Captain Frederick Wentworth is certainly an entirely different sort of hero than we have met thus far, which is fitting because Anne Elliot is a different sort of heroine. Thus far, we have had heroes who were worthy clergymen (Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility) and wealthy landowners (Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Knightley in Emma). Wentworth is a self-made man who rose in his profession on the basis of his own actions and accomplishments. As always, Austen walks us through a social commentary as she presents her story. In this case, it seems to be “out with the old and in with the new.”
There are three different sets of characters who either have or have had the responsibility of leading people into the new era. The first group examined are those of “high birth” – Sir Walter Elliot and his relations, the Dalrymples. To Sir Elliot and his social group, appearance is everything. It doesn’t matter if an individual doesn’t really have wealth. The important thing is for him to appear that he has wealth. These people are characterized by their vanity (ridiculous in the case of the unappealing Sir Walter) and the useless and empty lives that they lead. Their inhospitable and snobbish natures combined with their extravagance and waste demonstrate that the traditional landed gentry is no longer capable of leadership as England moves into a new era.
Austen also gives us the “not much educated and not at all elegant” Musgroves. These represent old-fashioned ideas and unwillingness to embrace a new way of thinking about class and worth. They are a dying breed, evidenced by the fact that even their own children have “more modern minds and manners.” However, even in light of the Musgroves’ failings, Austen isn’t too hard on them. Anne certainly prefers them to her own family and admires their warmth of heart and sincerity. Unfortunately, warmth of heart and sincerity are not enough to provide leadership for people moving into a modern age.
The third group of characters are the naval families. Anne clearly admires their loyalty, liveliness, friendliness, and bravery. She says, “Only they know how to live.” This group of people have gained their worth through their own efforts, and their success is a direct result of their devotion to their profession. (It also doesn’t hurt that these families represent the profession of two of Austen’s brothers). Austen gives us Captain Benwick (brave but damaged by heartache), Admiral Croft (devoted and and brave), Captain Harville (industrious and level-headed), and of course, Captain Wentworth (“brilliant” and “headstrong” with “the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character” so admired by Anne). These are the men and women whom Austen labels as ready to take England into the next century. They understand hardships, sacrifice, danger, and loneliness because of their chosen professions. These are the very things that leaders should truly understand before they attempt to lead anyone else. Austen tells us that Anne “gloried in being a sailor’s wife.” It is clear through Austen’s praise of the profession’s “domestic virtues” and “national importance” that Austen also gloried in being the sister to two distinguished sailors.