Morality and manners

Moral integrity

Ideally, good manners are an outward manifestation of morality and necessary to a civilised society in which people treat each other with respect. In Jane Austen's previous novels, good manners are a more reliable indicator of moral character, but in Persuasion that is not a safe assumption:

  • Persuasion demonstrates that good manners can merely be a façade which conceals severe moral shortcomings:
    • William Elliot is a model of good manners almost convincing Anne that his are ‘equally good' as Captain Wentworth's (Ch. 15 / Vol. 2, Ch. 3), until his immorality is exposed by Mrs. Smith (Ch. 21 / Vol. 2, Ch. 9)
    • Mrs. Clay uses good manners to hide her scheming pursuit of Sir William
  • Anne is the perfect blend of morality and manners:
    • She is polite, proper and respectful without being stodgy
    • She is virtuous without being superior or condemning others
  • Unpolished manners do not necessarily indicate a lack of morality:
    • Admiral Croft and the Harvilles are shown to have less polish, yet there is no doubt that they are morally upright.

Christian morals

While society was moving away from its dependence on the Bible as a guide to morality, Jane Austen believed that abiding by a code of Christian morality was the bedrock of a healthy, happy and productive society. Many of the virtues and their opposing vices portrayed in Persuasion can be found in the book of Proverbs in the Bible:

  • Humility versus pride: ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.' (Proverbs 11:2)
  • Prudence versus folly: ‘Every prudent man acts out of knowledge, but a fool exposes his folly.' (Proverbs 13:16)
  • Charity versus selfishness: ‘One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.' (Proverbs 11:24)
  • Honesty versus lying: ‘The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful.' (Proverbs 12:22)
  • Flattery versus censure: ‘He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favour than he who has a flattering tongue.' (Proverbs 28:23)
  • Diligence versus laziness ‘The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.' (Proverbs 13:4)
  • Faithfulness versus inconstancy: ‘Many a man claims to have unfailing love, but a faithful man who can find?' (Proverbs 20:6)
  • Careful words versus rash speech: ‘He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.' (Proverbs 13:3)

The vice of vanity

Persuasion holds the vices of the country gentry up for ridicule as much as it portrays the virtue of its heroes and heroines. In the opening paragraphs of Persuasion Jane Austen launches into an exposure of the vice of vanity through the character of Sir Walter:

  • Sir Walter's vanity is two-fold - it focuses on both his appearance and his status in life
  • Sir Walter's still-born son is emblematic of the lack of productivity that results from only focusing on the self
  • Sir Walter's concern for his appearance has an effeminate quality. This is later heightened by the manliness epitomised by Captain Wentworth
  • He only enjoys people who pander to his vanity, either by reflecting it (like Elizabeth or the Dalrymples), or by flattering it (like Mrs. Clay and Lady Russell)
  • His vanity costs him Kellynch, yet his vain ways continue when he takes up residence in Bath
  • In the last chapter of the book, we see Sir Walter still focusing on appearance and rank as he inserts Captain Wentworth's name in the Baronetage. He has not changed at all.
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