Rank in Persuasion's Persuadable: Chapter 4

In Chapter 4 of Persuadable, Will Elliot discusses issues of marriage, rank, and entailment with his good friend, Colonel Wallis.

I will be discussing entailment in more detail when I reach the final chapter. In the meantime, if you would like to know more, check out the excellent Republic of Pemberley website for a good definition of an entail, including its ramifications.

For this post, I will be concentrating on Will Elliot's desire to marry "up." Austen gives us little information about Will Elliot's motivations in suddenly reconnecting with the Elliot family. Although movie versions often like to make him poor--he wants to preserve his inheritance for its monetary value--this is not accurate and does not make much sense.

Mr. Elliot is well-off. But even if he needed to marry for money (just money), the Elliot sisters are not his best choice. Although the Kellynch property is better than nothing, it is heavily encumbered. And neither Anne nor Elizabeth can bring him a substantial dowry--more than the Bennet sisters, of course, but not enough to attract fortune hunters.

In other words, if Mr. Elliot's motivation was purely monetary, he could do better elsewhere. Austen seems to be completely aware of this; she heavily implies several things: (1) Mr. Elliot is honestly attracted to Anne; (2) Mr. Elliot is interested in the benefits that pure rank can bring him.

Which brings me to the point that in Austen's England, pure rank still meant something. It still does now too, of course, but these days it is closer to the equivalent of Hollywood celebrity-dom than to anything with real teeth. But in Austen's day, although the middle-class was making truly astonishing inroads regarding its own sense of privilege, rank still ensured a terrific degree of sycophancy (if not quite as much as Sir Walter imagines).
The amazing Freeman and Cumberbatch:
Watson & Holmes.

Consider that in Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, written almost 100 years later than Austen, Holmes--Holmes!--is still a little out of his depth when dealing with royalty. Holmes is THE quintessential middle class hero, and Doyle clearly saw him that way. And yet, even Holmes kowtows a bit to a noble name. (The fact that he doesn't kowtow more indicates his egalitarian nature.) It would be another 100 years before a Holmes would casually and unrepentedly enter Buckingham Palace stark naked.

What is so extraordinary about Austen is that she is completely aware of this issue; even while she drives home the non-rank (in terms of nobility) merit of deserving seamen, she recognizes that her world is dictated by thoughts and expressions of rank. At no point does Austen try to sell the reader on everybody-is-just-the-same Pollyannishness. In her lifetime, power, rank, nepotism, and moving-up-the-ladder are practically one's purpose in life (a history of Austen's family reads rather like the history of a bunch of people constantly on the make).

Not for nothing was Austen's own brother adopted into the wealthy Knight family! Consequently, there isn't a lot of "they may be poor, but at least they luv each other!" stuff in Austen's writing. Elizabeth Bennet not marrying Mr. Collins isn't simply romantic; it is adherence to a tough principle that might, in fact, leave Elizabeth wondering if her friend Charlotte made the better choice.

Mr. Elliot is not quite in the same position--he has more options. But the allure of marrying for rank would be as great for him as the allure--for the Bennet sisters--of marrying for comfort and security.

Whether giving into that allure is worth the mental sacrifice is something Austen wants us to consider (even if Austen has already made up her own mind).
Will Elliot was fully resolved to marry for rank this time around.

“Duchesses have just as many bills as shopkeepers,” Jeremy pointed out.

Colonel Jeremy Wallis was Will’s oldest friend, a stable point since grammar school, one of the few people Will entirely trusted.

“Besides, if you have a baronetcy, you can marry however you wish—high, low, or sideways.”

Will sat in the Wallis’ sitting room in Bath. He’d stopped to see Jeremy and his wife, Stella, on his way to London. He slouched in a large overstuffed chair, legs stretched across a square rug.

Stella Wallis said, “You might not get the baronetcy if Mrs. Clay has her way.”

Will raised one brow, then grinned at the sight of Stella perched on her husband’s knee; one of her hands caressed the sloping evidence of her pregnancy. She and Jeremy were a compatible couple: approachable, unpretentious, full of easy gossip and commonsense.

“Who’s Mrs. Clay?”

Jeremy grimaced. “Your Cousin Elizabeth’s companion. Miss Elizabeth and Sir Walter are in Bath, you know.”

Will raised both brows.

“Sir Walter would never marry a mere companion,” he said.

“Oh, she’s clever,” Stella said. “She’s already wriggled her way into Miss Elizabeth’s confidence. Nurse Roark says Miss Elizabeth tells Penelope Clay all her secrets.”

Nurse Roark went everywhere in Bath, nursing babies, infirm gentlemen, and sickly gentlewomen. If a rumor needed confirmation, Nurse Roark could do it.

Stella continued, “Roarky thinks Mrs. Clay should marry Sir Walter; she says all older gentlemen should marry again—”

“Their nurses presumably,” Jeremy said, cuddling her, and they all laughed.

Jeremy said more seriously, “Mrs. Clay was married before—and produced two sons which means she can produce them. And there goes your baronetcy.”

Will had always appreciated Jeremy’s grasp of basic issues, such as money and entailment.

“Of course, Sir Walter could try to break the entail,” Jeremy said now.

“He didn’t try to break it to clear his debts. His ego is bound up in the property. Besides, he can’t break it without contacting me, which he’ll never do. I think we’re—what’s the term?—estranged.”

“And he may believe he can still sire a son, pushing you aside.”

Will shoved out of the chair and strolled towards the sitting room’s window. It showed a long vista of walls and shops that ended with the commons that edged Bath. Colonel Wallis had lodgings in Marlborough Buildings.

Will said, “I suppose I should call on my relatives when I return here from London.”

“You could marry into the family,” Jeremy said. “Sir Walter has such a passion for family ties, he’d respect a son-in-law’s opinions.”

“I won’t marry the snob,” Will said, meaning Elizabeth. “There’s another unmarried sister. She’s reputed to have a sweet character.”  
Jeremy said, “Or you could seduce Mrs. Clay,” which got them all laughing again.

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