Jane Austen, it appears, seems to be saddened by the decay of England’s aristocratic social order. The study of her main character, Anne Elliot, and her innocent yet intelligent-like persona take her readers further into the core of her foundation of ethics, and the relation of these to the daunting traditions of her immediate family and surrounding social circle gives the reader a fresh look at the importance of class distinction and the clearly perceptible emptiness of the aristocratic society that, in actuality is believed to have existed in Austen’s own life.
A close assessment of the development of Austen’s ideals through the course of her novels reveals the fundamental nature of the central character’s relationship to her family, and its direct relationship to the family’s moral standpoint, as well as convincing evidence concerning Austen’s own values.
In Austen’s last finished novel, Persuasion, which Christopher Clausen describes as “a vast shift in direction from her previous work,” the deficiency of familial love and support acquired by the protagonist Anne Elliott is not only transparently evident, but Austen precisely sets out to tackle the hypocrisy prevailing in Anne’s surrounding family.
The entire story revolves around the Elliott family, who live audaciously wrapped up in all aspects of life swathed in superficial self-importance, conceit, narcissism, self indulgence, social status and image, projected wealth, all the while snubbing any person not of equal or higher status with the sole exception of the manipulating, deceitful and deceptive Miss Clay, who makes friends with the eldest, and most conceited daughter of the narcissistic Sir Walter Elliott.
The most important tension and conflict involves Anne’s “persuasion” to refuse to accept Frederick Wentworth, who she had fallen in love with at the tender age of nineteen, for the simple reason of his having had no title, position, or wealth to commend him to the family. Eight years afterward, living unattached, but not without bitter regret of her resolution which she believed could not be changed, she meets the man she is still, even after so many years of separation, in love with, except now he is a self made well-to-do bachelor, and Captain in the Navy.
As Anne finds herself drawn farther from her emotionally barren family into the genuine love, warmth and happiness of the lower class family she befriends through the inspiration of Captain Wentworth in her life, she begins to understand the fallacies of the decadent and respected landed company that she had been surrounded by to the point of suffocation her whole life. The absence of familial love increases in Persuasion, as Anne Elliott, exists in her own perception apart from what she thinks are the less-appealing characteristics of her family.
The distinction between this novel and her others is that for the first time in Austen’s work, the inferior class is actually superior intellectually, morally and emotionally as compared to the high ranking society. This book also blatantly criticizes the prominent social class that had been, to some extent, upheld up to different degrees by at least one character in all of her previous novels. Anne Elliott acts as the only interpreter of this representation as she sees, with somewhat silent condescension, the absurd vanity her family is fascinated with.
An ideal example of Anne’s moral ethics opposing her father’s vain ones occurs when she offers the idea of a high-ranking naval officer renting their manor while they relocate to Bath. Here Anne spoke – 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 privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we all must allow.
Yet, Sir Walter’s biased and inflexible response to Anne’s modest and tolerant one, which follows, demonstrates Austen’s strategies for showing her disgust at vanity. “It is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objections to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigor most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man; I have observed it all my life.
As Anne travels through her own varying emotions and feelings of love, identity and regret, the influence of her family’s influence or “persuasion” to defy the love or association of anyone of lower rank decreases until she defies her family outright by befriending a hard-up, crippled widow with the inopportune surname of Smith. The last name of a person in England’s high society was nearly as significant as rank.
General, more common, last names such as Smith, Johnson, Miller, etc. disgusted the upper society because they were common. In his symposium entitled “A Class Act: Persuasion and the Lingering Death of the Aristocracy”, Paul A Cantor reasons that “Austen defends the rising middle class precisely because it has stepped into the role formerly performed by the landed gentry. Anne has to admit that the Crofts do a better job of taking care of the Kellynch estate than her father did:
She had in fact so high an opinion of the Crofts, and considered her father so very fortunate in his tenants, felt the parish to be so sure of a good example, and the poor of the best attention and relief, that however sorry and ashamed for the necessity of the removal, she could (End Page 133) not but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay, and that Kellynch-hall had passed into better hands than its owners’. (p. 141) ” As she sheds the weight of her family’s damaging influence, she begins to liberate her soul from the shackles keeping her captive from the affections of Captain Wentworth.
A pinnacle point for her maturation into her own state of interpretation lies in the subplot of Anne visiting the coast of Lyme with her sister Mary and Mary’s sister-in-law, Louisa and Henrietta. Coincidentally, Captain Wentworth turns out to be going with the gathering as well and makes it a point to introduce the party to his dearest friends in Lyme. Even though they lived in a little cottage looking out over the sea, and possessed neither title, class, wealth, nor comfortable living, Anne is struck, more than once, by the warmth and hospitality, they exude towards all, irrespective of family background.
This marks a significant change in her principles as she comments that she “found a superiority of humanity that did not exist” in her own world (87). Austen’s final female protagonist, Anne Elliott, represents the evolution Austen underwent to attain the conclusive declaration in Persuasion of social integrity, and moreover, individual acceptance of others in a diverse class of people. Anne’s early “persuasion” to at least somewhat yield to the influence of the upper-class society diminishes as she begins to fully understand the significance of the emotional wealth of real, bonafide friends, and furthermore, true love.
As she reunites with Captain Wentworth, solely of her own need, lacking her family’s pressure, and not letting their opinions blur her ardent sense of moral integrity, she realizes that her high society family is mediocre in every essential aspect. The closing statement of this journey to her truth reads: Anne, satisfied at a very early period of Lady Russell’s meaning to love Captain Wentworth as she ought, had no other alloy to the happiness of her prospects than what arose from the consciousness of having no relations to bestow on him which a man of sense could value.
There she felt her inferiority keenly. The correspondence of Anne’s growth as an empathetic woman, to Austen’s growth as an empathetic writer is felt to a great extent by the reader. To value virtue over arrogance, cultural and class diversity over traditional values is to be liberated from the constricted limitations of the ignorant mind. This is ultimately Austen’s prevailing message.