Inheritance and Persuasion

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot is in dire financial straits because of his poor money management and refusal to stay within his means.  Sir Walter’s late wife was of a more practical bent than he, and she kept them within their means, but since her death years ago he has spent freely to keep up the elegance he feels he owes to his venerable name and estate.  This in itself is ironic since as a baronet he is only a member of the gentry, albeit at the top of the heap, yet he has an ego more suitable to a Duke.

Two of Sir Walter’s daughters back him in these views, although, to be fair, they are probably not aware of the depth of his indebtedness.  Sir Walter is very well known as someone who plays the ostrich when something unpleasant arises (usually sticking his head in the Baronetage instead of in the sand).  Most of his estate, Kellynch, is entailed, but he could sell off a small section which was not entailed; he refuses to do so.  His pride causes him to insist on passing it intact to his heir (his cousin William Elliot) in the same state as he inherited it. This pride is certainly to William’s benefit, but is not so beneficial for his daughters.

As inis the case of Mr. Collins in P&P, William Elliot is the heir presumptive and, although he scorned his future baronetcy in his youth for the lure of a wealthy marriage, he now wants the social status that the title will give him. If Sir Walter should be taken in and marries Mrs. Clay, or any other woman young enough to bear children, it is possible that he would have a son, who will take William Elliot’s place as heir.  This possibility drives the major sub-plot, that of William Elliot’s efforts to prevent Sir Walter from marrying Mrs. Clay.  When he falls for Anne he believes that marrying her might also divert Sir Walter’s attention from Mrs. Clay; he and Anne could marry and live at Kellynch and Sir Walter’s debts would be paid by William, most likely with the provision that he will not remarry.

Unfortunately for William, Anne does not care enough for the empty social status which her father thinks is so important to marry a man she has reservations about, although becoming the mistress of Kellynch does tempt her.  Little, quiet Anne has a will of iron when she has a second chance with Captain Wentworth and William cannot hope to overcome the power of her first love.  The inheritance of Kellynch and the baronetcy is the shining jewel that controls the action of all of the main characters, except Anne.  She sees clearly that a bankrupt estate is nothing to feel pride about, but she also does not want her father to marry Mrs. Clay because it will degrade him to be married to a solicitor’s daughter.

The free and easy relationships among the navy clearly contrast with the empty formality and pride of the Elliot family. Time has brought Anne down, with the salvation of the Elliot estate depending upon Admiral Croft’s wealth (gained in the war), while bringing Wentworth up by giving him a fortune (also gained in the war), and they can now meet as equals who know what they want.

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