Feminism, Marriage, and Social Mobility in Persuasion
Jane Austen's Persuasion has everything I love about 19th-century British novels:
- An analytical woman
- A brooding man
- A love story
- Feminist undertones
- Social class dynamics
Anne Elliot is the deep-thinking woman, and she acts as third-person narrator. She is 27 years old--older than Austen's other heroines. Her maturity contributes to the way she interacts with and reacts to the novel's other characters.
Throughout the novel, Anne has to deal with all sorts of dramas, both small and large. For example:
- Selfish and irresponsible family members
- Her father, Sir Walter
- Her older sister, Elizabeth
- Her younger married sister, Mary
- Her cousin, Mr. Elliot
- The craziness of a large family, courtesy of Mary's in-laws--the Musgroves
- Interfering neighbors and family friends
- Lady Russell
- Mrs. Clay, a companion to Elizabeth
- A resentful ex-fiance, Captain Frederick Wentworth of the Royal Navy (the brooding man)
Short(ish) synopsis with no spoilers
In case you've never read the book or watched the film, here's the spoiler-free premise:
About eight years before the novel begins, Anne and Captain Wentworth got engaged. But he was just starting out in his career and was quite poor.
Anne's family did not approve of the match, and neither did her friend and mentor, Lady Russell. After a time, Lady Russell persuaded Anne to break off the engagement. Captain Wentworth was soon after deployed to fight in the Napoleonic wars.
As the novel begins, the Elliot family has to rent out their grand estate, Kellynch Hall. This is because of Sir Walter's and Elizabeth's irresponsible spending. The two move to a townhouse in a fashionable part of Bath. Meanwhile, Anne stays a while with her sister Mary's family.
By an odd turn of events, Admiral Croft and his wife Sophie--who happens to be Captain Wentworth's sister (gasp!)--rent Kellynch Hall. As a result, Captain Wentworth and Anne end up spending a lot of time in the same social circles.
He's aloof to her almost all the time, no doubt because of her previous rejection of him. So Anne over-analyzes everything Captain Wentworth says or does.
As for the love story, Anne struggles to figure out whether Captain Wentworth still cares for her at all. She also wonders if there's anything she can do to make him care for her again.
Anne as a feminist
One of my favorite parts of the novel is toward the end. Anne is having a discussion with Captain Harville, a friend of Captain Wentworth's. They're arguing about whether men or women are more prone to strong romantic attachments.
Harville points out that all written works agree on women's fickleness. Then Anne retorts that men have the advantage of more education. She reasons that's why men have written much more than women have on that subject--or on any subject, for that matter.
I'd like to believe that Jane Austen felt the same way. She had little formal education herself. Still, her family encouraged her to be a writer.
Even now, society holds women to a double-standard in "romantic" relationships. Although women have more access to formal education, we haven't caught up with men in telling our own stories.
Marriage and social mobility
Anne's and Captain Wentworth's is not the only love story in the novel. Each of the other romances sheds light on the views of marriage at the time--especially of social class and romantic attachments.
For example, there's the now-widowed Mr. Elliott's scandalous marriage to a low-class girl with a fortune. And of course, Mary's marriage to Charles Musgrove. Then there are the marriages of the Musgrove sisters--one to a naval officer and one to a curate.
The best marriage is that of Admiral and Mrs. Croft, whose habits defy the social customs of the time.
In Persuasion, Austen portrays the Royal Navy as an opportunity for upward mobility for men who would have been "unworthy."
And Anne's brother-in-law, Charles Musgrove, proclaims at one point that his wife, Mary, doesn't understand the value of property. Instead, she believes men with large fortunes are more worthwhile suitors for her sisters-in-law.
The engagements and marriages show the shifting attitudes toward social mobility during the time Austen wrote Persuasion.
The novel as a whole
Anne Elliot is a perceptive and witty narrator. Her observations on social customs and the superficiality of the upper class are satirical and amusing.
I enjoy this Austen novel in particular because it's more introspective than earlier works. As an "older" woman myself, I feel like I relate to Anne better than some of Austen's other protagonists.
And Persuasion is the last novel Austen wrote. In fact, she died before its publication, in 1817. Her brother, Henry Austen, had the book published posthumously. Maybe Austen herself was more reflective at the end of her life than in earlier years.