A Civil, Cautious Lawyer …

(Do join us for The Book Rat’s group read of Persuasion, now in progress.)

Maybe it’s because I write Austen spinoffs involving her secondary characters that I notice stuff like this.

On this reading of Persuasion, John Shepherd came off the page. “A civil, cautious lawyer,” Jane calls him. And then we are treated to the man in action.

What a pretty little dance he leads Sir Walter on! Conversation by conversation we see hints and pauses and flattery. Strategic concealment and cautious disclosure. Just enough to cover John’s Shepherd’s hind end should the truth come out!

It helps that Sir Walter is a fool. Not advertise Kellynch Hall? Right. How in the world will the place be let? By magic? No, by the behind-the-scenes actions of John Shepherd!

  • Men of the navy, particularly rich admirals, will be hunting for houses about now.
  • These make particularly desirable tenants, an opinion seconded by Shepherd’s daughter. (How much has she heard around the dinner table at home, I wonder?)
  • Admiral Croft accidentally heard of the possibility of Kellynch Hall being to let and was interested.
  • The man just happens to be of gentlemanly descent and is a hale, hearty, well-looking man. Who like Sir Walter never hunts. And who has plenty of money and no furniture-destroying offspring.

Happy coincidence indeed!

All is sunlight and happiness, as the deal is closed with Admiral Croft. Sir Walter skips happily off to Bath to find a new residence. With John Shepherd’s daughter, Penelope Clay, in tow. A woman who who has ambitions of her own …

The apple does not fall far from the tree, does it? Like father like daughter. Very civil, very cautious…

And then there is this. “He was at that time a very young man, just engaged in the study of the law…”

Enter Persuasion’s lawyer number two: William Walter Elliot. Jane slipped that bit in, almost between the lines. The smooth-talking, very civil, very cautious heir is a lawyer.

His legal training—and his connections in the City—mean that Mr Elliot knew exactly what he was doing when he refused to act for Anne’s poverty-stricken friend, Mrs Smith. And did you notice than when his first wife died—childless, and within a few years of her marriage—William Elliot pocketed her fortune? Legal, yes. And mightily suspicious.

It makes me wonder what Jane thought of lawyers. Because Pride and Prejudice’s villian, Mr Wickham, studied the law for a time…

What other lawyers (or would-be lawyers) are scattered thoughout Austen’s novels?

Update: The Book Rat is giving to one winner either A SET of the Mercy’s books (USA) or one print copy of Mercy’s Embrace: So Rough a Course (International). Entry deadline is Sept 5th.

7 thoughts on “A Civil, Cautious Lawyer …

  1. Susan Kaye

    Since Shakespeare set the tone when it comes to lawyers, I assume Jane felt a natural sympathy with his opinion. And once her father died I’m sure all suspicions were confirmed. Even today, most politicians are lawyers, though they never seem to practice much aside from “public service.”

    I’ve always wondered what was in his friend Smith’s will and estate that was to Elliots advantage. There must have been something that benefited him in keeping Mrs. Smith’s inheritance in limbo.

    You descriptions of the lawyerin’ in Persuasion confirms that it would be perfect for the Southern Gothic treatment. All those gentlemen, in white suites sippin’ juleps on the veranda would be simply wonderful.

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  2. Laura Hile Post author

    Love your politician-lawyer observation, Susan. Mr Elliot was certainly that! Though these types are so often taken down by a pretty face, aren’t they? Or not so pretty, in Penelope Clay’s case.

    I’ve thought about writing a murder mystery involving dear William Elliot and his first wife. But where would be the suspense? We’d all know he did it. And even if he didn’t, we’d all want him to be guilty!

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  3. Robin Helm

    Very interesting, Laura. I love the way you take side characters, flesh them out, and make them stars.

    I thought he was very sly, though I give him credit for having Sir Walter’s best interests at heart. After all, Sir Walter made a better client when he was solvent.

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  4. suzan

    Interesting thoughts here. I never really paid attention tho’ Mr. Shepherd seemed like a weasel if you ask me and I must have missed William Elliot’s involvement in the practice. Hmm. I have always felt bad for Mrs. Smith tho’ and the description of her in Persuasion is incredibly done. Her character is one to look up to.

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  5. Susan Kaye

    The only reason I give Mrs. Smith a pass is that poverty makes you do desperate (read: stupid and unloving) things. While she ultimately told Anne what a scheming louse William Elliot was, it’s only when Anne says she won’t marry him for any reason.

    So, if Anne had decided to marry her cousin, Mrs. Smith, despite her gifts to the poor and insights into Bath society was willing to sacrifice her friend’s happiness to get her estate reconciled.

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