It's Okay to Write About Marriage and Domestic Problems--Persuadable's Take on Mrs. Smith: Chapter 12

1995 Mrs. Smith--she does an excellent job
conveying Mrs. Smith's pleasure in life.
In Chapter 12 of Persuadable, Will Elliot visits Mrs. Smith.

Mrs. Smith is one of Austen's most interesting minor characters. She is a resilient widow whose once well-off late husband lost all his money to extravagance. Although her husband owned property in the West Indies, which could give Mrs. Smith a respectable income, that property is "encumbered" (used to pay off debts), and Mrs. Smith can't touch the "rents."

Based on this slim information, some literary analysts have criticized the Mrs. Smith character for her willingness to live off the slave trade (the West Indies property would likely use slaves); Jane Austen herself was not a supporter of slavery, and I was tempted to give Mr. Elliot noble reasons for not helping Mrs. Smith recover the property.

West Indies Map
That approach, however, would have been something of a cheat. One, Mr. Elliot is not the type of guy to invest himself in abstract causes overseas (anymore than he is the type of guy to lay out cash for what he considers an iffy proposition at best); two, Austen's text makes clear that Mrs. Smith's purpose is to convey information to Anne, not stand as a symbol of colonialism.

Of course, this brings up the issue of Austen's supposed ignorance of political and social issues. Frankly, this is such a stupid criticism of the writer that I have difficulty taking it even momentarily seriously; plus, at the risk of sounding like a ticked-off feminist, it is not an argument one often hears about male writers who focus on domestic plots. In any case, excellent biographies of Jane Austen, including Paula Bryne's The Real Jane Austen, have effectively disputed this characterization. Jane Austen was not only well-aware of currently political and social issues, she had immediate familial investments in many of them.

Setting aside the obvious refutation that fiction is deliberate creation and writers will focus how and where they choose, why do such analysts suppose wars and revolutions are carried out? Despite the unnerving and tunnel-vision attitudes of many activists, they are generally NOT carried out for the sake of more wars and revolutions. Rightly or wrongly, they are usually carried out to create a better life somewhere for someone. In other words, they are carried out so people can get married and not have to worry about soldiers cluttering up their living rooms.

In any case, I have always considered literary analysis that insists that all literature have an IMPORTANT MESSAGE to be trite to the nth degree. Well-fashioned prose has done more to keep the world turning than any so-called IMPORTANT bumper sticker.

A passage from Mr. B Speaks! addresses this issue from another perspective. An excerpt from Persuadable, Chapter 12 can be found on the Persuadable homepage
Gary (the literary analyst) rolled his eyes. “And, of course, romance novels always have perfect weddings.”

“Of course.”

“This whole novel [Pamela] is nothing but trite and shallow pandering,” Gary declaimed. “What about death, disease, poverty, slavery, racism—all the terrible issues of the eighteenth century? Hmm? I mean women couldn’t even vote! But no, we’re fixated on watching an inconsequential couple tie the knot.”

The judge glanced towards the characters’ table. Mr. B was still smiling faintly. He hadn’t flinched at being called “inconsequential.” Presumably, people of the eighteenth century were less obsessed with getting their “day in court” than people of the twenty-first.

The judge reminded himself not to chuckle at his own pun.

“People hid their heads in the sand,” Gary was still declaiming. “Just like they do today.”

The romance writer reviewer, Deborah, said, “That sounds like the end of a lecture,” and Gary reddened.

She was probably right—the man certainly loved to carp about stuff—but the judge didn’t want audience members giving the Committee for Literary Fairness any (more) reason to complain.

He said pacifically, “Different novels cover different topics.”

Leslie Quinn, the writer of popular non-fiction, agreed, “People in the eighteenth century still had to work, love, have children, get along. Those topics never go away.”

Dr. Matchel (another literary analyst) said, “But romance novels don’t deal with real domestic problems. They end with the wedding, giving readers the false impression that married life will be eternally happy. Escapist literature!”

"This novel doesn't end with the wedding," Mr. B's attorney pointed out, muttering, “What’s wrong with escapism?”

Deborah added, “Dark and depressing isn’t automatically profound.”

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