Persuasion: The Written Word and Gender Neutrality

 Dear Readers,

Tea or coffee? Neither, I’ll take a hot chocolate. You must be asking yourself, (actually, you’re most likely not, but please indulge me) where have you been. Well, the answer to that my friends: school. The dreaded semester began, and while I would have loved to have kept writing, my laptop crashed. It’s finito, pitifully broken–gone– and along with it all my travel photos and planned posts. However, I write to you from a happier state of being via my new laptop *sobs because I am now broke*. Something else that’s new is MY MAJOR. That’s right folks, I’m an English major. To celebrate that declaration, I thought it’d be nice to discussion some literature, specifically Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, who are reunited after 8 years, when Anne had broken off their engagement. This is the only one of Austen’s novel where we re-visit a courtship plot. While the romance within the novel is swoon worthy, Austen is primarily a social commentator. Ergo, let’s chat about men, the two different ranks within the novel– the aristocratic and naval,– and what the written word tells us about the changing 19th century.

Male characters’ attitudes towards the written word marks the types of masculinity they represent within the changing society. Sir Walter Elliot reads in order to escape his present for the Elliot family’s past. Poetry-reading paralyzes Captain Benwick. These two readers’ passivity resembles the passivity of aristocratic women. Captain Wentworth, on the other hand, is active: he writes. Furthermore, Wentworth’s activity parallels the activity of non-aristocratic women. These two types of masculinity expose two forms of early-nineteenth-century gender neutrality: aristocratic gender-neutrality, marked by passivity, and professional gender-neutrality, marked by activity.

Sir Walter Elliot’s attitude towards the written word is that he uses it to make his family’s past his present. We see that Sir Walter re-reads his family history. On the first page of the novel, the narrator states that “Sir Walter…never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found…consolation in a distressed [hour]” (1). Sir Walter’s “distressed [hour]” is caused by his current financial status. In comparison to the financial prosperity of his ancestors, Sir Walter has fallen low and does not want to admit it. He turns to the Baronetage as the solution to his problem. We see this when Elizabeth Elliot observes her father’s behavior, for “when he now took up the Baronetage, it was to drive away the heavy bills of his tradespeople” (6). He does not act to solve his financial troubles. Rather Sir Walter uses the written word to keep himself frozen in his family’s glory days. He is passive, a sign of his aristocratic masculinity.

However, the passivity that marks Sir Walter’s aristocratic masculinity resembles that of aristocratic women: it keeps them all in the past. Elizabeth Elliot is an example of female aristocratic passivity. When her mother passes away, Elizabeth becomes mistress of Kellynch Hall. According to the narrator, “for thirteen years had she [Elizabeth] been doing the honours…Thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball…and thirteen springs…she travelled…for…annual enjoyment” (4). Notice that the word “thirteen” is thrice repeated, emphasizing the amount of time Elizabeth has spent as lady of the house. Additionally, the word “revolving” implies the cyclical nature of Elizabeth’s daily life, while the word “annual” suggests Elizabeth’s life is a pattern. Her seeming activity of running the house is a form of passivity. While it might seem she is active through repetition—repetition not only of the actions she performs on a daily or annual basis, but also of those her mother and other female ancestors have performed— Elizabeth actually passively repeats her history. Thus Sir Walter and his daughter are passive because they repeat the past and thus live in it. Therefore gender-neutrality exists within the aristocracy. Regardless of gender, the attitude of the aristocracy is marked by passivity.

Although Captain Benwick is a Navy officer, his masculinity resembles that of Sir Walter, a baronet. Not unlike Sir Walter, Captain Benwick is paralyzed by the written word: he mourns the loss of his fiancé by reading somber poetry. Austen writes, “Benwick had been…deeply afflicted under the dreadful change. He considered his disposition as of the sort which must suffer heavily, uniting strong feelings with…a decided taste for reading” (83). The phrase “uniting strong feelings with…reading” suggests that Benwick grieves by reading. This grief becomes so strong that it paralyzes him. We see an example of his paralysis in the middle of the novel, when Mary Musgrove tells Lady Russell of Benwick’s behavior. She cries, “[h]e will sit pouring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when…anything happens” (112). It seems as though Captain Benwick is literally unresponsive to his surroundings – to life.  He is passive, and his reading of the written word marks his aristocratic masculinity.

Nonetheless, one could argue that Benwick is not passive, and does not represent the attitude of the aristocracy because he falls in love again and marries Louisa Musgrove. Thus the written word does not paralyze him. However, Benwick and Louisa’s courtship is passive. When contemplating their relationship, Anne believes that “it had been the situation…thrown together [for] several weeks…depending almost entirely on each other” (142). Their relationship is attributed to the circumstance and not Benwick’s actions. He does not actively try to overcome the loss of his fiancé. Furthermore, the written word still has control over Benwick as “they had fallen in love over poetry” (142). Austen re-emphasizes their courtship is circumstantial and the characters passively court. Reading the written word is a signal of a passive experience.

Just as Austen stresses that Benwick and Sir Walter are passive readers, so too she emphasizes that Wentworth’s attitude towards the written word is to write it. For example in the end of the novel, after overhearing Anne’s discussion with Captain Harville, Wentworth is deeply moved by her words. In that moment he decides to write her a letter, expressing his feelings for her. He writes, “I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope” (203).  *fans self down* Wentworth’s letter illustrates that he takes control of situations, in this instance his tentative relationship with Anne. Unlike Benwick, a fellow naval officer, Wentworth does not adopt the passive attitude of the aristocracy when rising in rank; through the written word, Wentworth acts. In this way Wentworth embodies a new professional, non-aristocratic, masculinity that is defined by activity.

Of course we see Sir Walter writing as well, therefore one could argue that Wentworth does not mark a different type of masculinity; but there is a difference in the way both men write. “Sir Walter had improved it [the Baronetage] by adding, for…himself and his family…the history and rise of the ancient and respectable family, in the usual terms” (1-2). The phrase “usual terms” implies that Sir Walter’s writing follows the pattern of the Baronetage: the style of writing is as static and unchanging as Sir Walter. On the other hand, Wentworth writes a letter to Anne, expressing his feelings. In that letter, Wentworth’s turn to the past marks his departure from it. Unlike Sir Walter, Wentworth writes to change his future, for he asks Anne to decide their fate. It seems as though their writing differs in that Sir Walter’s is fixed and does not create change, whilst Wentworth’s writing is unprecedented and impactful.

While Captain Wentworth’s activity marks his professional masculinity, we also see that non-aristocratic women are active as well. Similar to Wentworth, Mrs. Croft takes control of situations. When Anne Elliot is in the gig with the Crofts heading back to Uppercross, she observes that “by coolly giving the reins a better direction of herself [Mrs. Croft] they happily passed danger…their style of driving [was] no bad representation of their general affairs” (79). Mrs. Croft physically takes the reins from her husband, taking control. We see that Mrs. Croft is equally active as her husband in “their general affairs”. Also in the novel, there is Miss Rooke, “a nurse by profession”, who is active by taking charge of her finances, as did Captain Wentworth by joining the navy (131). Wentworth’s activity and the non-aristocratic ladies’ activity are both defined by taking control.

Furthermore, non-aristocratic, active women are professional. Mrs. Croft is married to a professional man, an Admiral in the Navy, and travels with him on business. She clearly understands the profession, as Mr. Shepherd points out that while touring Kellynch Hall she “asked more questions about the…terms, and taxes, than the Admiral himself, and seemed more conversant with business” (18).  The word “conversant” is defined as being experienced, showing Mrs. Croft’s knowledge and familiarity with a profession. Additionally, Nurse Rooke is, indeed, a professional woman. Therefore, gender-neutrality exists within the non-aristocracy because both men and women have an active disposition, as previously mentioned, and are professional.

Perhaps gender-neutrality is Austen’s social criticism of the quality of life within the aristocracy. One could argue that Austen holds professionalism superior because those embodying non-aristocratic gender-neutrality— Wentworth, the novel’s hero— would offer Anne Elliot— our heroine— a better future than that of passive aristocracy.

Much love,

Evgenia

 

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