The Importance of the Navy in Persuasion

Cannon, Lyme Regis

Jane Austen’s works center on the issues of the social hierarchy in the nineteenth century.  While many of Austen’s novels show the leisurely life of the upper class, Persuasion takes a turn to show us a class of men who have led a different way of life: the Royal Navy.  Selma James writes that Austen’s brothers were sailors in the war against Napoleon, and her novels show she was knowledgeable about the navy.  Austen probably followed the battles in the newspapers when her brothers were away (20).  The introduction in the Norton edition of Persuasion notes that the novel shows the “new emphasis on the life and values of the Royal Navy” (Austen ix).  The book carefully criticizes the aristocracy and shows the rise to social power of a new class.  Naval officers like Captain Wentworth were often from middle-class families, and during their service they acquired titles that would help establish them as part of a class based on merit rather than inheritance.  This point is key to the plot of Persuasion as Anne Elliot pursues a relationship with a navy man and separates her social values from those of her aristocratic father.   

At the time in which Persuasion is set, the navy was experiencing great success in its battles.  Monica F. Cohen writes that the army was not as successful as the navy despite its increase in size from 13,000 men at the start of the war to 200,000 in 1807, and many people in those years said that the Napoleonic war was won at sea before it was won on land (350).  The English navy had found that Nautical anchor in Lyme Regisinstead of the “aristocratic-type battle that culminated in some arrangement that allowed the members of each fleet to essentially shake hands and go their own ways”, the “newly-democratized French navy [was] battling to the death” (350).  The English naval reforms which followed took the form of a “heightened sense of professionalism and desire for efficiency” (350).  Men like Sir John Jervis helped the navy rely less on tacticians and instead focus on organization and specialization (351).  Captain Wentworth is an example of a navy man who acquires his wealth by seizing ships.  These men’s accomplishments prove that they are capable of rising on their on merit and initiative rather than inherited wealth.  The captured ships were often French vessels caught without a British-issued permit, and the officer seizing the ship could then auction off the cargo (351).

In Persuasion, the navy is equated with hard work and resourcefulness.  Captain Harville, a navy friend of Anne Elliot’s love Captain Wentworth, fixes up the rooms of his home in Lyme Regis.  The “common necessaries” provided by the owner are “contrasted with some few articles of a rare species of wood, excellently worked up, and with something curious and valuable from all the distant countries Captain Harville had visited” (Cohen 366).  His job causes an “influence on his habits” that allows him to ‘fit up’ a home, in the same way a navy man would have to take advantage of every bit of space in the tight corners of a ship (350).  Harville’s house is proof that he knows “how to make small and temporary spaces comfortable—as if his tenure aboard sea crafts had trained him for homecraft” (352).  It does not matter that all navy men may not be intellectual, for Captain Harville is a jack of all trades: “he drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued…” (Austen 66).  Anne finds the house a place of warmth, generosity, and friendship—a contrast to the coldness of Bath and Kellynch, where Sir Walter adorns the house with mirrors in which to admire himself.  The Harvilles’ home centers on hospitality rather than material things, whereas at Kellynch Sir Walter wants to keep all the furniture as symbols of his wealth. 

While Captain Harville shows thrift by producing his own furniture, his friend Captain Benwick demonstrates intellectual rigor: “HeAlong the beach in Lyme Regis was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading….” (67).  Austen shows that both kinds of men are valued, proving that navy men established themselves as part of a new meritocracy-based social class. 

Admiral Croft transforms Kellynch Hall in much the same way Harville brightens up his Lyme home: he moves the umbrellas from the butler’s room to a more practical place by the front door and repairs the laundry room door (Cohen 352).  The navy has taught him efficient use of space, and the Admiral’s refitting of Kellynch symbolizes a different set of values than those of Sir Walter.  Not only does Sir Walter neglect to repair Kellynch, but he is apathetic about its condition and would rather use his wealth to support his vanity.

Admiral Croft, then, performs a task that is usually associated with the woman—the cleaning and organizing of the home.  Cohen writes that Persuasion shows the relationship between domesticity and professionalism, noting that a kind of “transvaluation of gender” occurs when the sea becomes home (347).  Navy men had to learn to keep a tidy living space while at sea and brought these habits back home on land.  The navy becomes domesticated in these post-Napeoleonic years (347).  While the novel is set in the Hundred Days (the period after the deposed French emperor Napoleon I returned to Paris from Elba), Austen wrote it after Napoleon’s failure at the Battle of Waterloo—“after it become obvious that finding something to occupy the navy during a peace was a national concern” (Cohen 353).  The war had given these non-aristocratic men a profession, but after the war’s goal had been achieved these men had nothing to do but go home and find another use for their newly acquired skills.  They returned from war with a higher place on the social ladder (355).  As Austen had brothers in the Navy, she was acquainted with the demeanor of the men who chose this relatively new profession.  Consequently, Persuasion’s message that meritocracy trumps aristocracy is influenced by Austen’s own values.

Continued…

© Copyright Emily Kliever 2007