The novel introduces us to the vain and self-absorbed Sir Walter, whose favorite pastime is to pore over the Baronetage, a book of important English families that includes his own lineage. His own wife bore him three daughters before passing away: Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary respectively.
The importance of social class is introduced immediately in Sir Walter’s vain pastime of reading the Baronetage. His social importance is defined in part by blood, as with the Elliot aristocratic lineage, but also by estate: Kellynch Hall.
The late Lady Elliot was an excellent and sensible woman whose virtues softened her husband’s failings. Although there are hints that her marriage, stemming from youthful infatuation, has not been the happiest, she has made the best of her situation and faithfully devoted herself to her family and friends during her lifetime.
Austen explores what makes a good marriage; Lady Elliot, while marrying well to rank and land, has not married her match in virtue, intelligence, or temperament, leaving the advantages of character improvement through marriage to Sir Walter.
After Lady Elliot’s passing, her intimate friend and advisor Lady Russell helped Sir Walter to raise his daughters. Elizabeth is beautiful and vain, her father’s favorite; Anne has her mother’s elegance of mind and sweetness of character, appreciated by Lady Russell, though not by Sir Walter nor Elizabeth. Mary has gained importance by being married.
The superficial Sir Walter and Elizabeth fail to recognize Anne’s virtues; they can only understand the graces of beauty, blood, and rank. Lady Russell, while sharing similar values, also recognizes that qualities of mind and character characterize real refinement.
Sir Walter’s hopes for enhancing his family’s importance through a suitable marriage rest on Elizabeth, as he deems Anne’s beauty to have faded and Mary’s marriage to have “given all the honour, and received none.” Several years ago, he and Elizabeth harbored hopes of her marriage to Mr. William Elliot, the heir presumptive; however, Mr. Elliot scorned the inheritance of the baronetcy and chose independence by marrying a wealthy woman of lower birth. Sir Walter and Elizabeth were deeply offended and all communication has since broken off.
Marriage is a vehicle for social mobility and financial independence. Mary’s marriage is suitable, but Sir Walter hopes that Elizabeth’s marriage will elevate the family with an even better connection. Mr. Elliot’s actions reveal his value of money over blood: he marries to a woman of lower birth over the aristocratic Elizabeth as a speedy means of attaining financial independence.
Because of Sir Walter and Elizabeth’s extravagant lifestyle, the Elliot family is now facing financial trouble. They are in great debt, but neither is willing to give up the luxuries they view as necessary to maintain their aristocratic lifestyle and the dignity it entitles them to. Mr. Shepherd, the family agent and lawyer, and Lady Russell are called on for their advice.
Sir Walter’s vanity and irresponsibility demonstrate that wealth and blood do not necessarily come with sensibility. Fortunately for him, he has others like Anne, Lady Russell, and Mr. Shepherd to counsel him, and temper his sense of entitlement to extravagant expenses.