Far from being a mere narrator of frivolous romantic comedy, the often underestimated Jane Austen writes as much to educate and critique as she writes to entertain. Her final masterpiece Persuasion proves no exception. The novel centers around romance, but its weight lies in Austen's keen appraisal of society and human nature, her illumination of their praiseworthy aspects and her scalding indictment against their follies. In this sense, the sudden appearance of Mrs. Smith serves more than to simply advance the plot. Her presence and the parallels drawn between she and Anne help Austen assert the following points: she considers traits of kindness, constancy, and strength praiseworthy in Anne and Mrs. Smith; she disagrees with conventional social discrimination against the lower classes; she considers affection a crucial ingredient in ideal marriages and friendships; she proposes that each individual must learn the life lessons of prudence and trust.
While Anne and Mrs. Smith parallel each other in many of the virtues they display, their interaction also helps illuminate superior personal qualities in each character. These virtues and qualities include compassion, constancy, and tremendous fortitude. Both women eagerly assist friends in need: Anne has proved immensely helpful in crucial times such as during Louisa's fall and young Charles's injury; when Mr. Elliot had been poor, the Smiths opened their arms to him. With the revelation of Mrs. Smith's unfortunate circumstances, Anne's generous and sympathetic nature is again brought to light: "Her kind, compassionate visits to this old schoolfellow, sick and reduced, [had] quite delighted Mr. Elliot"(171). In turn, Mrs. Smith herself knits for the even less fortunate families in her neighborhood. Furthermore, with her conduct Anne proves that she is loyal in her affections toward Mrs. Smith just as she remains constant in her love toward Wentworth. Both women have weathered eight years of miserable solitude with their spirits more or less intact. The estimable actions of these women contrast strongly with the selfishness of Mr. Elliot and the arrogance of the other Elliots. Thus Mrs. Smith's appearance serves the immediate function of reflecting on and further illuminating the excellent qualities Austen bestows on Anne.
By virtue of Anne and Mrs. Smith having so many superior qualities in common, Austen in a sense obliterates traditional class distinctions in society. She ridicules the notion that Mrs. Smith is considered inferior to Anne in any way and she inveighs against the commonly held belief that their friendship is degrading to Anne. Austen accomplishes these feats not only by placing Anne and Mrs. Smith's virtues side by side, but also by setting up Mrs. Smith as a foil to those who are supposedly superior to her. Unlike Mary, who is vexatious and determined to see evil in everyone around her, Mrs. Smith has "a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond . . . expectation"(166). She recognizes the goodness of those around her in her landlady and her nurse. Sir Elliot and Elizabeth, members of the gentry, are reluctant to make even the smallest sacrifices to help reduce their debt, as evidenced when Sir Elliot exclaims, "What! Every comfort of life knocked off! Journeys, London, servants, horses, table"(44), upon hearing Lady Russell and Anne's debt management plans. In contrast, Mrs. Smith's "elasticity of mind"(167) allows her to adjust quickly to an even more extreme reversal of fortune. Also, as opposed to "the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness"(40) of Elizabeth's lifestyle, Mrs. Smith combats her dreary circumstances with "hours of occupation and enjoyment"(167). These qualities, along with the virtues she shares with Anne, allow Austen to make a strong statement against arrogance and discrimination toward the lower classes common among the ranks of Sir Elliot and Elizabeth. In light of the parallels in character and strength Mrs. Smith shares with Anne, Sir Elliot's chief objection to Mrs. Smith--"A widow Mrs. Smith . . . [her husband] one of the five thousand Mr. Smiths whose names are to be met with every where"(169--appears frivolous indeed. Mrs. Smith may belong to the lower classes, but her conduct places her above the likes of Sir Elliot and Elizabeth.
Anne and Mrs. Smith share other parallels in the important relationships they encounter in their lives. These relationships provide Austen with examples of what she considers ideal in marriages and friendships: love and sound economy, affection and instructive differences. Mr. and Mrs. Smith had been happy in their marriage, yet their imprudent handling of finances ultimately leads to tragedy. This invokes comparison to Lady Russell's earlier apprehension that Anne marrying Wentworth will sink them both into "a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence"(56) because Wentworth is "without alliance or fortune"(56). Obviously, Lady Russell in this case errs in her judgment, yet Austen makes it clear that a marriage without financial stability should not be entered into recklessly. Therefore, the Crofts emerge as the ideal couple in the novel because they are truly in love and also live well within their means. In addition, as Lady Russell serves as Anne's sympathetic confidante and friend, Anne eventually comes to serve as Mrs. Smith's. Both friendships represent an ideal blend of two opposing world views: Lady Russell's elderly prudence versus Anne's young affectionate nature; Anne's relatively sheltered perspective versus Mrs. Smith's shrewd and relentless surveillance of human nature. The interaction between such dissimilar perspectives provides guidance for Anne and Mrs. Smith; this guidance along with sympathetic understanding provide Anne and Mrs. Smith means by which to escape seclusion and to connect with and understand the passing world. These benefits stress the importance of such genuine friendships in a world full of superficial, useless exchanges such as those between the Dalrymples and the Elliots and between Mrs. Clay and Elizabeth. These relationships are built on vanity and flattery, where as the friendships between Mrs. Smith and Anne and Anne and Lady Russell are built on mutual understanding and affection. Not surprisingly, Anne and Mrs. Smith reap greater rewards.
Finally, through the convergence of Mrs. Smith and Anne's wildly different life paths, Austen arrives at her conclusion that the same important lessons of prudence and trust need to be learned by everyone. Mrs. Smith's eventual recovery towards better health and financial status parallels Anne's reestablishment of her own complete happiness. The two women arrive at this point along different paths, but they learn comparable lessons. Mrs. Smith had spent freely in her youth and her happiness in marriage, yet "time and sickness, and sorrow, have given [her] other notions"(208); Anne learns that financial security is important, if not essential, to happiness early on from Lady Russell's objections to a speedy marriage between Anne and Wentworth. Both women have paid the price with years of misery and regret. Also, both Anne and Mrs. Smith have been isolated from society for a period of time: Anne due to her silent disapproval of her family's silly lifestyle and her secret constancy towards Wentworth, Mrs. Smith due to illness and poverty. Both women, in the process of returning to the folds of society, learn to place their trust in others. Mrs. Smith places trust in Anne's affection when she reveals Mr. Elliot's true character; Anne places trust in Wentworth's feeling when she indirectly tells him that her sex has the privilege of "loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone"(238). Neither of these steps are easily taken as Anne and Mrs. Smith learn that complete isolation is neither desirable nor possible. Their renewed faith in other human beings is rewarded with their reacceptance into the society of their equals.
With Anne seemingly surrounded by a cast of flawed characters and the mystery of Mr. Elliot's conduct no closer to being solved, Jane Austen expediently introduces the character of Mrs. Smith to not only reveal Mr. Elliot's true character but to serve as an important thematic tool. First, Mrs. Smith's presence immediately reflects well on Anne's conduct; yet the parallels between Mrs. Smith and Anne are Austen's main reinforcements for the ideals she tries to uphold. The shared virtues of Mrs. Smith and Anne are complementary and mutually-augmenting. These qualities in turn provide credence for Austen's ridicule of social prejudice evident in the rest of Anne's family. Further parallels between the lives of Mrs. Smith and Anne provide Austen with examples of ideal marriage and friendships. Most importantly, Anne and Mrs. Smith's different experiences, significantly, allow them to learn the very same lessons, lessons that Austen obviously deems important. By doling out rewards to certain individuals--Anne with the reunion with Wentworth, Mrs. Smith with an improvement in circumstances--and showing the positive effects of certain relationships, Austen further establishes what she believes to be praiseworthy. Finally, it should be observed that despite the many parallels between Anne and Mrs. Smith, the two have come to harbor different views on human nature: Anne sees "ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment . . . heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation"(168) while Mrs. Smith, understandably due to her very different experiences, decrees that "it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of"(168). One might argue that both views hold true, for it is here that parallel lines finally appear to converge, that correspondingly, the myriad observations and commentaries on society crystallize into what is Jane Austen's Persuasion.