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

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why was that day different from all other days?

"Oh! papa, we have missed seeing them but one entire day since they married. Either in the morning or evening of every day, excepting one, have we seen either Mr Weston or Mrs Weston, and generally both, either at Randalls or here -- and as you may suppose, Isabella, most frequently here."

The above is what Emma says to her father in Chapter 11, on the first day of Isabella's and John's Christmas visit to Highbury, which Ellen dates with precision in her chronology for the novel as December 18. My eye was drawn today for the first time by Emma's subtle emphasis, TWICE alluding to there having been one, and ONLY one, day when neither Mr. nor Mrs. Weston visited Hartfield since their marriage, which was in late September or early October, 2 1/2 to 3 months previously.

Of course, on the surface, JA's emphasis of this plot detail can be plausibly explained as a poignant example of how much Emma AND her father BOTH miss Mrs. Weston--that is why Emma so distinctly recalls the one day, out of perhaps 80 or 90, when the Westons were NOT there, because the day they DIDN'T come, was evidently a very very sad day for Emma and her father, a painful memory which could not be erased even by the pleasure of all those other days!

And of course, Mrs. Weston must have been perfectly aware of this all along, which is precisely why she so evidently has arranged things for such a long time period, so that if for some reason she could not go to Hartfield, she has made sure in every instance, save one, that her husband (who would have been a poor substitute in Emma's eyes, surely) would at least show up. Except that one day.

But....all my Austen intuition is telling me that there’s a reason why that day was different from all the other days, and why Hartfield was “passed over” by both Mr. and Mrs. Weston on that day in particular. Somewhere in the rest of the novel (not necessarily prior to Chapter 11, because JA often gave information in later chapters which was relevant to the chronology of events described in an earlier chapter), there must be some subtle indication of what might have been the circumstances which caused the Westons to vary from their otherwise rigidly invariant custom of visiting Hartfield every single day. Like Chekhov's gun hanging on the wall, I know this must be there for more of a reason than to alert us to how much Mrs. Weston is missed at Highbury, good reason though that may be.

My initial guess is that it was the day of that tete a tete between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston at Randalls, reproduced in Chapter 5, when Knightley drops in while Mr. Weston is elsewhere. To me it's clear that Mr. Weston has gone off somewhere other than a local stroll----- perhaps to London on business or maybe to see Frank (who might have been passing through there). And it’s also clear to me that Knightley has seized that moment—or, now that I think about it, maybe he even CREATED that moment, by entrusting Mr. Weston with an errand to London---precisely so that he could discreetly drop in on Mrs. Weston and have this top secret strategy parley with Mrs. Weston about Emma.

Note that Knightley either knows where Mr. Weston is, or he has seen Mr. Weston leave Randalls in such a manner as to indicate that he would be gone a while. Otherwise, why would Knightley say to Mrs. Weston: “"Perhaps you think I am come on purpose to quarrel with you, knowing Weston to be out, and that you must still fight your own battle." And we can also infer that the tete a tete is a morning event, and that Mr. Weston has left not long before, because Knightley ends the discussion with “What does Weston think of the weather; shall we have rain?"—unless he was ascribing to Mr. Weston prognosticatory powers exceeding one day, we may safely assume, I think, that Mr. Weston would have made a prediction about THAT DAY’s weather for the eminently sensible reason that he would be traveling that day, and his travels would be affected by rain.

Note also that the Randalls tete a tete is the ONLY scene in the entire novel where Emma is not present at all---and so, how fitting it would be if, while Knightley and Mrs. Weston were there conferring about Emma, we could picture Emma and Mr. Woodhouse having their own involuntary tete a tete, playing word games, looking out the window, and waiting, waiting, waiting for company to arrive, but which never came. Emma’s ears would have been on fire, tingling from the way her life was being examined under a microscope by Knightley and Mrs. Weston.

And that is also why I suspect that the day in question must have been one when Harriet did not visit Highbury either—somehow I bet that had Harriet been there, Emma and Mr. Woodhouse would not have been quite so miserable. Perhaps Harriet had snuck off in search of Robert Martin…..

And I finish by pointing to the following passage in Ch. 11 of Emma, immediately before the passage which I quoted at the start of this message, and which, knowing JA’s penchant for wordplay, gives me serious pause in light of the title I have given to this message:

“Perhaps [Emma] might have PASSED OVER more had [John’s] manners been flattering to Isabella's sister, but they were only those of a calmly kind brother and friend, without praise and without blindness; but hardly any degree of personal compliment could have made her regardless of that greatest fault of all in her eyes which he sometimes fell into, the want of respectful forbearance towards her father.”

It’s almost as though the above passage is a subliminal hint to the reader, to provoke the asking of the question about why that day was different from all the other days. And to make me ask one final, playful question---what food did Emm and her father eat that day? Did the menu by any chance include boiled eggs, lamb shank, with dessert being a mixture of apples and walnuts? ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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