By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen’s Persuasion is often described in terms of its differences from her previous works. It’s gained a reputation not only as Austen’s most mature novel but also as a departure in tone and setting. It’s darker and more melancholic. Its pace is slower. As for its setting, it’s hyper-specific, historically accurate, and globally momentous.
Introduction to Sir Walter Elliot
Persuasion includes Austen’s signature love story and requisite happy ending, along with trenchant social criticism, delicious irony, and comic minor characters. But the novel begins with a man and his disappearing domestic wealth. That man is Sir Walter , the father of the heroine Anne Elliot.
He’s introduced as a vain spendthrift widower, with this line: “Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage.”
The narrator’s descriptions absolutely eviscerate him for his love of status, telegraphed by his love for a single book. His love isn’t even for the book as a whole but for just one page of it—the only page that mentions his own name.
Love for books is usually an admirable quality, but we can see that Sir Walter is no bibliophile. He opens this book the way someone might obsessively look in a mirror. He only wants to see the page that describes him as a fellow baronet in the Baronetage. We’re told that he “read[s] his own history with an interest which never failed”.
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‘Elliot of Kellynch Hall’
Sir Walter’s favorite book is a who’s who of Britain’s titled families. It’s a bit like a membership directory, an address book, or a national family tree. It describes heritage and lineage, but it’s a public rather than a private book. It’s a list of who ascended to which title and property, who inherited it next, and who married whom, as well as births and deaths.
The page at which Sir Walter’s copy of the Baronetage always opened was the one that said, “ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL. Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth”. The page goes on to indicate that Sir Walter’s wife Elizabeth died in 1800, after giving birth to their four children. The eldest child was a daughter, Elizabeth, like her mother. Next was a daughter Anne, followed by a stillborn son. The last child was another daughter, Mary.
The stillborn son is a telling and sad detail. It reveals that Sir Walter had, and lost, a male heir. This would have been the child who inherited his property. The Baronetage records that Sir Walter also lost his wife and was left with three daughters. When the novel opens, he hasn’t remarried. After his death, unless he has a son in old age, his property will go to an Elliot cousin, William Walter Elliot, Esquire.
The youngest Elliot daughter, Mary, has recently married, a detail that Sir Walter has added into his own book with a pen, listing her name as Mary Musgrove. In some families, this sort of detail would have been written into the family’s copy of the Bible. It’s telling that for Sir Walter, the family Bible has been replaced by the family Baronetage. That alone suggests his bad morality. He values status above spiritual growth.
Anne’s Understanding of the Financial Situation
What we learn next is that things are in a precarious financial situation for Sir Walter Elliot. He’s been a terrible manager of his estate, Kellynch Hall. He’s driven it into the ground, by overspending, and is actually in danger of losing his property altogether. His lawyer, Mr. Shepherd, and the lawyer’s daughter, the widowed Mrs. Clay, try gently to communicate his dire economic predicament to him.
Among his family members, Sir Walter’s middle daughter Anne understands first that they are going to have to leave their estate temporarily—to rent it out, live more cheaply, and pay off their debts, in the hope that they might one day be able to afford moving back in. To be forced to sell the estate would be dire indeed. Sir Walter would no longer have the joy of that precious page in his book, describing him as Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall.
Anne: A Cinderella Figure
One might think that Anne would be lauded by her family for persuading her father into seeing reason about the desperate state of his finances. But her vain father, and her equally vain older sister, Elizabeth, treat Anne shabbily. This is how Anne is described by the narrator: “Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way—she was only Anne.”
Anne is set up, from the first, as a kind of Cinderella figure in her own family. She has first-rate qualities, but their value is lost on those around her.
However, eventually Sir Walter is persuaded to rent out his estate by his lawyer, by Anne, and by others.
Common Questions about Persuasion, Jane Austen’s Last Novel
Sir Walter Elliot’s favorite book is the Baronetage, which lists the who’s who of Britain’s titled families. It’s a bit like a membership directory, an address book, or a national family tree. It describes heritage and lineage, but it’s a public rather than a private book.
Sir Walter’s wife Elizabeth died in 1800, after giving birth to their four children. The eldest child was a daughter, Elizabeth; next was a daughter, Anne, followed by a stillborn son. The last child was another daughter, Mary.
In Persuasion, Anne is described by the narrator as following: “Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way—she was only Anne.”