Persuasion, like many of Austen’s novels, is a study in 18th century English society, and its nuances of class rigidity and social mobility. Status and independence are composed of a combination of wealth, ancestry, and occupation: certain characters achieve independence through marrying into wealth, as is the case with Mr. William Elliot’s first marriage, while others such as Captain Frederick Wentworth achieve status and wealth through climbing the Naval ranks. Sir Walter Elliot prides himself on his “ancient and respectable” lineage, baronetcy, and wealthy estate; he is greatly preoccupied that his manner of living and ensuring that the people with whom his family associates will befit his high status, although these concerns lead him into excessive debt and undiscerning connections.
Considerations of class also affect characters of less vanity and more prudence, such as Lady Russell and the protagonist Anne Elliot. Lady Russell judiciously advises Anne about the importance of marrying a man who matches her station and can adequately provide for her, and, based on this counsel, Anne conscientiously refrains from marrying the man she loves. Austen’s novel—for all of its romantic wisdom about matching temperaments and love in marriage—also highlights and supports the importance of “marrying well” as a concern that none of the characters can escape, and one that inevitably takes into considerations of class and wealth.
Status and social class both motivate and restrict the actions that characters are able to take in fulfilling their desires. From the start of the novel, Sir Walter Elliot’s vanity and luxurious spending in order to live according to his status leads him into financial debt and require him to rent his estate. Mr. William Elliot is motivated to marry Anne out of a lately developed appreciation for his inheritance and baronetcy. Captain Wentworth strikes out to sea in order to make his fortunes through the Navy.
One of the most striking examples of how status and class influence agency is in the tragedy of Mrs. Smith, Anne’s girlhood friend who is crippled by debt, widowhood, and illness. In the eyes of society, she has essentially nothing and relies on the more privileged Anne’s kindness, friendship, and charity.
Status and Social Class ThemeTracker
Status and Social Class Quotes in Persuasion
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. . . . He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.
Yes; [the Navy] is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as a means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly.
Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in that profession; would be, indeed, a throwing away, which [Lady Russell] grieved to think of! . . . It must not be, if by any fair interference of friendship, any representations from one who had almost a mother’s love, and mother’s rights, it would be prevented.
Anne, at seven and twenty, thought very differently from what she had been made to think at nineteen.—She did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good. . . . She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.
Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated and not at all elegant. . . . Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feelings of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments; and envied them nothing but that seemingly perfect good understanding and agreement together, that good-humoured mutual affection, of which she had known so little herself with either of her sisters.
Anne had not wanted this visit to Uppercross, to learn that a removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of only three miles, will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea. She had never been staying there before, without being struck by it, or without wishing that other Elliots could have her advantage in seeing how unknown, or unconsidered there, were the affairs which at Kellynch-hall were treated as of such general publicity and pervading interest.
O; the years which had destroyed [Anne’s] youth and bloom had only given [Captain Wentworth] a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessoning his personal advantages. . . . It was now his object to marry. He was rich, and being turned on shore, fully intended to settle as soon as he could be properly tempted; actually looing round, ready to fall in love with all the speed which a clear head and quick taste could allow.
Captain Wentworth had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.
[Anne] might not wonder, but she must sigh that her father should feel no degradation in his change; should see nothing to regret in the duties and dignity of the resident land-holder; should find so much to be vain of in the littleness of a town; and she must sigh, and smile, and wonder too, as Elizabeth threw open the folding-doors and walked with exultation from one drawing-room to the other, boasting of their space, at the possibility of that woman, who had been mistress of Kellynch Hall, finding extent to be proud of between two walls, perhaps thirty feet asunder.
[Mr. Elliot] was quite as good-looking as he had appeared at Lyme, his countenance improved by speaking, and his manners were so exactly what they ought to be, so polished, so easy, so particularly agreeable, that she could compare them in excellence to only one person’s manners. . . . There could be no doubt of his being a sensible man. Ten minutes were enough to certify that. His tone, his expressions, his choice of subject, his knowing where to stop—it was all the operation of a sensible, discerning mind.
My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.
Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company, on the contrary, it will do very well. . . . Will it not be wiser to accept the society of these good ladies in Laura-place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible? You may depend upon it, that they will move in the first set in Bath this winter, and as rank is rank, your being known to be related to them will have its use in fixing your family (our family let me say) in that degree of consideration which we must all wish for.
A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.
Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished—but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable . . . She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped. Mr. Elliot was too generally agreeable.
If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty; but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated.
I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.