Badass Sophy Croft
Jane Austen, rough waters, and general badassness
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Hope you are getting some sunshine, some good news, and some joy, in these wintery times of bad news and uncertainty. Even if we do not expect smooth water all our days - these rough waters are dragging on, and we can all use some fun.
So here we are. And at the Austen Connection we’re continuing this January mid-winter conversation about Jane Austen’s Persuasion. But! This week, I feel we are managing to make this novel about as much of a pleasure as it can possibly be - and as it turns out, this novel can be a whole lot of fun.
We all know that in so many ways the novel Persuasion is hard reading. It’s permeated with sadness, regret, a mournful contemplation of the passing of time, Anne’s relentless approach to the “years of danger,” and her pining for what might have been.
It all turns out just fine! But as usual on that journey to the HEA Austen takes us through some rough waters, you might say.
But as I mine the depths of these novels, it becomes clear that Austen is always, if not coming out and telling us stuff, is always showing us something. She’s showing us the Terribles - the bad family, the bad love, the danger behind the banal.
But also, there’s nearly always a vision of what might be, in terms of a better family, a better marriage, a better society, and a better world - if you look for that vision.
And a lot of times that revisioning - both the good and the bad - is in the background. It’s coming not from a major character like Lizzy, Darcy, Emma, or Anne Elliot - it’s coming from a Charlotte Lucas, a Jane Fairfax, a Miss Bates. Or a Mrs. Croft.
Yes: Even in Persuasion, amidst all of Anne’s painful pining and patience, there is a woman who appears to be not at all patient; she is energetic, happy, happily married, and in control. She does the business. She literally takes the reins. And she generally kicks ass.
Really?! you say. And if so, why?! What would be the point of this character?
What would be the point indeed! It’s all there! Let’s take a look.
C’mon bro, ‘none of us expect to be in smooth water’!
Let’s get right to that speech. Yes, many of you know the one - and if you don’t, stay tuned: You’re going to like it.
The speech happens when Captain Frederick Wentworth - yes, our somewhat arrogant, impetuous, hothead hero of Persuasion - is rather gallantly, it has to be said (and if you know Austen - you know to beware of gallantry), explaining to his Navy friend that he “would never willingly admit any ladies on board a ship of his.” It’s right then that a character named Mrs. Croft, who is in some ways a background character, sits up, takes notice, and delivers some zingers toward him, before again fading into the background of this novel.
Even in Persuasion, amidst all of Anne’s painful pining and patience, there is a woman who appears to be not at all patient; she is energetic, happy, happily married, and in control. She does the business. She literally takes the reins. And she generally kicks ass.
But before she fades, let’s take a close look at her and attempt to decode what Austen is saying with her and through her.
Because, friends, even though Mrs. Croft does lurk in the background, she reappears with some striking instances - and as often is the case in Austen, when you look at them together a pattern emerges with a message that is hard to miss.
From this very first encounter that is often cited and quoted, Mrs. Croft talks back to Capt. Wentworth, plainly and elegantly (as always, for Austen the best conversation combines both).
And here’s what she says:
“I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
Read that closely - because while we often quote that line and it’s a good one, there are several things going on in the context, and also in the other brief glimpses we get of Mrs. Sophia Croft, that magnify this speech, and it’s really fun to unpack this.
Wentworth vs Wentworth
For one thing: Mrs. Croft is also a Wentworth, for what that’s worth.
Frederick Wentworth and Sophia are siblings. This is a brother and sister debating each other. Mrs. Croft is Sophia Croft, now married to Admiral Croft, and formerly Sophia Wentworth.
This sibling thing is a favorite dynamic of Austen, who obviously had many siblings herself, most of them brothers: The brother-sister energy and the “play of mind” between them comes out for better or worse in many instances of Austen: You see it in the subtle intellectual sparring of Henry and Eleanor Tilney, the tenderness of Darcy and Georgiana, the chilly reserve of Elinor and John Dashwood, the greedy motives of Isabella and John Thorpe, the control play between Caroline and Charles Bingley, and, hate to say it but even the debating between Emma and (both John and George) Knightley and the tutoring between Fanny and Edmund.
The sibling relationship presents an informal way to depict women and men throwing off the manners and mores, and being themselves, all sharpness and feeling. Austen uses it as a wonderful device not only to hold up to us the treachery and joy of family, but also to reveal stark, true, deep-inside, complex, evolving character.
And who is herself Sophia Croft and himself Frederick Wentworth, exactly; and what exactly is Sophia - deployed by Austen - doing here?
Through this entire scene, and in contrast with his sister, Wentworth is a bit of a hothead. Because we know that Austen herself appreciated this sort of verbal sparring, we probably are not meant to hate our hero here. Rather, he’s just reflecting his world, and he happens to be wrong. We respect his wrong-ness, perhaps it’s even coming from a good Regency place, as condescending and chivalrous as it is. But what we are seeing even more strongly here is Sophia’s general badassness: It turns her brother’s performative chivalry rather stale, it stops him in his tracks. We notice!
So, she is standing up to her brother - which shows us as much about him as it does her. As gallant and as blowhard as he gets, he will listen, eventually, when an intelligent woman/human in his family circle addresses him in earnest.
Another big thing happening in this speech: Sophia is calling on the world to view women, significantly, as “rational creatures,” and this is happening for at least the second time in Austen, friends - we all remember Lizzy calling for women to be seen as rational creatures rather than elegant females, while she’s throwing off the gallant Mr. Collins and his aggressive proposal.
This is obviously about upending manners, and mores - and doing it in the exact language of writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication - those societal stances toward women that place them in little boxes that not only limit them but also make them unlivable-with and dangerous.
Rewind: Actually, some of us do expect to be in smooth water
But have you noticed one obvious thing about that wonderful speech of Sophia Croft’s? - “We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
Is it true? No, it’s not! It is not true, not even close.
Some women certainly do expect to be in smooth water all their days.
And even within the logic of this novel, and in the world of Persuasion and its circle of families, it’s not true.
Because we have the most shining, and most hilarious example of a woman-who-expects-to-be-in-smooth-water every moment right in front of us, possibly even sitting in the room with Captain Wentworth and Sophia Croft right this minute: We have, friends, Mary Musgrove.
But have you noticed one obvious thing about that wonderful speech of Sophia Croft’s? - “We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.” Is it true? No, it’s not! It is not true, not even close.
Mary is the opposite of Sophia Croft. While Sophia Croft casually but lovingly talks of her tours around the world, name-checking colonial outposts and astounding anyone listening with her firsthand experience of geography, Mary Musgrove can barely manage a walk to a friend’s house.
Mary is consistently discontent - if something is required of her, such as basic motherhood, she is appalled and affronted; and if nothing is required of her, she complains of oversight and neglect.
Sophia Croft meanwhile says her only unhappy time as a navy wife was the time when Admiral Croft was on a tour she didn’t accompany him on; and because she has mostly been able to accompany him, she explains, she has been happy: “I can safely say, that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship.”
Sophia Croft with her famous “smooth water” speech is answering her brother and his empty chivalry, his not wanting the ladies to experience hardship - she is elegantly taking down that philosophy and blowing a hole right through the gallantry and chivalry Austen hates.
Nonbinary thinking, Regency-style
And yet none of these calls for rationality or standing up for strength and independence, none of that is necessarily even the biggest thing happening in this speech:
The really big thing happening in this speech about smooth water is that Austen, through Sophia Croft, is challenging our views on gender norms.
Yes! It’s happening right here in early 19th century Jane Austen, friends: Sophia Croft is sticking it to your “fine gentlemen” and your “fine ladies” and Mary is only one of the ways that Austen in this novel and in others is giving us some nonbinary thinking, calling to us from way back in the Regency.
And you see this not only in Sophia’s smooth-water talk, but also in that wonderful, rather baffling argument between Mary and Charles Musgrove that seems to be about something deceptively simple and outrageously contemporary to today - childcare!
And this argument has always baffled me a bit: It’s a spat that turns into a debate between the somewhat unhappily-married Mary and Charles Musgrove about who will stay home with their sick child and not go to a dinner party.
This argument seems to be much ado about something, and it’s very funny, but what is it all about? Is it really just about who stays home with the kid, who’s the most selfish between them?
Yes, it’s partly that - but more than that, this argument appears as another, quite differently handled opportunity for Austen to warm us up to the larger hit-us-on-the-head issue she’s going to introduce with Sophia Croft: gender deconstruction.
Through Mary and Charles Musgrove and the childcare argument, Austen is throwing up in the air our established notions of gender: She’s showing us, in a hilarious moment, and in a very contemporary conundrum - childcare! - how god-awful parents, including mothers, can be to their kids, and how selfish mothers can actually be, because they are human; compared to a befuddled, confused, yet more tender husband/father, also human.
This is the genius of Austen’s nonbinary thinking - she shows us the badassness of Sophia Croft, and the lazy elegance of Mary Musgrove, and uses both kinds to show us that there’s no such thing as male or female. We are being human - some of us are good at it, and some of us are terrible at it. We’re all trying to figure out how to do it.
So that is the other reason for Mary Musgrove: Mary is depicting the emptiness of the lady-life, and also how it’s not good for anyone in the manner that Society, as established along the lines of Regency advisers such as John Gregory in his conduct book A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, prescribes. Its gendered way of arranging the world is not good for anyone -and especially not kids. Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft could not have said it better: “Fine ladies” do not make good parents.
‘[S]he shows us the badassness of Sophia Croft, and the lazy elegance of Mary Musgrove, and uses both kinds to show us that there’s no such thing as male or female. We are being human - some of us are good at it, and some of us are terrible at it. We’re all trying to figure out how to do it.
But Jane Austen is ever so sly - and Sophia Croft does not appear to be directly answering the Mary Musgroves here, and for perhaps the best possible reason - badass Sophy Croft simply doesn't see Mary or anyone like her.
Austen strengthens her argument by showing us not a Sophia Croft that can answer a Mary Musgrove - she shows us instead a Sophia Croft that has absolutely nothing to do with a Mary Musgrove.
Sophia can’t talk to Mary, doesn't see Mary, and would fail to comprehend a Mary. Sophia seems of another species entirely.
So Austen in her genius gives us a Sophia Croft who, instead, is of a completely other world - a world that Austen is revisioning, and a world that might present to some as a male world, of war, and sea, and naval hierarchies. And Sophia plays with our perceptions of gender, status, and everything, because she happens to be very good at navigating, steering through if you will, that world.
She might even be - shocking! - as good at it as her Admiral husband.
For goodness sake, let Sophia drive
Anne, who seems to be always watching and waiting in this novel, is also closely watching Admiral and Mrs. Croft. She longs to be with them, and she finds them an admirable, happy couple - and they are indeed possibly the happiest couple in all of Jane Austen.
One senses that, in this novel of time, evolution, past regrets, sad subjunctive tense, current confusions, Anne, when looking to Sophia and Admiral Croft, is looking to her future. To what is possible.
And no doubt Austen is showing us a possible future not just for Anne but for our world, if we will embrace nonbinary independence, true as opposed to chivalrous strength, true as opposed to elegant affections, and humanitarian values.
On one occasion, in a funny passage, Anne Elliot catches a lift from the Crofts. The admiral steers of course several times until his wife finally takes the reins and delivers our heroine happily to her destination. And in another instance, in one throw-away sentence in which the Elliots’ lawyer describes the Crofts renting Kellynch Hall, it’s made clear that Sophia Croft also manages the business affairs of that arrangement.
And their most notable reappearance in Persuasion is when Anne contemplates their time in Bath. They are described as not being bothered about knowing many people, including the haughty Elliots, and that’s a rare thing in early 19th century Bath.
Anne sees them often walking together, as Sophia manages her husband’s health, and she observes that they appear to be:
“... a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could: delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence … and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.”
Don’t ask, friends, what Austen’s characters want. What Austen thinks of marriage. What Austen herself wants. She just told us, right in this passage here!
And what do they want? It occurs to me only when writing out this passage just now that, courtesy of the scholarship of Linda Bree as we’ve discussed, we can see the importance of lively conversation - it’s mentioned twice in just this one passage.
We also see that we want mutual curiosity and intellect, mutual compassion and care, two independent, strong-minded people coming together and enjoying affection and companionship, unfettered by social restraints or social ambition.
The Crofts are defining themselves, not allowing others to define them; and they are navigating their way well - with intellect, equality, compassion, and love.
Introducing Badass Anne Elliot
But lest we begin to think that Sophia Croft is unique in Austen or a contrast to Anne Elliot - think again. Anne Elliot herself is also rather badass. She has not yet developed the badassness of a Sophy Croft, but she has the general stuff of badassness just waiting to be formed and waiting to be launched on the world, perhaps with the help of a massive love match with a navy captain.
And where do we see Anne Elliot’s badassness?
Right away: Early on in this novel, as the Elliot family is forced to “retrench,” Anne calls for “vigorous measures,” a “complete reformation,” a “quicker release” from debt, and a “higher tone of indifference for every thing but justice and equity.”
It is not the stuff of aristocracy, patriarchy, wealth, status or power that will give you even the few resources you need to balance your bank account; it is instead the resources that Anne has - intelligence, strength of character, moral clarity and a sense of duty and discipline, that will help you not only balance your bank account, but also to maintain the lands and estates that are seen to make up the fabric and stability of the supposed British enterprise. In this way, Austen envisions not only a better relationship, a better family, a better nation, but also a better human, and a better world.
Austen is showing us not only that our heroine Anne can do math - but that those who inherit don’t necessarily maintain the stability necessary to a nation at war. (Neither, as Austen shows us through the Crofts, do they exhibit the sense of personal responsibility necessary to maintain a just society - the Crofts as renters maintain and support the cottages and residences of the Kellynch estate better than its owners).
Anne is ignored of course, but even in that she is badass, as Anne has “become hardened” to “such affronts” as she faces from her father and sister.
And just because the Elliots ignore Anne’s strength doesn’t mean we also should ignore Anne’s strength.
When you really listen, she’s calling for - did you notice? - justice and equity.
She would like her powerful, aristocratic father and older sister to not care about status and appearances so much, and instead take on a “higher tone of indifference for every thing but justice and equity.”
Here is an Austen heroine of a Regency courtship plot saying she’s for “justice and equity.” Have we been paying attention? At some point, when Austen plainly tells us what she thinks, we should probably listen.
But, friends: Who do you think Austen is talking to with all this? What is all this badassness aimed at?
In Persuasion, we tend to see only quiet, patience, regret, sadness. Until we look harder - and then we see independence, rigor, strength, agency, navigation, and general badassness.
Who is Austen talking to?
However you want to read and see Jane Austen, it seems clear that she’s talking to power. If we listen closely, it seems like she always is.
Austen challenges our own notions and that of her contemporary readers about what women “expect” - Is it possible that a woman can go through life expecting and welcoming challenges, adventure, love and life? In rough waters? Unlike us here at the Austen Connection, Austen does it in her novels so subtly. She simply has Sophia Croft speak up, and say something that seems obvious, and not that remarkable.
The reader - whatever status, or gender, or era, we come from - hears. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.
I suppose so, we might think, then shrug and move on.
We’ve met Sophia Croft. She seems a bit unusual, a good sort. We’ve never quite met anyone like her and probably won’t again.
But we are changed, without even realizing it.
Thank you for indulging this rant, friends!
Please rant back - the best letters are replies, so feel free to simply “reply” to the email if you are seeing this by email; or comment below.
And if you enjoyed this conversation, you can see lots more, and a podcast, here.
We are all in rough waters right now, wherever we are in the world.
Thank you for being here, for conversing with this community - and please have a wonderful week knowing that if you are ever tempted to be a badass in life - one that stands up for their-self, for compassion, for companionship, and for justice and equity no less - you have Jane Austen’s wholehearted approval.
Have a wonderful week,
Yours very truly,
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