July 05, 2023

Persuadable (excerpt)

Chapter 1

Penelope Clay

Penelope Clay decided to marry Sir Walter a month after she returned to Kellynch.

Sir Walter hadn’t changed in the years since Penelope escaped her home town. At a local ball sponsored by Sir Walter and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Penelope watched him strut stiffly about the town’s assembly hall, nodding ponderously to the attendees.

“Ah, Miss Merriweather, how fine you are looking—you’ve taken my advice about avoiding too much sun.”

He’d made similar circuits when Penelope was a fresh nineteen-year-old. His wife was alive at the time; she paced alongside him, hand on his arm, smiling gently on Sir Walter’s victims. People in town claimed that the lady of Kellynch Hall had been an ameliorating influence on the good baronet; since her death, he had become . . . “complacent” was the term people used. As far as Penelope was concerned, he was still a fulsome peacock with an avuncular manner.

His deficiencies were all to her benefit.

Ten years before, Penelope Clay, née Shepherd, fled Kellynch Town to marry Mr. Clay, the least objectionable of several possible beaus.

The first was a philosophical youth who boarded with a nearby family and wanted to preach his seemingly profound view of the world to Penelope: “As you know, dear Miss Shepherd, most people in trade don’t value artistic accomplishments.”

“They usually indicate their value with money,” Penelope pointed out, after which the philosophical youth promptly lost interest in continuing their “friendship.”

The second, a friend of the grocer, considered himself a Lothario. With winks and nudges, he invited Penelope to ask him about “other pretty ladies” he’d courted. He promptly lost interest when Penelope failed to take the gambit.

And then there was her father’s clerk who slept in her family’s parlor and looked surprised when Penelope refused his half-hearted proposal.

“Are you pursing a duke?” her mother queried waspishly. “Your father’s sister pursued unattainable men and look what’s happened to her.”

Penelope’s aunt boarded above the town’s millinery and supplemented an allowance from Penelope’s father with occasional earnings from decorating hats. Penelope acknowledged the unsatisfactory nature of such a life and set herself to endure Mr. Clay.

Mr. Clay was from Cambridge where he worked for a solicitor. He and Penelope met when he delivered some leases to Penelope’s father, who managed Sir Walter’s land. Invited to dinner, Mr. Clay regaled Penelope with tedious stories about the exact nature of his work, stories which always seemed to end with people off-handedly complimenting his efforts but not actually promoting him.

Mr. Clay was dull but at least he was employed and reasonably attentive. So Penelope married him and moved to Cambridge.

She grasped in only a few months that she must either learn flattery and tact or become one of the nagging, sharp-tongued neighborhood women who mocked their husbands publicly. Penelope didn’t see the point—open abuse didn’t make a husband any easier to live with or the hearthrug any less dreary or the husband’s pocket any more open.

Not that Mr. Clay made much money. He left little to his widow and sons when he died. Penelope, eight-year-old Robert, and five-year-old Charlie had to relocate to her parents’ home after the funeral; Penelope did not, however, plan to settle into widowed obscurity, smiling gently on her active boys from a chimney corner.

Luckily, she’d had sons, not daughters. Her mother preferred males in the household and was perfectly willing to endure a boy’s cleverness (that in a girl, she would label “insolence”) and animal spirits (rather than “fuss”) for the pleasure of bragging about her grandsons to the neighbors.

Penelope knew: No one will brag about me. I’ll have to claim my future without assistance.

This time she would marry for money, ensuring a university education for her sons. Penelope didn’t have much maternal feeling—except to be pleasantly surprised that her sons weren’t dunces. But she owed them a future.

For herself, she wanted long-term security and independence from her parents. She had seen too many women, widows of tutors and surveyors, forced to move into tiny rooms from which they wrote desperate, begging letters to friends and family. Penelope woke sometimes from nightmares filled with tatty furniture and dirty window panes, overcome by a sensation of drowning. She would never suffer such a life. She had been a passable wife. She would be one again.

She already knew she could tolerate a boring man.

Sir Walter was boring. He was also husband material: he did not drink to excess, did not invite (any kind of) scandal through sexual misconduct, had not beaten his late wife and did not beat his daughters. And he was marvelously prone to flattery.

Unfortunately, Kellynch was not the relaxed neighborhood of Cambridge, nor was it the loud but friendly dining room of the Clays’ lodgings, which they’d shared with five other families. Penelope could not approach Sir Walter directly.

He had three daughters. The youngest Elliot daughter was married and living away from home; Penelope remembered her vaguely as a scattered-brained, whiny child. But the two older daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, were still unmarried and living with their father. Penelope eyed them now from her position in the assembly hall.

Skirting the partners for the next dance, Penelope paused near Anne, standing beside Lady Russell, and waited to catch the middle Elliot daughter’s eyes whereupon Anne gave Penelope the gentle, almost seraphic smile of her late mother.

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Clay,” Anne said; Penelope made a suitable response though the loss was a year away, and by now she barely remembered her husband’s vague personality.

Lady Russell greeted Penelope perfunctorily, her eyes traveling over her to another attendee: “Mrs. Burland, what did you think of Seasons? Isn’t Thomson a remarkable poet?”

Lady Russell presumed to be an intellectual, Penelope remembered. She supposed she could impress Lady Russell with allusions to Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and Walter Scott. Toadying to Lady Russell might bring her closer to Anne; Lady Russell was a great friend of the baronet’s family. But after watching Anne mingle amongst the attendees and noting Anne’s friendly detachment, Penelope concluded that declaiming bits of literary minutiae into Lady Russell’s ears would be an ineffective use of her time.

I could know Anne Elliot for years and still never make a mark.

Anne was gracious. Penelope knew from town gossip that Anne was liked. But she seemed to exist in a bubble of utter remoteness. How many people did get close to her?

Penelope would have better luck with Anne’s sister Elizabeth.

The eldest Elliot sister swanned about the assembly hall, following her father’s ponderous circuit. She bestowed regal smiles on attendees and seemingly friendly commentary: “Oh, Mabel, what a darling gown. You are so nimble a seamstress!” Her tone was so gracious, simpering Mabel never noticed the implicit criticism: the gown was obviously altered.

Unlike Anne, Elizabeth ended her parade amid a coterie of girls who appeared abashed and gratified by her attention. Penelope noted that they were not the brightest girls in town, but then those girls would not give Elizabeth so much deference, baronet’s daughter or not.

Penelope wafted closer to Elizabeth’s coterie and waited to be acknowledged (she had been reintroduced to Elizabeth shortly after returning to Kellynch).

“Mrs. Clay,” Elizabeth said. “You appear most presentable.”

Penelope seized the opening. “Oh, Miss Elliot,” she replied, “you are so elegant. I would love your opinion on how I might improve my wardrobe.”

No, that was not too effusive, for Elizabeth preened at the compliment.

Little less than a decade in boarding houses had taught Penelope to sell her wit and passable looks (though not her body—not yet) for special considerations: extra servings for her family at meals, extra coal for the fire, extra time on bills from vendors. Selling her self-respect was hardly any effort at all.

Chapter 2

William Elliot, Esq.

William Elliot despised his Kellynch relations. Thankfully, they didn’t feel compelled to contact him with blathering platitudes when his wife died.

Will’s wife, Sally, died from fever. She’d gone out on the Thames for New Year’s and caught a chill. Will told her to rest, to ease off the party circuit, and for a few months, she drooped about the house. Then in late spring, she spent a week parading from Vauxhall to the worst gambling hells near St. James (she didn’t play; she liked to cheer on others). By the time Will fetched her home, she was coughing and listless.

He did try to save her. They were wealthy. He’d married Sally for her money and invested it shrewdly despite their importuning friends: they owned a London townhouse, a carriage, five servants plus baubles and fine dresses for Sally. They could afford a physician, and Will called in several.

He did not have much hope—the headaches gave way to nausea which gave way to a rash—but he didn’t wish to send his wife into oblivion without some fanfare.

She was such a pathetic creature, having the brains and disposition of a kitten. Even as she faded, she would giggle pleasurably when Will brought her presents or trite messages from her many acquaintances. Those acquaintances had gathered in the lower drawing room of Sally and Will’s townhouse the moment they heard of Sally’s illness.

“How is she?” they clamored whenever Will passed the drawing room door.

They were honestly sorry she was dying; they missed her frenetic energy and chirpy chatter. Their sorrow didn’t curtail their revelries. Between Will’s reports, they drank all the claret—which usually lasted several months—then broke a lamp and a window playing pall-mall indoors. When they started planning a cock-fight, Will threw them out.

“Wish Sally well,” they shouted from the pavement. Two of her closest friends loitered to tell Will to tell Sally that they still wanted to borrow money but would wait till she was better.

“How noble of you,” Will said, sighing when they solemnly agreed that sorrow compelled one to forgo worldly concerns.

He didn’t slam the door after they left though he did lock it. Sally adored her friends; she’d spent most of her life—before they’d married and after—in their company. She’d married Will when he briefly joined her crowd through the friend of a friend. He’d found the menagerie’s carefree manners a relief from his irritating relations.

Two of those relations, Sir Walter and his daughter Elizabeth, had contacted Will nearly twelve years earlier when Will was in residence at the Inns of Court. The reasons had less to do with familial affection than genealogy: Will was the only male relative left in the Elliot family tree. Since Kellynch Hall and its accompanying property was entailed, he would inherit if Sir Walter had no legitimate male issue.

At the time, Will hadn’t taken such a theoretical future seriously; he couldn’t imagine himself as a fatherly lord of the manor. In any case, his supposedly exalted relatives had shown no interest in his affairs throughout his youth. His parents died in his eleventh year, leaving him, an only child, to the guardianship of his mother’s great-uncle, a gunpowder manufacturer who didn’t believe in hand-outs.

So when Will grew older, he went into the law and started searching for a wealthy wife.

Then Sir Walter’s wife died and Kellynch’s baronet decided to get acquainted with Kellynch’s heir. Sir Walter and Miss Elizabeth descended on Will during the London Season.

“My heir presumptive,” Sir Walter boomed the first time he and Will came face to face. “What a fine-looking man you are, Mr. William Elliot.”

Miss Elizabeth tittered and stretched out her hand to Will. “The family seat needs a proper occupant,” she said, leaving Will with the distinct impression that she was referencing herself—as Will’s wife presumably.

The idea of marrying this smug, haughty woman, relation or no, appalled Will. She was admittedly handsome with classic proportions. But only correct manners kept her eyes from straying to a mirror and she spoke to Will like he was a deficient youngster.

That initial meeting was thankfully short, and yet Will continued to encounter his tiresome relatives while they were in London; Sir Walter popped up here, there, and everywhere like a non-terrifying Jack in the Box: at Tattersall’s, in the House of Commons, and once in Hyde Park. Each time, Sir Walter proclaimed, “My heir—isn’t he a pleasing fellow?” to his companions.

Will only gritted his teeth. There was no point directly insulting the man. Though he did ignore his cousins’ repeated invitations to visit the supposedly incomparable Kellynch Hall, breathing relief when they took their preening, tedious selves back there.

He married Sally a year later.

Sally was not tedious. If anything, she was excessively in need of watching. She had a tendency to stray from party to party until someone—servant, friend, Will himself—went to fetch her home.

He considered her a tiresome burden by the time she died. And yet he missed her: her friendly chatter that no amount of sarcasm could squash; her helplessness in the face of bills, demanding servants, and simple directions.

He would marry again—he supposed he was the marrying kind, the sort of man who needed a woman somewhere, anywhere.

This time, though, Will would marry up. After all, he was going to be a baron.

When Sir Walter and Elizabeth had visited Will in London twelve years before, Will assumed Sir Walter wouldn’t remain a widower for long—the man believed so thoroughly in his own attributes, how could he fail but inflict them on another poor woman?

But now Sir Walter was closing on sixty without a second marriage and no son to inherit the baronetcy—and with it, the Kellynch property. Will’s position as heir was becoming more and more a believable possibility. Will found he liked that possibility; he could carve out a new life for himself with a respectable estate, instant community deference, and undemanding neighbors.

Will was tired of his and his wife’s crowd. Most of them were profligates without the resources to be profligates. They were loud, careless, and bad with money. And they all expected Will to pay their bills.

Will wanted better neighbors, neighbors who were quiet, astute, and solvent. His second wife would need to fit this new life.

Read the rest

Apple Books
Google Play

Labels: , , , , ,