In most of the novels written by Jane Austen one clear topic is the social class. This topic becomes relevant in her novels because, in that way, readers can know how society was structured in the later 18th and the early 19th centuries when Austen lived. In the studied book of the course, Persuasion, the topics of social class and money are important to understand the behaviour of the characters through the novel and how, as the story progresses, some of the main characters change their opinions adapting them to the circumstances.
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In this essay, I am going to make an analysis of the thoughts of two characters in relation to social class and money and how these thoughts change to others totally opposed throughout the book. The characters that I will analyze are Sir Walter Elliot and Mr Elliot who are the ones in which the change of mind is clearly.
First of all, I will start talking about Sir Walter and his thoughts that class is superior to money by making reference to the novel. The book starts by saying that “Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one;… he could read his own history with an interest which never failed – this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened” (p. 3). It is clear that only by reading the beginning of the novel, readers can understand how important social class is to Sir Walter because the passage is saying that he can spend a lot of time reading his own status in society.
Also, the first chapter shows the vanity in Sir Walter. This can be seen in the sentence “vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character” (p. 4) which explains itself how his personality is and how his principles are.
Moreover, his family’s position and name is very important for Sir Walter and the beginning of the book is full of examples that can prove it. One of them is when he talks about his daughters as if they can add name to the status of the family by getting a good husband who belongs to a superior family and thus raise its own name. First of all, he makes reference to his little daughter, Mary, when he adds her to the Baronetage writing her marriage with Charles Musgrove. Sir Walter says that Mary only “acquired a little artificial importance, by becoming Mrs Charles Musgrove” (p. 5). Later, he talks about Elizabeth, his elder daughter, who still has the potential to marry well and, for that, is the more valued by her father. Finally, he makes reference to Anne who is treated badly by Sir Walter because he thoughts that Anne is a lost cause and for him “she was only Anne” (p. 5). So, with all this information, the conclusion is that the love and treatment Sir Walter gives to his daughters depends on what they add or could add to the social status of the family.
Another example where Sir Walter favours class over money is in relation to his financial situation. Lady Russell presents a plan which consists on apply a more controlled strategy to solve Sir Walter’s debts, but he refuses and finally he decides to move to Bath and rent Kellynch Hall because, by doing this, he thinks that he can still maintain his image. In other words, if he remains in his house controlling the money he spends, everybody would notice that Sir Walter went through financial problems. Other issue concerning this financial problem is that, instead of selling the house, he prefers to rent it; that is, he prefers to mortgage the powers he has but he never would sell them. All this is a proof of how he considers money inferior to class because he thinks it is worst that people know his problems than having them. Arriving at this point, it is necessary to talk about who rent the house because, obviously, the person who rents it cannot be nobody but, at the same time, he cannot be better than Sir Walter in society as it is clearly defined in the following quotation “I have let my house to Admiral Croft, would sound extremely well; very much better than to any mere Mr… An admiral speaks his own consequence, and, at the same time, can never make a baronet look small…” (p. 21).
In addition, readers can see in Sir Walter’s attitude towards the Navy that he prefers the traditional upper classes based on inherited titles to the new ones who work to get money and social status. Sir Walter uses the expression “persons of obscure birth into undue distinction” to refers to people who earn their money in the Navy and, also, he says that the Navy “raises men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers had never dreamt of” (p. 17).
Furthermore, the importance of class is seen in the way Sir Walter talks about Bath when Anne arrives to Camden Place. He says about his house that is “undoubtedly the best in Camden Place” and that “their acquaintance was exceedingly sought after” (p. 119). In the two sentences above, it is clear that the only thing important to Sir Walter in Bath is what people thinks about him and his family and, obviously, to keep a social status, although he had to leave Kellynch Hall for his bad economy. Additionally, the cousins of Sir Walter arrive to Bath and that fact is other example of how important is the class for him because they are people of higher social status and the connections with them will be beneficial for his family. It happens another issue in relation to the arrival of his cousins when Anne decides to visit an old friend called Mrs Smith, who is a widow, instead of going with her father and Elizabeth to visit the Dalrymples. In relation to that, Sir Walter says “A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith; And who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are to be met with everywhere?” (p. 136). With that speech, Sir Walter shows his displeasure for people of lower class than his own and, also, that he values more connections with upper class people than friendship because he tries to persuade Anne to cancel her meeting with Mrs Smith.
Arriving at that point, it is time to talk about the change of thought that happens to Sir Walter in relation to social class and money. So far I have been spoken of the importance of social classes for him, but when he meets in a concert with his cousins and Captain Wentworth, who acquired his fortune by working hard, arrives Sir Walter and shows his recognition of him. At the beginning of the novel, Sir Walter dislikes Captain Wentworth because he get his money working and he has not inherited title, and in that way, Captain Wentworth becomes a new rich man, that is a person who does not deserve to be part of upper classes according to Sir Walter as it is mention when I talk about his opinion about Navy in page three. In the last chapter of the book is where readers can see the complete change of mind that Sir Walter has towards Captain Wentworth, where Sir Walter goes of thinking that marrying his daughter Anne, Captain Wentworth would be “a very degrading alliance” to consider him “very far from thinking it a bad match for her” (pp. 23-216). This could be considered as a turning point in Sir Walter because he leaves his prejudices and his consideration of classes.
The second character that I am going to analyze is Mr Elliot, who considers money more important than a title in his youth but his attitude change when he arrives to Bath. When Mr Elliot is introduced, readers do not have much information about him and in the last chapters is when people know more about this character by the information that Mrs Smith provides to Anne.
Mr Elliot,” replied Mrs Smith, “at that period of his life, had one object in view: to make his fortune, and by a rather quicker process than the law. He was determined to make it by marriage. He was determined, at least, not to mar it by an imprudent marriage; and I know it was his belief (whether justly or not, of course I cannot decide), that your father and sister, in their civilities and invitations, were designing a match between the heir and the young lady, and it was impossible that such a match should have answered his ideas of wealth and independence. That was his motive for drawing back, I can assure you. (p. 175)
In the episode above, it is clear what the intentions of Mr Elliot are when he was young; he wanted to make money at any cost by marrying a suitable girl. He does not expect if the girl belonged to a high social class or if her family possessed a lot of titles, his only interest was money as it is shown in the following paragraph;
Money, money, was all that he wanted. Her father was a grazier, her grandfather had been a butcher, but that was all nothing. She was a fine woman, had had a decent education, was brought forward by some cousins, thrown by chance into Mr Elliot’s company, and fell in love with him; and not a difficulty or a scruple was there on his side, with respect to her birth. All his caution was spent in being secured of the real amount of her fortune, before he committed himself. (p. 176)
In addition, it is clear in the book that Mr Elliot is not interested in his future inheritance except from Kellynch Hall which can get money of it. Also, in a letter that he wrote to his friend, Mrs Smith’s late husband, expresses his displeasure for his surname and he claims that he wished he had any name instead of Elliot.
But there are two clearly situations in which he changes his attitude towards social class. One of them is in the discussion with Anne about the Dalrymples and the other situation is when he takes Mrs Clay to London and installs her in a house there.
In relation to the first situation, the conversation that Anne and her cousin maintain is:
“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.”
“You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company; that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential… (p. 130)
The idea of this passage is that Mr Elliot thinks that people should socialize with others who have an equal or superior status to them, but in contrast, he claims that the best company is clever people to have interesting conversations. The second situation is relevant to the fact that he takes away Mrs Clay to avoid a possible engagement with Sir Walter and the possibility that he does not inherit his fortune if they have an heir.
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In conclusion, with all the information given above, it is a clear fact that these two characters change their mind and their principles in relation to money and social class. Sir Walter, at the beginning of the novel, thought that social status is more important than money as people can see in the situations that I describe; for example, his attitude towards his daughters, his thoughts about the Navy or his interest of maintain his reputation when he discovers his financial problems. But, at the end, occurs a turning point when Sir Walter shows his recognition for Captain Wentworth and he approves the engagement with Anne.
On the other side, Mr Elliot in his youth thought that money is more important than social class but with the two situations explained in page six, the discussion with Anne about the Dalrymples and the situation concerning Mrs Clay, he changes his attitude.
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