“Westgate Buildings!” said he; “and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings?—A Mrs. Smith. A widow Mrs. Smith,—and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr. Smiths whose names are to be met with every where. . . . A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and forty—a mere Mrs. Smith, an every day Mrs. Smith, of all people and names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her, to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs. Smith, such a name!” (157-58)
the expostulation of Sir Walter Elliot in response to his daughter’s declining Lady Dalrymple’s invitation in order to visit a former school friend in reduced circumstances. This demonstration of the full flow of his rhetorical and indeed intellectual powers does no more than confirm to the reader the first half of Admiral Croft’s earlier observation, that “the baronet will never set the Thames on fire”; but the other half, that “there seems no harm in him,” is disproved by the tirade’s so wounding the feelings of the otherwise self-possessed Mrs. Clay as to make it impossible for her to stay in the room. In terms of the fortunes of its auditors, it is a far more potent pronouncement than immediately appears. Well considered, it might be found to constitute a turning point in the story.
Not that there is a great deal of substance in the remark; it would have been surprising if there were. True enough, when the author wishes to attribute the status of a nobody to one of her characters, Smith is the surname she seems to fall back upon—as with Emma Woodhouse’s protégée Harriet, parlour-boarder at Mrs. Goddard’s school, and illegitimate daughter of a “respectable tradesman”. But, the matter of status apart, the name itself demonstrably signifies little, if anything. In the course of the novel, Harriet displays such qualities of simplicity, good-nature and tenderness as can cause Emma on occasion to believe Harriet her superior, and capable of attaching men of wealth and social pretension. Roused by Mr. Knightley’s attack on their friendship as an impropriety, she not only asserts that “‘such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in,’” but tells him, “‘Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you’” (64). Nor, as the world goes, does her opinion greatly err. What reader of Emma would deny Harriet’s natural and touching dignity towards the close, when she confides her hopes of Knightley’s heart—or would at that point reject as a possibility what Emma, despite her every wish, cannot bring herself to do? The novel’s force and poignancy owe much to its revelation that Harriet the nobody has the capability of being a somebody.
The conclusion must be—is it not part of the truth Jane Austen is presenting to us?—that, as it is with her Christian names, so with the surnames, they are in themselves no guide to the assessment of personality, or necessarily of social standing: that, in fact, the rose given another name, or placed within a different category, will smell as sweet. And of this there is corroboration in the other Smith in the novels: the very Mrs. Smith to whom Sir Walter Elliot without knowing her is moved to take such strong objection. Despite her being through poverty and misfortune resident in the unthinkable Westgate Buildings, she shows herself in manners, mind, and disposition to be indisputably a lady, and even Anne’s superior by right of seniority and knowledge of the world.
This, if a possible doubt—and a serious one—can first be laid to rest. It concerns her deliberately withholding the knowledge of Mr. Elliot’s past unfeeling and invidious behaviour from the friend she believes all but engaged to him in his new situation and persona. When the confidence is at last bestowed, there is amongst Anne’s varied emotions so strong a puzzlement at its not having been forthcoming, and, more, at Mrs. Smith’s having “seemed to recommend and praise” Mr. Elliot in the interim, that, well-mannered as she is, she cannot withhold an exclamation of surprise. Is she not justified? Can there be anything admirable in default upon so vital an issue, and whatever might lie behind it?
On the face of it, Mrs. Smith’s behavior is inconsistent. Instead of the needful communication, Anne has been offered a series of oblique queries and surmises all oddly indicating approval of the approaching marriage. She hopes and trusts her dear Miss Elliot “will be very happy.” When might she speak of it as settled: “Next week?” Why should Miss Elliot be “cruel” enough to affect indifference to Mr. Elliot? Where would she “look for a more suitable match,” or “expect a more gentlemanlike, agreeable man?” The change to incommunicativeness and silence that succeeds makes all the more shocking the vehemence of Mrs. Smith’s denunciation when it bursts forth:
“Mr. Elliot is a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any cruelty, or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character. . . . He is totally beyond the reach of any sentiment of justice or compassion. Oh! he is black at heart, hollow and black!” (199)
It should not escape us, however, that, no sooner are these accusations out of her mouth, than Mrs. Smith is begging her startled friend to “allow for an injured woman.” In this recognition of her conduct having gone beyond decorous bounds, might we detect awareness that the position she is taking towards the person who has provoked it is likewise extreme? What, after all, are the offences she has taxed him with? We should do well to inquire, and consider whether they amount to what the poet might term “direct villainy.”
There are a number of offences. In his early years, Elliot had been guilty of a spendthrift style of living, and of an inclination also undeniable to escape from the trammelling constraints and expectations imposed by the accident of birth. His having found Sir Walter insufferable, insulting as this might seem to Anne Elliot, would elsewhere be deemed a sign of discernment and good taste. The desire to marry for money which subsequently motivated him, while naturally censurable, was one of those things which even Mrs. Smith admitted to be “too common” for outright condemnation, and which so discriminating a young woman as Elizabeth Bennet could view to be allowable in “A man in distressed circumstances,” as Elliot was then by Mrs. Smith’s account. The fact of his unkindness to his first wife, blemish though it be, Mrs. Smith is from personal knowledge in a position to explain, and excuse. All these faults, while they show Mr. Elliot to be deserving of the title homme moyen sensuel, do not mark him down as a villain.
The monstrosity in his nature, if that is what it is, resides in his stern and unpitying refusal to come to the newly widowed Mrs. Smith’s aid, after the bankruptcy and death of the husband who had been his close friend. Estimable in any light such conduct cannot be; but in a certain light it could be seen as defensible. Now affluent, having, as Mrs. Smith puts it, “‘long had as much money as he could spend, nothing to wish for on the side of avarice or indulgence’” (206), he has with the passing of years become intent upon the dignity destined for him in the future baronetcy. With entire propriety, therefore, he had proceeded to drop his former acquaintance upon her impoverishment and loss of social status: her becoming, so to speak, a mere Smith. In acting thus he had reverted to type and class: had “given her up,” in the common phrase, with as little thought or compunction as Lady Bertram gave up the sister who had so “disobliged her family” as to bestow her affections upon a Lieutenant of Marines—or as Emma would have had to give up her dear Harriet if she had accepted Mr. Martin’s letter of proposal.
Elliot’s conduct had been deeply wounding and humiliating, deserving, perhaps, of a term like inhumanity; certainly in the estimation of Anne Elliot, face to face as she was now with grief and despair in her friend. But was she truly in any position to judge? Had she not, it might be asked, herself been guilty of inflicting real suffering, and upon much the same principle, in giving up her friend and lover, Frederick Wentworth, for the sake of “the independence which alone had been wanting”? And done so, in a daughter’s more dependent situation, through conformity with the wisdom of that age, and of its spokesman in the figure of Lady Russell? The grief occasioned had not been his alone. Anne had borne a burden of sorrow long thereafter; but, at the time, she had “had to encounter all the additional pain of opinions, on his side, totally unconvinced and unbending, and of his feeling himself ill-used by so forced a relinquishment” (28). While still of course exercising fitting restraint, might he not in his exasperation have harbored the very supposition Mrs. Smith was to entertain of another, that Anne, like Mr. Elliot was “‘without heart or conscience, a designing, wary, cold-blooded being who thinks only of [her]self’” (199)? What he did say, we are left to surmise; but to judge by what we know of his disposition, his parting comments will have been reasonably explicit; and, once having uttered them, he certainly showed no disposition to linger. When he reappears after a long interval, the affront still rankles in him.
So it is with Mrs. Smith, too; but she is sufficiently aware of her world, and has lived in it long enough, to know that, while Mr. Elliot’s behaviour was reprehensible, he did not and could not exemplify the charge she has made against him. Her knowledge is Jane Austen’s own. Readers and critics can be excused for sometimes forgetting, in the midst of being so well entertained, that in her novels she was writing not about novels but about life: where, as her fanciful Catherine Morland was brought perforce to admit, it is not a question of persons either being “as spotless as an angel” or “hav[ing] the [disposition] of a fiend,” but of their partaking of “a general . . . mixture of good and bad” (NA 200). In ordinary social intercourse, some may incur our dislike, a few perhaps justifiably our ire; but we should be unfortunate indeed to find ourselves confronted with a Montoni.
Through most of that decisive interview in her noisy parlour, however, Mr. Elliot was not Mrs. Smith’s chief concern, though having been her first. The extremity of her need had made her resolve upon a renewed application, through Anne, to the man who had once spurned her appeal for help; but the presence of this very Miss Elliot was soon to impose upon her a problem far more critical and urgent: nothing less than that of making or marring the life’s happiness of the friend she had rejoiced so unexpectedly to encounter. The engagement which she had gathered from all the indications to be about to take place, though apparently not yet a settled thing, was still very likely to happen; and she must now immediately decide whether, and by what right, she might take it upon herself to ensure that it never did.
In that ceremonious age, marriage was deemed not the product of romance, but a matter of family alliance. Within the bounds of her experience it would have been all but impossible for Mrs. Smith to have come upon a match of greater acceptability to the two immediately concerned, or to their family and acquaintances, who were from her certain information delighted at the prospect. All Anne’s disavowals notwithstanding, the betrothal seemed near; in her features glowed the radiance of a young woman deeply in love. It betokened also the funds of future happiness which, despite the reservations Mrs. Smith entertained, might well be in store for the pair. For her merely to mention them would be a work of negation: of the destruction of possibility, with consequences unknown.
In its every detail, her subsequent conduct incurs no fault. First, dismissal of the subject of her previous friendship with Mr. Elliot: “‘It is a great while since we met,’” she tells Anne(194). Next comes the hesitation, and the inconsequential remarks often indicative of profound thought, to be followed by those inferences and refined delvings as to the state of Anne’s emotions, legitimate in the circumstances, through which she hopes to arrive at a certainty. Then the composed responses to the rallying liveliness of Anne’s inquiries, the less-than-polite short answers, and, finally, the muteness to which she is driven. But not before Anne, in her embarrassment at what was being asked of her, has made clear that her feelings relate to someone else, that “‘it is not Mr. Elliot that—’” (197); and Mrs. Smith, in sensitive and mannered reaction, has instantly accepted her word, “and with all the semblance of seeing nothing beyond.”
Almost as soon, her decision has been made, and she is talking “in her natural tone of cordiality” (198): asking pardon, confessing her previous uncertainty as to what to do, pleading the dislike any decent person feels “‘to be officious, to be giving bad impressions, making mischief’” in the lives of others, and, at last, speaking without reserve her condemnation of the man by whom she has been wronged. The account is lengthy; by the time it is over her mood has changed to a considerate solemnity. The last we hear from her, drawn forth by Anne’s wonderment at her first seeming commendation of Mr. Elliot, deserves not to be ignored:
“My dear,” was Mrs. Smith’s reply, “there was nothing else to be done. I considered your marrying him as certain, though he might not yet have made the offer, and I could no more speak the truth of him, than if he had been your husband. My heart bled for you, as I talked of happiness. And yet, he is sensible, he is agreeable, and with such a woman as you, it was not absolutely hopeless. He was very unkind to his first wife. They were wretched together. But she was too ignorant and giddy for respect, and he had never loved her. I was willing to hope that you must fare better.” (211)
For Mrs. Smith to have come through so severe and agonizing a test of friendship as this is nothing less than a triumph of good sense and good breeding. Where in the novels is there to be found a better example of sensitivity, discretion, principle, and kindness?
None would deny that the surname of Smith, which Sir Walter finds so offensively plebeian, is undistinguished: but there is another name in Persuasion which, if anything, is even more so. Not that it is borne by so many persons; but, in respect of the associations of the word, what can be commoner than Clay—the name Jane Austen accords to the widowed daughter of Sir Walter’s steward, frequent visitor at Kellynch Hall, and long-term resident in Camden Place. From these particulars a somewhat unfortunate juxtaposition might be deduced. But the lady is a rung or two up the social ladder in her father’s being a lawyer—a minor profession, at least, despite its provoking the merriment of Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst at Netherfield Hall, and the scorn of Emma Woodhouse for its representative in Highbury, the pert William Cox. In the novels’ world, Mrs. Clay might be no more than on a par with Elizabeth Bennet’s rather deplorable uncle Phillips: but she is also the equal of Elizabeth’s first love and eventual brother-in-law, George Wickham, the possessor of manners more engaging than those of Mr. Darcy, and of social powers far more considerable.
In these latter respects, Mrs. Clay on her first appearance is as impressive. Quite at her ease in the rarefied atmosphere of Kellynch, she is as ready to promote her father’s interests by extolling the virtues of a sailor tenant, as to contradict the baronet in mock remonstrance at his strictures upon the Navy, with her, “‘Nay, Sir Walter, this is being severe indeed. Have a little mercy on the poor men. We are not all born to be handsome’” (20). Clearly, a pronounced if not laudable ability is being displayed, in that this and her other challenges are at the same time instinct with flattery. Having gone through the list of occupations, with their blighting effects upon the practitioners, she turns to the situation of “‘those who are not obliged to follow any, who can live in a regular way, in the country, choosing their own hours, following their own pursuits, and living on their own property, without the torment of trying for more,’” the halcyon leisure of the privileged: and concludes with the splendid compliment, “‘it is only their lot, I say, to hold the blessings of health and good appearance to the utmost” (20-21). Could her words be other than music to the vain Sir Walter’s ears?
A lively and spirited personality is before us. It does not give evidence of the wit and brilliancy of, say, a Mary Crawford, but shows itself possessed of intellect as powerful as hers. And also, in the processes of conversation, an elegance. If to a degree the speech is an indication of the person, then in the style of the words just quoted, or in her observation that “‘even in the quieter professions, there is a toil and labour of the mind, if not of the body, which seldom leaves a man’s looks to the natural effect of time” (20), rings evidence of Mrs. Clay’s being someone worthy of note. But what greater proof can there be, than the fact of her having gained the friendship of the haughty Elizabeth Elliot, and suspicion of arousing the ardour of Sir Walter himself—who, in urging her to prolong her stay in his house, can so surprisingly yet deservedly pay tribute to her “fine mind”?
This application was the very last thing his neighbour Lady Russell would have approved. Mrs. Clay’s association with the Kellynch family was, for her, “an intimacy, which she wished to see interrupted”, a friendship “quite out of place” (15). Due allowance must be made for the “prejudices on the side of ancestry” which, Jane Austen informs us, could have the effect of narrowing her sympathies. Whether the estimate of Mrs. Clay as “a clever young woman, who understood the art of pleasing; the art of pleasing, at least, at Kellynch-hall” is that of Lady Russell or the author herself is impossible to determine (15); but in the sight of the former, the lady is “a very unequal, and in her character she believed a very dangerous companion” for Elizabeth who ought to have been “nothing to her but the object of distant civility” (16).
However, in the scope of the novel as a whole, this judgment, or the thinking which leads to it, cannot be sound: for, eight years before, Lady Russell had made a similar objection, for pretty much the same reasons, to the man Anne Elliot finally marries. Wentworth she had seen as an unequal companion in his being entirely lacking in wealth; and the very self-confidence through which he was thereafter to amass a fortune “added a dangerous character to himself” (27). In short, “She deprecated the connexion in every light” and prevailed on Anne to end it. Wrong as she has proved about him, can she now be right about Mrs. Clay?
Nevertheless, Lady Russell’s opinion is one Anne shares and maintains unyieldingly throughout. She feels “quite as keenly” as the older woman the inappropriateness of the plan for Mrs. Clay to accompany her father and sister to Bath, especially in view of Sir Walter’s susceptibility, and is moved by the threat to his family to warn Elizabeth of it; and her immediate concern upon coming to Bath is to ascertain whether he was by now in love with Mrs. Clay. She is naturally more knowledgeable than Lady Russell, and also more observant. She well knew her father’s propensity to be constantly “making severe remarks” in her absence upon Mrs. Clay’s freckles and projecting tooth and clumsy wrist: but the charm of her being “decidedly altogether well-looking” Anne still does not underestimate (34). But she has sensed an attribute far more potent, in her possessing “in an acute mind and assiduous pleasing manners, infinitely more dangerous attractions than any merely personal might have been” (34). Intellectually and socially, Mrs. Clay is a gifted being—a fact which must strongly influence the attitude Anne adopts towards her.
Is there a fear in Anne Elliot of being put in the shade? In a sense, this had already happened, long before Mrs. Clay’s advent; and long ago, also, she had “become hardened” to the state. For temperamental and other reasons, Anne was odd man out in that family—was “nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way” (5). She is a steady, serious character, in manner gentle and self-effacing; it is typical of her that, much as she is minded to reply upon her father’s reproof at her visits in Westgate Buildings, she says nothing.
Whenever she speaks at length, it appears that she does so by effort. She is happier and more herself in making what is best described as minimal comment, though it is not insignificant that a quiet remark from her can be unusually forceful. In contrast to Mrs. Clay’s long speeches in defence of the Navy, Anne’s mild observation that they “‘have at least an equal claim with any other set of men’” not only commands respect, but serves to direct the conversation (19). In the very different setting of the windy Cobb after Louisa’s fall, when the party are transfixed with horror, Anne’s words, again sparing, are of instant effect, for they proceed from a clear and resolute understanding. “‘A surgeon!’” precipitates action; “‘Captain Benwick, would it not be better for Captain Benwick?” a change of plan (110). When, at the Harville’s, she is obliged to affirm her willingness to stay and look after Louisa, it is done as briefly as courtesy will permit. Rather than springing from any sense of inadequacy, this reserve in Anne Elliot seems the sign of a personal integrity and assurance.
The same may be said concerning that helpfulness of disposition which is as constant in her as it is unaffected. It is not just out of duty, but evidently with pleasure that she has industriously made catalogues of the books and pictures at Kellynch, sorted out the plants to be taken or left, and gone to almost every house in the parish as a take-leave. Again, her instinct when the newly engaged Henrietta confides her anxieties about her husband’s future is a readiness “to do good” by entering interestedly into the subject, acquiescing in Henrietta’s sentiments and wishes, and adding kindly encouragement of her own. And, on her coming to stay at Kellynch Lodge, and hearing Lady Russell discoursing upon the Kellynch family’s concerns when her own thoughts were engrossed by the people at Lyme, and the friendship of the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, she consciously makes the exertion which courtesy demands, to be able “to meet Lady Russell with any thing like the appearance of equal solicitude, on topics which had by nature the first claim on her” (124). All this is simple good manners, of course, but it is also genuine good will: the two are not very dissimilar.
In the ordinary course of events, Anne Elliot’s reactions always tend to be natural and right, often even laudable. Upon visiting the Crofts at Kellynch after they have taken possession, she gives no thought to her own family’s loss: she “could but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay” (125). The Admiral’s wayward and sometimes brusque manners do not obscure for her that “goodness of heart” in which she takes such delight; though his perplexity at the number of mirrors in her father’s room, and their declaring him “‘a rather dressy man for his time of life,’” leaves her, while amused in spite of herself, apprehensively “rather distressed for an answer” (128). The barely suppressed grief of Captain Harville, as he speaks of the sister so recently lost, is met with her suggestion, comforting though it be commonplace, “‘but in time, perhaps—we know what time does in every case of affliction’” (108). By the thought, when first she is in Westgate Buildings, of the instances of selflessness and fortitude in human nature at its noblest which must pass before those who nurse the sick, Anne is moved; and in the crippled Mrs. Smith’s cheerfulness, her power of transforming an evil into good, she reverently finds “the choicest gift of Heaven.”
Such sentiments, if not novel, have nothing of the pretentious about them, but are entirely just. And the same holds true of Anne’s responses in encounters with the opposite sex: while properly modest, they are in no way missish. Finding herself being very directly complimented by Mr. Elliot during the interval of the concert, she reacts blushingly with an attempt to change the conversation: “‘For shame, for shame!—this is too much of flattery. I forget what we are to have next,’ turning to the bill” (187). But she will restrain neither her pleasure nor her inquiries at Charles Musgrove’s news of Captain Benwick’s admiring her exceedingly, despite Mary’s graceless disparagement of the idea; and from that time her head is full of the thought of meeting or seeing him again. And why not?
What distinguishes Anne’s behavior from that of a Catherine Morland in her inexperience, and of an Elizabeth Bennet in her capacity to be misled by her spirits, is the implicit conformity to standards which never fails her: standards of decorum, needless to say, and also of morality. The briefest of chance meetings with a stranger at a seaside inn reveal him, “by the readiness and propriety of his apologies” (104), to be a befitting object for her approval and interest. But the excellent manners of this person prove insufficient seriously to recommend him. In themselves they are pleasing to her, as they are commendable by the precepts of her day; but beyond them, she cannot be satisfied that she really knows his character. Hints of bad habits, of a past carelessness on serious matters, arise from further acquaintance with him; and though in mature years he might have come to think differently, what, she asks herself, were now his sentiments—and “How could it ever be ascertained that his mind was truly cleansed?” (161).
We are dealing here with an engaging severity, not unlike that sometimes displayed by Fanny Price, but wider-ranging and better informed: with a conceptual kind of thinking, in fact, of sufficient depth to be able, when occasion demands, to capture the essence of that age’s outlook, and state it with admirable conciseness. Consider the advice Anne Elliot gives to young Captain Benwick, impassioned as he allows himself to become, that evening at the Harville’s, under the influence of a broken heart and the tenderest outpourings of Scott and Byron: that she considers it poetry’s misfortune “to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoy it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly” (100-01). Is it not the voice of the eighteenth century itself that we are hearing in her dictum—or in the recommendation that Benwick apply himself instead to the study of works of morality and memoirs “calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest of moral and religious endurances” (101)? Unlike Fanny Price, whose reflections, dedicated conformist though she is, show her as standing almost on the brink of romanticism, Anne Elliot reveals herself in these speeches to be a thoroughgoing conventionalist.
And she is declared so by a further and yet more formidable constituent of her nature—whose presence there is most pronounced upon occasions when it might be expected to be least in evidence. One occasion comes as she and Wentworth, restored to each other at last, are pacing the quiet and retired gravel-walk in Bath, oblivious of the bustling life around them, explaining to each other through those precious moments their past actions and feelings. Wentworth is eloquent upon his despair during the concert at seeing her in the company of the same Lady Russell who had before persuaded her to reject him. Anne is genuinely surprised that he should have so misjudged. Previously, she had yielded to persuasion on the side of safety, as was her duty; but could he not have seen that in Bath she was not duty-bound; indeed, that in marrying a man “indifferent” to her she would have violated duty through the risk she was taking? Quite how Wentworth was to recognise and be sure of this indifference she does not explain, and probably would be unable to say: but what is transparently clear to her—and, she feels, ought to be as obvious to him—is duty as a moving principle where she is concerned. Diplomatically enough, Wentworth answers, “‘Perhaps I ought to have reasoned thus . . . but I could not’” (245). We can only sympathise.
Anne Elliot appears to be on remarkably good terms with the “Stern daughter of the voice of God”; so much so, that she dedicates the ensuing opportunity of tender communication to a further exposition. It is after the drawing rooms at Camden Place have been lighted up, the company at Miss Elliot’s card party assembled, and the two have stolen away in pretended admiration of a display of greenhouse plants. She has been trying, she tells Wentworth, to judge her own action in obeying Lady Russell—“‘whom,’” she confides, “‘you will love better than you do now’” (246). And she had been right to do so, despite the eight and a half years of separation, since otherwise, “‘I should have suffered in my conscience.’” And, as emphatically, she concludes: “‘I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman’s portion.’”
Wentworth replies only by referring to the point of his future relationship with Lady Russell: the disquisition itself is studiously, and one may think advisedly, ignored. If Anne expected concurrence with the final remark, or with the incipient self-congratulation which had gone before, none was to be forthcoming. The reader is possibly entitled to infer from Wentworth’s silence, as well as some suppressed alarm, the disinclination any lover would feel to encourage the beloved in such flights into the moralistic sublime. The notion that she would have suffered greater disquiet in being with him than the pain she had endured in being without him is not one likely to recommend itself to the hero, whatever satisfaction it might afford the heroine.
Perhaps our best resort for adjudging this idiosyncrasy in Anne Elliot is to Jane Austen herself, who, in mentioning Persuasion to her niece Fanny Knight, wrote, “You will not like it, so you need not be impatient. You may perhaps like the Heroine, as she is almost too good for me” (Letters 23 March 1817). Such a confession from such a source is not to be disregarded. It gains credence from the apt comment of her biographer Elizabeth Jenkins, that, after her initial blunder in breaking off her engagement with the man she truly loved, Anne “never makes a single error in morality, judgement or taste”; but she observes that her character nonetheless remains neither priggish nor unreal, through her clear-sightedness as to her family’s failings, and the tremulous experience of emotion’s depths and heights, which combine to “keep her altogether vulnerable and human” (293).
Anne’s sensitivity to the “thousand natural shocks” life has for us does to an extent moderate, or rather reconcile us to, the goodness in question. But there is evident in her also a predisposition no less human and humbling, which may however properly lead us to speculate whether the “goodness” Jane Austen comes near to reprehending in Anne Elliot is not to be regarded as somewhat more social than moral, though pertaining to both sorts of virtues: as being rather a correctness, in keeping with the age’s delineations as to what was ideal and so appropriate for admiration and imitation in a young woman, while yet with respect to the former incurring some tincture of that society’s austerities.
At the risk of some slight injustice to Anne, the suggestion can be made that it might be detected in a wholly inconsequential remark of hers to Mrs. Smith, who had asked whether she had noticed the woman who opened the door to her the previous day. Anne’s reply is, “‘No. Was it Mrs. Speed, as usual, or the maid? I observed no one in particular’” (197). The omission had been innocent: it is not incumbent upon, or in the habit of, young ladies like herself to pay any special attention to servants, or to the lower orders in general. For this reason, the pleasure which Mrs. Smith confesses she has derived from listening to Nurse Rooke strikes Anne as somewhat singular; but, “far from wishing to cavil at” it, she responds, “‘Women of that class have great opportunities, and if they are intelligent may be worth listening to’” (155-56). Harmless truism though this be, it is at the same time in the nature of a concession—and one from which it may be safely conjectured that Anne has done little listening of that variety. These are incidental touches, and in themselves carry little weight; but they are germane to the far more definite comment later on in the session, provoked by Mrs. Smith’s inability, during the years of her early acquaintance with Mr. Elliot, to see much wrong in his marrying for money, when this was so common a recourse amongst the young men they then knew. “‘But was she not a very low woman?’” Anne asks (202). There is an incredulity and near expostulation in the remark, which imparts a note of finality. It is not insignificant that Mrs. Smith wholly accords with the sentiment.
In this attitude, both are being correct. Even for the rich and seemingly less fastidious Emma Woodhouse, the evident “indifference to a confusion of rank” in Frank Churchill’s recommending a fortnightly ball at the Crown Inn, despite the objection urged upon him of “the want of proper families” in the neighbourhood, “ bordered upon inelegance of mind” unacceptable in someone of his station (198). Is Anne Elliot to be blamed for sharing views so universally held?
That she has them is certain; but in a curious way she is made to profess a discrepant freedom with regard to rank at variance with the otherwise instinctive and conventional position she takes. When Mr. Elliot seeks to persuade her of the importance of their accepting Lady Dalrymple’s preparedness to welcome them, and “‘enjoy[ing] all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible,’” she makes the almost heretical assertion, in intimating, “‘I suppose (smiling) I have more pride than any of you,’” that they have been too solicitous in getting the relationship acknowledged, and that she is and must remain “‘too proud to enjoy a welcome which depends so entirely upon place’” (150-51). Her idea of good company she had already informed him to be that of “‘clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation’”; and she does, to do her justice, in general show an impatience with society’s externalities, like “the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display” (98), and the tedious social gatherings which were “but a mixture of those who had never met before, and those who met too often” (245). Not that this tendency, errant though it be, will lead her too far astray. The prospect of becoming the next Lady Elliot through marriage with the heir presumptive, when first put before her by her friend Lady Russell, obliges Anne to turn and walk aside and pretend employment in the attempt to repress the feelings it creates: “For a few moments her imagination and her heart were bewitched” (160). It is realization of the incapacity of the man in the affair to exercise bewitchment upon her that causes the dream to disperse; rank itself, and properly so, is under no such disqualification.
The effect of this irregularity—or inconsistency, as it might be supposed—in Anne’s character is to make her appear to rise above, and so to obscure, her more ordinary attitude to the matter of rank and class. Jane Austen endows her with, as it were, a refreshing incorrectness which, in its humanity, is safe from criticism and beyond reproach, but which yet does not have sufficient hold to divide her from her more normal and conventional self. Thus is fulfilled a need in the heroine, and manifestly in the author, that Anne’s condition of being “almost too good” does not develop into excess: that, though granted such impressive endowment of heroic charm, she will remain “A Creature not too bright or good/For human nature’s daily food”—particularly as regards the social attitudes she was born to.
Thus, for all that it is undoubted and abundant in Anne Elliot, her good will may not extend to Mrs. Clay. Instead, there is a sophisticated vigilance that is quick to detect a fault, to fathom the pretences she is often put to in her attentions to the family which has so condescendingly welcomed her into their midst. She is only a visitor when we first find her with them, the reason being —as Anne is aware of it—that her father Mr. Shepherd had driven her over, “nothing being of so much use to Mrs. Clay’s health as a drive to Kellynch” (18). In her eagerness to enumerate the depredations upon men’s health and looks of professional practice, we are informed—again, it seems, in terms of Anne’s recognition—that “she stopt a moment to consider what might do for the clergyman” (20). These contrivances, if they are at all culpable, are trifling; but that they are being viewed with suspicion, or scorn, cannot be denied. Such perceptions in Anne are illustrative of a dislike, or even an antagonism, that is unrelieved to the novel’s end. Even the “pleasant and smiling” greeting she receives from Mrs. Clay upon her coming to Bath is contemptuously regarded: “Anne had always thought she would pretend what was proper on her arrival” (137).
Without doubt, it is the danger she constitutes to her own and her sister’s prospects which gives rise to this critical spirit; but the reality of the hurt is plain. Anne’s early encounters with Mrs. Clay in Camden Place are diversified by Mr. Elliot’s frequent visits; and, as we are in due course informed, “[H]er satisfaction in Mr. Elliot outweighed all the plague of Mrs. Clay” (147). The term is a trifle less than ladylike; and so perhaps is what makes Anne ready to overlook Mr. Elliot’s lenient censure of her notions of good society: “she was pleased with him for not liking Mrs. Clay; and her conscience admitted that his wishing to promote her father’s getting great acquaintance, was more than excusable in the view of defeating her” (151). Being afterwards put on her guard against him by Mrs. Smith’s revelation plunges her therefore into a rather diverting state of exasperation.
It was bad enough that a Mrs. Clay should be always before her; but that a deeper hypocrite should be added to their party, seemed the destruction of every thing like peace and comfort. (215)
To be set between a Scylla and a Charybdis in the confines of a drawing room is a fate no one would envy.
Is it pure alarm at “results the most serious to his family” that would follow from her father’s marrying Mrs. Clay which causes Anne to warn Elizabeth, “who in the event of such a reverse would be so much more pitied than herself”? Or is there an admixture of fear of the disgrace which Mrs. Clay’s “low” condition would bring upon them all? There is nothing about the latter possibility in what she says to Elizabeth; but it is almost entirely in terms of rank that she is answered, inheritance as such being relegated almost to an afterthought. “‘Mrs. Clay,’” Elizabeth tells Anne with warmth, “‘never forgets who she is’” (35); more strongly than most people, “‘she reprobates all inequality of condition and rank’”; and her sentiments upon marriage are in this respect “‘particularly nice.’” The substance of the matter, though unstated in Anne’s approach, is asserted by Elizabeth, and understood by both, to be the formidable barrier of social decorum which they know to exist, and behind which, presumably, they should feel themselves secure.
Upon that bulwark, the visit Anne was to make to Mrs. Smith is nothing less than a formal assault: a clear defiance of established custom. And not without due deliberation and caution is it undertaken. From the personal viewpoint, Anne was confident of not being grossly in error. Apart from intervening misfortunes since they had last seen each other, Mrs. Smith had strong claims upon her in her present crippled state, and in that past kindness when Anne had returned to school grieving over her mother’s death, “which had considerably lessened her misery, and could never be remembered with indifference” (152). These considerations, however, were in themselves not enough: in an affair of such moment, it was needful to have recourse to an elder’s experience and principle, and Anne applied to Lady Russell. Her judgment was favourable: Anne’s youthful friendship, the then Miss Hamilton’s comfortable circumstances and her subsequently becoming the wife of a man of fortune, as well as charitable concern for an invalid, sufficiently militated against her present penniless condition for Anne to renew acquaintance with her. But Lady Russell’s preparedness to convey her “as near to Mrs. Smith’s lodgings in Westgate Buildings, as she chose to be taken” betokens the equivocal nature of the proceeding in the minds of both ladies (153). A stern critic—and what is more, a fair and impartial one—might see in it an apprehension lest the coach and its owner should be so sullied by that proximity as to be in need of the month’s ablution which Elizabeth irreverently imagined Mr. Darcy would resort to, in order that he might be cleansed from the impurities of Gracechurch Street were he once to enter it (PP 141).
But this time Lady Russell’s judgment had been sound. Once the awkwardness and emotion of the first moments have faded, Mrs. Smith is, for Anne, still as much the lady of her remembrance as Mr. Elliot is the gentleman when she first sets eyes on him. Yet she has not been without trepidation as to what change intervening years and events might have brought about in her erstwhile friend. Happily, we are informed, as the meeting progressed, Anne finds in Mrs. Smith “the good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend on” (153). The implication of verb and adverb conjoined surely is testimony to the existence in Anne Elliot of apprehensions regarding the enterprise she was engaged upon, not so very far removed from Sir Walter’s own. But swiftly they have been done away. It cannot be said at this point that she has crossed the Rubicon of social decorum; but she is now at least safely over one of its lesser tributaries.
For what would have been her feelings if Sir Walter had recklessly launched himself across this fateful waterway with regard to Mrs. Clay, and grandly set foot upon the opposite bank? Would they not have amounted to such dismay as afflicted Emma Woodhouse at the thought of Mr. Knightley married to Harriet Smith?
Such an elevation on her side! Such a debasement on his!—It was horrible to Emma to think how it must sink him in the general opinion, to foresee the smiles, the sneers, the merriment it would prompt at his expense; the mortification and disdain of his brother, the thousand inconveniences to himself. (413)
For any self-respecting gentleman such things would be sufficiently daunting. But for an individual as considerate of his dignity as Sir Walter Elliot, they would assume tragic proportions.
But what of the subject of “elevation,” which also exercises Miss Woodhouse’s mind? Who, let the question be asked, being in social terms a nobody, is to be seen in the novels as achieving acceptability and bliss? Addressing this question, we find ourselves embarked upon a rather barren quest. There are, for a start, very few persons so identifiable.
Edmund Bertram, humble as his ambitions and his finances are, is not a candidate: the younger son of a baronet, with a very good living kept for him thereabouts, as Miss Crawford has not failed to notice, cannot be so described. Nor can the well-born Edward Ferrars, who, after rejecting the choice of a Parliamentary or military career, finds himself arbitrarily disinherited, but is thereafter moderately redeemed through the unexpected gift of a living. A similar calamity had befallen Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, heiresses of a wealthy old country family unfairly cut out through a trick of senility in their grandfather; but by the end they both have fared tolerably well, their establishments, while far from equal in affluence, being fortunately within thirty miles of each other.
Charles Hayter, though, is at first sight a different case, for his family were not people of any consequence. “‘And, pray, who is Charles Hayter?’” Mary Musgrove asks. “‘Nothing but a country curate. A most improper match for Miss Musgrove, of Uppercross’” (76). But Mary is being rather too severe, as her husband points out to her. He admits “‘It would not be a great match for Henrietta”; but Mary is overlooking the fact that Charles Hayter has “‘a very fair chance, through the Spicers, of getting something from the Bishop’” in due course, and that, elder son as he is, upon the death of his father “‘he steps into very pretty property’” in the estate at Winthrop and the farm near Taunton. And “‘with that property,’” he concludes, “‘he will never be a contemptible man. Good, freehold property.’” However much this assurance may be unwelcome to Mary, her cousin Charles is unlikely to be despised by anyone other than herself.
Nor is his being a mere curate a hindrance. The clergy in that age had the mild distinction of being regarded as a class of sub-gentry, and tolerated as such, so long, of course, as they did not give themselves unbecoming airs—or otherwise, in the decorous words of Mr. Collins, “‘provided that a proper humility of behaviour is at the same time maintained’” (PP 97). Catherine Morland by this same standard deserves respect. True, she is only a clergyman’s daughter; but her father is the possessor of two livings, and of landed property which is to be his eldest son’s future inheritance; and Catherine’s dowry of three thousand pounds, while not great, is respectable.
Catherine’s dowry, in fact, is three times the amount of Elizabeth Bennet’s, and this sober truth brings into sharp question the matter of the latter’s status. Leaving her mother out of the reckoning, Elizabeth has the indubitable claim of being a gentleman’s daughter. But since Mr. Bennet’s estate of two thousand per annum is entailed from the female line, she is in practical terms all but dowerless: a consideration which, as Mr. Collins hatefully but correctly advises her, will “‘in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications’” and make it “‘by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you’” (108). The inferiority of her social position not only calls forth Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s unmitigated horror, but creates those “scruples” and provokes those “struggles” in Mr. Darcy so calculated to nullify the import of his declaration of love, despite his guileless insistence upon their being “natural and just” in a man of his eminence. Neither they nor the reflection they constitute finally prevent Elizabeth becoming mistress of Pemberley; but that development is a notable elevation, and her claim to social distinction, personable in every other respect though she is, has only marginally been admissible.
Whether her claim is as strong as that of Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs. Jennings is not easily determined.
Mrs. Jennings never can have been, as Elizabeth is even in the eyes of Lady Catherine, “a very genteel, pretty kind of girl” (PP 163): pretty or not, she was and remains incurably vulgar. We learn from John Dashwood that, as we might have guessed, she is “‘the widow of a man who got all his money in a low way’” (228); but to this material detail must be added Elinor’s serious caution to her mother, that “‘she is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure, or whose protection will give us consequence’” (156). Yet in both respects, Miss Dashwood proves to be mistaken. Since her husband’s death, Mrs. Jennings has taken to spending every winter “in a house in one of the streets near Portman-square,” which, with her style of living, indicates an exceedingly good income (153); and, of more importance, her decency and warmth of heart so affect Elinor as to promote a highly unlikely but very firm friendship between them. Ill-bred, in her son-in-law’s forthright and uncalled-for estimation, and Elinor’s unspoken one, Mrs. Jennings may be; but, all things considered, her obvious wealth and the irrefutable facts that one of her daughters is a Lady Middleton, and the other the wife of a Member of Parliament, will procure for her the complaisance of those she comes in contact with.
Quite who the former Miss Hamilton’s husband Mr. Smith was—besides a man who at his death left his affairs in such confusion and his wife unprovided for—we are not to learn. His easiness of temper and “not strong understanding” had, as Anne Elliot gathers, between them kept him from retaining his fortune; yet that it had been considerable is evident from his widow’s title to property in the West Indies, long “under a sort of sequestration for the payment of its own encumbrances” (P 210), which Captain Wentworth finally recovers for her. The ensuing “improvement of income,” together with some return of health, will, as well as creating in Mrs. Smith “a spring of felicity,” ensure the justification of any essay to resume her former social standing—and discontinuance, it need not be said, of her residence in Westgate Buildings (252).
No such happiness does Willoughby gain or merit. For the wife who has freed him from his “dread of poverty” and conviction of “the necessity of riches” he comes to have unmeasured contempt. The fierce determination in one living above his income to make his fortune by marriage is understandable, though scarcely pardonable, by the young woman he has jilted. Success of a kind he attains; bliss most emphatically he does not. But in all his actions, good and bad alike, he is seen to exemplify the manner and style of a gentleman. So also is the cultured Henry Crawford, more fortunate in that money-making need not be one of his preoccupations. Along with his captivating sister, Henry Crawford is at the center of happenings at Mansfield Park. Their becoming involved in failure is the outcome of faults of character, and not related to their assured position in society.
Life, of course, will always have its casualties, even amongst the privileged and advantaged of Jane Austen’s novels. Within the ranks of her commoners, however, it is a matter of adversity and mischance almost unrelieved. Which of them is not at the end by social definition a casualty; which of them can be said to have come to good, to have progressed into acceptance, and achieved the dignified pleasures and eligibilities consequent upon it? Alas, it is not the artless Harriet Smith, who is finally hustled away and finds her proper place as the wife of Farmer Martin—to Emma’s infinite relief, and with the dubious distinction of having been in love with three different men in a single year. The ultimate fates of the underbred John and Isabella Thorpe are not vouchsafed to us; but they are something of as small concern to ourselves as to the novelist, and we may be assured will have nothing at all prepossessing about them.
If it were only for the extensive role he plays, George Wickham would appear more favourably destined. But he has been granted the not insignificant advantages of being brought up at Pemberley, educated at Cambridge, and intended for the Church; and in manners and address he is in no way inferior to Pemberley’s present owner. His being the son of the late Mr. Darcy’s steward is no more disabling to the reader than it is to Elizabeth Bennet when Caroline Bingley laughingly apprises her of it. Nor indeed is it a factor in the estimation of most persons the novel introduces us to, not excluding that of Fitzwilliam Darcy himself, if we accept his explanations. Yet by the end, Wickham is revealed as liar, slanderer, philanderer, and gamester. He is, in the author’s words, “one of the most worthless young men in Great Britain” (PP 308).
In descent, Mrs. Clay is Wickham’s equal; and her deservings and final repute may be thought to be almost a reflection of his own. For her course through events is sustained by pretence and artifice, she evokes no good opinion, and contrives eventually to shock and mortify Sir Walter and Elizabeth, having failed in her main endeavour to become the wife of the one and mother-in-law of the other. What is to lie beyond for her is outside the novel’s scope. We last hear of her as being established under Mr. Elliot’s protection in London, there abandoned to the unsavoury process of “wheedling and caressing” him into making her the next Lady Elliot. Succeed she may; but the inference through all we have seen of her association with the persons of the novel, and particularly that person who is its heroine, is that she does not deserve to.
A distinct success, though one similarly unbeseeming, may be thought to have occurred in Lucy Steele’s securing the foolish Robert Ferrars as her husband. Certain it is that she gains, with him, both fortune and favor with her mother-in-law and her friends the John Dashwoods. But in terms of the ensuing relationships, domestic and other, Lucy’s victory is rather to be viewed as of the Pyrrhic sort, and the marriage itself as little other than a merited penalty.
Upon two, perhaps three, persons who are nobodies can good fortune and approval by all the standards of Jane Austen’s novels be seen to descend. The instances share a vital common element, and in one only is it not obvious.
Fanny Price, at the age of ten transplanted to Mansfield Park, appears to bear the brunt of a social system’s severity. Uppermost in her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram’s mind is “‘the distinction proper to be made’” between the newcomer and his own daughters as they grow up, the line of conduct which will always “‘make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram’” (10). So little have her interests been regarded, seemingly, that when she has reached her eighteenth year it is unclear to the Bertrams, and anyone of inquiring disposition, whether or not she is “out”; and she herself has never presumed to consider the subject.
At Mansfield Park, there are a number of circumstances helpful to Fanny. She has had at her disposal all the appurtenances of dignified living which a great household can bestow—an immense boon, in comparison with the meagre conditions Emma Watson must compromise with. The behavior of Maria and Julia Bertram can only confirm Fanny’s innate shyness; but upon their departure from Mansfield she is left “the only young woman in the drawing-room,” her consequence at home and at the Parsonage increasing to the extent of her having, at the latter, to fulfil the demands of being the principal lady in company. (205)
In her endeavour constantly to keep before Fanny the thought of “who and what she is,” her aunt is nothing but an affliction. Relief comes from Sir Thomas’s growing realization that blood is thicker than water. Mrs. Norris’s forbidding a fire in the East Room is in course of time made good by him, and her indignant attempt to deny her a coach to the Grants is met with the calm rebuke: “‘My niece walk to a dinner engagement at this time of the year! Will twenty minutes after four suit you?’” (221). Though a commoner, Fanny is at least a well-connected one—a condition the author herself was not unfamiliar with. Sir Thomas begins at length to feel proud of Fanny. He is not under her aunt’s illusion that her beauty is attributable to her upbringing at Mansfield; but “he was pleased with himself for having supplied everything else;—education and manners she owed to him” (276). His protégée differs entirely from Harriet Smith in being an excellent recipient of benefits: she possesses that vivacity of mind which, as Anne Elliot so well appreciates, is the height of attraction in a handsome woman.
Yet these not inconsiderable advantages do not of themselves promote the happiness Fanny attains: it is her association with the Navy which is to bring her to distinction. But for midshipman William Price’s coming, Sir Thomas would never have realized the possibilities in his niece. He encounters in young Price “frank, unstudied, but feeling and respectful manners” (233); but the effect of their naturalness upon Fanny is a release and joyous flowering “which Sir Thomas could not but observe with complacency” (234). He is moved repeatedly to call on William to recount his experiences at sea, his chief object being “to know the young man by his histories”; the qualities that become evident in the narrator gain him nothing less than Sir Thomas’s esteem.
Thus, when William asks Sir Thomas a question he cannot answer—“‘Is not Fanny a very good dancer, sir?’” (250)—the outcome—extraordinary for the demesne of sobriety at Mansfield Park has been—is that approving determination to satisfy her brother’s wish to see her dance. Sir Thomas decrees, to Fanny’s initial horror, that “she was to lead the way and open the ball” (275) as “the Queen of the evening” (267). What in her humility she finds almost overpowering is not the situation in the ballroom, but the thought of the honour accorded her.
She could hardly believe it. To be placed above so many elegant young women! The distinction was too great. It was treating her like her cousins! (275)
The ball at Mansfield scarcely marks the end of Fanny’s trials and anxieties, but it establishes her in possession of those social privileges which will make possible her eventual achievement of a long despaired-of goal.
Captain Frederick Wentworth is no scion of the Strafford family; and neither he nor his friend Captain Benwick is a gentleman in the strict term which Sir Walter Elliot applies to Wentworth’s clergyman brother, Edward. Not surprising are the strong grounds of objection the baronet must entertain towards the Navy: it is an institution by which all proper considerations of social decorum are disregarded, and anomalies of nefarious kind perpetrated. It is a means, he declares, “‘of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of’” (19)—and men, to boot, who have been “‘all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen’” (20). From the latter charge, Wentworth is providentially spared; and as to the former, he may hug himself. For Jane Austen, the Navy is the realm where the artificialities of her society are blown asunder and scattered, where true merit is revealed: the proving ground of courage, worth, and, yes, nobility. It is a small world in itself—but yet a world apart, removed in concept, as literally by distance, from the outlook and standards of the great and assured social order beneath whose dominance her own life was played out, and to whose enabling impositions she, with all those whom she knew, must ever yield.
In his Memoir, written in the year 1870, James Austen-Leigh suggested that the reason for his aunt’s laying aside The Watsons was that she had
become aware of the evil of having placed her heroine too low, in such a position of poverty and obscurity as, though not necessarily connected with vulgarity, has a sad tendency to degenerate into it; and therefore, like a singer who has begun on too low a note, she discontinued the strain. (296)
The thought comes to us from an epoch much closer to Jane Austen’s than ours, and by the hand of a nephew who might with delicacy be presenting as a surmise of his own, intimations from acquaintance with the writer herself. It is therefore deserving of attention.
In citing these words, however, Elizabeth Jenkins admits herself unimpressed by them. “One cannot feel that this reason is a convincing one,” she comments, “if only because Emma Watson is shown to such triumphant advantage in the poverty and obscurity of her home.” But, as the evidence of the novels taken together, and particularly of Persuasion, may lead us to conjecture, might it not be precisely because of that achievement in Emma Watson, so at variance with the assumptions and mood of those times, that Jane Austen found herself obliged to leave the work unfinished? That, despite all her insights and promptings as to the meretricious character of “place,” and the primacy of human worth, it was not in her nature to become the prophet of change to her contemporaries and her own intimates: to venture into territory untrodden by the polite authors of her day, or admit even to herself such daunting possibility?
For this same cause (if we are at liberty to apply the phrase she used of herself as an historian) she makes her Anne Elliot resolutely “partial and prejudiced”—not to say “ignorant”—in her treatment of Mrs. Clay. Though never approaching the directness of Edmund Bertram in declaring a commoner’s being on equal terms “an evil,” Anne is at one with him, and with Emma Woodhouse, in the simple practice of looking down upon those beneath them: an implicit belief that it is a propensity beyond question, in itself a rightness, and, in the social context, a modest but undeniable virtue. It is a tenet which Emma has painfully to re-learn after her escapade with Harriet Smith; but Anne Elliot, as the very pattern of the ladylike—of feminine “goodness,” as the age understood, and Jane Austen acknowledged, it—is incapable of a lapse of the sort.
In the character of Emma Woodhouse, and that of Emma Watson, and in the fortunes of such as Harriet Smith and Penelope Clay, we may see the externalization of a conflict deep within the author’s being: a clash between an instinctive revolt against the pretensions and oppressiveness of “place,” and a compulsive adherence to it as the basis of decorum, agreeableness and elegance. And since, for Jane Austen, these opposites must remain always locked in combat, so their struggle can find vigorous expression, but not resolution, in the novels’ world. The presence of a Mrs. Clay can but prompt in Jane Austen the conviction aroused in Hamlet by a Claudius enthroned in Denmark, that “It is not nor it cannot come to good” (I.ii.158). Like the usurper, Mrs. Clay can appear to her only as a threatening intruder into what was a previously settled milieu—as much so, perhaps, as was the social upstart Wickham beneath Caroline Bingley’s contemptuous gaze.
Thus, it comes about that Anne Elliot is poorly placed for true judgment of Mrs. Clay. This is not to deny the constancy of her attention and watchfulness. Mrs. Clay’s recognition in Bath of the knock at ten o’clock being that of Mr. Elliot receives her notice—though Mrs. Clay’s recognition of that knock might have told Anne more than it does. She is instantly aware of anything signified by the direction of the eyes. Mrs. Clay’s encouraging the notion of a liking for Elizabeth in Mr. Elliot is picked up through the look the women exchange when the frequency of his visits is under discussion. Nor does it elude Anne that Mrs. Clay should steal a glance at her sister and herself, when she is being so very earnestly complimented by Sir Walter upon her fine mind. But what escapes her is at least as much as what does not—and more remarkably so. That Mrs. Clay “thought it advisable to leave the room” while Sir Walter delivers his vilification of the Smiths is obvious to them all (158). Anne “left it to himself to recollect, that Mrs. Smith was not the only widow in Bath between thirty and forty, with little to live on, and no surname of dignity.” This knowledge is strongly present in Anne, while evidently absent from the other two. But its not bringing her to realize the blow it must have been to the lady’s hopes of Sir Walter, and the acuteness of the distress it will have caused, is more than surprising.
It can be held that literary necessity has demanded her imperception here: that an Anne Elliot conscious at this early stage of Mrs. Clay’s attempt upon her father having been thwarted, or being unlikely to succeed, would mean an intensification of the coming rivalry between the two for Mr. Elliot’s attention. This would give Mrs. Clay greater prominence, and would take from the novel much of what it gains from the manoeuvring with respect to Sir Walter that she and Mr. Elliot are later presumed to be engaged upon. This may well be; but the effect inevitably is to remove from Anne the sense of the effectualness of that very principle of rank which her every feeling otherwise sustains: which would lighten, if not entirely cure, in her the “plague” of Mrs. Clay’s presumptions.
Is it appropriate, after this telling incident, that she should be made to persist in apprehending her father’s “debasement”? We may call in evidence Bingley’s protest, in face of his sisters’ derision, that if Elizabeth and Jane Bennet “‘had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside, . . . it would not make them one jot less agreeable,’” and his being silenced by Darcy’s unanswerable rejoinder, that “‘it must materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world’” (PP 37). Exactly the same affirmation had been made to Anne by the sister who, being “very handsome, and very like” Sir Walter, had always gone on “most happily” with him. Elizabeth had expressed herself on the subject with complete conviction. Her choosing to have Mrs. Clay so much with her might be questioned, she concedes, if she were a very beautiful woman; “‘not that any thing in the world, I am sure,” she continues, “‘would induce my father to make a degrading match; but he might be rendered unhappy’” (P 35). Just so. Is it conceivable that one so aware of the blessing of his irreproachable pedigree and exalted position, having such a profound contempt for commoners and commonness as he had had fortuitous occasion to deliver himself of, to the company’s reticence and the reader’s delight, would in defiance of all logic and expectation proceed to woo and wed a Mrs. Clay? His daughter Anne clearly thinks he might be fool enough, just as the “imaginist” Emma thought the far lesser Mr. Knightley might be, with respect to Harriet. Emma was entirely mistaken; why should Anne not also be? Why should she, and we, be so ready to dismiss Elizabeth’s judgment on an issue of this kind as unsound?
Mrs. Clay herself might have reason to think that her attempt upon Sir Walter is still not hopeless. But that she has greater cause at this point to revise her endeavours at Camden Place may be deduced from a feature of her conduct whose presence Anne notices, but whose significance, once more, escapes her. She identifies as suspect in Mr. Elliot his contriving to please all in that house, despite the tempers of its occupants being so various. She notes that Mr. Elliot “had appeared completely to see what Mrs. Clay was about, and to hold her in contempt; and yet Mrs. Clay found him as agreeable as any body” (161). Anne’s observation about Mr. Elliot’s motives is sound; but it leaves aside any inclination in Mrs. Clay which the fact may denote. She does, indeed, seem not to dislike the man.
The next instance of this kind presents itself with such suddenness, and is so involving, that Anne is in the thick of the fray before she has had a moment to reflect upon what is happening. It is precipitated by nothing more than a slight drizzle of rain in Milsom Street; but the consequence could not be more marked. Shelter in Lady Dalrymple’s carriage being the undoubted privilege of Miss Elliot, the remaining seat is at the disposal of one of the other two ladies of the party. Correctly, and politely as ever, Mrs. Clay offers Anne the place: “her civility,” Jane Austen writes with meaning, “rendered her quite as anxious to be left to walk with Mr. Elliot, as Anne could be” (174). The point is disputed between them with “a generosity so polite, and so determined”, in fact—the rain to each being only a trifle, and Mrs. Clay affirming her boots to be “much thicker than Miss Anne’s”—that it can only be settled by outside agency. Miss Elliot maintains that Mrs. Clay has a cold, and Mr. Elliot “decid[es] on appeal, that his cousin Anne’s boots were rather the thickest” (175). What is obvious to the reader from this skirmish, and can only be so to Anne, is the strong desire in Mrs. Clay to be with Mr. Elliot; yet from this open rivalry Anne appears to make no deduction as to the state of the other’s affections. Is this because she is assured of Elliot’s preference, reflected in his decision? Or because she regards Mrs. Clay as too far beneath them to be worth considering? Or, what is more likely, is the entire incident driven from her mind the very next instant, by the sight of Captain Wentworth walking down the street?
Two things are at least clear. Jane Austen will not use what has happened in Milsom Street to do anything that would put Mrs. Clay on a level with Anne, romantically speaking. And Mrs. Clay has learned from Mr. Elliot’s action that he has more interest in Anne than in herself: an encouragement, perhaps a much needed one, for her not to lose sight of the baronet. Perhaps with this in mind, she does not neglect to foster belief in Elizabeth that she is Mr. Elliot’s object; but it is to be noted that her doing so will at the same time allow her to give innocuous expression to that pleasure she finds in his immediacy which all her composure otherwise might not be able to mask.
Mrs. Clay is, needless to say, together with Sir Walter and his two daughters when, the earliest of their party for the concert, they take their position by one of the fires in the Octagon Room. Almost immediately, Captain Wentworth enters alone. Boldly, Anne steps towards him, and there follows between them a conversation which, despite the door’s slam and the “ceaseless buzz of persons walking through” (183), could not fail to impress the others by its length and particularity. It is enough indeed to gain for Wentworth the “simple acknowledgement of acquaintance” formally bestowed on him by Sir Walter and Elizabeth; but it develops into that near-declaration from him which renders Anne “struck, gratified, confused, and beginning to breathe very quick, and feel a hundred things in a moment.” Throughout the whole, Anne is too engrossed to have thought for Mrs. Clay: but the reverse is not true. Mrs. Clay will have seen enough to give her a far stronger hint than that which was afterwards to suffice for Mrs. Smith, that it is not Mr. Elliot who holds the key to Anne’s heart.
But what can she be thinking later, as she sits close to them on the “contiguous benches” of the concert room, when the same Mr. Elliot is talking to Anne with almost the same particularity, confusing her with his flattery, professing in low tones an acquaintance with her character long before she came to Bath. He gains her curiosity and eager questioning, until interruption comes from the exchange between Lady Dalrymple and Sir Walter, and the rearrangement of their party. And, later still, when Captain Wentworth again approaches, this time hesitantly, and is held in conversation by Anne for a while, only to walk off abruptly at the moment, she is touched on the shoulder by Mr. Elliot making a request? Mrs. Clay is now sufficiently in the secret of Anne’s affections to know, with gratification, that Mr. Elliot’s chance with her is more doubtful; and she is conscious that Anne is perfectly unaware, amidst the revelations and emotions the evening has brought her, of having betrayed much of her innermost feelings.
It is but a matter of hours before Anne, sitting with her friend in Westgate Buildings, is gaining information as decisive about the heart of Mr. Elliot and his business in Bath. The mystery of his eagerness to be reconciled to Sir Walter, and of his constant attendance at Camden Place, is resolved: all has been brought about through “‘a very material change in Mr. Elliot’s opinions as to the value of a baronetcy’” (206), and what has become for him the vital need to head off from its present possessor the advances of the “‘clever, insinuating, handsome woman, poor and plausible,’” according to Mrs. Smith, who is laying siege to its honors. But this estimate of Mrs. Clay is from appearances only, based on what she has gleaned from hearsay and report; and so is the opinion that the threat is lessening, from Mrs. Clay’s awareness that Elliot “sees through her, and not daring to do as she might do in his absence.” The bulk of what Mrs. Smith discloses having been proved accurate, it is not at all surprising that Anne should take that part appertaining to Mrs. Clay as comprising the extent of her purposes. Where she is at fault, if she is to be faulted, is in those fundamental assumptions about Mrs. Clay’s deserving, or lack of it, which have precluded comprehension of the person. That inner screen of her own disdain, hindering any sympathy in approach, has limited her discernment.
She is nevertheless able almost without effort to identify Mrs. Clay’s pretences—and obtain the reader’s approval in so doing. On her return home from Westgate Buildings, she listens to the plentiful hints Mrs. Clay is giving Elizabeth of Mr. Elliot’s regard for her; and the exaggerations and affectations are as plain to Anne as they are repellent. But they also are no more than externalities, and she cannot penetrate to what they hide: the design upon Sir Walter is all that she manages, and, perhaps, cares, to grasp. Thus, she will dismiss as good acting the pleasure now so evident in Mrs. Clay at the knowledge that Mr. Elliot will be in the house the same evening; she can be even perplexed by the thought that, while “Mrs. Clay must hate the sight of Mr. Elliot,” she could yet “assume a most obliging, placid look, and appear quite satisfied with the curtailed license of devoting herself only half as much to Sir Walter as she would have done otherwise” (213-14). The possibility of another explanation never crosses her mind: the little contretemps in Milsom Street has evidently signified nothing.
Is it at all probable, though, that an Anne Elliot, with her steadiness, reflectiveness, and principle, can have been so often in error as to the conduct of those around her, and blind in matters of dearest concern? For answer, we have only to look at ourselves . Making wrong inferences from the ascertainable facts is a common enough pursuit; and Jane Austen’s heroines are industriously engaged upon it. We have for example but to think of Emma’s surmisings about Jane Farifax’s pianoforte, or Frank Churchill’s rescuing Harriet from the gypsies; of Elizabeth Bennet, who has prided herself upon her discernment, “wretchedly blind” to Darcy’s true character; of poor Catherine’s deductions from General Tilney’s having discarded the portrait of his late wife; or Elinor’s certainty as to what will follow from Colonel Brandon’s offering Edward a living. Were lists to be made, it might even appear that, in terms of their more important personal impressions, the heroines are nearly as much mistaken as not.
Perhaps for them all, the explanation is that which may readily be given for Anne Elliot: simply that she has been too full of her own affairs and emotions, her yearnings, her qualms, her frustrations, and her fears. Why should they not be? They are only human. Witness how distressing it is for Anne at this juncture to see Mr. Elliot, painful to have him speak to her, and to be finding insincerity in his every word and gesture. There is only one course of action open to her now that she is convinced she has found him out: it is, while avoiding any marked alteration of manners, “to be as decidedly cool to him as might be compatible with their relationship, and to retrace, as quietly as she could, the few steps of unnecessary intimacy she had been gradually led along” (214). For, as she knew from the moment of her leaving Westgate Buildings, there was no longer “any thing of tenderness” due to him—or anything, in fact, of the least concern, politeness apart. But however delicately Anne may have conveyed this disfavour, a “sensible, discerning mind” like Elliot’s will be conscious of having experienced a rebuff. He might scarcely have seen Captain Wentworth at Lyme, or in Milsom Street, and have paid little heed to him at the concert; perhaps he would not yet suspect some new personal interest on Anne’s part. But the change in her attitude to himself, and his sense of the clouding of his prospect of success with her, will be unmistakable: and will give him reason, and put him at liberty, to pursue a long-developing preference of his own.
This appears to be the reason for his absenting himself for a day or two from Sir Walter’s house and its constraints, for a visit to Thornbury. Part of the outcome is suddenly visible to the entire company at the White Hart, in the phenomenon of his being observed under the colonnade by the corner with Bath Street, “‘deep in talk’” with Mrs. Clay, as Mary Musgrove perceives them, and then shaking hands (the sign of cordiality in near-strangers) as they turn from each other in separate directions (222). On moving to the window upon Mary’s insistence, Anne is, predictably, put to “checking the surprise which she could not but feel at such appearance of friendly conference between two persons of totally opposite interests” (223). After a toilsome walk back to Camden Place, she is moved by no very generous impulse to let Mrs. Clay know of her having been seen in Elliot’s company three hours after his supposedly leaving Bath. All the satisfaction she gains is the impression of a flash of guilt on her face, instantly cleared away, an over-long protestation from the lady of having forgotten their meeting, and the supposition that, “by some complication of mutual trick, or some overbearing authority of his,” she had been obliged to listen to his “lectures and restrictions on her designs on Sir Walter” (228). It is this totally false impression of hers that we are left with: enlightenment at what has been going on between them, and about the real state of Mrs. Clay’s affections, Anne Elliot is unable, and Jane Austen has been unwilling, to provide for us.
Anything further about the pair is made known through concluding narration. Anne’s engagement to Wentworth frustrated any design Mr. Elliot had on Elizabeth, and whatever may have been left of his plan to resume the watch upon Sir Walter which “a son-in-law’s rights would have given him” (250). But his “double game” in establishing Mrs. Clay in London reveals his determination “to save himself from being cut out by one woman at least.” The account, succinct as it is, is just; but can the same be said of Jane Austen’s final words upon Mrs. Clay? That “she had sacrificed, for the younger man’s sake, the possibility of scheming longer for Sir Walter” is true, so far as it goes; but as to her affections having “overpowered her interest” in this resolve, the question is how much of an interest, after the revelation of his aristocratic pride, and of the next Sir Walter’s amorous inclination, he still constituted for her. The last comment, perhaps fittingly, leaves her prospects with Mr. Elliot as a subject for conjecture: but the laconic admission that Mrs. Clay “has abilities, however, as well as affections” may be regarded as a testimony to whatever, in her enforced reluctance, the author has left unexplored or undivulged in this character.
For her attitude throughout—only half-acknowledged, doubtless, even to herself—is that the penniless daughter of a lawyer, however otherwise gifted in mind and manners, is not to be viewed as acceptable by society’s norms, as they are embodied in the novels, and were present by and large in the minds of contemporary readers. Jane Austen has been anything but lavish in depicting Mrs. Clay. The author has presented Mrs. Clay to us largely through the critical eyes of her rival, and minimally, even so. But the meeting with Mr. Elliot by the Pump Room shows that she had inspired an attachment in him more certain and real than that for Anne Elliot, which he had never got to the point of professing, despite his manifold attentions to her. And from the little we do know of Mrs. Clay—from an appreciation we come at length to share with her literary creator—she is by no means so common as her name might suggest: and will display more elegance and true personableness in her future role as Lady Elliot, than a Lady Dalrymple, or a Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or a Lady Lucas, or a Lady Bertram, is able to bring to her respective position in society. Not to mention Mrs. Ferrars.
Perhaps this is what the disadvantaged rebel within Jane Austen was wanting to say as part of the unwritten story in Persuasion. How much of it would have been revealed, one wonders, if the first reference to the novel in her Letters, on 13 March 1817—“I have a something ready for Publication, which may perhaps appear about a twelvemonth hence”—was a hint of intended revision?
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
_____. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: OUP, 1996.
Austen-Leigh, J. E. A Memoir of Jane Austen. (1870) 6 ed. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1886.
Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A Biography. London: Victor Gollancz, 1939.