Susannah Fullerton has been President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia for twenty-two years. She’s the author of Jane Austen and Crime, A Dance with Jane Austen, Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and, most recently, a memoir, Jane & I: A Tale of Austen Addiction. She runs popular literary tours to the UK, Europe, and the USA—and sometimes to Prince Edward Island, to visit Green Gables and other L.M. Montgomery-related sites—and her monthly newsletter, “Notes from a Book Addict,” is enjoyed by readers around the world. Her website is https://susannahfullerton.com.au.
A couple of years ago, Susannah contributed a guest post on “The Gypsies in Emma” for my blog series “Emma in the Snow,” and I’m delighted to introduce her contribution to my current series, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.”
Jane Austen gives us several constant readers. Edward teases Marianne Dashwood about her devotion to Scott and Cowper, Fanny borrows favourite books from the library so she can read them with her sister, Mary Bennet rereads moralist works, while Catherine Morland is absorbed at least once by The Mysteries of Udolpho. But in my view, no character in Jane Austen is so totally devoted to one particular book as is Sir Walter Elliot and of course that book is The Baronetage.
The rank of Baronet was first created by King James I, who raised money for his wars by creating a new rank and selling it to men of good birth who had an annual income of ₤1000 from their estates. Many men were pressured into buying a Baronetcy. When Charles II came to the throne, he created 159 new Baronets. So with all these new titles, there was a need for a book which would provide details, estates and ranks. Several compendia of baronets and their genealogies were published from the 17th Century on. William Dugdale produced The Baronage of England (Dugdale is referred to in Persuasion: “how mentioned in Dugdale …” [Volume 1, Chapter 1]), Sir William Betham produced a Baronetage, and then John Debrett, son of a French Hugeunot who worked for a publisher, felt there was a need firstly for his 1769 New Peerage and then in 1808 his Baronetage of England. Jane Austen does not state it explicitly, but this is almost certainly what Sir Walter has lying about conveniently for his frequent perusal. It was the Who’s Who of its day and even listed extinct baronetcies—Sir Walter bewails the extinction of titles given out by Stuart Kings, and disapproves of its new titles.
He turns to this volume for consolation and to puff up his own importance, but the irony is that the rank of Baronet was not actually a very high one. His ancestors were loyal to the crown and were made baronets by Charles II, but the King sold baronetcies, so possibly Sir Walter’s ancestor bought his? The wife of a Baronet was given the honorific of Lady (Lady Russell, Lady Middleton, Lady Bertram are examples), but not with her first name (Lady Catherine keeps hers because she was daughter of an Earl) because being a baronet was one of the lower ranks. Yet Sir Walter is unjustifiably proud of being “Sir”: “nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society” (Volume 1, Chapter 1). Jane Austen lowers his rank even further by hinting at his Scottish and Irish connections—the ranks of those countries were seen as inferior to English ones. The name Walter is Scottish, and their connections the Dalrymples are Irish.
So Jane Austen introduces us to Sir Walter as a man trapped in his own past, who constantly reads a book which fails to elevate him as much as he thinks it does. His entry in The Baronetage is given in full in the first chapter of Persuasion and contains many fascinating details. Stuart names—Mary and Elizabeth—are used again and again over the generations so as to evoke Charles II, there is reference to his ancestors “representing a borough” (Volume 1, Chapter 1), so clearly they have been Members of Parliament, and the heir presumptive is named. I find several details intriguing. The date on which Mary marries Charles Musgrove, 16 December, is Jane Austen’s own birthday. Is she showing that the future lies in the hands of women—she herself has produced novels to carry on her name, while Mary produces sons who do not bear the name of Elliot, but could inherit if William Elliot has no heir. Then there is that still-born son, born in 1789, a year which would have resonated with all contemporary readers. It was the year of the French Revolution, when legitimate male heirs were heading to the guillotine and society was overthrowing the old order. It was a year which resulted in a power vacuum, which of course Napoleon (a man of obscure birth and no rank at all) soon stepped in to fill. In England there was also a vacuum—the mad king had been incarcerated and the Regency given to his unsatisfactory son. Jane Austen wants us to think about the vacuum left by Sir Walter having no son. Will it be filled by William Elliot and perhaps the children he has with Mrs. Clay? Or will the Elliot daughters produce sons who might inherit? Loss in a family tree was a highly topical issue. Will the pen writing future entries in the Baronetage be in female hands? The Baronetage entry makes very clear that Sir Walter is the last in his direct patriarchal line, is powerless to alter the future, and is a man frozen in time, unable to adapt. All he can do is helplessly record what has happened. And the last entry we hear of him making “in the volume of honour” (Volume 2, Chapter 12) is that of Anne’s marriage to Captain Wentworth. Interestingly, Elizabeth, Mary and Anne are all names of Queens who ruled in their own right, not as spouses. Will Anne be the queen who shapes the future destiny of her family?
Elizabeth has also loved the volume and turned to it often. She and her father seem unchanging, their sterile looks still handsome and unlined. But Elizabeth is rapidly going off the precious book because it has not yet recorded her own “suitable marriage” to a man with “baronet-blood” (Volume 1, Chapter 1). She now pushes it away, with averted eyes—it pains her as it reminds her she has created no new entry in its pages.
Mary shares her father’s obsession with rank and worries that Captain Wentworth might be made a baronet which would give Anne precedence over herself. “It would be but a new creation, however, and I never think much of your new creations” (Volume 2, Chapter 12). But she moves on from the book because she has married into another family.
It is Anne, “only Anne,” who does not bother to look at The Baronetage, and who will at the end of the novel challenge all that such a book represents. She dislikes the empty ranks and titles which might have been bought. Instead, she reads the Navy List, the book of the future, in which men of energy and merit earn their ranks and face dangers, even if their complexions are ruined in the process. Anne speaks often throughout the novel of change and its effects. She herself changes during the novel—she is not fixed and sterile like her father. Sir Walter does not read the Navy Lists. He has no interest in a future in which he can see no important role for himself.
Reading is important in Persuasion—Benwick reads to lessen grief, Anne can read in Italian, she reads with joy a second proposal from the man she loves, Mary borrows library books but fails to read them and Elizabeth refuses to read what Lady Russell lends her. In Persuasion how and what one reads tells us a lot about character. Sir Walter is never mentioned as reading any other work than The Baronetage. We begin reading Persuasion by reading about a man reading his favourite book, but Jane Austen, by including The Baronetage in her novel, makes us think about who reads wisely and who reads foolishly. Who holds the pen and who will hold it in the future? Which books “make the richness of the present age”? Surely her Persuasion is one of them? Who reads works that reflect the reality of life and show what the future will hold? To read only of the past means being stuck with The Baronetage; the future is represented by the Navy List and the new poetry appearing on the scene.
The Baronetage is like a mirror for Sir Walter—he holds it up and sees reflected his own rank and title, his motto and coat of arms. But when a man of the Navy moves into Kellynch, one of the first things he does is remove a great mirror. Sir Walter’s mirror/book, Jane Austen indicates, is likely to go the same way. Jane Austen so appropriately includes in the pages of Persuasion a book which shows us the past, the present state of her most egotistical character, and also his future.
Quotations are from the Oxford illustrated editions of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1946).
Twenty-eighth 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 Rohan Maitzen, Sheila Johnson Kindred, and Judith Sears.