Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Emma, Volume II, Chapter 15 (Chapter 33)



About the Eltons

The narrator opens the chapter by explaining to us that Emma has judged Mrs Elton aright - and that Mr Elton seems quite proud of his obnoxious, ill-bred wife. Moreover, from Mrs Elton's coolness toward Emma and the scorn of both Eltons toward Harriet, it becomes clear that Mr Elton has told his wife what transpired - or at least the part where Emma tried to set him up with Harriet. They don't dare cut or snub Emma, since she's actually at the highest level of local society, but Harriet, being at or near the bottom rung, is evidently fair game.

Jane Fairfax's impression on Mrs Elton

Mrs Elton is quite taken with Jane Fairfax. QUITE taken. After all, Jane Fairfax is everything a young gentlewoman ought to be - articulate, talented, well-read, well-mannered; she is, in fact everything that Mrs Elton is not, but probably aspires to be. The other thing Jane Fairfax is is poor - as a result, she is actually slightly lower in society than Mrs Elton at this point in time, which leaves Mrs Elton feeling smug and powerful. Behind Jane Fairfax's back, she often speaks of taking Jane under her wing, etc. - and it seems that Miss Bates was only too happy to promote the initial acquaintance, and now Jane is rather stuck spending a lot of time with Mrs Elton.

Mr Knightley hints that if Jane Fairfax had better offers *cough*EMMA*cough*, she might not spend so much time with Mrs Elton. He further points out that when Mrs Elton is in Jane's company, she is a bit overawed by her, and therefore less likely to be quite as offensive in person as she is behind Jane's back.

Full many a flower . . .

Mrs Elton quotes lines from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which was first printed in 1751. It was at that time one of the best-known poems in the English language. The poem describes a poet wandering through a graveyard, observing the neglected condition of the graves. It is a rather meditative, yet political, sort of poem that is about the democracy of death, really: how, in the end, the differences between the various social classes don't mean all that much.

The poem was often quoted, and will be familiar to some modern readers for the words beginning the following stanza, which appears several stanzas after the one from which Mrs Elton draws:

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
  Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
  They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Mrs Elton has, of course, pulled lines out of context - the lines she quotes relate to the notion that some of the unremembered dead might have been as great as heroes, in their way, but never got the chance to reveal themselves that way - but she has not completely misquoted the poet, even though the poet was lamenting the death of people who had not reached their potential, whereas Mrs Elton applies them to a living person. The lines she pulls out support her proposition, which is that Jane needs to be praised or have some recognition sent her way.

I suggest, as well, that Austen gave these lines to Mrs Elton, who comes from the merchant class, as a way of saying that class distinctions don't matter all that much. And truly, that is one of the themes being explored in Emma - from Mr Weston having earned his wealth in trade to Emma's decision to take Harriet on as a friend, certain that her sweetness and good manners are the mark of her being born to gentlepeople, if not nobility, to her decision to separate Harriet from Mr Martin to her nonsensical take on the Coles to the introduction of the classless Mrs Elton, and through to some resolutions and remarks that I'll not share yet in the body of the post because they're spoilery, we see Austen examining whether distinctions of class and rank are important, and we're seeing how well-mannered, polite people are found to be acceptable no matter what stratum they come from, whereas boorish or crass ones are found to be unpleasant, again, no matter what rank they have.

This is not a new theme for Austen by any stretch, but can be seen clearly in Pride & Prejudice, where the highest-ranked person in the novel is one of the most boorish (Lady Catherine) and the Gardiners (who were of the merchant class) are genteel, or in Persuasion, where tremendous praise is heaped on the officers in the Royal Navy, part of the upwardly mobile middle class in Austen's day, whereas scorn falls on Sir Walter Elliot and his cousin, the Viscountess Dalrymple. Still, it bears mentioning that invoking this poem does more than offer a warning about the possibility of Jane Fairfax languishing in obscurity; it is also there as a commentary on the social structure of the time.

Jane Fairfax's decision to stay in Highbury

We learn that Jane Fairfax has been invited (again) to go to Ireland, and that she is being exhorted, in fact, to do so. Were she to go, she'd rejoin a higher level of society and get away from Miss Bates's and Mrs Elton's chatter, yet Jane refuses to leave town.

Such a decision is inexplicable to Emma, who rightly imagines that Jane must have a particular reason for not leaving town to join the Campbells. (Emma, having no other information on which to explain such an illogical choice to herself than her own speculation, decides that Jane must be desperate to avoid seeing Mr Dixon again.)

Mr Knightley's embarrassment

When Mr Knightley speaks up in Jane Fairfax's defense, he finds Mrs Weston and Emma looking askance at him. He quite literally blushes over it, and Emma, now curious to know whether he has the hots for Jane Fairfax, intimates that perhaps he doesn't know the extent of his own esteem for Jane. He tells Emma that she is late to this particular question, and that Mr Cole asked him about it six weeks ago, but that he does not have a thing for Jane Fairfax - she is not of an open enough temperament for him. He goes further and says that he doesn't believe Jane would have him if he asked her to marry him and that, moreover, he would never ask her.

"So you have been settling that I should marry Jane Fairfax?"

"No indeed I have not. You have scolded me too much for match-making, for me to presume to take such a liberty with you. What I said just now, meant nothing. One says those sort of things, of course, without any idea of a serious meaning. Oh! no, upon my word I have not the smallest wish for your marrying Jane Fairfax or Jane any body. You would not come in and sit with us in this comfortable way, if you were married."

Mr Knightley was thoughtful again. The result of his reverie was, "No, Emma, I do not think the extent of my admiration for her will ever take me by surprize.--I never had a thought of her in that way, I assure you." And soon afterwards, "Jane Fairfax is a very charming young woman--but not even Jane Fairfax is perfect. She has a fault. She has not the open temper which a man would wish for in a wife."

Emma could not but rejoice to hear that she had a fault. "Well," said she, "and you soon silenced Mr Cole, I suppose?"

"Yes, very soon. He gave me a quiet hint; I told him he was mistaken; he asked my pardon and said no more. Cole does not want to be wiser or wittier than his neighbours."
Mrs Weston, of course, thinks that Mr Knightley's denials mean that he is interested in Jane Fairfax, but Emma will not believe it.

However, given the way he speaks, it sounds very much as if Mr Knightley has a young lady in mind, does it not?


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