Books and reading

The moral significance of reading

All Jane Austen's heroines are avid readers, as was Jane Austen herself. In her novels, books are shown to be powerful agents of education. When used rightly (that is, when good books are chosen or when discernment is exercised in reading), reading is symbolic of improvement of the mind and moral education. Whether a character enjoys reading or not, and what they read, are indicators of the author's approval or disapproval of the character.

The ‘book of books'

Persuasion opens with Sir Walter poring over the baronetage. This list of baronets is the only book in which Sir Walter shows any interest. In Chapter 1 the narrator sardonically refers to the baronetage as the ‘book of books', a phrase that would usually indicate the Bible. Austen is thereby signalling to us that Sir Walter is misusing this book and imprudently elevating its importance. He reads the baronetage to feed his already overblown opinion of himself as a distraction from his serious financial problems and other more meaningful matters.

Elizabeth used to similarly enjoy reading the baronetage as it also fed her vanity. Now it disgusts her as it reminds her of her current unmarried status, and her inability to secure the affections of her father's heir.

The precious volume

Held up in contrast to the baronetage is the Navy List, which listed all the officers and ships in the Royal Navy. It symbolises the unselfishness of those who worked hard to serve their country and risked their lives to protect it. While the Musgrove girls look at the book, Captain Wentworth relates some of the dangers involved in going to sea for the Navy (Ch.8).

During his own reading of the Navy List, Wentworth mentions how he made his fortune through his service on the Laconia. Thus the List also serves as an example of the opportunity the Navy offered for the improvement of financial status. Such opportunity provides a nice counterpoint to Sir Walter's fading finances and inertia.

During the same conversation the Captain points out Captain Harville's name in the Navy List. Their friendship will provide an example of the loyalty for which the Navy stands.

‘A larger allowance of prose'

The motif of reading and books is employed in two significant discussions in which Austen elaborates on their significance. The first is between Anne and Captain Benwick (Ch.11).

This conversation suggests Jane Austen's ambivalent response to the Romantic Movement. Just prior to it, Jane Austen has demonstrated her own ability to write romantically, in her description of the charms of Lyme. She also seems to approve of Captain Benwick, who has Romantic tendencies toward sentimentalism. Captain Wentworth holds Benwick in high esteem and calls him a ‘reading man', and the narrator tells us ‘he had considerable taste in reading'.

However, Benwick's undue passion for books is mocked by Mary Musgrove (Ch 14 / Vol. 2, Ch. 2), and while we may not trust her judgement, it is Anne's opinion (and probably Jane Austen's, too) that he has not exercised good judgment in his choice of Romantic poetry. Austen depicts the poems of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron as having exacerbated his grief.

That serious reading is important is not in doubt. Rather than poetry, Anne recommends that Benwick reads ‘a larger allowance of prose' to moderate his emotions. This is in counterpoint to Mary, who is described as changing books so frequently at Lyme that we wonder whether she really had time to engage with them at all.

Literature and love

The second long conversation which uses books as a reference point occurs in the second volume in Ch. 23 / Vol. 2, Ch. 11. This time Anne is talking with Captain Harville on the subject of constancy in love. This second conversation is juxtaposed with the first conversation:

  • Harville is described as ‘sensible' which contrasts with the sensibilities of Captain Benwick
  • It has already been established that Captain Harville is ‘no reader' in Chapter 11, which undermines Harville's claim that he could cite fifty quotations (even if his memory were as good as Benwick's)
  • Anne's statement that ‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story' echoes complaints down the ages at women's lack of representation in literature, memorably voiced by Chaucer's medieval Wife of Bath (see The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale synopses and commentary > Part fourteen > l.692-5 ). Until recent decades, male authors have had a far greater chance of being published than women. However, Anne's assertion is also ironic, given that:
    • Persuasion itself is proof that women writers are capable of telling the story of woman's constancy
    • We the readers are in the process of being persuaded of woman's constancy by Anne herself
  • When Harville describes the partings between sailors and their families he is every bit as impassioned as Benwick despite his less emotional disposition.

Investigating the motif of reading

  • Consider Jane Austen's placement of these two conversations on books and reading.
  • What is the structural impact of placing one in the eleventh chapter of Volume I, and the other in the eleventh chapter of Volume 2?


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