Mr Eliot - 'undoubtedly a gentleman'

An opaque character

William Elliot is introduced in an aura of mystery which persists until Mrs. Mr ElliotSmith unveils his true character in Chapter 21. Even after a month of being in his company, Anne feels that ‘she could not be satisfied that she really knew his character' (Ch. 17/ Vol. 2, Ch. 5).

Despite his flawless manners (which she compares favourably with Captain Wentworth's), his pleasing opinions and sensible behaviour, she has a nagging suspicion that there's more to him than meets the eye. Several things heighten her suspicions:

  • His eagerness to reconcile suddenly with her family after so long an estrangement
  • His over-estimation of the importance of rank and wealth
  • His rapid recovery from the death of his wife
  • His smooth ability to say just the right thing to everyone and to offend no one
  • His lack of spontaneity and passion
  • His former bad habits.

When Mrs. Smith reveals in Ch. 21 that he is:

‘a designing, wary, cold-blooded being, who thinks only of himself; he … is black at heart'

we realise that it is only Anne's insightful judgment which very narrowly saves her from a disastrous alliance with him:

‘Anne could just acknowledge within herself such a possibility of having been induced to marry him, as made her shudder at the idea of the misery which must have followed. It was just possible that she might have been persuaded by Lady Russell!' (Ch. 21 / Vol. 2, Ch. 9)

Mr Eliot's role in the novel

Despite William Elliot's unworthiness as a suitor for Anne, he performs some key functions in the novel:

  • That he notices Anne's beauty highlights the fact that she is attractive and worth noticing, even though she is marginalised by her family
  • He provides a testing ground for Anne's growing confidence in voicing her opinions. She is able to disagree with him on the issue of acquaintances and rank in Chapter 16
  • The final revelation of his lack of integrity serves to underline Anne's intuition as being trustworthy and accurate
  • He is integral to the development of the sub-plot
  • He provides a contrast to Captain Wentworth, his love rival
  • Suspense is created with the suggestion that Anne may turn her affections towards Mr. Elliot
  • Wentworth's jealousy of him helps Wentworth recognise he still loves Anne.
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