The Power of Sickness in Persuasion
Throughout the course of her work, Persuasion, Jane Austen offers much insight into the social aspect of English life at the beginning of the 19th Century. Austen’s characters, through their lives, demonstrate how the landed aristocracy has seen their dominant grasp on the social scene loosened. In addition, through various degrees of personal illnesses, Austen’s characters portray the human body as fragile and delicate creation. Yet as separate and distinct as these two themes may seem, Austen relates them to each other in the theme of sickness; the aristocracy has taken a turn for the worse in light of the successes of the navy in the war, while the individual characters suffer through relations’ deaths and personal injury to their bodies. Within Persuasion, Austen demonstrates how sickness has pervaded the established English order of life on both the societal and personal levels.
Within the first four chapters of Persuasion, Austen delves into the circumstances by which the baronet class has found their social position to be in a state of dis-ease and disease. With the Elliot family serving as an example for their class, the lower portions of the aristocracy begin to find themselves in a traumatic state of affairs. The title of baronet, which Sir Walter covets so dearly that he, “never took up any book other than the Baronetage,” (Austen 45) no longer holds the same position of clout it once had. In fact, as Editor Linda Bree points out in her footnote on page 45, the claim of baronet merely, “occupies a marginal position between the gentry and the aristocracy.” Thus, the baronets of England are a buffer zone between the commoners and the real true aristocracy; a buffer zone soon to be challenged by the aspiring naval officer class. So while Sir Walter comforts himself with the Baronetage of England and comments on his interpretation of the term, “gentleman,” (Austen 63) he fails to see that his high standing in society has become weakened and downgraded in status.
The troubles of Baronet Elliot continue; in attempting to live the lifestyle of an aristocrat, Sir Walter exhausts his purse and must find a cure for this calamity. Sir Walter, as Austen tells her audience, immerses himself in himself, for, “vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter’s character.” (Austen 47). At Kellynich, the Elliot clan, headed by Sir Walter and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, spares no expense in living in the lap of luxury. This facet of their lifestyle has stripped them of all their funds and forces Sir Walter to mortgage his property to keep face in the community. Yet in his opinion, Sir Walter has, “done nothing than what [he] was imperiously called upon to do,” (Austen 51). With the debts piling up, Sir Walter’s hand has been forced and he must find an antidote by which he can “retrench,” (Austen 52).
Showing the plight of his affairs, Sir Walter abandons...