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

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mr. Perry & Mr. Otway: (Mis)identification of Horsemen Outside Hartfield in Chapters 41 & 45 of Emma

In Janeites, Rita Lamb wrote, in response to my claims that Mr. Perry is not the horseman identified in Chapter 41 of Emma:  

“You say that any ingenious analyst could make a plausible case for interpreting this EITHER as a true, objective statement, OR as broadly meaning ‘it was the gentlemen who said he passed by’. But the text gives no room for interpretation. The author might, had she wished, have phrased it more doubtfully: ’The gentlemen noticed Mr Perry riding by, and spoke of his horse.’ In that case your ingenious analyst would have material to work on. Here, there are only three bald statements.  The narrator tells us: 
 1) ‘As they were turning into the grounds,’
 2) ‘Mr Perry passed by on horseback.’
  and then
 3) ‘The gentlemen spoke of his horse.
So I come back to my main problem.  How exactly do you know JA was hinting at unreliability in statement 2, but not in statements 1 and 3?  And what, other than the reader’s subjective decision, is to guide us in deciding when the narrator means just what she says?”  END QUOTE

Rita, I can dispose of your last point most easily. We know they were turning into the grounds because we have a great deal of additional corroborative narrative data in that same short passage that substantiates it.  Unless Emma is herself an active hallucinator of perceptual events, they all really must be there.  I have never claimed that Emma is  psychotic, only clueless—there’s s a huge difference.  Mr. Woodhouse, on the other hand, is psychotic.

And we also know that the gentlemen spoke, because we have a great deal of actual dialog spoken by them immediately following that bit of narration.

But the only evidence that it is actually Mr. Perry who is sighted are the words spoken by Emma’s companions. The former is reliable, the latter is (potentially) unreliable.

Mr. Perry the alleged horseman may be dead, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse (sorry…), but I fear I must extend my reply a bit longer.

I first reiterate that JA plays with the boundary between objective and subjective narration throughout all her novels, but by far the most in Emma.  My theory as to why Emma is different in that way is that by the time she was writing Emma, she had three years of experience, being continually and genuinely surprised by how little of her winking and hinting in her first 3 published novels had been noticed, even by some of her sharp readers. She realized, I believe, that she had been a little too subtle in her hints (like Lucy Ferrars = = > Lucifer) , so, in Emma, she upped the ante significantly—which is exactly why it is Emma, and not any of the other 5 novels, which is credited by so many literary scholars and ordinary Janeites alike as one of the earliest detective stories in literature. All of her novels actually are detective stories, but in Emma, she underscores that aspect considerably.

For now, I would also like to give you one other example of where the narration is filtered through Emma’s point of view, even though the sequence of sentences does not in itself make that clear. This is from Chapter 10 and describes Harriet and Mr. Elton.

“The lovers were standing together at one of the windows. It had a most favourable aspect; and, for half a minute, Emma felt the glory of having schemed successfully.”

Now, objectively speaking, were Harriet and Mr. Elton really “lovers”? When first reading Emma, it would be reasonable to infer that the narrator was telling us that they were, but of course upon rereading, the conventional interpretation is that they are only lovers in Emma’s imagination, and thus this context leads the reader to conclude that this is subjective and inaccurate information, generated solely by Emma.

But note that the first sentence in that short paragraph taken alone, sounds objective, as to Harriet and Elton being lovers. It is only in the next sentence that we read “Emma felt” and relate that BACK to the description of the “lovers”.  We use the context of a bit of narration in order to decide if it is objective, subjective, or ambiguous.

That is very similar to what JA does with Mr. Perry supposedly passing by on horseback. Emma is there in both cases observing, but I claim that these are also the same in that Emma is making an inaccurate inference about what she thinks she sees.

The only difference is that nowhere else in the novel do you find any explicit statement debriefing you that it really wasn’t Mr. Perry on horseback in Chapter 41, whereas you do find out after Chapter 10 that Harriet and Mr. Elton were not lovers……

…..OR DO YOU??? I’ve laid a trap there, because it is also my interpretation of the shadows of Emma that Harriet and Mr. Elton HAVE already been lovers (in the carnal sense) before that scene in Chapter 10! I will not even try to list all the reasons why I make that interpretation, I only point it out, because there is NO objective narration whatsoever that establishes that Harriet and Elton were not intimate during the first third of the novel. You show it to me if you think it exists.

Yes, we can be reasonably sure that Mr. Elton does not ever plan to marry Harriet, but that is not the same as saying that the two of them did not engage in some fully mutually consensual sexual acts without a thought of marrying each other, while each of them really had their marital plans focused much higher (Harriet on Mr. Knightley, Elton of course on Emma).

So, we have irony within irony within irony--- i.e., on first reading, Elton and Harriet do seem to be lovers; on second reading, they seem not to be lovers, but on my sort of third reading, they seem to be lovers once again, but this time in a much different sense of the word “lovers”.

And….I am also very glad that you pressed your point further, because in rereading some parts of Emma getting ready to respond to you, I stumbled upon another of JA’s master touches, which even more directly supports my claim that it was not Mr. Perry who rode by on horseback.

First, here is the fuller context of the passage in Chapter 41 when Mr. Perry seems to be sighted:

“[Knightley] had walked up one day after dinner, as he very often did, to spend his evening at Hartfield. Emma and Harriet were going to walk; he joined them; and, on returning, they fell in with a larger party, who, like themselves, judged it wisest to take their exercise early, as the weather threatened rain; Mr. and Mrs. Weston and their son, Miss Bates and her niece, who had accidentally met. They all united; and, on reaching Hartfield gates, Emma, who knew it was exactly the sort of visiting that would be welcome to her father, pressed them all to go in and drink tea with him. The Randalls party agreed to it immediately; and after a pretty long speech from Miss Bates, which few persons listened to, she also found it possible to accept dear Miss Woodhouse's most obliging invitation.
As they were turning into the grounds, Mr. Perry passed by on horseback. The gentlemen spoke of his horse.
"By the bye," said Frank Churchill to Mrs. Weston presently, "what became of Mr. Perry's plan of setting up his carriage?"

So, Emma and her walking companions are all standing just inside the Hartfield sweep gate when the horseman riding by is spotted and identified as Mr. Perry, which prompts the long group discussion of Mr. Perry’s carriage.

Now, take a look at the following parallel passage four chapters later in Chapter 45:

“…settling it with her father, that she would take her walk now, she and Mr. Weston were soon out of the house together and on their way at a quick pace for Randalls.
"Now,"—said Emma, when they were fairly beyond the sweep gates,—"now Mr. Weston, do let me know what has happened."
[Emma and Mr. Weston speak for a moment while walking, then…]
…"Who is that gentleman on horseback?" said she, as they proceeded—speaking more to assist Mr. Weston in keeping his secret, than with any other view.
"I do not know.—One of the Otways.—Not Frank;—it is not Frank, I assure you. You will not see him. He is half way to Windsor by this time."

I call it a parallel passage because in both instances, a man on horseback is identified by sight. And not only that, this identification in Chapter 45 occurs when Emma and Mr. Weston are both standing at almost the identical spot they were standing in Chapter 41!

In Chapter 41, the group was just turning into the Hartfield grounds at the sweep gate. In Chapter 45, Emma and Mr. Weston exchange a few very short speeches that lasts about 10 seconds just outside the Hartfield sweep gate.

So….if Mr. Weston couldn’t accurately identify with certainty a man passing by on horseback in Chapter 45, why should we assume that he would be able to perform exactly that same perceptual judgment accurately from the same spot a few weeks later?

Note also that the visibility would have been better in Chapter 45 than in Chapter 41, because in the former, it is morning and the weather is, as far as we know, clear, whereas in Chapter 41, it was after dinner and there were threatening rain clouds---therefore less illumination.  

I suggest that the difference is simply that in Chapter 41, Mr. Weston (and indeed all the others present except the impish Frank) intend to deceive Emma, whereas the identity of the horseman is not important, so Mr. Weston has no reason to conceal that he really can’t tell who it is on horseback from that distance.

(Which is not to say that this passing mention of Mr. Otway is not significant for some other reason—because I believe it is. But that is a topic for another discussion)

Now, I invite you to reread both of the above quoted passages one more time with all of these points in mind. Then you can believe, if you want to, that JA inserted this brief exchange about the identity of a horseman between Emma and Mr. Weston, only four chapters after the “sighting” of Mr. Perry at virtually the same spot, and provided all these details as I’ve described, for no particular purpose. I choose to attribute to Jane Austen, the unbelievably meticulous and economical literary artist, the full intent to wink repeatedly, in a variety of subtle ways designed to be detected by sharp elves, at Mr. Perry’s not really being the man who rode by Hartfield in Chapter 41.

Cheers, ARNIE
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