Here’s a composite Q & A entry put together from a few book club questions.
Question: (combined and paraphrased): What made you focus on Persuasion’s Mrs. Smith and Captain Harville when it came to challenging Jane Austen’s characterizations?
Answer: One of the themes in The Widow’s Fire is that we only see the world clearly from the gutter, from the perspective of the outcast. This perspective is the one consistently missing from Jane’s canon.
Anne Elliot, though thoughtful and perceptive, is an aristocrat. While her immediate family tends to undervalue her, most of society has good reason to be at their best for her, and this is a disadvantage from her point of view. In Persuasion as written by Austen, Anne does give Mrs. Smith a free pass even though her actions in promoting the match between Anne and Mr. Elliot, her cousin, are dubious and self-interested. This was initially what whetted my postcolonial appetite.
The questions it spawned for me as a 21st century author started with this one: If Anne is wrong in her judgement of Mrs. Smith, what else is she wrong about?
I don’t think this reduces Anne as a heroine. She has no option but to accept people at face value. To do otherwise would make her unreasonably untrusting. But I wanted to impose a political context on Austen’s world and ask some tough questions. What would each of Austen’s characters make of the servant class, for instance? What would they think of people living in real poverty (rather than the gentile kind of Emma’s Miss Bates and Mrs. Bates or indeed Mrs. Smith)?
What if some of the characters who are kindly and perfectly mannered in front of people like Anne and her relatives were anything but kindly and perfectly mannered when confronted by someone very far from the social class they aspire to mix with? This is where Plato, a former slave, comes in because he is practically invisible to the pageant of Austen’s characters. Yet he sees everything and has opinions about everyone. His opinion of Captain Harville is diametrically opposite to Anne’s opinion. I find it fascinating to find inner, contradictory worlds within the ones we know about in Austen. And, paradoxically, it is a way of making the original novel live again.