In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a central theme of her novel involves how the system of social class determines whether a loving couple can marry. Persuasion focuses on Anne’s struggle to marry Captain Wentworth after rejecting him eight years ago. The conflict of the novel stems from the event where Lady Russell persuades Anne to turn down Wentworth because Wentworth’s social status is beneath that of Anne’s. Wentworth acknowledged Anne’s choice and continued on with his career as a captain in the navy, which resulted in Wentworth becoming wealthy. By the end of the novel, Anne and Wentworth are together yet no one objects to their relationship, making it possible for Anne and Wentworth to marry without any obstacless.
The reason behind this phenomenon is wealth, the accumulation of wealth breaks the connection between marriage and social class all the while creating a new connection between romance and marriage. Austen conveys the connection of romance and marriage by including couples such as Louisa and Captain Benwick, Mary married to Charles and Anne together with Wentworth. Louisa and Benwick are together because theyshowfection for one another, their relationship was not a result of an arrangement between two families. Louisa and Benwick are from different social classes, Louisa Musgrove is a member of the Musgrove family who has higher in social status compared to Benwick. Prior to Louisa and Benwick falling in love with one another, Louisa acts childish and is first interested in Wentworth. Benwick, on the other hand, is devasted that the women he loved passed away while he was away in the navy. Austen utilities Louisa’s injury as a way for Benwick and Louisa to fall in love through circumstance, they decide to marry out of love and do not consider the possible consequences that can emerge as a result of them not being part of the same social class.
One would expect Mr. Musgrove and the rest of the family to denounce Benwick and persuade Louisa to reject Benwick’s proposal by using the same rhetoric Lady Russell utilized on Anne. However, Benwick and Louisa’s relationship is an exception to this rule. According, to the letter Mary sent to Anne in chapter 13, Mary delivers the news by writing “We are all very well pleased, however; for though it is not equal to her marrying Captain Wentworth, it is infinitely better than Charles Hayter; and Mr. Musgrove has written his consent, and Captain Benwick is expected to-day”. (Austen 116) Though Austen does not explicitly include the reason why Mr. Musgrove and everybody else supports the marriage, a probable scenario is that the Musgrove family are aware of Benwick’s wealth. The Musgroves knew that another family (the Harvilles) also gave consent to marry their daughter to Benwick after accumulating wealth in the navy. Mary includes that the family would have preferred if Louisa married Wentworth but are glad that Louisa did not end up with someone like Charles Hayter. The Musgroves praise individuals such as Wentworth who is has acquired wealth in navy just as Benwick. On the other hand, Charles Hayter is on equal footing in social status with the Musgroves.
That is because Mr. Musgrove and by extension people now value wealth and love over social class. The marriage between Louisa and Benwick was made possible by wealth, these characters were able to form a romantic relationship and be socially accepted by their peers. Austen introduces a marriage where the characters did not fall in love with each other, rather the pressure of obtaining a higher class status motivates characters to marry someone they are not in love with. The relationship between Mary Elliot and Charles Musgroves illustrates the fallout that results from a marriage that is founded on social class and not romance. Throughout the novel, Mary and Charles are rarely showing affection for one another. Charles prefers to be alone and hunt while Mary isolates herself in the Musgrove estate. An abstract of Charles and Mary’s marriage is best described in chapter one, where the narrator of the novel describes the qualities of the Elliot sisters. Regarding Mary’s marriage, the Austen writes “All equality of alliance must rest with Elizabeth; for Mary had merely connected herself with an old country family of respectability and large fortune, and had therefore given all the honour, and received none: Elizabeth would, one day or other, marry suitably”. (Austen 5)
According to the narrator, Mary failed to gain anything from her marriage. The narrator hopes her other sister Elizabeth will do a better job at finding a proper suitor. The irony in this marriage is that Mary and Charles followed society’s convention of marrying to someone of equal or greater social class, yet the narrator makes it apparent that the marriage is worthless and beyond repair. The narrator in the passage has a strong dislike towards Mary, it is imperative to note that the narration Austen uses in Persuasion follows the thoughts of the characters. Most of the novel follows the thoughts of Anne but there are parts where Austen subtly changes perspective. On page five, Austen introduces Lady Russell and her connection with the Elliots. Before the narrator discusses the upset of Mary’s marriage, Austen notes “ Lady Russell loved them all; but it was only in Anne that she could fancy the mother to revive again”. (Austen 5)
Austen narration is not as reliable as one would believe when reading about the descriptions of Anne, Elizabeth, and Mary in this passage. Austen adopted Lady Russell’s persona into this passage to present what other characters thought of the Elliot sisters. Since this bias in narration is present at the beginning of the novel and later transfers to Anne as the main contributor of narration, there is a possibility that the descriptions given to Mary are false or exaggerated. The bias in narration implemented by Austen is similar to that of Miguel Cervantes’ narration in Don Quixote. There are moments of Don Quixote where Cervantes narrates the thoughts of characters from a third-person perspective like in Austen’s Persuasion, characters have a bias toward certain events. For example, Anne first seeing Wentworth after eight years and Don Quixote mistaking a herd of sheep for an army. The narration in these scenes follow the character’s emotions at the moment, however, the difference between the two authors use of narration is that Cervantes includes dialogue to interrupt the bias. When Don Quixote believed the herd of sheep was an army, his squire Sancho Panza stepped in and warned Don Quixote of what is actually happening (Cervantes).
In other moments of Don Quixote, Cervantes breaks Sancho’s narration by having Don Quixote act as an interruption. Austen does not follow the same structure as Cervantes, instead, Austen follows an almost uninterrupted narration following Anne. As previously stated, Anne is the main focus in Persuasion, her feelings play an important role in the narration. Critics and scholars such as Julia Kavanagh insists that Anne acknowledges herself trapped by her own emotions. Anne’s emotions cause her to become “condemned to suffer thus because she is a woman and must not speak-”. (Kavanagh)
Kavanagh’s interpretation relates to the concept that Austen’s narration is mainly placed on Anne’s thoughts. Anne lacks the confidence and social grace to approach Wentworth, Anne worries if Wentworth thinks of her and whether he is still in love with her. Fortunately, as soon as Wentworth arrives from the navy, everyone admires him even though he was not born to a high social class. Whether or not Wentworth returned with wealth, Anne was still in love with him but Wentworth does not express the same affection for Anne. Interpreters such as Butler noted Wentworth’s love for Anne over the course of the novel. Butler exclaims that Wentworth felt betrayed Anne, the women he loved had no faith in his career and was easily persuaded to leave him for a better suitor. By the end of the novel, Butler explains that accepts “that Anne’s submission to Lady Russel was neither a symptom of weakness, nor cold-hearted prudence, but a further sign of principle and fortitude”. (Butler)
Similar to Butler’s statement that Wentworth realizes Anne did the correct choice in rejecting him, Wentworth might have reflected his proposal to Anne eight years ago as rushed and unreasonable. Wentworth upon further contemplation noticed that Anne could not have possibly placed her faith onto him when he could not financially support her. Thus Wentworth had to retract his grudges against Anne and accept that he is still in love with her after being rejected eight years ago. Critics would argue that wealth may be important in other relationships of the novel but wealth is irrelevant in the coupling of Anne and Wentworth, Anne was still in love with Wentworth and wealth would not have changed her mind. Though it is likely Anne would still be love with Wentworth since she was also in love with him prior to the beginning of the novel, wealth cannot be written off as irreverent in their relationship. As Ann W. Astell writes in her passage concerning Anne’s development of romance in Persuasion. Astell states “ In the end, Anne’s happiness depends less on Wentworth’s loving her than on her loving him, freely, unconditionally, and eternally”. (Astell)
Anne learns to decide on her own accord and realizes that her feelings towards Wentworth are a reflection of herself trying to escape the convention of society. Anne is metaphorically trapped in a social bubble of marriage, she can only marry someone like Mr. Elliot or once thought Charles Musgrove. However, Anne and Wentworth are able to escape the pressures of society and be happily married because Wentworth has proven demonstrated to everyone else that he worthy support Anne with the wealth he had earned in the navy. The concept of social class and marriage intervening with one another was the norm during the 1800’s, as Austen illustrates in Persuasion individuals in the social class pressure others to marry out of status rather than love. Yet, marriages founded out of status result in unhappy marriages, to change this dynamic, Austen implies wealth as the driving force that breaks the conventions of society and granting couples to marry out of love. Austen displays a new convention where people such as Anne and Wentworth can marry for the feelings they have one another and disregard their social status, ensuring them a happy marriage.
- Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, Norton & Company, 2013.
- Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote. Translated by Tom Lathrop, Penguin, 2011.
- Julia Kavanagh, English Women of Letters (1862); 251 -74.
- Marilyn, Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 275-84.
- Ann W. Astell, “Anne Elliot’s Education: The Learning of Romance in Persuasion, “ Renascence 40 (1987): 2-14.