Affiliated characters

Characterisation through social interaction

Jane Austen once famously advised her niece Anna that it was best to write about ‘three or four families in a country village', since that was the range of her familiarity, and that was what she could write about convincingly. Jane Austen creates realistic characters in each of her novels:

  • The novel opens with narrative statements which tell us something about several of the main characters. This is continued intermittently throughout the book whenever a new character is introduced
  • We learn a lot about Austen's characters through their interactions with one another
  • Her characters have depth
  • There is very little description of their physical attributes.

Character groupings and plot

There are three groups of people in Persuasion (the Elliots, the Musgroves and the Navy officers and their families) whose activities play a vital role in advancing the early stages of the plot:

  • Sir Walter and Elizabeth mismanage their wealth and consequently Anne is introduced to the Crofts as tenants of Kellynch (Ch.6)
  • Sir Walter and Elizabeth's selfish exclusion of Anne, alongside Mary's hypochondria, bring Anne to Uppercross where she spends time in the company of the sociable Musgroves and is reintroduced to Captain Wentworth (Ch.7)
  • The likeability and hospitality of the naval group encourages Wentworth to visit Lyme where Louisa has her fall.

Character groups and theme   

Jane Austen's portrait of the Elliots, the Musgroves and the Naval officers gives support and direction to her development of the theme of social mobility. The degree of appeal that each group has to us and to Anne, signifies Jane Austen's views on the movement of society toward placing a person's worth on their abilities and actions over their ancestry.

The Elliots

The Elliots are members of the country gentry, and Sir Walter's title pushes them to the top of this group. With the exception of Anne, all the Elliots (Elizabeth, Mary, Sir Walter and William) are primarily interested in wealth, social position, and property. These characters do not grow and change through the course of the novel, but remain static. In Persuasion they represent the worst habits that arise from the traditional structure of a society based on hierarchy, heredity and patronage:

  • They are not responsible with their wealth. They live beyond their means and are in debt (Ch.1)
  • They are not responsible landowners. It is Anne we see paying the farewell visits while Elizabeth and Sir Walter are on their way to Bath without a backward glance (Ch. 5)
  • Their concern for appearance over substance results in manners that are only skin-deep and a shallowness of character
  • They are prejudiced against any self-made man and closed to societal change.

The Musgroves

The Musgroves are a likeable, warm and down-to-earth family in the lower echelons of the gentry. They are rather parochial, but harmless nevertheless. They represent the transitional nature of society in Jane Austen's time:

  • Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove are described as being in the ‘old English style', while Henrietta and Louisa are ‘in the new' (Ch.5)
  • They are not opposed to the social mobility offered to those willing to work hard, and enjoy the society of Captain Wentworth and the other naval officers
  • The manageable chaos that they live in is akin to the confusion that occurs as a society undergoes the upheaval of change.

The naval group

The group of navy officers and their wives is hard-working, active and adventurous. They represent the deliverance of English society both from the threat of invasion, and from the suffocation of the class system:

  • The Crofts and Captain Wentworth demonstrate that an improvement in social and material status is possible through their own efforts as opposed to through birth
  • The Crofts, although not gentry, are able to afford to live at Kellynch because of Admiral Croft's skill as a sailor and Mrs. Croft's good financial sense. In Anne's opinion, ‘Kellynch-hall had passed into better hands than its owners'.' (Ch. 13 / Vol. 2, Ch. 1)
  • The openhearted generosity and hospitality of the Harvilles is a breath of fresh air to Anne in contrast to the coldness of her family and the ‘formality and display' of their hospitality (Ch. 11)
  • The service and self-sacrifice which the Harvilles extend to Louisa after her fall is reminiscent of the navy's service and self-sacrifice to their country
  • Anne chooses Captain Wentworth (a self-made man) and rejects William Elliot (along with his old money and ancestry).

Anne's role in the groups

The development of the heroine's character in Persuasion is as important to the story as where the characters go and what they do. Each group has a particular effect on Anne that enables the reader to watch her development:

  • Anne's family at Kellynch consider her to be:
      ‘nobody … her word had no weight … she was only Anne' (Ch. 1).
    In the smallness of their society she is isolated and alone
  • The Musgroves welcome her into their friendly, chaotic surroundings. Despite their absorption in their own affairs, their affection contributes to Anne's improved spirits (Ch. 6)
  • It is in the open-hearted authenticity of the naval party that Anne feels the happiest, and is confident enough to have a lively conversation with Captain Benwick (Ch. 11).
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