Monday, May 02, 2011
Emma, Volume I, Chapter 2
Mr Weston's backstory
In today's impatient society, it's tempting to skim through the opening of Chapter 2, which can seem like an unnecessary diversion, being, as it is, a bit of history pertaining to Mr Weston. I won't belabor it, exactly, but I will encourage you not to succumb to the inclination to skip to the more current part.
Here are the salient points:
1. Mr Weston was at one time a dashing Captain in the militia. He married Miss Churchill, who was disowned by her brother and sister-in-law for marrying beneath her station in life.
2. Mr Weston's first marriage wasn't entirely happy. His wife loved him enough to marry him despite the disapproval of her relatives, but not enough to not mind her losses - she wanted to still be an important person with lots of possessions, and was therefore not entirely happy. And then, three years into their marriage, she died, leaving him a widower with a small boy.
3. Frank Weston was the child's name. He was sent off to be raised by the Churchills, who adopted him. When Frank came of age, he even assumed their surname.
4. Mr Weston earned enough money in trade to live quite comfortably. Enough, in fact, to enable him to purchase an estate near Highbury. He is part of the middle class, rather like the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice, and he is treated with tolerance and respect by Austen, although (as we shall eventually see), he is sometimes a bit too kind-hearted.
About Frank's name and its implications
1. Frank is never referred to as Francis or anything else, so it's not entirely clear whether his first name is a nickname or not. (Austen had a brother named Francis and called Frank who joined the Royal Navy and eventually rose to tremendous heights in his career, by the bye.)
2. One meaning of the word "Frank" is "French", and during Austen's life, "French" and "untrustworthy" often went together. Austen was writing during the Napoleonic wars, a time when there was no love lost for the French. Aside from issues of patriotism, Austen had personal reasons to harbor animosity toward the French: Her brothers Frank and Charles were both naval officers directly involved in battles against French ships, and her brother Henry was involved in the militia for a time. Her first cousin, Eliza Hancock, married a Frenchman who was guillotined during the French Revolution, so that the non-royalists in charge of the French government were much despised by the Austens. (Eliza later married Austen's brother Henry, making her Austen's sister-in-law as well as her first cousin.)
3. Another meaning of the word "frank" is "honest"; without engaging in gobs of spoilers, let me at least posit that the name is ironic, if honesty is what we're looking for.
4. Frank Churchill was born Frank Weston - as such, he has changed his identity, or is operating under an assumed identity. On the other hand, Austen's brother Edward was adopted by childless cousins, allowing them to pass their estate to him and keep it in the family - upon the death of his adoptive father, Edward Austen adopted the surname "Knight", as did all of his children.
Highbury is a small town, and the number of gentlefolk in it is commensurately small. They circulate amongst themselves quite a bit, and that includes the sharing of correspondence, which is the Regency equivalent of reality TV in some ways: people typically shared letters with friends and relations, and most people who wrote a letter knew that and anticipated it being read out. If there were something private, they'd flag it so as to warn the reader not to read it aloud. They might also (as some of the Austen family did) write "burn after reading" or something similar on letters they thought contained information that really shouldn't get out.
The sharing of Frank Churchill's letter and/or its contents is not unusual, is my point. And, as we'll see, other letters will be publicly shared as well. And some will be conspicuously private. What's disclosed and what is hidden is a big deal in this novel, be it identity or information, so it's worth remarking on now before we move too far into the book.
Mr Woodhouse's reaction to the wedding cake is there for humorous effect, of course. He doesn't deal well with rich foods himself, so he tries to warn all and sundry away from the cake. He is well-intended, which bears mention, and nobody really takes offense - nor do they take him seriously, since even the apothecary's children eat the cake.
A note about medical care back then - physicians were in rather short supply. Surgeons were used for cutting limbs off (pretty much) and were viewed not so much as doctors but more as if they were in the same class as, say, mechanics. And apothecaries were more than pharmacists, but were sort of lay physicians, functioning in place of doctors in many instances.
Back to Chapter One
Tomorrow: Chapter Three