I adore Persuasion and have had my head firmly residing in that world for the past year, thanks to my current work-in-progress. So I’m delighted to be kicking off this Persuasion 200 Project with the initial installment of several planned prequel posts. These will be based on events referred to in the book but which actually take place before the “live action” begins. Since Persuasion is a book about second chances, this includes a lot of “firsts” that set up what follows in Anne Elliot’s story, beginning with the first pivotal event of her life: the death of her beloved mother when Anne was only fourteen (referenced in chapter 1). Without Lady Elliot’s wise and amiable influence, the Elliot household would never be the same again.
The “missing scenes” we are writing for this project are intended to go hand-in-hand with what Jane Austen has already given us. I hope you will read the two together. If you are new to Persuasion, or if you could use a brief refresher course, you’ll find an introduction to the novel here, including a character cast list you can refer back to at any time.
1800, Kellynch Hall, Somersetshire
The end approached. As Lady Elizabeth Elliot lay there, gravely ill and helpless, on what she expected would prove to be her deathbed, she could no longer flatter herself that it might be otherwise. Although she had no particular fear for what was to come, she did have enough duty and pleasure in this life as to make her very sorry indeed to be quitting it so soon – especially to be leaving behind her children in want of love and proper guidance. In vexation of spirit, she wondered who was to provide them these and other necessities when she was gone. Certainly not her husband, Sir Walter.
Looking back over a life too brief, Lady Elliot regretted nothing so much as that she had been far too careless in the choosing of her children’s father. The match had seemed ideal seventeen years before, at once both satisfying her family’s ambitions and gratifying her own wishes in the case. High in her parents’ consideration was the fact that young Mr. Walter Elliot was to be a baronet one day – sooner rather than later, judging from the indifferent state of his father’s health. For herself, Mr. Elliot was everything handsome and charming. He had a fine home at Kellynch Hall to offer her as well. What more could a naïve girl of nineteen have desired in a husband?
In hindsight, she could (and should) have desired a great deal more – prudence, sound understanding, strength of character, humility – less for her own sake perhaps than for her three daughters, whom she must now resign to Sir Walter’s questionable guardianship.
Mary was young enough, Lady Elliot reasoned, to recover from her loss in time. And, at sixteen, Elizabeth’s character was already so firmly formed in the image of her father as to make the matter of her mother’s staying or going of little consequence. But Anne! Yes, it was for her middle daughter that Lady Elliot’s maternal solicitude was most powerfully engaged. Anne, with her gentle nature and delicacy of mind, was the one most like and most inextricably attached to herself. Anne would feel the loss of her mother exceedingly, and she would be least able to bear with Sir Walter’s folly and neglect.
She must prepare her daughter, while there was still time, but Lady Elliot hardly knew what to say. How could one prepare a girl of fourteen for such a calamity?
“Mama,” said an adolescent female stepping lightly in from the passageway. Although the girl was far too young to have yet attained any true womanly beauty, clearly written in her features was the promise of one day being called at least ‘pretty.’ “You wished to see me?” she asked.
Lady Elliot smiled weakly. “Anne. Yes, my dear, come and sit by me for a while. We have many things to talk about.” She reached out her hand, trying to stay its trembling fingers, just as she also sought to steady her emotions for the coming conversation.
Taking her mother’s hand and settling on the bed beside her, the girl asked, “What kind of things?”
“Well, we shall discuss whatever you wish. Only first there is one subject in particular I must speak to you about. It will not wait, and you must promise to be brave, my darling girl. Can you do that for me?”
Anne’s lower lip began to quiver and the first glistening of tears appeared in her eyes.
Lady Elliot squeezed the girl’s hand all the tighter. “I think you must be able to guess what I am about to say.” She waited until finally a silent Anne nodded. “It is that I must soon leave you.”
“I know it does not seem so to us,” she said, stroking her daughter’s flaxen hair. “But when God calls us home, we have no choice other than to go. Remember, though, heaven is a paradise and not a place of tears, so you must not weep for me.”
“May I not weep for myself?” Anne sobbed.
“For a time, certainly. It is only natural that you should.” Lady Elliot allowed her daughter to do so for several minutes unhindered. “Now sit up and look at me,” she then continued, gently chucking the girl under her chin to urge her compliance. “After you have had a good cry out, you must dry your eyes and be happy again. This life is far too fleeting to waste one extra minute on mourning or regrets. I would not have you languishing and forlorn on my account, Anne. I wish to see you strong, sensible, and smiling when I look down from heaven. Understand?”
A miserable Anne straightened, sniffed hard, and wiped her eyes. “I will try my best, Mama,” she said at last, “because you ask it.”
“Good girl. I knew I could depend on you. Your father, on the other hand…” Lady Elliot sighed deeply. “Well… your father is your father, and you must respect him as such. As for wise counsel, however, I commend you to Lady Russell’s care. She has been my dear friend and confidant these many years, and like a second mother to you. I know she will do her best to stand in my place, to always advise you as I would have done myself. You must listen to her, my child,” said Lady Elliot with a most earnest look into her daughter’s eyes.
“Yes, Mama. I promise.”
“And who knows but what she may be your mother in truth one day. To be sure, it would be a fine thing for you girls if she would take up that office, but… Oh, I cannot say it would be the making of her own happiness. No, perhaps she is better off as she is…”
Lady Elliot, who had started this interview seated nearly upright in bed, thanks to an accumulation of bracing pillows, had throughout the course of the conversation slumped lower and lower. Her eyelids now drooped heavily and her voice was fading.
Observing this, Anne asked, “Are you tired, Mama? Shall I go?”
“No, do stay, my dear,” Lady Elliot replied, releasing her daughter’s young, lithesome hand, which formed such a sharp contrast her own – thin and discolored by disease as it was. “I will just rest my eyes for a minute, if I might, and then I will be quite refreshed. Tell me about the garden, Anne. Are the roses still blooming? It is so long since I have walked among the roses…”
From her mother, Anne had acquired an appreciation for all green and growing things, especially roses of every description. Although the garden had lately been pushed far from her mind by more pressing concerns, she knew it must be near the end of the flowering season. Surely the Gallica and Damask roses would have long gone by, but perhaps a few of the Chinas still carried on despite the late summer heat. Anne went to the window to see.
The rose garden lay just below, but it was in a sorry state. Although neat and tidy as ever, the ground looked parched and the shrubbery sadly depleted – not a single bloom in sight. It was too late for anybody seeking roses there.
Anne returned to her mother’s bed to discover that scene just as hopeless. No roses did she find there either. In fact, nearly all color seemed to have fled from the sleeper’s cheeks, and barely a wisp of life remained. Anne knew then that it was true; her mother was dying and there was not a single thing she could do to stop it happening. Stricken, Anne dropped to her knees at the side of the bed and wept.
Anne’s world was forever altered by her mother’s death. Shortly thereafter, to her further dismay, her father sent her away to a school in Bath, a place she learned to dislike intensely. Meanwhile, her older sister Elizabeth stepped into their mother’s shoes, presiding as the acting mistress of Kellynch Hall from that time on, alongside her father.