By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
A difference between Persuasion and Jane Austen’s other fiction is that this one looks backward and forward through very specific historical details. The novel is set in an identifiable moment in the recent past, one defined by war. Persuasion contains characters who have seen battles and survived them, as well as those at home who suffered absence and loss.
Unsentimental Description of Those Lost in War
The words navy, ship, sailor, soldier, and war are used dozens of times in the novel, but Austen is often deliberately unsentimental about them.
One character, Dick Musgrove, a brother-in-law of Mary Musgrove, Anne’s younger sister, was serving in the navy when he became ill. He was left behind on shore and didn’t recover, dying in Gibraltar. However, Dick is referred to by the narrator as a man who, when he was alive, nobody had cared for. This is the opposite of celebrating the war dead.
There’s an additional layer here that the novel’s first readers would have understood. Gibraltar, a British possession near the southern tip of Spain, was a place of refuge and trade for British ships. It was a safe haven port in the war. So, not only had this sailor died of illness, rather than in battle, he’d died under protection and shielded from harm. It’s a surprising, senseless wartime casualty.
It’s not easy to determine what lessons the novel would have us draw from its lingering over this kind of purposeless death. Perhaps this section is there in part to point out that not everyone in war dies nobly and not everyone who dies in war turns out to be much missed at home. Austen is presenting a wider, more realistic, and less sentimental framework for grasping death, grieving, and loss in wartime.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Effects of Surviving Wars
Austen was personally and keenly aware of the aftermath of the French Revolution and war in Europe. Her cousin lost her first husband to the guillotine. Two of Austen’s brothers, Francis and Charles, were serving in the Royal Navy, fighting Napoleon, and facing great risk. The Austens knew war’s dangers.
It seems odd, then, that in Persuasion, the words Napoleon and France never appear. The word French is used twice, only once in the context of wartime. Austen was hardly ignorant of Napoleon or France. Every reader of Persuasion would have known the war she was describing was with Napoleonic France. So why not hammer home those details by explicitly naming them?
One possibility is that the emphasis in Persuasion is placed on the fictional characters of the story, in order to highlight the effects of surviving war on everyday lives, especially women’s lives. We can see that through the character of Mrs. Croft, the wife of Admiral Croft and sister of Captain Wentworth.
Mrs. Croft and Feminism
Persuasion includes many lines that are now read as feminist or proto-feminist, including Mrs. Croft’s pointed remarks about the need to see women as ‘rational creatures’. Mrs. Croft is a rarity in fiction of this period, as a female character who has literally been in rough waters many of her days. She’s spent a significant amount of time—years, it would seem—on a warship.
She had no official military role on board, as a military wife, but she’s proud to say that she’s lived comfortably on board a ship. She describes having ‘crossed the Atlantic four times’ and ‘been once to the East Indies, and back again’. She’s also traveled on a man-of-war to Cork, Lisbon, and Gibraltar.
She doesn’t mention whether she’s been in battle or been involved in capturing another ship—presumably she herself has never been captured—but it’s not out of the realm of possibility to assume she has seen war up close. It’s even more likely that Mrs. Croft has seen death of all kinds and has ministered to the dying.
Places Visited by Mrs. Croft
The places Mrs. Croft mentions having been to have military significance. For example, Gibraltar was a port used as a British safe haven. Mrs. Croft has also been to Cork, Ireland, with its large harbor for fleets of ships. During this period, it was used as a point of trade to send off provisions for the Royal Navy.
The most dangerous place Mrs. Croft names having traveled to on board a naval vessel is Lisbon, Portugal. In the period from 1806 to 1814, Lisbon had been both a British port of war operations and, for a time, under French control. Lisbon was a volatile location, subject to invasions, occupations, and insurrections. We don’t know what year Mrs. Croft sailed there or landed there, but it almost doesn’t matter. The very name ‘Lisbon’ in the novel signals that she’s been someplace unstable, someplace with risk. Yet she mentions it nonchalantly and without regrets.
Mrs. Croft is the better half in a couple that may represent the most happy and functional marriage in all of Austen’s fiction. At least, she’s shown to be the better half in the marriage in one key scene—when she happily redirects the horse’s reins to correct her husband’s bad carriage driving. Anne, watching Mrs. Croft take temporary control of the reins, in order to avoid hitting a post, concludes that it’s a good representation of the Crofts’ partnership in general.
Common Questions about Surviving Wars in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’
Jane Austen was personally aware of the aftermath of the French Revolution and war in Europe. Her cousin lost her first husband to the guillotine. Two of Austen’s brothers, Francis and Charles, were serving in the Royal Navy, fighting Napoleon, and facing great risk.
Persuasion includes many lines that are now read as feminist or proto-feminist. For example, Mrs. Croft’s remarks about the need to see women as ‘rational creatures’. Mrs. Croft is a rarity in fiction of this period as a female character who spent a significant amount of time on a warship.
The most dangerous place Mrs. Croft names having traveled to on board a naval vessel is Lisbon, Portugal. In the period from 1806 to 1814, Lisbon had been both a British port of war operations and, for a time, under French control. Lisbon was a volatile location, subject to invasions, occupations, and insurrections.