Friday, January 08, 2010

A Winter's Persuasion - Chapter Five

Having introduced us - if not in person, then by reputation - to Captain Frederick Wentworth in Chapter Four, thereby completing the introductions to the main characters in the book (including Mr. Elliot, whom we have not yet met in person either), Austen is getting ready to launch into the story proper, by which I mean the part where interesting men turn up to cross Anne Elliot's path.

But here's the thing: Austen's working title for this book was The Elliots. And truly, if the focus of the novel is to examine the workings of the Elliot family, then the first four chapters actually serve that end in part, for we've learned quite a bit about Sir Walter Elliot and Miss Elliot (Elizabeth), the eldest sister. And in today's installment, Chapter Five (which you may read online at Molland's if you haven't a copy with you), we meet the final Elliot sister, Mary - now Mary Musgrove, who is on the one hand a hypochondriacal narcissist, and on the other a most excellent comic character.

While well, and happy, and properly attended to, she had great good humour and excellent spirits; but any indisposition sunk her completely. She had no resources for solitude; and inheriting a considerable share of the Elliot self-importance, was very prone to add to every other distress that of fancying herself neglected and ill-used.

I always smile at Mary's greeting of Anne, who has been working herself nearly ragged getting things packed up and sent on to Bath or put into storage, since her father decided on a rather rapid departure from the neighborhood:

She was now lying on the faded sofa of the pretty little drawing-room, the once elegant furniture of which had been gradually growing shabby, under the influence of four summers and two children; and, on Anne's appearing, greeted her with,

"So, you are come at last! I began to think I should never see you. I am so ill I can hardly speak. I have not seen a creature the whole morning!"

"I am sorry to find you unwell," replied Anne. "You sent me such a good account of yourself on Thursday!"

"Yes, I made the best of it; I always do: but I was very far from well at the time; and I do not think I ever was so ill in my life as I have been all this morning--very unfit to be left alone, I am sure. Suppose I were to be seized of a sudden in some dreadful way, and not able to ring the bell!"

Such a drama queen! Austen was particularly good at sketching comic characters like Mary who nevertheless manage to feel real - in part because we all know someone who, if not identical to Mary in their need for attention, comes close, don't we? Mary's also very determined to stand on ceremony (when she can) with her in-laws, trying to assert her superiority as a baronet's daughter. (In pomposity, at least, she is the match of her father and eldest sister.)

I'm now completely out of order in my discussion of this chapter, but I did want to double back to mention how easy it is to despise Elizabeth, who has asserted that she is "sure Anne had better stay [with Mary], for nobody will want her in Bath." It is almost impossible, however, to feel the same animus towards Mary, since she is so pitiful in some ways, and funny in others. And so we're clear on the arrangements, Sir Walter and Elizabeth have taken Mrs. Clay off to Bath with them, thereby setting Lady Russell a-sputter, leaving Anne to tend to Mary for a while, then stay with Lady Russell a while, and then come to Bath with Lady Russell after Christmas. Sir Walter's party has left for Bath a few weeks ahead of the Crofts taking possession of Kellynch Hall at Michaelmas (September 29th), which means that Anne will be staying at Uppercross Cottage with Mary and at Kellynch Lodge with Lady Russell for a combined period of four or five months (from early September until sometime in January).

Having sorted out a bit of what we can expect from the local families at Uppercross - pleasant, warm, welcoming people at the big house, needy Mary at the Cottage - Austen has set the scene for what is to come next - for something - or, rather, someone - as you must expect, is coming.

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