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

Friday, August 8, 2014

Emma's Heap of Rationalizations about Knightley's Almost Hand-Kiss

Nancy: "Jane Austen was quoted as saying that hand kissing should be left to foreigners. Anyone know the place or when she said this?"

Nancy,  I checked online and in my files, and I could find no such quotation anywhere. So, I could be wrong, but my guess is that you are not remembering something JA wrote explicitly in a letter or a novel, but that you are instead subconsciously extrapolating that inference from two famous passages in Emma.

First, here is Knightley dissing Frank:

“…No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English. He may be very 'amiable,' have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people: nothing really amiable about him."

So Knightley is quite dismissive of Frank’s manners, which would probably include flattery of  women via kissing their hands.  And it turns out, I claim, that such statement by Knightley is a bookend  to the second passage I will now quote, which occurs when Knightley shows up at Hartfield to tell Emma he is leaving for London:

“Emma's colour was heightened by this unjust praise; and with a smile, and shake of the head, which spoke much, she looked at Mr. Knightley.—It seemed as if there were an instantaneous impression in her favour, as if his eyes received the truth from hers, and all that had passed of good in her feelings were at once caught and honoured.— He looked at her with a glow of regard. She was warmly gratified—and in another moment still more so, by a little movement of more than common friendliness on his part.—He took her hand;—whether she had not herself made the first motion, she could not say—she might, perhaps, have rather offered it—but he took her hand, pressed it, and certainly was on the point of carrying it to his lips—when, from some fancy or other, he suddenly let it go.—Why he should feel such a scruple, why he should change his mind when it was all but done, she could not perceive.—He would have judged better, she thought, if he had not stopped.—The intention, however, was indubitable; and whether it was that his manners had in general so little gallantry, or however else it happened, but she thought nothing became him more.—It was with him, of so simple, yet so dignified a nature.—She could not but recall the attempt with great satisfaction. It spoke such perfect amity….”

Now, the conventional interpretation of that passage, I think it safe to say, is that from Emma’s perspective, it turned out to be even more romantic for Knightley to take her hand and almost kiss it, than for him to actually kiss it.  But, the hidden beauty of this scene is that JA subtly clues us in every step of the way that Emma is actually making a rapid fire series of assumptions about what Knightley is thinking or feeling, without any evidence to support any of her inferences.

Notice in particular that Emma at first thinks he took her hand, only to grudgingly admit to herself a second later that she actually proffered her hand to him! And then, similarly, she imagines that he doesn’t kiss her hand, because he has felt some sudden scruple. So, how wonderful that the simplest, most plausible reading of this passage is actually that Knightley neither took her hand, nor, after she tendered it to him, ever intended to kiss it—regardless of how “indubitable” his intentions might have seemed to Emma!

Viewed in that sensible light, Emma can then be seen to be rationalizing, in deciding that his (imaginary) attempt to kiss her hand, and then his (imaginary) scrupling not to, are even more romantic than an actual kiss of the hand! Rationalization piled up to the sky! I.e., Emma, in Chapter 45, is still constructing elaborate imaginary interpretations of other people’s behavior, and of her own for that matter, just as much as she was in Chapter 1---the idea that her wild imagination is tempered and chastened by Box Hill is not supported by subtle passages like these.

And my apparent digression is, I will now show, directly responsive to your original question, Nancy. I.e., I suggest it would be very dangerous to extrapolate from these passages in Emma the inference that Jane Austen herself thought that hand-kissing was overrated in the heartstring-pulling department, and that she preferred the Knightleyesque unromantically romantic method of almost kissing, but then thinking better of it, out of the kind of “English delicacy” that Knightley advocated for earlier.

We only know from the above passage, as I laid  out, that Emma rationalized things that way.

And by the way, it also occurs to me that the following passage is actually related to the above discussion:

"Harriet kissed [Emma's] hand in silent and submissive gratitude."

Of course, this is a few chapters before Emma imagines Knightley’s almost kissing her hand, and it is, I suggest, Emma's fantasy that Harriet’s kissing Emma’s hand is an expression of submissive gratitude.  I think that is Emma’s fantasy, because I believe Harriet knows full well at that moment that Emma thinks Harriet is talking about Harriet's deserving Frank's love, when in reality Harriet believes she deserves  Knightley's love.

But it’s another sign of the gossamer web of interconnection that unites the entire text of Emma, that perhaps Emma subconsciously was prompted to offer her hand to Knightley in Chapter 45, thereby unwittingly seeking to repeat the gratification that Harriet’s hand-kiss provided to Emma a few chapters  earlier.

Before concluding this post, I will pass along two other Austen nuggets having to do with hand-kissing.

First, I never noticed an oddity in Admiral Croft narration of the passing parade to Anne Elliot as they stroll around Bath:

"...There comes old Sir Archibald Drew and his grandson. Look, he sees us: he kisses his hand to you; he takes you for my wife. Ah! the peace has come too soon for that younker..."

I wonder exactly how a gentleman would “kiss his hand” to a woman --- my best guess is that this is an archaic linguistic ancestor of what we today call "throwing a kiss", where the inside of the middle fingers is kissed, and then the hand is waved outward. Do you agree?

And the other tidbit I offer, without further commentary, is a passage I found in Burney’s Camilla which was identified many years ago in Janeites as a possible source for the Knightley-Emma almost-hand-kiss scene. I think that identification is spot-on, although I don’t claim to know Camilla well enough to explain why JA would  have covertly alluded to it. Here it is:  

“As they rode into the park, and while he was earnestly endeavouring to form some palliation, by which he, might exculpate what seemed to him so guilty in the strange meeting and its strange circumstances, he perceived Camilla herself, walking upon the lawn. He saw she had observed him, and saw, from her air, she seemed irresolute if to re-enter the house, or await him.
Jacob, significantly pointing her out, offered to shew the effect he could produce by what he could relate; but Edgar, giving him the charge of his horse, earnestly besought him to retire in quiet, and to keep his opinions and experiments to himself.
Each now, separately, and with nearly equal difficulty, strove to attain fortitude to seek an explanation. They approached each other; Camilla with her eyes fixed upon the ground, her air embarrassed, and her cheeks covered with blushes; Edgar with quick, but almost tottering steps, his eyes wildly avoiding hers, and his complexion pale even to indisposition.
When they were met within a few yards, they stopt; Camilla still without courage to look up, and Edgar striving to speak, but finding no passage for his voice. Camilla, then, ashamed of her situation, raised her eyes, and forced herself to say, 'Have you been into the house? Have you seen my cousin Lynmere?'
'No . . . madam.'
Struck with a cold formality that never before, from Edgar, had reached her ears, and shocked by the sight of his estranged and altered countenance, with the cruel consciousness that appearances authorised the most depreciating suspicions, she advanced, and holding out her hand, 'Edgar,' she gently cried, 'are you ill? Or only angry?'
'O Camilla!' he answered, 'can you deign to use to me such a word? can you distort my dearest affections, convulse my fairest hopes, eradicate every power of happiness . . . yet speak with so much sweetness. . . yet look at me with such mildness? Such softness. . . I had almost said . . . such kindness?'
Deeply affected, she could hardly stand. He had taken her offered hand, but in a manner so changed from the same action the preceding day, that she scarce knew if he touched while he held it, scarce felt that he relinquished, as almost immediately she withdrew it.
But her condescension at this moment was rather a new torment than any solace to him. The hand which she proferred, and which the day before had received as the token of permanent felicity, he had now seen in the possession of another, with every licence, every apparent mark of permitted rapture in which he had been indulged himself. He knew not to whom it of right belonged; and the doubt not merely banished happiness, but mingled resentment with misery.
'I see,' cried she, after a mortified pause; 'you have lost your good opinion of me . . . I can only, therefore. . . .' She stopt, his melancholy silence was a confirmation of her suggestion that offended her into more exertion, and, with sensibility raised into dignity, she added, 'only hope your intended tour to the Continent may take place without delay!'
She would then have walked on to the house; but following her, 'Is all over?' he cried, 'and is it thus, Camilla, we part?'
'Why not?' said she, suppressing a sigh, yet turning back.
'What a question! cruel Camilla! Is this all the explanation you allow me?'
'What other do you wish?'
'All! . . . every other! . . . that meeting . . . those letters. . .'
'If you have any curiosity yet remaining . . . only name what you desire.'
'Are you indeed so good?' cried he, in a voice that shewed his soul again melting; 'those letters, then . . . .'
'You shall have them . . . every one!' she cried, with alacrity; and instantly taking out her pocket-book, presented him with the prepared packet.
Penetrated by this unexpected openness and compliance, he snatched her hand, with intent to press it to his lips; but again the recollection he had seen that liberty accorded to Sir Sedley, joined to the sight of his writing, checked him; he let it go; bowed his thanks with a look of grateful respect, and attempting no more to stop her, walked towards the summer house, to peruse the letters.”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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