Monday, 30 January 2012

Austen, Persuasion: The Economic Background

Below are some notes drawn on a lecture by Sandie Byrne, ‘Pride and Prejudice in Persuasion’, given at an A Level Conference in London in 2005. I thought the lecture gave some useful suggestions on things to look out for in the novel, and follow up in further reading.

Text and Context

We should not try to read off early 19th century history from novels: they are fiction, not accurate history books.

But we should know about context – what was going on in the period. Texts cannot help being products of their times.


When Jane Austen was young, George III was on the throne. He was an obstinate moralist, and court protocol was rigidly observed: courtiers stood in his presence.

His heir the Prince ran a more relaxed household. Heirs provide a focus for dissent. Prince George, the Regent, initially allied himself with the Whigs. He was satirised as an ageing roué. We know from a letter that Austen hated the Prince Regent.

Class Structure

The upper rank of English society was the aristocracy, marked by land ownership. The ‘ton’ was the upper 10,000. To be in the ton you needed land, name and money. The higher rank was being infiltrated by arrivistes, who had land but not an ancient name.

A keyword is estate – this means both your land and property, and also your marital state.

The Estate of a man was evaluated by these questions: does he have an old name? Land (providing income from rents)? Money?

The Estate of a woman depends on her reputation. A woman’s market value depends on her marriageability.

Industrial Revolution

This brought important social changes. Rich capitalist industrialists, like mill owners and factory bosses, wanted to join higher social ranks. To bury your origins in trade, you need servants. Women servants are cheapest, so male servants are even more of a badge of gentility. Don’t be seen doing manual labour. Get some land. New lords acquired land to support their title.

The navy was a good place for a second son to rise. Unlike the army, you didn’t have to purchase your commission. You could be a midshipman at 13+. Captains could reasonably hope to become admirals. Any time you captured an enemy ship, you could make a lot of prize money [note Sir Walter's laboured joke on the word 'prize'].

An officer in a ship of the line could make a fortune. Sir Walter deplores this, since it allows the undeserving to rise to higher rank and prominence. Admiral Croft rebukes Wentworth for complaining about his first ship: Wentworth did not have much ‘interest’, i.e. family interests, patronage – he was lucky to get what he did.

So both the Industrial Revolution and the Armed forces provided some social mobility. There was old money and new money.

Jane Austen was not in the ‘ton’. She was in the gentry (knights baronet, clergy) – people who might have some land, but were not in the oldest, ‘best’ families. Two of her brothers were naval officers.

Characters in the Novel

New Money                             Old Names                  New Poverty

Crofts                                      Sir Walter E                The Elliotts (sliding downwards)

Wentworth                              Mr E

                                                Lady Russell

                                                Mrs Dalrymple

Lady Russell may be the best of the old names – she is good and well-meaning.

By contrast, Lady Dalrymple does not fulfil the responsibilities of her position.

The Musgroves are respectable – they are of the gentry class, but with no aspirations to higher gentry. They are approved by the narrative voice, but not quite high enough for an Austen heroine.

The Musgroves and Lady Russell are static: thy represent the way things used to be.

Mr Shepherd is also (probably) static.

Mrs Clay chooses another form of social mobility.

The novel’s values

Tradition rather than revolution

Austen is not demanding social revolution: rather, the novel supports traditional values such as responsibility and duty.

Real rather than fake

Anne stands for what is real and solid.

London was associated with sham and show.

Pretence, deceit and duplicity are strongly criticised in the novel.

Country and town represent old and new: in Kellynch Anne can walk about unchaperoned. This is much harder in Bath.

Sir Walter prides himself on his appearance – this shows he has done no work in his life. This is perhaps the most ‘revolutionary’ element of the novel, since it portrays aristocrats as languid and effete.

Sexual values

On the whole, during the Regency sexual conduct was loose, though it was more restrained in the middle ranks of society. Women preserved their good name; men went to prostitutes, servants (rarely, perhaps), or married women.

Work and Money

There is less fear of social mobility in Persuasion than there is in other Austen novels such as Mansfield Park. In Persuasion, mobility is a result of one’s own endeavours, the Protestant work ethic.  The novel does not echo contemporary criticism of money from trade, for example from India, where undesirable people are making fortunes.

Austen approves of money-making. Persuasion is moving towards the Victorian utilitarian idea of climbing the ladder. But it is allied to a solid morality, without pretension and deceit. Wentworth’s new money is acceptable, since it is a result of his willpower and the service of his country.

Theme of Persuasion

Persuasion means being rhetorically convinced, but also belief, judgment, as in ‘I am persuaded that ...’. In this latter sense, Mary, for example, is persuaded that she is ill and hard done by.

Instances of the other kind of persuasion: Wentworth doesn’t persuade Anne; Lady Russell persuades Anne; Mrs Smith persuades Anne; other people try to persuade Anne to persuade Mary to be more sensible.

So the novel is both about what your persuasions are, and how you go about persuading other people.