vanity of person

Category: Class | Type: Historical | Title: Persuasion (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 1

Sir Walter's personal vanity should be understood in the context of the Regency, an era known for the ostentatious narcissism of the Regent himself, of his sometime friend Beau Brummel, and of a court that slavishly aped the Regent's dandyism. The men and women of the great Whig families competed with one another in displays of affluence and outrageous taste (nearly diaphanous gowns that bespoke an unprecedented sexuality in women's dress) in an effort to be recognized leaders of the beau monde.

This and every other Austen novel take place during the Regency, which begins in 1811, owing to George III's descent into insanity, and ends with his death in 1820. During the Regency, his son, the future George IV, acts as a partial monarch (for some years Parliament refused to grant the grossly extravagant prince full powers) without the title of King. 

A coxcomb of a country baronet like Sir Walter is at this time nearly oxymoronic. His gentry peers were loyally Tory and their admiration of George III, the Farmer King as he was known because of his sheep breeding and his generally simple rustic frugality, was nearly boundless. Many of the gentry, like Sir Walter himself, could not afford to own or rent a London house for the "the London Season" (November to May) and were therefore isolated from city ways and fashions. They delighted in their rusticated life and avoided all cosmopolitanism as corrupting, seeing themselves as perpetuating the sturdily conservative core of English values attached to the land.

Sir Walter is both conservative (he still applies touches of hair powder) and modish in his obsession with his appearance and body. Austen makes him a comic figure yet he serves a larger purpose—that of her oblique assault on the Regent and a court that, in the midst of the Napoleonic threat and Britain's immense loss of life and treasure over years of war, is consumed with itself, is conspicuously extravagant, and is fatuously and daintily attentive to manners that have been gutted of their moral substance. The London-based Regency represents much the sensible gentry despised. 

Upon the Prince Regent's request, Austen, reluctantly it is believed, dedicated Emma to him. Sir Walter's antic narcissism and failure to produce a male heir may be her penance. 

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