Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Catching up part 10: Emma, Volume III, Chapter 6 (Chapter 42)



This is the last of our catch-up posts - our next Emma post will break new ground here at Writing & Ruminating, in that it's not something I've blogged about before: the Box Hill picnic. Back in 2011, when I got up to this point in the book, I just didn't have the psychic energy to compose a post about it. For one thing, it is possibly the most mortifying chapter in all of Austen's works, when one considers exactly how badly our heroine behaves. And when one considers that Catherine Morland is busted snooping around Mrs Tilney's chambers, then pretty much admits she thought Mrs Tilney might have been murdered, that is saying something indeed.

I wish I could promise you that our proceeding on was a guarantee of something good, but we shall all have to see what it brings once I write it. Deal?

Meanwhile, back in Emma, it's time to plan a different kind of party. You see, it takes Mrs Elton's plans for Emma to realize that she's never seen Box Hill - so she and Mr Weston decide they'll have an outing. Just a small one, with a very small, select group. Only then Mr Weston goes and invites Mrs Elton along.

This can only end in tears.

This chapter, though, is about a trip to Donwell Abbey to pick strawberries, the joint trip to Box Hill having been put off due to an issue with a carriage horse. Mrs Elton tries hard to assume command and control of the party at Mr Knightley's house, but he refuses - to the point of risking offense to her, actually, although in the end she opts not to take it, even though she has actually been put off rather effectively:

"No,"--he calmly replied,--"there is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell, and that one is--"

"--Mrs Weston, I suppose," interrupted Mrs Elton, rather mortified.

"No--Mrs Knightley;--and till she is in being, I will manage such matters myself."
Mrs Elton's babbling about a gypsy party with big bonnets and baskets and riding on donkeys sounds a bit overblown and ridiculous to us now, and it probably did to a fair number of Regency readers as well . . . still, to some of them - notably members of the ton and the aristocracy - it sounded like one of their usual outings. It was quite popular for members of the ton to stage just the pretentious sort of outing that Mrs Elton is proposing - with themed "costumes", tables of food set up outside (all of which - tables and chairs and linens and food - had to be carted by servants), and even the riding of donkeys. Mrs Elton, who appears ridiculous to Emma and Mr Knightley (and to Jane Austen), is actually proposing quite a fashionable sort of outing (of the kind recreated in many modern-day Regency romances, in fact), rather than the more staid and sensible one that Mr Knightley envisions. Austen is taking a bit of a swing at those who make far more work for their servants than necessary in order to amuse themselves in what she considered a frivolous manner, and, indeed, it's hard to read this chapter and the one that follows and come away with a positive view of Mrs Elton's proposed scheme. Still, I suppose there were those readers in Regency times who missed the irony and nodded along to the sound notion Mrs Elton was putting forth.



Mr Knightley's characteristics

They aren't quite enumerated in this chapter, but it's close. Let's look at them, shall we? Especially since he was one of Austen's two favorites of her own heroes (the other being Edmund Bertram - look, I don't know why, okay? Maybe because he demonstrates how a good guy with flaws can come out right in the end? But I am both digressing and getting ahead, since we haven't discussed Mansfield Park yet.) The following list is certainly not all of Mr Knightley's traits, but it's a good list to be going on with:

1. Kind - check out his guest list, which includes Harriet Smith and Miss Bates
2. Thoughtful - he makes careful preparations for Mr Woodhouse, and also makes sure his servants won't be overly put out
3. Conscientious - he checks up on all of his guests
4. Patient - he didn't flip his wig over Mrs Elton's numerous attempts to bully him
5. Decisive - he makes his plan and executes it
6. Gracious - even when he gets stuck with Frank Churchill as a guest thanks to Mr Weston
7. Polite - it goes beyond him doing what he's expected to do, since he also does what he wants to do, which is to invite whom he pleases and organize things how he wants - yet he manages not to actually give offense

Jane Fairfax

Jane Fairfax is at her rope's end when it comes to dealing with Mrs Elton, who has gone ahead and found a governess position for Jane, even though Jane asked her not to. Jane is so intent on getting away from Mrs Elton for a bit that she first convinces Mr Knightley to give everyone a tour of his gardens, and eventually she sneaks out to walk home - alone. A bold move indeed for a single young woman, especially one who is known to have a somewhat delicate constitution.

Jane explains to Emma that she is fatigued - not by the heat or by walking, but by having no time alone. Emma infers that Jane is referring to her aunt, Miss Bates, but I wish to point out that Jane could equally well be referring to Mrs Elton in this instance. And while Emma knows that Jane has this whole governess notion weighing on her mind, Jane never says that's what her issue is. She could be thinking about some other issue entirely. I'm just . . . putting that out there. Those of you who are re-reading this book will understand immediately.

England v. France (and characters as proxy)

England was at war with France for most of Austen's life. Austen, being a patriotic Tory, championed all things English, but she also had personal reasons for disliking the French: for one, she had two brothers in the Royal Navy whose lives were at risk because of conflicts with the French and, for another, her cousin Eliza's first husband lost his head to Madame Guillotine during the Revolution.

In this chapter, the rather allegorically named Mr Knightley lives at the equally allegorically named Donwell Abbey (where everything is "done well" - Dear Miss Austen, I see what you did there), and we get this description from an enraptured Emma: "It was a sweet view--sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive." Austen treads perilously close to outright stating that Mr Knightley and his home are all that is right about England and its gentry.

In contrast, we have Frank Churchill - a man whose first name is a reference to France (as you may recall from Chapter Two) and who is operating under the cloak of an assumed last name - his birth name being Weston, not Churchill - whom Mr Knightley, that most English of Englishmen, assessed with a reference to a French word in Chapter 18 (amiable v. amabile). And when Frank eventually shows up in this chapter, he is not only cross with his present situation, but with all of England: he cannot wait to get out of England and go abroad, perhaps to Switzerland. While travel abroad was not uncommon among the wealthy, there is something decidedly off-putting about Frank's eagerness to dismiss the country of his birth and hurry off to other climes, especially if one is Austen. Also, Austen is making fun of her own second-oldest brother, Edward, who was "adopted" by cousins (the Knights) and spent his own tour of the Continent in Switzerland, among other places.

Mr Knightley and Harriet are getting along

Emma is so pleased. I'm sure you remember Mr Knightley's disapproval of Emma's plan to take Harriet under her wing and give her a bit of polish. Now he's quite pleased with her first-rate qualities (as he mentioned to Emma at the Crown) and taking her aside to show of his huge tracts of land and discuss his farming techniques with her. (Any dirtiness in that prior statement entirely intentional, I assure you.) And Harriet seems so over Robert Martin that she doesn't seem to pay much attention to the view of his house and land at all. Happy, happy Emma.

Somewhere, Austen is still cackling over this chapter.


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