Friday, June 17, 2011

Emma, Volume II, Chapter 18 (Chapter 36)



So . . . it's been a few days since the last Emma post. We were at Emma's dinner party, where Mrs Elton was being obnoxious about wanting to find a position as a governess for Jane Fairfax, and Jane was insisting she wanted to spend another three months in Highbury, and then Mr Weston turned up and said Frank was coming to town.

In this chapter, we eavesdrop on a lengthy conversation between Mr Weston and Mrs Elton. He wants to tell her about Frank and give us the backstory on his aunt (Mrs Churchill), and she wants to talk about herself, as well as her sister (Selina) and her brother-in-law, Mr Suckling. My favorite part of their conversation is when they get involved in a chess game or, if you prefer, into a Regency manners version of "anything you can do, I can do better", where Mr Weston is trying to impress Mrs Elton with how wealthy and demanding ladylike Mrs Churchill is, and Mrs Elton is countering with "my sister is every bit as wealthy/demanding ladylike", only at one point - wanting to seem modest - she disclaims something, and then is stuck with Mr Weston accepting her demurral at face value.

"Depend upon it, Mrs Churchill does every thing that any other fine lady ever did. Mrs Churchill will not be second to any lady in the land for"--

Mrs Elton eagerly interposed with, "Oh! Mr Weston, do not mistake me. Selina is no fine lady, I assure you. Do not run away with such an idea."

"Is not she? Then she is no rule for Mrs Churchill, who is as thorough a fine lady as any body ever beheld."
Checkmate, Mr Weston - well played!

Mr Weston makes clear that he believes Mrs Churchill to be using complaints about her health to manipulate people, stopping just barely short of calling her a faker outright. Being such a good-hearted soul, he later muses that he hopes that he hasn't done his sister-in-law an injustice by assuming she's not actually ill. We get the information that Mr Churchill isn't all that bad a sort, but that his wife rules the roost - and is the one to blame for the first Mrs Weston's being disowned, etc. And then we get this rather priceless assessment of Mrs Churchill, which I find especially hilarious since nearly all of it applies equally to Mrs Elton. You can practically hear Jane Austen snickering as her quill scratched across the page:

". . . her pride is arrogance and insolence! And what inclines one less to bear, she has no fair pretence of family or blood. She was nobody when he married her, barely the daughter of a gentleman; but ever since her being turned into a Churchill she has out-Churchill'd them all in high and mighty claims: but in herself, I assure you, she is an upstart."
Mrs Elton's response seals the hilarity, as she expresses "a horror of upstarts", criticizing the Tupmans, who live near her own upstart brother-in-law. That Mr Suckling is himself an upstart is proved out by her own account of the purchase of Maple Grove, which she is almost sure was purchased before his father's death. And then we get this: "Mr Weston, having said all that he wanted, soon took the opportunity of walking away." LOL!

The end of the chapter is occupied by a conversation between the two Misters Knightley and Emma. John believes she might end up sending her nephews home early because they'll upset her father or cramp her style. He astonishes Emma by commenting on her increased social schedule - which has some basis in fact, since Mrs Weston now lives elsewhere, necessitating visits to Randalls, plus she dines with the Coles, and there's been discussion of a ball - and Emma is especially gobsmacked to find Mr Knightley offering to take his nephews on at Donwell Abbey if Emma gets too busy for them.

Emma cannot stop from expressing her astonishment, given that she's seldom gone from Hartfield for more than two hours at a time, whereas Mr Knightley is frequently occupied far longer. Moreover, he goes to all the parties she does, and then some!

Austen closes the chapter by taking one more swing at Mrs Elton:

"Mr Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs Elton's beginning to talk to him." (Emphasis mine.)


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