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

Friday, September 2, 2011

Writing well enough to be unintelligible: An excellent satire on modern language."

Yesterday Diane Reynolds wrote the following wonderful comment in Austen L and Janeites about the narration in Ch. 55 describing Emma’s wrapping her brain around Harriet marrying Robert Martin, in the aftermath of Harriet shocking Emma’s with her Knightleyesque aspirations:

“Of course, the piece de resistance--or the icing on the cake, if I may borrow that phrase, is Emma's totally clueless assessment of how easily Harriet "falls in love" again with Mr. Martin: "it must ever be unintelligible to Emma." I love that phrase: "It must ever be unintelligible to Emma." It's dropped into the text, completely deadpan.

I guessed as soon as I read Diane’s comment that I needed to check out JA’ use of variants of the word “intelligible” in _Emma_ as a whole, and sure enough, a bit of word searching in that vein proved very rewarding.

First, it is noteworthy that the word “intelligible” and its variant “unintelligible” is used 9 times in _Emma_, almost as many times as it is used in all the other 5 Austen novels combined—although the most famous and visible of those usages is in Northanger Abbey, and gave me the Subject Line of this message.

Anyway, that density of the word “intelligible” in _Emma, together with Diane’s wonderful catch, confirmed to me straightaway that the word must have special meaning in _Emma_ as a whole. And here is my quick tour, each usage is a gem in its own right:

In Chapter 7, we read Emma virtually ghost writing Harriet’s rejection letter to Robert Martin:

7: "Oh no, no! the letter had much better be all your own. You will express yourself very properly, I am sure. There is no danger of your not being INTELLIGIBLE , which is the first thing.”

In Chapter 14, we learn why Emma really enjoys Mrs. Weston’s company, i.e., because Mrs. Weston was a sharp elf who would not require extra explanation:
“…there was not a creature in the world to whom [Emma] spoke with such unreserve, as to [Mrs. Weston]; not any one, to whom she related with such conviction of being listened to and understood, of being always interesting and always INTELLIGIBLE , the little affairs, arrangements, perplexities, and pleasures of her father and herself.”

In Chapter 21, we hear that Mr. Knightley is also a sharp elf who knew how to speak so as to be understood by Emma but not by Mr. Woodhouse, when a delicate situation so required:

“Emma could not forgive her;—but as neither provocation nor resentment were discerned by Mr. Knightley, who had been of the party, and had seen only proper attention and pleasing behaviour on each side, he was expressing the next morning, being at Hartfield again on business with Mr. Woodhouse, his approbation of the whole; not so openly as he might have done had her father been out of the room, but speaking plain enough to be very INTELLIGIBLE to Emma. He had been used to think her unjust to Jane, and had now great pleasure in marking an improvement.”

In Chapter 22, the narrator, channeling Emma’s quick witted satirical thought, uses the word “intelligible” to cut through all the phony b.s. that Mrs. Elton used to describe how she and Mr. E got together. “to use a most intelligible phrase” is a very elegant way of saying “to cut to the chase”:

“…the story told well; he had not thrown himself away—he had gained a woman of 10,000 l. 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.

In Chapter 23, as it was in Chapter 7, again the word is associated with Harriet and Robert Martin, this time Harriet’s feelings upon meeting the Martins for the first time since she rejected Robert’s proposal:

“Harriet could not very soon give an INTELLIGIBLE account. She was feeling too much; but at last Emma collected from her enough to understand the sort of meeting, and the sort of pain it was creating. She had seen only Mrs. Martin and the two girls.”

Then we have a wide gap, over 23 chapters, before we encounter a blizzard of usages in the final Volume:

First in Chapter 46, again we have a reference to mystery and confusion in the realm of courtship being resolved:

"I am to hear from him soon," continued Mrs. Weston. "He told me at parting, that he should soon write; and he spoke in a manner which seemed to promise me many particulars that could not be given now. Let us wait, therefore, for this letter. It may bring many extenuations. It may make many things INTELLIGIBLE and excusable which now are not to be understood. Don't let us be severe, don't let us be in a hurry to condemn him. Let us have patience.

And that continues in Chapter 49, where Emma hopes that Knightley will read between the lines of Emma’s confession to him vis a vis Frank, and realize that Emma is waiting for Knightley to make a move:

“…It was [Frank’s] object to blind all about him; and no one, I am sure, could be more effectually blinded than myself -- except that I was not blinded -- that it was my good fortune -- that, in short, I was somehow or other safe from him." She had hoped for an answer here—for a few words to say that her conduct was at least INTELLIGIBLE ; but he was silent; and, as far as she could judge, deep in thought. At last, and tolerably in his usual tone, he said, "I have never had a high opinion of Frank Churchill.—

And then, Knightley does make a move, and here we have perhaps the second most interesting usage of the word in _Emma_ (Diane’s being the most interesting):

”…… "I cannot make speeches, Emma:" he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, INTELLIGIBLE tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—"If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me….”

I love the subversive, undercutting irony of “as was tolerably convincing”, which topples the tower of romantic, positive adjectives !

Then in Chapter 50, we have two usages by Frank Churchill in his letter to Mrs. Weston, first regarding whatever explanation, probably not very convincing, Frank gave to Mrs. Weston the day before he wrote that letter, and second regarding Jane’s telling Frank what she thought about him in no uncertain terms:

“ MY DEAR MADAM, "If I made myself INTELLIGIBLE yesterday, this letter will be expected; but expected or not, I know it will be read with candour and indulgence.—… I doubted her affection. I doubted it more the next day on Box Hill; when, provoked by such conduct on my side, such shameful, insolent neglect of her, and such apparent devotion to Miss W., as it would have been impossible for any woman of sense to endure, she spoke her resentment in a form of words perfectly INTELLIGIBLE to me.—In short, my dear madam, it was a quarrel blameless on her side, abominable on mine…”

Then in 52, we have another ironic usage, as Emma (naively) assumes that Miss Bates did not intend Jane to hear her “bustle” before she sent Emma away on her previous visit to the Bates home:

“She went—she had driven once unsuccessfully to the door, but had not been into the house since the morning after Box Hill, when poor Jane had been in such distress as had filled her with compassion, though all the worst of her sufferings had been unsuspected.—The fear of being still unwelcome, determined her, though assured of their being at home, to wait in the passage, and send up her name.—She heard Patty announcing it; but no such bustle succeeded as poor Miss Bates had before made so happily INTELLIGIBLE .—No; she heard nothing but the instant reply of, "Beg her to walk up;"—and a moment afterwards she was met on the stairs by Jane herself, coming eagerly forward, as if no other reception of her were felt sufficient.”

Then in Chapters 54 and 55, we have two usages that close the loop with the two earlier usages of “intelligible” pertaining to Harriet and Robert Martin:

“ Good God!" she cried.—"Well!"—Then having recourse to her workbasket, in excuse for leaning down her face, and concealing all the exquisite feelings of delight and entertainment which she knew she must be expressing, she added, "Well, now tell me every thing; make this INTELLIGIBLE to me. How, where, when?—Let me know it all. I never was more surprized—but it does not make me unhappy, I assure you.—How—how has it been possible?...”

But what did such particulars explain?—The fact was, as Emma could now acknowledge, that Harriet had always liked Robert Martin; and that his continuing to love her had been irresistible.—Beyond this, it must ever be unINTELLIGIBLE to Emma.

Cheers, ARNIE

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