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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Shadow Story of Jane Austen's Persuasion: Mrs. Smith's Invention of Nurse Rooke in Fuller Context

Although Ellen Moody does not mention me by name in an Austen L post this morning, she was obviously responding to the thread initiated and carried forward by my recent posts (cross-posted by me in Austen L, Janeites & my blog)..... which I asserted, in the part relevant to Ellen’s post this morning, that Mrs. Smith tells outright lies to Anne Elliot, by (1) fabricating an imaginary character, Nurse Rooke, (2) convincing Anne, based on nothing (and taking advantage of Anne’s being in profound denial of her own serious vision impairment), that Anne was actually let in to Mrs. Smith’s residence by Nurse Rooke, and then (3) citing Nurse Rooke as a reliable source for slanderous information about Cousin Elliot, from which Mrs. Smith immediately segues into her own additional slanders against him.

I will now respond to Ellen’s points:

Ellen: "It seems to me people are missing the central function and importance of Nurse Rooke's lack of objectivity (let's call it): Mrs Smith's most recent information is dependent on what she learns from Nurse Rooke, and while she insists the little turns and detours her story shows evidence of as having come from several not impeccable sources, don't matter, as what she has to say is true in the main."

I don't agree at all that it doesn't matter,  nor do I agree that it is true in the main. I think that immediately prior to Mrs. Smith’s allegations about Cousin Elliot, Anne has been feeling an increasingly positive regard for Cousin Elliot, even though, of course, not sufficient at that time to overpower Anne’s longstanding pining  away for Captain Wentworth. But, just as it is plausible to imagine that Henry Crawford could have eventually succeeded in his courtship of Fanny a while longer in Portsmouth, had he stayed there and resisted the temptation to go back to Maria Rushworth, so too it is plausible that at some point, had Cousin Elliot not been slandered by Mrs. Smith, he too might have succeeded with Anne, had Wentworth continued to brood on his hurt feelings a while longer.  The story was at a romantic tipping point in each case.

JA shows us, in the subtlest way, that Anne’s esteem for Cousin Elliot is severely damaged by Mrs. Smith's "revelations". Read the beginning of Ch. 23 closely:

“One day only had passed since Anne's conversation with Mrs Smith; but a keener interest had succeeded, and she was now so little touched by Mr Elliot's conduct, except by its effects in one quarter, that it became a matter of course the next morning, still to defer her explanatory visit in Rivers Street. She had promised to be with the Musgroves from breakfast to dinner. Her faith was plighted, and Mr Elliot's character, like the Sultaness Scheherazade's head, must live another day.”

Although Anne wants to convince herself otherwise, Anne is now ready to chop off Mr. Elliot’s reputation at the neck, it survives only on a very tenuous, day to day basis—Anne’s feelings for him are a whole lot less positive than they were only two days earlier, and Mrs. Smith’s story is the main cause of that large shift.

So, even though Cousin Elliot was indeed a smooth talker and someone Anne should have been wary of, Mrs. Smith, in inventing all those gory details about Mr. Elliot’s dealings with his wife, took an ambiguous situation and turned it into a seeming no-brainer. It really was decisive in shifting Anne’s attitude toward him. Cousin Elliot has been sandbagged, and Anne does not realize this. 

Ellen:  “But as many have pointed out, her story is way melodramatic, does not answer some central questions (how long ago did Mr Eliot meet Mrs Clay, what were they meeting beneath that window Mary Musgrave was looking out at; what was Mr Eliot's purpose in seeming to court Anne Elliot?). Answers there have been but none of them fully satisfying or even much satisfying.”

As I posted six months ago, I claim that Mr. Elliot did NOT meet Mrs. Clay, and that Mary Musgrove, just like Mrs. Smith, takes full advantage of Anne’s vision impairment  by convincing Anne that she has seen Mr. Elliot talking to Mrs Clay outside the White Hart Inn, when in fact it was not Cousin Elliot at all, he really WAS away as he told Anne he would be. It is Mary’s slander, in close followup to Mrs. Smith’s slanders, which are the one-two punch which induce Anne to actually cut Cousin Elliot’s reputation off at the neck, and not look back again!

A beautiful aspect of my explanation is that if we eliminate Mrs. Smith’s account (via “Nurse Rooke”) and Mary’s “sighting” from the mix, it becomes more than plausible once again that Cousin Elliot has been courting Anne Elliot for the mostly acceptable and indeed laudatory reasons he tells her—he finds her beautiful, intelligent, and sensitive. He may be a snob about family name as well, but then, so is Anne, even though she tries to rationalize her own elitism away. She, like Elizabeth Bennet, does momentarily dwell longingly on becoming the mistress of Kellynch Lodge, the opportunity for “Cinderella” to marry the Prince and finally assume her deserved regal status.

Ellen:  “I suggest that like other stories told in the other 5 novels in a third volume we were to learn those twists and turns counter, and Mrs Smith's story turn out to be too skewed. John Thorpe 's false stories about the Morlands, Edward's silence over his knowledge of Devon, Frank's behavior, past stories are woven into all the novels to be further elucidated in the close of the novel.  I believe that Wickham's story is not as black as Austen was led to make it when she lopped and chopped. Persuasion is a truncated book and (to answer the person who said why do we want twisted characters), we don't want them, they exist in the world and Austen uses the ambiguities of human personalities as central to her plot-designs.”

Ellen, you are, in my opinion, half correct. First the good news. I am in total agreement with you that there are all manner of offstage, hidden motivations , deceits, slanders, half-truths, etc., floating around everywhere in all of the JA novels, which undermine the conventional readings of the novels, in particular in regard to the baseness of the “villains” and the nobility of the “heroes”.  JA did indeed hate pictures of perfection (whether perfect heroes or perfect villains)—all was ambiguity for JA in real life.  

You do well to mention Mr. Wickham and Cousin Elliot in the same breath, because their situations are strikingly similar. Both of them enjoy the confidence of the heroine for a while, but then they are both smeared, whereupon the heroine promptly reverses opinion of them. But were the smears justified? Or have there been characters who have covertly taken a grey picture, and painted it dark black?

And now where I disagree profoundly with Ellen, who, I claim, defies Occam’s Razor in inventing a rationale that JA was somehow an author who inexplicably and foolishly destroyed key aspects of the structure of her own novels, by cutting out essential information that she ought to have left in.

It’s much simpler, and much more accurate, to aver, as I do, that JA wove these seemingly twisted characters into all her novels, but left them in the shadows deliberately, so as to allow for two utterly different plausible versions of the story to remain viable, a fork in the road where readers could either take all the hints and reconstruct a shadow story, or ignore all those hints and see the overt story.

So, I say, in the shadow story of P&P, Wickham is indeed NOT as black a character as Darcy depicts, and in the shadow story of  Persuasion, Cousin Elliot is indeed not the villain Mrs. Smith claims he is. And…for that matter, the same with Henry Crawford, Willoughby, and Frank Churchill.  Each of these 5 JA novels is a guerilla war between a more staid hero and a charismatic suitor, and the Geneva Convention does not apply, and as to which the heroine is largely clueless.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter


Anthony Hopper said...

Interesting exegesis.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks, Anthony! Tell me more about what you found interesting, if you are so inclined....