Persuasive Precedent: Austen Rewrites Edgeworth.
Building on this recognition of Austen's thematic and strategic borrowing, this essay argues that examination of Edgeworth's "Manoeuvering" (1809) from her Tales of Fashionable Life suggests that Austen not only read and enjoyed Edgeworth's tale (2) but also rewrote it in Persuasion (1818) to reflect her own concerns about the nature of British naval involvement in colonial ventures across the Atlantic. In Persuasion Austen reworks the model of British imperialism and the British Navy set by Edgeworth in order to sever their connection to irrational excess and abuse of authority in the colonial periphery.
Much critical ink has already been spilled on the topic of Austen's relationship to and representation of the navy. S. J. Kindred has argued that Austen's brother Charles helped her revisions of Mansfield Park through the supply of naval vocabulary. Deirdre Le Faye details Charles's life and career in Jane Austen: A Family Record (263-65), and M. C. Hammond maps the careers of both Charles and Frank Austen. Most recently, Devoney Looser and Ruth Knezevich have speculated on the relationship between Charles's naval activities and his promotion of his sister's work after her death. With respect to Persuasion in particular, Megan Wood worth's argument about the novel's celebration of the navy's model of reformed, professionalized, and meritocratic masculinity is particularly compelling. Significantly, Brian Southam's Jane Austen and the Navy explains what may have motivated Austen's decisions to celebrate the heroism of her brothers' profession. For Southam, the replacement of Navy heroism by Army heroism in British imagination seems to have had much to do with their respective successes in the war with Napoleon: "Military success was fresh in memory whereas the great naval victories were events of the past. Since Trafalgar and St. Domingo the naval record was tame and unmemorable, with no engagement of such magnitude and none to provide such a stirring brew of tragedy and triumph [as Waterloo]" (257). Nevertheless, while each of these perspectives provides valuable historical context and analysis, interpretation of the specific literary inspiration--in particular, Maria Edgeworth's "Manoeuvring"--of Austen's navy requires additional attention.
Edgeworth's "Manoeuvring" is the third volume of Tales of Fashionable Life (1809). It features two English families, the Beaumonts and the Walsinghams. Mrs. Beaumont, a widow, "manoeuvers" to marry her daughter, Amelia, to a Sir John Hunter and her son, Edward, to Hunter's sister, Albina, but both the Beaumont children's hearts lie elsewhere: Amelia's with the naval Captain Walsingham and Edward's with a Miss Walsingham. Complicating Mrs. Beaumont's scheme is the arrival of Mr. Palmer, friend of her late husband, who, as one of Edward's guardians, has come to oversee Edward's coming of age and estate inheritance and to share his plans for his own will. Mrs. Beaumont is keen to ensure that Mr. Palmer, who is distantly related to both the Beaumonts and the Walsinghams, leaves his money to her and her children. When Mrs. Beaumont's schemes for her children's marriages fail, she ends up marrying Sir John Hunter herself, relishing her future enjoyment of his imminent inheritance of a large estate. She is ultimately disappointed when the estate unexpectedly passes to another. The last lines of the novel are left to Mr. Palmer, who says, "Well! well! I make no reflections; I hate moral reflections. Every body can think and feel for themselves, I presume. I only say,--Thank Heaven, we've done with Manoeuvringl" (369). The tale clearly satirizes multiple characters' obsessions with wealth as well as the manipulation and lies these characters employ in the attempt to secure it for themselves at the expense of others. As an alternative, Edgeworth offers exemplary characters who are interested in marrying for love and who value sincerity, truth, honesty, and candid, frank behavior and speech above feigned or excessive politeness or modesty.
Of course these values are at the heart of multiple Austen novels, but the specific similarities and differences between Persuasion and Edgeworth's tale cry out for closer consideration. To begin, both obviously center on issues of parental interference and the economic potentials and realities of a British navy officer's suitability for marriage. For both, the financial security necessary for marriage takes the form of prize money awarded in naval service. In addition, characters in each are explicitly linked to action in the West Indies and to the Battle of Trafalgar.  Austen's reversal of a series of related Edgeworth plot points, however, suggests the pointed nature of the younger writer's refusal of sentimental novel forms.
First, while in Persuasion Wentworth's proposal is premature, in "Manoeuvring" Walsingham's honor prevents his. As Janet Todd and Antje Blank, in their introduction to the Cambridge edition of Persuasion have observed, Edgeworth's hero, "unlike Wentworth, ... prudently refrains from proposing to the woman he loves until he has acquired a fortune" (xlviii). In addition to reversing the tale's depiction of Walsingham's perfect prudence, Austen also reverses the nature of parental interference in her novel. When Edgeworth's pathetic Amelia admits that Walsingham "never gave me any reason to think he would propose; no never made the slightest attempt to engage my affections," the tyrannical Mrs. Beaumont blames her own daughter's lack of self-respect (119). She chastises her: "show me, that you have a becoming sense of your own and of female dignity, and that you are not the poor mean-spirited creature, to pine for a man who distains you" (120). Despite the fact that Amelia rejects her mother's claims of disdain, insisting, "But he cannot marry, because he is so poor," she also collapses under pressure, pledging, "I do not think of him--I endeavor not to think of him" (121).
Of course, in Austen's version, Anne notoriously, after "all the negative of great astonishment" displayed by her father and the more "pardonable pride" of Lady Russell's disapproval, "was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing" (28, 30). The complete tyranny and villainy of Mrs. Beaumont contrast with the subtle disapprobation of Lady Russell. These differences signal Austen's motivation in rewriting Edgeworth's tale and her depiction of the navy. While Edgeworth's tale incorporates sentimental forms and far-flung exotic locales to celebrate the exemplary heroism of Walsingham, Austen both excises and deliberately mocks them. Her refusal of the sentimental combined with her distinct treatment of West Indian colonialism suggests Austen's novel's imbrication in larger discourses of slavery and abolition.
To begin, the differences between the authors' heroes and their naval careers are highly suggestive of Austen's interest in revising Edgeworth's work. First, Edgeworth spends over fifty pages, a seventh of the tale, detailing Walsinghams naval life, which is defined by sentimental themes of emotional excess. Walsinghams first commanding officer, through an extremity of grief at the death of his son in an engagement with the Dutch, engages imprudently with a superior French ship. Recognition of this failure leads the officer to acknowledge that his "heart was broken," that "he wished for nothing but an honorable death" at the hand of the fifty-gun French ship (118). As a result, Walsingham is taken prisoner and held captive for four months, and only his superior honor secures his release. This same honor leads him to defend his former captain's decision to engage. Unfortunately, in the changing landscape of naval influence and patronage, his captain has no support, and Walsinghams encomiums upon his bravery result in delay of his own promotion. When Walsingham is finally promoted, he is sent to the West Indies, with all its excesses. His Captain Jemmison surfeits himself with the island's lush entertainments, including "paying his court to a Creole lady of Spanish Town," and as a result of his poor example, Jemmison's men mutiny and take Walsingham prisoner (196). Importantly, Walsingham manages to regain control of the ship and fight another successful action. These tests of Walsinghams courage and resolution contrast his perfect heroism with the dangers and difficulties of patriotic service. In Edgeworth's tale, the navy is a place where abuse of authority, irrational excess, and disorder threaten a man's ability to manifest masculine perfection. In "Manoeuvring," unjust imprisonment, on land and at sea, is a regular occurrence. Indolence and luxury allow excessive appetites to get in the way of a navy man's responsibilities to other men and to country. In Edgeworth's navy, tyranny monstrously undermines the British imperial project.
Complicating Edgeworth's depiction of British naval excesses are Edgeworth's own qualms about the depiction of her characters. In a letter to her cousin Sophy Ruxton in May 1808 she writes:
Now I must tell you farther that I am excessively vexed at the thoughts of that paragraph being read at Allenstown about my Admiral's blackguardisms & c to the little steward--I feel as if I was a treacherous tell tale--a vile double-dealer, pretending to defend & betraying a friend's private conversation that passed perhaps when he was warm with wine--Oh Sophy I cannot tell you how much I am vexed with myself 1000000000000 times more than with you. My father who is a thousand times better and better friend than I am says that his conscience twinges him upon thinking over Captain Dashleigh's character in Walsingham's history & seeing how like it is to Adm. R & how all who have read it are struck with that thing--So my dear 1 will take out every trace of resemblance--and put another character in its place--I will shorten that whole story of Walsingham's. (Pos. 9030.634)
In her early draft of "Manoeuvring" Edgeworth created an admiral with black-guardisms bordering on the criminal, a character obviously modeled on one of her own acquaintance's drunken stories. Here, however, she vows to replace this character and to revise Captain Dasheigh's resemblance to the family friend Adm. R. While access to Edgeworth's manuscript notebook for Tales of Fashionable Life, held in the Bodleian, might clear up this particular question regarding the nature of Edgeworth's revisions, Walsingham's "whole story" is still tainted with repeated infection by the emotional excesses and unreason of the navy men around him. Despite her mortification about the resemblance of her character to a family friend, her tale nevertheless critiques that friend's inspiring crimes.
In contrast, of course, we can see Austen's navy men as important revisions of Edgeworth's. Anne's sentiments are representative: '"The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give"' (21). Austen's navy has no room for "troublesome, hopeless son[s]" (54). We are told that the death of "stupid and unmanageable" Dick Musgrove is "good fortune" for the Musgrove family and for his Captain (54). Wentworth's "exquisite grace" not only immediately captures the interests of the Miss Musgroves, but his lack of "shyness or reserve" also charms Charles and Mary Musgrove (58, 63). When introduced to Wentworth's naval companions in Lyme, we learn that "Captain Harville, though not equaling Captain Wentworth in manners, was a perfect gentleman, unaffected, warm, and obliging" (105). Even Captain Benwick, "an excellent young man and an officer," suffered only from "a melancholy air, just as he ought to have" (104, 105).
These differences between Edgeworth's malevolent malcontents, pathetic victims, and idealistic heroes and Austen's perfect gentlemen become even more striking when we consider the fact that Edgeworth does engage in limited metafictional critique of the sentimental conventions informing unrealistic expectations of naval heroism. This critique manifests in the punctuation of Walsingham's naval career by his rescue of a Spanish nun from involuntary captivity in a convent. The nun, orphaned by her English father and Spanish mother, makes contact with Walsingham to beg for rescue, and he complies. Unfortunately, these reported deeds eventually threaten those keen to see Miss Beaumont and Walsingham united. When Mr. Walsingham, the captain's former guardian, tells Mr. Palmer, "I am not clear, that Captain Walsingham is not at this instant in love with, perhaps, as is reported, married to a Spanish lady, whom he has carried out of a convent at ******" Palmer exclaims, "I don't like this Spanish plot, this double intrigue" (214). Happily, Walsingham is able to dispel the rumors of this "romantic tale" upon his return to England (303). He tells Mr. Palmer,
And really, my lord, it grieves me much to spoil the romance, to destroy the effect of a tale, which might in future serve for the foundation of some novel, over which belles and beaux, yet unborn, might weep and wonder. It grieves me much, I say, to be compelled by the severity of this cross examination, to declare the simple truth, that there was no love in the case. (304)
In Edgeworth's work, emotional excesses threaten the happy engagement of her naval hero and expose the dangers of crediting sentimental romance plots and forms. She uses metafiction to critique the unrealistic and exaggerated sentimental plots and conflicts of some contemporary novels and uses Mr. Palmer and his emotional response to represent a typical sentimental reader.
In this context, Austen's transformation of Edgeworth's navy men into perfect gentlemen far from the taint of irrational excess suggests that she was also keenly interested to dispel any romantic associations with them. Captain Wentworth's confessions to Anne, for example, emphasize his regrettable involvement with sentimental heroism. The "darings of heedlessness" and "obstinacy of self-will" in Louisa Musgrove are what ultimately require her rescue and nearly result in his entrapment (263). We learn that he "had no sooner been free from the horror and remorse attending the first days of Louisa's accident" than he learned he was "though alive, not at liberty" (263). These reckless excesses threaten our hero's independence of action. Captain Benwick too must be cured of his, albeit slight, romantic tendencies, first through Anne's literary suggestions but also through association with Louisa's "courage, her character" (182).
Of course, many critics have focused on Austen's representation of the navy in Persuasion. Ruth Perry's claim, in contrast to that of Edward Said, that this novel represents an uncomplicated nationalistic and positive view of colonialism is compelling. Perry's attention to the "upward mobility" of the Austen brothers who served in the navy and to Austen's own correspondence cannot be discounted (Perry 102--03). And, as Deborah Kaplan has detailed, Austen's correspondence with her brother Charles also testifies to her ongoing concern with the compatibility of shipboard life and domestic values, specifically through discussion of his trials as a navy man and father living with his family at sea.
One way to reconcile these views, however, is to consider another set of transformations between Edgeworth's and Austen's text. Strikingly absent from Austen's novel is Edgeworth's typical reader character, Mr. Palmer. Significantly, Palmer is "lately returned from Jamaica, where he had made a large fortune" (20). His successful work as a merchant trading "for many years in the West Indies" has allowed him to accumulate the very wealth that makes him and his choice of an heir valuable to Mrs. Beaumont's schemes (20). Mr. Palmer's frank openness and sincerity is also what encourages both the Beaumont children to acknowledge their own hearts' desires in defiance of their mother's plans. When Palmer confronts Amelia about her marriage plans and she insists she cannot speak of them unless in the assenting presence of her mother, we read: "I'll go for her this instant; said Mr. Palmer, who was not a man to let a romance trail on to six volumes for want of going six yards; or for want of somebody's coming into a room at the right minute for explanation; or from some of those trivial causes which adepts contrive to delude us at the very moment of expectation" (254). This continued metafictional critique of sentimental forms, combined with Captain Walsingham's dispelling of the Spanish lady rumor, calls for a new kind of romance, one by which readers won't be deluded, one in which characters aren't moved by emotional excesses.
Unfortunately, Mr. Palmer, upon his arrival at the Beaumont estate, also declares:
I do rejoice to find myself here quiet in the country; ... nothing after all like a good old English family, where every thing speaks plenty and hospitality, without waste for ostentation and where you are received with a hearty welcome, without compliments, and let to do just as you please without form, and without being persecuted by politeness. (88)
In case the reader isn't aware that the "manoeuvrings" perpetrated at the Beaumont estate undermine the validity of Mr. Palmer's assertion, Edgeworth's narrator tells us:
This was the image of an English country family impressed early upon the good old gentleman's imagination, which had remained there fresh and unchanged since the days of his youth; and he now took it for granted, that he should see it realized in the family of his late friend. (88)
It turns out that Mr. Palmer's fantasy of a "good old English family" is just as deluded as the typical romance plot. Edgeworth's characters, instead, represent the full spectrum of sentimental generosity and selfishness, tyranny and victimhood, hypocrisy and authenticity.
In Persuasion, Austen too is interested in depicting the realities of a good English family. And in her description of the Musgroves we find the means to reconcile Austen's navy rewriting with a critique of colonialism and the slave trade:
The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners. (43)
"Improvement" of the "state" of this "old English style" lends political overtones to the domestic details that indeed provide the foundation of Austen's novel. The good English family that Mr. Palmer merely imagines is given some credence by Austen in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove. But we are told that their kind will soon be of a past perhaps as insubstantial as Mr. Palmer's imaginings, leaving others in their place. The question remains, "What kind of others?"
In transforming Mr. Palmer's idealization of a good old English family into an observation on the transformation of English culture communicated by her narrator, Austen provides implicit commentary on what does not fit into this culture. Austen's text does not include, specifically, West Indian wealth that distorts familial and matrimonial relationships. Instead, Austen's mention of the West Indies occurs through the pathetic character of Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith's fortunes, as noted by Todd and Blank, bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Charlotte Smith, the novelist whose own fortunes from Barbados sugar plantations were tied up in litigation (liv). Austen's simultaneous invocation of a suffering Smith with West Indian connections and removal of Edgeworth's benevolent Jamaican Mr. Palmer builds upon her severing of any connection between the British West Indies, sentimental forms, and naval heroism. In the world of Austen's novel, Britain and her navy must remain untainted by emotional excesses, especially in the West Indies. So, while in "Manoeuvring" Edgeworth explicitly mocks readers' tendencies to link the exploits of naval officers to the sentimental novel, in Persuasion Austen implicitly rejects such a link as well. By transforming the novel's West Indian connection from the Jamaican Mr. Palmer's central role into the peripheral Mrs. Smith, Austen may also be rejecting colonialism and the enslavement upon which their relative successes depended.
Further supporting this assertion is Austen's other invocation of the West Indies in Persuasion. For Austen takes pains to tell us that the novel is set in the summer of 1814, eight years after Captain Wentworth's initial introduction to her heroine Anne Elliot in 1806. Austen also takes pains to convey the exact nature of his journey to the Elliot's neighborhood. Specifically, her narrator says that at this time Wentworth had been recently promoted to commander "in consequence of the action off St. Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come into Somersetshire, in the summer of 1806" (28). The "action" to which this passage likely refers is the Battle of St. Domingo, fought in February of that year. This British victory over France, just four months after Trafalgar, cemented Britain's naval supremacy over the French, resulting in over 1,500 French sailors killed or wounded, two French ships destroyed, and three captured. Interestingly, Austen puts Wentworth, after having fought in this battle and in conformity with an average transatlantic crossing time of approximately one month, back in Somerset in summer of 1806.
Promoted but yet to be assigned a ship, Wentworth spends the rest of the year in England before being assigned the Asp with another West Indian posting. Wentworth describes for the Musgroves his adventures taking privateers until he is able to capture a French frigate in autumn of the next year, 1807. This second installment of Wentworth's West Indian service coincides with the passage of the slave trade act of 1807, or An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was finally passed by Parliament in February 1807 and signed by the King in March. Thus, Wentworth's taking of privateers in the West Indies of early 1807 through the autumn would most likely have engaged him directly with those mercenary ships conducting the now illegal "traffic in slaves between the British West Indies and the Southern States of America" (Southam 54). Between 1809--Edgeworth's publication of "Manoeuvring"--and 1816--Austen's completion of Persuasion--the Napoleonic Wars had ended, but slavery had not. The act of 1807 abolishing the British slave trade still allowed the enslavement of individuals in the colonies. To enforce the new law, the navy was tasked with intercepting slave ships. Wentworth's list of prizes may well have included compensation resulting from his service in the enforcement of this momentous legislation.
Austen's building of her hero's career upon his engagement in Britain's transformation of its relationship with colonial slavery seems likely to have motivated her transformation of Edgeworth's example. For Austen, not only could no navy man be tainted by association with the excesses of the sentimental novel, but no good new English family could be tainted with colonial slavery. Indeed, the end of Persuasion provides further evidence: "She 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" (275). Here Jane Austen asks that her navy men come back home and her country retrench, paying taxes on the English virtues exacted by British profit in the West Indies.
(1.) Moler argues that there is "every reason to believe that in one or more of its early forms [Sense and Sensibility] was very close to typical criticisms of sensibility such as Maria Edgeworth's ["Mademoiselle Panache" in The Parent's Assistant (1795) and Moral Tales (1801)]" (58). Kathleen Fowler has observed in Mansfield Park Austen's allusions to specific details regarding fruit and soil quality in Maria Edgeworth's children's story "Forgive and Forget" and to her character Susan Price from "Simple Susan" (The Parent's Assistant ).
(2.) Edgeworth's Tales of Fashionable Life is in the Godmersham Catalogat Chawton House Library, a clear indication that Austen did have access to the work. Unfortunately, examination of the volume reveals no marginalia or other record of her response to the text.
(3.) In Edgeworth's novel, details provided about Walsinghams service suggest the Battle of Trafalgar for his capture of a Spanish ship. Specifically, we are told in a letter by one of Walsinghams crew that they are stationed somewhere off the coast of Spain when they have been brought a new dispatch from the HMS Pickle with orders of an engagement. The HMS Pickle was a sloop too small for direct engagement in the battle but was involved in rescuing passengers from other ships destroyed in the battle. The Pickle was the first ship to bring news of Nelson's victory to Britain. Another possibility, however, is that Edgeworth had in mind the victories of her own brother-in-law Francis Beaufort, who in 1800 "performed an exploit of great spirit and gallantry," capturing the Spanish San Josef (O'Byrne 62). Edgeworth's character, like Beaufort, was also commended for his service as a hydrographer.
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
Edgeworth, Maria. Letter to Sophy Ruxton. 26 May 1808. Edgeworth Papers. MS 11132. National Library of Ireland, Dublin.
--. "Manoeuvring." Tales of Fashionable Life. Vol. 2. London, 1809. 119-334.
Fowler, Kathleen. "Apricots, Raspberries, and Susan Price! Susan Price!: Mansfield Park and Maria Edgeworth." Persuasions 13 (1991): 28-32.
Hammond, M. C. "The Naval Connection." The Jane Austen Society Report (1998): 47-53.
Harris, Jocelyn. Jane Austen's Art of Memory. Cambridge: CUP, 1989.
--. A Revolution Almost beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2007.
Kaplan, Deborah. "Domesticity at Sea: The Example of Charles and Fanny Austen." Persuasions 14 (1992): 113-21.
Kindred, S. J. "The Influence of Captain Charles Austen's North American Experiences on Persuasion and Mansfield Park" Persuasions 31 (2009): 115-29.
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: A Family Record. 2nd ed. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
Looser, Devoney, and Ruth Knezevich. "Jane Austen's Afterlife, West Indian Madams and the Literary Porter Family: Two New Letters from Charles Austen." Modern Philology 112 (2015): 554-68.
Moler, Kenneth. Jane Austen's Art of Allusion. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968.
O'Byrne, William. A Naval Biographical Dictionary. London, 1849.
Perry, Ruth. "Austen and Empire: A Thinking Woman's Guide to British Imperialism." Persuasions 16 (1994): 95-106.
Southam, Brian. Jane Austen and the Navy. London: Hambledon, 2000.
Todd, Janet, and Antje Blank. Introduction. Persuasion. Cambridge: CUP, 2006. xxi--lxxxii.
Woodworth, Megan. '"You Misled Me by the Term Gentleman': A Final Farewell to Foppery and Nonsense." Eighteenth-Century Women Writers and the Gentleman's Liberation Movement: Independence, War.; Masculinity, and the Novel, 1778-1818. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. 191-208.
Robin Runia is Associate Professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana. Her publications explore issues of religion and spirituality in mid-eighteenth-century women's writing as well as gender, sexuality, and race in works throughout the long eighteenth century.
Caption: Mrs Maria Edgeworth (c. 1800-1817), after William Marshall Craig. [C] Trustees of the British Museum.
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|Title Annotation:||Miscellany; Maria Edgeworth's "Manoeuvering," Jane Austen's "Persuasion"|
|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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