In trying times, when he has trouble forgetting that he owes more money than he seems likely ever to repay, Sir Walter Elliot, Bt., consoles himself with a good book. It is always the same book, the Baronetage, the official chronicle of the baronets of England. He loves it because he appears in it and he can always reread his entry with lively interest. Thus he fills his idle or distressing hours.
As soon as we meet him, on the first page of Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion, we know he's there to be disliked. Not to put too fine a point on it, Sir Walter is vile. He has no affection for other humans and little knowledge about them, though he always knows their rank.
Nothing interests him more than social position. Because he's cousin to a viscountess, Lady Dalrymple, he boasts about her and schemes to be seen with her. He's proud of his good looks and surrounds himself with mirrors. He considers beauty nearly as important as a baronetcy. Since he has both, he regards himself with warm respect and devotion.
Having inherited some money along with his title, he has never done gainful work and in the Somerset of 1814, no English gentleman is required to consider such foolishness. He and his unmarried daughter Elizabeth, his hostess since his wife's death 13 years ago, are leaders of local society. But extravagance has put them in debt and they are forced to rent out their mansion and move to Bath for a few years to save some money. That starts the plot of Persuasion, a romantic novel about a second chance in life.
Sir Walter's second daughter, the sensitive and handsome Anne, lost her opportunity for a happy marriage seven years earlier, because her bigoted, class-ridden family felt the man she loved, lacking both money and title, would lower the family's position. She has always mourned this decision, even while defending it; a "strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion," she says. Austen's intense, driven plotting and her adroit scene-setting make the story of Anne's second chance enthralling.
But there's something strange in the way Austen frames Sir Walter, his no-good cousin, his two insensitive and thoughtless daughters (so unlike Anne) and several other negative characters. Each of them gets beaten about the head and shoulders. Austen leaves no doubt that we are to despise them, because they are morally inferior to both the author and us, Austen's readers, who are assumed to belong to an ethically superior world. While often funny, this approach leaves her narrative unbalanced.
When she doesn't like one of her characters, she ceases to be the subtle, witty ironist everybody writes about and turns into a moral harridan.
I happened to read Persuasion just before the appearance of an Austen-adoring book, A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen (Random House), edited by Susannah Carson. It packages opinions of her by major historical figures like C.S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster with new essays by current writers such as Fay Weldon, Martin Amis and Jay McInerney. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal decided to emphasize once more Austen's decency and goodness with a headline, "What Would Jane Do? How a 19th-century spinster serves as a moral compass in today's world."
That introduced an excerpt from A Truth Universally Acknowledged in which James Collins, the author of a recent novel, Beginner's Greek, sets out the case for Austen as the princess of the moral universe. What mattered to her, he says, was providing moral instruction. Moral concerns come through in not only the large themes of her books but even in the smallest act of a character or the briefest piece of dialogue.
Austen the moralist has never had a more fervent supporter than Collins. She has, in fact, made a better man of him, performing the traditional function assigned to a good woman in art and life. "I find that reading Jane Austen helps me clarify ethical choices," he says. It "helps me figure out a way to live with integrity in the corrupt world." What does Austen teach us? He lists "self-knowledge, generosity, humility, elegance, propriety, cheerful orderliness, good understanding, correct opinion, knowledge of the world. ..." For Collins, Austen functions as a one-woman ethics course, suitable for all classes and professions.
While reading Persuasion, I thought several times of a distinguished statesman, Robert Stanfield (1914-2003), the federal Conservative leader who was defeated by Pierre Trudeau in the elections of 1968, 1972 and 1974. It is an established Canadian law that Stanfield, whenever mentioned, must be called "the greatest prime minister Canada never had" and also a hell of a nice guy.
Stanfield read Jane Austen over and over. In 1982, when he was taking part in the Toronto convention of the Jane Austen Society of North America, I asked him how many times he had read all her novels. He told me he had lost count long ago but guessed the answer was abut 20. Made me wonder about him. I have always suspected that Jane Austen readers are not nearly as nice as they imagine they are -- as James Collins, for instance, imagines he is. Austen is a ruthless critic of humanity. As a satirist she delivers barbed portraits of people we know and intensely dislike, or would if we ever came across such a person.
The reader can enjoy her heroes and heroines but will for sure remember, even more clearly, the moral grotesques who disfigured southwestern England as Austen described it early in the 19th century. Has there ever existed anyone in the world so dim as Sir Walter in Persuasion, or so lacking in self-knowledge as the Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, or so self-important a toady as her acolyte, the Rev. Mr. Collins? Well, I've met a few, perhaps, but ...
Jane Austen intensely dislikes these people, and expresses herself by chopping them to pieces for our amusement. She does it so often that she acquires the characteristics not of a moralist but of a vicious gossip.
Of course, I'm aware that neither literature nor journalism could exist without vicious gossips, so I make that charge with only the deepest affection and fellow feeling.