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Thread: The structure of Persuasion and the character of Mrs Smith

  1. #1
    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    Sep 2012
    Somewhere in the South East of England

    The structure of Persuasion and the character of Mrs Smith

    Terrence (this is you)
    124 books | 5 friends
    see comment history I have just re-read Persuasion, and found myself choking as I read Captain Wentworth’s letter. It is rightly regarded as the most touching of Jane Austen’s novels, but I had a niggling feeling there’s something unsatisfactory about it.

    Up to Anne’s moving to Bath all is well – Mary Musgrove, whinging and unsuccessfully manipulative but just the right side of insupportable, is one of JA’s best comic creations.

    But once we get to Bath and Louisa Musgrove is out of the running, there remains nothing but for Anne and Wentworth to discover through chance that they still love each other. Even in this shortest of JA novels there is an amount of padding and that padding takes the form of Mrs Smith and Mr Elliot.

    Mrs Smith is the only major player in JA who has fallen out of the narrow social sphere in which all the other characters move. It is good JA shows us someone in such a situation. Like Miss Bates, she is bearing up under a social disability. But she makes me uneasy. She is a gossip such as would be criticised elsewhere. She wants to know the details of the fashionable personages at the evening Anne has attended. Sir Walter or Elizabeth could well do the same and it would be to their discredit.

    She unmasks Mr Elliot comparably to how Willoughby and Wickham have been unmasked, but there is just not the same interest. He was never that interesting in the first place and we only have her word for it. The letter that she shows Anne (and Anne has her doubts as to the propriety of her doing so) only reveal he had the same low opinion of Sir Walter as Sir Walter suspected.

    Is there too much padding in the book? What do you think of Mrs Smith and Mr Elliot?
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

  2. #2
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Jan 2007
    Eugene, OR
    "Persuasion" was published posthumously and may have been edited had Jane Austen lived. I think Mr. Eliot is a decent character: his admiration of Anne at Lyme is essential to reviving Wentworth's admiration (as is Anne's blossoming in the sea air). Of course he's not a serious rival, but neither are John Thorpe, Wickham., or Mr Collins. Also, Mr. Eliot has some charm.

    Mrs. Smith is excused for gossiping because she has so few pastimes. Nonetheless, she's not one of Austen's better creations. In fact, she leads readers to wonder whether Anne is completely devoid of the besetting family sin when she and Mr. Eliot agree that Mrs. Clay might not be an ideal companion for Sir Walter, and Anne compares Mrs. Smith's situation to that of Mrs. Clay.

    "Westgate Buildings must have been rather surprised by the appearance of a carriage drawn up near its pavement," observed Sir Walter. "Sir Henry Russell's widow, indeed, has no honours to distinguish her arms; but still, it is a handsome equipage, and no doubt is well known to convey a Miss Elliot. A widow Mrs. Smith, lodging in Westgate Buildings! A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and fifty; a mere Mrs. Smith, an everyday Mrs. Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs. Smith! Such a name!"

    Mrs. Clay, who had been present while all this passed, now thought it advisable to leave the room, and Anne could have said much, and did long to say a little in defence of her friend's not very dissimilar claims to theirs, but her sense of personal respect to her father prevented her. She made no reply. She left it to himself to recollect that Mrs. Smith was not the only widow in Bath between thirty and forty, with little to live on, and no sirname of dignity.
    That said, I agree that Mrs. Smith seems more like a plot device than a character, and wonder if Austen might have smoothed out the rough edges of her depiction had she survived. (By the way, I have some of the same objections to Colonel Brandon. His main speaking role is his long monologue to Elinor exposing Willoughby's wickedness, just as Mrs. Smith's main role is to expose Mr. Eliot. The difference is that Brandon is a major character, and Mrs. Smith is not.)

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