Have you ever encountered a literary character that makes you want to jump through the pages of the book and slap their silly face?
That's how I feel about Sir Walter in Jane Austen's Persuasion.
As you know, the story of Anne Elliot is my book club's pick this month, and reading chapter three makes me growl in frustration.
In chapter three, we read about the possibility of a naval officer renting Kellynch Hall. Many navymen made a fortune in the war, and now that there's peace, are looking for a home. Mr. Shepard suggests this, and points out what excellent tenants a member of the navy would be… But Sir Walter only has disparaging words:
"The profession has it's utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it." He finds it offensive on two counts- "First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man."
Mrs. Clay of course flatters him by saying, "We are not all born to be handsome," and claiming that only the landed highborn, who have no profession, are able to maintain their good looks without having them worn out by labor. (*cue song* "Now I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger…")
An Admiral Croft, a very wealthy member of the Navy, heard rumors of the Elliot's situation and intention to let Kellynch. He made his desire to rent the place known to Mr. Shepard, who brought the prospect to Sir Walter. Of course, the baronet was snobby and suspicious.
Mr. Shepard tried to convince Sir Walter of what an excellent tenant the Admiral would be- married and childless, and whose wife was "not quite unconnected in this country… She is sister to a gentleman who did live amongst us once." He then became exasperated because he could not recall the man's name. After several minutes of grumbling and fumbling for a name, Anne helped him, "You mean Mr. Wentworth, I suppose?"
Sir Walter, of course, was his usual, arrogant self when he heard this. "Oh! ay, Mr. Wentworth, the curate of Monkford. You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of a man of property: Mr. Wentworth was nobody, I remember; quite unconnected…" (So the only thing that makes a man a "gentleman" is having land or belonging to an important family?! Ugh!!)
Seeing that he wasn't getting anywhere with Sir Walter, Mr. Shepard changed tactics and appealed to his vanity. He made it sound like the Admiral and his wife held Kellynch in very high regard, and that they felt it would be such an honor to be tenants of the esteemed Sir Walter Elliot. Since Elizabeth had no objections and wished to depart to Bath as soon as possible, it was a sealed deal. Sir Walter felt that an Admiral was just barely good enough to be a renter, at least preferable to a mere Mr., and yet not so great in importance as to ever overshadow himself.
Anne, of course, was never consulted for her opinion. She fled the room for the shelter of some trees, where she walked with flushed cheeks and said, "A few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here."
Where to begin with overall impressions of this chapter… Ugh! Am I allowed to call Sir Walter a pretentious prick? Because he is!
Looking down on the navy because it enables men to rise above their social rank and earn wealth, prestige, and influence? What an elitist! I know that this was a common view amongst nineteenth century aristocracy, but to have it so blatantly stated like that was an offense to my very American sensibilities. Being able to work hard and make something of oneself is an ability I hold very dear, so it ruffles my feathers quite a bit to read Sir Walter's condescending worldview.
Also, what a peacock! To discredit the navy as a profession because it has a negative impact on a man's LOOKS?! What the even heck! Even Anne jumped into this by saying that the navy, as the brave men who keep the nation safe, deserve honor and respect, and I 100% agree! But no, Sir Walter thinks "it is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once" before they become orange and weather beaten. Jerkface!
I find it interesting to see in this chapter how the only way to really persuade Sir Walter to do something is to appeal to his vanity. Not facts, reason, or honor, but by what makes him look and feel more superior than anyone else. Mr. Shepard is a shrewd man for manipulating Sir Walter's conceit in this way.
At the tail end of this chapter, we also discover that, even after all of this time, Anne still has feelings for Wentworth! But now I'm getting ahead of myself, that's another blog post for chapter four…
What about you guys? Do you share my same dislike for Sir Walter's character, or do you have your own literary figure that makes you want to scream in frustration? Share your thoughts by posting a comment!
Happy reading, everyone!