Reading Jane Austen 6

As already suggested, Mrs Smith is an interesting late addition to the novel for a number of reasons – including such things as the technique Austen uses to introduce her into the action, the way her presence and situation helps illuminate and develop different themes established before her appearance, and the effort and attention Austen expends on creating the character and her situation. All this, in addition to her express plot function of enlightening Anne (and the reader) as to Mr Elliot’s ‘real character’ and thus clearing away any possibility of residual emotional entanglements Anne might feel towards him. Despite the fact that two-thirds of the novel has been completed before we meet her she becomes central to its resolution – and is a focus of Austen’s finely balanced density of language which offers simultaneously different meanings at almost every point.

I have already pointed out that she is introduced by an unnamed character we never meet: Anne’s ‘former governess’. The informal visit Anne pays – she has merely ‘called on’ her – is not described as it is clearly to be seen as a relatively casual ancillary event in the social bustle of Bath. When Miss Hamilton (now Mrs Smith) is mentioned Anne remembers her own misery having ‘gone unhappy to school, grieving for the loss of a mother whom she had dearly loved’ and that Miss Hamilton, although three years older and ‘from the want of near relations and a settled home’ had stayed on another year at the school and proved herself ‘useful and good to her in a way which had considerably lessened her misery, and could never be remembered with indifference’. And when her former teacher tells Anne the news of the difficulties faced by Miss Hamilton who was, the information is given very indirectly, in a passage of reported speech presented as Anne’s memory of what she was told during that visit:

She was a widow, and poor. Her husband had been extravagant; and at his death, about two years before, had left his affairs dreadfully involved. She had had difficulties of every sort to contend with, and in addition to these distresses, had been afflicted with a severe rheumatic fever, which finally settling in her legs, had made her for the present a cripple. She had come to Bath on that account, and was now in lodgings near the hot-baths, living in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society.
(my emphasis)

In this process of presenting information organically, as it were, through Anne’s thoughts and memories rather from than from the standpoint of an omniscient narrator Austen sets up several deliberate but subtle parallels between the situations of Anne and Mrs Smith: the sense of isolation from their families; the problems caused by living with spendthrift fathers and husbands; the awareness of the consequences of death and serious ill-health. At the same time, these parallels also point out how little these things actually impact Anne’s life. While she is certainly marginalised by her immediate family she officially lives with her father and older sister, and during the course of the novel spends considerable time with her younger sister; her father’s carelessness hasn’t actually made her as financially desperate or having to live in such dreadfully reduced circumstances as Mrs Smith; and while her mother’s death has certainly cast a shadow over her life her sister Mary’s ill health is little more than the petulant self-regard of a determined hypochondriac who family members tolerate with a sense of exasperation rather than worry; and finally, throughout the novel Anne’s inclusion in society is not so much threatened as expanded – she is, as already said, in terms of Austen’s novels both very much travelled and engaged with and embedded in a variety of social groups. Through this Austen offers a view of what we might call the positive forces in Anne’s life that feed into her determination to continue visiting Mrs Smith, to see in her ‘something more’:

here was 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; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.
(my emphasis)

The deliberate religious vocabulary here underlines the important moral dimension that Austen intends for Mrs Smith as the novel starts to speed towards its close. Marriage – the right marriage – has a social as well as an individual importance. It is not accidental that the final words of the novel are ‘national importance.’ They apply to more than the Navy.

This extra weight is indicated in the careful picture Austen paints of Mrs Smith’s poverty, even destitution, both in the governess’s description and Anne’s direct view of the situation from her second visit:

In the course of a second visit she talked with great openness, and Anne’s astonishment increased. She could scarcely imagine a more cheerless situation in itself than Mrs Smith’s. She had been very fond of her husband, – she had buried him. She had been used to affluence, – it was gone. She had no child to connect her with life and happiness again, no relations to assist in the arrangement of perplexed affairs, no health to make all the rest supportable. Her accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour, and a dark bed-room behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance, which there was only one servant in the house to afford, and she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath.
(my emphasis)

Indeed, this portrait of Mrs Smith’s life is far more radical and graphic than anything Austen attempted in any of her earlier works; and although brief, and perhaps to be regarded as tentative first steps when compared to the treatments such social issues receive at the hands of later more polemical novelists, I would argue that these passages represent a genuine shift in awareness and purpose which sounds some darker notes into the melody of reconciliation and fulfilment that is just beginning to sound more possible.

[Certainly, Austen’s treatment of poverty and illness in Emma, for example, is much more cursory, detached and generalised even considering the different overall purpose of the novel. Consider how Emma and Harriet pay ‘a charitable visit’ to ‘a poor sick family’ in Chapter Ten:

Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will.

Even in the specific circumstance of the visit there is a deliberate lack of detail:

In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could give comfort or advice, she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away,
‘These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good.’

We need to remember, of course, that the main purpose of the passage is to demonstrate both Emma’s good instincts and her failings – but it is incidental to the need to prepare the ground for the chance encounter with Mr Elton:

The wants and sufferings of the poor family, however, were the first subject on meeting. He had been going to call on them. His visit he would now defer; but they had a very interesting parley about what could be done and should be done. Mr. Elton then turned back to accompany them.

So Emma is not the only one with failings – and given Elton’s position in the community his failings here are more marked. This is certainly thinly disguised social commentary and even criticism, but Austen is more concerned with other things and does not spend her time on taking the reader inside the cottage to actually meet the poor and sick people in need of help – they are of only marginal importance to the novel. This is not the case with Persuasion.]

Austen also pursues this moral theme in an unobtrusive, perhaps prosaic way, by embedding it in the topographical realism of her location. As already seen, we know immediately that Mrs Smith has taken lodgings ‘near the hot baths’ (soon revealed as Westgate-buildings) because of her ill-health; a situation described by herself (but as indirect reported speech once again):

She could not call herself an invalid now, compared with her state on first reaching Bath. Then, she had indeed been a pitiable object – for she had caught cold on the journey, and had hardly taken possession of her lodgings, before she was again confined to bed, and suffering under severe and constant pain; and all this among strangers – with the absolute necessity of having a regular nurse, and finances at that moment particularly unfit to meet any extraordinary expense.
(my emphasis)

Given this, it is obvious why (apart from her penury) Mrs Smith needs to live so close to the baths which she hopes will cure her or at least alleviate her sufferings. But Sir Walter remains the arrogant buffoon depicted in the opening chapter, and cannot resist expressing his utter contempt for her name and her location:

‘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. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. – Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Every thing that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you. But surely, you may put off this old lady till tomorrow. She is not so near her end, I presume, but that she may hope to see another day. What is her age? Forty?’

The choice of ‘low company’ as an insult reinforces Austen’s use of the topography of Bath, which at this time had been expanding up the northern slope away from the river and the Old Town where the hot baths were located. Offensive as he is, Sir Walter is quite correct – Mrs Smith is indeed ‘low’ in terms of the town layout and in contrast with the Elliots’ lodgings at the top of the hill in Camden-place. This allows a deliberate pointed irony, for when Anne visits her old schoolfriend she is literally going down in the world; but by so doing she emphasises her moral superiority and fulfils her sense of obligation and social responsibility in a way her father does not and cannot comprehend.

Austen also uses this topographical accuracy to pin down precisely where her various characters reside so as to show their social standing; essentially, they are ranked as to how far up the northern slope their lodgings are; with one exception – Mr Elliot, whose address is never given. He is, therefore, outside the established social hierarchy of the novel – a resonant emblem of his lack of any settled or moral centre and essential rootlessness coupled with the practised insincerity and air of calculating intrigue that increasingly surrounds his character.

And here the timing of Mrs Smith’s introduction to the novel becomes significant in terms of the plot structure, because the previous chapter ends with Mr Elliot’s comments to Anne on Mrs Clay that attempt to create a sense of intimate collusion between them. Throughout this final third of the novel Austen places particular emphasis on her chapter endings:

‘In one point I am sure, my dear cousin, (he continued, speaking lower, though there was no one else in the room) in one point, I am sure, we must feel alike. We must feel that every addition to your father’s society, among his equals or superiors, may be of use in diverting his thoughts from those who are beneath him.’
He looked, as he spoke, to the seat which Mrs Clay had been lately occupying, a sufficient explanation of what he particularly meant …

Austen captures here the exact technique of the polished manipulator or suitor well used to creating a sense of connection between himself and his prey: the subtle use of repetition and subliminal varieties of rhythm and tone (‘In one point I am sure’, ‘in one point, I am sure,’, ‘we must feel alike’, ‘We must feel’); the casual affection of ‘my dear cousin’ and the joint membership of family; the lowered voice in an empty room; the significant meaningful glance. Anne is not immune to this hypnotic effect, neither angry nor uncomfortable:

she was pleased with him for not liking Mrs Clay; and her conscience admitted that his wishing to promote her father’s getting greater acquaintance, was more than excusable in the view of defeating her.
(my emphasis)

It is, of course, a form of persuasion; and Anne is so pleased to find that he agrees with her and validates her dislike of Mrs Clay she does not stop to think why Mr Elliot should be so concerned. But he is playing a double game here: he is aware of Anne’s dislike and uses it to insinuate himself into her favour as part of his seduction strategy where she is concerned; and as we discover later through Mrs Clay in Chapter Twenty-One, he had already been warned (before Anne’s arrival in Bath) by his friend Colonel Wallis that it was possible that Mrs Clay’s own strategy was to marry Sir Walter – which might create an obstacle (the birth of another son who might not so conveniently die) and threaten his inheritance of Sir Walter’s title and property; the which prompted him to repair his relationship with Sir Walter so that he could observe any danger for himself. Focusing on Mrs Clay’s inferior social status is a convenient distraction to prevent Anne possibly realising this ulterior motive, however unlikely that may be – which is another indication that he is a man used to deception and intrigue. It recalls Milton’s description in Book IX of Paradise Lost when Eve is the prey: ‘So glozed the tempter’.

This is reinforced after Mrs Smith’s entry into the novel by the way he subverts (or even perverts) Anne’s act of friendship in visiting her in preference to the formal evening planned by her father and sister by praising her ‘kind, compassionate visits’ to Lady Russell – who then wastes no time in reporting his opinion to Anne:

He thought her a most extraordinary young woman; in her temper, manners, mind, a model of female excellence.

But Mr Elliot knows this praise will work also on Lady Russell as well as on Anne, who had ‘many … agreeable sensations’ on hearing herself ‘so highly rated by a sensible man’. Mr Elliot too knows how the world works:

Lady Russell was now perfectly decided in her opinion of Mr Elliot. She was as much convinced of his meaning to gain Anne in time, as of his deserving her
(my emphasis)

Note how little time Austen devotes to this radically different assessment to the one Lady Russell makes at the beginning of the novel where the young Wentworth is concerned. Although unstated, it is clear that had Wentworth been more deferential and flattering seven years earlier then perhaps Lady Russell would not have spent so much time finding reasons to dislike him. And note also how, when Lady Russell tries to persuade Anne for the second time about who to marry:

‘I own that to be able to regard you as the future mistress of Kellynch, the future Lady Elliot – to look forward and see you occupying your dear mother’s place, succeeding to all her rights, and all her popularity, as well as to all her virtues, would be the highest possible gratification to me.’
(my emphasis)

she instinctively uses the same linguistic device of repetition that we have seen in Mr Elliot’s conversation at the end of the previous chapter and Sir Walter’s disparagement of Mrs Smith. It has an immediate power: ‘For a few moments (Anne’s) imagination and her heart were bewitched.’

But Anne is now several years older and more formed in her assessments of other people; she can resist bewitchment. Or so she thinks, for Austen couches Anne’s unvoiced internal rejection of Mr Elliot in those values and behaviours that have bewitched her – Wentworth’s:

‘Mr Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, – but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. 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.
(my emphasis)

Of course, Anne clearly believes the ‘early impressions’ she holds of Mr Elliot are those formed over the short time they had known each other – ‘they had now been acquainted a month’ – while Austen intends the reader to understand that they actually refer to her first perceptions of Wentworth. The passage is both deliciously comic while at the same time emphasising how radically different this viewpoint is when compared with Austen’s earlier novels. This assessment would negate their heroes completely.

Note also the mention of the moral terms ‘evil or good’ as applied to Mr Elliot. Note how Anne uses the same terminology at the end of Chapter Twenty (and remember how significant these chapter endings are) when she interprets Wentworth’s frustrated comment as he leaves the concert – ‘there is nothing worth my staying for’ – as jealousy and then realises the difficulty if not the impossibility of showing him ‘her real sentiments’ such are the social restrictions of the time. Austen encapsulates the situation perfectly:

It was misery to think of Mr Elliot’s attentions. – Their evil was incalculable.
(my emphasis)

The vocabulary is intentional and underlines the seriousness of this final third of the novel despite its movement towards romantic reconciliation and the triumph of love. That seriousness appears also at the end of Chapter Seventeen despite Anne’s firm rejection of Mr Elliot just quoted – because Lady Russell remains drily confident that Anne will relent:

Lady Russell saw either less or more than her young friend, for she saw nothing to excite distrust. She could not imagine a man more exactly what he ought to be than Mr Elliot; nor did she ever enjoy a sweeter feeling than the hope of seeing him receive the hand of her beloved Anne in Kellynch church, in the course of the following autumn.
(my emphasis)

however much Anne is currently suspicious of a man ‘exactly what he ought to be.’ Knowing Anne as she does she must feel that she has a weakness of some sort. What it might be has already been revealed earlier in the chapter in one of the few direct conversations quoted between her and Mrs Smith on the subject of nurse Rooke’s always being able ‘to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something that makes one know one’s species better.’ For Anne immediately waxes lyrical about the ‘great opportunities’ nursing offers ‘intelligent’ women:

‘What instances must pass before them of ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, of heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation – of all the conflicts and all the sacrifices that ennoble us most. A sick chamber may often furnish the worth of volumes.’

which carefully calculated outburst allows Austen, through Mrs Smith’s more experienced and measured response, the opportunity to show how Anne’s tendency to try to see the best of things is sometimes inappropriate:

‘Yes’, said Mrs Smith more doubtingly, ‘sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe.’
(my emphasis)

I suggest that the importance of this is that – for possibly the first time in the novel – Austen disengages herself from Anne’s viewpoint, and by doing so quietly but firmly hints that, for all her strengths, Anne’s good qualities and ‘elevated style’ can also make her vulnerable because her default position is always to think the best of people and the situations they find themselves in.

Lady Russell’s confidence that Anne will marry Mr Elliot is surely based on her observation of this tendency in Anne. But it is here coupled with her understanding that Wentworth is almost certainly engaged to Louisa Musgrove, especially after the accident on The Cobb during the trip to Lyme Regis; and perhaps also on her belief that, when the engagement to Louisa is confirmed, Anne will finally agree to marry someone more to her taste and sensibilities than Charles Musgrove, who she refused after the first break with Wentworth – Mr Elliot, remember, has convinced Lady Russell that ‘She could not imagine a man more exactly what he ought to be than Mr Elliot.’ Austen uses the next three chapters to show that Lady Russell’s presumption of Wentworth’s attachment to Louisa is mistaken; but Austen is always at pains to ascribe only the best intentions to Lady Russell where ‘her beloved Anne’ is concerned – she only wants the best outcomes for her.

And so over the following chapters we have the news of Louisa’s engagement to Captain Benwick (told to Anne in a letter from Mary delivered by Admiral Croft, who also confirms that Wentworth’s letter to his sister ‘does not give the least fling at Benwick’ and that ‘you would not guess, from his way of writing, that he had ever thought of this Miss (what’s her name?) for himself.’); and in keeping with the linguistic balance of this last third of the novel Austen balances out this potential optimism by arranging the vexed meeting in Molland’s the confectioners where Mr Elliot proprietorially walks off with Anne ‘her arm under his’; followed by the mix of hope and frustration at the evening concert thereafter with Wentworth’s hasty retreat (‘there is nothing worth my staying for’) already discussed.

Despite the tragicomedy of emotional uncertainty at this point there remains the constant shadow of potential misunderstanding. Note that Austen opens Chapter Twenty-One – which is to reveal Mr Elliot’s hidden history – with Anne’s reflections on the Mr Elliot she is seeking to avoid by paying another visit to Mrs Smith:

She felt a great deal of goodwill towards him. In spite of the mischief of his attentions, she owed him gratitude and regard, perhaps compassion. She could not help thinking much of the extraordinary circumstances attending their acquaintance; of the right which he seemed to have to interest her, by every thing in situation, by his own sentiments, by his early prepossession. It was altogether very extraordinary.Flattering, but painful. There was much to regret. How she might have felt, had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case, was not worth enquiry.
(my emphasis)

Although Anne rejects Mr Elliot in favour of Wentworth here (‘her affection would be his for ever’) Austen immediately follows her ruminations with a remarkable description:

Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate-buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.

How is the reader to interpret this? Unusually for the novel this is clearly the author commenting on the character rather than her default style of free indirect discourse as used in the preceding passage giving us Anne’s thought process. But is Austen suggesting that these thoughts are to be treated with something bordering on contempt, as per the rhetorical ‘spread purification and perfume’? In other words, is Austen intensifying the innate criticism of Mrs Smith’s earlier comment about Anne’s ‘elevated style’? Is the reader to decode ‘Prettier musings’ as implying that Anne’s thought process as outlined is essentially lightweight, even trivial, because it is ‘high-wrought’? Or should the reader see this as the author poking gentle fun at her character who is suddenly and joyfully alive again, even if her reaction is somewhat exaggerated – ‘eternal constancy’? After all, Austen also describes Anne as ‘sporting with’ these thoughts – not in the modern sense of taking advantage of or teasing with in a shallow demeaning way but in the older meaning of having fun with or amusing herself in a light-hearted rather than lightweight fashion. Which would mean, perhaps, that Anne is happily aware of how exaggerated her thoughts are.

Further, some readers might well argue that ‘purification and perfume’ have a serious resonance here, of religious ritual and incense, in keeping with the subterranean but powerful theme of morality we have noted. Indeed, it might even be seen as a subtle precursor of the ‘purification’ Anne is about to undergo when Mrs Smith reveals the moral emptiness and carelessness of Mr Elliot.

However the reader chooses to interpret the passage it is itself immediately followed by the decidedly ironic ‘She was sure of a pleasant reception’ – which turns out to be one of the most powerful moments in the novel and worthy of more detailed examination.