- A Class Act: Persuasion and the Lingering Death of the Aristocracy
Few authors have suffered as much at the hands of contemporary critics as has Jane Austen. She was just not made for a world of deconstruction, new historicism, and race/class/gender criticism. She is subtle where contemporary critics are heavy-handed; she uses a tuning-fork where they swing away with sledgehammers. Many critics simply charge her with being blind to the important economic, social, and political developments of her day. As Raymond Williams writes: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen chose to ignore the decisive historical events of her time. Where, it is still asked, are the Napoleonic wars: the real current of history?” 1 Some critics, including Williams himself, are willing to acknowledge that Austen was in fact aware of historical developments in Regency England. But then they argue that she took the wrong attitude toward those developments, a reactionary rather than a progressive stance. Perhaps the most notorious of recent treatments of Austen is Edward Said’s essay, “Jane Austen and Empire,” an examination of Mansfield Park that seizes upon Sir Thomas Bertram’s Caribbean plantation as the occasion for berating Austen for not doing anything to stop the slave trade. Said’s essay is typical of much contemporary criticism—he is more concerned with what Austen did not write about than what she did. Said is careful not to [End Page 127] overstate his case against Austen: “I am not saying that the major factor in early European culture was that it caused late-nineteenth-century imperialism.” But almost immediately Said goes on to write of the ideas of Austen and other English authors:
They do not prevent or inhibit or give resistance to horrendously unattractive imperialist practices. No, cultural forms like the novel or the opera do not cause people to go out and imperialize . . . but it is genuinely troubling to see how little Britain’s great humanistic ideas, institutions, and monuments, which we still celebrate as having the power ahistorically to command our approval, how little they stand in the way of the accelerating imperial process. 2
Evidently critics have been missing the point for years: they thought Jane Austen was just trying to write good novels, whereas Said now informs us that she should have been hurling herself in front of the British imperial juggernaut.
I want to offer a defense of Jane Austen on two grounds: first, that she was in fact more acute in her understanding of social and political questions than contemporary critics give her credit for, perhaps more acute than they themselves; second, that the ways in which she differs from contemporary critics have something to do with the fact that she was after all a novelist and not a political theorist. For these purposes, I have chosen to discuss Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel. Persuasion contains one of the few explicit references in Austen’s novels to the Napoleonic wars she is so often charged with neglecting. One of the main characters, Admiral Croft, is said to have participated “in the Trafalgar action,” the great British naval victory over the French. 3 This reference may appear to be incidental and isolated, but in fact the Napoleonic wars are almost as essential to Persuasion as they are to War and Peace. Persuasion is of course a love story, and focuses on the efforts of Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth to be reunited after a separation of eight years. But the love story takes place in the context of very specific social and economic circumstances, and those circumstances are profoundly affected by the outcome of the Napoleonic wars. Anne’s father, the baronet Sir Walter Elliot, is a member of the landed gentry and the petty aristocracy in England. 4 Having lived for years beyond his economic means, he is finally forced to vacate and rent out his ancestral estate, Kellynch-hall, in order just to make ends meet. After some hesitation, Sir Walter ends up renting his estate to Admiral Croft. [End Page 128]
The economic story that provides the background to the love story in Persuasion thus...