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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Answer to "What Color was Washington's White Horse?"

A respondent in another online venue to my little question suggested that it was obvious that Mrs. Elton did not attend the wedding at all, to which I responded as follows:

Not everybody is so careful a reader, especially as it is clear (to me) that JA was having a little fun by being sly about not being explicit about Mrs. Elton not being in attendance, i.e., I think JA laid a gentle trap for her readers who were having the last laugh at Mrs. Elton's last words, and thereby misread.

Just look at the answers [which speculated as to what sort of dress Mrs. Elton did wear] that were given earlier today, by folks who know this novel very well.

I would wager that a large majority of Janeites (including myself, till the other day) do not realize that Mrs. Elton did not attend Emma's wedding. I am too lazy to check the endings of the various film adaptations, but my guess is that most, if not all, of them depict Mrs. Elton as being present.

So I was merely alerting people to pay attention to what those last two paragraphs actually do say, and not to assume they know. Part of the slyness is that normally people don't speak with such an air of certainty in describing an event they did not actually attend in person. But of course, that is prototypical Mrs. Elton, so it's totally in character that she would sound as if she had been there, especially as she would not want to have to admit to her sister that she had not been there!

And it's not just me who found her non-attendance especially noteworthy. Sheila Kaye-Smith (the one who first noticed it in print, as far as I can tell) in 1943, and then Sheldon Sacks (1980), Janet Todd (1983), Dorothy Gannon in Austen-L (1998), Edward Copeland (2004), Peter Leithart (2004), and the late Bruce Stovel (2007), ALL find JA's presentation of this information to be "sly". As I said, many readers are too busy laughing at Mrs. Elton's absurd snobbery, and in that instance it's all too easy to be seduced into not noticing the implication, even though it is, as you suggest, hiding in plain sight.

But, as usual with JA, it's not just a cheap authorial trick on the reader, and it's not just a cheap laugh. It's also very true to character, and has been carefully and cleverly set up in an inobtrusive way. Mrs. Elton is not just being a total snob out of the blue. There is an obvious context, once you think about it. The fact that she was not there is something that upsets and disturbs her, and has to be rationalized in some way. So she is doing just what someone like her would do in such a circumstance--if she was not there, then it must have been a pitiful event not worth attending anyway--the applicable fruit in this instance is not strawberries, but grapes--as in, VERY SOUR GRAPES! ;)

And there's also the foreshadowing of this event in at least two ways, with other humiliations of women.

First we have the progression of Emma's feelings regarding the invitation to the Coles's party. She starts out being a total snob about attending, and runs a whole elaborate fantasy around why she is too elevated a personage to even consider attending a party thrown by vulgar folk like the Coles. Then when the invitation is delayed--when, to paraphrase Knightley, she actually wants the invitation first before she turns it down, but begins to doubt she will get that invitation, she starts to feel the lack of an invitation very acutely. And so when it comes, she is, whether she admits it or not, very relieved.

Second, we have Emma's famous putdown of Miss Bates at Box Hill. Look at how poor Miss Bates scrambles to say something that will hide how painful Emma's insult was.

Now, think about those two situations in relation to what is left to the reader's imagination regarding Mrs. Elton's reaction when she first hears of the wedding, and her not being invited to it.

What is most interesting to me is to speculate how it happened that Mrs. Elton was not in attendance. After all, we are also told that Mr. Elton did the honors as vicar, so she must have become aware of the wedding, if he also knew about it. So, does that mean she was pointedly NOT invited? That is what several of the above commentators conclude, and at first blush, it does seem the most likely explanation. However, what jars me is that it would be a marked departure from Knightley's and Emma's very careful dealings with Mrs. Elton from the moment she arrives in Highbury, always taking great pains not to openly offend her. Recall Emma inwardly fuming at Mrs. Elton's repeated presumptions, yet Emma never voices her anger to Mrs. Elton, and never ceases to be overtly polite to her. Recall Knightley handling Mrs. Elton's meddling with the planning of the Donwell Abbey picnic with such urbane finesse. Despite many temptations to do so, K and Emma never fail to be courteous to Mrs. Elton, and she is invited to all social events that are . I do not recall the reader getting any warning or intimation whatsoever from the text that such a major slight as a non-invitation to Mrs. Elton was in the offing. So isn't this out of character for Knightley and Emma to so blatantly offend Mrs. Elton by excluding her.

Or is it possible that Mrs. Elton received an invitation, but declined to attend? Theoretically possible, sure, but wouldn't it have been in character for her to show up in an outfit designed to upstage Emma? No, I can think of no plausible motivation for Mrs. Elton to decline to attend.

I also wondered for a moment whether the sequence might have been that Mrs. Elton went to visit her sister Selina (who, despite Mrs. Elton's repeated speculations, was like Frank Churchill during the first volume of the novel, and was not likely to be visiting Highbury herself anytime soon!), and it was during that window of her absence that Emma and Knightley chose to quickly announce their wedding, obtain a special license, and tie the knot. The fairy story about the theft of the turkeys could have been invented on a dime in order to provide cover--i.e., Emma and Knightley had to strike while the iron was hot, and before Mr. Woodhouse's fears about turkey thieves loose in the neighborhood abated. So there would not have been any direct insult to Mrs. Elton.

But.....then I noticed that JA, with her incredible attention to the thought processes of the reader, covered that point as well, because JA takes pains to let us know that Mrs. Elton is aware of the details of the wedding but Selina has not yet heard them. So the only way that would fit with Mrs. Elton being at Maple Grove when the wedding occurred would be if Mrs. Elton was indeed at Maple Grove when the wedding was announced and then took place, but...she returned to Highbury BEFORE Mr. Elton could write to her and report on the wedding. A very narrow window indeed, and it strikes me as unlikely.

So, I am undecided at this moment as to the explanation for this curious turn of events.

In closing, I find it a very interesting bookend to the other wedding no-show in Emma, which also has been pointed out in this group and in scholarly writing about Emma. The first occurs in the first chapter of the novel, the second occurs in the last chapter of the novel. Bookends, and, to me, obviously intentional.

Cheers, ARNIE

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