Persuasion (4): MRS SMITH: AN EXERCISE IN AMBIGUITY (1)
The previous section situated Mrs Smith primarily within the context of Austen’s reference to the social system and its effect on the place of women – especially impoverished women – in the Georgian era. But she is a much more complex and significant character than this perspective might suggest despite her very late appearance and the fact that she only appears directly in Chapters Seventeen and Twenty-One. Indeed, she is a powerful example of the remarkable intense craftsmanship of Austen’s mature writing.
Structurally, her late brief appearance perhaps offers the clearest evidence of how much Austen’s increasingly serious illness compromised and shortened the novel. For readers familiar with Austen’s previous novels the expectation might well be that she is intended to perform much the same role as Augusta Elton in Emma, say, who is also first introduced in the second volume of the novel. In Emma Mrs Elton is used to drive the narrative and thematic structure forward through the way Austen increasingly and incrementally establishes and develops a direct comparison between her and Emma Woodhouse by means of the events and interactions of the following twenty-three chapters. Austen uses these events and interactions to help clarify and reset the reader’s perception and judgement of Emma and her behaviour via the withering authorial satire of the vicar’s wife at the same time as Mrs Elton is integrated more fully and naturally into the fabric of the novel.
Compared to the earlier novel Persuasion is savagely truncated: the twenty-three chapters of available space in which to refine Mrs Elton reduce to only two chapters in which to present and establish Mrs Smith. This lack of narrative space in Persuasion means that Austen, whatever her original intention for the character might have been, cannot expand Mrs Smith’s interaction with other characters or develop her standing in the novel in the way she did with Mrs Elton.
(Put another way, whereas the 1963 Everyman edition of Emma continues for a further one hundred and ninety-one pages after Mrs Elton appears, the 1965 Penguin edition of Persuasion compresses Mrs Smith’s involvement into only twenty-one or so pages.)
Alongside and consequent upon this compression is the lack of any preparation for Mrs Smith’s sudden appearance. The reader has no foreknowledge or warning whatsoever of Mrs Smith before Chapter Seventeen, whereas in Emma the news of Mr Elton’s engagement appears in Chapter Twenty-One in the Everyman edition although Mrs Elton does not appear in person until Chapter Thirty-Two. Structurally, this allows interest in and expectation about the new character to form part of the general social life of Highbury.
This cannot apply to Mrs Smith, of course, and her second (and final) more prolonged appearance in Chapter Twenty-One – with its almost burdensome stream of revelation – strikes many readers as somewhat clumsy precisely because it comes so abruptly and means that a recently introduced and apparently minor character suddenly becomes an unlikely dea ex machina. Lack of time and space produces a torrent of information and damning evidence about the various schemes of Mr Elliot and Mrs Clay built out of a tenuous mixture of personal acquaintance, reported second-hand or third-hand conversations, and an old letter that expresses opinions about the Elliots that most readers would agree with.
Nonetheless, despite these structural difficulties Mrs Smith’s major thematic function seems clear enough. She represents and – as noted in the previous section – in a departure from Austen’s usually more subdued style underpins the reality and starkness of the consequences for widows of the prevailing legal practice of coverture. Her story illustrates how the lack of financial and social standing potentially cripples such women both morally, metaphorically and physically, forcing them into all kinds of contrivances and ploys in order to survive.
(That said, what some might term Mrs Smith’s entrepreneurial skills in using nurse Rooke to sell her hand-made ‘thread-cases, pin cushions and card-racks’ to patients argues that such contrivances and ploys can also be seen as part of the emerging economic model of capitalism, representative of the tension between the old social norms and virtues and the new commercial attitudes and practices. Professor Karen Bloom Gevirtz’s 2005 study Life after Death: Widows and the English Novel, Defoe to Austen (published by Newark: University of Delaware Press) is a persuasive exploration of how this shift found expression in the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Gevirtz’s scholarship demonstrates that this thematic function operates beyond the parameters of the individual narrative while being significant within it. In Persuasion it establishes dramatic resonance with both Mrs Clay, that other young and impoverished widow, and with Anne – who, had she married Wentworth seven years earlier, might well have found herself in similar circumstances had he been killed. This combination of external social commentary and internal dramatic resonance clearly underlines Mrs Smith’s potential to become a much more significant agent in the novel than might at first seem to be the case.
And further, perhaps, the external social tensions between the old and the new economic models find embodiment in Austen’s portrayal of Mrs Smith’s uncertain moral behaviour both in the past and with regard to Anne. How she achieves this is grounded – as might be expected – in how she uses language to offset the technical problems created by the lack of narrative space.)
The problems of compression and lack of narrative space inevitably impact upon Austen’s freedom to develop this potential significance in a more measured, less heavy-handed way than exists in the novel as published. They create what might be termed a technical conflict between Austen’s previous preferred artistic intention as expressed by Mrs Elton (whereby Mrs Smith would emerge gradually and naturally as a more significant presence in the novel) and the necessity to squeeze and quicken that process. One obvious consequence of this conflict is the fact that, because the two characters never meet, the resonance with Mrs Clay inevitably remains a somewhat superficial or intellectual connection in the mind of the reader – in much the same way as the relationship between Mrs Clay and Mr Elliot is clearly very much undeveloped. The more general consequence of this tension for the reader is an uneasy sense of unresolved material and possible distortion as the narrative rushes towards its comparatively hasty conclusion.
That said, any technical difficulties clearly offer Austen the opportunity to reconfigure and explore her techniques for reaching her wider goals more quickly. In general terms, her decision in the relatively short scene in Chapter Seventeen – some four and a bit pages – is to use her default narrative style of free indirect discourse for the first three-quarters or so of the scene (because it allows her the freedom to develop the picture of Mrs Smith through both the filter of Anne’s memory and emotional responses and embed it within that elusive authorial control which works alongside the apparently neutral passages of information) before ending it in a short burst of dialogue. In the more extended and dynamic scene in Chapter Twenty-One Austen essentially reverses this process by a prolonged direct conversation followed by a summarised history of previous events in Mrs Smith’s life.
This first choice of using free indirect discourse to carry the weight of the narrative in the opening section of Chapter Seventeen allows Austen to use contradictory emphases when introducing Mrs Smith. Initially, Austen emphasises the contingency of her sudden appearance – and therefore establishes her apparently minor role – in the some twenty words which open the second paragraph of the chapter:
She (Anne) had called on her former governess, and had heard from her of there being an old school-fellow in Bath
This unmistakeably perfunctory manner, via reported and indirect speech, carries the equally unmistakeable inference that the meeting with the unnamed and unseen governess who mentions Mrs Smith’s existence is little more than a casual social politeness on Anne’s part. This in turn implies that the information about her being in Bath is also to be read as casual and accidental, underlining her role as a relatively minor character on the periphery of Anne’s life.
However, Austen immediately undercuts this interpretation by having Anne remember how significant this former school friend used to be, and that this ‘old school-fellow’ was, in fact, a person
who had the two strong claims on her attention, of past kindness and present suffering.
and immediately fleshes out this memory:
Miss Hamilton, now Mrs Smith, had shewn her kindness in one of those periods of her life when it had been most valuable. Anne had gone unhappy to school, grieving for the loss of a mother whom she had dearly loved, feeling her separation from home, and suffering as a girl of fourteen, of strong sensibility and not high spirits, must suffer at such a time; and Miss Hamilton, three years older than herself, but still from the want of near relations and a settled home, remaining another year at school, had been useful and good to her in a way which had considerably lessened her misery, and could never be remembered with indifference.
This is a succinct description of a former significant relationship built around a common bond between two young, displaced and vulnerable characters each in her own way trying to come to terms with an essentially unhappy situation. As such it comes very close to that wealth of detail which, as we have already seen, is Austen’s preferred form of historical summary used to introduce important characters and themes in the opening chapters of her novels. This juxtaposition of the opposite inferences of the contingent and the established signals that the reader should pay attention to Mrs Smith immediately. It is further emphasised by the rapid flow of further information and inference that follows in Anne’s limited recollection of what had happened to her friend on leaving school:
Miss Hamilton had left school, had married not long afterward, was said to have married a man of fortune, and this was all that Anne had known of her …
which captures Miss Hamilton’s/Mrs Smith’s more specific relevance in this otherwise apparently anodyne generalised summary – for as already mentioned, had Anne not been persuaded by Lady Russell to break off the engagement with Wentworth then this might well have been a description of her own life.
Austen builds on the reader’s awareness of this dual vision of the character as both peripheral yet somehow potentially important by presenting Anne’s more recent memory of how the anonymous and invisible governess described Mrs Smith’s general situation. By doing so Austen is able to indicate a sense of distanced objectivity – the description belongs to the governess – while suggesting its emotional impact on Anne through the careful choice of vocabulary and phrasing as underlined below:
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.
The language is deliberately emphatic – there is no attempt to soften Mrs Smith’s awful predicament. This clearly enhances the sense of social realism outside the text while also offering (within the structure of the story) details and a weight of authorial attention which move radically beyond a casual description of a minor character. And while for some readers the power of the language used in the passage might cause them to wonder whether it expresses the governess’s own reaction or her recall of Mrs Smith’s careful summary of what she has suffered, it is clear that Austen quietly uses these details to reset Anne’s apparently diminished family situation into a broader context.
That is, the extra personal details as itemised directly locate Mrs Smith’s position in the story but also build (and very quickly and economically) an unstated comparison between herself and Anne. For although the narrative focus is on Mrs Smith and the recital of her history and situation, the very specific details of her situation inevitably contrast with – and remind the reader – how little Anne’s life has actually been impacted by her earlier refusal of Wentworth. And because of this they also accelerate the reader’s sense of Mrs Smith’s as yet undefined significance.
Austen’s craftsmanship here is beautifully controlled. Although the comparison between the two characters remains unstated, they are nonetheless clearly aligned through their earlier relationship and in the reader’s interaction with the text within the context of a friendship arising out of the ‘misery’ of emotional alienation and physical isolation from their families. So that, without any direct comparison whatsoever in the text, the reader himself or herself is aware that: Anne has lost her mother and is of marginal importance to her remaining family while Miss Hamilton/Mrs Smith has no ‘near relations’ nor ‘a settled home’; yet despite the previous consistent descriptions of Anne’s undervalued status within her immediate family she nonetheless continues to live – however unregarded – in some comfort with her father and older sister while Mrs Smith’s has no relatives to support her in any way and her social status is far more uncomfortable and even desperate; Anne spends considerable time in the company and comfort of her younger sister and the equally prosperous Musgrove family while Mrs Smith lives a somewhat solitary cramped existence within the cramped rooms of Westgate-buildings; Anne’s ‘spendthrift’ father’s irresponsible carelessness hasn’t made her financially desperate or forced her to live in such dreadfully reduced circumstances as Mrs Smith, caused by the behaviour of her ‘extravagant’ husband; Anne’s mother’s death – which has certainly cast a shadow over her life – cannot match Mrs Smith’s loss of her husband.
Other, perhaps lesser reverberations hover in the shadows of the reader’s awareness. Anne’s sister Mary’s constant complaint of ill health is little more than the petulant self-regard of a determined hypochondriac tolerated by family members with a sense of exasperation rather than worry, whereas Mrs Smith is clearly a serious invalid; throughout the novel Anne’s inclusion in society is not so much threatened as expanded – she is, as already argued, in terms of Austen’s novels both very much travelled and engaged with and embedded in a variety of social groups – whereas Mrs Smith’s exclusion is far more profound and damaging; and finally, where Mrs Smith’s love is dead and buried and beyond any future hopes Wentworth is still very much alive – and more importantly, a source of rekindled possibilities.
In her earlier novels Austen generally separates out such nuanced comparisons across different characters, events and chapters. Here the exigencies of health and space result in the remarkable achievement of allowing the reader to complete the unvoiced narrative through her subtle authorial control.
This technical control operates in tandem with her control over and appreciation of the subtleties of language, as already noticed in the opening description of Mrs Smith’s situation. Of course, this is nothing new in terms of Austen’s established ‘trademark’ style – but it is especially concentrated here. For example, her sensitive use of vocabulary both disguises and creates a disturbing ambiguity around how Mrs Smith presents herself and how Anne perceives her; how far Mrs Smith is able to manipulate Anne’s emotional response by a mix of careful observation and early knowledge of Anne’s moral character; and how far and however unconsciously Anne’s inevitably privileged and sheltered life conspires with that manipulation.
(These elements mirror Mrs Clay’s skilful manipulation of Elizabeth and Sir Walter and the smooth ease with which she is accepted into their company, of course. They also prepare the ground for the revelation in Chapter Twenty-One of Mrs Clay’s apparent but vague collusion with Mr Elliot. But they inevitably operate subliminally, despite forming a substantial part of that sense of unresolved – because curtailed – narrative which is left hanging at the end of the novel.)
This aspect of ambiguity between the two former schoolfriends and the nature of their relationship ripples quietly away beneath the double focus on Mrs Smith’s ‘fallen’ situation and Anne’s unswerving belief in and moral conviction of the essential goodness of people – which is one of her most attractive qualities. This double focus is integral to the momentum generated mainly through the use of the indirect voice of reported conversations and emotional responses, as already described. As already said, direct dialogue between the two occurs only towards the end of that section of the chapter which describes the initial meetings between them in Westgate-buildings. Again as already suggested, the more developed interactions in Chapter Twenty-One deliver the narrative almost exclusively through the active voice of sustained conversation – where Austen brings the related moral ambiguities surrounding their relationship more openly into view.
The core moral or ethical complexity created by the various dissonances of narrative technique and linguistic nuances in Chapter Seventeen relates to Anne primarily through the characterisation of her old friend. And how is the reader to interpret Mrs Smith’s morality as expressed in her attitude and purpose towards Anne? Indeed, some readers might well begin to wonder not only whether Mrs Smith had somehow manipulated the governess’s descriptive language and its emotional impact on Anne but also whether she had engineered the two meetings (herself and the governess; the governess and Anne) in order to achieve a more important third meeting between herself and Anne.
Austen controls this constant ambiguity, then, through the technique of dissonance, an uncertainty created both in terms of narrative structure and by what might be described as the meaning-potential of the fluidity of language. The result is a clear but elusive sense of moral tension regarding what transpires between the two characters as Austen explores their renewed relationship. This moral tension is, perhaps, worth considering in a little more detail as something uneasy lurks beneath the apparently simple reportage of events.
Tension immediately exists in Anne’s retrospective view of her first visit to Westgate-buildings, which seems at first to be a straightforward uncomplicated summary:
Anne found in Mrs Smith the good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend on, and a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond her expectation.
The description is composed of two distinct elements, one concerning Mrs Smith’s behaviour, the other acknowledging Anne’s apprehension as to what might happen. The simplicity of the language – Mrs Smith’s ‘good sense and agreeable manners’ and ‘a disposition to converse and be cheerful’ – glosses over Anne’s understandable initial uncertainty and hesitancy as expressed in ‘had almost ventured to depend upon’ and ‘beyond her expectation’ (my emphases). While it is easy to read this as just another example of Austen’s balanced sentence structure, something else (also unstated) is hinted at here. Anne is clearly relieved to find the meeting more pleasant and comfortable than she had anticipated – but not because Mrs Smith’s situation is better than she had expected. Her relief is because the social graces appropriate to her friend’s class and education apparently remain – which by any judgement is a relief based on the essentially superficial ground of social ease rather than on any more substantive virtues.
The balanced sentence structure is immediately repeated in the opening of the next sentence:
Neither the dissipations of the past – and she had lived very much in the world, nor the restrictions of the present; neither sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits
where the dissonance of the underlined words is quietly submerged in the formal grammatical structure of the series of ‘Neither/nor’, ‘past/present’, ‘sickness/sorrow’ comparisons and the underlying emphasis on the qualities of which Anne approves – grace notes, as it were, in the music of her admiration. Except that the vocabulary here has more to do with the loss of grace. ‘Dissipations’ is a very heavy word, carrying strong moral disapproval and often coupled with notions of degeneracy. In many dictionaries it is synonymous with accusations of debauchery, depravity, indulgence, licentiousness and even perversity. Again, ‘she had lived very much in the world’ clearly emphasises that Mrs Smith pursued whatever these specific behaviours might have been with some complacency if not enthusiasm. This juxtaposition strongly suggests a clash between what might be seen as Anne’s moral naivety and Mrs Smith’s worldly knowingness, Anne’s openness versus a ‘closed’ heart.
(At this point some readers might find it tempting to wonder whether Austen had William Blake in mind here, given his technique of comparing moral qualities to focus attention on his social and political discourses. Songs of Innocence and Experience had been published some twenty years earlier, and the full title of Blake’s work – Songs of Innocence and Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul – might suggest to those readers a connection with Austen’s two characters. Further, they and others might well feel that this suggested difference of life experience between the two characters prepares the revelation (in Chapter Twenty-One) of Mrs Smith’s involvement with Mr Elliot through her husband, and thus that Mr Elliot too has lived a life of dissipation. Such a suspicion, rippling outward, might present as another indication that, initially at least, Austen toyed with the idea of aligning Mrs Smith more directly – in ways beyond the exigencies of desperation – with other morally suspect characters, especially her fellow widow in the novel, Mrs Clay.
If so, it might well be argued that this method of creating ambiguity out of dissonance is supremely indicated in the latter both through her oxymoronic full name – Penelope Clay – where her forename is associated with marital fidelity from Penelope’s constancy to her husband Odysseus in the Greek myth, while her surname suggests an opposite plasticity and inconstancy; and also through her ‘freckles’, which suggest more than a flawed complexion. Indeed, as Tony Tanner points out in his essay In Between: Persuasion already quoted:
In a very interesting letter to The Times Literary Supplement on 7 October 1983, Nora Cook points out that ‘Gowland’s Lotion’, which Sir Walter recommends to Anne ‘on the strength of its supposed benefits to Mrs Clay’s freckles’, contained ‘corrosive sublimate of mercury’, which ‘had a particular connection with the old-fashioned treatment of syphilis’.
Sir Walter’s recommendation of ‘Gowland’ at the beginning of Chapter Sixteen might well have had implications for the original audience through its medical use as well as a known beauty cream, preparing the ground for the mention of ‘dissipations’ in the following chapter, as just discussed. Austen is never accidental in such matters, and the direct reference to a specific product in this way is in itself significant, possibly reinforcing the suspicion that part of Austen’s early intention for using the character of Mrs Smith was, as already posited, to establish a moral (or amoral) similarity between Mrs Smith and Mrs Clay in a more direct way which never quite came to fruition.)
The particular quality of this passage of grammatical balance and linguistic dissonance lies in the fact that it is impossible to untangle the narrative voice, which underlines the difficult ambiguity of interpretation that the choice of indirect speech creates. For example, does it reflect Anne’s view of Mrs Smith’s personal responsibility for her current situation – and if so then would she so easily put that seriously negative judgement aside? Is it rather a reported acknowledgement by Mrs Smith that she carries some measure of personal responsibility for her plight in the hope that such an admission will soften Anne’s attitude? – for Anne is not the only character who will have had concerns, anxieties and expectations about their meeting. Or is this Austen using the authorial voice for another purpose – to show that Anne’s sense of relief that the meeting is pleasant outweighs and ignores her rational assessment of how far Mrs Smith has fallen both socially and morally? Or again, does it suggest that the breadth and sincerity of Anne’s Christian belief is strong enough to forgive despite her awareness of the degree of Mrs Smith’s culpability?
This latter notion might explain why in the very next paragraph Austen chooses to reinforce the earlier description of Mrs Smith’s appalling circumstances – but this time through Anne’s direct experience of them:
… 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 arrangements 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.
Once again Austen’s purity of grammatical structure (as seen in the underlined short sentence structure balancing past and present and the twin repetitions of ‘She had’, ‘she had’, ‘She had’, ‘She had’ and ‘no child’, ‘no relations’, ‘no health’, ‘no possibility’) reinforces the bleak social realism that Austen is concerned to promote. Alongside this the bleak vocabulary of deprivation precisely captures Anne’s empathetic and heartfelt response – which is so different from her father’s reaction later in the chapter. It might well be argued that this combination of structure and language to emphasise actuality and empathy certainly works together to underline Anne’s Christian instinct of forgiveness, downgrading any notions of Mrs Smith’s culpability and offsetting the uncertainty of ‘dissipations’. And later in the same paragraph:
but here was 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.
Austen emphasises – through the deliberately religious tone of the underlined phrases – Anne’s predisposition, based on her Christian morality, to see, in Mrs Smith and perhaps in people in general, ‘something more’. Against that, however, remains the question of what ‘something more’ means. Does it raise the subliminal sense of a tension between approbation and censure, empathy and judgement? Is it the case that by determining to see more Anne inadvertently also sees less?
Having raised these questions through Anne’s reported thoughts and reactions Austen immediately expands the balanced sentence structure into the parallelism of giving the reader Mrs Smith’s reported voice in the very next paragraph. The smoothness of this transition is such that it underpins and reinforces Anne’s assessment of Mrs Smith’s reaction to her circumstances as understandable and valid simply because Mrs Smith is willing to provide information and detail that Anne could not otherwise know. It is a powerful statement of resilience, and as such explains Anne’s admiration:
There had been a time, Mrs Smith told her, when her spirits had nearly failed. 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 her 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. She had weathered it however, and could truly say that it had done her good. It had increased her comforts by making her feel herself to be in good hands. She had seen too much of the world, to expect sudden or disinterested attachment any where, but her illness had proved to her that her landlady had a character to preserve, and would not use her ill; and she had been particularly fortunate in her nurse, as a sister of her landlady, a nurse by profession, and who had always a home in that house when unemployed, chanced to be at liberty just in time to attend her.
However straightforward and uncomplicated this story might seem some readers might discern a fugitive sense of rehearsed repetition. For others the structure, language and pace of the passage is clearly impressively glib, redolent of the polish of sustained rehearsal intended to maximise the impact of a very persuasive mix of appalling detail delivered in a tone of mature acceptance. Mrs Smith, they suspect, has told and refined this story for some time, so that the mix of detail and tone creates the structure: a sustained intensity of vocabulary describing incredible pressure followed by a more measured description of gratitude and acceptance. The more sceptical reader sensitised by earlier ambiguities and slightly false notes might notice a possible slippage in the comment
‘She had seen too much of the world, to expect sudden or disinterested attachment any where’
for it is made during Anne’s second visit in fairly rapid succession – a fact surely indicative of the ‘disinterested attachment’ Mrs Smith claims has been absent through her illness. The same reader might pause a moment here to question why Mrs Smith does not acknowledge Anne’s visits – and possibly decide that to do so was not part of the prepared recital of her current circumstances.
Even more noticeable is the throwaway self-description here of having ‘seen too much of the world’ which chimes back directly to that earlier somewhat submerged moment where Anne thinks that Mrs Smith ‘had lived very much in the world’. And which in turn recalls that powerful little word ‘dissipations’ and the dubious behaviour it implies.
Such a pause might well bring to mind other aspects of the passage that identify it as another example of Austen’s impressive control of language and emotional distance. Austen ensures that Mrs Smith’s words are filtered through the haze of Anne’s listening to what her friend said, so that the reader encounters as it were two perspectives, divided between the two characters. For example, how should the reader interpret the comment that ‘she had indeed been a pitiable object’ (my emphasis)? Is that Anne’s emotional reaction or Mrs Smith’s self-description? And if the latter, was it structured to encourage an emotional reaction? Once noticed, the reader may become aware that perhaps all of Mrs Smith’s reported language deals in extremity – ‘before she was again confined to her bed, and suffering under severe and constant pain’, ‘absolute necessity’, ‘particularly unfit’ (my emphases). Another hesitation arising out of such doubt is the fact that – apart from her former friend’s current accommodations – Anne has no proof that this recital of events is actually true. Which in turn raises a further question: how much does her admitted admiration (clearly reinforced by these words) blind her to more negative aspects of Mrs Smith which Austen carefully seems to promote as possible?
Throughout these few pages at the beginning of Chapter Seventeen, then, Austen skilfully creates an atmosphere of ambiguity and uncertainty through Anne’s acceptance of what she is told (which is perfectly acceptable for Anne the character, of course) – but where the reader should, perhaps, be more wary. Even through the filter of Anne’s passive listening the passage apparently presents Mrs Smith’s story rather than focusing on Anne’s emotional reactions – but the story Mrs Smith tells and how she tells it clearly does impact on and bring into view Anne’s emotions, as just outlined. It is a story of two distinct elements: how dreadful her situation had been on arriving at Bath; and how fortunate she had been to (presumably accidentally) find not only a supportive landlady but also a nurse. Surely, the reader might think, if Mrs Smith did indeed feel fortunate to have ‘weathered’ these terrible distresses with the help of her landlady and her landlady’s sister, then perhaps that gratitude might be uppermost in her mind and be expressed, however briefly, first?
Given such an accumulation of hesitancies it is perhaps understandable why some readers might begin to develop a more negative interpretation: that the choices of emphasis and expression possibly suggest that Mrs Smith’s physical illness is a consequence and expression of another kind of illness entirely – a moral or spiritual one that has not yet completely lifted.
Against all this, of course, is the more instinctive argument that Anne’s apparent reluctance to condemn her friend mirrors perfectly normal and understandable behaviour and language. Mrs Smith simply wants to retain some semblance of dignity even in her present humiliating circumstances, to project herself in as good a light as she can in the eyes of an old friend who once was dependent on or grateful for her earlier attention and support.
Such nuances are, of course, integral both to Austen’s linguistic style and narrative strategy – and to the pleasure that readers find in her texts, which can be seen as exquisite balancing acts between style and substance, comedy and social realism, empathy and moral judgement. All of this coalesces in the rich density of Mrs Smith’s characterisation, compressed into such a short and intense interaction. In just a few remarkable paragraphs Austen forces the reader to consider how far Mrs Smith stretches the limits of moral behaviour; how far she is forced into this by the brutal consequences of early and penurious widowhood without any meaningful social welfare support; and whether her apparent willingness to exploit others arises out of the desperation of circumstance or innate predisposition.
Austen’s moral judgement is far from simple or simplistic. There is another question lurking in the shadows. Is Mrs Smith’s questionable behaviour – her earlier choices about the way she has lived her life and her current use of Nurse Rook to sell her wares – ameliorated or justified by the fact that any manipulation she practises is apparently aimed primarily not at defrauding other people but as a means of trying to recover what is rightfully hers?
As if to emphasise the precarious tension of this sustained ambiguity it is at this point that Austen finally shifts the narrative into the unquestionably direct speech of Mrs Smith after almost three pages of reportage:
‘And she,’ said Mrs Smith, ‘besides nursing me most admirably, has really proved an invaluable acquaintance. – As soon as I could use my hands, she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pin-cushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood. She has a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandize. She always takes the right time for applying. Every body’s heart is open, you know, when they have recently escaped from severe pain, or are recovering the blessing of health, and nurse Rooke thoroughly understands when to speak. She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman.’
Wrapped up in this explanation of why and how nurse Rooke helps her keep so busy is a remarkably modern exposition of psychological manipulation through displacement and its close relationship with the nature of capitalism. The psychological manipulation is evident, of course, in the use of ‘the right time’ to sell the trinkets to people who ‘have recently escaped from severe pain, or are recovering the blessing of health.’ The final sentence description of nurse Rooke (another significant name, given that a common meaning of ‘to rook someone’ is to cheat them out of money) as ‘a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman’ is clearly also a self-portrait of the speaker herself, who ‘displaces’ her business of selling her ‘little thread cases, pin-cushions and card-racks’ as an act of pure altruism designed to do ‘a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood’. This displacement of motive is clearly intended to manipulate Anne’s support of the idea that Mrs Smith retains her class status and values.
Given that Anne offers no comment, the reader has to assume that she is persuaded of this. But the description is actually very circumscribed – Mrs Smith claims only to do ‘a little good’ and only to ‘one or two’ ‘very poor’ ‘families in this neighbourhood’ (my emphases). Is this modesty on her part or simple truth? Further, Austen continues her use of creating ambiguity through dissonance by the other vocabulary hidden in Mrs Smith’s words that express a more commercial consciousness – such as ‘invaluable’, ‘making’, ‘afford’, ‘buy’, ‘merchandize’, terms suggesting a link to the new capitalist system that was busy reshaping social organisation and attitudes and vocabulary. Taken more generally outside the specifics of the text, together these elements of the passage suggest how the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy encouraged new ways of looking at other people primarily as units susceptible to persuasive exploitation under the guise of convincing them that this would help them achieve more prosperous and fulfilling lives. The modern negative term for such persuasion is the idea of ‘the sales pitch’ or ‘the salesman’s patter’ that seems increasingly prevalent in all areas of present-day life.
Equally interesting are Mrs Smith’s next words:
‘Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who having only received “the best education in the world”, know nothing worth attending to. Call it gossip if you will; but when nurse Rooke has half an hour’s leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have some thing to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something that makes one know one’s species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation I assure you is a treat.’
On one level – beneath the surface praise of nurse Rooke’s ‘good sense and observation’ – Mrs Smith deliberately subverts the old norms. Thus ‘the best education’ is nothing compared to entertaining chit-chat (‘Call it gossip if you will’) that offers the ‘treat’ of knowing ‘the newest modes of being trifling and silly’. Given that at one time she and Anne shared the same education on offer to privileged girls (and which was seen by society as offering “the best education in the world”) this seems a particularly pointed reference, perhaps illustrating her own disillusion in discovering that it had not helped her cope with the social and financial deprivations of widowhood. Or perhaps it condemns how those fortunate enough to have an education waste it, and possibly anticipates her final comments of the scene concerning Mrs Wallis – whom she dismisses as ‘a mere pretty, silly expensive, fashionable woman’ who ‘has plenty of money, and I intend she shall buy all the high-priced things I have in hand now.’ At which point Austen switches the location of the chapter to Camden-place where significantly Sir Walter (also the presumed beneficiary of “the best education in the world”) expresses contempt – but in this instance, of Mrs Smith. It is equally significant that he has never met her, is not at all interested in doing so, and builds a complete fantasy around nothing more than her name and residence.
Although this might stand as mitigation in any debate as to Austen’s vision of Mrs Smith the latter’s comments in this first snippet of conversation are difficult to gloss over. It is clear that the dominant virtue of the ‘treat’ provided by nurse Rooke’s ‘conversation’ and ‘fund of good sense and observation’ is the fact that it is all geared towards improving her success when selling Mrs Smith’s ‘merchandize’. Mrs Smith values nurse Rooke’s insights ‘for seeing into human nature’ that ‘makes one know one ‘s species better’ not from any social or religious sense of helping those less fortunate (despite her claims of altruism) but because nurse Rooke’s insights are ‘profitable’. This positioning of entertainment and profit above education seems another remarkably modern aspect of the text.
However clear the negative force of vocabulary here Austen continues to create ambiguity. For despite this it still might be argued that the words also succinctly demonstrate how Mrs Smith the fictional character is balanced uncomfortably – perhaps precariously – between the need to project a continuing social status and middle-class life and values while navigating the reality of what it is to be plunged among the working-class. Despite her defensive description of learning to ‘use my hands’ and being ‘taught to knit’ as a ‘great amusement’, using the skill as means of survival rather than as a genteel leisure activity requires and imposes a completely different set of expectations that not only are beyond Anne’s experience but also pin down a wider social criticism.
The limitations of Anne’s experience are trenchantly revealed by her determination not to ‘cavil’ at the idea of nurse Rooke’s conversation being a ‘treat’ but to agree with what her friend has said on the most literal level – that nurse Rooke must be interesting and valuable simply because she is a nurse. This is in keeping with Anne’s constant attempts to see beyond the received opinions of her family and their circle, of course, for whom a nurse is primarily a servant and therefore of no value outside her professional skills; but Austen does not hesitate to suggest that Anne’s instinctive view is nonetheless constructed by what a modern critic might term the class rhetoric within which she has been nurtured:
‘I can easily believe it. Women of that class have great opportunities, and if they are intelligent may be well worth listening to.
Austen follows this by demonstrating how Anne’s education (despite Mrs Smith’s earlier sarcasm) and intelligence offset this jaundiced judgement by acknowledging a more positive effect:
‘Such varieties of human nature as they are in the habit of witnessing! And it is not merely in its follies, that they are well read; for they see it occasionally under every circumstance that can be most interesting or affecting.’
Despite this positive effect the vocabulary – as suggested by the underlined words and phrases – implies that this is essentially a theoretical rather than a practical observation. And such ‘bookish’ rather than actual experience has its dangers – such as hyperbole:
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.’
It is noteworthy that Mrs Smith’s immediate reaction reverses the theoretical and the actual:
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Smith more doubtingly, ‘sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial, but generally speaking it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber; it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of. There is so little real friendship in the world! – and unfortunately’ (speaking low and tremulously) ‘there are so many who forget to think seriously till it is almost too late.’
It is noteworthy because of the glimpse Austen offers here of the earlier relationship between the two, where Miss Hamilton as the older and more dominant member forever tries to correct ‘the elevated style’ of the younger and enthusiastic Miss Elliot. It is an exchange which both confirms the ambiguities already suggested over the preceding pages and adds another layer to Austen’s concept of the two characters and their interaction which – as we shall see – finds powerful expression in Chapter Twenty-One.
In 2011 Lynda A Hall of Chapman University wrote a detailed assessment of Mrs Smith (‘A View from Confinement: Persuasion’s Resourceful Mrs Smith‘, published in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies Issue 7.3 Winter 2011) which explores the ramifications of this interaction from the perspective of the appalling position of the widow in Georgian society. Referencing Professor Karen Bloom Gevirtz’s assertion in her 2005 study already mentioned, Hall quotes that Mrs Smith’s plan for Anne
‘is risky, it is self-interested, it is profit-oriented, and it commodifies others’
Hall argues that
Austen’s depiction of the widow’s potential for villainy reflects the desperation of the poor, unmarried woman in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English society
Mrs Smith’s character thus emphasizes the widow’s superfluidity as she fights against it, eventually reclaiming a vital space in the discourse – moving from potential (and desperate) villain to potential heroine.
This redemptive shift – an important element of Hall’s carefully-argued and persuasive analysis – becomes the central focus of Chapter Twenty-One, the second and final chapter in which Mrs Smith appears. Despite the earlier comments about obvious weaknesses the particular quality of this later chapter is how Austen develops the notion of possible redemption within the continuing context of this absorbing and delicately complex human interaction explored in a very restricted narrative space.
At the same time, the rapid narrative development in the intervening chapters – which tends to undercut some of the force of the revelations in Chapter Twenty-One – might suggest for some readers that Austen’s awareness of the extent of her illness is mirrored by that rapidity.