Terribly Good Company
By Abby Pittman
“Lady Russell confessed that she had expected something better; but yet ‘it was an acquaintance worth having,’ and when Anne ventured to speak her opinion of them to Mr. Elliot, he agreed to their being nothing in themselves, but still maintained that as a family connexion, as good company, as those who would collect good company around them, they had their value. Anne smiled and said,
‘My idea of good company, Mr. Elliott, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company,’” (Austen, 110).
In Jane Austen’s final novel Persuasion, Austen creates colorfully complex characters despite their lack of social prestige, juxtaposing them in an ironic twist, with her high-class wealthy characters serving as the farces of the novel, exploring the idea of ‘good company versus bad company’.
Lady Dalrymple is a character that emulates all of the necessary qualities that are valued in Austen’s society; she has both class and money. Despite her lack any sort of interesting personality, she is both rich and high class, which makes her what is supposed to be ‘good company, she is actually described as “ an acquaintance worth having,” (Austen, 110). She is valued only in society for her birth, “there was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding. Lady Dalrymple had acquired the name of ‘a charming woman,’ because she had a smile and a civil answer for every body. Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth.” (Austen 110). The qualifications for good company are laid out on page 110, “Good company requires only birth, education and manners,” by Anne’s father. This sort of narrow view of the world is how Anne grew up, how she was raised. Yet, with true strength of character she pushes back against this societal structure and values someone such as Mrs. Smith, who is—for all intents and purposes is unremarkable, even down to her name Mrs. Smith, as a better acquaintance than the dry, uninteresting rich Irish cousins. Mrs. Smith is one of the most versatile characters in the book, despite being of a lower social class and quite poor. Despite being served a hard dose of reality, becoming a widow in a society that did not really allow for financially independent women, she manages to keep a positive disposition; “Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone.” (Austen 113.) These two characters juxtaposed against each other is one of the best examples of ‘good versus bad company’. Though Lady Darlymple is one of the most high society ladies that Anne interacts with in the book, it is actually Mrs. Smith who is more appreciated by Anne.
A beauty with no class can be forgiven, but a girl of low standing with a plain face has no hope for upward mobility. Anne has grown up in a toxic household, with a vain ass-hat of a father who values beauty and social standing more than family bonds. Within the first two pages, Sir Walter Elliot whole personage is defined by hubris. “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. […] He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.” (Austen 2). Just a page later he defines his daughter by her beauty, despite her sweet and caring disposition.
“A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early; and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her, (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own); there could be nothing in them now that she was faded and thin, to excited his esteem. (Austen, 3).
Despite this toxic household, Anne does not develop such a shallow view of the world. In fact, she develops her own opinions on what ‘good company’ is as can be seen in the conversation with her father; “Anne smiled and said, ‘My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.” (Austen, 110).
Towards the end of the novel, Anne has a choice to make; she can either live a shallow life without love in her high-class position like Lady Russell, or she can rectify the mistake she made ten years ago and have a relationship like the Crofts, who are the most functional and progressive couple in the entire book. Lady Croft has one of the best dispositions, and is unafraid to speak her mind. She posses both intelligence and wit; and is one of the most overtly feminist characters in the book; “But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.” (Austen, 51). Lady Croft is a possible and likely future for Anne, traveling with her sailor husband and having a sort of equal partnership with him. Lady Russell however, sought to end that relationship before it could go anywhere ten years ago;
“Such confidence, powerful in its own warmth, and bewitching in the wit which often expressed it, must have been enough for Anne; but Lady Russell saw it very differently/– His sanguine temper, and fearlessness of mind, operated very differently on her. She saw in it but an aggravation of the evil. It only added a dangerous character to himself/ He was brilliant he was headstrong. –Lady Russell had a little taste for wit; and of anything approaching to imprudence a horror. She deprecated the connexion in every light.” (Austen 19).
This was the tipping stone for Anne. Lady Russell’s influence set her down a path that led to a lonely and slightly bitter life, and ten years later she gets a chance to rectify her mistake. Though the unknown is daunting, Anne is able to view her possible future when she observes Lady Croft. She may not be of the same social standing as she was, but she chose love over societal structure that requires terrible ‘good company’.
Austen takes her readers on a journey that allows us to explore the concept of ‘good company’ versus ‘bad company’ and the price of being high class. She leaves it up to us, the readers to discover the merits of these low class characters such as Mrs. Smith and the Crofts, and the faults of the high-class characters like Sir Walter Elliott. In the end, we can assume that her low class characters are what carry and add depth to the story of Anne, while her high-class characters emulate everything that is wrong with a caste system.