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Written by Deborah Y
(10/24/2005 12:06 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, should we like Mrs. Smith?, penned by Margaret H
On the one hand, I've always felt that the Mrs. Smith plotting is awkward. Anne never mentions this old friend for half the book, and then suddenly there she is in Bath, abruptly introduced in Chapter 17. And then this out-of-left-field character turns out to be the one person who (quel coincidence!)has the goods on Mr. Elliot -- in writing, no less. I wonder if JA, had she lived, would have found a less implausible way to work all this out: for instance, making Mrs. Smith not an old friend whom Anne sought out, but a new acquaintance who sought out Anne in an effort to get help with her Mr. Elliot-induced financial problems. All this implausibility seems especially egregious to me because it's unnecessary: the revelations of Mr. Elliot's past misbehavior actually have virtually no impact on the plot. Anne is never seriously tempted to marry him and never comes under any significant pressure to do so, and therefore finding out what a baddie he is doesn't change the course of events. You could cut the whole past-bad-behavior thing and the narrative would be unaffected.
Given all of the above, however, JA has clearly done something with Mrs. Smith that is somewhat unusual in her fiction -- she's created a minor character with depth and complexity, rather than another in her long line of (wonderfully funny) caricatures who display the same characteristics and mannerisms every time they step on stage. Mrs. Smith could easily have been a character like that -- a touching portrait of a woman who manages to keep up her spirits despite illness and hardship, a foil allowing Anne to show her genuine worth in contrast with her family's vapid social climbing. Instead, in these final chapters, JA lets us see something very tough and realistic about Mrs. Smith's cheerily upbeat persona -- it conceals a streak of ruthlessness, born of desperation. I'm unconvinced by the various sympathetic explanations, elsewhere on the board, for Mrs. Smith's decision not to reveal Mr. Elliot's true character until she's convinced no marriage is pending. Her claim that the marriage looked like a sure thing seems weak to me -- she has no reason to believe this, in the face of Anne's denials. Her silence is especially suspicious given that she's got documentary proof of Mr. Elliot's treachery -- she wouldn't just be peddling unconfirmed gossip to a woman in love. No, I think Mrs. Smith WANTS Anne to marry Mr. Elliot, because this will give Mrs. Smith a chance of getting her property back. She's willing to take a huge risk with her friend's happiness because it's her own best shot at survival. She's looking out for number one.
What's interesting about all this is that JA doesn't condemn Mrs. Smith for her ruthlessness -- indeed, Anne and FW remain her friends to the end. I think JA understood enough about what it meant to be a woman alone, sick, with no means of support and no one to rely on but yourself, to realize that you can't expect self-sacrificing sainthood from someone in that position. I'm reminded of Mrs. Smith's earlier remarks about how you often find human nature at its worst in a sickroom. This is a woman who has been forced to look at the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be; she's a lot less sheltered than Anne, and that's made her tougher, sometimes in not very attractive ways. But perhaps because Anne has also suffered in her own less dramatic way, she's willing to accept Mrs. Smith's unconvincing explanations of her own conduct -- in essence, to collude with her in papering over what's really gone on here -- and continue the relationship, realizing that none of us can be sure how we'd behave if faced with Mrs. Smith's desperate situation.
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