an unintended delay, for which I apologize, I’m finally ready to give my answer
to the quiz about Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion, which I presented nearly a week ago. In that quiz, I
invited you all to spot the sly ironic joke Austen made at the expense of her unwitting
heroine, Anne Elliot.
I claimed that there is a speech by the devious Mrs. Clay early in the novel,
which Anne unwittingly echoes much later, in the climactic scene at the White
Hart Inn; and moreover, I suggested that such unlikely, unwitting echoing of
Mrs. Clay by Anne casts an ironic shadow on that romantic climax of the novel.
further ado, then, I’ll begin by giving you the text of the speech by Mrs. Clay
which was later echoed by Anne. It occurs in Chapter 3, in the scene when Mrs.
Clay’s father, the lawyer Mr. Shepherd (with suspiciously accurate prescience,
as it turns out) suggests to his client Sir Walter that a navy man would be most
likely to become the much needed new tenant for Kellynch. Mrs. Clay and Anne both
chime in supportively, but then Sir Walter goes off on a narcissistic rant
about how a career at sea prematurely ages a navy man’s appearance, a rant
which ends with this “evidence”:
“…I shall not easily forget Admiral
Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can
do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked
about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit
to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they
reach Admiral Baldwin's age."
It is at that moment that Mrs. Clay
intervenes and waxes eloquent in a speech of surprising scope and rhetorical
"Nay, Sir Walter," cried
Mrs Clay, "this is being severe indeed. Have a little mercy on the poor
men. We are not all born to be handsome. The sea is no beautifier, certainly;
sailors do grow old betimes; I have observed it; they soon lose the look of
youth. But then, is not it the same with many other professions, perhaps most other?
Soldiers, in active service, are not at all better off: and even in the quieter
professions, there is a toil and a labour of the mind, if not of the body,
which seldom leaves a man's looks to the natural effect of time. The lawyer
plods, quite care-worn; the physician is up at all hours, and travelling in all
weather; and even the clergyman--" she stopt a moment to consider what
might do for the clergyman;--"and even the clergyman, you know is obliged
to go into infected rooms, and expose his health and looks to all the injury of
a poisonous atmosphere. In fact, as I have long been convinced, though every
profession is necessary and honourable in its turn, 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, without the torment of trying for more; it is only their
lot, I say, to hold the blessings of health and a good appearance to the
utmost: I know no other set of men but what lose something of their
personableness when they cease to be quite young."
Clay argues that it’s not just a navy man whose face would bear witness to his years
of work, and thereby elicit the scorn of Sir Walter; any prospective male tenant
who has worked for a living, whether outdoors at sea or indoors on land, whether
with his hands or his mind, will, she suggests, also end up looking prematurely
old. The moving air, whether sea winds or sickroom miasmas, will carve evidence
of ageing into the working man’s face.
does Mrs. Clay make this argument at this moment? It seems clear that she is backing
up her father’s strange prescience about a naval man being a promising candidate
to rent Kellynch from Sir Walter. It’s almost as if she, too, knew that a man
like Admiral Croft was about to appear, Johnny-on-the-Spot, to save the Elliots
from complete financial ruin. Whether she and her father actually knew Admiral
Croft prior to that scene --- well, that’s a subject for another post. Back to
Mrs. Clay’s speech.
adeptly and seamlessly Mrs. Clay segues into open flattery of Sir Walter, in
order to distract him from returning to his resistance to a sailor tenant. Instead,
she waves a magic rhetorical wand, and reframes, for an audience of one, his
useless parasitic existence into a portrait of a noble career, because Sir
Walter, like Dorian Gray (and now I suspect that Oscar Wilde had Sir Walter
Elliot in mind 7 decades later), will never age.
that is the end of the first part of this post. Before I go on, can you who
know Persuasion identify the speech
by Anne Elliot later in the novel, in which our heroine unwittingly echoes the
words of Mrs. Clay -- the very same Mrs. Clay whom Anne fears will succeed, via
adept flattery, in ensnaring Anne’s father into marriage? Have I prompted you
to now recall the speech by Anne, in a group setting, which she uses similar
verbiage to Mrs. Clay’s, in speaking about the effects of a career at sea on a
naval man? I bet some of you now do! But for the rest of you, here is the
second part of my reveal.
It is one
of several short speeches by Anne in Chapter 23, in the uber-romantic White
Hart Inn scene, during Anne’s extended debate with the navy man Captain
Harville about the relative constancy, in love, of men and women. Let me set
the stage at precisely the right point in that scene.
has just shown Anne the miniature portrait of his naval comrade, Benwick, which
was painted for Harville’s sister Fanny before she died; but which, to
Harville’s chagrin, was being casually recycled by Benwick, to be given instead
to Benwick’s new fiancée, Louisa Musgrove. Anne then broadens Harville’s sad
reflection on Benwick into a debate about the relative constancy of men and
women, in which Anne introduces the subject of the effects of the exertions of
a naval career on a sailor, and then Harville responds:
[Anne] "It would not be the
nature of any woman who truly loved [to be inconstant]."
Captain Harville smiled, as much as
to say, "Do you claim that for your sex?" and she answered the
question, smiling also, "Yes. We certainly do not forget you as soon as
you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help
ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You
are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of
some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual
occupation and change soon weaken impressions."
[Harville] "Granting your
assertion that the world does all this so soon for men (which, however, I do
not think I shall grant), it does not apply to Benwick. He has not been forced
upon any exertion. The peace turned him on shore at the very moment, and he has
been living with us, in our little family circle, ever since."
We’re sailing on the same water, so
to speak, as in Mrs. Clay’s artful rhetorical production in Chapter 3; but
instead of the trivial topic of the durability of a sailor’s facial beauty, now
we are on the significant subject of the durability of a sailor’s devotion to
his beloved. Coincidence? Well, now check out the next part of their amicable
verbal duel, and, again, think about Mrs. Clay’s speech as you read it:
"True," said Anne,
"very true; I did not recollect; but what shall we say now, Captain
Harville? If the change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from
within; it must be nature, man's nature, which has done the business for
"No, no, it is not man's
nature. I will not allow it to be more man's nature than woman's to be
inconstant and forget those they do love, or have loved. I believe the reverse.
I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental; and that
as our bodies are the strongest, so are our feelings; capable of bearing most
rough usage, and riding out the heaviest weather."
Note the exquisite subtlety of the
echoing of Mrs. Clay’s speech in the above exchange, along the lines I just
articulated. In Chapter 3, Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay were focused on the trivial
topic of the “change” in “outward circumstances” caused by men’s work,
especially naval men; and in particular Sir Walter was obsessed with the “rough
usage” of sailors’s skin by “the heaviest weather”! Here, Anne is focused on “outward
circumstances” and “change” of a very different nature – this is a very clever
sort of double entendre, designed, I believe, to remind the reader, however
subliminally, of Mrs. Clay’s speech.
Perhaps some of you may still respond,
this cluster of subtle echoes, while noteworthy and ironic, might be
unconscious on Jane Austen’s part, and not particularly significant Well, I
hope I can lay that possibility to rest
--- giving it a proper burial at sea, if you will --- when I now present you
with the actual speech by Anne which seals the deal, in my opinion:
"Your feelings may be the
strongest," replied Anne, "but the same spirit of analogy will
authorise me to assert that ours are the most tender. Man is more robust than
woman, but he is not longer lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature
of their attachments. Nay, it would be too hard upon you, if it were otherwise.
You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with. You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk
and hardship. Your home, country, friends, all quitted. Neither time, nor
health, nor life, to be called your own. It would be hard, indeed" (with a
faltering voice), "if woman's feelings were to be added to all this."
now hear the echo of specific verbiage, which first alerted me to the parallels
between Chapter 3 and Chapter 23 of Persuasion, before I had done any of the thematic
analysis I’ve set forth above?:
Clay in Chapter 3: “…even in the quieter professions,
there is a TOIL and a LABOUR of the mind, if not of the body, which seldom
leaves a man's looks to the natural effect of time…”
Chapter 23: “…You are always LABOURING and TOILING,
exposed to every risk and hardship…”
alone, this echoing of the words “toil” and “labour” might seem too ordinary to
be significant. However, as I hope I’ve illustrated, above, this parallel
verbiage by Mrs. Clay and then Anne is only the tip of an iceberg -- the context
of that verbiage which I’ve detailed is also extraordinarily parallel --- yet,
it is changed just enough to render the parallels subliminal – you can only see
these passages, separated by most of the rest of the novel, when you lay them
side by side and compare them, as I have done the past several days.
there I will stop, for now – but I make a further promise, that, within another
week’s time, I shall reveal to you something I came across in my research on the
above-described echo, which I believe to be a crucial clue as to a deeper
meaning of this echo. Specifically, I say there is a prior allusive source – a book
which was famous and controversial during Jane Austen’s entire writing career,
and which played a key role in shaping her fiction and her deepest meanings –
which undergirds both Mrs. Clay’s and Anne Elliot’s ‘toil’ and ‘labour’
forget to apply Gowland’s Lotion every day till I return, so that Sir Walter’s sensitive
eye will not be offended by any sadly weathered faces. 😉