Monday, June 06, 2011

Emma, Volume II, Chapter 14 (Chapter 32)



Well hello, Mrs Elton!

Emma pays her call on the early side, not because she's all that curious, but because propriety demands it. And she drags Harriet along too - under the theory that she wants to get it over with.

And does Emma like her?

She did not really like her. She would not be in a hurry to find fault, but she suspected that there was no elegance;--ease, but not elegance.--She was almost sure that for a young woman, a stranger, a bride, there was too much ease. Her person was rather good; her face not unpretty; but neither feature, nor air, nor voice, nor manner, were elegant. Emma thought at least it would turn out so.
Mr Elton, on the other hand, is not at all at ease - and who can blame him? Not Emma:

when she considered how peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry, she must allow him to have the right to look as little wise, and to be as much affectedly, and as little really easy as could be.
Let's talk about Mrs Elton

Harriet: Isn't she charming?

Emma: Ummm . . . yes?

Harriet: I think she's very beautiful, don't you?

Emma: "Very nicely dressed, indeed; a remarkably elegant gown."

Harriet: No wonder he fell in love.

Emma: "Oh! no--there is nothing to surprize one at all.--A pretty fortune; and she came in his way."

Harriet: I'm sure she was very attracted to him.

Emma: Maybe, "but it is not every man's fate to marry the woman who loves him best. Miss Hawkins perhaps wanted a home, and thought this the best offer she was likely to have."

The return visit

The Eltons return Emma's call, and Emma gets to spend a full 15 minutes alone with Mrs Elton, during which she is able to more fully form her opinion, and it's not a good one:

Mrs Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar; that all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish she was ignorant, and that her society would certainly do Mr Elton no good.

Harriet would have been a better match.
After we hear Emma's summary opinion of Mrs Elton, Austen shows us that Emma is correct: She brags about her brother-in-law, Mr Suckling (a name that then, as now, was funny, and invokes the idea of a suckling pig), she makes incorrect statements (Somerset was known as the "garden of England", not Surry), she talks just to hear herself do so - often relating details that she believes will impress Emma, such as what sorts of carriages her brother-in-law drives, she offers unsolicited medical advice for Mr Woodhouse, and generally natters on almost as much as Miss Bates (although with a bit more focus), and with far more presumption to boot.

"[Bath] is so cheerful a place, that it could not fail of being of use to Mr Woodhouse's spirits, which, I understand, are sometimes much depressed. And as to its recommendations to you, I fancy I need not take much pains to dwell on them. The advantages of Bath to the young are pretty generally understood. It would be a charming introduction for you, who have lived so secluded a life; and I could immediately secure you some of the best society in the place. A line from me would bring you a little host of acquaintance; and my particular friend, Mrs Partridge, the lady I have always resided with when in Bath, would be most happy to shew you any attentions, and would be the very person for you to go into public with."
That's right, Mrs Elton - nearly a complete stranger - just insulted Mr Woodhouse by remarking on his moods and/or mental health, then followed up with insults to Emma - first remarking on her "secluded" life, which, though true, is inappropriate, and then saying that she'd secure her an introduction into Bath society. (Rather as unwelcome a suggestion to Emma as was Sir William Lucas's offer to introduce the Bingley sisters at court.)

The final nails in Mrs Elton's coffin

1. She confesses herself to be astonished to find that Mrs Weston is so lady-like and

2. She refers to Mr Knightley as simply "Knightley" - thereby exhibiting extreme overfamiliarity. In addressing him that way, Mrs Elton is using a manner of address typically reserved for extremely close acquaintances - and even Emma, who has known Mr Knightley her entire life, does not presume to call him simply by his surname and

3. She seems a bit surprised that Mr Knightley is so gentleman-like.

Truly, it's a wonder that Emma doesn't claw her eyes out at this point.

"Insufferable woman!" was her immediate exclamation. "Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley!--I could not have believed it. Knightley!--never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley!--and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr E., and her cara sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery. Actually to discover that Mr Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady. I could not have believed it! And to propose that she and I should unite to form a musical club! One would fancy we were bosom friends! And Mrs Weston!--Astonished that the person who had brought me up should be a gentlewoman! Worse and worse. I never met with her equal. Much beyond my hopes. Harriet is disgraced by any comparison.
Mrs Elton's use of the Italian term "cara sposo" (dear or beloved spouse) to refer to her husband is a demonstration of her pretension as well as of her ignorance - the proper Italian conjugation would be "caro sposo", but Mrs Elton has used a feminine adjective with her male noun. Her use of such a term - and her use of an extremely familiar manner of address for Mr Knightley as well as her abbreviation of her husband's name as "Mr E" plainly indicate to readers that she is not, in fact, particularly well-bred or well-mannered, and demonstrates what Emma meant at the start about her "ease" of manner.

Mr Woodhouse, who seldom says a bad word about anyone, mentions Mrs Elton's rapidity of speech and says that her voice "rather hurts the ear". His ensuing comment, "But I believe I am nice", is not a typo; he is using the traditional meaning of the word "nice", just as Henry Tilney did in Chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey: "Nice" meant "accurate, scrupulous, or delicate" – more to do with things being neat or tidy or precise or particular, and not at all to do with being pleasing or agreeable.

Here's how the return visit played out in the 2009 BBC production of Emma:





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