Many characters in Persuasion place a high value on social rank and consequence. When the Elliots rent out Kellynch Hall to the Crofts, they choose to move to Bath because they “might. . . be important at comparatively little expense” (10). And when Lady Dalrymple and her daughter arrive in Bath, the Elliots seek their acquaintance desperately — for they are important people. Even Lady Russell, who cannot be called frivolous or shallow, deems the Elliots’ actions entirely normal. Indeed, although it is a source of contempt to those uninterested in society, the upper-middle class seem to spend their days contemplating how to be and become “important.” But what exactly defines “importance” in Jane Austen’s Georgian and Regency world?
The most obvious answer lies in titles and ranks. The English titled ranked as follows, in descending order of importance:
The historian Daniel Pool notes that although all titles were hereditary, baronets and knights ranked “considerably below [the peers] on the social scale” (Pool 35). The peers alone had the right to sit in the House of Lords—a practice that continued largely until the early 20th century. Thus when the Dalrymples arrive at Bath, the Elliots speak of them as “nobility.” Lady Dalrymple is the widow of the late Viscount Dalrymple, hence the title “Dowager Viscontess.” As the daughter of a lower peer, Miss Carteret is also given the courtesy title “Honourable.” As the daughter of a baronet, by contrast, Elizabeth is referred to simply as “Miss Elliot.”
Beyond possessing a title, however, one also required wealth to be considered a person of true consequence. We recall that the Elliots are forced to leave Kellynch Hall because they can no longer maintain the style required of a family living in such a great house. Although they apparently possess a significant amount of land, almost all of it has already been mortgaged. As Pool notes, “industry and manufacturing [in the 1800s] created new sources of wealth that could compete with land” (Pool 46). The world of Persuasion reflects this changing social dynamic. Mr. Elliot, for example, chooses to marry a woman of ignoble origins rather than Elizabeth for want of money. Indeed, even peers were known to marry below themselves if the fortune of a rich heiress could help maintain the necessary appearances. One American observed in the 1880s noted: "There are marchionesses [wives of marquesses] now living whose fortunes fresh from trade saved the ancient estates of the aristocracy from the happer" (Pool 36-7).
Part of the irony in the narrative of Persuasion suggests that such pursuits of social importance are empty and meaningless. The Musgroves, for example, are wealthy enough to live very comfortably but give little thought to rank or consequence. They are arguably happier than Sir Walter and Elizabeth, insofar as they do not require the attentions of others to be happy. Characters who give too much thought to social importance are portrayed as flawed, manipulative, or frivolous (e.g. Sir Walter, Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Clay). Even Lady Russell, a wise and sensible woman, makes a mistake when she dismisses Captain Wentworth and commends Mr. Elliot to Anne. Of course, there is nothing like being at once educated, sensible, wealthy, and titled — and that, ultimately, describes Anne Elliot.
The image shows a heraldic crest found in J. Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage, an older version of which is Sir Walter's favorite reading.