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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lord Brabourne's Poor Emma

In the aftermath of the modern rise of feminism, there have been a fair number of scholars who have been less than enthusiastic about Emma winding up with Mr. Knightley. You may recall the article by Wendy Moffat I mentioned three months ago as a particularly cogent and compelling example of that line of criticism.

But some Janeites have replied that we impose our modern feminist sensibilities on JA's texts at our extreme peril, because things were very different two centuries ago, and we should not assume that JA would have disapproved of the patriarchal social structure of her world.

Which is why I was, frankly (ha ha), quite astonished to read today, for the first time, the following comments, written 125 years ago by the person I would have LEAST expected to THINK, let alone write, them--Lord Brabourne!!!---the first editor of JA's letters, her brother Edward's grandson, a man who did not hesitate to bowdlerize what his mother surely considered some of the worst vulgarisms in JA's letters. Had I been shown this passage without being told who wrote it, or when, I'd have guessed the author to be a 21st century English feminist who happened to enjoy writing in an anachronistic Victorian style!:


“I frankly confess that I never could endure Mr. Knightley. He interfered too much, he judged other people rather too quickly and too harshly, he was too old for Emma, and being the elder brother of her elder sister’s husband, there was something incongruous in the match which I could never bring myself to approve. To tell the truth, I always wanted Emma to marry Frank Churchill, and so did Mr. and Mrs. Weston. Mr. Knightley, however, is an eminently respectable hero too respectable, in fact, to be a hero at all; he does not seem to rise above the standard of respectability into that of heroism; and I should have disputed his claim to the position had he not satisfactorily established it beyond all possible doubt by marrying the heroine. But I have never felt satisfied with the marriage, and feel very sure that Emma was not nearly so happy as she pretended. I am certain that he frequently lectured her, was jealous of every agreeable man that ventured to say a civil word to her, and evinced his intellectual superiority by such a plethora of eminently sensible conversations, as either speedily hurried her to an untimely grave, or induced her to run away with somebody possessed of an inferior intellect, but more endearing qualities.”

This is the Knightley whom Reginald Hill so brilliantly parodied in "Poor Emma!" ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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