Persuasions #6, 1984 Pages 40-43
PREJUDICE, PERSUASION, AND THE PUZZLE OF MRS. SMITH
K. K. Collins
Dept. of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale,
Carbondale, Illinois 62901
Critics of Persuasion have long puzzled over Mrs. Smith. To begin with, it is hard to see why her exposure of Mr. Elliot is important to the action. Anne resolves that she will marry Wentworth or no one before she learns of her cousin’s unsavoury past; and before she can share what she has heard, Mr. Elliot spirits Mrs. Clay from Bath, making Anne’s news quite useless. Perhaps it is because Anne’s knowledge has no practical effects that readers have been led to examine – and question – her source. Mrs. Smith’s motives, her sales tactics, and her consistency have been put into doubt. Even if we sympathize with Mrs. Smith’s plight (and most critics do), her behaviour at Anne’s last visit seems extraordinary. Within a few pages, Mrs. Smith not only supports what she believes to be Anne’s decision to marry Mr. Elliot but actually praises him, then relents only to attack his character, and finally describes him as both “sincere” and “artful.”
There is also the matter of Mrs. Smith’s “proof.” Exhibit A, the infamous letter, is a dozen years old. It points directly to the Mr. Elliot of the past, but only indirectly to the man who is now courting Anne. How much he has changed – how much he might change or is changing under Anne’s influence – we are left to wonder, especially in light of Mrs. Smith’s present source of information. She must now rely upon a “stream” of news that “takes a bend or two” from Mr. Elliot to Mrs. Rooke. Clearly Mr. Elliot’s intrigue with Mrs. Clay shows his unworthiness of Anne. The problem is that it does not dispel the complexity of Mrs. Smith’s portrait of him. His interest in Anne is related to his interest in a baronetcy, but does it reduce to that? Before Mrs. Smith’s disclosures, William Walter Elliot is a shadowy figure; during them, he emerges into some intricacy; and after them he retires, Mrs. Clay in tow, back into the darkness. We are never quite sure of what we have seen.
Readers of Persuasion, therefore, are anxious about Mrs. Smith for a variety of reasons. I am anxious about her because the knowledge she imparts raises questions that it cannot answer: because she does not give me a fixed, solid foundation for understanding Mr. Elliot (or Mrs. Smith herself – or, for that matter, the conclusion of the plot): because without this certain ground (or so I fear) the novel collapses into intellectual and moral chaos (or I do): because I want what this novel will not give me, a permanent constraint or stable rock upon which I can secure my judgment. Yet it may be that such anxiety is one of Jane Austen’s themes. In what follows, I want to suggest that Persuasion, especially through Mrs. Smith, undercuts the possibility of the objectivism many readers want. But it also undercuts the possibility of relativism, as though we merely invent or temporarily accept what we “know,” discarding it when and if we please.
Jane Austen’s treatment of the ways of knowing radically questions the eighteenth-century rationalism she is often presumed to have accepted. Rationalism held, among other things, (a) that we must discard prejudices, tradition, mere opinion, and sanctioned authority in favour of the authority of reason itself; (b) that the supreme authority of reason shows itself most clearly when we adopt a procedure of rigorous, self-denying, and methodical doubt; and (c) that the sort of knowledge guaranteed by this procedure is perfect in the sense that we can depend upon it not to change. Jane Austen in contrast, draws no clear distinction between the subjective and the objective. Nor does she present knowledge as a correct representation of what is “really there.” She gives no indication that reason can completely free itself from prejudice or tradition. On the contrary, reason, for her, cannot transcend its historical situation. At the same time, Jane Austen presents such knowledge as humans have as sufficient unto human purposes. Indeed, her characters’ situation within their preconceptions gives their understanding its power.
It will be helpful here to mention the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose Truth and Method, like his various essays, mounts a most eloquent and persuasive criticism of the rationalist prejudice against prejudice. According to Gadamer, prejudice has an essential place in all understanding:
“Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth … Prejudices are biases of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something – whereby what we encounter says something to us. This … certainly does not mean that we are enclosed within a wall of prejudices and only let through the narrow portals those things that can produce a pass saying, ‘Nothing new will be said here.’ Instead, we welcome just that guest who promises something new to our curiosity.”
Indeed, a condition of prejudicelessness is unthinkable: someone without preconceptions would be outside history itself, for all human understanding, in its finitude, takes some slant. To be sure, some prejudices – we may call them blind prejudices – do not produce knowledge but block it. These, however, can be overcome: we discover them by encountering something – a text or belief or proposition – that is at once alien to us, pulls us up short, and shares some common ground with us. (If the thing to be understood were not alien to us, we would already understand it; if it did not pull us up short, we would not want to understand it; and if it shared no common ground with us, we could not perceive it as something to be understood in the first place.) Any encounter that results in understanding leads us to open ourselves and to risk and test our prejudices. Some of these will produce understanding while others, in the act of knowing, will be dissolved or overcome.
As Mrs. Smith says, what is all this but assertion? My own proof will doubtless be even less conclusive than hers, but we may begin by remembering that Anne Elliot’s judgment is inextricably tied to her preconceptions. True, she has the best judgment in Persuasion, but it is naturally limited by a certain horizon of personal interests, a given history. We see it working always, helping shape everything Anne sees. Take, for instance, her assessment of Mrs. Smith, in whom she sees “that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven.” There is nothing particularly wrong with this assessment, but it is no more a final or complete vision of Mrs. Smith than Anne’s view, expressed two paragraphs later, of the “ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment” to be found in the sickroom. On this matter, of course, Mrs. Smith tries to correct Anne; but Anne promptly reinterprets her friend’s words about human failings as the by-product of her unhappy marriage, “which made [Mrs. Smith] think worse of the world, than [Anne] hoped it deserved.” In the word “hoped” Jane Austen acknowledges Anne’s limiting horizon. Not that Anne has misinterpreted what Mrs. Smith says. “Getting it right” is not at issue here; making sense of things is.
The role of prejudice in Anne’s understanding also appears in her encounter with Mr. Elliot’s letter, which, among other indiscretions, describes Sir Walter as a “fool.” Anne’s response is complicated. Deeply mortified, she is “obliged to recollect that her seeing the letter was a violation of the laws of honour, that no one ought to be judged or to be known by such testimonies, that no private correspondence could bear the eye of others.” Psychologically this rings true. Anne characteristically meets strong emotion with the force of concentration. Collecting herself requires her to qualify the document’s reliability – even to impugn her own honour in having read it. At the same time, the letter makes a claim upon her. What it means cannot be avoided. So Anne’s psychology, with its doubts and denials, will not answer this scene fully. Understanding Mr. Elliot’s letter and the person who wrote it is not simply a movement of Anne’s subjectivity. It is a movement of truth; it has the character of an event.
Exactly what brings the meaning of this letter into being for Anne? Why can she not simply discount what it says? One answer is that the meaning of Mr. Elliot’s words forces itself upon Anne through the channels of her preconceptions, making her put them at risk. Several chapters earlier, Anne reflects that she does not really know her cousin’s character. Despite his good manners, she thinks, he is not “open”: “There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others …. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others .… She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.” The remarkable thing is that Mr. Elliot’s letter fulfils Anne’s standards for openness. It is careless, hasty, indignant, frank, and painfully sincere. For that matter, it shows as sound an understanding of Sir Walter and Elizabeth as we are likely to get. (Mrs. Smith is more careful. Only moments before she produces the letter, she very nearly tells Anne of having boasted to Mr. Elliot long ago that Anne was “a very different creature” from her father and sister. Mrs. Smith “checked herself,” we hear, “just in time.”) Anne’s predisposition toward the “open” character duly opens her to what this letter says. Not that she agrees with it: the point is that she can neither transcend nor ignore its meaning, which gains the irony that after having been exposed to its crushing sincerity Anne rightly sees “insincerity in everything” Mr. Elliot does. In no trivial sense, then, Anne’s understanding here is the result of productive prejudice.
But what of blind prejudice, which blocks knowledge and which any genuine understanding must test and overcome? After returning the letter to Mrs. Smith, Anne resists what her friend says about Mr. Elliot’s present motives. Mrs. Smith has just produced private correspondence meant for other eyes. Now she expects Anne to hang her judgment upon little more than a string of common gossip: what Mrs. Rooke says Mrs. Wallis has said Colonel Wallis said Mr. Elliot had said. Mrs. Smith builds Anne’s trust in this hearsay by giving her particulars to confirm, and their accuracy meets Anne’s demand for sufficient “authority” and “real information.” Still, the scene does not present an exercise in logic, as if the hearsay must rise to Anne’s rigorous way of understanding. Rather, Anne must stoop a bit to meet the hearsay, which destroys any remnant of objectivism not already done in by the letter. Anne must now bow to the sense of the community and use what her friend says, third hand, to make Mr. Elliot’s behaviour intelligible. In doing so, she must dissolve her prejudice against “opinions which … pass through the hands of so many.” And this is not the only prejudice Anne must overcome. When she concludes that “Mr. Elliot is evidently a disingenuous, artificial, worldly man, who has never had any better principle to guide him than selfishness,” she finds that “her feelings were relieved by this knowledge …. There was no longer any thing of tenderness due to him.” The “tenderness” has arisen, I take it, from his recent loss of his wife. A mourner herself, Anne is predisposed by temperament and circumstance toward those who have suffered affliction or loss. We see it early, even before her walk in chapter 10 among the “sweet scenes of autumn,” her memory “blessed” by “some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together.” We see it in her quick sympathy with Benwick’s “sorrowing heart.” And we see it in her preconceptions about the heroism of the sickroom – which Anne must dissolve in accepting Mrs. Smith’s third-hand testimony, since Mrs. Wallis, under the “affliction” of childbirth and hardly ennobled, simply talks too much. On a larger scale, too, Anne’s prejudice toward all those who mourn – herself included – must be set aside, as befits her preparation for happiness with Wentworth.
Before her last conversation with Mrs. Smith, Anne has decided that she could never marry Mr. Elliot. Still, her lack of knowledge about him has been, in some sense, a lack of knowledge about herself. Ready to leave Mrs. Smith, she discovers something else she has not previously known: “Anne could just acknowledge within herself such a possibility of having been induced to marry [Mr. Elliot], as made her shudder at the idea of the misery which must have followed.” This suggests that knowledge entails self-knowledge as well – that we see ourselves, too, in what we know. Anne’s understanding – of herself, of Mr. Elliot – is not complete, final, perfect or absolute. But it is not whimsical, invented or merely a function other own psychology. It is part of a continuous process in which she – and we – penetrate ever further into truth and meaning.
In Persuasion, understanding happens to beings who can never be devoid of prejudices and who can open themselves up to what others say, put their preconceptions at risk, and even overcome some of them. As Anne’s scene with Mrs. Smith shows, some prejudices are productive, some blind. But Jane Austen can no more conceive of a character without prejudice than she can resist exposing a fool. For her, knowledge is not something gained by method or rigorous self-denial; it is a part of our human becoming (to paraphrase Gadamer), determining and determined by it. If we want to know why Mrs. Smith appears in this novel, we must understand her through Anne, or better, through Anne’s knowledge of Mr. Elliot and of herself. And – to turn my defence of prejudice in my own defence – who would deny my right to be prejudiced (perhaps blindly) toward Jane Austen’s last and loveliest heroine?