Thursday, May 12, 2011

Emma, Volume I, Chapter 11



Austen carefully sets Mr Elton and Harriet Smith aside at the start of the chapter quite deliberately. Part of the reason for doing so is that it was quite common in Austen's time for novels to be read aloud among the family - sometimes one chapter at a time - and having spent the prior chapter focused almost entirely on those two characters, Austen wants to make clear that she's moving on to a different topic, in case the reader put the book down yesterday (or a few days ago), and just now picked it up again.

We are introduced in this chapter to two new characters: Emma's sister, Isabella Woodhouse Knightley, and her brother-in-law, John Knightley, who happens to be Mr Knightley's younger brother.

Isabella is small and pretty, a devoted mother, and pretty much as concerned about health issues (her own and her children's) every bit as much as Mr Woodhouse is.

John Knightley bears some similarities to Mr Palmer from Sense & Sensibility, without being quite as much of a curmudgeon. He can be quite charming and has a sense of humor, but he becomes impatient with Mr Woodhouse and his health complaints and complaints about other things, like Miss Taylor getting married, or Isabella not visiting enough. (And really, who can blame him? Well, besides Emma, who isn't overly fond of John because of this particular aspect of his personality.)

We learn that one or both of the Westons have seen Emma and her father every day but one since their marriage, and we learn a bit more about Frank Churchill - that he is 23, for instance (2 years older than Emma), and that nothing's been heard from him since his letter after his father's marriage. We're reminded that Frank's letter was dated September 28th, while it is now just before Christmas, and told that the letter came from Weymouth.

What's this about Weymouth?

Weymouth was a seaside resort area on the English coast in Dorsetshire. It was frequented by members of the royal family. The Prince Regent seems to have preferred Brighton, as I mentioned during our read of Pride & Prejudice, but his father, King George III, and many of his siblings patronized Weymouth. It being such a popular, built-up resort (at the time), it's not the sort of place that Austen preferred - she tended to like quieter locales.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1804, here's what Austen had to say about Weymouth (where Cassandra was staying on holiday):

Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no ice in the town. For every other vexation I was in some measure prepared, and particularly for your disappointment in not seeing the Royal family go on board, having already heard from Mr Crawford that he had seen you in the very act of being too late, but for there being no ice … what could prepare me? Weymouth is altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind and worthy only of being frequented by the inhabitants of Gloucester. I am really very glad that we did not go there and that Henry and Eliza found nothing in it to make them think differently.
The reference to "the inhabitants of Gloucester" is a reference to King George III's brother, the Duke of Gloucester, and his family.

Being as fashionable as it was, Weymouth is associated with stylish (and possibly "fast") living. Austen mentions Weymouth in Mansfield Park as the place where Tom Bertram met Mr Yates, having gambled away all his money. Just something to bear in mind when we hear more about Weymouth going forward.


Frank Churchill's "shocking" situation

Isabella speaks about how awful it is for a parent to have a child taken away from them, then continues:

"There is something so shocking in a child's being taken away from his parents and natural home! I never could comprehend how Mr. Weston could part with him. To give up one's child! I really never could think well of any body who proposed such a thing to any body else."
This is NOT Austen sneaking her own opinion in there. It is instead a sly, inside family joke.

Austen was the seventh of eight children. Her eldest brother, James, became a parson. Her second eldest brother, George, had physical and possibly mental handicaps, and was put into full-time care with a local family when he was a young boy (he lived to be a very old man). Her third eldest brother was Edward, who, at age 12, went off to live with some cousins with the surname of Knight. The Knights had no children of their own, so they adopted Edward, thereby allowing him to inherit Mr Knight's estate. As the Knight's heir, Edward received a first-rate education and was sent on a Grand Tour of Europe prior to settling into a marriage, but the Knights allowed and encouraged Edward to keep in touch with his family. Mrs Knight, his adoptive mother, was extraordinarily fond of him - so much so that despite having a life estate in the Chawton estate, she insisted on moving out and giving over the estate to Edward and his family, and on voluntarily reducing her own allowance.

Mrs Knight was also exceedingly kind to Jane Austen. In fact, she provided a small allowance to Jane every year, and made presents to her and to Cassandra as well, and Austen was very fond of her, exchanging correspondence and visiting her.

Isabella's remarks, which can be read as a condemnation of Edward's situation, was, in fact, the sort of joke that all of the Austens - and Mrs Knight, who died in 1812, just over three years before Emma's publication - would have found quite funny.

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