Updated: Sep 16, 2019
from The Art of Pleasing by Lona Manning
“Is your husband a naval officer then, Mrs. Clay?” he asked, turning to me.
“My late husband was a chandler.”
Well, Mr. Clay was never “on time” for anything.
“I am sorry to know of your loss, madam.”
“Likewise, I am sure, Mr. Elliot,” said I.
But he turned his head so that Elizabeth could not see his countenance, and he gave me a significant smile as though to say he was not sorry to hear there was no husband in the case! Do not think that I was mistaken in that look, for I have seen that smile and that gleam in the eye many a time before, ever since I turned fifteen and my figure bloomed. I may have freckles and I may have a crooked tooth, but the gentlemen have always taken an interest in me.
Well, that first visit was followed by another one, and another, and within a week he became the favourite guest at Camden Place. It did not displease Sir Walter that Mr. Elliot was not quite so well-looking as himself. That was when I learnt what “underhung” meant, for I was quite startled when Sir Walter first used the term. It referred to Mr. Elliot’s jaw, which was quite long. But Mr. Elliot’s conversation was so good, and he was so thoughtful and generous!
For example, he was taking tea with us and Elizabeth was trying to decide if she should hold a supper party. “But fresh fruit is so…” We all knew she was about to say “expensive at this time of year” but she caught herself in time and said, “…so insipid when it is out of season.”
And the very next day, a man delivered a large hamper of fresh fruit, including a pineapple, with the compliments of Mr. Elliot and a note saying he had found a good fruiterer and we must not deny him “the pleasure of sharing the bounty with the ladies of Camden Place.”
Likewise, I had let him know that Elizabeth was fond of flowers. From then on, handsome bouquets arrived regularly. He was soon on a most intimate footing with us, coming and going at all hours, every day, and attending us to other social gatherings or taking Elizabeth and me for an airing in his carriage.
His attentions to her were all entirely proper—as became a man still wearing mourning for his wife. Of course, Elizabeth believed that Mr. Elliot admired her, and perhaps she was correct. But when she invited Mr. Elliot to dinner and he was seated between us, his hand found its way to my knee under cover of the tablecloth. I pushed it off but was more curious than affronted and told no one. What are you about, Mr. Elliot?
Had we been sitting far apart at a long, large, formal dining table, Mr. Elliot could not have reached me. But we had no such table in Bath. When Elizabeth was thinking of converting one of the two drawing rooms and buying a dining table and a dozen chairs, I told her, “My dear Miss Elliot, I must confess, I so enjoy sitting with you and your father at the little breakfast table. It is much more snug and comfortable! You can seat six persons with ease, and your guests will think it a greater distinction if they are the only guests at your table! And you have only the footboy to help the butler serve, after all.”
This last point decided her, and she gave no large dinner parties.
When Christina Boyd invited me to participate in her third Quill Ink anthology, featuring Jane Austen’s female characters, I asked her if I could write about Penelope Clay from Persuasion.
Sure, Mrs. Clay is depicted as an artful, conniving hypocrite, an upstart, a 19th century gold digger, but if you put yourself in her shoes for a minute, it only made sense for her to take advantage of Elizabeth Elliot’s friendship. Otherwise, her options in life were very limited. So I saw her as acting rationally in her pursuit of the vain Sir Walter.
Naturally the first thing I did after Christina said ‘yes’ was to re-read Persuasion carefully and take note of everything about Mrs. Clay. One passage leapt out at me near the beginning—when Mrs. Clay’s father, who is Sir Walter’s solicitor, says he thinks the news that Kellynch Hall is for rent is bound to leak out: we know how difficult it is to keep the actions and designs of one part of the world from the notice and curiosity of the other; consequence has its tax; I, John Shepherd, might conceal any family-matters that I chose, for nobody would think it worth their while to observe me; but Sir Walter Elliot has eyes upon him which it may be very difficult to elude…
Hmmm, I thought. It’s almost as though something is preying on John Shepherd’s mind. Is there some family matter that he must conceal? And what could it be? And soon thereafter, Mrs. Clay mentions that she is well acquainted with sailors and naval officers. Later in the book, we read about Admiral Croft walking with Anne Elliot along the streets of Bath and pointing out Admiral Brand and his brother: ”Shabby fellows, both of them!”
What if the Admiral and his brother knew Mrs. Clay from her former life?
Putting all of that together gave me the outline of my story.
Persuasion ends, as we all know, with Anne Elliot being reconciled with Frederick Wentworth. But we also know that there are many tantalizing details that happen offstage. What, for example is the “commission” or errand to Union Street that Mr. Elliot undertakes for Mrs. Clay when they are caught in the rain while out shopping? How often does Mrs. Clay meet secretly with Mr. Elliot at the same time he deludes Elizabeth and courts Anne Elliot? And, as a result getting to know Anne Elliot, does Mrs. Clay ever learn anything about what truly matters in life?
My story, “The Art of Pleasing,” tries to answer these questions and tells the Persuasion story through a different pair of eyes.
About Lona Manning
LONA MANNING is the author of the novels A Contrary Wind and A Marriage of Attachment, both based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. She has also written numerous true crime articles, which are available at www.crimemagazine.com. She has worked as a non-profit administrator, a vocational instructor, a market researcher, and a speechwriter for politicians. She currently teaches English as a second language. She and her husband now divide their time between mainland China and Canada. You can follow Lona at blog where she writes about China and Jane Austen.