Vanity, Thy Name is Elliot--Persuadable: Chapter 7

1995 Sir Walter
Penelope Clay has managed to maneuver herself into the Elliot household. But she is finding the price rather high. Not only is she now exposed to Sir Walter's pompous vapidity on a daily basis, she is also exposed to  Elizabeth and Sir Walter's soul-numbing commentary on others' looks.

Much has been written about Elizabeth and Sir Walter's vanity, but these two Elliots are not simply vain; vanity by itself can be innocent, even endearing. Rather, Elizabeth and Sir Walter are the type of people who are constantly pointing out that so-and-so isn't as good looking as he or she used to be; and so-and-so's fading looks are an embarrassment to good society. Almost the first thing out of Sir Walter's mouth when he meets someone--like Colonel Wallis--is his opinion of that person's looks (or the looks of that person's spouse as when Sir Walter comments on Mrs. Wallis as "an excessively pretty woman" as if Mrs. Wallis's looks justify her husband's opinion of Mr. Elliot).

Penelope Clay not only has to tolerate this drivel, she has to endure it being applied to her.

Austen does not describe Penelope Clay's looks other than to tell us that Anne knows that her father wasn't attracted to Mrs. Clay on first meeting because she has "freckles, a projecting tooth, and a clumsy wrist."

These criticisms are not Anne's but Sir Walter's. In her own voice, Anne considers that Mrs. Clay is "young, and certainly altogether well-looking, and possesse[s], in an acute mind and assiduously pleasing manners, infinitely more dangerous attractions than any merely personal might have been."

In other words, Sir Walter has missed the forest for a tiny little bush.

But of course, he is exactly that type of man. Like many people who make comparisons based on physical appearance, he misses the zeitgeist and pinpoints the flaw (an overbite, baldness, etc.). An overbite, of course, can be quite attractive--hence my choice of Billie Piper and her magnificent mouth for Mrs. Clay.

One of the nicer attributes of Austen's Mr. Elliot is how rapidly he identifies Anne--who by Elizabeth and Sir Walter's calculations is faded, etc. etc. etc.--as a true beauty and how indifferent he is to arguments based on appearance. It is Mr. Elliot's notice of Anne in Lyme that forces Captain Wentworth to see her again (and to realize that he can't waste time pursuing her). In Bath, Mr. Elliot tries to outmanuever Penelope Clay through  arguments about class rather than arguments about appearance (that is, he fights fair, using the Elliots' weakness against them rather than tearing down Mrs. Clay directly).

Sir Walter (of course) criticizes Mr. Elliot for being "underhung"-- meaning Mr. Elliot has a somewhat pugnacious jaw--and for looking older than he did 10 years earlier! Mr. Elliot, on the other hand, while saying everything he should to soothe Sir Walter and Elizabeth's vanity, gravitates towards wit and intelligence and an ability to talk about interesting things.

From Persuadable, Chapter 7:
“William Elliot isn’t as handsome as I’d like,” Elizabeth said complacently. “But he is respectable.”

She and Penelope sat in Elizabeth’s bedroom while Elizabeth tested different brooches against her skin.

William Elliot was much less than respectable and much more than handsome. He had an abundance of fine straight hair that only just managed to look combed, light-colored eyes under slightly slanting brows, a straight nose, and an excessively sardonic mouth in a pugnacious jaw.

But Sir Walter and Elizabeth obviously only saw in him what they had decided to see, so Penelope didn’t correct Elizabeth’s muted praise. She would be condemned for impertinence (to the heir!) and then ignored.

[Mr. Elliot arrived, and they went downstairs.] Penelope and Elizabeth entered the drawing room. Mr. Elliot stood by the mantel with Sir Walter. He came forward, bowed and accepted Elizabeth’s elegantly extended hand. Penelope didn’t try to mimic her. She was not particularly graceful when it came to curtsies and such. She suspected that her discomfort with forms of deference bled through. Better to hover obsequiously and smile encouragement at Elizabeth.

“Mr. Elliot has been taking the Bath waters,” Sir Walter told them. “Look how it has refreshed his appearance.”

Mr. Elliot looked refreshed and slightly amused.

“The water has also benefited Mrs. Clay,” Sir Walter continued. “Along with Gowland’s Lotion, it has eliminated most of her freckles.”

A shock of sudden fury tensed Penelope’s shoulders. She scolded herself an instant later: Sir Walter always commented on her looks.

I ought to be used to it by now.

She was succumbing to the constant exposure. Back home, Penelope had prepared herself mentally for visits to Kellynch Hall. Here, petty comments about her skin, teeth, and posture were unending; she never knew when a casual conversation would be interrupted with a critical remark.

Penelope had never understood why people like Sir Walter felt it necessary to point out the obvious about others’ appearance. She knew how she looked. It wasn’t as if his comments surprised her. And it wasn’t as if his opinion mattered: Penelope had poured Gowland’s Lotion into the rain gutter the afternoon Sir Walter gave it to her.

Mr. Elliot was watching her. He knew she’d tensed. She took a deep breath and cocked her head. Smiling, she said, “The water has also eased Sir Walter’s aches and pains.”

Take that, old man.

Mr. Elliot’s eyes crinkled; there were many laugh lines at their corners. Penelope lowered her own gaze.

“It’s a bright, sunny day,” Mr. Elliot suddenly cried, “despite the chill. We should walk along the Royal Crescent. Ladies, fetch your wraps.”

Penelope took her time collecting her wrap and herself, but she still returned to the drawing room before Elizabeth. Mr. Elliot was alone, flicking through a magazine. Sir Walter had rushed off to check his appearance before venturing into public.

Mr. Elliot said, his voice full of mischief, “The walk will freshen your cheeks, Mrs. Clay.”

“It won’t shrink your jaw,” she said sweetly.

He laughed. “Is that Sir Walter’s main criticism of my appearance? The man is shallower than standing water.”

“Suppose I tell him you said so?”

“Suppose I tell him you are trying to maneuver him into marriage?”

He appreciates how well I know my place.”

“He doesn’t notice your place’s shifting nature. I’ll have to stay close if I want to bring your place to his attention.”

“The family will encourage as much closeness as you can bear.”

Mr. Elliot followed Penelope’s gaze towards the ceiling and Elizabeth’s location. He grimaced, then, “There’s the unmarried sister, Anne.”

“She dislikes sycophants.”

“Really?” He lifted a brow at Penelope over his shoulder, and she couldn’t help but respond with a moue. He grinned.

“Sir Walter will be surprised if you pursue Anne,” Penelope continued. “He considers her looks to be much faded.”

“Some things matter more than looks,” Mr. Elliot said, lowering his voice: outside the drawing room, Elizabeth and Sir Walter were descending the stairs. Mr. Elliot headed towards them. As he passed Penelope, his shoulder brushed hers; he bent his head—

"Personally, I wouldn’t mind licking your freckles,” he said softly.

Well. If he planned to battle her that way she’d need a greater store of aplomb.

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