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Acceptance or anxiety? The class dynamics of Persuasion.

WITH REGARD TO Jane Austen's treatment of class, Raymond Williams, in 1973, made his well-known charge of Austen that "where only one class is seen, no classes are seen" (117). We know that isn't quite true; not even Bingley and Darcy are from the same class. But Williams's point is really that Austen's gaze on society is through a narrow cottage window: her perspective is limited. Shortly after Williams's criticism, Marilyn Butler, in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, sorted female-authored fictional narratives into novelistic categories that are largely political; she placed Jane Austen with the conservatives. In response to feminist criticism that had appeared since the book's original publication in 1975, criticism that challenged Butler's assertions and championed Austen's progressive views or her latent feminism, Butler attached a new introduction to the 1987 re-issue of this work. Here, she somewhat revises her view and claims that Austen's final three novels possess "a new general theme, society at large, the nation in what are clearly its current wartime circumstances, when the pace of change calls for regeneration and perhaps new leadership" (xliii). In addition to a courtship plot requiring the heroine to use, or acquire, moral judgment in choosing a proper husband, Austen's final novels investigate the phenomenon of social change. While this shift in focus may well evince Austen's keener social consciousness and an acceptance of class mobility, I sense, too, a subtle anxiety about the changes occurring around her.

Many characteristics distinguish Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion from the work that Austen wrote before moving to Chawton in 1809. Robert Hume declares that "Austen's later fiction largely departs from the fairy-tale model in favour of somewhat more complex and nuanced financial implications" (295). One of these issues, one with "financial implications," surely, is the suggestion of class mobility. By "class mobility," I mean both the possibility of an individual moving up--or down--in rank and the possibility of an entire group or category of individuals gaining--or losing--status within society.

Of the ending of Mansfield Park, Edward Copeland observes that "Austen turns away from the ethical conflicts ... to promote the more public side of her rank's implicit program of domestic economy, that is to say, a celebration of the material triumph of the Price children. In this apotheosis of pseudo-gentry success, the novel affirms their social and material advancement" (106). In Mansfield Park, then, we witness the promotion of the Price siblings--Fanny, William, and Susan--from their barely middling-rank lives in Portsmouth to inclusion in the gentry and professional classes. Critical of the venal and the idle, Mansfield Park endorses values of industry, honesty, selflessness.

With the maturing education of its title character at its center, Emma, according to J. A. Downie, examines "how the heroine reacts to people like the Westons, the Eltons, the Coles and, above all, decayed gentlewomen like Miss Bates and her niece, Jane Fairfax" (80). All of these characters, with the additions of Mr. Cox and Mr. Perry, have social positions that are somewhat fluid, and their fluidity poses a challenge for the heroine. Indeed, Janet Todd identifies "the more unstable society" of Emma as "one reason for Emma's many social mistakes" (213). Emma must learn to accept, or at least to come to terms with, the rapid pace of social change permeating even the very traditional Highbury.

In Persuasion, almost everyone notes the prominence of the professional naval officers. Collectively, these officers take the place of the gentry as primary male characters, assume possession of Sir Walter's estate, and win the hand of the baronet's daughter--the heroine Anne Elliot. Richly returned from successful global war, they are equipped with an industry, sense of purpose, and generosity seemingly abandoned by the landed class, and are poised for the "new leadership" that Butler mentions. This shift is not individual "class mobility"; rather, here we witness an entire group--professionals, but specific professionals--ascend in wealth, status, and regard.

It is an important change--in Austen and, historically, in England--that these professionals do not rely on land as the source of their prominence. "Perhaps the single greatest distinction," historians Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall maintain, "between the aristocracy [which they define broadly to include much of the gentry] and the middle class was the imperative for members of the latter to actively seek an income rather than expect to live from rents and the emoluments of office" (20). Austen signals in Persuasion her awareness of that change by having the self-serving William Elliot boast (disingenuously, as we discover later) of his pride in his family connections, family title, and family estate, a pride "too strict to suit the unfeudal tone of the present day!" (150). "Feudal" is a complex term, involving, as it does, land, social hierarchy, and hereditary ownership. For Marx, of course, the feudalist stage of history passes (through revolutionary change) into capitalism, the very change occurring in Austen's later novels, most extremely, perhaps, in Persuasion. Mr. Elliot's "unfeudal tone" derives from a phenomenon that most readers probably notice about Persuasion s conclusion and one that Julia Prewitt Brown articulates: "for the first time in Jane Austen, the future is not linked with the land" (132).

I agree with most readers who regard Austen's attitude as overwhelmingly positive toward the rising naval officers, who deserve, who have earned, their newly elevated status. In Persuasion, however, they are not the characters "actively seeking an income." There are other characters whose class position is murkier and about whom Austen seems much more anxious: Mr. Shepherd, his daughter Mrs. Clay, Mrs. Smith, and Nurse Rooke. In an effort to gauge Austen's attitude about rank and mobility, I want to "read" these characters--to some extent against the common grain.

Persuasion opens with the recognition that, because of his lifestyle and spending practices, Sir Walter Elliot can no longer afford to live on the family estate: "Kellynch-hall was to be let. This, however, was a profound secret; not to be breathed beyond their own circle....--Mr. Shepherd had once mentioned the word 'advertise;'--but never dared approach it again; Sir Walter spurned the idea of its being offered in any manner" (16). A few pages previously, Shepherd is identified as Sir Walter's "agent" (9) and then described as "a civil, cautious lawyer, who, whatever might be his hold or his views on Sir Walter, would rather have the disagreeable prompted by any body else" (12). So, who is this man? He's in on the "secret," but is he really within the "circle"? As "agent" or estate manager for Sir Walter, does he work exclusively for him? On a salary? On a percentage of some sort? He's also a lawyer. Does he have other clients? Does he work for a fee, case by case? We're not told. He mistakenly offers to advertise Kellynch-hall, to put it on the rent market, like a real estate agent. The term "advertise" is an old word--fifteenth century--but its original meaning was "to warn" or "give notice." Its commercial meaning of "notice of goods for sale" is more recent--mid-to late-eighteenth century (OED).

Shepherd, despite his pastoral name, is a modern man, in the middling ranks, concerned with money. Shepherd performs a variety of functions or services, thus conforming to Davidoff and Hall's description of the middle class "enterprise" at the turn of the nineteenth century: "Perhaps the most striking feature of economic life was that tasks which are now specialized and seen to be only properly performed by experts [e.g., attorneys, realtors, farm managers] were then still vaguely defined. The task or function was the focus, not a full occupational identity" (229). With this vague identity, Shepherd maneuvers the baronet into doing what he thinks necessary, or at least what he wants. Does he take a cut on the rental transaction? A finder's fee? We're not told. Anne Elliot seems to accept Mr. Shepherd, and Austen seems neutral. Or does she? What do we make of "whatever ... his hold on Sir Walter"? We might overlook this half of the sentence, focusing on "whatever ... his views," thinking that, like us, he finds Sir Walter foolish, vain, stupid. But a "hold" is potentially menacing, suggesting at least leverage and possibly something more sinister, like blackmail.

And then there's Shepherd's daughter Mrs. Clay, "who had returned, after an unprosperous marriage, to her father's house, with the additional burthen of two children" (17). One wonders about this description. While the word "burthen" could mean simply "child," its more common use, in Austen's age, is "responsibility" or "expense." Since Mrs. Clay devotes no time whatsoever to her children and is continually absent from them, they serve as no "burthen" to her; probably, however, they register as a liability and interfere with their mother's marriage marketability. Mrs. Clay, a widow in a bit of a precarious financial situation, attaches herself to Elizabeth Elliot and her father, Sir Walter, as a live-in companion. The narrator tells us that "[f]rom situation, Mrs. Clay was, in Lady Russell's estimate, a very unequal, and in her character she believed a very dangerous companion" (18). Lady Russell perceives Mrs. Clay as both a socially degrading friend for Elizabeth and a fortune-hunting threat to Sir Walter. The position currently vacant, Mrs. Clay seeks to become Lady Elliot. But we are told that Lady Russell "had prejudices on the side of ancestry" (12), and, of course, she thought that Captain Wentworth, too, came from a situation very unequal to that of the Elliots. Are we, in this case at least, to accept Lady Russell's estimation of danger, a threat that escalates to "the plague of Mrs. Clay" (159)? Or should we share the sense of Anne, who is simply uneasy (157) with Mrs. Clay's presence in her family's life?

When the novel moves to Bath, Mrs. Clay hovers at the edge of the action, listening and (presumably) plotting. At the end of Persuasion, when Austen relates the fates of all of the characters, we find her
   established under [William Elliot's] protection in London.... Mrs.
   Clay's affections had overpowered her interest, and she had
   sacrificed, for the young man's sake, the possibility of scheming
   longer for Sir Walter. She has abilities, however, as well as
   affections; and it is now a doubtful point whether his cunning, or
   hers, may finally carry the day; whether, after preventing her from
   being the wife of Sir Walter, he may not be wheedled and caressed
   at last into making her the wife of Sir William. (273)

It is hard to take the narrator's "sacrificed" as anything but ironic. Mrs. Clay is not given to sacrifice and not likely to allow her interest to be overpowered by affection; moreover, the delightful "wheedled" highlights Mrs. Clay's persuasive skills to flatter and cajole. Just as her father has a "hold" on Sir Walter, Mrs. Clay seems to have a hold on his heir-apparent. It is therefore quite possible that Kellynch-hall, after a period of being in better hands--those of Admiral and Mrs. Croft--than its owners (136), will pass on to the able and cunning Mrs. Clay, a new, but different Lady Elliot, the place that Lady Russell had imagined for Anne. While both Anne and the narrator are content with the Crofts occupying Kellynch-hall, the prospect of Mrs. Clay's residence is more troubling because it would be permanent, rather than temporary, a transformation of ownership rather than a displacement of owner.

In Bath, we also encounter Mrs. Smith, Anne's girlhood school friend, who has fallen on hard times. We sympathize with her not just because of her circumstances but because we oppose Sir Walter's snobbish rejection: '"A poor widow, barely able to live, ...--a mere Mrs. Smith, an every day Mrs. Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot'" (171).

But Mrs. Smith is cunning as well as pitiable. Confined to her couch, hidden from good society, Mrs. Smith reaches into that society, employing Nurse Rooke to collect information from the wealthy households she serves, information that Mrs. Smith can use for her own purposes. While Mrs. Smith describes Rooke as "a nurse by profession" and an '"invaluable acquaintance'" (168), her name suggests not only the loud, rapacious bird but also a cheat or a swindler: "to rook," according to the OED, means to "clean of money by fraud or extortion." Although Monica Cohen claims that Nurse Rooke "becomes the site for the construction of a new market, one in which middle-class women trade stories and goods for money" (364), I see her as something other than a model for female authorship or independence. Rooke's "story" of the Wallises allows Mrs. Smith to boast, "I mean to make my profit of Mrs. Wallis.... She has plenty of money, and I intend she shall buy all the high-priced things I have in hand now"' (170). Mrs. Smith preys upon the charitable obligation of Mrs. Wallis by pushing her overpriced needlework on her. But, she will also "profit" from information that she can hold or sell as the market dictates: through Mrs. Wallis and Nurse Rooke, Mrs. Smith knows of Mr. Elliot's intentions toward Anne, and by withholding, at this point, what she knows of Elliot, she hopes to benefit financially from a favorable marriage of her old acquaintance to an heir who may harbor some guilt for his past treatment of the Smiths. When it becomes clear, however, that Anne will not marry Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Smith reviles Elliot's character, greatly increasing Anne's sympathy for her and allowing her later to "profit" from Anne's marriage to Wentworth.

In my suspicions of Mrs. Smith, I acknowledge that my estimate of her differs from that of most critics and of Anne Elliot, but Austen's heroines, even the most mature of them, are not infallible. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, as Robert Hume usefully observes, there is a disjunction between Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Austen in assigning "blame" to Mr. Bennet--not just with his inattention to Lydia but also with the ease with which Mr. Bennet takes Darcy's money (308). Something similar may be occurring in Persuasion with regard to Mrs. Smith. Anne knows her as an old friend, pities her, trusts her, values her. Mrs. Smith resembles the diminished Miss Bates of Emma, but residing in the unfeudal world of Persuasion, she is also a shrewd, calculating woman, and her calculations of "profit" call into question, I think, her proclaimed purpose of "'doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood'" (168), a claim that allows her to identify as a gentlewoman with charitable obligations.

While ambiguous, Austen's portrait of Mrs. Smith might well reveal an underlying suspicion of her cunning manipulation of the market for both her information and her needlework, a suspicion that Anne lacks. Fending for herself, Mrs. Smith adapts to a new, capitalistic order of individualism and profit, an industrious activity endorsed by many readers of the novel but one that does not rescue her from downward mobility. Mrs. Smith's situation is a poignant example of a fall in rank and status: an unfortunate marriage, early widowhood, imprudent financial transactions, and bad luck. She occupies a social position perhaps feared by both Anne Elliot and Jane Austen. Noting Austen's financial difficulties while she was writing Persuasion, Hume confesses that "however reluctant we ought to be to read literature into an author's life, seeing Anne Elliot as anything but her creator's pipedream is hard to avoid" (296). Aside from the naval officers, class mobility, upward and downward, is problematic for Austen. I suggest that Persuasion's rather tidy conclusion--with Anne's marriage and Mrs. Smith's recovery of her colonial possessions and her proper social status, through Anne's and Wentworth's intervention--is one of Fredric Jameson's "imaginary or formal solutions" to the "problem" (79) of class mobility--or, even, class transformation. Mrs. Smith's return to the landed class removes her safely from the threatening position that she occupies in Persuasion: her decline in status and her actively (and necessarily) seeking an income.

With Persuasion, Austen elevates her critique of the landed classes, who, with idleness and snobbery, have largely abandoned their responsibilities and their place. Janet Todd calls Persuasion, for the way that it "subtly chronicles social change," "Austen's most radical completed work" (217). And it is. As readers, we accept, indeed applaud, Anne's movement from the gentry to the professional class and the naval officers' assumption of leadership. Military officers are not new in Austen novels, but, as Alice Drum reminds us, "the military officers in question are not established members of the gentry like Colonel Brandon or General Tilney but are instead middle-class professionals whose newly acquired wealth allows them to move easily into gentry society" (105). They "move easily," and we and the gentry accept them. And yet, there's unease. Butler condemns Austen's failure--a failure in both the novel's plot and its moral purpose--to define William Elliot as the "tempter-figure": "elsewhere in Jane Austen it is the villain who has always ... embodied self-sufficiency, a whole intellectual system of individualism or self-interest that the more social and outward-turning ethic of the novel was designed to counter" (280--81). Anne may be momentarily tempted by Mr. Elliot, but only until she learns by letter that Louisa Musgrove is to marry Captain Benwick, thereby letting Captain Wentworth off the hook and so making him available for her. Anne's maturity and good judgment make her safe from Mr. Elliot. But neither her experience nor her judgment has prepared her for the self-sufficiency, individualism, and self-interest of Mr. Shepherd, Mrs. Clay, Mrs. Smith, and Nurse Rooke, who, with their entrepreneurship and quests for money, also seek advancement. Perhaps the threat that they pose, as ambiguous and maybe even unconscious as it is, suggests that Austen's fundamental conservatism permits acceptance of some class mobility, some transformation--but only some.

David Wheeler is professor of English at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia. He has published widely on Austen, particularly on representations of material culture in her novels, as well as on Pope, Dryden, and other authors of the long eighteenth century


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Cohen, Monica. "Persuading the Navy Home: Austen and Married Women's Professional Property." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 29.3 (1996): 346-66.

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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Wheeler, David
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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