2012 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
Mary E. Pinkes
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA

Abilities, Affections, and the Art of Pleasing: The Ascent of Lucy Steele and Penelope Clay

(Note: As the source texts for this essay are electronic, there are no page numbers included. The parenthetical citations included refer to the relevant chapters of the appropriate novels.)

Just as it is customary for Jane Austen’s heroines to undergo trials before they triumphantly emerge with the assured felicity of advantageous and loving marriages, so also is it customary for the imprudent and vulgar women to fall after their many indiscretions. Lydia Bennet’s union with the infamous Wickham, the ruin of Colonel Brandon’s ward and her daughter, and Maria Bertram’s divorce and banishment are all examples of this. There are, however, two notable and strikingly similar exceptions to this rule: Miss Lucy Steele of Sense and Sensibility and Mrs. Penelope Clay of Persuasion. Both women are young, attractive, socially inferior, and determined to forge extremely advantageous marriages. Both attach themselves to a partner prominent in rank and riches, before leaving that man for another who benefits from the standing of the first. Last, but not least, both of these women succeed in their endeavors, often to greater privilege than the heroines who were their rivals. For both women, money and social status are the objects as well as the obstacles; sexuality and deft socialization, their means of manipulating the odds in their favor.

From their very introductions, it is made clear that Lucy and Mrs. Clay are desirous of rising higher in the social strata. Neither comes from a particularly distinguished family, which will prove difficult for both. In fact, Mrs. Clay is not even of gentle birth. She is the daughter of a lawyer and the survivor of “an unprosperous marriage.” She is, however, “young, and certainly altogether well-looking” and skilled in “the art of pleasing,” all things that both Lady Russell and Anne Elliot find “dangerous” given the woman’s friendship with Elizabeth Elliot and evident designs on Sir Walter (2, 4). The Dashwood sisters “[acknowledge] considerable beauty” in Lucy upon first meeting her, and Elinor immediately notices the “constant and judicious attention [by which the Misses Steele make] themselves agreeable to Lady Middleton” (21). By the time Mrs. Clay and Lucy have been introduced, they have already begun to manipulate the people around them to acquire greater standing. Their flattery engineers for them an acceptance and even welcome in the society of a higher class that neither would have had otherwise. Mrs. Clay could not be recommended to the peerage-obsessed Elizabeth and Sir Walter as the daughter of a tradesman, especially when the latter openly declares that he “should be sorry to see any friend of [his] belonging to [a trade such as the navy]” (3). Nevertheless, Elizabeth favors her above Anne, and blatantly enough that it offends Lady Russell frequently (2, 5). When Lucy and her sister are announced for an unexpected visit to Barton, their relative Lady Middleton experiences “no little alarm” and irritation at the thought of “two girls whom she had never seen in her life” and whom she knows nothing of. However, after a round of enthusiastic compliments by the Misses Steele, “Lady Middleton’s good opinion [is] engaged in their favour before they [have] been an hour at the Park,” and she bestows upon them high praise (21). Thus, the calculated amiability and deference of both Mrs. Clay and Lucy secure their successful introductions into higher circles and ensure the continuation of good will from above for both until each initiates more duplicitous methods.

Soon after, Lucy imparts to Elinor the painful revelation of her longstanding engagement with Edward Ferrars. For four years, Lucy has jealously guarded this secret, sharing it with none but her elder sister, whose lack of discretion proves a constant (and later, justified) dread. Happily for her, this confidence serves more than one purpose. Lucy intimates that she is aware of the mutual affection between her fiancé and Elinor, or at least the threat of such an attachment. Fearful of losing the “the man on who all [her] happiness depends” (22) to this other woman, Lucy confesses her engagement, fortifying her position as fiancée and gaining considerable power over Elinor. This maneuver allows Lucy not only to share her worries with someone who will never betray her trust, but also to ensure that Elinor is excruciatingly aware of everything that goes on in the engagement. It is not Edward who has power over Elinor’s happiness, as traditionally would be expected, but Lucy. Every detail that Lucy brings to her attention is another reason for Elinor to relinquish the menace of her relationship with Edward. Every time that Lucy discusses the engagement with Elinor is another time when she assuages both her present, superficial concerns and her underlying paranoia. It is very apparent that Lucy had no motive for this confidence except jealousy, since Elinor’s hopes of marriage would have remained unfulfilled without it. But Lucy can now depend upon Elinor’s own merits, namely trustworthiness and social correctness, to make certain that this secret remains so; Lucy speaks openly of the secret with Elinor, while Elinor keeps it. Her checkmate of Elinor, this strategic aggregation of complex self-interest, is her most sublime artifice in the novel. By contrast, her exchange of Edward for his younger brother Robert is a simple affair, quite unequal to the cruel machinations that lead Elinor to despair for months (37).

Mrs. Clay engages in subterfuges that are no less complicated, but rather less brutal since they cause no harm except for the incalculable loss to Sir Walter and Elizabeth of a willing sycophant (24). For most of the novel, it is clear to all except for those two that she wishes to flatter the first into marriage. In addition to the pains she takes to be agreeable and necessary to them, she undertakes the task of courting the interests of Mr. Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir, who fears that she may give Sir Walter another heir. Mrs. Clay manages to encourage this relationship almost from the moment Mr. Elliot is at Camden Place, without detection, and explain away a near discovery by Anne (22). Even on one noteworthy instance, when Mrs. Clay and Anne are deciding which of them will accompany Mr. Elliot in the rain and which will take the comfort of a carriage, Mrs. Clay escapes suspicion. She contends so strongly to join Mr. Elliot in the rain and mud, “the others [are] obliged to settle [the dispute] for them” (19). It is completely out of character for Mrs. Clay not only to leave behind Elizabeth, who is her close friend, but also to seek any action that might result in being alone with a man she is believed to resent. It is a credit to her considerable social intelligence that this episode, as well as her general toleration of Mr. Elliot (17), is accepted as evidence of her unwillingness to upset the higher classes. Her motive cannot be solicitude for Anne’s wellbeing, as she later abuses Anne while she is within earshot, calling her “hard-hearted” (22). It could be that Mrs. Clay did it to protect the interests of Elizabeth, who expected Mr. Elliot to be paying court to her (15), but his suit of Elizabeth would be little threatened by a brief walk with Anne when he “omitted no opportunity of being with them, threw himself in their way, called at all hours” (21). It is far more likely that not only did she wish to be in his company, but that she wished him not to be in Anne’s. His intentions for Anne being as obvious as Mrs. Clay’s own for Anne’s father, any time that he was alone with Anne could be a time that he proposed to her. Since no one save for Anne knows that the proposal would be rejected, and since a match between them is so publicly expected, Mrs. Clay can only anticipate that Anne’s answer would be positive. Short of aborting such an offer, preventing the two cousins from being alone together would at least prevent them from becoming more intimate. Mrs. Clay fails in this particular attempt, but she probably does attain her ultimate object. At the end of Persuasion, Mrs. Clay has become Mr. Elliot’s mistress, but it is heavily implied that he does in fact inherit the coveted baronetcy and that her “abilities” and “affections” assure their union (24).

But though Lucy and Mrs. Clay’s connivances culminate in the desired outcomes, the social advancement they crave is its own obstacle. Lucy’s opportunity to gain advantage through Edward, after years of waiting and worrying, is violently thwarted when Edward’s mother disowns him upon discovery of the shameful connection. However, Lucy does not break the engagement, most likely in hopes of a reconciliation, until Robert Ferrars begins visiting her expressly to persuade her to end it. Here, Lucy scents another opportunity, and uses her keen social sense to divert his attentions to herself. When Robert is subsequently disowned, her sycophancy returns them to favor, and she becomes “as necessary to Mrs. Ferrars, as [her own children]” (50). Though Lucy is considered vulgar by personality as well as by birth, she possesses the extraordinary ability to make herself cherished by those who deride her for those very qualities, including a younger Edward, who is characterized by good sense.

This fantastic ability is present also in Mrs. Clay, whose attractiveness and pleasantness are the only things that allow her to remain in company with Sir Walter and Elizabeth. She is essential to Elizabeth personally, and both father and daughter miss her flattery when she leaves them. The qualities that made her worthy of their time make her worthy of Mr. Elliot’s regard, since she clearly appeals to “his own interest and his own enjoyment” (24). While his reasons for courting her during her time with the Elliot family are evident, it is less evident why he chose to make such a bold move as to provide for her. If he had merely been toying with her to safeguard his title, he would have dropped his pursuit of her upon Anne’s engagement. If his title had been all he cared about, why did he not court Elizabeth upon losing Anne? Anne, whom he “admired … exceedingly” (12), represented his best chance to obtain the title as well as a good wife. However, Mr. Elliot is “a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; whom for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any cruelty, or any treachery,” (21). He would not, therefore, be dissuaded by the prospect of a loveless marriage, not even a marriage with a woman he disliked, especially not when Elizabeth would have happily accepted him. Not only was Elizabeth very self-conscious of her age and failure to marry suitably, she felt that “There was not a baronet from A to Z whom her feelings could have so willingly acknowledged as an equal” (1). Sir Walter, for once, would not have objected. It also would have provided Mr. Elliot with the unparalleled opportunity to check Mrs. Clay, with even greater proximity to the woman than marriage to Anne could produce. Changing Anne for another sister would not even be unusual in the family, since Charles Musgrove had married Mary Elliot when Anne would not marry him. A union with Elizabeth would have been a certainty, a certainty which he rejects. The only explanation is that Mrs. Clay became vital to his happiness in the same way that Lucy makes herself vital to Robert Ferrars’s. Her remarkable gift for indispensability is rewarded.

Both Lucy Steele and Mrs. Clay triumph in their respective enterprises, ascending to status and wealth not only equal to that of many of Jane Austen’s heroines, but greater. Their beauty and personality, strong aspects of any attraction, draw and hold the attention of those who are in the greatest position to elevate as well as disdain them. Ultimately, this allows them both to change that derision to lasting affection. This is no small feat and requires no small skill, since even Austen’s beloved heroines often cannot gain the respect of the families into which they marry. Though vulgarity, obsequiousness, and self-abasement, as the case may be, may not seem to be desirable traits in a spouse, they seem to be profitable and popular ones in the case of these women. Their spectacular social trajectories, from disapprobation to distinction, prove that Lady Russell and Anne Elliot were not mistaken in their judgment that there is nothing like some beauty and some intelligence to render a woman “dangerous” (5).

Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 5 Jun. 2008. Web. 14 May 2012. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/105/105-h/105-h.htm.

---. Sense and Sensibility. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 6 Sept. 2010. Web. 14 May 2012. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/161/161-h/161-h.htm.