Flattering the Uppercrust in Persuadable: Chapter 9

Another Gainsborough: Viscountess Tracy
Sir Walter's relations, the Dalrymples, appear in Chapter 9 of Persuadable sending the good baron into a tizzy.

As a viscountess, Lady Dalrymple is a step up the heirarchy from Sir Walter. Sir Walter's sycophantic desire to curry favor reflects the real--but dying--power of the peerage in England and also leads to several rows in the Elliot household.

Anne, frankly, finds the Dalrymples completely tedious. And although she's more or less right, her reaction to the Dalyrmples is not automatically kind or fair, and Austen does not defend Anne's remarks; she simply shows them to us.

Austen as narrator can be quite caustic. In Northanger Abbey, when describing Mrs. Allen, she dismantles the woman without remorse:
Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. The air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind were all that could account for her being the choice of a sensible, intelligent man like Mr. Allen.
Nearly 14 years later, Austen is far less critical of the Mrs. Allens of the world. After all, one learns as one ages that pointless conversations about supposedly tedious subjects do far more to keep the social exchanges of everyday life oiled and functioning than PROFOUND, INSIGHTFUL, ANGST-CAUSING speeches.

Or, perhaps, as one gets older, one just has less energy for so much soul-searching.

In Persuasion, regarding the Dalrymples, Anne delivers the kind of opinion that Austen would have made when she was younger:
[F]or the Dalrymples (in Anne's opinion, most unfortunately) were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was how to introduce themselves properly . . . Anne was ashamed. Had Lady Dalrymple and her daughter even been very agreeable, she would still have been ashamed of the agitation they created, but they were nothing. There was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding. Lady Dalrymple had acquired the name of "a charming woman," because she had a smile and a civil answer for everybody. Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth.
This is Anne's voice, not Austen's. Austen's castigation of Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey presents Mrs. Allen's personality as an absolute. But in Persuasion, Austen is far more willing to step back and let her characters judge others fairly or unfairly. As the above passage indicates, Anne hasn't fallen that far from her father's tree when it comes to casting judgment.

My perspective is that Anne is unnecessarily harsh, and Austen knows it. Consider what Austen actually shows us about the Dalrymples: they come to Bath; they receive Sir Walter despite a letter that even Mr. Elliot considers a bit over the top; they request the Elliots' company when Lady Dalrymple gets a cold; they agree to take the Elliot sisters home in their carriage; Lady Dalrymple praises Captain Wentworth's looks; they attend Elizabeth's card party.

With that in mind, Mr. Elliot's advice to Anne is entirely reasonable: Why not just get along? These people can't hurt you. They have the right background, and that sort of thing matters. Besides, how can you object to them and Mrs. Clay?

In other words, these are perfectly amiable people who are made to appear far worse by (1) Sir Walter's fawning; (2) Anne's own caustic remarks. Speaking of the concert, she tells Mrs. Smith, "But happily Lady Dalrymple always chooses to be farther off." Ouch!

To me, Austen's treatment of Anne re: the Dalrymples reinforces her skill as a true craftswoman. She is NOT Anne, writing in journalistic fashion about her own feelings. She stands outside Anne. She likes her; she created her to express ideas and feelings that Austen herself considers important; but she sees Anne objectively. She allows Anne to echo criticisms and opinions that Austen once likely held herself but that age has mellowed.

The Dalrymples of the world no longer fret Austen, but she knows that they would continue to fret her character, Anne.

In this excerpt from Persuadable, the Elliots and Mrs. Clay have just visited the Dalrymples:
Mother and daughter were far less ogreish than Penelope had anticipated. Lady Dalrymple was a plump, placid creature. Miss Carteret was rather odd though not on purpose; she simply lacked basic social instincts. She laughed when others were serious, carried on monologues that others, including her own mother, ignored.

Penelope had no trouble impressing the pair; all she had to do was look deferential and listen to their vague comments on Bath, the weather, and—Miss Carteret’s preference—domesticated felines.

Sir Walter was so encouraged by the visit that he remained in a good humor for nearly three days, making only four or five disparaging remarks about Penelope’s complexion. He even escorted Penelope around the Pump Room himself one morning when Elizabeth was otherwise engaged. Penelope began to wonder if she should start dropping stronger hints about the comforts of the marriage state. In this mood, Sir Walter was easy to manage.

Anne was to blame for destroying Sir Walter’s bonhomie.

“I received a note from charming Lady Dalrymple,” Sir Walter exclaimed one morning. “She is feeling poorly. We must call on Laura Place and raise her spirits.”

But Anne didn’t want to join the Dalrymple Entertainment Committee. “I have already made plans to visit my friend, Mrs. Smith," she explained.

Sir Walter sulked, stamping about the drawing room, and waving his arms. “Who was Mrs. Smith’s husband? One of five thousand Mr. Smiths? What is her attraction? That she is old and sickly? She must be near forty.”

“Thirty-one,” Anne said patiently. “I cannot put off my engagement with her, sir.”

“Lady Russell surely doesn’t support this association,” Elizabeth said.

“She does. She thinks it is most proper that I maintain it.”

Sir Walter waved off Lady Russell’s thoughts on propriety. “People will know that Anne Elliot visits a mere Mrs. Smith, who has only thirty to forty pounds per annum.”

Penelope left the room. She stood in the hall, perfunctorily brushing down her dress. She knew that Sir Walter compartmentalized his attitudes. He would see no connection between Anne’s widowed friend of no name and no income with Mrs. Clay, his daughter’s companion who resided under his roof and within his good opinion. But Mrs. Clay saw it. If Anne Elliot had a crueler streak, she would have reminded him.

Penelope realized that she was trembling. Every day, her anger at this family became harder to fight, took longer to abate.

Once I am married, things will change. Once I am married, life will be so much better.

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