Today’s guest post is by Daniel Woolf, Professor of History, and Principal and Vice-Chancellor, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He has previously held positions at Dalhousie University, McMaster University, and the University of Alberta. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Royal Historical Society, he is the author of four books, most recently A Global History of History (2011) and The Social Circulation of the Past (2003), and editor or co-editor of several others, and of many articles and book chapters. He was general editor of the five-volume Oxford History of Historical Writing (2011-12). I’m delighted to introduce Daniel’s contribution to “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.”
Over a decade ago I (a historian rather than a literary scholar, and a specialist on a much earlier period of history than Jane Austen’s) published a brief essay in the journal Persuasions addressing the question of how Jane Austen dealt with history (“Jane Austen and History: the Past, Gender, and Memory from the Restoration to Persuasion,” in Persuasions 26 ). In that essay I contended that, notwithstanding the caricature of Austen as being anti-historical (the oft-quoted exchange between Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney being the most often cited, though not the exclusive, evidence to support this view), the novelist demonstrates an interest in the past and a reconciliation with it in the course of her novels. I suggested Mansfield Park as something of a turning point, given Fanny’s turn to the role of history-educator late in that novel. Persuasion, I argued, was the culmination in this reconciliation and is the most historical of Austen’s novels, both in the sense that Anne Elliot engages in the forensic work of the historian (“she distrusted the past, if not the present” in evaluating Mr. Elliot’s character) in reconstructing and sorting through conflicting versions of events (as Elizabeth Bennet was able to do before her), and in the sense that Persuasion is the only novel that Austen specifically and deliberately situates in chronologically-specific, historical time.
The former essay focused mainly on Austen’s attitude to what might be called “small h” history, namely the study (it was not yet a “discipline” in any meaningful sense) or writing of history. In the present brief re-exploration of Persuasion, I want to shift the focus slightly to a different subject, namely Austen’s preparedness to engage with “capital H” History. By this I intend (and follow Reinhardt Koselleck’s usage of) the modern popular meaning of “history” as being not simply the representation of the past as a story (its accuracy and artfulness thus matters for epistemology, rhetoric and aesthetics) but the actual cumulative course of events, a transition in meaning that is thought (Koselleck again) to have occurred during the late Enlightenment. I believe it can be argued that in Persuasion, more fully than in the earlier novels, Austen gazes beyond the bubble of middle-class and gentry life and more fully out toward a horizon in which political, social, and economic forces are at work fashioning a world very different from that into which she was born, and very different from that fictional England inhabited by the Bennets, Tilneys, Knightleys, Bertrams, and Dashwoods.
This engagement with “History” as well as “history” is signified very clearly at the novel’s outset in the devastatingly ridiculous portrait of Sir Walter Elliot. Fixated on Dugdale (the seventeenth-century antiquary who first recorded his ancestor’s ascendancy to a baronetcy) and an uninterrupted succession since then, as found in the assorted Debretts and Burkes, Sir Walter is utterly blind to the decline of his own class, and to the social and economic factors that have, quite apart from his own profligacy, brought his family near to ruin. It is of course signified again in Austen’s use of dates to situate her story—Wentworth’s references to “the year six” (Volume 1, Chapter 8) being a case in point. (And the shorthand reference carries a radical association, given the French Revolutionary calendar with which Austen was familiar).
Austen’s novels are often praised for their accurate descriptions of the social world and manners of late eighteenth-century and Regency England—how the country “was.” While the earlier novels certainly depict isolated elements of transition and change, Persuasion is the work that most fully dwells on historical liminality. It is a novel not of was, or even is, but of yet to be: of becoming rather than being. This is true in several different respects. Obviously, several the characters are in process of becoming different versions of their former selves–at least those not immune to reform such as Sir Walter and his sociopathic nephew (“black at heart, hollow and black” [Volume 2, Chapter 9]); William Elliot’s major transition is simply one, outside the narrative, that has made him more like Sir Walter himself in prizing the very “blood and connexion” that he had previously repudiated in favour of money (neither being especially praiseworthy motivations) (Volume 2, Chapter 9). Mary (Elliot) Musgrove stays a silly echo of Lydia Wickham in her annoying insistence on precedence over her mother in law Mrs. Musgrove; eldest sister Elizabeth is and remains by and large a female clone of her father. In contrast, other characters mature. Lady Russell, while remaining wedded to a traditional social order, at least repents with respect to her snobbish advice to Anne, years earlier, that resulted in her engagement to Wentworth being broken. Anne herself is a few years older and wiser (though at 27—the modal age for Austen females—in a different state of transition from maiden to potential spinster), Wentworth less headstrong and more forgiving.
Such character arcs of course occur in the earlier novels, especially among the heroines. What is different here? I suggest it lies, again, in the relation of the novel to external, real historical events and trends. In a political sense, the novel is set exactly during the period of Napoleon’s first exile. England, and Europe, are at that point poised between a period of violent revolution and war, and the prospect of peace and commerce. But the peace is uncertain, and not to come easily, as we and Austen both know. It is a kind of Schrödinger’s cat historical junction in which Napoleonic Europe is simultaneously alive and dead, with the year 1814—explicitly identified, in un-Austen-like fashion, in the first chapter—and, more literally, the exile on Elba, providing the temporal “box” whence the cat might emerge either alive or dead.
But Austen the social observer (and still suspicious of “name and date” history après Catherine Morland) isn’t content to focus on political or military transitions. While the wars provide a convenient plot device (not least in the book’s closing reference to “the dread of a future war”, and the admission that a sailor’s wife is often in the situation of not knowing, for months on end, whether she may be a widow—a further variant on Schrödinger), they are not the focus of the novel, nor its most important historical theme. That, surely, lies in changes to the wider world, such as the economic forces that, for instance, impoverish an invalided widow like Charlotte Smith, brought to ruin by a husband’s colonial speculations, and that creates grasping parvenus like William Elliot. (These are changes which, as William H. Galperin observes in The Historical Austen , are unimaginable in Mansfield Park where “any change, apart from mobility in the most monolithic sense, is plainly out of bounds”).
It is important to note that the coming world is not necessarily better than the old one; Austen is no proto-positivist, nor a Benthamite. Little improvement in the position of women can be either discerned or anticipated in Persuasion, and references to the fortunes to be made in the West Indies—the seat of slavery, which we know Austen disliked—are ambivalent. Yet change the world will, from one dominated not by an old aristocracy and gentry, but by the professions; the down to earth Admiral Croft, a worthy tenant of Kellynch is the prime but not only example. As Robert Morrison observes in the introduction to his edition of Persuasion “the world enshrined in the Baronetage” is beginning to collapse.” An age of reform and empire, which Austen did not live to see, but seems to have sensed, lies ahead, and the future belongs to those prepared to adapt. They will either do useful work for the nation (most notably Croft, Wentworth and most of the naval characters, the agents of England’s transformation into imperial “Britain”), and the entrepreneurially self-made (Wentworth and Croft again), rather than to those who live idly on inherited rank (Sir Walter) nor those who seek to gain such rank through strategic and often loveless marital alliance (William Elliot; Mrs. Clay). Fittingly, the Janus-faced novel that begins in one period of history with Sir Walter gazing into his family past and unable to deal with the present, closes vertiginously poised on the edge of a new era. Austen, the conservative (if always sensitive to inequality and social injustice) depicter of and critic of cultural norms, peers cautiously around the sharp corner of History to become the early nineteenth century’s most subtle prophet of social change.
Quotations are from the Belknap Press edition of Persuasion, edited by Robert Morrison (2011).
Nineteenth 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 Jessica Richard, Carol J. Adams, and Mary Lu Redden.