Friday, January 05, 2018

Jane Austen's 'Persuasion': Rules of Precedence


The importance of precedence is a major theme in Jane Austen’s last novel Persuasion, and this post looks at the ramifications of this. Persuasion’s opening scene shows Sir Walter Elliot’s perusal of the Baronetage, the most important book in his library, which charts the lineage of the Elliot family from its first mention in Sir William Dugdale’s Baronetage of England (1675-6) until Sir Walter's own entry in the 1790s.
 

The Importance of the Family Tree
 


Sir Walter has no sons, and his heir is a distant male relation. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, shares his feelings about the importance of the Elliots and they get on well. However, he rates his two younger daughters 'of very inferior value.’  Mary, the youngest, has acquired ‘a little artificial importance by becoming Mrs Charles Musgrove,’ but Anne, the middle daughter and the book’s heroine, is ‘nobody with either father or sister.’

I found myself wondering how the sisters themselves viewed their social status. The snobbish Elizabeth is content to walk ‘immediately after Lady Russell out of all the drawing rooms and dining-rooms in the country.’ What is important is that Elizabeth is the eldest daughter of a baronet – an inherited title. This ranks above Lady Russell’s title; she is the widow of a knight, the next down in rank, a title given by the monarch for life only. The only reason that Lady Russell precedes Elizabeth, is that she is married and Elizabeth is not.

However, the fact that Elizabeth, Anne and Mary are daughters of a baronet means that they are entitled to various social privileges.

Mary, (Mrs Charles Musgrove) is acutely aware of this and resents not being afforded her due when visiting her in-laws, the unpretentious Mr and Mrs Musgrove of Uppercross Hall. She constantly complains to Anne that her mother-in-law ‘was very apt not to give her the precedence that was her due when they dined at the Great House with other families’. Correctly speaking, Mary, being a daughter of a baronet, has precedence over her mother-in-law.


As one of her sisters-in-law says to Anne, ‘Nobody doubts her right to have precedence of mamma, but it would be more becoming in her not to be always insisting on it.’ One can only agree.  Anne, we note, never thinks of putting herself forward in such a way.  

Even though Anne is the middle daughter, she is below Mary in the social scale as she is unmarried. Mary, as the only married daughter is now above both her sisters – though I can’t see the snooty Elizabeth allowing Mary to take precedence over her. 

There is a scene in Lyme, where Mary is staying after her sister-in-law Louisa’s accident, which illuminates this. Mrs Musgrove, Louisa’s mother, has come down to do what she can to help. Initially, her hostess, Mrs Harville, gives the elder Mrs Musgrove the precedence. Mary is put out. Fortunately, she receives ‘so very handsome an apology from (Mrs Harville) on finding out whose daughter she was,’ that her self-importance is satisfied – especially as Mrs Harville thenceforward gives Mary the precedence that is her due. Whew!


But what of Anne? She has none of the Elliot self-importance. When she goes to stay with Mary at Uppercross Cottage, she is perfectly happy to pay an unceremonious call on the elder Mr and Mrs Musgrove at the Great House. Correctly, they should be deferential and call on her first. But Anne says, ‘I would never think of standing on ceremony with people I know so well as Mr and Mrs Musgrove.’

Mary, however, disagrees. ‘Oh, but they ought to call on you as soon as possible. They ought to feel what is due to you as my sister.’ 

Anne’s reaction on meeting Captain Wentworth’s friends, the hospitable Harvilles, is one of delight (Mary, by contrast, notes that they have only one maid). ‘There was so much attachment to Captain Wentworth in all this, and such a bewitching  charm in a degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give and take invitations, and dinners of formality and display… These would have been my friends,’ was her thought; and she had to struggle against a great tendency to lowness.’ 
 
This is one of her lowest points; she has now seen, with her own eyes, she sort of life she might have had with Captain Wentworth; one of warmth and affection, and without the cold pomp and ceremony of life in her father’s house -  if she hadn’t broken off their engagement eight years ago.

But Anne has yet more trials to face; she must go to Bath, to her father’s smart and fashionable house in Camden Place, and leave Captain Wentworth behind, not knowing if they will ever meet again or whether he will propose to Louisa.


 
The letter scene
 

We see Anne once more ignoring the dictates of her upbringing, and the disapproval of her father, when she visits her old and sick school friend, Mrs Smith. Her father is outraged: 'A mere Mrs Smith ... to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland!'

But it is this renewal of friendship which helps Anne to be proactive and take the steps necessary for her own future happiness. No-one else will do it for her. Mary and Elizabeth, in their different ways, expect Anne to give way to their own convenience. And Lady Russell values rank more than she ought.

One of the things I love about Persuasion, is that Lady Russell has to do a 180 degree turn in her thinking, and Mary and Elizabeth both get their comeuppance when Anne marries Captain Wentworth.
 
 
Anne, restored to the rights of seniority, and the mistress of a very pretty landaulette
 
Mary, who in her way is fond of Anne, finds it creditable to have a sister married, and ‘it was very agreeable that the captain should be richer than either of her sisters-in-law’s husbands.’ But she is a bit put out to realize that Anne’s marriage means that she, Anne, is restored to the rights of seniority. As the eldest married daughter, Anne now ranks above Elizabeth as well as Mary. Elizabeth’s reaction to the news of Anne’s engagement to Captain Wentworth is to be ‘cold and unconcerned.’

And, as a final thought, we might remember that Jane Austen herself was a second daughter and, by precedence, right at the bottom of her family’s social order. She is asking her readers to consider just what Mary, say, has ever done to warrant being given precedence. The answer, of course, is nothing.

And we might ask the same questions of any number of her characters: Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for example, or Maria Bertram. There is plenty of food for thought for discerning readers here.

Elizabeth Hawksley

 

 
      

3 comments:

Elizabeth Bailey said...

My favourite Austen this one. I love this analysis of the precedence question and had not realised how much store Mary set by it. But you're so right, when I think back. The letter scene is just wonderful. And it is the wittiest, if the cruellest, story, I think.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comments, Elizabeth. What amazed me was how important Mrs Harville thought giving Mary her proper due as daughter of a baronet was - to the extent that she felt she had to apologise profusely. Mrs Harville is a sensible woman! How could she take it so seriously - especially with Louisa so ill in her house? But that was how it was at the time.

If we ignore these subtle signals about rank, then we miss some important information about character and motivation.

I don't understand why you think 'Persuasion' is 'the cruellest' story. It could so easily have ended up as a tragedy - but otherwise?

Regencyresearcher said...

Precedence is observed in all the stories, though it isn't insisted upon much except for Emma and Mr. Darcy. However, Darcy is neither the richest man nor the one with the highest precedence.Bingley has more cash and Sir William Lucas and his lady have the precedence over the others of their neighbors. I often think that Mr. Collins takes much pleasure in mentioning Sir William and Lady Lucas as his in-laws.
Emma held the same position in her neighborhood as the Elliots in theirs because there was no titled person in her neighborhood.
Whether Sir Walter Elliot or Sir Thomas Bertram took precedence over the other would depend on the date of their respective baronetcies. Maria Bertram was in the same position as Elizabeth Elliot as far as society went, but Sir Thomas had better control over his expenses.
Anne Elliot didn't stand on ceremony and probably thought that she could claim no virtue because some ancestor either pleased the king or "lent" him money/