Admiral Croft who was among the nouveau riche, had the financial means to rent Kellynch Hall from Sir Walter, one of the so-called landed gentry. What does Jane Austen’s treatment of class and social mobility reveal about these men and their women such as Anne Elliot and Mrs. Smith? Which group fares better and why?
In her novel, “Persuasion,” Jane Austen sends a clear message that times are changing and what was once the “upper crust” of society is gradually losing its foothold. Her portrayal of Sir Walter, alone, would be enough to make a case for this. Here he is, a member of the landed gentry, who has squandered his money away and has to rent out his home in order to make ends meet.
Nevertheless, he clings to his ancestral position, as described in the “Baronetage,” the only book he deems worthy of his time. Clearly, he is a bit blinded by his position in society. This puts it mildly. He is so much more! He is the embodiment of the ever changing, instability of the social classes and a walking depiction of the folly of it all. Oscar Wilde once said, in his play A Woman of No Importance that the Peerage is “the best thing in fiction that the English have ever done.”
It is worth taking the time to examine Sir Walter a bit more closely for while it would be easy to cast him aside as a mere caricature, not someone to take seriously, apparently Jane Austen told us a very lot about her opinion of the class system in England, through the character of Sir Walter. As in all the characters in this novel, I find that there is much more than meets the eye. First and foremost we consider him the fool. He saunters about with a mirror always at hand so that he can admire his own handsomeness as if this is quite an achievement. “Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character: vanity of person and of situation.” (Persuasion, Chapter 1). Sir Walter is a snob of the first order whose hollow values include appearance and titles and beyond that, nothing more.
He deplores the navy as demonstrated in the passage: “Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the 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; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line. (Persuasion, Chapter 3)
The only characters in this novel that seem to capture the attention and imagination of Sir Walter are his cousins, the Viscountess Dalrymple (what a name!) and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Cataret. Ironically enough these two, look upon Sir Walter as a pesky flea that they would prefer to shoo off but cannot, because of propriety. Even more ironic is the fact that the Honourable Miss Cataret is considerably ugly, a trait that is anathema to Sir Walter in any other case but this. I think that through the character of Sir Walter, Jane Austen shows us what she really thinks of the class system of her time with its entailments and primogeniture.
Now we have Admiral and Mrs. Croft, the nouveau riche who become the tenants of Kellynch Hall. Up until this point we have considered the wealth and position of the man in the household as the be all and end all: not so with Admiral and Mrs. Croft. While it is true that it was he, who was enlisted and employed in the navy, it was Mrs. Croft who accompanied him to sea many a time. She was much more, however than a companion to him on his voyages.
When it came time to discuss the terms of the rental of Kellynch Hall, this is how she is described by Mr. Shepherd, Sir Walter’s lawyer: “And a very well-spoken, genteel, shrewd lady, she seemed to be,” continued he; “asked more questions about the house and terms, and taxes, than the Admiral himself, and seemed more conversant with business;” (Persuasion, Chapter 3). So we see that in this depiction of the nouveau riche, we are treated to another type of change in society; here the woman has a say in the financial dealings of the family; a very refreshing change, I’m sure, to Jane Austen who was subject to the restrictions of entailment in her own family.
In sharp contrast to this we have Mrs. Smith, who, like the majority of women at the time, have had their entire life circumstances subsumed under their husband’s authority. They seem to live lives of “quiet desperation.” Whatever decisions, good or bad (in this case bad) have been made by the men in their lives are of extreme consequence to the unempowered woman.
And so, to answer your question, it seems clear that the women of the nouveau riche do fare better than those of the antiquated class system which is so surely entering the realm of obscurity in this novel and moreover in the real times of Jane Austen.