When I returned to the text of Emma after a break, it was easy enough to find the passages in chapters prior to the Hartfield conversation about Mrs. Elton in Chapter 32, which pertained to the principal question I raised as to Mr. Woodhouse's strange utterance about Mrs. Elton.
As you will note from the quoted passages, below (and perhaps a number of you already knew it from memory), Emma indeed was thinking very negative thoughts about Mrs. Elton's looks (and her other assets as well) very soon after she heard about the sudden engagement. And so now I do believe that Mr. Woodhouse did mean what he said, and that he was, in a very very very oblique way, challenging Emma's negative judgments on Mrs. Elton.
There is method in Mr. Woodhouse's madness in this passage--in saying to Emma, "considering we never saw her before, she seems a very pretty sort of young lady....", there is a subtle but distinct irony--what he's doing is REMINDING Emma that SHE had never seen Mrs. Elton before! But, just as Miss Bates codes her messages into a rapid-fire word salad, Mr. Woodhouse accomplishes exactly the same purpose with the opposite technique--hence that wonderful adverb "deliberately" to describe his talking! He is the verbal tortoise to Miss Bates's verbal hare---and isn't it interesting that Mrs. Elton later refers to "The Hare and his Many Friends"!?
And this also sheds much more significant light on Mr. Woodhouse's mantra and hobby horse, i.e., the horrors of marriage. Perhaps Mr. Woodhouse is not merely thinking of himself when he decries marriage as the worst fate known to humankind---in that same backhanded way, perhaps he is warning Emma not to get married, for HER sake! And therefore what appears to be monstrous narcissism is actually astonishing altruism. Topsy-turvy.
Anyway, here are those earlier passages, for your easy reference:
Ch. 21: "Oh! my dear sir, how are you this morning? My dear Miss Woodhouse -- I come quite overpowered. Such a beautiful hind-quarter of pork! You are too bountiful! Have you heard the news? Mr. Elton is going to be married."
Emma had not had time even to think of Mr. Elton, and she was so completely surprized that she could not avoid a little start, and a little blush, at the sound.
"There is my news: -- I thought it would interest you," said Mr. Knightley, with a smile which implied a conviction of some part of what had passed between them.
"As to who, or what Miss Hawkins is, or how long he has been acquainted with her," said Emma, "nothing I suppose can be known. One feels that it cannot be a very long acquaintance. He has been gone only four weeks."
Mr. Elton's rights, however, gradually revived. Though she did not feel the first intelligence as she might have done the day before, or an hour before, its interest soon increased; and before their first conversation was over, she had talked herself into all the sensations of curiosity, wonder and regret, pain and pleasure, as to this fortunate Miss Hawkins, which could conduce to place the Martins under proper subordination in her fancy.
22: Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.
A week had not passed since Miss Hawkins's name was first mentioned in Highbury, before she was, by some means or other, discovered to have every recommendation of person and mind*/; /*to be handsome, elegant, highly accomplished, and perfectly amiable: and when Mr. Elton himself arrived to triumph in his happy prospects, and circulate the fame of her merits, there was very little more for him to do, than to tell her Christian name, and say whose music she principally played.
Mr. Elton returned, a very happy man. He had gone away rejected and mortified -- disappointed in a very sanguine hope, after a series of what had appeared to him strong encouragement; and not only losing the right lady, but finding himself debased to the level of a very wrong one. He had gone away deeply offended -- he came back engaged to another -- and to another as superior, of course, to the first, as under such circumstances what is gained always is to what is lost. He came back gay and self-satisfied, eager and busy, caring nothing for Miss Woodhouse, and defying Miss Smith.
The charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience: the story told well; he had not thrown himself away -- he had gained a woman of ten thousand pounds, or thereabouts; and he had gained her with such delightful rapidity -- the first hour of introduction had been so very soon followed by distinguishing notice; the history which he had to give Mrs. Cole of the rise and progress of the affair was so glorious -- the steps so quick, from the accidental rencontre, to the dinner at Mr. Green's, and the party at Mrs. Brown's -- smiles and blushes rising in importance -- with consciousness and agitation richly scattered -- the lady had been so easily impressed -- so sweetly disposed -- had in short, to use a most intelligible phrase, been so very ready to have him, that vanity and prudence were equally contented.
He had caught both substance and shadow -- both fortune and affection, and was just the happy man he ought to be; talking only of himself and his own concerns -- expecting to be congratulated -- ready to be laughed at -- and, with cordial, fearless smiles, now addressing all the young ladies of the place, to whom, a few weeks ago, he would have been more cautiously gallant.
The pain of his continued residence in Highbury, however, must certainly be lessened by his marriage. Many vain solicitudes would be prevented -- many awkwardnesses smoothed by it. A _Mrs. Elton_ would be an excuse for any change of intercourse; former intimacy might sink without remark. It would be almost beginning their life of civility again.
Of/ /the lady, individually, Emma thought very little. She was good enough for Mr. Elton, no doubt; accomplished enough for Highbury -- handsome enough -- to look plain, probably, by Harriet's side. As to connection, there Emma was perfectly easy; persuaded, that after all his own vaunted claims and disdain of Harriet, he had done nothing. On that article, truth seemed attainable. _What_ she was, must be uncertain; but _who_ she was, might be found out; and setting aside the £10,000 it did not appear that she was at all Harriet's superior. She brought no name, no blood, no alliance. Miss Hawkins was the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol -- merchant, of course, he must be called; but, as the whole of the profits of his mercantile life appeared so very moderate, it was not unfair to guess the dignity of his line of trade had been very moderate also. Part of every winter she had been used to spend in Bath; but Bristol was her home, the very heart of Bristol; for though the father and mother had died some years ago, an uncle remained -- in the law line -- nothing more distinctly honourable was hazarded of him, than that he was in the law line; and with him the daughter had lived. Emma guessed him to be the drudge of some attorney, and too stupid to rise. And all the grandeur of the connection seemed dependent on the elder sister, who was _very well_ _married_, to a gentleman in a _great way_, near Bristol, who kept two carriages! That was the wind-up of the history; that was the glory of Miss Hawkins.
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