Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Emma, Volume I, Chapter 3



The introductions continue

We meet four new ladies in this chapter and get their back story. Roll call:

Mrs Bates The widow of Mr Bates, a vicar. She is quite elderly, and partakes only of tea and quadrille (the card game, not the dance).

Miss Bates A cheerful, middle-aged woman, and a spinster. Were you to look in illustrated dictionaries of the time, her picture would likely have been found under the word "optimist" - despite a life that many would consider hard for her time - she is a gentlewoman, but was plain and never well-off, and she never married, and she's stuck taking care of her mother on an income that doesn't stretch very far at all. "She loved every body, was interested in every body's happiness, quicksighted to every body's merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing."

She is also a tremendous gossip, and an interesting comic character for Austen: one for whom it is impossible not to feel sorry, despite her being laughable on many occasions and exasperating on others. Although she's a bit of a caricature, almost everyone knows someone who is close to Miss Bates's level of annoyingly good-natured chatter, for whom we ought to have more patience than we do.

Mrs Goddard

Mrs Goddard was the mistress of a School — not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems — and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity — but a real, honest, old-fashioned boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.
The description of Mrs Goddard's school is not unlike that of the Reading Ladies Boarding School, where Jane and Cassandra Austen spent about 18 months (along with their cousin, Jane Cooper). The Austens learned things like needlework, dancing, music, and French, but they really only had lessons in the mornings - their afternoons were largely free, and they were pretty much left to their own devices.

Austen's dislike (or at least lack of respect) for what passed for "education" of females in her time manages to seep through here, as it does in Pride and Prejudice when female "accomplishments" are discussed or in Sense and Sensibility when she points out that Charlotte Palmer's greatest accomplishment at school was a picture stitched in silks. We'll see her take another swipe at the notions of what made for an ideal wife a bit later in this book in a conversation between Emma and Mr Knightley -- one of my favorite exchanges in the book. But I digress.

Mrs Goddard is fairly well-off from running her school, and enjoys hobnobbing with Mr Woodhouse and the Bateses.

Miss Harriet Smith

Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard's school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder. This was all that was generally known of her history.
A "natural daughter" was one born out of wedlock. Perhaps Mrs Goddard is aware who her parents are, but nobody else - not even Harriet - knows for sure. Mrs Goddard was paid to educate Harriet (now age 17), and has now been paid to keep her on at the school as a parlor boarder - a sort of senior student, if you will, who isn't really taking classes at all but is instead staying on because she has no place else to go.


Evening parties with supper v. dinner

We're told that Mr Woodhouse prefers to keep to his own home, something that comes into play quite a bit as we move through the novel. He would rather stay inside his own house by his own fire at pretty much all times, apart from his daily constitutional walk about the gardens. And he'd prefer to keep Emma with him, although that's not made explicit in this chapter.

Dinner was a meal that would have been eaten in the late afternoon, most likely, since Highbury was in the country and not in town. An evening party would take place after dinner and last several hours into the evening; most likely it meant that they convened at six or seven in the evening and stayed until ten or so, concluding with a light supper before sending people home. Whereas the Elliots in Persuasion preferred to throw evening parties to dinners because they were concerned about the expense, Mr Woodhouse's preference for evening parties appears to be based on his nervousness about his own (and others') health. We are told that he frets over his guests being offered things such as minced chicken, scalloped oysters, boiled eggs, apple tarts and custard, as he prefers for himself "thin gruel" (runny oatmeal). It's pretty much impossible not to laugh at his solicitousness, which is based not in parsimony but in his complete absorption in health-related issues.


Emma's interest in Harriet Smith

Emma has decided to make a project of Harriet Smith. All of her conclusions about her are set out in one paragraph, moving from innocuous things about how pleasant Harriet is to completely baseless opinions about the nature of her parents and what sort of company it would be best for her to keep. The flip side of Emma's determinations is really a self-absorption on Emma's part, and a lack of understanding of the mechanics of how the world works. We've been told up front that Harriet Smith is "the natural daughter of somebody", and, as such, we (and even moreso Austen's contemporaries) know that means that she has no chance of rising especially high in society's ranks. Still, Emma overlooks that - which is to her credit on the one hand (she doesn't hold herself so high as to refuse to associate with Harriet) and to her detriment on the other (she is not paying attention to the very real societal constraints that apply to Harriet).


Back to Chapter Two
Tomorrow: Chapter Four

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