For a character who occupies so few pages in Persuasion, Mrs Smith fulfils a surprising range of narrative functions. She once befriended the unhappy Anne Elliot at their boarding school. Now she is a widow, hard-up and ‘for the present a cripple’ after a bout of rheumatic fever (Ch. 17). Most obviously, Anne’s visits to this unglamorous figure confirm that she is a better person than the rest of her family. Not that we need much evidence, any more than we need to be reminded that there must be an underside to the shallowness of life in Bath. Mrs Smith’s name alone convinces Sir Walter that she stands for ‘everything that revolts… low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations’ (Ch. 17).
Jane Austen opens the final chapter of Mansfield Park with a declaration: ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ She might have added poverty to the list of topics she avoids.
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