“. . . a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.”—Anne Elliot, describing herself to Captain Wentworth in Persuasion
The Joy of Religious Duty
Anne Elliot considers every decision in terms of where her duty lies. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, duty is a good thing, even a joyful thing. We first see it in Anne’s mother. In a marriage not altogether happy, with a foolish and vain husband, Anne’s mother still “found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life” and make her sorry to die. Her “duties” were a source of happiness. One was teaching her children good “principles,” a duty which she expected her friend Lady Russell to continue for her.
“Duty” was a religious concept for Jane Austen and her readers, like the words we discussed in previous posts: “principle,” “exertion,” “candour,” and “seriousness.” Duties were prescribed by God. Principles enabled a person to do her duty; she exerted herself to do it; candour (thinking and saying the best about others) was one of her duties; and the serious person would carry out her duties diligently. The Church of England Catechism*, which Austen doubtless memorized as a child, lists one’s duties to God and to people.
The Duty of Paying Debts
Early in Persuasion, Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, is deep in debt. He and his older daughter Elizabeth do not want to give up any pleasures or comforts to clear their debt. Lady Russell suggests ways he can gradually pay what he owes, as an honorable “man of principle,” “serious and decided.” The principle? “The person who has contracted debts must pay them.” Anne wants her father to pay off the debts as quickly as possible, with great self-denial for them all, as “an act of indispensable duty.” Her father disagrees, but is persuaded to move to Bath where he can live more cheaply.
One of the duties to other people listed in the Catechism is being “true and just” in all dealings. In this situation, Anne considers “justice and equity” the most important things. She is considering the needs of all the unmentioned people that Sir Walter is in debt to—probably tradesmen, tailors, milliners (hat-makers), and many others with low incomes who depend on being paid in order to survive!
The consequences of unpaid debts were shown clearly by the Evangelical Anglican writer Hannah More in her novel Coelebs in Search of a Wife. Austen’s sister Cassandra recommended this book to Jane, and Jane probably read it. It was published about six years before Austen began writing Persuasion.
One of the characters in Coelebs is a girl living in extreme poverty and ill health, with a dying mother. She makes lovely flowers for women’s hats. Her father is in prison for debt, because his wealthy customers have not paid him what they owe. They owe him and his wife seven hundred pounds, an enormous amount, for lace, hats, and dresses the couple made for them. These wealthy people had long failed to pay their debts, causing severe distress to the family. Another woman orders flowers, claiming to help out the family, but it turns out that she has no money to pay for the flowers, and would have just driven them deeper into debt. Such situations were the unseen story behind Sir Walter Elliot’s debts, and were the type of injustices Anne felt duty-bound to relieve as soon as possible.
The Duty of Struggling Against Affliction
In the seaside village of Lyme, Anne meets Captain Benwick, who is sunk in depression after the death of his fiancée some months earlier. Anne encourages him in “the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction.” She recommends that he read the works of moralists and of worthy people who have suffered, in order “to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.” In other words, principles and examples of religion and morality could help Benwick overcome his sorrows and carry out his duties.
Anne considers that “like many other great moralists and preachers,” she has not always practiced what she preaches. But throughout the book she exerts herself to overcome her feelings, her disappointments, and her losses, and to focus on the needs of others. Anne herself shows us “the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction.”
Anne plans to go to Bath with her father and sister, but finds she has “a different duty” when her married sister Mary is feeling unwell and claims to need Anne. Anne is “glad to have anything marked out as a duty,” and goes to help Mary, patiently listening to her, cheering her, and trying to keep everyone content and tolerant of one another. Caring for her sister was clearly part of Anne’s duty; difficult, but Anne is happy in knowing she is doing what is right.
Anne also considers others in terms of their duties. She regrets that her father enjoys the pleasures of Bath so much that he does not regret “the duties and dignity” of being landholder of an estate. In fact, his tenant Admiral Croft carries out those duties better than Sir Walter had.
Mr. William Elliot, long estranged from the family, wants “to reconcile himself like a dutiful branch.” He has not treated his family respectfully, as is his duty. Anne, on the other hand, while she sees her father’s flaws, is always respectful.
After a month of knowing William, Anne still doubts his character. He “seems” to be a “man of principle” who “knew what was right.” She can’t see that he has failed in “any one article of moral duty”; and yet she doubts him because of his past. He has been careless about “serious” (religious) matters. One indication is a habit of “Sunday travelling.” Traveling on Sunday indicates that Mr. Elliot does not respect God; he fails to attend Sunday worship to acknowledge his Creator. It also shows a lack of concern for others, as his Sunday travel caused servants to have to work on Sunday.
Anne wonders if Mr. Elliot’s mind has been “cleansed.” This apparently refers to the Collect prayer in the Anglican Communion service. It says, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
In contrast Mr. Elliot is not open and has secrets. Anne is concerned that his present manners are all a show, and she is right. She finds out that he is not what he seems. He considers “doing the best for himself” his duty, rather than loving his neighbour as himself. His major concern is his own future as Sir Walter’s heir.
Another mention of “duty” in Persuasion is more openly religious. The clergyman Dr. Shirley has “been zealously discharging all the duties of his office” for many years, and young Charles Hayter hopes to take over as his curate. The duties of clergymen were well spelled-out, including the weekly “duty” of leading church services. In Pride and Prejudice, by the way, in a lovely ironic scene, the profligate and immoral Wickham tells Elizabeth he would have enjoyed the “duty” of writing sermons, and the exertion involved! In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price describes preaching as “teaching others their duty every week.” The catechism says that one’s duties towards God include worshipping and calling upon Him. So church services were both a religious duty in themselves, for the preacher and the congregation, and a way for people to learn what their duties were. Sunday travel was a way of avoiding one’s duty.
Duties of Love
Finally, after Anne and Wentworth are reconciled, Anne discusses her duty with him. When she broke off their engagement the first time, at Lady Russell’s urging, she felt that it was her duty. Lady Russell stood in the place of a mother to her, and honoring and obeying her, accepting that her cautions might be wise, was Anne’s duty. While Anne later realizes Lady Russell’s advice was wrong, she still feels that she did right in yielding to her.
But, Wentworth was concerned that Lady Russell might have persuaded Anne to marry Mr. Elliot. Anne argues, however, that marrying a man she did not care for would have violated her duty. In the marriage service, also from the Book of Common Prayer, the bride had to promise, among other things, to love her husband. Thus, marrying a man she did not love would violate her duty.
Happily, Anne will have no problem loving Captain Wentworth, who she has already loved for years despite their estrangement! Her “sense of duty” will no doubt enable her to faithfully support him during the long separations which the following years of war would bring.
As you look over the duties listed in the Catechism below, are there any that inspire you particularly right now? For me, the duty “to put my whole trust in” God challenges me today; I want to overcome my fears, to walk freely and trustingly in my current situation, in the “state of life” where He has put me.
Duty in the Catechism
*Duty is spelled out in the Catechism of Austen’s Church of England, memorized by children. The child recites the Ten Commandments, and says they teach him his duty towards God and his neighbour. These questions and answers follow:
What is thy duty towards God?
My duty towards God, is to believe in him, to fear him, and to love him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength; to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, to call upon him, to honour his holy Name and his Word, and to serve him truly all the days of my life.
What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?
My duty towards my Neighbour, is to love him as myself, and to do to all men, as I would they should do unto me: to love, honour, and succour [care for] my father and mother: To honour and obey the King, and all that are in in authority under him: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt no body by word or deed: To be true and just in all my dealings: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evilspeaking, lying, and slandering: To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.
Austen, Jane. The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Palmera Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The Book of Common Prayer. Cambridge: John Baskerville, 1762.
Davis, Katherine. “Another Look at Mr. Elliot’s ‘Habits’: What’s So Bad about ‘Sunday-travelling’?” Persuasions On-line, 36:1, Winter 2015. A fascinating article; take a look!
More, Hannah. Coelebs in Search of a Wife. NY: Derby & Jackson, 1858. First published 1808. Kindle file. Chapter 11. Not as compelling a read as Austen’s novels, but gives helpful insights into Regency life and an Evangelical perspective on it. More’s writing was much more popular than Austen’s during their time.
Tave, Stuart M. Some Words of Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, pages 112-113.
White, Laura Mooneyham. Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. London and New York: Routledge, 2016. Taylor and Francis, Kindle edition.