Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Emma, Volume I, Chapter 10

A charitable visit to pay to a poor sick family

Emma is engaging in noblesse oblige: the obligation of those of rank and fortune to behave kindly to those much less fortunate. Back in Chapter Four, when Emma worked so hard to put Robert Martin down, she pointed out that if he were a step or two higher, he'd be in her society already, and that if he were a few steps lower, she might be of use to him, but he's in the middle and not worth her attention in any respect. Putting aside the complete snobbishness of her assertion, she was there referring to this idea of charitable visits to the poor.

It was very common for gentlewomen of the time to buy stockings, sew clothing, and donate cast-off items to those much less fortunate, along with occasional gifts of food items and money. Austen and her sister and mother bought and made garments for the poor on a regular basis as well as sending food items to less fortunate friends and neighbors and making donations for the poor, and it's therefore no surprise that her characters do as well. (Rather like the March sisters did in Little Women, although I digress.)

In this case, Emma is dragging Harriet along with her to visit a poor family, the members of which also happen to be ill. Austen takes this opportunity, amid ample evidence of Emma's delusional behavior regarding Mr Elton and Harriet Smith, to remind us of some of Emma's good qualities: she is kind, and generous, and she generally wants to be of assistance. She is a compassionate, generous caretaker, sympathetic and full of goodwill. It's nice to have a reminder that she is actually a good person, despite her wish to ignore reality and/or impose her will on it.

I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry.

Emma surprises Harriet by declaring herself disinclined to marry. She points out that she would have to meet someone far superior to anyone she's already met, and that she would have to be in love. If you ask me (and I'm going to pretend you did!), this is Austen's protofeminism coming to the fore again:

"I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eyes as I am in my father's."
Emma is not actually boasting here, just calling it as she sees it: She's wealthy, and stands to inherit since her father's estate is not entailed; she has plenty to do, what with her continual search for a new project, and managing Hartfield, and such; she is the highest-ranked female in Hartfield and moves in good society; and her father thinks she hung the moon. Unless she falls in love, she's got no need to rock the boat. And I believe she means it - and that this is Austen's way of saying that if women did not have an economic need to marry, they'd all do best to wait until they were in love before committing themselves.

I will also point out that this is the second time in the novel that the notion of Emma falling in love has been mentioned. The first time was during Mr Knightley's conversation with Mrs Weston in Chapter 5, when he hoped that Emma would indeed fall in love and be left in some doubt of her affection being returned. This being a novel about Emma - and this being an Austen novel, in which young women end up married - I figure it's worth keeping track of what's being said about Emma and the idea of love.

To be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!

Harriet frets that Emma will become an old maid like Miss Bates, whom we've only heard of thus far. Now, Austen herself was a somewhat impoverished spinster. Like Miss Bates, her father had been a clergyman; after her father's death, Austen, her sister and her mother relied on a combination of Mrs Austen's small income, Cassandra's even smaller one (from a life insurance policy taken out by her long-dead fiancé), and contributions from Austen's brothers. Once Austen began selling her novel, she had a bit of money of her own, but with the food shortages that occurred during the early 1800s, the prices of food had skyrocketed, so money didn't stretch quite as far as it used to. (But again, I digress.)

While Austen understood the economics of Miss Bates's situation based on her personal history, it is likely that Miss Bates was based on Miss Benn, also the daughter of a dead clergyman, and a friend to the Austens after they moved to Chawton Cottage. Miss Benn was kind-hearted, but of rather limited understanding, and with a tendency to natter on - just like Miss Bates.

Putting aside the possible real-life inspirations for the character of Miss Bates, the discussion of her condition is again protofeminist Austen at work. Austen says that the reason old maids are usually found to be contemptible is because they are usually poor. "[A] single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else," says Emma, explaining that poverty has a way of wearing people down, narrowing their experience and worldview and making them unhappy.

We are told, however, that Miss Bates runs against type when it comes to the effects of poverty on her thoughts: she is not unhappy or mean-spirited, but is cheerful and generous, despite her poverty. She is also, we are assured, silly.

Emma assures Harriet that she'll keep busy - painting, sewing, playing music, and being an excellent aunt to her sister's children, the young Knightleys.

I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me to death.

We hear for the first time about Miss Bates's niece, Jane Fairfax. Jane does not live with her aunt and grandmother in Highbury, but frequently corresponds - and Miss Bates talks of her almost constantly, reading and discussing Jane and her letters ad nauseum. It is at least partly for this reason that Emma dislikes the thought of Jane Fairfax.

Meeting Mr Elton in the lane

Mr Elton spied Harriet and Emma walking past the Vicarage and set out after them. He claims he was on his way to visit the family that Emma and Harriet just visited, but rather than doing so, he turns back with them. Although left alone with Harriet (sort of) on two occasions, he sticks to discussions of food and the like, and doesn't make a declaration of interest.

Still, our omniscient narrator adopts Emma's view of the couple, referring to them as "the lovers" and filtering their conduct through Emma's lens.

Wanna see a gorgeous illustration of Emma, Harriet and Mr Elton in the lane? Check out this illustration by Himmapaan

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