Thursday, May 26, 2011

Emma, Volume II, Chapter 6 (Chapter 24)



Mrs Weston and Frank Churchill are getting along like gangbusters. I am trying hard not to spoil things for those of you who are reading Emma for the first time, so I will simply remark how clever Austen is at putting things plainly under the reader's nose, only to divert or misdirect the reader in the next instance. Such is the case at the start of this chapter, when Frank is asked to choose the direction of the day's walk, whereupon he chooses "Highbury, that airy, cheerful, happy-looking Highbury, would be his constant attraction." For Mrs Weston, Highbury (the town) and Hartfield (Emma's home) are synonymous, and so to Hartfield they go. Well-played, Miss Austen, say I.

Mrs Weston and Frank Churchill spend the whole of the morning with Emma - first at Hartfield, and later in Highbury, where Frank is quite interested in seeing the whole town. While in town, Frank declares an interest in dancing and in holding a ball, and then makes fun of Miss Bates for talking so much, moving on to criticize Jane Fairfax's appearance, which puts Emma in the position of having to defend her.

Frank says that an average-looking woman with a good complexion is made more attractive, then fails to complete his comment about the effect of a good complexion on an attractive woman.

Well," said Emma, "there is no disputing about taste.--At least you admire her except her complexion."

He shook his head and laughed.--"I cannot separate Miss Fairfax and her complexion."

"Did you see her often at Weymouth? Were you often in the same society?"
This question that Emma poses is similar to what she asked Jane Fairfax about Frank Churchill before he arrived so suddenly in Highbury. Whereas Jane Fairfax answered the direct inquiries with scant information, Frank initially dodges the question entirely, then answers by deferring to whatever Jane must already have said. Which is when Emma starts to gather further information about Jane Fairfax from Frank Churchill - and, being Emma, she jumps to some deductions about relationships, including the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Mr Dixon and, quite possibly, to the relationship forming between herself and Frank Churchill.

Emma is, in fact, overly familiar in her conversation with Frank Churchill, essentially trash-talking about Jane Fairfax's reserved character and pointing out that Emma resents Jane for being so talented and so highly praised. Emma and Mrs Weston then laugh at Frank when he defends Mr Elton's house :

No, he could not believe it a bad house; not such a house as a man was to be pitied for having. If it were to be shared with the woman he loved, he could not think any man to be pitied for having that house. There must be ample room in it for every real comfort. The man must be a blockhead who wanted more.
Those of you who are reading this for the second time (or more) will appreciate how Austen skillfully manages Frank Churchill's conversation in this chapter. He seeks out Emma's opinion on Jane Fairfax, speaks of Jane himself, and refuses to bash Mr Elton's abode. Emma concludes that his opinion of Mr Elton's house shows an inclination on Frank's part to marry soon. It's fascinating to watch Austen lay true and false trails throughout this chapter, once you know how things turn out later. She does it all quite cleverly, conveying by the opinions of other characters what things the reader should pay most attention to - even if not everything that is highlighted is the most important (or truest) thing. It's brilliantly done.

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