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Purim and Persuasion
The bicentenary of Jane Austen's death in 2017 sparked a multitude of exhibitions, talks, guided tours, and other activities that fueled an already-burgeoning Austen industry and garnered media attention worldwide. Jewish media outlets joined the celebration with a number of articles that tried – really hard – to find a Jewish angle on the beloved novelist.
Some of these articles were interesting and insightful, but their connection to Austen was tangential at best. One piece looked at the Jewish history of Winchester, the city where Austen died and was buried; another speculated about how Austen would react to the low marriage rate of today's American Jews; another reviewed a book showcasing Austen's quasi-Jewish "moral seriousness."
Could we have expected more? There's no Jewish content in Austen's oeuvre, aside from the "rich as a Jew" slur in Northanger Abbey – which by establishing the vulgarity of the character who utters it, also establishes Austen as a non-anti-Semite. Jewish lovers of Austen generally content themselves with this proof that Austen didn't hate the Jews, while accepting the prevailing assumption that she wasn't much interested in them, either.
And yet. For some time now, I've been wondering whether we haven't missed something. Perhaps we haven't done justice to Austen's subtlety, and should be digging deeper. Or perhaps our imagination has been underactive. There's so often more to Austen than meets the eye, as with the "dead silence" that greets Fanny Price's question about the slave trade in Mansfield Park – a silence that belies the novel's abolitionist background. Could Northanger Abbey's "rich as a Jew" epithet (which occurs twice for emphasis, like Pharaoh's dream) be pointing to a stronger authorial interest in the Jews than we've given Austen credit for?
In this essay, I’m going to try to tease out echoes of Megillat Esther that I hear in Persuasion. My aim isn't to prove that Austen was directly inspired by the Purim story, nor to reframe Persuasion as a retelling of the Megillah. What I hope to do, is to lay out certain thematic and psychological features of Persuasion that recall Megillat Esther in ways that might, just possibly, not be coincidental.
Jews in the literature of Austen’s day
Before we proceed to these Purim-Persuasion speculations, it’s worth recalling that Jews were by no means absent from the English literature of Austen’s day, and that several authors whom Austen is known to have read and admired wrote about Jews at various points in their careers.
Two of these authors – Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron – are alluded to in Persuasion, in the passages where Anne Elliot and Captain Benwick discuss poetry. Austen never read Scott’s Ivanhoe, which appeared three years after her death. But Byron penned a collection of verse called Hebrew Melodies that appeared in 1815, the year Austen began writing Persuasion. The collection garnered considerable acclaim and quickly sold 10,000 copies, a bestseller for the time. The Purim story doesn't appear in Hebrew Melodies, though some of the poems take exile from the Land of Israel as their subject matter.
Of greater interest for our purposes is the fact that the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth published several novels and stories with Jewish characters and content during the period when Austen was active.
Edgeworth at the time was far better known than Austen, who mentions Belinda (1803) in Northanger Abbey, in the famous passage vindicating the novel as a literary genre. Austen would have been well aware of the Jewish moneylenders in Belinda and in another Edgeworth publication of 1803, her Moral Tales. She would also have been familiar with Castle Rackrent (1800), in which a profligate Irish landowner marries a Jewish woman for her money, then locks her up for seven years when she refuses to have pork at the dinner table. One may also suppose that, when she began writing Persuasion, Austen had read Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812), in which a Shylock-esque character named “Mordicai” figures prominently. Edgeworth makes these Jewish characters ridiculous at best, villainous at worst, reflecting a kind of casual, unexamined anti-Semitism for which an American Jewish reader named (serendipitously) Rachel Mordecai Lazarus eventually took her to task. The correspondence between Edgeworth and Mordecai Lazarus resulted in Edgeworth’s expiatory 1817 novel Harrington, which placed British anti-Semitism under a spotlight.
Harrington and the stir it caused could have had no influence on Persuasion, which Austen completed in 1816 before becoming incapacitated by the illness that took her life the following year. But it’s not hard to imagine that Austen disapproved of the anti-Semitism that mars Edgeworth’s earlier writings. At least one scholar, though acknowledging Austen's admiration of Edgeworth, detects implied criticism as well. The Northanger Abbey passage that mentions Belinda among those works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed […] in the best-chosen language,” also objects, rather harshly, to Edgeworth’s repudiation of the novel as a genre in her preface to Belinda. When Austen denounces the “ungenerous and impolitic custom” among novel writers of “degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding,” she is alluding, among other things, to Edgeworth’s refusal to call Belinda a novel.
Could the twice-uttered “rich as a Jew” slur in Northanger Abbey likewise be a reproach to Edgeworth? It’s not impossible. I will be revisiting Edgeworth below. For now, I’ll simply point out that, given the Jewish presence in works that Austen was known or may be presumed to have read, it's by no means implausible that Jews, and literary representations of Jews, were on Austen’s mind during 1815-1816, when she was working intensively on Persuasion. I will now proceed to a discussion of Persuasion, and of the echoes of Megillat Esther that I hear in it.
Sir Walter Elliot, Achashverosh, and the Prince Regent
A few years ago, on Purim, I experienced a small epiphany during the reading of Megillat Esther. Something in the ancient Hebrew text rattled the English-lit compartment of my brain, bringing the opening paragraphs of Persuasion to the fore. I was struck by similarities between King Achashverosh’s sleepless night/call for the book of records, and Sir Walter Elliot's periodic distress and quest for consolation in his own “book of records” – the Baronetage.
The Baronetage in Persuasion is a tool for social commentary. It stands in contrast to the Navy List that makes its appearance elsewhere in the novel – the Navy List being a chronicle of exertion, productivity and merit as against the narrative of privilege recounted in the Baronetage. At the same time, the Baronetage is a characterization device. Through it, we understand Sir Walter as a fool who, rather than acknowledging and correcting the extravagance that has wrecked his finances, chooses to retreat into a soothing fairy-tale world of past honor and glory.
It's this bit of psychological coloring that linked Sir Walter with Achashverosh in my mind. It's a linkage that isn't aligned with those readings of the Megillah that see the king as shrewd and politically savvy, and attribute his insomnia and call for the book of records to suspicion of Haman. Rather, it's aligned with those readings in which the royal chronicle is trotted out as a soporific for a king who is merely too foolish and deficient in self-understanding to recognize why he's being kept awake.
On that level, Sir Walter and Achashverosh seem like a well-matched pair of high-placed bumblers. But perhaps they can also be viewed as two-thirds of a trio. Hovering in the background of Persuasion is a certain lordly buffoon who was an actual contemporary of Austen's – the Prince Regent, who in 1811 took the reins of the kingdom from his father, King George III, when the latter became mentally incapacitated. Austen scholars have seen the profligate, debauched Prince Regent as a model for Sir Walter.
Austen, like many of her contemporaries, despised the Prince Regent, who was roasted mercilessly by the press and literati of the day. Colleen A. Sheehan entertainingly explains, here and here, how Austen’s earlier novel, Emma, references the problematic royal with a host of unflattering puns and allusions. A corpulent, womanizing lush who sank staggering amounts of public money into glittering vanity projects, the Prince Regent also had an outspoken, assertive and popular wife, Caroline of Brunswick (with whom Austen was known to have sympathized). The Prince Regent tried to divorce Caroline; though unsuccessful, he did manage to banish her from the palace and from any participation in royal life, while he caroused with a “harem” of successive and concurrent mistresses (sound familiar?) The famous Carlton House banquet at which he celebrated his accession to the Regency was a mishteh that could have put any Oriental potentate to shame.
For our purposes, it’s important to note that Austen didn’t merely play the Sir William-Prince Regent connection for laughs. Sir Walter isn’t just a delightfully absurd minor character. He symbolizes an entire ethos that Persuasion represents as socially pernicious. Persuasion, after all, is more than just a love story. The Anne Elliot-Frederick Wentworth narrative, beautifully self-sufficient though it may be, is also a vehicle for social criticism – for Austen’s reflections on what constitutes a healthy polity.
Although Lady Russell’s influence gets most of the blame for Anne’s initial rupture from Wentworth, it is Sir Walter who epitomizes the attitudes that motivate Lady Russell. In Persuasion, the love story and the critique of prevailing mores are fully integrated.
This is a significant point to consider when reflecting on similarities between Sir Walter and Achashverosh, because the pomposity and foolishness of both characters mask more important underlying evils. This holds even if we attribute a measure of complexity and deliberateness to Achashverosh, beyond the appetitive buffoonery. Yoram Hazony (32-39) explains the Haman vizier appointment as a flight from diversity on Achashverosh’s part – a rejection of the multiple and competing/complementary viewpoints that inform intelligent governance, even when practiced by an authoritarian monarch. Likewise, Sir Walter's preoccupation with rank is not merely comical, but actually harmful at the broader societal level, as it keeps the positive actions and energies of different classes of Englishman from being efficiently channeled. These activities and energies are represented in Persuasion by the naval cadre as a whole, and by Captain Wentworth in particular.
Captain Wentworth: chance, risk, and Providence
A spirit of enterprise and willing exposure to risk mark Frederick Wentworth and his brother naval officers. Austen sums up Wentworth’s approach to life early on, using a key word, "Providence," that could have been an alternate title for the novel (and whose Hebrew equivalent, hashgacha pratit, is an important concept for the Purim story, with its chance or seemingly-chance occurrences, its casting of lots, and the risks taken by Esther and Mordechai).
Chance and Providence are interwoven in Persuasion in a manner that is striking, not least because the very word “Providence,” which scarcely appears in the rest of Austen’s oeuvre, comes up in the novel on three notable occasions.
The first of these is the early bit of backstory relating Anne’s regrets over her broken engagement to Wentworth, whose “genius and ardour had seemed to foresee and to command his prosperous path.” She wishes she hadn't been persuaded by “that overanxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!”
This use of the term is bookended by its appearance in the novel's last chapter. Highlighting the contrast with Wentworth, Sir Walter is said to have lacked “the principle or sense […] to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him […]” But the most intriguing mention of Providence comes in a rather strange scene in the middle of the novel, during the visit to Lyme made by Anne, Wentworth and some of the Musgroves.
In this scene, Mary Musgrove speculates that a fellow lodger who has just left the inn might have been her and Anne’s cousin, heir to their father’s estate and baronetcy. She dwells on the various insignia of rank that, had circumstances been slightly different, might have tipped her off to the lodger’s identity. This preoccupation with rank and its accouterments lays her open to the reader’s ridicule, and to Wentworth’s ironic comment that, “[p]utting all these very extraordinary circumstances together […] we must consider it to be the arrangement of Providence, that you should not be introduced to your cousin.”
This remark, with its allusion to “Providence,” stands out because it is somewhat atypical of Wentworth to bother making it. We know he resents preoccupation with rank (rank is after all the background to Anne’s earlier rejection of him), but as a rule he shows gentlemanly restraint when confronted with these kinds of foibles. It would be more “in character” for Wentworth to content himself, as he does elsewhere in the novel, with a fleeting smirk, to be caught only by the silently-observing Anne. In fact, the entire comment is a superfluity that might well agitate a Jewish Janeite’s inner Rashi.
Clearly Austen’s intent is to underscore the themes of chance and trust in Providence that lay at the heart of the novel. We see again and again how Wentworth, in his professional accomplishments and personal attitudes, defies chance – relying nominally on “luck,” but really on “honourable toils and just rewards” to turn risk into opportunity. He laughingly relates how he once missed a storm that would have sunk the old and fragile ship then under his command. In a playful soliloquy on a hazelnut, he praises those nuts with the fortitude to withstand the storms – the chance occurrences – that might knock them from the tree and put them at risk of being trodden underfoot.
The Wentworth take on trust in Providence could thus be defined as “making one’s own luck” – taking energetic advance action in order to tip the scales in one’s favor. There is a kind of entrepreneurial heroism in this attitude – a proactive engagement with the world that is very much in line with how Hazony (19) portrays Mordechai who, “on his own initiative, risks himself in order to […] influence the political struggles of the empire."
But this form of trust in Providence is only half the story. The other half is supplied by Anne, whose steadfastness in love turns out to have stacked the decks in her favor and left her free for a renewed connection with Wentworth. Wentworth did his part by working and striving to reach a condition of life that would make a match with Anne socially acceptable. But had Anne not (quietly and secretly) cherished her regard for him against all odds, those efforts would have been in vain.
Kathryn Davis (212-224) argues that Austen has proposed a “collaborative relationship between human effort and Providence,” in which exertion is “honored as God guides and directs the course of [one’s] life.”
It would seem that this “exertion” can take different forms. Trusting to Providence isn’t just about energetic, proactive effort; there is also a passive element of weathering storms and sticking it out through tough times. This is what Anne does. Living “quiet and confined” at home (in the stifling little quasi-harem surrounding her father), it would have been all too easy for her to bury the memory of her unsuccessful first love and find a partial contentment with Charles Musgrove. She could also choose to take at face value (as it were) Wentworth’s unremitting coldness when circumstances throw them together again. Receptiveness to William Elliot’s overtures would then be the obvious choice – an assimilation to the values and expectations of society that would be much less troublesome than loyal attachment to a long-absent, seemingly indifferent former lover.
It's worth recalling that the only other instance of the word "Providence" in Austen's oeuvre, in Mansfield Park, occurs in a similar context. Throughout the novel, Fanny Price cherishes a hopeless regard for her cousin Edmund – a love that, on the surface, can neither be reciprocated personally, nor condoned/actualized socially. This steadfastness in love keeps her safe from the advances of the charming and wealthy, but immoral, Mr. Crawford: "[I]t seems to have been the merciful appointment of Providence that the heart which knew no guile should not suffer."
In the context of Persuasion, Anne’s faithfulness is a kind of miracle, and the analogy to Megillat Esther seems clear. Esther, having mastered the art of politics under Mordechai’s tutelage, and having invested heavily in an outward assimilation, nevertheless turns aside from “the road of complacency and cowardice,” in Hazony's words, and reaffirms her original attachment and loyalty to her people and to God. And she does this despite uncertainty of success and, in particular, despite the sense of acting in a vacuum – of having been, as Avivah Zornberg (125-126) puts it, “abandoned" by God.
What, really, could be more reminiscent of the Biblical text in which God’s name never appears, than Austen’s story of a love that persists “when hope is gone?” Could not the Persuasion love story be read as an allegory of the relationship between Israel and God? The people punished for straying from Torah by the absence and apparent indifference of God, prove their constancy in the face of that glaring absence.
As noted earlier, Persuasion conveys a highly critical view of the landowner class. It’s no accident that the novel’s heroine finds happiness in the end with a husband who is emphatically not of that class – whose very profession consists of being perpetually on the move, and who can provide Anne with “no landed estate, no headship of a family.”
Yet Austen doesn’t seem to be condemning landed privilege per se. Anne reflects that the Crofts, a naval couple who rent the estate that her father's profligacy obliges him to vacate, are more fit than he is to reside there – that they set a better and more charitable example for the parish. The stern judgment that Anne is forced to pass on her father ironically presupposes that the old social order does have value.
One senses that Austen favors partnership between the privileged class and the up-and-coming mercantile/entrepreneurial meritocracy. She doesn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater; she wants to unite the landed gentry’s exacting code of conduct with the energy and dynamism of the rising class of landless “strivers” – a union symbolized by the Anne Elliot-Frederick Wentworth pairing. From this point of view, the ousting from a longtime family seat is a real punishment, meant to expiate a real moral failing. One sees the effects of this punishment on Anne, who essentially spends the novel wandering from one temporary home to another, until she finds rest with a man who can provide her with homes that, comparatively speaking, are also temporary (their most permanent possession is a “very pretty landaulette” – a transportation vehicle). Anne’s happy ending doesn’t obscure the fact that the loss of one’s landed inheritance is a fall from grace.
Here I'd like to point out a connection, which I see as instructive however tenuous or coincidental it might be, between Persuasion and Edgeworth’s The Absentee. The Absentee excoriates the practice, common among the Irish landowners of the time, of residing in London and seeking to “assimilate” into fashionable English society, while leaving their estates in the hands of unscrupulous agents who impoverish the local peasantry. W. J. McCormack and Kim Walker (xvi-xvii) suggest that Edgeworth’s use of the name “Mordicai” for the novel’s evil coachmaker/moneylender may hint at a “purer” form of absenteeism – the earlier, Jewish, “chronicle of exile.”
This leads me to wonder whether Anne Wentworth’s “pretty landaulette” might not be, on some level, an allusion to The Absentee’s Mordicai (besides being an observation about women's status – echoing Mrs. Croft's earlier steering assist to the Admiral). If we can grant some credence to the idea that Austen was disturbed by Edgeworth's anti-Semitic tropes, and that the "rich as a Jew" remark in Northanger Abbey is testament to this, then such a connection might not be altogether imaginary. It's not, in any case, too great a stretch to believe that Jewish mercantilism might be included in the favor that Austen shows, throughout Persuasion, to meritocratic striving as a means of compensating for "low" birth or the lack of a landed estate.
Whether or not The Absentee had a real, direct influence on Persuasion, Austen clearly exhibits a sophisticated approach to the landedness/rootlessness quandary – one that sees mobility not as wholly negative, but as a necessary element of a functioning society. Captain Wentworth’s Mordechai-like proactive engagement with the world is depicted in a positive light; he and his brother officers are patriots, their profession “distinguished […] in its national importance.” The encomium to Wentworth and his profession with which Persuasion concludes is reminiscent of the description of Mordechai at the end of the Megillah, “[…] great among the Jews, and popular with the multitude of his brethren, seeking the good of his people [...]." And, like Mordechai, the account of whose greatness is “recorded in the book of chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia,” Captain Wentworth, through his marriage with Anne, is himself ultimately inscribed by Sir Walter in the “volume of honour” – the Baronetage.
Davis, Kathryn, "Austen's Providence in Persuasion." Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 35 (2013).
Hazony, Yoram, God and Politics in Esther. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp.32-39.
McCormack, W. J. and Walker, K. 1988. Introduction. In: Edgeworth, M. The Absentee. Edited with an introduction and notes by W. J. McCormack and Kim Walker. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. New York: Schocken Books, 2011.