Sunday, May 29, 2011

Emma, Volume II, Chapter 8 (Chapter 26)



"[S]illy things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way."

Frank Churchill returns from London with a grin and a new haircut, and Emma is struck by his charm and refusal to be apologetic or boastful about his trip. Goodness, but I love the quote that I used to label this section of the post - don't you?

And I think that it's one of those moments in Austen's books that illustrates why her novels are still so popular two centuries after publication (this year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, Sense & Sensibility): Austen is so very good at depicting and/or describing human nature, and that's what readers continue to respond to. Despite the changes in society and manners over the years, her keen observation of human behavior still rings true. It's certainly the case in this scene, where we see that Frank Churchill has done something terribly frivolous, but he refuses to be abashed about it. Neither does he run about trumpeting what he's done - instead, he's willing to laugh at himself when teased about it, but he refuses to apologize or to feel badly about his choice to go to London, and suddenly, something that was decidedly uncool is actually cool. It's a trope we see again and again in modern entertainment, where someone (or something) that is uncool is made to seem cool again. Heck, not long ago I rewatched Easy A, and the way that Emma Stone's character moves from mocking the card her grandmother sends her with a clip from Natasha Bedingfield's "Pocketful of Sunshine" to fully embracing the tune (to the point of quoting lyrics in conversation) shows how this can happen. Or perhaps Cameron Diaz's dance moves in Charlie's Angels.

The party at the Coles' house

So many little scenes in this one party scene. First, there's Emma's exchange with Mr Knightley on arrival. He has actually come by carriage, you see, which is unlike him. Although he has a carriage, he doesn't keep a team of horses for that purpose, and he seldom bothers to use his carriage - instead, he walks, or arrives on horseback.

Eventually, we learn that he has pulled his carriage out so as to have it available to pick up and return Miss Bates and Miss Jane Fairfax, who are invited to join the company for tea (after dinner).

Then there's the pianoforte that has mysteriously arrived from London as a gift for Jane Fairfax. It is a large Broadwood square piano - not nearly as expensive as a Broadwood square grand piano (such as was used by Beethoven), which had inlays and a variety of polished woods, but still considered quite an elegant instrument in its day. (Broadwood was an English manufacturer of early pianofortes, and those instruments were considered quite fine in their day.) It has arrived without any indication as to who sent it. It is widely assumed to have been a surprise sent by the Campbells - in which case the present is proper, even if the undesignated delivery is a puzzlement.

Emma, however, speculates that it might be from the Dixons. If it is from Mrs. Dixon (the former Miss Campbell, who is Jane Fairfax's closest friend) or from both of the Dixons, it is also not inappropriate, even if its method of delivery is still odd. If, however, it is "a gift of love" from Mr Dixon alone - or, indeed, from any gentleman - it is entirely improper, since it was simply not done for unengaged or unmarried men to send valuable gifts to unmarried women. (You may recall this same sort of discussion about Willoughby's gift of a horse to Marianne in Sense & Sensibility.) Emma discloses to Frank Churchill her suspicion that Mr Dixon is rather attached to Jane, despite having married her best friend, because he saved her life and because he is known to have preferred Jane's piano-playing to that of his spouse. Frank indicates during that conversation that he's pretty familiar with the Dixons and was present when Jane was saved, but Emma will not be dissuaded from her conclusion, and Frank Churchill ultimately says that he agrees that the piano is, indeed, "a gift of love" for Jane Fairfax. Emma decides that must mean he agrees with her that Mr Dixon sent the pianoforte to Jane, although careful parsing of this passage will make plain it's all Emma's inference, and not actually Mr Churchill's implication.

Frank Churchill does make a plain statement about Jane Fairfax to Emma that is entirely inappropriate. When Emma catches him staring at Jane Fairfax, he explains that he was struck by how odd and outré Jane Fairfax's hair looks - quite an impolite thing to say. He then vows to go tease Jane Fairfax about it and ask if it is "an Irish fashion" - here a dual reference to the Dixons (who live in Ireland) and a nasty ethnic joke - it was common during that era to make jokes at the expense of the Irish, who were considered stupid and backwards.

Mrs Weston's theory about Mr Knightley and Emma's response

Mrs Weston is quite struck by the fact that Mr Knightley has made his carriage available to Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. She decides, in fact, that it must mean that Mr Knightley has a thing for Jane Fairfax, and she goes so far as to speculate that perhaps it was Mr Knightley who sent the pianoforte to Jane. Emma's comments about Mr Knightley's benevolence show that she holds him in high regard:

I know no man more likely than Mr Knightley to do the sort of thing--to do any thing really good-natured, useful, considerate, or benevolent. He is not a gallant man, but he is a very humane one; and this, considering Jane Fairfax's ill-health, would appear a case of humanity to him;--and for an act of unostentatious kindness, there is nobody whom I would fix on more than on Mr Knightley.
Emma is outraged, however, by Mrs Weston's suggestion of a romance between Mr Knightley and Jane Fairfax - in part because she wants her nephew, Henry, to inherit Donwell Abbey, but mostly because she believes the marriage would not suit Mr Knightley - and she means specifically his marriage to Jane Fairfax, although she obviously believes he should avoid marriage in general - our first hint that perhaps she has some sort of proprietary feelings for him, although she does not seem to notice it at the time:

"But Mr Knightley does not want to marry. I am sure he has not the least idea of it. Do not put it into his head. Why should he marry?--He is as happy as possible by himself; with his farm, and his sheep, and his library, and all the parish to manage; and he is extremely fond of his brother's children. He has no occasion to marry, either to fill up his time or his heart."
You'll notice that her reasons for Mr Knightley not marrying are largely the same as her reasons she gave Harriet for why it is that she doesn't wish to marry - a rather clear case of projecting, perhaps, but also (given what we know of Mr Knightley) a rather clear assessment of his inclinations.

I am rather inclined to believe Emma is better in tune with Mr Knightley than is Mrs Weston in this scene (pun there intended). She says that if Mr Knightley had sent the pianoforte to Jane Fairfax, he would have first given Miss Fairfax notice that it was coming; then later, when the topic comes up between Emma and Mr Knightley, he says "[The Campbells] would have done better had they given her notice of it. Surprizes are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable. I should have expected better judgment in Colonel Campbell."

Here's the last chapter and the start of this one, from the 2009 BBC production:





And here's the rest of the party scene (Stop at 3:26 if you don't wish to see more.)





But, I must say, I absolutely love Jeremy Northam's performance in this chapter/scene, which follows in two parts

Start the first one at about the 4:18 mark to begin when Emma frets over an invitation. (And I do so love the song that Gwyneth Paltrow and Ewan McGregor sing together here, which is called "Silent Worship" by G.F. Handel - you can hear a great solo recording by Kenneth McKellar here):





And stop the second at the 1:57 mark if you wish to avoid moving ahead:





One last word in parting - note how Mr Knightley grows angry over the way Frank Churchill pushes Jane Fairfax to sing a third song. It could just be me, but I don't believe his anger is entirely based on concern for Jane, although I think that's part of it - I think some of it has to do with his inherent dislike for Frank Churchill based on Frank's attentions to Emma. What say you?

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