Bao Bui is a lecturer in the Department of History at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, and he has taught courses on American history, international relations, media studies, human rights, gender and women’s history, the politics of food, the history of courtship and weddings, and Jane Austen. At the 2016 JASNA AGM in Washington, DC, he gave a paper on epistolary culture in Emma in which he asked whether Austen sees “the accessible, affordable, and potentially secretive mail as a threat to the orderly world of Highbury and the social environment of its citizens.” The paper was published in Persuasions On-Line: “Epistolary Culture in Emma: Secrets and Social Transgressions.”
Bao studied English literature at Pomona College and his graduate degrees are from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. It’s my pleasure to introduce his guest post on Sir Walter Elliot for my blog series “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.”
In the opening chapter of Persuasion Jane Austen informs us of Sir Walter Elliot’s birth year, 1760. Sir Walter would have spent most of his adulthood living in the shadow of the French Revolution and Napoleonic campaigns. Unlike Continental Europe, Britain saw neither the scourge of large-scale warfare nor sudden, drastic upheavals in the social and political order. Still, the British population, particularly its literate elite, would have no difficulty keeping abreast of the latest news, rumors, and gossip—not to mention the casualty lists—resulting from Britain’s generation-long military struggle against Napoleon. Persuasion opens in the summer of 1814, just months after the Allies have forced Napoleon to abdicate the French throne and go into exile on the island of Elba. The downfall of Napoleon would have dominated the news cycle of the time. Elites and commoners alike would have discussed the news with great interest.
Yet, the opening line of Persuasion tells us that such news did not interest Sir Walter:
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; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. (Chapter 1)
Sir Walter seems oblivious, if not altogether dismissive, of the much wider world beyond the boundaries of his estate. While millions throughout Europe struggled, fought, and died under some of the most atrocious of circumstances and in titanic battles year in and year out, Sir Walter appears perfectly content to read only the Baronetage, and no more. His curiosity, his mind, and indeed, his attention span, encompass no more than the estate that he inherited. His mental and physical gaze look no further than the multitude of mirrors that surround him in his bedroom, all the better to remind him of divine grace having bestowed on him both “the blessing of beauty” and “the blessing of a baronetcy.” If he gives any thought at all to his servants or the tenant farmers on his estate, he does so only to view them as part of his entitlement. These human beings, who no doubt have friends, families, and acquaintances who serve abroad in the British army and on the seven seas with the Royal Navy, represent to Sir Walter merely the instruments put on earth to perpetuate and signify his most fortunate existence.
Readers of Austen’s time would have no difficult picking up Austen’s deliberate depiction of Sir Walter as a grotesque caricature of self-absorbed aristocratic vanity. One suspects that Lady Russell, for all her class snobbery, reads the papers and knows of events transpiring beyond England’s shores. Persuasion makes it clear that Anne Elliot knows not only the names of naval officers and their deployments, but also that the sailors and ships of the Royal Navy have kept Britain and her civilian population safe from revolutionary blood shedding that has swept across Europe from shores of Portugal to the gates of Moscow. Sir Walter’s thoughts, concerns, and dialogue suggest a vast, unrepentant, unapologetic ignorance of the historical, transformative events transpiring in his lifetime, both in his own country and on the Continent. The only history that interests Sir Walter appears in the Baronetage, where “he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.” In that regard, readers, then and now, must take Austen’s creation of Sir Walter with a grain of salt, for no adult person in England in 1814 could possibly reach such depths of blockheadedness. Jane Austen would have to witness our own present national circumstances in the United States to see a public figure who could elevate both vanity and ignorance to such unbelievable, giddy excess.
Quotations are from the Project Gutenberg ebook of Persuasion.
Seventeenth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Elisabeth Lenckos, Daniel Woolf, and Jessica Richard.