The coronation is behind us, not that many in the U.S. were waiting breathlessly when it was before us. But it is to be acknowledged, if not universally, that it went off splendidly. We, meaning the whole world, had the chance to see it for the first time ever.
Jane Austen was born the year that the Americans ditched their English king. No rigid social hierarchy plagued the colonies, who were too busy fighting and farming to worry about who should have precedence in seating, and who should go in first to a formal dinner. But such matters concerned Sir Walter Elliott and two of his daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, in Persuasion, Austen’s brilliant satire on manners. The heroine of this book is the middle daughter, Anne, now a faded beauty of 27. Eight years before, she had been dissuaded from marrying the handsome but impecunious Frederick Wentworth. Now he is returned from fighting the Napoleonic wars, a Navy captain, setting Anne’s heart aflutter all over again.
This is a classic romance setup, with misunderstandings and unkindnesses all around, ending in a HEA (happy ever after) for all the “good” characters, and disrepute for the baddies. This is also a novel combining Austen’s unique powers of political and social observation with undercurrents of humor.
The first paragraph of Persuasion tells us: “Sir Walter Elliott, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man, who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage.“ On the next page, Austen, through the device of this tome, which describes the lineage of supposedly distinguished families, informs the reader of the family of Sir Walter, his three daughters, his lack of a son, and that he had chosen a distant male cousin as his heir. The foreshadowing of conflict makes the reader turn the page.
This past Sunday I attended a meeting of a local chapter of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America. Margaret (Meg) Case, chair of English Literature at Roger Williams University, spoke about “the baronetage” in Persuasion. Professor Case passed around copies of the 1801 version of Debrett’s Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage. It was the perfect moment, as only the morning before, some had watched all those dukes and duchesses, viscounts and earls, take their place in Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King Charles III.
In the wake of the French Revolution, Austen poked fun at inherited titles. She was on the side of those who work for a living, like her fictional naval officers and two of her own brothers. Three hundred years later, those titles still exist and so does Debrett’s. Despite this, England is quite a socially fluid society, and titles are awarded by the monarch to those who excel in some field of public endeavor. That’s why we saw actors, athletes, playwrights, and songwriters in the pews of Westminster Abbey on Saturday, along with princes and dukes.
Sir Walter Elliott would have been quite appalled. But then, as a mere baronet, he would not have been invited to a coronation. We, through television, were. And I, for one, loved it.