A Non-Romantic Proposition in Persuadable: Chapter 13

In Chapter 13 of Persuadable, Mr. Elliot makes his (first) proposition to Mrs. Clay, suggesting that she become his mistress.

In my commentary on Mr. B Speaks!, I discuss why an eighteenth/nineteenth century woman might choose to become a mistress. Penelope Clay is now faced with this choice. On the one hand: shame, rejection from good society (carrying serious long-term consequences), poverty, and stagnation. On the other hand: short-term security, greater prosperity than she would have as a single woman, and the potential (if she is clever) for long-term savings.

As I mentioned in my prior post, many mistresses tended to live like their benefactors and not a few had to scramble desperately for a new protector when rejected by the last. However, Mrs. Clay is clever; she would protect herself far more effectively.

Mr. Elliot's proposal is not romantically delivered despite Colonel Wallis's belief that his friend is a romantic at heart: Mr. Elliot of Persuadable falls into the category of jaded romantic, a type that Austen generally eschewed but would have recognized.

Gothic literature--discussed in Persuadable's Chapter 11 post--commonly used jaded heroes. Lord Byron, often considered the creator of the jaded romantic anti-hero, was extremely popular during Austen's lifetime. Persuasion, which centers around 1814, references Byron although most of his works were published later. Byron also heavily influenced romantic poets from Wordsworth to Coleridge, many of whom seemed to suffer from dark tangled locks and early deaths. I obtained the drawing of Keats (ill, near death) when I was on a study abroad program in London as an undergraduate. At the same time, I viewed (but was less impressed by) the overwrought statue of Shelley by Edward Onslow Ford (1892) .

Austen falls between the Classicist era and the Romantic Movement. Consequently, alongside her romantic impulses she provides a heavy dose of pragmatism. Many modern romances--set in the Regency era--have adopted this same approach. Although Charlotte Bronte, a devotee of a Romantic era (and a favorite author of mine), poured scorn on Austen, modern writers have recognized Austen's pragmatism as a perceptive and forward-looking acknowledgment of how difficult women's choices could be--as Mrs. Clay fully knows:
[Penelope Clay and Will Elliot meet at Bath's Abbey.]

They sat together and contemplated the warm light on the near-white stone.

“You know I don’t want you to marry Sir Walter,” Will said finally.

“For fear I will give him a son.”

Will didn’t reply immediately. She kept her eyes on the pew back before her.

He said, “I would hate to lose the baronetcy at the eleventh hour.”

“You never wanted it before.”

“People change—well, not really. But our desires do. We become more ourselves. Or less. Or something. More of what we’ve been heading towards.”

“You’ve been heading towards a baronetcy?”

“Towards stability—money, land.” He paused. “A helpmate.”

“Helpmate?”

“I need company. I’m too old for frivolity. Too young for dourness.”

She supposed his late wife had been frivolous. She never thought of Anne as dour but likely Will was referring to Elizabeth.

She questioned the unspoken elimination: “What about Anne?”

“She discovered that I married for money.”

“Everyone knows that you married for money.”

“But I kept it. That’s the real sin, you know. Sir Walter can be pompous and proud and his insolvency embarrasses Anne, but at least he isn’t stingy. That would truly mortify her. Me, I kept my wife’s money, invested it—for her sake as well as my own—and held onto it when she died. I didn’t fritter it away on her friends or invest in useless legal actions. It’s positively . . . bourgeois.”

“It’s intelligent,” Penelope said.

“See, I knew you understood me. I think we could get on well together. I would give you a home.”

She started. She’d anticipated seduction, not anything as long-range as the suggestion that she become Will’s mistress.

“And I’d support your sons.”

She nodded. A mistress was not as secure a position as a wife, but a clever mistress bartered for certain benefits. Though Penelope wasn’t much of a mother, she was enough of one to get her sons situated where they could make connections and obtain good employment.

She sighed, aware that Will watched her.

She said, “How long would our affair last?”

“I don’t know. I never think that far ahead. Long enough for me to enjoy you.”

Penelope flushed and stood. “I should get back.”

He also rose, his hand at her elbow.

“You’re supposed to be on the road to Thornberry,” she said with only slight asperity.

“I’ll walk you out to Stall Street.”

As they left the Abbey, Penelope resisted the impulse to lean into the hand that still hovered at her elbow. Will might not be the best solution to her future, but he was a kind of solution, and she wanted to be done with scheming.

She said abruptly, “And if I took your offer?”

He halted, turned her towards him by the shoulders. “You’d come with me. Right now. All the way to London.”

“We would miss the card party tomorrow.”

“We will both become personae non grata with the Elliots . . . should you accept,” Will said. “Personally, I can bear to give up their company. Can you?”
She was beginning to believe nothing would please her more.

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