Persuasion should have been called Consequences
The obvious question about Persuasion is why it opens the way it does. This is supposed to be a romance. But the first pages (and chapters) are about the Baronetage, the genealogical record of one of Britain’s lowest aristocratic ranks, and the vanity of Sir Walter Elliot and his family. Anne, his middle daughter, who is supposed to be the romantic heroine, appears briefly in the Elliot entry in the baronetage, and then not again until the third page. Then it is said she “was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way—she was only Anne.”
In chapter two she speaks, during the discussion about Sir Walter’s finances, but we are not told her exact words, just the general idea. Then we are told Anne wants to live locally but her family is moving to Bath. Her first reported words, in Chapter Three, are:
“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. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow.”
Once we realise that Anne has been pining for her lost love, Captain Wentworth, who is a sailor, this strange initial contribution might make more sense. But this is not just Anne being romantic. Persuasion is about the changing social structure of society, brought about by the disruption of the war and the new wealth it has given sailors. As a result of this disruption, Anne will be able to make a romantic match outside of her social rank, which is much better for her personally and morally.
Thus her opening statement sets the the tone for the story of her pining but also for the main theme of the novel, which is not the persuadability of one person by another (although that is important) but what it means to be a person of consequence. Will Anne be losing or gaining consequence by marrying out of the landed class and into the navy?
There are two ways to be a person of consequence in this novel: through social status or through admirable character. Austen was strongly influenced by the moral and economic ideas of thinkers like Adam Smith (see my earlier post: Economics in Sense and Sensibility) and Persuasion is about the changing social structure of a commercial society, which means that being a person of consequence in the sense of social status, like Sir Walter, is becoming less important relative to people who have characters of consequence, like Anne. Austen is writing about the importance of bourgeois values.
The word “consequence” appears over thirty times, far more often than “persuasion”. Often it is used in the sense of causation. But it is also used ironically to reinforce moral and social difference between characters. When the Elliots choose to live in Bath it is because Bath is cheaper than London but still has a large number of important people forming a high society. “Sir Walter and Elizabeth were induced to believe that they should lose neither consequence nor enjoyment by settling there.” They cannot be persuaded to live there for serious, practical reasons — for matters of real consequence — but on the issue of status. It is a moral failing, especially at a time of war, for Sir Walter to be so louche with money all for the sake of being fashionable.
This ironic usage continues as Mr Shepherd tries to persuade Sir Walter to rent Kellynch Hall to a navy officer. Sir Walter is scornful of the idea that a navy officer is a socially suitable tenant. Mr Shepherd persuades Sir Walter that, because he is so important, people will gossip about his decision to rent the hall, and the gossip will reach Admirals, who will want to rent it. “Consequence has its tax”, he tells Sir Walter.
This is a sharp irony. The Admirals are coming back because the Napoleonic Wars have paused. To fund the wars a tax had been levied on the wealthy. But the tax was not what led to Sir Walter’s financial problems: that was all Sir Walter’s extravagant spending, the result of his inflated ideas of his own consequence. Meanwhile, the Admirals, men of true consequence and importance, have been accruing wealth, and one of them will be living in Kellynch Hall instead of Sir Walter. Consequence has its tax indeed.
This point is reinforced when Admiral Croft, who rents the house, is shown to have knowledge of the market: he “knew what rent a ready-furnished house of that consequence might fetch.” Sir Walter, of course, has no idea.
It is signalled very early that Captain Wentworth ought to have been a good choice for Anne. “Captain Frederick Wentworth, his brother, who being made commander in consequence of the action off St Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come into Somersetshire, in the summer of 1806.” These are not the sort of consequences Sir Walter is able to comprehend, though. Nor Lady Russell. When Anne rejects him, “he left the country in consequence.” Persuadability is only half the point of this romance: the consequences of our actions, and what we think of as consequential, is more prominent in the novel’s messaging.
Austen also understood the nature of peer effects, that is the consequences of the friendships, marriages, and associations we make. Of Charles Musgrove, who married Anne’s insufferable sister Mary, Austen says:
Anne could believe, with Lady Russell, that a more equal match might have greatly improved him; and that a woman of real understanding might have given more consequence to his character, and more usefulness, rationality, and elegance to his habits and pursuits.
When Anne, Mary and Charles, the Musgrove sisters, and Captain Wentworth go on a walk, they end up at Winthrop, a house where the Musgroves have socially inferior relatives. Henrietta wants to turn back, influenced by Mary being snobby about their inferior family, but Louisa persuades her to visit. Shortly afterwards, Anne hears Louisa and Wentworth talk. Louisa tells him she persuaded Henrietta to visit.
I see that more than a mere dutiful morning visit to your aunt was in question; and woe betide him, and her too, when it comes to things of consequence, when they are placed in circumstances requiring fortitude and strength of mind, if she have not resolution enough to resist idle interference in such a trifle as this. Your sister is an amiable creature; but yours is the character of decision and firmness, I see.
How wrong he is! Louisa is a fool “when it comes to things of consequence”.
Wentworth was vain, expecting Anne would be able to marry a naval officer with no money or position. He must have known that proposing to Anne was against common sense, prudence, and accepted practice. We must remember always, Austen is a conservative. Wentworth’s naivety is seen in his admiration of Louisa, one of the silliest, most vain characters in the novel. Marilyn Butler says, “His personal philosophy approaches revolutionary optimism and individualism and he is impatient of, or barely recognises, those claims of a mentor which for him can be dismissed in the single word, ‘persuasion’.”
Wentworth must learn how the world works. As he says later on, after the famous letter,
“I had not considered that my excessive intimacy must have its danger of ill consequence in many ways; and that I had no right to be trying whether I could attach myself to either of the girls, at the risk of raising even an unpleasant report, were there no other ill effects. I had been grossly wrong, and must abide the consequences.”
Unlike Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, Wentworth is not so morally vacant as to ultimately let the consequences of his actions pass him by. He learns to see the world for what it is. He sees the importance of having a character of consequence, of having consequential social status, and of the consequences of his actions. Of course he could not have married Anne before he had money! Initially he thinks Anne was weak; by the end, he realises she was realistic. Anne is the only character who understands the equilibrium of social consequence, having a character of consequence, and the importance of considering the consequences of your actions.
Hence the opening. By focussing on vanity, petty titles, over-spending, all of the worst traits of Sir Walter, Austen is signalling genre. This is not a mere romance. This is an intellectual novel, almost a work of social science. Remember, there is no schmaltz in Austen. No weddings, no dramatic rain, no kisses with swelling orchestral music in the background. Austen is writing serious romances, informed by her social views.
The opening is a backdrop, to establish Wentworth’s arrogance against. The Baronetage might be silly and vain, but it is the way the world works. This is how we make sense of Anne’s journey. Marilyn Butler again:
The slow, static, at times rather laborious opening is indirectly all about her: its function is to establish her setting, first in an atmosphere of bankrupt family pride and cold formality at Kellynch Hall, and afterwards among the comfortable, unexacting Musgroves at Uppercross.
The book is, in so many ways, made of parallels and opposites. Wentworth is able to be persuaded; Mr Elliot is not. Anne and Louisa are opposites of each other: Louisa is wilful, selfish, disregarding of constraints; Anne has self-control, selflessness, and a cool head in a crisis. The book opens with the irresponsible baronet and ends with the domestic virtues of the naval wife. At the start, King Lear like, Lady Elliot is dead, and her prudent influence gone; at the end, Anne inherits her mother’s virtues and position, but in a new social circle. She is a person of consequence because she has left her aristocratic world, not despite it.
How to Read a Novel
This was based on the first salon in my series How to Read a Novel. The next salon is about Silas Marner on 4th October. Get the details here.
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