Chapter 15 is the opening of Book Two of Persuasion, and in this chapter Jane Austen really comes into her element as an observational writer. And with Anne away from Frederick Wentworth, she uses her sharp eyes and wit to expose her family and those around them. If you haven’t read Persuasion in a while, just read the first five paragraphs of Chapter 15. They are great writing, and great storytelling. No wasted words. Austen takes the complicated situation of the Elliots and makes it clear and a little sad.
I’m thinking of calling this post as “Here’s Looking at You, Kid,” because the overarching theme of this chapter is good looks. Sir Walter has an opinion on everybody’s looks. The comments start with Colonel Wallis: “…a highly respectable man, perfectly the gentleman, (and not an ill-looking man,).”
There’s a nod to Elizabeth’s ever-present beauty: “Elizabeth was certainly very handsome, with well-bred, elegant manners…” That being a nod, here’s a full-on leap about Mrs. Wallis: “Sir Walter thought much of Mrs. Wallis; she was said to be an excessively pretty woman, beautiful. He longed to see her. He hoped she might make some amends for the many very plain faces he was continually passing in the streets. The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women. He did not mean to say that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion.” She must be one heckuva a looker if she’s able to make restitution for the beauty deficit of the female population of Bath.
When they get to Mr. Elliot, they are not so kind: “Sir Walter especially. He did justice to his very gentlemanlike appearance, his air of elegance and fashion, his good shaped face, his sensible eye; but, at the same time, “must lament his being very much under-hung, a defect which time seemed to have increased; nor could he pretend to say that ten years had not altered almost every feature for the worse. Mr. Elliot appeared to think that he (Sir Walter) was looking exactly as he had done when they last parted;” but Sir Walter had “not been able to return the compliment entirely, which had embarrassed him. He did not mean to complain, however. Mr. Elliot was better to look at than most men, and he had no objection to being seen with him anywhere.””
Yikes! That’s pretty harsh coming from a guy who squandered the family fortune and had to put the homestead up for rent. Self-awareness isn’t his strong suit. I can hear it now: “Yes, Mr. Elliot, you have defects in your face, and I can’t say you haven’t aged dreadfully, but I’m not embarrassed a bit being seen with you.” Back-handed compliment doesn’t begin to cover that.
We eventually arrive as the greatest schmooze of all. The Baronet is talking about his favorite subject: Sir Walter. “It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced. He had never walked anywhere arm-in-arm with Colonel Wallis (who was a fine military figure, though sandy-haired) without observing that every woman’s eye was upon him; every woman’s eye was sure to be upon Colonel Wallis.” Modest Sir Walter! He was not allowed to escape, however. His daughter and Mrs. Clay united in hinting that Colonel Wallis’s companion might have as good a figure as Colonel Wallis, and certainly was not sandy-haired.”
I’m not sure what they have against the sandy-haired. I was born in California and all that sun produced on me a stunning platinum blonde so I feel a sort of kinship with towheads across the ages. the Elliots would go a little go nuts if they knew how many women now pay pretty pennies to become sandy-haired. Anyway, it was sure kind of Elizabeth and Mrs. Clay to point out the Baronet has a figure equal to that of Col Wallis.
Then comes poor Mary: “How is Mary looking?” said Sir Walter, in the height of his good humor. “The last time I saw her she had a red nose, but I hope that may not happen every day.””
With talk like this, do we really have to wonder why she’s the way she is? I don’t like the character of Mary. She serves a wonderful purpose in contrasting dear Anne, but really, the state of her nose? It’s a good thing that Regency women were comparatively covered and not hanging out all over like they are these days. I don’t even want to hear Sir Walter’s discourse on cellulite, jiggly upper arms, or facial hair. He’d be a great spokesman for the medi-spa movement. Or he could sit across from a B-list star, asking all the right questions about the face/thigh/toe cream they’re pushing on late night infomercials.
The most galling thing for Sir Walter Elliot had to be seeing Frederick Wentworth again: “…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.”
And I’m betting dollars to doughnuts that Frederick won’t be caught dead walking arm-in-arm with Sir Walter anywhere!