Sense & Sensibility Makes an Appearance in Persuadable: Chapter 14

A character from Austen's Sense & Sensibility strolls through Thornberry Park in Chapter 14 of Persuadable.

Chapter 14 depicts Will Elliot's epiphany--as Chapter 17 depicts Penelope Clay's. My goal was to explain that epiphany: Will goes to Thornberry Park with Plan A in mind regarding the Elliots and Mrs. Clay; he comes back from Thornberry Park intent on implementing Plan B.
Greg Wise does an excellent job capturing
the tortured romantic, yet ultimately
unthinking selfishness of Willoughby.
Bad boys aren't always "all that."

Will Elliot's yen for precipitous action is a consistent trait between the original text and my tribute. He suddenly marries his first wife, entirely breaking off family ties. He re-initiates contact with the Elliots without warning. And he runs off to London with Mrs. Clay at the end of Persuasion.

Nevertheless, Anne's engagement is not enough to explain why he would suddenly throw over his wooing of the Elliot family; he could charm his way back into favor, even if Anne repeated Mrs. Smith's allegations.

After all, although many of Austen's villains are given to precipitous action, Will Elliot stands alone in his ability to avoid figuratively shooting himself in the foot. Wickham behaves precipitously when he runs off with Lydia--but then he has to marry her. Henry Crawford behaves precipitously when, despite his true affection for Fanny, he "can't keep it in his pants" and elopes with Maria; consequently, he loses Fanny and gains a far less agreeable wife. General Tilney behaves ungentlemanly as well as preciptiously when he learns Catherine is not an heiress and chucks her out of his home; his son marries Catherine anyway.

And Willoughby marries for money, then bemoans that he couldn't marry for love. In one of the most psychologically insightful speeches in Austen's novels, Eleanor Dashwood delineates Willoughby's character:
At present he regrets what he has done. And why does he regret it?—Because he finds it has not answered towards himself. It has not made him happy. His circumstances are now unembarrassed—he suffers from no evil of that kind; and he thinks only that he has married a woman of a less amiable temper than yourself. But does it follow that had he married you, [Marianne], he would have been happy?—The inconveniences would have been different. He would then have suffered under the pecuniary distresses which, because they are removed, he now reckons as nothing. He would have had a wife of whose temper he could make no complaint, but he would have been always necessitous—always poor; and probably would soon have learned to rank the innumerable comforts of a clear estate and good income as of far more importance, even to domestic happiness, than the mere temper of a wife.
Absolutely! As Eleanor says earlier in this same conversation, Willoughby is entirely selfish. He is also entirely unhappy. He wants what he wants when he wants it, but he hates the consequences.

To someone like Will Elliot--who has an extraordinary, Spike-like ability to land on his feet (Spike from Buffy and Angel was always less interested in saving or destroying the world and always far more interested in a good pizza)--Willoughby's waffling self-pity would be abhorrent. Will Elliot has the kind of causal morality that, absent a true sense of ethics, can lead an intelligent person away from purely self-damaging behavior. He's the kind of so-called greedy capitalist who chooses the environmentally friendly plan that will keep the company thriving, not because he has passionate opinions about future trends or because he thinks animals should have a right to vote but because he can sense, almost instinctively, the plan's short-term and long-term benefits. (This type of morality is often far more reliable than strident cause-related ethics.)

Basically, Will Elliot still wants to be rich tomorrow.

A conversation with someone like Willoughby--who wants to be rich right now, does whatever he needs to  achieve that end, then whines about it--would send Will Elliot pell-mell away from waffling considerations towards a concrete plan.

So, I decided, why not just have him meet (a slightly older) Willoughby?  After all, the two men would circulate amongst the same crowd, as Will indicates:
Leaving the solicitor’s office, Will strolled to the club where he would stay the night. In the entrance hall, a tall, handsome man of forty-odd called his name in a deep voice: “Will Elliot!”

“John Willoughby.”

John Willoughby was fifteen years Will’s senior though he seemed as young. He was one of those men who looked profoundly respectable and dashing with a little gray at the temples. Will had met him now and again around town over the past ten years; they were more than passing acquaintances, less than friends. Willoughby seemed intelligent, having a quick wit and an engaging manner.

“I’m on my way to dine at Gerard’s,” he told Will. “Why don’t you join me?”

Will fell in beside him. He also remembered Willoughby as one of those people who always said the right thing in a droll way. Now, Willoughby condoled with Will over Sally’s death, then made a satirical but not malicious comment about doctors. Learning that Will had just come from Bath, he commented on the number of people leaving London for more relaxing climes.

“My wife complains of London society but hates to leave it,” Willoughby said over the first course and made a face that said his wife’s complaints were nothing new.

Then he sighed and looked pensive. It was the kind of sigh that demanded a quizzical look in return. Feeling vaguely annoyed, Will provided one.

“I could have married quite differently,” Willoughby said. “I met a girl in my youth—beautiful, honest, gentle. She truly cared for me.”

Why, Will wondered, are lost loves always described in such platitudinous, commonplace terms? Willoughby’s girl could be any reasonably well-bred, attractive girl with a kind disposition.

“She wanted only to be with me—in fact, she was so sure of our mutual affection, she followed me to London.”

Will stared at his companion over his soup spoon. A well-bred young woman with a kind disposition would only follow a man to whom she believed herself betrothed. Either this lost love was not an innocent as Willoughby remembered or he’d used her worse than Will had ever contemplated using anyone, even Anne Elliot.

Studying the complacent face of the handsome man opposite him, Will allowed for a third possibility: Willoughby remembered the past selectively, retaining only those memories and explanations that proved the most pleasurable and self-congratulatory.

Will didn’t mind a touch of self-satisfaction, but he did mind an inability to face reality; the reality here was that Willoughby was nothing like the cool-headed comrade Will had supposed.

Willoughby droned on: “Alas, society requires that a gentleman disregard love for the sake of money and position. My aunt threatened to cut me out of her will, so I abandoned the sweetest, kindest companion a man could have. Only now do I understand how wrong I was.”

Will smiled perfunctorily. This man is a fool. There was nothing objectionable about marrying for love—as long as one was willing to live with the probable consequences: possible poverty, the fading of affection, disillusionment. Willoughby was rapidly demonstrating an inability to acknowledge, let alone live with, difficult consequences.

“She was clever, light-hearted, passionate. And now she’s tied to a dour colonel—”

Apparently, he couldn’t accept the less onerous consequences of marriage for money either. Will kept contempt out of his face and voice as he said the sort of thing Willoughby wanted to hear. The man was not the objective observer Will had assumed; he would be puzzled if Will said, Wishing away the past is an exercise in futility.

Fulsome regrets were even more pointless. Will’s marriage for money had cut him off from the baronetcy—he’d accepted that; he’d never thought about it. If Sally was still alive, he would still accept it. But once she died, he recognized that he wanted the title and went after it.

Except—I’ll never marry Elizabeth.

So much for objectivity. And perhaps a peaceful life with a clever woman who could figure out Will, figure out his friends, and figure out his future was worth losing a title.

Whatever Will did, he would stick to his decision. An equivocator like Willoughby wasn’t just depressing; his conversation was downright emasculating.  

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