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

Monday, September 6, 2010

Knocked up

The subject of Mr. Weston's Box Hill conundrum ["M A Em-ma"] was just raised in an online group. The conventional wisdom about that conundrum was presented years ago by Mark Loveridge, when he quoted Francis Hutcheson’s famous (and very silly) attempt to mathematize virtue:

“Benevolence, or Virtue in any Agent, is as M/A, or M+1/A, and no Being can act above his natural Ability; that must be the Perfection of Virtue where M=A, or when Being acts to the utmost of his Power for the public Good; and hence the Perfection of Virtue in this Case, or M/A, is as Unity. “

Clearly, Mr. Weston is, at least superficially, alluding to the above. But the hidden joke I have been aware of for some time is that there is a SECOND allusion tucked inside what Mr. Weston says, to a famous (at least in JA’s time) text from the mid-16^th century which contains the following ominous phrase:

“Woman in her greatest PERFECTION was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him.”

This sounds very suspiciously like the subject matter of Mr. Elton’s second “courtship” charade, which is all about a sudden reversal of power in the world, with women ruling men, and which also, of course, has several secret answers in addition to Emma’s answer “courtship”.

But Mr. Weston’s joke only becomes really interesting, in terms of the shadow story of Emma, when you are aware of the identity of the author of the other work covertly alluded to by Mr. Weston, also via the word “perfection”---“The First Blast of the Trumpet”-by the Scotch Protestant zealot John Knox.

First, you can almost hear JA’s eyelid smacking her cheekbone, as she furiously winks her hint about the name of the author of that text when she has Mr. Knightley respond to Mr. Weston by talking about how “KNOCKed up” (i.e., intimidated) the rest of the group will be by the brilliance of Mr. Weston’s wit, referring to KNOX (sounds like KNOCKS)--just the sort of zanily brilliant pun JA loved!

Next, please note that the reference to the “first blast” is pointing toward Knox’s original intention to trumpet his misogynous views to the world two more times. Which sounds suspiciously like Frank Churchill’s ground rules calling for not just one or two kinds of responses to his challenge, but three.

It is also no coincidence, I claim, that The First Blast of the Trumpet is first discussed in English publications in JA’s time (per Google Books) in 1813-4, exactly when Emma was being written.

It is also quite interesting to Janeites that Knox wrote a History of England, because, of course, so did the young JA, and in that work she left unmistakable evidence that she had done her homework and had read several of the PRIOR Histories of England, written by the likes of Hume and Goldsmith, before attempting her own brilliant satirical version of same.

Even though she does not mention Knox’s History of England in hers, surely she had read it, too, because it just so happens that Knox was one of the leading accusers against Mary Queen of Scots vis a vis the murder of her husband Darnley. But Knox was an equal opportunity misogynist, as his First Blast of the Trumpet was directed against the queens who were in 1559 ruling THREE countries—England, Scotland and France. Knox was at the time he wrote that book, if I have my facts correct, in France avoiding persecution by Bloody Mary Queen of England. Just the sort of guy that JA would want to skewer with her satire.

And finally, Fairfax is a Scottish name, as is Campbell, and John K mentions the “old prejudice” in connection with a Scottish legal matter, so Scotland is in the air of Highbury. And so it is no accident that Jane Fairfax is a representation of both Jane Austen AND Mary Queen of Scots, with whom JA so closely identified (as proved beyond a shadow of a doubt recently by Annette Upfal’s analysis of Cassandra Austen’s portraits in her sister’s History of England).

And… I will quickly add that there is a whole additional layer of humor in Mr. Weston’s conundrum --related, thematically, to my discussion, above-- which plays on a pun of the word “perfection” to refer to an unborn child coming to full term or “perfection” in the uterus of a woman who is about to give birth—which is exactly the status, in the shadow story of the novel, of Jane Fairfax, at Box Hill.

And in closing I further submit that it is no accident that John Knox's polemic against women having any power whatsoever in the world is alluded to in Emma at precisely the moment when Miss Bates is smashed down by Emma, and then Emma herself is put in her place by Knightley.

Cheers, Arnie

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