Friday, 3 February 2012

Austen, Persuasion: Moral Judgements

Following the previous post on the characters of Anne and Wentworth, here are a few thoughts on the moral appraisal going on in the novel. These are some of the attitudes, it seems to me, that we get through Austen's narrator. But her narrative voice is wonderfully sly and elusive at time, so feel free to disagree! It's important to rememebr, too, that all these judgments are dramatised, woven into the rhythms and emotional arcs of the story. Reduced to critical paraphrase, they always seem dry.

Persuasion and the depiction of human vices

(Page references are to Oxford World Classics edition.)

The literary form known as the novel is, among other things, an instrument for the moral analysis of people in society. This is especially the case with the novels of Jane Austen, in which the narrating voice always comes over as that of a shrewd, reasonable observer of human affairs. Even when the narration is generally sympathetic to the heroine – as it evidently is in Persuasion – there is still some detachment. To give a cool and balanced judgment, the third-person narrator needs to be at some distance from the stage on which the events take place.

Austen is in the classical eighteenth-century tradition of the rational narrator, concerned for the cohesion of society through traditional values and customs. Persuasion shows some new tendencies in England – the new class of rich naval officers, new style of marriage illustrated by the Crofts, impulsive and romantic young people – being absorbed into the social fabric without revolutionary upheaval. Writing at a time of social and political turmoil in Europe, Austen is finally a conservative novelist, concerned to preserve traditional family and social structures by reforming, Rather than overturning, what is decadent and corrupt.

In Persuasion, Austen portrays a variety of human qualities and follies, virtues and vices. She does so with a variety of novelistic techniques. Here are some examples:


The opening of the novel makes clear Sir Walter’s appalling vanity over his pedigree and his looks. Just in case we miss this, we are told about it explicitly:

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. (10)

This trait is comically emphasised throughout, making him virtually a caricature of this vice alone.  But Sir Walter’s vanity (and Elizabeth’s) is not only there to be laughed at. Austen is also interested in the consequences of this defect. It blinds him to reality: he does not realize how far he has fallen, and he deludes himself that he is a person of great distinction in Bath. Sir Walter’s self-importance also makes him irresponsible, not living up to the conduct required by his place in society.

Here were funds of enjoyment! Could Anne wonder that her father and sister were happy? She might not wonder, but she must sigh that her father should feel no degradation in his change; should see nothing to regret in the duties and dignity of the resident land-holder; should find so much to be vain of in the littleness of a town … (112)

So ludicrous is his self-adoration that he passes judgment on the bad looks of everyone he meets, and is easily persuaded that the admiring looks of the women when he passes by with Colonel Wallis are intended for him (115). Both he and Elizabeth are easily flattered (indeed, it is often the only way to communicate with them, as Mr Shepherd discovers) and fail to see the designs of Mrs Clay. Vanity has clouded their moral judgment and prevents them from behaving rationally, in a manner useful to society.

Austen probably does not mean us to see Sir Walter as typical of his class. The novel does not lead us to think all such landholders are dreadful snobs who should be overthrown. Rather, the message seems to be that the privileges of an inherited name and estate carry with them certain duties – among them, to mange money prudently and to be a responsible landlord. As Lady Russell puts it:

We must be serious and decided – for, after all, the person who has contracted debts must pay them; and though a great deal is due to the feelings of the gentleman, and the head of a house, like your father, there is still more due to the character of an honest man. (16)

(Note that gentleman is here used to describe Sir Walter’s social position.) The message is that honesty and dignity are the true signs of nobility of character, not an entry in Burke’s Peerage. Sir Walter is an irresponsible landlord (the misery this might have caused his tenants is kept offstage) and does not behave in the manner his position in society dictates. It is not that his class as a whole is corrupt: it is that Sir Walter has betrayed the trust and failed to meet the expectations which come with membership of that class.


In a society where manners and customs are highly prized, there is an evident danger that some people will use a pleasing external manner to cloak their real intentions. Central to Austen’s world is the distinction between the social exterior – the ‘mask’ we put on in company – and interior thoughts and feelings. The two characters who use social manners to disguise immoral intentions to deceive and manipulate are Mrs Clay and Mr Elliot.

Mrs Clay

Anne sees through Mrs Clay very quickly:

Mrs. Clay had freckles, and a projecting tooth, and a clumsy wrist, which he [Sir Walter] was continually making severe remarks upon, in her absence; but she was young, and certainly altogether well-looking, and possessed, in an acute mind and assiduous pleasing manners, infinitely more dangerous attractions than any merely personal might have been. (33)

(Note that personal means ‘physical’ here.)

Anne fears that Mrs Clay is scheming to lure Sir Walter into a second marriage with her. This would be an indignity too far (note that Anne herself has a sense of what is proper to her class), and Sir Walter’s lack of self-knowledge leaves him vulnerable to such a plan.

Mr Elliot

There is a possible warning that Mr Elliot is not all he seems on his very first appearance at Lyme:

It was evident that the gentleman, (completely a gentleman in manner) admired her exceedingly. (87)

The parenthetical comment, with the telling phrase in manner, hints that he may not be a gentleman in character.

Anne later suspects that Mr Elliot is hiding something behind his smooth manner. Her suspicions of his nature are reported on p.130-31:

There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others …

…Mr. Elliot was too generally agreeable. Various as were the tempers in her father’s house, he pleased them all. He endured too well, - stood too well with everybody. (131)

From this point Mr Elliot is no real temptation to Anne, taking a potential tension away from the novel (ie will she make the right choice, the good man or the cad?). Later, the vices of misleading others are called by their name, in the conversation with Mrs Smith:

‘Yes,’ said Anne, ‘you tell me nothing which does not accord with what I have known, or could imagine. There is always something offensive in the details of cunning. The manoeuvres of selfishness and duplicity must ever be revolting, but I have heard nothing which really surprises me. (167)

Here the sins are usefully listed: cunning, selfishness, duplicity. They contrast with the openness and straightforwardness which Anne prizes, and make Mr Elliot the opposite of the emotional Captain Wentworth.


Sometimes praise itself can carry an undertone of criticism. In the passage describing the Musgroves (37-38), we have this description of Henrietta and Louisa

… who had brought from a school at Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments, and were now, like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy, and merry. Their dress had every advantage, their faces were rather pretty, their spirits extremely good, their manners unembarrassed and pleasant; they were of consequence at home, and favourites abroad. Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance …

Airheads, in other words. Anne can’t avoid the realization that her mind is superior:

But still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments;

Yet she does acknowledge that they have a much better relation with each other than she does with her silly snobbish sisters:

And envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.

This passage is a good example of rational judgement in action: first praise, then implied criticism, then balancing praise. This is balanced judgment, setting one thing against each other. It is reflected in the shape of the sentences: the rhythm is even and unhurried, slowing down towards the end. This evokes a calm and scrupulously attentive mind. The vocabulary is full of abstract words denoting personal qualities: fashionable, happy, merry, pretty, good (spirits), unembarrassed, pleasant, of consequence; elegant, cultivated (mind). These are the kinds of terms by which characters in Austen are analysed. Which of them perhaps have negative connotations?

Selfishness, Self-Pity

Anne’s sister Mary is an epitome of selfishness and self-pity, though this seems to be foolish rather than malicious. We get a clear account of her character failings in Chapter 5:

Though better endowed than the elder sister, Mary had not Anne’s understanding or temper. While well, and happy, and properly attended to, she had great good humour and excellent spirits; but any indisposition sunk her completely; she had no resources for solitude; and inheriting a considerable share of the Elliot self-importance, was very prone to add to every other distress that of fancying herself neglected and ill-used. (35)

Note the praise then criticism shape of the writing again. Mary’s self-pity is then shown in her first speech:

 ‘So, you are come at last! I began to think I should never see you. I am so ill I can hardly speak. I have not seen a creature the whole morning!’ (35)

Of course she gets better very rapidly (37). Mary’s pathetic lack of resourcefulness when alone, and whingeing self-pity, makes her the contrast to Mrs Smith, who has borne her troubles alone with great fortitude.

Charles is felt not to have made a very good match to Mary, who has prevented him from developing as he might have done (40). Later, there is a set-piece scene in which both she and Charles justify leaving their injured child behind so they can go to dinner at Uppercross (Chapter 7, pages 49-51). This is a marvellous example of showing, not telling. Mary’s letter to Anne (vol 2, chapter 3, pages 132-33) continues the tone.


Sir Walter of course is a terrible snob, and this vice is inherited by Elizabeth and Mary, but not by Anne. Mary insists that as an Elliot she should have pride of place at the table at Uppercross (41); the rank-obsessed Musgrove girls complain about this. She also feels very superior to the Hayters (their social position is described in Chapter 9, 63-64; see also Charles’s speech about them on 65):

She looked down very decidedly upon the Hayters, and thought it would be quite a misfortune to have the existing connection between the families renewed – very sad for herself and her children. (65)

When the young people go for a walk (Chapter 10) and chance to arrive at Winthrop, the Hayters’ house, Mary does not want to visit. Her snobbery earns the contempt of Captain Wentworth, as Anne observes:

            ‘It is very unpleasant, having such connexions! But I assure you, I have never been in the house above twice in my life.’

            She received no other answer, than an artificial, assenting smile, followed by a contemptuous glance, as he turned away, which Anne perfectly knew the meaning of. (73)


Cant, in the sense of insincere feeling, earns particular scorn. One cannot help sensing Austen’s own impatience with pretension and sentimentality. This leads to a passage which can still seem quite shocking, in which Mrs Musgrove’s laments are described as ‘her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.’ (Chapter 8, p.59). This is followed by a paragraph saying that bulky blubbers just do look ridiculous, however unfair that is:

But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain, - which taste cannot tolerate, - which ridicule will seize.

Romantic Imagination

Anne is not exempt from Austen’s critical eye. In any case, heroes and heroines who never make mistakes are unbelievable, and those who are constantly good can be dull. However, when Anne is being held up to gentle laughter, we obviously cannot see it from her point of view, which is the main one in the novel. The moments when she is less than perfect are easy to miss.

If there is a flaw in Anne, it is that on occasions she lets her dramatic, romantic side get the better of her reason. When she is told that Wentworth finds her ‘altered beyond his knowledge’ (Chapter 7), she seems to be acting out a part of almost insane virtue. It is not very convincing:

‘So altered that he should not have known her again!’ These were words which could not but dwell with her. Yet she soon began to rejoice that she had heard them. They were of sobering tendency; they allayed agitation; they composed, and consequently must make her happier. (54)

The short sentences suggest her own violent emotions. Rejoice is wildly over the top, and the list of assertions and conclusion that the words must make her happier suggest that this is a record of her inner thoughts – that is, it does not necessarily mean she did rejoice etc., but that this is what she told herself to try to make herself think this way. Austen’s analysis of character recognises that much of the time we are internally acting out parts, and trying to persuade or console ourselves.

Towards the end of the novel, when Anne has realized she still loves Wentworth and certainly does not love Mr Elliot, we get another description of her thoughts, in which she seems to be imagining herself as a heroine in a romantic novel:

How she might have felt, had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case, was not worth enquiry; for there was a Captain Wentworth in the case: and be the conclusion of the present suspense good or bad, her affection would be his for ever. Their union, she believed, could not divide her more from other men, than their final separation. (vol 2, Chapter 9, p.155).

The subjunctive (be the conclusion) and the extravagant her affection would be his for ever here mark this as corny elevated style. The novelist / narrator comments wryly on Anne’s little private performance:

Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate-buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way. (155)

            A final imaginative flurry comes in the conversation with Mrs Smith (vol 2, chapter 5), when Anne fantasises about the heroic scenes in sick rooms which nurse Rooke must be privileged to witness:

What instances must pass before them of ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, of heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation – of all the conflicts and all the sacrifices that ennoble us most. A sick chamber may often furnish the worth of volumes. (126)

Yes, well. We are surely meant to agree with Mrs Smith’s dry reply:

            ‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Smith more doubtingly, ‘sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe . Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial, but generally speaking it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber; it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of. (127)

It is impossible to read this without remembering that Jane Austen herself knew about sick rooms and was seriously ill when she was writing this novel.  But aside from biography, this exchange reminds us that Austen is a realist in the sense of wanting to portray and examine people as they really are, and not falsify them by sentimentality or melodrama (though arguably she does this with the description of Mr Elliot as a device for tying up the plot).