Realism and the Novel
How does Persuasion comment on social mobility?
Jane Austen’s novels are traditionally defined as realistic and detailed descriptions of the society of her time, or rather of a specific group within society: the gentry. Persuasion, her last completed novel, which was published in 1818, is no exception as it focuses on the family of a country Baronet, Sir Walter Elliot. But even though the social setting is the same, the representation of society and its rules and the author’s views on it are quite different. This difference is what has led many critics to describe Persuasion as Jane Austen’s most modern novel, a modernity revolving primarily around the organisation of society and the idea of social mobility. Social mobility can be defined as ‘the degree to which, in a given society, an individual’s, family’s, or group’s social status can change throughout the course of their life through a system of social hierarchy or stratification’ (Wikipedia “Social mobility”). Jane Austen is generally viewed as being rather conservative, which in a way would imply her being in favour of the preservation of a rigid social hierarchy and her condemning the social ascension of people of low birth. However, the ideas on social mobility she outlines thanks to the introduction of a new set of characters – naval officers – are much more modern than that and describe the society of post-war Britain and its social upheavals, with the emergence of a meritocratic ideal. In Persuasion, which Darryl Jones describes as ‘both a reflection and a product of the social changes wrought by the Napoleonic Wars’ (Jones, 2004: 166), Jane Austen uses the family sphere and the subject of land ownership to convey her reflection on social mobility and social organisation. But does the author really depart from her conservative stance to produce what has sometimes been called an allegory of social conflict?
I will first outline the different forms taken by social...