Social and Personal Order in 'Persuasion'

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‎"Jane Austen is always concerned with the order of things, and her last novel is her most radical ‎exploration of social and personal order".‎

Often regarded the most political of all her novels, Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1816) explores various aspects of ‎social and personal order within the context of Regency England. Through the use of character, in particular ‎character foil, and the development of Anne Elliot in her relationship with Captain Wentworth, Austen examines ‎the themes of class, gender relations and personal persuadability. Her critique of the complex tensions between ‎the aristocracy and meritocracy, changing gender relations and an ideal personal order are what lends the novel its ‎radical elements.‎ At the height of the British Empire and in the wake of naval victories at the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, ‎notions of meritocracy began to challenge the aristocratic social order of Regency England. The British Navy had ‎become regarded as the defender of British interests throughout the world, however in 1815 the British ‎government cut the navy budget and sailors who came back from their victory at Waterloo were unemployed. ‎Austen specifically examines the role of the navy within English society and addresses the injustice of their ‎treatment after their return from the victory at Waterloo. ‎ In Persuasion Austen criticizes the effeminate and profligate upper classes, and offers the navy as an alternative. ‎This criticism is established from the very beginning of the novel in the negative portrayal of the character Sir ‎Walter Elliot. By employing language of virtue to describe character vice in her description of his vanity, “…the Sir ‎Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion”, Austen creates ‎a subtle irony in her mockery of the aristocracy. The focalisation on the Baronetage and the obvious significance ‎of this inanimate object to Sir Walter further highlights the superficial absurdities of the ruling elite. ‎ Sir Walter’s character acts as both a representation of the existing aristocracy and a foil to characters from the navy ‎who are described in a primarily positive light (“charming manners”, “perfect gentleman”). His vanity to the point ‎of absurdity in prioritising appearances above substance is conveyed in his opinion of the navy: “The profession ‎has its utility, but…they are not fit to be seen”. This absurdity and his effeminate character contrasts the gallantry ‎of the naval officers which depicts them as the modern ideal of a “perfect gentleman”. Austen ends the novel with ‎the use of narrative intrusion to make a blatant statement on the social order in favour of the rising meritocracy ‎and value of the navy, “that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its ‎national importance”. ‎

Perhaps more ambiguous than her explorations of class order, Austen’s Persuasion also investigates gender ‎relations and the role of women in the 19th century social order. The role of women in relation to men can be ‎observed in the marriages between the Crofts and the Musgroves. Through the Musgroves’ marriage Austen ‎explores the traditional situation in which men and women have different and separate roles (“Mr Musgroves had ‎their game to guard…and the females were fully occupied in all the other common subjects”), whilst the Crofts ‎demonstrate a more equal relationship. By entering the male dominated spheres of commerce and naval life with ‎her husband, Mrs Croft represents a woman who has transcended the conventional female roles. The success of ‎her relationship with Admiral Croft as a result of this equality is symbolised in their unusual style of carriage driving ‎in which Mrs Croft will occasionally “give the reins a better direction herself” to steer the cart past danger. ‎ In contrast, Charles and Mary’s relationship is defined by their distinctly separate roles, which results in...
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