|Sir Walter at Home; Mrs. Clay is to the left.|
Penelope is certainly not as low down the hierarchy as a servant, but she isn't as high up the hierarchy as, even, Elizabeth is to Darcy. Elizabeth argues, correctly, that since both she and Darcy are products of the gentry, there can be no objection to a marriage between them. (Note, however, that she does not argue, "Darcy can marry whomever he wants!")
Like the wife that warmed King David's bed in old age, Penelope Clay's hope (for most of Persuasion and Persuadable) has been to catch Sir Walter's interest when he is feeling his age or, more specifically, when Sir Walter is feeling abandoned.
It may seem odd that Sir Walter would experience the empty nest syndrome when his eldest daughters are nearing thirty (rather than earlier), but during the Regency era, people stayed home until they married. This interesting trend has begun to reassert itself in recent years ("reassert" since children staying at home until marriage has been more common throughout history than single people living on their own).
With only one single daughter left, Sir Walter will surely wonder who is going to cosset him in his remaining years. Anne and Will Elliot both correctly foresaw how Sir Walter's vulnerability might make him susceptible to the suggestion of marriage; this is not a man who manages well on his own.
If he doesn't marry, and Elizabeth does, he will probably try to move in with one of his daughters. Like King Lear's daughters, the daughter he understands the least would likely be the most willing. But Captain Wentworth would no doubt put his foot down.
[Penelope and Sir Walter meet in the Camden Crescent residence.]
“Ah, my dear Mrs. Clay,” he said and gave her his roguish look that made him look about as dangerous as a starling. “You’ve heard our latest news, no doubt. My daughter Anne is engaged to Captain Wentworth.”
She joined him at the head of the stairs and coyly tilted her head. “It is difficult to believe that you, Sir Walter, could have any daughter about to be married.”
She conveniently failed to mention Mary, and Sir Walter blustered in a pleased fashion. He took Penelope’s hand and patted it.
“What will I do when I lose Anne’s comforting support?” he said as if he’d ever shown a preference for Anne’s company.
Anne found her own source of comfort, Penelope thought and felt an unexpected surge of jealousy.
She had never desired the middle Elliot daughter’s life with its self-effacement and mildness in the service of others. But she wished now for Anne’s freedom—to be satisfied and respectable and secure. I have such small desires. Can’t I just have them?
Sir Walter was still patting her hand. He looked genuinely disheartened; Penelope could guess his thoughts. He might have no interest in Anne, but before her engagement she had been available—a spare daughter to look after her father’s needs. Now there was only Elizabeth, and Sir Walter believed firmly in Elizabeth’s ability to marry well.
He was afraid of being alone.
Now’s the time. Penelope should lean in, cover his hand with hers, say, “Oh, Sir Walter, think how much more frightening life is for an unattached woman.”
He would comfort her. She’d put her head on his shoulder. He’d start thinking about his future, about how she could ease his cares.
I’m not a lady, but he’ll convince himself that the merit of his title precludes my lack of one. Sir Walter would put his desire for security above all else.
She loosed her hand. She said, “I’m sure your new son-in-law will never place his needs before a father’s.”
She didn’t believe that for a moment. Captain Wentworth was definitely the type to keep his wife by his side. But Sir Walter cheered up and continued on to his room.
Penelope went to hers, shut the door, and slid to the floor, arms around her knees. From that position, all she could see through the small, square window was blazing blue sky. She might be in any room in any city. She might be in London with Will.
She smiled ruefully. I never thought I’d be such a fool to give up the opportunity to secure a baronet. She knew what happened to women who thought with their hearts.
And yet, Penelope was not like other women. She’d survived a tedious marriage and had two intelligent sons (foisted onto her parents) to show for it. She’d survived interfering neighbors, pushy creditors, and leering landlords. She’d survived Sir Walter and his family.
She could survive anything.