Persuasion 200: Lady Russell Hints about Dangers of Mrs. Clay

Will Lady Russell ever be able to have a conversation with Anne that is not painful and difficult?



Lady Russell sipped her tea but Anne merely stared at hers. Something was on Anne’s mind—something more than the family’s impending change in circumstances, something very troubling. Perhaps she should mind her own business. That was an appealing thought. But if she did not ask, she knew there was no one else who would take interest in Anne’s distraction.

 “Has Elizabeth had another…ah…discussion…with you?”

 Anne set her tea cup aside and walked to the window. Silhouetted in the sun light, she was the spit and image of her dear mother. Lady Elliot has been one of those rare women for whom economy and sense were things of beauty and her daughter was little different, whereas Elizabeth was her father’s daughter and made it her sworn duty to point out Anne’s insufficiency in all things.

 “I can see she has. Is she complaining again of—”

 “No, no, it is not that. Not exactly.” Anne ran her hand along the edge of the curtain and fingered the tassel on the silk tie. “We disagreed, but not over the usual things.”

 “Then what?” Oh dear, this could be nothing but bad news. Lady Russell gripped the arms of her chair.

 “Oh, it is hard to say.”

 “Hard to say what you quarreled about? In that you do not know or that it is a difficult matter to talk about?”

 “Oh, I do not know. In any case, am sure I was wrong.”

 Lady Russell hurried to Anne. Her intuition was excellent and she was very rarely wrong. “Do not be so quick to make that judgment. Tell me what happened.”

 Anne turned and leaned against the window sill. “No, I am being silly and small minded.”

 “Those are two words I have never thought to describe you with and I doubt anyone but your sister and father might. Please, my dear, I cannot help you if you do not tell me.”

 Anne sniffed and her gaze wandered to the ceiling.

 Oh, this was bad. Anne never failed to look her I the eye unless something was heart wrenchingly wrong.

 “You are familiar with Mr. Shepard’s daughter?”

 Lady Russell’s face went cold. “Mrs. Clay? She is just out of her mourning, is she not?”

 “She set aside her mourning gowns just a few months ago I believe.”

 “And she has two small children, but that is nearly all her husband left her?” All that was common knowledge, but she had to say something to buy enough time to regain her equanimity.

 “Correct. The debts he left to settle took most of what she should have had to live on, that is why she has returned to her father’s house.”

 “She told you all this?”

 Anne laughed, sad and a little bitter. “Lady Russell, you might be shocked at how much people tell me. I do not understand why, but on the whole, people make themselves free to unburden themselves to me as if I might somehow know the answer to their problems or be able to make a material difference. I know and have heard far more than I would have ever cared to.”

 Just like her mother, dear child. Lady Elliot had always been such a repository of wisdom and solace for all those we went to her.

 “So Mrs. Clay—”

 “Penelope, my sister calls her, and the courtesy has been extended to me as well. She is ‘Penelope’ in our home, now.” Anne rolled her eyes.

 “Oh dear, I had feared such a thing.” Lady Russell bit her knuckle and sank onto the window bench.

 “Am I to gather than that you experience little fondness for Mrs. Clay?”

 How to put it discretely? “I find it difficult to discern anything of value in her company.”

 “Her understanding is shallow, her opinions mean, and her admiration of my…my…”

Lady Russell squeezed her eyes shut. “Father?”

 “I had thought to say family.” Anne shook her head sharply.

 “Go on.”

 “It is exactly what my father and sister prefer, but I find the admiration is much too much, beyond the bounds of all good taste.”

 “And sense?”

 “Yes, that too.” Anne pinched her temples and screwed up her face. “I made mention of it to Elizabeth.”

 Ah, of course! “And that was the point over which you quarreled?”

 “Yes!” Anne threw her hands in the air. “It is the most inexplicable thing. I cannot understand. Mrs. Clay is not the kind of company I would have thought valuable to Elizabeth. The woman has nothing to recommend her and so much against her. She has no fortune, no connections—either of which I could abide, but not my sister. Forgive me, but she has no good looks, no style, her manners are barely this side of tolerable—all things that matter to Elizabeth very much.”

 “And to your father as well.”

 “Absolutely! It astounds me that he would permit her so much in his company when, if he met her on the streets, he would pronounce her a fright.”

 “You do not like her?”

 “Not at all. I suppose she is not a bad sort of woman, but we have nothing in common and see things very differently. Her only opinions are to agree with whomever is speaking. She has read nothing, absolutely nothing, no poetry, no prose. I suppose she reads a few pieces from The Lady’s Magazine and the scandal sheets, but I hardly consider those an admirable source of information.”

 “Though it would contain enough information for her to follow most of your sister’s conversations.” Lady Russell laid a hand on Anne’s arm. “I am afraid I would go so far as to call her ‘not a bad sort of woman.’”

 “What do you mean?”

  Read the rest at Austen Variations

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