Study Guide

Persuasion Society and Class

By Jane Austen

Society and Class

Instead of pushing his fortune in the line marked out for the heir of the house of Elliot, he [Mr. Elliot] had purchased independence by uniting himself to a rich woman of inferior birth. (1.16)

It's interesting that Mr. Elliot's marriage is here described as independence...independence from what? And it's interesting too that his marriage is also described as a "purchase," even though it's his new wife who is bringing the money – what benefits might she be getting from this transaction?

[Sir Walter Elliot speaks] "Yes; it [the naval profession] is [...] offensive to me; I have [...] strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of [...]. I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, [...] than in any other line. One day last spring, in town, I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of; Lord St Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St Ives[.]" (3.16)

Sir Walter has great difficulty separating an individual from his or her family – in his eyes, whatever the father is, the son is too. And not only that, he also feels personally insulted when someone who started out below him ends up above – it seems like he feels his position is in itself superior because he didn't do have to do any work to achieve it.

[Mrs. Clay speaks] "In fact, as I have long been convinced, though every profession is necessary and honourable in its turn, it is only the lot of those who are not obliged to follow any, who can live in a regular way, in the country, choosing their own hours, following their own pursuits, and living on their own property, without the torment of trying for more; it is only their lot, I say, to hold the blessings of health and a good appearance to the utmost: I know no other set of men but what lose something of their personableness when they cease to be quite young." (3.17)

Mrs. Clay, not being of the aristocracy herself, can see what the aristocrats' privilege blinds them to – that even good health and beauty are a function of being born into wealth and leisure.

Captain Harville, though not equalling Captain Wentworth in manners, was a perfect gentleman, unaffected, warm, and obliging. Mrs Harville, a degree less polished than her husband, seemed, however, to have the same good feelings; and nothing could be more pleasant than their desire of considering the whole party as friends of their own, because the friends of Captain Wentworth, or more kindly hospitable than their entreaties for their all promising to dine with them. (11.15)

The novel never tells us anything about Captain Harville's class background, so we judge him only on his personal merits. Although we do first meet him as a close friend of Captain Wentworth – how do friendly connections compare to family connections in how a character is judged in the novel? Also, it's interesting that, even as the novel is suggesting that class background is less important to who a person is than their individual merit, it does so using terms loaded with class significance, like "a perfect gentleman."

Anne had never seen her father and sister before in contact with nobility, and she must acknowledge herself disappointed. She had hoped better things from their high ideas of their own situation in life, and was reduced to form a wish which she had never foreseen; a wish that they had more pride; for "our cousins Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret;" "our cousins, the Dalrymples," sounded in her ears all day long. (16.11)

Pride is a funny thing – on the one hand it makes Sir Walter and Elizabeth full of their own importance, but the second anyone turns up who's more important than they are, they're knocking each other over to see who can bow first and lowest. It seems like they're so invested in the system of rank that it conquers even their own vanity...although they're also indulging their vanity by showing off their high-class connections.

Anne was ashamed. Had Lady Dalrymple and her daughter even been very agreeable, she would still have been ashamed of the agitation they created, but they were nothing. There was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding. Lady Dalrymple had acquired the name of "a charming woman," because she had a smile and a civil answer for everybody. Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth.

Lady Russell confessed she had expected something better; but yet "it was an acquaintance worth having;" and when Anne ventured to speak her opinion of them to Mr Elliot, he agreed to their being nothing in themselves, but still maintained that, as a family connexion, as good company, as those who would collect good company around them, they had their value. (16.14-15)

Whoa – Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret might be boring party guests, but "they were nothing?" That's really harsh. There seems to be a connection here between a person's value as a friend, and their value, full stop – and it's happening on both sides, both for those who prefer personal superiority, and those who think rank conquers all. At this moment those two viewpoints seem like flip sides of the same coin rather than truly opposite.

[Mr. Elliot speaks] "Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company; on the contrary, it will do very well. My cousin Anne shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious. My dear cousin" (sitting down by her), "you have a better right to be fastidious than almost any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of those good ladies in Laura Place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible? You may depend upon it, that they will move in the first set in Bath this winter, and as rank is rank, your being known to be related to them will have its use in fixing your family (our family let me say) in that degree of consideration which we must all wish for." (16.17)

Mr. Elliot's words illustrate that class isn't just a matter of some people feeling like they're better than others, but that it's a whole system that one individual can't do much to change. If Anne wants the benefits of that system, she has to play by its rules.

"Westgate Buildings!" said he, "and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith; and who was her husband? One of five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are to be met with everywhere. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you. But surely you may put off this old lady till to-morrow: she is not so near her end, I presume, but that she may hope to see another day." (17.14)

You may have heard of the "halo effect" in psychology – that people have a tendency to think that a beautiful person is also smart, funny, nice, etc. Sir Walter operates on the same principle, only with class – a lower-class person must also live in squalor and be not worth visiting, just as an upper-class person (as we just saw in the passage about Lady Dalrymple) automatically is good company.

Captain Wentworth, with five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him, was no longer nobody. He was now esteemed quite worthy to address the daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet, who had not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him, and who could give his daughter at present but a small part of the share of ten thousand pounds which must be hers hereafter. (24.1)

Ah, money, that great leveler – even though the Elliots may privately continue to complain about new wealth acquired by those of low birth, that wealth still has social power. And the use of the passive voice here suggests that general public opinion is not quite so picky on these matters as Sir Walter.

Of all the family, Mary was probably the one most immediately gratified by the circumstance. It was creditable to have a sister married, and she might flatter herself with having been greatly instrumental to the connexion, by keeping Anne with her in the autumn; and as her own sister must be better than her husband's sisters, it was very agreeable that Captain Wentworth should be a richer man than either Captain Benwick or Charles Hayter. She had something to suffer, perhaps, when they came into contact again, in seeing Anne restored to the rights of seniority, and the mistress of a very pretty landaulette; but she had a future to look forward to, of powerful consolation. Anne had no Uppercross Hall before her, no landed estate, no headship of a family; and if they could but keep Captain Wentworth from being made a baronet, she would not change situations with Anne. (24.5)

Mary's view of class – where it's not only about how your relations compare to other people, but also about how you compare to your relations – requires a balancing act. She wants Anne to do well so that Mary is pulled up by her success, but not so well that Mary looks bad by comparison.