Wentworth is not very gallant by you, Anne, though he was so attentive to me. Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, when they went away, and he said, ‘You were so altered he should not have known you again.'”
Mary had no feelings to make her respect her sister’s in a common way, but she was perfectly unsuspicious of being inflicting any peculiar wound.
“Altered beyond his knowledge.” Anne fully submitted, in silent, deep mortification. Doubtless it was so, and she could take no revenge, for he was not altered, or not for the worse. She had already acknowledged it to herself, and she could not think differently, let him think of her as he would. No: the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages. She had seen the same Frederick Wentworth.
“So altered that he should not have known her again!” These were words which could not but dwell with her. Yet she soon began to rejoice that she had heard them. They were of sobering tendency; they allayed agitation; they composed, and consequently must make her happier.
Frederick Wentworth had used such words, or something like them, but without an idea that they would be carried round to her. He had thought her wretchedly altered, and in the first moment of appeal, had spoken as he felt. He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.
He had been most warmly attached to her, and had never seen a woman since whom he thought her equal; but, except from some natural sensation of curiosity, he had no desire of meeting her again. Her power with him was gone for ever.
It was now his object to marry. He was rich, and being turned on shore, fully intended to settle as soon as he could be properly tempted; actually looking round, ready to fall in love with all the speed which a clear head and a quick taste could allow. He had a heart for either of the Miss Musgroves, if they could catch it; a heart, in short, for any pleasing young woman who came in his way, excepting Anne Elliot. This was his only secret exception, when he said to his sister, in answer to her suppositions:–
“Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match. Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking. A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man. Should not this be enough for a sailor, who has had no society among women to make him nice?”
He said it, she knew, to be contradicted. His bright proud eye spoke the conviction that he was nice; and Anne Elliot was not out of his thoughts, when he more seriously described the woman he should wish to meet with. “A strong mind, with sweetness of manner,” made the first and the last of the description.
“That is the woman I want,” said he. “Something a little inferior I shall of course put up with, but it must not be much. If I am a fool, I shall be a fool indeed, for I have thought on the subject more than most men.”
Austen must have listened to a lot of men who had harsh things to say about women’s looks. Darcy speaks unkindly about Lizzie not being handsome enough to tempt him, and in Persuasion, Sir Walter also sets the bar awfully high when it comes to a lady’s looks. Even his own daughters—Anne and Mary—are not thought to be pretty enough for him. Only Elizabeth is thought to be worthy of the Elliot name.
What Frederick says is unkind, but I think is said out of anger and not out of any genuine comparison of the past. We know that Anne has changed. Her bloom is gone. Lady Russell is pleased by how plump Anne is upon her (Anne’s) return from Lyme, so we know Anne is too thin to be pleasing. (Oh for the days when plump is okay!) However, I will give Frederick a break here. He’s in the midst of people who know nothing about his past dealings with the Elliots, and he’s not anxious to explain if they find out. I’m sure the sting of not only Anne’s rejection but that of her family has been awakened coming back to the old neighborhood.
“’A strong mind, with sweetness of manner,” … ‘That is the woman I want,’ said he.” He’s thought about what he wants and he still wants a woman like Anne. On meeting her and hearing bits here and there from the Musgroves, he perceives that she is more compliant than she was in the past. Fortunately for the readers, we know that Anne has changed somewhat and that even Lady Russell’s hold is not nearly what it was.
If Frederick were truly disinterested, he would have had nothing to say. In this case, something a little scathing is a good thing.