth, in need of a wife. And there in came Elliot, heir-apparent to Sir Walter's properties, and a schemer. These two characters represent the story's theme: Captain Wenthworth in search for love and Elliot for the wealth of Sir Walter. And both see the realisation of their dreams through marriage with Anne Elliot.

However, the Musgroves - Charles (who married Anne's sister Mary), Henrietta, Louisa, and the other younger children and their parents - were the counterpoint to the proud Elliots. The Musgroves are simple loving folks, who lived their lives as they saw it fit. They looked up to none and down on none. In matters of marriage, all they sought were their children's happiness without consideration of wealth, worth or connections. They, consequently, allowed them to marry those they loved. Thus even though Mary Musgrove nee Elliot, was against Henrietta Musgrove marrying Charles Hayter, because Charles was of 'low birth' and that such marriage would further affect the image of the Musgroves, of which she was now a member, the Musgrove parents saw nothing wrong with their daughter's choice. 

The mistreatment of women by men and by women themselves was palpable. Women were looked-down and treated as weak or as children. For instance, in a conversation with her brother, Captain Wentworth, Mrs Croft - the tenants of Kellynch Hall - bemoaned
But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days. [94]
Here Mrs Croft was attacking the phenomenon where women are treated as precious objects instead of human beings who live. This is the central message of Austen's novels and by caricaturing the gentility and sensibilities of the time - marriage of convenience, extreme etiquette, social status - she was, in actual fact, ridiculing them. She was rebelling against them by projecting their ridiculousness. And some of the women accepted that attribute and in no one was this more pronounced than in Mary Musgrove (nee Elliot). She was a nagger who always complained of her frailness. She attributed to herself imaginary sickness, believing that the frailer she looked - or the more hypochondriac she was - the more feminine she became. And even though Elizabeth, the first daughter of Sir Walter and sister of Anne and Mary, was strong and bold, she was so in the image and likeness of her father, epitomising the Elliot pride.

I see Austen as a contributor (if not the instigator) of the women's struggle for equality and social inclusion and it is in this light that I read her novels.
*This copy included a memoir by J.E. Austen-Leigh


  1. One correction: Captain Wentworth's sister with whom he has the conversation you cite in your final paragraphs is Mrs Croft (Sophie Croft) -- who with her husband Admiral Croft, are tenants of Kellynch Hall. It is not Mrs Harville. Mrs Harville is the wife of Wentworth's close friend, Captain Harville whom Wentworth and company visit in Lyme Regis.

  2. Great review! This is one of my favorite Austen novels, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.


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