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If Mr. Elliot were an animal, he would be a chameleon – he’s very good at changing his colors to suit whatever his current circumstances and desires happen to be. When, in his early days, he wants money, he manages to hold off the Elliots and find himself a rich wife. Later, when he decides he wants social position as well as cash, he successfully mends the broken bridges with his cousins. By convincingly playing the part of a gentleman, he gets treated like one – though it also helps that he has the family connections to back his performance up.
While much of his success is due to this adaptability, it can also cause him problems when the different faces he shows to different people interfere with each other. One of the warning signs fueling Anne’s suspicions is that she knows Mr. Elliot thinks Mrs. Clay is a conniving social climber, and yet in public he’s just as nice to her as anyone else. The contrast between what he tells Anne in private and how he acts in public might well make her wonder what he says about her when she’s not around.
The changeability of Mr. Elliot’s character can make it hard to tell what motivates him at any given time. In pursuing Anne, does he really want her as his life partner, or is he just trying to cement his influence in the Elliot family? Mrs. Smith, of all people, thinks that this time it’s personal and he’s sincere.
"He is no hypocrite now. He truly wants to marry you. His present attentions to your family are very sincere: quite from the heart." (21.79)
And yet there seem to be a few problems with Mrs. Smith’s assurances. For one, she heard it through the grapevine: Mr. Elliot told Colonel Wallis who told Mrs. Wallis who told Nurse Rooke who told Mrs. Smith. Anyone who’s ever played telephone knows that Mr. Elliot could have said not "I want to marry Anne" but "My hands are hairier than Stan’s." And even if Mrs. Smith did hear what he told Colonel Wallis accurately, there’s no way of judging at this distance whether he meant what he said, or was just saying what he wants everyone to think he means to do.
Another problem in the quotation from Mrs. Smith is the shift that occurs between the last two sentences. Here’s a cheat sheet: 1) "He truly wants to marry you." 2) "His present attentions to your family are very sincere." Unless Persuasion is a far weirder novel than we thought, Anne and her family are different people. (Not to mention that wanting to marry Anne and actually loving her are not the same thing.) While it’s a good idea for a potential suitor to make nice with his future bride’s relatives, Mr. Elliot could have other motivations (even "very sincere" ones) for being attentive to the Elliots than wanting to marry Anne. In fact, the ever-informative Mrs. Smith tells us so herself.
"Upon all points of blood and connexion he is a completely altered man. Having long had as much money as he could spend, nothing to wish for on the side of avarice or indulgence, he has been gradually learning to pin his happiness upon the consequence he is heir to." (21.89)
It’s interesting that we get this info from Mrs. Smith, since it reveals Mr. Elliot’s character to be the opposite of hers. While Mrs. Smith manages to be happy with what she’s got (and it ain’t much), Mr. Elliot is always yearning after what he doesn’t have. First it was money, but now that he’s got that, it’s the title of Sir William that he wants. And who’s to say that Anne isn’t a stepping-stone on the way to that goal? As Mrs. Smith well knows, it wouldn’t be the first time he exploited someone else to get what he wants. Or maybe he really does want to marry Anne for her own attractions rather than as a means to an end.
Why does Mr. Elliot’s motivation here matter? Perhaps the best reply to that question is more questions: Is Mr. Elliot a better person if he wants Anne for herself? Would that suggest that he’s changed since the days when he ran with the Smiths? Or on the flip side, would having ulterior motives in marrying Anne be all that villainous? Could Mr. Elliot play the part of a good husband so well that he’d actually be one? Whatever the logic behind his games, the ending of the novel suggests that the player might get played, and Mrs. Clay is the one who gets to cash in her chips.