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Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Ready Wit of Harriet Smith and...one other Austen character!




Just today, I noticed a parallelism between two of Jane Austen's novels for the first time which, upon examination, I found quite interesting. I hope you will as well.

When any well-versed Janeite hears the phrase "ready wit", surely the association is immediately made to Emma, and specifically, to the last two lines of Mr. Elton's charade which he gives to Harriet (or so Emma initially believes, although she learns later that Emma herself was his intended recipient):

Thy ready wit the word will soon supply,
May its approval beam in that soft eye!

The phrase "ready wit" turns out to be a source of great, if temporary, private amusement to Emma, during the next few chapters:

"Humph—Harriet's ready wit! All the better. A man must be very much in love, indeed, to describe her so.....Harriet, she found, had never in her life been within side the Vicarage, and her curiosity to see it was so extreme, that, considering exteriors and probabilities, Emma could only class it, as a proof of love, with Mr. Elton's seeing ready wit in her. ...What a strange thing love is! he can see ready wit in Harriet, but will not dine alone for her."

But all things must pass, and it is not long afterwards that Emma realizes her error during one very unpleasant Christmas Eve carriage ride, and then reflects on her confusion afterwards:

"To be sure, the charade, with its "ready wit"—but then the "soft eyes"—in fact it suited neither; it was a jumble without taste or truth. Who could have seen through such thick-headed nonsense?"

What I stumbled upon today was (as it turns out) the one other place in all of JA's novels where the phrase "ready wit" is also used--it is in Sense & Sensibility, in the passage near the end of Chapter 36 when we read a very conscious mini-reprise of Chapter 2 of S&S, as Fanny Dashwood demonstrates once again her nearly infinite capacity to bamboozle her husband John, when it comes to talking him out of every possible act of kindness or generosity toward John's stepfamily:

"As John Dashwood had no more pleasure in music than his eldest sister, his mind was equally at liberty to fix on anything else; and a thought struck him during the evening, which he communicated to his wife, for her approbation, when they got home. The consideration of Mrs. Dennison's mistake, in supposing his sisters their guests, had suggested the propriety of their being really invited to become such, while Mrs. Jennings's engagements kept her from home. The expense would be nothing, the inconvenience not more; and it was altogether an attention which the delicacy of his conscience pointed out to be requisite to its complete enfranchisement from his promise to his father. Fanny was startled at the proposal.
"I do not see how it can be done," said she, "without affronting Lady Middleton, for they spend every day with her; otherwise I should be exceedingly glad to do it. You know I am always ready to pay them any attention in my power, as my taking them out this evening shews. But they are Lady Middleton's visitors. How can I ask them away from her?"
Her husband, but with great humility, did not see the force of her objection. "They had already spent a week in this manner in Conduit Street, and Lady Middleton could not be displeased at their giving the
same number of days to such near relations."
Fanny paused a moment, and then, with fresh vigour, said -- "My love, I would ask them with all my heart, if it was in my power. But I had just settled within myself to ask the Miss Steeles to spend a few days with us. They are very well behaved, good kind of girls; and I think the attention is due to them, as their uncle did so very well by Edward. We can ask your sisters some other year, you know; but the Miss Steeles may not be in town any more. I am sure you will like them; indeed, you _do_ like them, you know, very much already, and so does my mother; and they are such favourites with Harry!"
Mr. Dashwood was convinced. He saw the necessity of inviting the Miss Steeles immediately, and his conscience was pacified by the resolution of inviting his sisters another year; at the same time, however, slyly suspecting that another year would make the invitation needless, by bringing Elinor to town as Colonel Brandon's wife, and Marianne as _their_ visitor.
Fanny, rejoicing in her escape, and proud of the READY WIT that had secured it, wrote the next morning to Lucy, to request her company and her sister's for some days in Harley Street, as soon as Lady Middleton could spare them. This was enough to make Lucy really and reasonably happy. Mrs. Dashwood seemed actually working for her herself, cherishing all her hopes, and promoting all her views! Such an opportunity of being with Edward and his family was, above all things, the most material to her interest, and such an invitation the most gratifying to her feelings! It was an advantage that could not be too gratefully acknowledged, nor too speedily made use of; and the visit to Lady
Middleton, which had not before had any precise limits, was instantly discovered to have been always meant to end in two days time." END QUOTE

After study, I have concluded that this echo of S&S in Emma was entirely intentional on JA's part, and was not an unconscious remembering by JA of her novel published 5 years earlier. Based on what? Based on my having previously taken special note of the striking parallel between Lucy Steele as her manipulative character is overtly manifested in S&S, on the one hand, and Harriet Smith, as her
manipulative character is covertly hidden in plain sight in Emma. Let me lay the full parallelism out for you.

In S&S we see Fanny Dashwood, a wealthy, controlling, arrogant, selfish young woman who "adopts" an uneducated young woman without social standing, Lucy Steele, only to be appalled at the prospect of Lucy winding up married to one of Lucy's brothers, by novel's end; and in Emma, we see Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy, controlling, arrogant, selfish young woman who "adopts" an uneducated young woman without social standing, Harriet Smith, only to be appalled at the prospect of Harriet winding up married to Emma's beloved almost-a-brother Mr. Knightley, by novel's end.

And so I see JA's seizing upon Fanny Dashwood's premature self-congratulatory "ready wit" self-attribution, and then expanding it in Emma to refer to Emma's premature self-congratulatory "ready wit" attribution (and deprecatory "ready wit" denial to Harriet), as a sly hint to the reader with an eye for unusual phrases, that the reader ought to look out for Harriet Smith's inner Lucy Steele, and Emma's inner Fanny Dashwood!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

P.S.: Just before posting this, I checked and saw that there was one additional usage of “ready wit” in Jane Austen’s writings---in Letter 44 to CEA dated 4/21-3/05 written from Bath three months after the death of Reverend Austen:

“My morning engagement was with the Cookes, and our party consisted of George and Mary, a Mr. L., Miss Bendish, who had been with us at the concert, and the youngest Miss Whitby. Not Julia, — we have done with her; she is very ill, --but Mary. Mary Whitby 's turn is actually come to be grown up, and have a fine complexion, and wear great square muslin shawls. I have not expressly enumerated myself among the party; but there I was, and my cousin George was very kind, and talked sense to me every now and then, in the intervals of his more animated fooleries with Miss Bendish, who is very young and rather handsome, and whose gracious manners, READY WIT, and solid remarks put me somewhat in mind of my old acquaintance Lucy Lefroy. There was a monstrous deal of stupid quizzing and commonplace nonsense talked, but scarcely any wit; all that bordered on it or on sense came from my cousin George, whom altogether I like very well. Mr. Bendish seems nothing more than a tall young man.”

It’s clear from what JA writes in the very next sentence that JA’s reference to Miss Bendish’s ‘ready wit’ is completely ironic. It’s also amusing that JA hears sense only in what her cousin George (Cooke) has to say, which suggests, perhaps, that JA, with her tenacious memory, recalled this scene when she imagined another George (Knightley) in conversation with another young woman with “ready wit” (Harriet Smith!).

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