Monday, January 04, 2010

A Winter's Persuasion - Chapter Two

We continue today with the second chapter of Persuasion by Jane Austen. (Here's the text online at Molland's, if you need it.) It continues our introductions to the characters in the text - we learn more about Mr. Shepherd and Lady Russell, and our omniscient narrator roots this chapter rather more in Lady Russell's viewpoint without adopting it. We also meet Mrs. Clay, who will play an interesting and important role later in the book. Much of the chapter focuses on the importance (and self-importance) of Sir Walter, whom you can see preening off to the right.

This chapter picks up with two characters introduced briefly in the prior chapter: Mr. Shepherd, an attorney who is Sir Walter's agent and solicitor, and Lady Russell, a friend of the family. I should point out that Lady Russell's husband was the one with the title, hence the use of his surname along with her title. He was a knight, a title also obtained by payment to the crown, but not one that could be inherited - therefore, a baronet is of higher rank than a knight, although both of them are below the aristocracy and nobility (where one finds Dukes and Earls and such). Were she endowed with a title of her own, she'd likely be called by her first name (as in the case of Lady Catherine De Bourgh, whose title came from her father and not her husband). In case you were wondering why there's a difference in the mode of address.

Mr. Shepherd knows that Lady Russell will push Sir Walter to do the right thing, so rather than prod Sir Walter himself, he waits for her to do it, then agrees with her. Lady Russell's character is quickly listed off for us, but I'd like to encourage all of us to slow down and read it again, because it is all too easy for modern readers to get pissed at her as they read the book and to consider her as meddlesome in a negative way and are apt to think of her not treating Anne like an equeal, rather than as a good-hearted, well-intentioned woman with a bias favoring titles. Here's the paragraph on Lady Russell, which emphasizes her economic good sense, slowness in coming to decisions, and strong attachment to the Elliots, as well as her deference to rank:

She was a woman rather of sound than of quick abilities, whose difficulties in coming to any decision in this instance were great, from the opposition of two leading principles. She was of strict integrity herself, with a delicate sense of honour; but she was as desirous of saving Sir Walter's feelings, as solicitous for the credit of the family, as aristocratic in her ideas of what was due to them, as anybody of sense and honesty could well be. She was a benevolent, charitable, good woman, and capable of strong attachments, most correct in her conduct, strict in her notions of decorum, and with manners that were held a standard of good-breeding. She had a cultivated mind, and was, generally speaking, rational and consistent; but she had prejudices on the side of ancestry; she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them. Herself the widow of only a knight, she gave the dignity of a baronet all its due; and Sir Walter, independent of his claims as an old acquaintance, an attentive neighbour, an obliging landlord, the husband of her very dear friend, the father of Anne and her sisters, was, as being Sir Walter, in her apprehension, entitled to a great deal of compassion and consideration under his present difficulties.

They must retrench; that did not admit of a doubt. But she was very anxious to have it done with the least possible pain to him and Elizabeth. She drew up plans of economy, she made exact calculations, and she did what nobody else thought of doing: she consulted Anne, who never seemed considered by the others as having any interest in the question. She consulted, and in a degree was influenced by her in marking out the scheme of retrenchment which was at last submitted to Sir Walter.

We learn that Anne is in favor of an even more drastic plan that what Lady Russell concocts, for Lady Russell knows that Sir Walter will want to retain the appearance of rank and importance, whereas Anne is far more concerned with speaking honestly and in paying down the debt as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, Lady Russell's plan is influenced by Anne - she has found a diplomatic way to allow Sir Walter to pay off his debts within seven years (a significant period of time in this book, in which seven years have passed since Anne Elliot broke off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, although I am getting several chapters ahead in the text by telling you that).

Sir Walter rejects Lady Russell's econimisation out of hand, declaring he'd rather quit Kellynch Hall than be seen to live to a lesser standard of living, which allows Mr. Shepherd to propose that he do just that: Pack up, move to Bath for a term (where one can live well without nearly as much expense), and lease Kellynch Hall out.

"How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!" (A direct quote from the text that serves me well in everyday use, and not merely in the icon to this post.) Lady Russell loves Bath, and is keen to see the Elliots there, even though poor Anne prefers a house in the country. She's also hoping to separate Elizabeth from Mrs. Clay, Mr. Shepherd's widowed daughter (a mother of two children - you will note, perhaps, that they are not mentioned again), who is "beneath" Elizabeth in the same way that Harriet Smith is "beneath" Emma in Emma, but who is a manipulative sycophant. Lady Russell considers Elizabeth's relationship with Mrs. Clay to be potentially dangerous, for reasons which are not yet spelt out, and is pleased to hear the Elliots will be moving to Bath, thereby separating Elizabeth from an undesireable relationship. (Or will it?)

Note that we still haven't been given too much information about our actual main character - we have a very little information from chapter one - she has "delicate features and mild dark eyes", quite different from her father, and her bloom had faded, and she was now quite thin (fashion called for a slight plumpness as the preferred female form at the time, so being thin was not a good thing). In chapter two, we learn that she doesn't really care for appearances (not merely physical appearance, but in all of the things to do with keeping up appearances for society). She is practical, honest and unconcerned with social status. The main thing we know from both chapters is that neither her father nor Elizabeth pays her any mind or accords her any sort of respect. And you ought not hold your breath that you'll learn much more in the next chapter - truly, an outdated way of starting into a story, and yet I adore the suspense. What do you think about it? Could this sort of opening work today? (I think perhaps it could - and does in, say, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but that is written in 19th-century prose (kind of), so perhaps that's not a fair comparison?)

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