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Reciprocity and Hospitality in Persuasion.

WITHIN THE CLOSE-KNIT COMMUNITIES of Jane Austen's novels, hospitality traditionally combines good manners with a Christian obligation to welcome strangers as familiars. (1) But in Persuasion, Austen introduces class-based prejudices that complicate the give-and-take between hosts and would-be guests. Early in the novel, the spendthrift Sir Walter Elliot decides to lease Kellynch-hall to pay down his ballooning debts. With rich naval officers returned to England fresh from plundering Napoleon's fleet, the Elliot circle debates the wisdom of opening the estate to those of a lower social order. Anne observes to the group that [t]he 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. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow'" (21). Because sailors have already risked their lives for crown and country, Anne's thinking goes, the open doors of a grateful nation are their just recompense. (2) But for many hosts in Persuasion, Anne's reasoning is backwards: hosts--not guests--expect something in return for extending hospitality to others. From Lady Russell's early suspicion of Frederick Wentworth as an untrustworthy stranger to Anne's unceasing accommodation of her hosts, notions of reciprocity motivate hospitality in Persuasion.

Anne's readiness to welcome strangers as familiars flies in the face of a range of prominent cultural anxieties--reflected in Persuasion's recurring theme of old traditions making way for new realities--about the social mobility of the pseudo-gentry, the emergent merchant classes, and the social ascendency of newly rich military officers returned from the Napoleonic Wars. (3) As I argue here, hosts use guests to situate themselves along the changing class spectrum of the early nineteenth century. Patricia Meyer Spacks observes that, among other things, the novel of manners presents "moral content [that] express[es] awareness of the needs and desires of others" (162). But what happens to hospitality as a social practice when the needs and desires of hosts trump those of guests? More so than any of Austen's other novels, Persuasion grapples with the uncomfortable realities of extending hospitality to unknown others in the midst of a society renegotiating its own class and economic structures.

Hospitality involves the giving and receiving of comfort or accommodation within a home or social circle, a social practice predicated upon what Tracy McNulty identifies as a "reciprocal bond of obligation linking members of an extended society" (x). McNulty's "reciprocal bond of obligation" is tantamount to a social contract, wherein hosts receive guests who, in turn, reciprocate with commensurate gratitude and good will. Social etiquette and good manners (usually) structure interactions between hosts and guests, making acts of hospitality a familiar feature of domestic fiction and the novel of manners. (4) In Juliet McMaster's analysis of the breadth of hospitality across the Austenian novel, she observes that "host and guest, like husband and wife ... have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness ... that epitomises the delicate balance that must be maintained between the will of the individual and the needs of the community" (30). For McMaster, couples and communities cohere around the sociability of hospitality, a rallying point for recent explorations of hospitality in Austen's fiction. James A. W. Heffernan has called Pride and Prejudice "the first major novel about hospitality and mating in nineteenth-century England," proposing that "hospitality in [Pride and Prejudice] is more than usually bound up with property, possession, and power" (213, 214). Likewise, Kathleen Anderson connects Emma Woodhouse's duties as hostess of Hartfield to medieval notions of hospitality: "Austen celebrates the spiritual and social significance of female hospitality ... in [Emma's] calling to be a benevolent banquet host in the style of a medieval queen." Following Anne's lead, readers of Persuasion tend to savor the prospect of lingering at the threshold of Captain and Mrs. Harvilles home at Lyme Regis. Not only do the Harvilles invite the bereaved Captain Benwick into their home to mourn the death of Fanny Harville, they house the injured Louisa Musgrove, with Mrs. Harville serving as her nurse--a role often reserved for sisters in Austen's fiction. Considered another way: to be welcomed into the Harville's home is to be treated like family, nestled in the warm embrace of a "degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations" (105). Austen idealizes the benevolent hospitality of the Harvilles by setting it against the example of the self-interested Elliots and even the well-intentioned Musgrove families at Uppercross. In fact, Austen illustrates how the "usual style" of hospitality--experienced by both Wentworth and Anne throughout the course of the novel--involves imagining guests as strangers while silently calculating what they stand to offer in return for a warm welcome.

In Persuasions 1806 pre-history, Commander Wentworth was a repatriated sailor in search of acceptance and community, a low-ranking officer without reputation or fortune, who proposed marriage to Anne despite their short acquaintance: "Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love" (28). While "[having] nothing to do" is a terrible reason to get married, it hints at the chilly social reception Wentworth faced when first introduced to Somersetshire society. Apparently, he had not been invited to ride, shoot, dine, or ramble in the countryside with any of the locals, snubs that Lady Russell expressed more vocally in her opposition to his engagement to Anne. She objected to Wentworth as a "stranger" with a suspiciously "dangerous character" (29)--effectively conjuring the specter of a shifty tar liable to betray Anne's native trust in others. Evoking quasi-sinister intentions of "snatch[ing]" and sinking Anne with his "bewitching" wit, Lady Russell made the stranger Wentworth sound more like an unwelcome Barbary pirate than an up-and-coming naval officer (29).

Lady Russell's labeling Wentworth a "stranger" suggests the prickly cultural suspicions about strangers rampant in Austen's England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the context of the French Revolution, its ensuing continental turmoil, and England's ever-widening colonial expansion, English hospitality toward geographic, ethnic, and religious others was fraught with mistrust about strangers' intentions toward the state. As David Simpson has argued, by and large the English imagined strangers arriving on their shores as agents capable of infiltrating the economies and corrupting the culture of the nation:
   All strangers, not surprisingly, become a potential threat....
   Categories become confused: domestic and foreign, strange and
   familiar, friend and enemy, unremarkable and uncanny lose their
   usefulness in a world where any one of them can look like its other
   or turn into its other... . The most dangerous stranger is the one
   you cannot see or even know ... is there--which leads you to be
   sure that he is. (22-23)

In Persuasion, Austen distills such paranoia about unknown others into a rhetoric calculated to drum up suspicion about Wentworth as an univited "stranger" invading the exclusivity of the Elliots' social set. Wentworth's introduction into Somersetshire society (coupled with his sway over Anne's heart) endangers the integrity of the social order that shapes Lady Russell's worldview, rooted in "prejudices on the side of ancestry" and an unwavering "value for rank and consequence" (12). (5) In Lady Russell's mind, the most dangerous kind of stranger is the one who, like Wentworth, fails to recognize his own ineligibility to associate with the Quality. Revoking Anne's too generous hospitality safeguards the charmed exclusivity of the Elliot circle from the mutinous social mobility of interlopers like Wentworth, even as it registers his capacity to destabilize the cultural norms that Lady Russell is determined to uphold.

When Wentworth re-enters the novel at Uppercross in 1814, he returns as a wealthy officer on the lookout for a wife. Between 1806 and 1814, Wentworth was promoted to Captain, commanded multiple vessels, and captured enemy ships and cargo to the personal profit of 25,000 [pounds sterling]. Unlike Lady Russell, the Musgroves do not consider him a stranger at all; in fact, they exaggerate their nodding acquaintance with him from years before and treat him like an old family friend (55-56). As a result, he is embraced at Uppercross as a lively conversationalist, a companionable sportsman, and an eligible match for one of the bubbly Musgrove daughters. The Musgroves are hardly Austen's most obvious social climbers, but they nonetheless recognize Wentworth's value to the family. Charles and Mary debate which sister he fancies more and envision the wealth he might amass in a future war, a fantasy that snowballs into the dizzying prospect of his someday becoming a baronet (81). Of course, Mary's interest in Wentworth's prosperity fades once he and Anne are engaged. She goes from imagining the Musgroves' upward mobility to considering her own position within the family order. Granting Anne the luxury of being "mistress of a very pretty landaulette," the self-centered Mary consoles herself with the prospect of a settled estate and a more consequential station in her family than Anne will enjoy (272).

Hospitality extended to Wentworth reveals more about the underlying politics of reception along the class spectrum than it does about Wentworth himself. On the one hand, the class-conscious Lady Russell rejects as dangerous those strangers whose presence endangers the social traditions that are the bulwark of titled exclusivity. On the other hand, the Musgroves accept Wentworth on the slightest acquaintance and revel in fantasies about how his future prosperity will raise their family's collective social fortunes. What Lady Russell rejects as a threat to longstanding class distinctions, the Musgroves invite as an opportunity for advancement. The ambient politics of reception illustrate just how casually hosts reconfigure the identities of their guests to bolster their own individual narratives of social stability and class standing in Persuasion.

As a semi-permanent mainstay at Uppercross with plenty to offer in return for the Musgroves' hospitality, Wentworth assumes the privileges of a host and speaks frankly about Anne. Mary repeats indelicately to Anne that

"Captain Wentworth is not very gallant by you.... Henrietta asked him what he thought of you,... and he said, 'You were so altered he should not have known you again.'" (65)

By claiming that she is so changed that she's a veritable stranger to him, Wentworth repeats upon Anne the very tactics Lady Russell used to characterize him as an unfamiliar outsider in 1806. Anne is, of course, hardly a stranger to anybody, and yet her experiences in other people's homes introduce larger questions in the novel about the kind of hospitality that unprotected, unmarried women are entitled to. (6)

Verging on spinsterhood and without an independent fortune of her own, Anne is dependent upon the charity of her extended family, a common reality for unmarried women (including Austen herself) that reveals a unique set of questions about the place of spinsters in the domestic and social order only ever tangentially addressed in the novel of manners: Are older women entitled to kindness or merely to a begrudging tolerance when living in other people's homes? Are unprotected women like Anne "guests" or "dependents" of the household? What place do they take within the existing domestic hierarchy alongside, for example, governesses and housekeepers? These were no doubt questions close to Austen's heart as she and Cassandra were reliant upon their brothers' charity for daily survival.

Wentworth's value as a guest is partly based on how hosts use him to position themselves along the social spectrum, but less obvious is how hosts perceive the value of guests like Anne, who appear to have little to offer in return for the compulsory hospitality of her extended family. When arriving at Uppercross, Anne is reminded of the mental adjustments necessary when "transplanted" from one home to another:
   Anne had not wanted this visit to Uppercross, to learn that a
   removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of
   only three miles, will often include a total change of
   conversation, opinion, and idea. She had never been staying there
   before, without being struck by it... . [S]he believed she must now
   submit to feel that another lesson, in the art of knowing our own
   nothingness beyond our own circle, was become necessary for her....
   She acknowledged it to be very fitting, that every little social
   commonwealth should dictate its own matters of discourse; and
   hoped, ere long, to become a not unworthy member of the one she was
   now transplanted into.--With the prospect of spending at least two
   months at Uppercross, it was highly incumbent on her to clothe her
   imagination, her memory, and all her ideas in as much of Uppercross
   as possible. (45-46)

Anne likens the community of a social circle to a "little social commonwealth," a miniaturized version of the state governed by the self-interests of established participants. Couched as both a delicate "art" and a practical form of self-education in hospitality, Anne "submits" to old lessons about "knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle," prompting her consciously to "clothe her imagination, her memory, and all her ideas in as much of Uppercross as possible." The narrator's casual tone is deceptive and, I think, misleads readers into undervaluing the degree of Anne's subordination. By foregrounding the need to disguise oneself within the interests of another social set, Austen presents the stoic philosophy of mind required of unmarried, unprotected women when accepting the grace-and-favor accommodation of other people's hospitality.

Austen makes clear that women in Anne's position must be prepared to think different thoughts, feel fewer feelings, and perform the good manners necessary to silently habituate themselves to the comfort of others. Anne anticipates the self-interested motives involved in hospitality by voluntarily transforming herself into a household functionary. She serves as the musician at impromptu family balls, the companion to her complaining sister, the nurse to her injured nephew, the confidante for the aggrieved, and the intermediary softening complaints among the Musgroves. Wentworth may treat her like a stranger at Uppercross by denying her basic civilities, but as a resident at Uppercross Anne estranges herself from her own interests when fostering the illusion of the perfect houseguest--the kind who fades into the woodwork by asking little of her hosts and dutifully contributing to the comfort of the home.

Even when Anne visits Lyme Regis with the Musgroves, her self-sacrifice continues when entering the "little social commonwealth" governed by the Harvilles as she becomes the go-to conversational partner for the grieving Captain Benwick. She sympathizes with his sorrow, and their discussions of Romantic poetry prompt him to repeat "the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness" (108). John Wiltshire rightly asserts that Persuasion "contrasts, as does Anne Elliot herself, the warmth and hospitality of the Harvilles at Lyme, generous with their limited accommodation, with the cold formality of her father and sister in their two drawing rooms at Bath" (161). But Anne is merely an observer of the Harvilles' hospitality rather than a beneficiary of it, a conversational partner for Benwick, not a guest received into their home. Between Uppercross and Lyme Regis, Anne surrenders independent thought, feeling, and action in order to manufacture a hospitality that nobody thinks to extend to her. Austen shows how Anne alienates herself from her own self-interest in order to make herself feel welcome and useful in other people's homes--illustrating the individual toll inhospitality takes on those who don't have an obvious place in the social or domestic order.

By the end of the novel, Anne and Wentworth's marriage transforms them into the hosts of a new community of friends. In addition to the Benwicks, Harvilles, and Crofts, Anne invites Lady Russell and Mrs. Smith into their circle. A. Walton Litz has commented that this new grouping is formed without any "permanence beyond the moment" (232), and Gene W. Ruoff likewise wonders "just what the common bond might be which holds this assemblage together" (345). Such concerns about Persuasions ending can be put to rest when we envision the kind of hostess Anne embodies: one who does not insist upon Lady Russell's and Mrs. Smith's "know[ing] their own nothingness" as members of the novel's newly formed social set. Instead, Austen offers a glimpse of a reconstituted model of hospitality among the women whom war and naval glory leave behind, where reciprocal obligations between hosts and guests are more equitably distributed among the community, where the wives and friends of naval officers pool their collective emotional resources to help each other "pay the tax of quick alarm" for any situation facing the newly constituted community (275). (7)


I would like to thank Linzey M. Powers for her perspective on early versions of this essay.

(1.) For Christ's injunction to welcome strangers as familiars, see Luke 10:29-37, Matthew 7:12, and Matthew 10:40-42.

(2.) Anne's generosity toward repatriated sailors at the end of the Napoleonic Wars contrasts with that of George III after the American War of Independence. He worried in 1783 that highway robberies would "naturally increase from the Number of idle persons this Peace will occasion" (14 May 1783). I am grateful to Rachel Heeter Smith for calling my attention to George III's correspondence.

(3.) David Spring explains that the pseudo-gentry "devoted their lives to acquiring the trappings of gentry status,... the schooling, the accent, the manners,... the sports, the religion, the habit of command, the large house in its own grounds" (60-61).

(4.) In A Memoir of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh evokes the hospitality of hearth and home to characterize all of Austen's fiction: Austen's characters "have been admitted as familiar guests to the firesides of so many families, and are known there as individually and intimately as if they were living neighbours" (9).

(5.) Lady Russell's "stranger syndrome" resonates with Christian August Gottlieb Gode's experiences detailed in The Stranger in England published in 1807: "The English nobility are ... more national than any other order of society... . Perhaps the increasing luxury of the times has banished hospitality" (102-03). Gode's travelogue is precisely the record Matt Bramble calls for in Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker. "What the hospitality of our fore-fathers has been I should be glad to see recorded, rather in the memoirs of strangers who have visited our country ... than in the discourse and lucubrations of the modern English" (164).

(6.) Critics characterize Anne's subjectivity in a variety of ways. Melissa Sodeman considers her an "itinerant... [reliant] upon others for her place of residence" (789); Beth Lau calls Anne an "exile" (98); Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord call her a "wanderer, a woman without a home" (28).

(7.) Persuasion is not Austen's final word on reciprocity and hospitality. Sanditon launches a larger satire on the transactional exchange of money for comfort among entrepreunerial spa owners and leisured tourists. Engaging in "stranger syndrome" is clearly bad for business for the enterprising Mr. Parker in light of the enthusiastic reception of Miss Lambe--the seventeen-year-old West Indian heiress described only as a "half mulatto, chilly and tender" (Later Manuscripts 201-02). Sanditon reveals Austen's literary interest in the economics of the burgeoning hospitality industry.


Anderson, Kathleen. "Emma as Medieval Queen: Jane Austen's Glorification of Female Hospitality." Alberta and Henry Burke Jane Austen Scholar in Residence Lecture Series. 2 Feb. 2016. Goucher College Library, Towson, MD.

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Austen-Leigh, J. E. A Memoir of Jane Austen. 1871 .A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections. Ed. Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: OUP, 2008. 1-134.

DiBattista, Maria, and Deborah Epstein Nord. At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, from Austen to the Present. Princeton: PUP, 2017.

George III. "To Lord North." 14 May 1783. The Correspondence of King George the Third. Ed. John Fortescue. New York: Macmillan, 1928. 38.

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Litz, A. Walton. "Persuasion: Forms of Estrangement." Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays. Ed. John Halperin. Cambridge: CUP, 1975. 221-32.

McMaster, Juliet. "Hospitality." Persuasions 4 (1982): 26-33.

McNulty, Tracy. The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Expropriation of Identity. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007.

Ruoff, Gene W. "Anne Elliot's Dowry: Reflections on the Ending of Persuasion." Wordsworth Circle 7 (1976): 342-51.

Simpson, David. Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger. Chicago: UCP, 2013.

Smollett, Tobias. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. Ed. Lewis M. Knapp. Oxford: OUP, 1984.

Sodeman, Melissa. "Domestic Mobility in Persuasion and Sanditon" SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 45 (2005): 787-812.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.

Spring, David. "Interpreters of Jane Austen's Social World: Literary Critics and Historians." Jane Austen: New Perspectives. Ed. Janet Todd. New York: Holmes, 1983. 53-72.

Wiltshire, John. Jane Austen and the Body. Cambridge: CUP, 1992.

Daniel R. Mangiavellano is Assistant Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland. His research and teaching interests include British Romantic poetry and prose and the novels of Jane Austen.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Mangiavellano, Daniel R.
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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