Do you ever catch yourself internally narrating your life in 140-character doses? I’m not proud to say that I definitely do. In Jane Austen’s time, of course, they lacked the time-stealers called Facebook and Twitter, but they certainly didn’t lack social media.
Persuasion begins with an introduction to Kellynch Hall’s patriarch, Sir Walter Elliot, who “for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.” His favorite page, it will come as no surprise, is his own, as it contains his own family’s history couched comfortably around other high-born men of his ilk. What’s interesting is that while Sir Walter reveres the book’s role as a reminder of the past, he actually revises it to function as an ongoing narrative about his family’s present, “improv[ing]” the text to include his daughter’s decently advantageous marriage and the precise date of his wife’s death. Like the social media that has become ubiquitous in our daily, even hourly, lives, Sir Walter keeps a record of the good times and bad that make up the circle of his life.
During the Napoleonic Wars during which Persuasion was set, social media was more important than ever, as it allowed those on the home front to keep tabs on those they loved. Lady Russell persuaded Anne to break off her engagement with the Wentworth, but she nonetheless read the “navy lists and newspapers” in order to keep track of her lost love. Like so many of us who resort to facestalking our exes, it is through this media that Anne learns that Wentworth had “distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank, and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune.”
When the now-Captain Wentworth arrives on the scene, charming the proverbial pants off of women and men alike, the Musgrove party takes to communally exploring social media. Showing that a caption is worth a thousand words, Wentworth elaborates in order to contextualize his professional history. Interesting in this case is that Wentworth’s statuses are dictated for him. He tells his captive audience:
We had not been six hours in the Sound, when a gale came on, which lasted four days and nights, and which would have done for poor old Asp in half the time; our touch with the Great Nation not having much improved our condition. Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me.
As opposed to today’s democracy of 140-characters or less, Wentworth’s fame relies more upon the Warhollian philosophy of one’s social worth being measured in inches.
In this way, social media is a far older phenomenon than we often think. Using it to fill in the contextual gaps that necessarily reside in a plot that confines itself to the 100 days between Napoleon’s return from exile and his defeat by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, Austen shows that one’s personal and professional business was just as on display two hundred years ago as it is today.