The Awful Elliots in Persuasion and Persuadable

Speaking of villains...

In Persuasion by Jane Austen, the Elliots have to rent--or retrench (cut their budget)--because they are in debt. This does not mean that they are poor. But it does mean that they are living in the red.

This state of affairs has come about due to gross overspending by Sir Walter and Elizabeth. Of the family, however, only Anne appreciates what her father and sister have done. Even Lady Russell is more concerned with the Elliots' prestige than with the consequences of their actions. But the consequences of their actions to their community are huge.

Basically, Sir Walter and Elizabeth have created a state of affairs where they can no longer put money back into the estate; that is, as landlords, they can no longer repair their tenants' cottages, hire extra workers, or invest in any new technologies, developments, or expansions. 

Based on Austen's original text, there is reason to believe that Mr. Shepherd has at least prevented Sir Walter from raising rents. Even so, the Kellynch tenants--who would have far less control over their livelihoods and employment than people do today--are now stuck working for the equivalent of a bankrupt company. The 1995 Persuasion film does an excellent job capturing the unimpressed faces of those tenants as Sir Walter and Elizabeth regally ride off to Bath.

Consider Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth visits Pemberley and hears how much Darcy's tenants respect him; these glowing positive reviews means a good deal more than that Darcy is a nice guy. It means he is a good boss, a wise manager, a smart investor, an up-to-date farmer, etc. Darcy is the kind of estate owner that tenants want to get.

Mr. Shepherd, Sir Walter's estate attorney, and Mrs. Clay, Mr. Shepherd's daughter, are well-aware of Sir Walter and Elizabeth's perfidy. Although Mr. Shepherd and his family are members of the growing middle-class--and fundamentally town or city people--they are in a better position even than Anne to see and hear how the Kellynch estate affects their neighbors. When the main source of income for a community--agriculture--is materially damaged, everybody pays.

Consequently, Mrs. Clay in my tribute Persuadable has little pity for Sir Walter and his so-called problems. (The possible ambiguity of Mrs. Clay's remark about sailors' and workers' looks exists in the original text.)

Penelope [Clay] felt no sympathy for Sir Walter’s desperate financial straits, which had steadily worsened in the last few years (“Sir Walter is not a, ah, moderate man,” Penelope’s father had explained on the carriage ride over.) Why should she feel sympathy when the gold watch Sir Walter currently handled could pay several weeks of board and room and the bracelet on his daughter Elizabeth's wrist could pay a month’s worth of butcher’s bills? Only his middle daughter Anne dressed like a person who knew the value of a disappearing pound.

Penelope watched Kellynch Hall’s residents through half-lidded eyes. Sir Walter was an easy man to sway emotionally. Praise made him preen. Mockery of others made him puff out his chest. If she could tackle him absent his family and neighbors, she would have him to the altar in a fortnight.

Unfortunately, the friends and family were never absent. Penelope could handle Elizabeth, but she’d noticed a growing wariness from Anne: long, sideways glances when Penelope complimented Sir Walter; knit brows when Penelope extolled the beauties of Kellynch Hall.

In addition, the family’s great friend Lady Russell continued to treat Penelope like a clod of dirt tracked into a clean parlor.

This will be a long campaign, Penelope counseled herself. I should regard this as a chance to become acquainted with Sir Walter’s moods before marriage.

Currently, Sir Walter was blustering about having to rent Kellynch Hall while he and his daughters removed to Bath.

“The alternative is to retrench,” her father pointed out for the sixth or seventh time. Retrenching would mean staying at Kellynch Hall but seriously cutting expenses—no more four-horse carriage; fewer sponsored balls; no extraneous purchases. The entire neighborhood would witness Sir Walter’s and his daughters’ humiliation.

Sir Walter sighed and looked profoundly troubled. Sir Walter never stopped appearing astonished by the vagaries of life. It struck Penelope as an exhausting way to approach the world; luckily, being Sir Walter’s wife wouldn’t mean adopting his world-view.

“And there are currently many naval officers returning to England who would greatly appreciate a house like this.”

“A naval officer!” Sir Walter was aghast. Apparently, he was unaware that the navy had won the last war. “Such a man wouldn’t know how to behave in a manor like Kellynch Hall.”

“He would look over the premises and bless his good fortune,” Penelope said.

She caught a faintly resigned look on Anne’s face and smiled to herself. Anne disliked sycophancy.

“But,” Penelope continued, “I quite agree with my father that a sailor would be a desirable tenant. They are so neat and careful in their ways.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps. But the navy has brought persons of obscure birth into undue distinction. And life on the open seas terribly ravages the features.”

Sir Walter, in his mid-fifties, could justify a comparison based on appearance. He had straight shoulders and a patrician head that was only marred by a more button than beak-like nose. He was handsome, even if Penelope found his features rather dull—there was nothing memorable about so much regularity.

Elizabeth was nodding agreement with Sir Walter’s vapid criticisms. Elizabeth’s features were even more regular. The youngest daughter Mary was pretty in a shallow way. Only Anne, the middle daughter, made a person look and look again: puzzled by her seeming plainness, caught by the fineness of her bones.

But of course a woman like Anne was far more difficult to flatter.

“We are not all born to be handsome,” Penelope said to stop Sir Walter’s insipid, cruel comments about sailors’ looks. “All professions make their mark whether the physical labor of a soldier or the mental stresses of a lawyer. Only those of property continue to look personable after the flush of youth.”

Sir Walter beamed. Elizabeth nodded. Penelope’s father shook his head and rustled his papers. Only Anne gave Penelope a long bemused look. There had been as much criticism as praise in those words: what were Sir Walter’s cares and concerns (despite the horror of renting Kellynch Hall) compared to those of real working men?

1 comment:

Eugene said...

Sir Walter's diametrical opposite in Japan.