In Persuasion, Jane Austen expresses her last and most critical evaluation of society. She exposes the prejudices and injustices of her time largely through the use of irony, an element in the narrative exemplified by the characters of Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Clay, two widows whose similar positions and opposite characteristics have landed them in different but equally undeserved circumstances. Though they have no direct contact in the novel, they create between them a framework of irony that strongly catechizes the social constructions supported and represented by Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot.
Austen creates a fierce contrast between these characters, though both are widows lacking sufficient means of independence, and both require others’ assistance to improve their condition. The contrast, as well as the criticism rendered on the class represented by Sir Walter, is created by the different methodologies enacted by the two and the levels of acceptance they meet with in society. As unattached women, they run against the grain of society’s expectations, in that a woman belongs in the home, raising her children. Neither of these widows have children, and Mrs. Clay even seems to lack a home, making her deliberate (though invited) leeching of Sir Walter’s hospitality that much more incriminating.
Sir Walter and Elizabeth are the only two to miss that point, partly because of their own installed prejudices, and partly because Mrs. Clay knows precisely how to play upon them. Her strategy consists of doing as little as possible while subtly attempting to attract Sir Walter’s affections. She seldom lifts a finger, and says comparatively little. Of the two medium-length speeches she has, one is given entirely for the purpose of delivering Sir Walter a compliment. Following his commentary on the weather-beaten visages of naval men, Mrs. Clay says every man who has a profession generally withers away into unattractiveness. "It is only the lot of those who are not obliged to follow any, who can live in a regular way, in the country, choosing their own hours, following their own pursuits, and living on their own property. . .to hold the blessings of health and a good appearance to the utmost" (Austen, 50). She devotes a half-page to complimenting her keeper not only on the condition of his looks, but his entire lifestyle, which consists largely of continually thumbing to that page of the Baronetage where he can find himself listed. Nothing else she utters has any purpose or consequence other than to mask her intentions. "Quite delightful! Exactly like father and son," Mrs. Clay exclaims when replying to Elizabeth’s description of the new relationship between Sir Walter and William Elliot. "Miss Elliot, may I not say father and son?" (219) she asks, when she wants to say "husband and wife" of a significantly different coupling. Simply put, she lies. Subterfuge and ulterior motives define her entire personality. A variant of the word "danger" appears in reference to her several times, used by both narrator and other characters.
Nonetheless, Sir Walter and Elizabeth never suspect her. "Mrs. Clay," Elizabeth protests, "never forgets who she is, and. . .she reprobates all inequality of condition and rank more strongly than most people" (62). That Mrs. Clay does not forget who she is one cannot doubt, as much as one cannot doubt that she also never forgets what she is doing. Elizabeth, however, seems willing to forget or ignore both. She even allows—more so insists—that Mrs. Clay displace Anne as a sister. "She is nothing to me, compared to you," Elizabeth exclaims (158). Consequently, the first and most dangerous of these two unattached widows can attach herself to the first and most socially minded members of the Elliot family, whose arms and minds remain open to the greatest threat to their security.
Mrs. Smith, the second widow, and no more attached to a good name, house, or fortune than Mrs. Clay has any acceptable claim to, demonstrates the opposite of her counterparts characteristics. Honest, straightforward, and struggling to maintain whatever independence she can, people such as Sir Walter and Elizabeth must naturally shun her. Whereas Mrs. Clay selfishly seeks to reestablish herself in the social hierarchy by becoming Lady Elliot, Mrs. Smith seeks no new husband; instead, she lives in "a noisy parlour, and a dark bed-room behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance, which there was only one servant in the house to afford" (166). This does not mean that Mrs. Smith wishes to remain in this state; indeed, she has definite plans for reacquiring the wealth that left her shortly after her husband.
However, those plans do not involve attaching herself to another man. They involve the sale of her dead husband’s property in the West Indies, from which the profits would render her able to live quite comfortably—and independently. This brave and seemingly honorable intention, however, still leaves her unassociated with any remarkable name, which in Sir Walter’s eyes makes her nothing less then reprehensible. When he finds out about Anne’s visit to this widow, of equal position to his own Mrs. Clay, Sir Walter erupts into disapproval. "A mere Mrs. Smith, an every day Mrs. Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred be her, to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland!"(170) The hypocrisy and prejudice of the tirade alert even Mrs. Clay, who wisely leaves the room, knowing, as Anne does, that "Mrs. Smith was not the only widow in Bath between thirty and forty, with little to live on, and no surname of dignity" (170). However, Sir Walter remains entirely oblivious to this stunning contradiction, failing to understand that he has been committing the identical crime for weeks, to his exact specifications. The implications diverge in that Mrs. Clay behaves as a lady should, pretending to uphold the social mores held dear by Sir Walter and Elizabeth, while Mrs. Smith keeps only one servant and resides in the unfashionable Westgate-buildings. The poor, unattached widow, immensely superior in character to the other poor, unattached widow, meets with Sir Walter’s disdain as a result of her superior characteristics.
Honesty and straightforwardness get little other exercise in Persuasion until Captain Wentworth and Anne finally break down and express what they actually think. Mrs. Smith only hesitates to do so once, when she labors under the impression that Anne plans to marry the treacherous William. When Anne relieves her anxiety, Mrs. Smith begins a series of brutally candid character assessments that disclose, once and for all, the machinations of both William and Mrs. Clay. "Mr. Elliot is a man without heart or conscience," she says. "A designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself, who, for his own interest or ease, would be guilty of any cruelty, or any treachery, that could be perpetrated without risk of his general character" (206). At no other time does a character disregard so much social caution; Mrs. Smith completely lets go and has the courage—or audacity—to see and describe things as they really are. Mrs. Clay would never do such a thing, and receives ample reward; more and more making Sir Walter appear the conceited, prejudicial snob that the narrator has set him up as since the opening page. She then goes on to speak against Mrs. Clay in terms that had previously been only silently appreciated. "She is a clever, insinuating, handsome woman, poor and plausible, and altogether such in situation and manner, as to give a general idea among sir Walter’s acquaintance, of her meaning to be Lady Elliot, and as general a surprise that Miss Elliot should be blind to the danger" (212). She essentially says that Mrs. Clay deserves no amount of trust, everyone knows it, and Elizabeth might well be an idiot. Mrs. Smith, thought of by the rest of society as deserving limited or no regard at all because of her inestimable position as a poor widow without a name, saves the very man who belittled her from damage to his own.
It is fair, then, that one result of Wentworth and Anne’s honest expressions of love and subsequent marriage is that Mrs. Smith returns to affluence while Mrs. Clay runs off with the other defaced liar, William Elliot. The narrator projects that she will seek to marry herself to him instead, forever questing after a state of comfortable and mercenary dependence—an ironic contradiction that fits in well with Austen’s other criticisms. Sir Walter, through his behavior towards the two women, demonstrates that society may prefer a deceitful, greedy widow of undistinguished name to one of honesty, poverty, and independence.
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