Little Friendship in Austen's Persuasion
Jane Austen's Persuasion is a dark novel. From the jolting breaks in the romantic drama--the falls of little Charles and Louisa Musgrove--to the heroine's depressing existence--Anne Elliot has a "great tendency to lowness" (Austen 66)-- to the overall autumnal mood, the work is at times a gloomy, though always interesting, read. Perhaps its darkest facet though is the ubiquitous presence of an antagonist. While Mr. Elliot appears, most blatantly, to be the villain, in actuality, it is Lady Russell, whose persuasions are both manipulative and, frighteningly, pervasive, who should truly bear that stigma.
Upon learning that Anne will not be marrying Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Smith very adamantly curses him as the worst of men. This is the first indication of his supposed villainy. She claims him to be "a man without heart or conscience; a designing, wary, cold-blooded being . . . [having] no feeling for others . . . black at heart, hollow and black!" (132). Indeed, these are strong words, spoken by no less than a good friend of Anne. However, they ring false in light of what has previously been presented concerning his character.
From their first meeting, Mr. Elliot is "genuinely attracted" to Anne (Magill 29). He is not merely using her to get what he wants. Yes, he wants to "safeguard the title" (DaDundo 26), but not just for himself, yet for the title, or family name, itself. After all, it is vulnerable to "the plague of Mrs. Clay" (Austen 97), "whose 'freckles' not only indicate a flawed and 'spotted' moral interior but may indeed suggest remnants or traces of syphilis[!]" (Tanner 255). His attraction to Anne then is motivated by good on two counts. He is interested in her (Austen 125) and in their family. Both a romantic bond and a familial one have been formed, on his part at least. His letter denouncing his relationship to the Elliot name is entirely part of his "afflicted" past (DaDundo 26). At one point, even Anne ponders the notion of her name and finds it a charm she can resist, rejecting the idea of marriage to Mr. Elliot (Austen 106).
Yes, Anne does resist his insinuations of marriage, in spite of his careful wooing and the potential of being 'Lady Elliot,' but it is not due to a lack of deportment on Mr. Elliot's part. His manners are always impeccable; everyone finds him agreeable. And, as manners "are one of [Austen's] most vital ways of interpreting characters, whose misbehavior and small fallings-off from proper behavior, may point to more important moral faults" (Craik 33), Mr. Elliot's good manners demonstrate that those hidden 'moral faults' are non-existent at present or unimportant things of the past.
Yet there is still Mrs. Smith's aforementioned tirade against him to consider. She relays her message to Anne with a conviction that is difficult to ignore. However, that conviction has a basis not truly founded on the person of Mr. Elliot,...