Reading Jane Austen 7

At first glance Austen sets herself a major problem by delaying Mrs Smith’s entry so late into the novel because it means that the perspective and revelations she offers are inevitably compressed into only a few chapters at the end stage as the novel hurries towards its conclusion. This applies especially to Chapter Twenty-One and the meeting between Mrs Smith and Anne Elliot at Westgate-buildings the morning after the concert party already mentioned. Given the cramped nature of the accommodation the sudden heavy weight of background and other information squeezed into the chapter creates a claustrophobic intensity that feeds into the novel’s moral, familial and social discourses but – through the confusion and consternation it brings in its train – brutally disrupts the opening sense of renewed possibility and hope so enjoyed by Anne as she walks down the hill to pay her visit.

All this implies that Austen intended to develop the effect of what the final paragraph calls ‘this important conference, which carried them through the greater part of the morning’ – but given the novel contains only three more chapters, the final one consisting of only some four pages in the 1972 Penguin edition (roughly one quarter of the pages devoted to Chapter Twenty-One), any intended developments are cut very short indeed – presumably, by the debilitating effects of Austen’s deteriorating health rather than by any deficiency of plot structure. Indeed, I would suggest that, however superficially indigestible this sudden waterfall of damning information about Mr Elliot might appear, Chapter Twenty-One is actually a very skilful and subtle deepening of the novel’s themes.

I acknowledge that, compared to the beautifully measured way Austen gradually reveals the underlying realities of Emma, say, Chapter Twenty-One seems almost clumsy and akin to that later technique beloved of early detective fiction of gathering characters together in the drawing-room for the hero to ‘explain’ to them (and the reader) what had actually happened. But Emma is concerned with the social and emotional education of the heroine, something which has already been achieved before Persuasion opens; the later novel is complex in a different way requiring a different technique where it is thematically desirable that the information Mrs Smith offers is given in Bath, with its emphasis on social emptiness and display. It is the supremely transient and ephemeral location in the novel and as such perfectly suited to the stripping away of Mr Elliot’s mask of studied charm and calculated intrigue where the Elliot family (and at this point, especially Anne) are concerned. But Anne does not come to Bath until Chapter Fifteen because she is occupied elsewhere as her narrative demands. Although she is immediately surprised to hear that Mr Elliot has been received back into the family and also concerned that Mrs Clay seems to have fully insinuated herself with Sir Walter – so much so that Anne begins to fear the possibility of marriage – all this has taken place without her knowledge or observation: ‘Anne listened, but without quite understanding it.’ From the perspective of character as well as of plot, if she is to discover the truth then she needs the background information provided by Mrs Smith and as quickly and fully as possible – as Chapter Twenty-One’s penultimate paragraph makes clear:

Anne could just acknowledge within herself such a possibility of having been induced to marry him, as made her shudder at the idea of the misery which must have followed.
(my emphasis)

Mrs Smith needs to be brought into the novel and developed sufficiently in terms of her previous and present relationship with Anne before she can provide the information in such a way that Anne believes her. But given the necessary focus on Anne’s situation it is difficult to see how or where Mrs Smith might be introduced earlier in a convincing way.

That said, Austen handles the late entry and the somewhat rapid revelations very subtly; however underdeveloped Chapter Twenty-One’s ramifications might be later, Austen’s plot structure leading towards the revelations is as subtle as it can be given those constraints. Although it might be argued that the time pressure of failing health and the consequent lack of a more gradual development of the chapter’s implications tends to suggest a little too much use of coincidence in terms of events and characters – for example, in the other late introduction of Colonel Wallis and his wife – Austen carefully separates out their involvement, mentioning them first in Chapter Fifteen in the context of the Elliot family, where Colonel Wallis is described as ‘a highly respectable man, perfectly the gentleman, (and not an ill-looking man, Sir Walter added) who was living in very good style in Marlborough Buildings’. (Note how inadequate Sir Walter’s reason for approving of him is here; and how Anne’s assessment of Mr Elliot at the end of Chapter Seventeen already discussed offers an interesting backward reflection on what being ‘perfectly the gentleman’ might mean.) The next time we hear the name Wallis is from Mrs Smith in Chapter Seventeen, whose nurse just happens to be attending Mrs Wallis, described as ‘a mere pretty, silly, expensive, fashionable woman’ but without reference to any connection to the Elliots. Of course, the reader is invited rather than encouraged to make the connection if s/he remembers that earlier mention. In Chapter Twenty-One it is revealed that Mrs Wallis is the source of Mrs Smith’s belief that Anne is to marry Mr Elliot.

This strategy has the added advantage of suggesting rather than stating the notion of what we might term a network of social gossip – that people are always subject to the scrutiny of others. This notion underlies Sir Walter’s comment in Chapter Seventeen:

‘Westgate-buildings must have been rather surprised by the appearance of a carriage drawn up near its pavement!’ observed Sir Walter. –‘Sir Henry Russell’s widow, indeed, has no honours to distinguish her arms; but still, it is a handsome equipage, and no doubt is well known to convey a Miss Elliot.’

Although the immediate force is to illustrate Sir Walter’s warped sense of his own importance it is nonetheless a reminder of how a fairly restricted society operates, and reminiscent of Henry Tilney’s gentle admonition to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey when she gets a little carried away with imagined conspiracies and dark deeds:

‘Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?’
(my emphasis)

Significantly, this sense of a lack of social privacy is immediately emphasised when Anne arrives to talk about the concert and we are told that Mrs Smith already knows more ‘than Anne could relate’ because she had heard about the evening ‘through the short cut of a laundress and a waiter’ – and that ‘Every body of any consequence or notoriety in Bath was well known by name to Mrs Smith’. This not only establishes just how well-informed the crippled Mrs Smith is through her own network of socially invisible servants but also underlines the level of what we might term social intrigue, preparing the ground not only for the coming revelations about Mr Elliot’s hidden purposes in reconciling with the Elliots but also for the chance observation through the window of the White Hart hotel of his clearly furtive meeting with Mrs Clay under the colonnade.

(Indeed, the element of contingent acquaintance figures prominently in the novel in a variety of ways, not only in the various links between families but also in the fact that Kellynch Hall just happens to be rented by Admiral and Mrs Croft, the sister of Captain Wentworth. Austen tends to skate over this somewhat, despite allowing Anne to be a little alarmed by the coincidence, by showing the reader in the final words of Chapter Four how Anne decides that any acquaintance with the Crofts ‘need not involve any particular awkwardness’ because she is convinced that they can know nothing of the history between her and Wentworth because ‘Mrs Croft, had then been out of England, accompanying her husband on a foreign station’. The later emphasis on how difficult it is to remain private in such a narrow society casts a shadow back through the novel, suggesting that Anne may be a little mistaken in assuming that Mrs Croft knows nothing. Other interesting coincidences are recalled, such as the sudden but convenient appearance of the Crofts and their gig in Chapter Ten which enables Wentworth to intervene in response to his sister’s invitation to take Anne home with them because ‘Miss Elliot, I am sure you are tired’ by ‘without saying a word, turned to her, and quietly obliged her to be assisted into the carriage’ and by so doing creates a whirlwind of emotions in Anne. And in keeping with the balanced density of language already noted, at the end of Chapter Eighteen (another example of the significance attached to the ends of chapters) the Admiral exclaims in his usual jovial way:

‘Poor Frederick!’ said he at last. ‘Now he must begin all over again with somebody else. I think we must get him to Bath. Sophy must write, and beg him to come to Bath. Here are pretty girls enough, I am sure. It would be of no use to go to Uppercross again, for that other Miss Musgrove, I find, is bespoke by her cousin, the young parson. Do not you think, Miss Elliot, we had better try to get him to Bath?’
(my emphasis)

Indeed, the bluff character of the Admiral is carefully drawn. He generally presents as a somewhat hasty even unthinking speaker of the truth as he sees it, blithely unaware of the social impact of such behaviour. But as an Admiral and a leader of men, used to making decisions and weighing the consequences of actions, this is highly unlikely to be an accurate representation of his true nature. It is far more probable that he adopts a mask of social affability in order to make others feel comfortable in his presence; and given that Austen’s naval brothers both became Admirals – indeed, Francis reached the highest level of Admiral of the Fleet – it is probable that Admiral Croft ‘borrows’ some of their traits. While in this passage he seems to be making light of Wentworth’s search for a wife, it might well be that this supposed indifference disguises a more serious and pointed intent – to remind Anne that the one certain ‘pretty girl’ in Bath is herself. If so, it is noticeable that he does not speak hastily or thoughtlessly but ‘at last’, after a period of silence; and Austen also takes the opportunity here to suggest that brother and sister write to each other regularly, again gently undermining Anne’s assumption that Mrs Croft is ignorant of his past history with Anne.

Of course, this possibility of the Crofts being consciously involved in trying to bring about a reconciliation remains shadowy and unresolved, and perhaps intentionally so; but it is not without merit.)

Of more immediate concern is how Austen approaches what we might term the technical problem of writing a chapter with the purpose of conveying both background information and current explanation concerning Mr Elliot. It needs to be delivered in a credible and interesting way that grows naturally out of what becomes a very long conversation between two former friends – a ‘conference’ which, as noted earlier, ‘carried them through the greater part of the morning’. Further, such an intense meeting between those whose lives have followed radically different courses also has to show how they are still feeling their way towards a new relationship complicated by their respective experiences over time. Austen needs to bear all this in mind while controlling the ebb and flow of conversation and the information revealed – and to find a balance between dialogue and other narrative techniques so that the reader is not exhausted by a string of assertions, hesitations and factual proofs.

We can trace some of Austen’s intentions: after the brief question-and-answer section on the concert and its audience that begins the conversation between Anne and Mrs Smith, Anne is quickly dismayed and discomfited by Mrs Smith’s perception that:

‘you were in company last night with the person, whom you think the most agreeable in the world, the person who interests you at this present time, more than all the rest of the world put together.’

Once Anne escapes from ‘the astonishment and confusion excited by her friend’s penetration’ and the further surprise that Mrs Smith is referring not to Wentworth but to Mr Elliot, the comedy darkens into seriousness. Mrs Smith is apparently open about why it is important to her that Anne is about to become engaged to Mr Elliot:

‘To confess the truth,’ said Mrs Smith, assuming her usual air of cheerfulness, ‘that is exactly the pleasure I want you to have, I want you to talk about me to Mr Elliot. I want your interest with him. He can be of essential service to me; and if you would have the goodness, my dear Miss Elliot, to make it an object to yourself, of course it is done’
(my emphasis)

Note, however, that Mrs Smith assumes her ‘air of cheerfulness’ – yet another example of Austen’s balanced density. Is the reader to interpret this negatively, to read it as a subtle questioning of her integrity – that she too is capable of dissembling? Or does Austen intend it as the putting on of a mask to disguise just how desperately important it is to her to gain Mr Elliot’s ‘essential service’? Mrs Smith then goes on to speak persuasively of his qualities: ‘Where could you expect a more gentlemanlike, agreeable man? Let me recommend Mr Elliot. I am sure you hear nothing but good of him from Colonel Wallis; and who can know him better than Colonel Wallis?’ Given that the reader already knows Anne’s opinion of his ‘gentlemanlike’ qualities this is not as powerful as it might be; and other hesitations arise concerning Mrs Smith’s honesty and how far she is prepared to compromise her principles in order to achieve her agenda. The immediate answer seems to be that compromising her principles is not a problem:

‘Do not forget me when you are married, that’s all. Let him know me to be a friend of yours, and then he will think little of the trouble required, which it is very natural for him now, with so many affairs and engagements of his own, to avoid and get rid of as he can – very natural, perhaps. Ninety-nine out of a hundred would do the same. Of course, he cannot be aware of the importance to me. Well, my dear Miss Elliot, I hope and trust you will be very happy. Mr Elliot has sense to understand the value of such a woman. Your peace will not be shipwrecked as mine has been. You are safe in all worldly matters, and safe in his character. He will not be led astray, he will not be misled by others to his ruin.’
(my emphasis)

Austen nuances her language just enough to make the reader pause. It is an interesting mix of pleading and clear statement of friendship – ‘Do not forget me’, ‘know me to be a friend of yours’; of not condemning him for his failure to help her because he has so many things on his mind but leaking her actual frustration in ‘avoid’ and ‘get rid of’ and the repetition of ‘very natural’; and in the personal knowledge she has of him – ‘sense’, ‘safe’, ‘safe in his character’ – undercut by her own history of having her ‘peace’ ‘shipwrecked’ or of her husband being ‘led astray’, ‘misled’ to his (and her own)‘ruin’. The passage is balanced – like so much else in the novel – on the fault line of moral ambiguity and behaviour conditioned by experience. So does Austen use this mix of superficial approbation and personal history to suggest that Mrs Smith is desperate enough to soften her stated feelings concerning Mr Elliot’s treatment of her – essentially, ignoring her and her plight – because if Anne marries him all may not yet be lost? A harsher reading might well see her as prepared to sacrifice Anne’s future happiness (despite ‘I hope and trust you will be very happy’) on the altar of her own need.

Austen’s control of the ebb and flow of the conversation is demonstrated again when Anne says very clearly that:

‘Should he ever propose to me (which I have very little reason to imagine he has any thought of doing) I shall not accept him. I assure you I shall not.’

which naturally steers the topic towards how Mrs Smith came about her information to the contrary – another example of that social gossip mentioned earlier – and then to asking how long Mrs Smith had known Mr Elliot and how deep was the acquaintance, and ‘Was he at all such as he appears now?’ At which point Mrs Smith falls silent and ‘very thoughtful’ before rescuing any doubts about her own character by begging Anne’s pardon for having been ‘uncertain what I ought to do. I have been doubting and considering as to what I ought to tell you.’ And then follows the bombshell revelation of Mr Elliot’s ‘real’ character, made all the more convincing precisely because of all the reader’s doubts – as outlined above – about how far to trust Mrs Smith.

Important as the information about Mr Elliot being ‘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’ and so on, Austen prefaces this with something even more significant in terms of the novel’s themes: Mrs Smith’s explanation for her hesitation in speaking the truth. This is germane to the earlier argument about the novel’s title, in that it highlights the major emphasis is not on Anne but on the notion of the family:

‘One hates to be officious, to be giving bad impressions, making mischief. Even the smooth surface of family-union seems worth preserving, though there may be nothing durable beneath.’
(my emphasis)

Austen once again invests what seems to be simply a casual conversational remark along the lines of ‘I didn’t want to be seen as an interfering busybody in matters that had very little or nothing to do with me, nor cause any disruptions among the wider family’ with a more profound note pertaining to the function and purpose of the family unit in maintaining some sense of social harmony. And also once again, her choice of language opens up other perspectives. For example, the use of ‘giving bad impressions’, ‘making mischief’ and ‘smooth surface’ – all of which might seem to suggest a lack of recognition of any deeper moral obligation on her part – actually emphasises Mr Elliot’s practised superficiality, especially when coupled with the idea that family-union ‘seems’ worth preserving despite the ‘nothing durable beneath’. This makes her statement about him more believable despite – at this point – the lack of any real evidence that she is telling the truth.

It is worth noting too the phrase ‘making mischief’, which to the modern reader tends to imply that any failure to reveal the truth about Mr Elliot, although disruptive, would not necessarily lead to any serious harm. Whereas ‘mischief’ in Austen’s lexicon is disruptive enough to become destructive, to upset the prevailing order. If we consider that Austen was also beginning to write Sanditon at the same time as working on Persuasion, then it is reasonable to expect that she was seeking to develop ideas in the embryonic text that were arising as she thought about how to encompass them in the almost-completed text. From that perspective, the use of almost the same phrase in the short extract she managed to produce of Sanditon might offer some insight into what she was thinking thematically at this point in Persuasion. In Sanditon we encounter Lady Denham’s concern about the consequences for the wider English economy if the money coming out of the West Indian plantations (shades of one source of Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth in Mansfield Park) is injected into local commerce:

‘They who scatter their money so freely, never think of whether they may not be doing mischief by raising the price of things.’

In this sense ‘doing mischief’ is clearly profoundly destabilising of society. So by introducing the phrase into Mrs Smith’s explanation of her behaviour Austen widens her thematic sub-text. She has already established that the Elliots and the Musgroves, the Crofts and the Harvilles and the little knot of naval officers connected to them, and all their entwined families, represent different aspects of the wider society. When Mrs Smith immediately goes on to talk of her desire not to disturb ‘the smooth surface of family-union’ then her words are intended to reverberate on different levels. Seen in this light, ‘family-union’ (potentially a coinage on Austen’s part) also refers to family-as-society as well as being a direct reference to what Mrs Smith sees as the upcoming marriage between two members of the extended Elliot family. Saying that its apparent unruffled outward appearance ‘seems worth preserving’ has a clear undertone of doubt as to whether it is worth preserving both within the extended family and with regard to the society at large. Likewise, ‘nothing durable beneath’, while obviously directed at Mr Elliot’s ‘gentlemanlike’ qualities, also emphasises that the wider social structure – however stable it might seem in the complacent rituals of Bath – is essentially illusory and is, in fact, hollowed out and failing.

The next stage of the conversation naturally centres on the nature of Mrs Smith’s knowledge of Mr Elliot – that he was a close friend of her late husband, that he had married for money, and so on. It is full of the necessary background and explanation noted earlier, but Austen offsets this by separating this out from the dialogue – it is presented in an old letter, ‘as far back as July, 1803’, written by Mr Elliot to Mrs Smith’s husband, which more than proves the truthfulness of what she has said and confirms Anne’s understanding of how and why he fell from favour with Sir Walter:

… my first visit to Kellynch will be with a surveyor, to tell me how to bring it with best advantage to the hammer. The baronet … is worse than last year.
I wish I had any name but Elliot. I am sick of it. The name of Walter I can drop, thank God! and I desire you will never insult me with my second W. again, meaning, for the rest of my life, to be only yours truly,
‘Wm. Elliot’

This proof of Mrs Smith’s statements that she and her husband were close acquaintances of Mr Elliot convinces Anne of his past behaviour and becomes the technique Austen uses to move the conversation forward towards the present in the most natural way – ‘Thank you. This is full proof undoubtedly, proof of every thing you were saying. But why be acquainted with us now?’

Mrs Smith admits that she ‘cannot produce written proof again’ but brings Colonel and Mrs Wallis back into view as the source of much of her knowledge and uses the passing incident at Lyme in Chapter Twelve as proof of the accuracy of her sources:

When they came to the steps, heading upwards from the beach, a gentleman at the same moment preparing to come down, politely drew back, and stopped to give them way. They ascended and passed him; and as they passed, Anne’s face caught his eye, and he looked at her with a degree of earnest admiration, which she could not be insensible of.

Anne, of course, remembers this only too well, especially as Wentworth had reacted to the attention from the stranger later revealed as Mr Elliot:

‘He certainly did. So far it is very true. At Lyme; I happened to be at Lyme.’

The brevity of the reply reveals that the incident, despite its brevity, remains fixed in Anne’s memory; and reminds the reader not only of the internal coherence of the novel but also of Austen’s overarching control of narrative. But this is merely a stepping-stone to the next appalling revelation which underlines once more the subterranean and constant gossipy curiosity of this society:

‘My account states, that your sister’s friend, the lady now staying with you, whom I have heard you mention, came to Bath with Miss Elliot and Sir Walter as long ago as September, (in short when they first came themselves) and has been staying there ever since; that she is a clever, insinuating, handsome woman, poor and plausible, and altogether such in situation and manner, as to give a general idea among Sir Walter’s acquaintance, of her meaning to be Lady Elliot, and as general a surprise that Miss Elliot should be apparently blind to the danger.’

This is a remarkable passage, not least for the fact that it is fashioned from a single sentence of just short of a hundred words so that Austen can replicate the tone and pacing of what is being said to unobtrusively suggest how closely Mrs Smith is watching Anne’s reaction. Austen then immediately conflates this general observation of the Elliot household with Mrs Smith outlining how Colonel Wallis warns his friend Mr Elliot about Mrs Clay and undertakes to help him regain access to the family by explaining away the earlier break and thus allowing Mr Elliot the chance to thwart Mrs Clay’s plans to his own advantage. This conspiracy of subterfuge is certainly a very dark extension of Mr Elliot’s character and Anne’s moral sense is outraged – ‘There is always something offensive in the details of cunning. The manoeuvres of selfishness and duplicity must ever be revolting’. The moral discourse is foregrounded here, of course, and the language is reminiscent of the actions of the serpent (‘more subtil than any beast of the field’)in Chapter Three of Genesis – as described in the King James Bible read by Austen and her contemporary audience, where ‘cunning’ is an accepted synonym of ‘subtil’ (and, indeed, replaces it in the latest revised version). Anne is also pragmatic, even when her language refuses to use the same vocabulary as Mrs Smith with regard to the intrigue:

‘I should like to know his present opinion, as to the probability of the event he has been in dread of; whether he considers the danger to be lessening or not.’

Her old school friend is explicit in her assessment, which essentially ends the direct conversation in the chapter:

‘Lessening, I understand,’ replied Mrs Smith. ‘He thinks Mrs Clay afraid of him, aware that he sees through her, and not daring to proceed as she might do in his absence. But since he must be absent some time or other, I do not perceive how he can ever be secure, while she holds her present influence.’

It is clear from this that Austen might well have intended to explore this situation between Mrs Clay and Mr Elliot more fully, certainly more fully than the chance observation of their intense exchange under the colonnade that occurs in the next chapter. It is one of the questions surrounding the impact of Austen’s health on the text; but if we accept the novel is underdeveloped in its final stages then this is a prime area for consideration. It is noticeable, for example, that the final paragraph in Chapter Twenty-One sets out an agenda that is never followed through:

It was very desirable that Lady Russell should be no longer deceived; and one of the concluding arrangements of this important conference, which carried them through the greater part of the morning, was, that Anne had full liberty to communicate to her friend every thing relative to Mrs Smith, in which his conduct was involved.

The next section of the chapter switches to Anne listening to Mrs Smith’s more detailed explanation of what had happened between her husband, herself and Mr Elliot – but the actual conversation at this point is demoted to straight reportage, presumably because this information does not directly concern Anne and her immediate family. That said, the information concerning how Mr Elliot simply would not act as the nominated executor of her husband’s will ‘had been such as could not be related without anguish of spirit, or listened to without corresponding indignation’. The further revelation that Mrs Smith’s poverty could be relieved by action to recover ‘some property of her husband in the West Indies’ but that ‘there was nobody to stir in it’ because of Mr Elliot’s indifference and the fact that she could not afford to employ someone else alleviates her behaviour towards Anne, who reacted to the history as ‘a dreadful picture of ingratitude and inhumanity’ and felt that ‘no flagrant open crime could have been worse’. Austen reserves the final direct speech between the two for Mrs Smith to try to explain why she had begun by recommending and even praising Mr Elliot:

‘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 … I was willing to hope that you must fare better.’

Given the social etiquette of the period this might well be read as an understandable response if a little self-serving; but it is difficult to gauge the sincerity of the claimed bleeding heart against the abrupt worldly pragmatism of ‘there was nothing else to be done’. Certainly Austen rewards her in the final chapter by including her as part of the general theme of reconciliation which ends the novel on a positive note. She becomes an example of the social goodness of Anne’s marriage to Captain Wentworth, who was active in ‘putting (Mrs Smith) in the way of recovering her husband’s property in the West Indies’. And by promoting her alongside Lady Russell as one of Anne’s ‘two friends in the world’ Austen (as well as Anne) finally decides that the darker element in her behaviour and possibly her character is created by her exigent circumstances and deserves to be forgiven. That said, the final chapter reads more like an assemblage of potential plotlines rather than a fully worked conclusion, and despite the skills Austen displays and deploys in Chapter Twenty-One the intense cascade of information really demands a more extended resolution.

Which returns us once more to the question of Austen’s poor and deteriorating health.

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© Mike Liddell 2019