It was 1994 when I learned about the circle of life, or, to quote The Lion King’s predecessor, Hamlet, “all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.” In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, such an egalitarian vision is pulled apart by all the strings attached.
In this novel, Austen shows just how harsh her society could be on the women who had no choice in the fact that they outlived their husbands; it’s the circle of life, someone’s gotta go first. Seven years before the novel took place, Lady Russell persuaded Anne Elliot to break off her engagement with the young, handsome Captain Wentworth, who would necessarily ship out to war again, and did Anne really want to become a naval widow at nineteen? Last season in Downton Abbey, William showed us the virtue of marrying before dying at war – he left his sweetheart taken care of. But not all the widows in Persuasion have this privilege, one that should actually be a right.
Take Mrs. Clay, for instance. A widow of a man of no great means, two children, and whether it’s Anne’s, Austen’s, or some amalgam of that in a narrator’s point-of-view, the book tells us to be suspicious of Mrs. Clay’s intentions toward Sir Walter. “Nothing was as good for her constitution as a ride to Kellynch”, the narrator says in her most sarcastic voice. But is this fair? Speaking of air, Anne only begins to regain her “bloom” at the points where she is at liberty to take long walks with her sister and the Miss Musgroves. How differently would she have acted in Mrs. Clay’s in the same situation?
The worst-case scenario of widowhood is Mrs. Smith. She is locked away in Westgate Buildings, with her social status reduced to “widow and cripple.” Anne is compelled to renew this acquaintance but Sir Walter nonetheless feels at liberty to make a particularly snide comment at her expense:
A widow Mrs. Smith lodging in Westgate Buildings! A poor widow barely able to live, between thirty and forty; 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 by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs. Smith! Such a name!
What Sir Walter forgets is that Mrs. Smith is not the only person to lose a spouse; he has, and enjoys the choice of “remaining single for his dear daughters’ sake.” Sir Walter sneers at the first that Mrs. Smith is a widow and an invalid before reaching the age of “one-and-thirty”, yet Sir Walter fawns over Mr. William Elliot, who was the same age as Mrs. Smith upon losing his own spouse.
But let’s look into the differences in the aftermath. Mrs. Smith’s husband died after a series of indiscretions, leaving her with debt as crippling as her ailments. After a series of indiscretions on Mr. Elliot’s part, his own wife died, leaving him her fortune. How convenient. While Mrs. Smith went to Bath for the benefit of the curing waters, William Elliot used her account of Anne to get to know her in advance of officially meeting Anne in bath, all the better to ensnare her with the oh-so-creepy proposal of “The name of Anne Elliot has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and, if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change.” Eeeew! As a friend of mine best put it, he’s just smarmy. Yet, William Elliot fully gets away with so obviously “beginning to calculate the number of weeks which would free him from all the remaining restraints of widowhood, and leave him at liberty to exert his most open powers of pleasing.” No thank you. But that’s Mr. Elliot’s right, as a man in that culture. Instead of being a fraction of his former self, it’s his prerogative as a man to leave his wife’s death behind him, proposing to his cousin so he can grow into the man he wants to be, the future Sir William Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall.
Captain Benwick, while less obviously creepy, is no better. He was so distressed about his fiancé Fanny Harville’s death that Captain Wentworth couldn’t leave his side for a whole week. Benwick had even got a portrait of himself commissioned for Fanny, but when he fell in love with Louisa Musgrove, he tactlessly asked his former-future-brother-in-law, Captain Harville, to get it reframed for his new belle. Harville has his time to lament of it to Anne, but who can remember that, when it’s so quickly followed by the whole “you pierce my soul” bit?
So, returning to Lady Russell and Anne Elliot. Lady R is also a widow, but she is a widow who has been provided for, has subscriptions to all the important publications, has varied enough acquaintance to be gone for the second and third quarters of the story, and has the luxury of traveling in her carriage between Kellynch Lodge and Bath. She’s even less encumbered than Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park, although sometimes I hate her as much. But Anne doesn’t – she’s at peace with Lady Russell. Why is that? Because Anne ultimately gets her man, a man who has returned home in tact, a man who she can marry, confident that he has both the respect of his title and chests full of prize-money. So I guess it comes down to the advice that my own father gave to me years ago: don’t marry rich, marry very rich.
Thanks for stopping by! – Jane