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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The ghostwriter for Robert Martin AND Frank Churchill!: Knightley holds ALL the pens in Highbury!



Mr. Knightley is well known to Janeites for what he pontificates to Emma on the topic of honest speech and undeceptive behavior. The most famous examples will suffice:

First, while discussing Frank’s endless putting off visiting Highbury,  Knightley pronounces this harsh (and most would agree, jealous) verdict on his younger rival for Emma’s affections:

"There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by manoeuvring and finessing, but by vigour and resolution…. It ought to have been a habit with him by this time, of following his duty, instead of consulting expediency.”

Then, much later, while observing the Regency Era version of Scrabble played at Donwell Abbey, he sees Frank as dishonest:

“These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick. It was a child's play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill's part.”

And then finally, just before Knightley works up to asking Emma to marry him, he sums his own character up thusly:

“…you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me.—I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.—Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them.”

“nothing but truth”—no hedging there. So Knightley enjoys the reputation among many Janeites as the symbol of Austenian integrity and honesty—blunt spoken, without sugar-coating, like Darcy an abhorrer of trickery. But, aside from being an honest man in his own mind, and in the mind of the young woman whose mind he has formed—Emma—whose perceptions so strongly color the reader’s perceptions--what objective evidence is there that he is as strictly honest as he says he is?

Turns out that the idea of Knightley as himself a perpetrator of tricks and deceptions is not one raised for the first time in this late 2014 group read of Emma. It has been around for nearly 30 years at least.

In 1986, Jocelyn Harris, in her still influential  Jane Austen’s Art of Memory, suggests that Knightley plays Cupid by deliberately conspiring with his brother to throw Harriet Smith and Robert Martin together in London in order to reignite the flame of love between them—and surely that thought has crossed the minds of a Janeite or three, upon rereading the novel.

To believe Knightley capable of this sort of devious intervention does not shock the average Janeite, I suggest, because it does not require a radical reappraisal of Knightley as a man devoted to honesty and duty. In a phrase, this would be the exception that proves the rule, i.e., Knightley could thus be seen as working behind the scenes, in an extraordinary case, to right a great wrong, i.e., to undo the damage done by his beloved Emma when she put the kibosh on Harriet’s accepting Robert Martin’s proposal when Harriet wanted to. As Portia might have put it, sometimes mercy trumps law.

That makes Knightley something like Darcy, who also famously abhors deception and trick, but also acts behind the scenes to bring Wickham to the church to marry Lydia.

But Knightley’s offstage actions have not all been perceived in a positive light. In 1988, Reginald Hill’s story “Poor Emma” portrays a very dark version of Knightley after he and Emma have been married a while.  Hill’s Knightley is no charmer, I assure you, and he gets the bad end he richly deserves.  But most Janeites will say, this is just Reginald Hill’s sophisticated version of fan fiction, and is not based on anything in the actual text of the novel that Jane Austen intended to be perceived by her readers.

Which brings us to 2002, where we find the first published suggestion that Knightley might have ghostwritten Robert Martin’s letter of proposal to Harriet, which Emma is surprised to find so well written:

"Yes, indeed, a very good letter," replied Emma rather slowly—"so good a letter, Harriet, that every thing considered, I think one of his sisters must have helped him. I can hardly imagine the young man whom I saw talking with you the other day could express himself so well, if left quite to his own powers, and yet it is not the style of a woman; no, certainly, it is too strong and concise; not diffuse enough for a woman. No doubt he is a sensible man, and I suppose may have a natural talent for—thinks strongly and clearly—and when he takes a pen in hand, his thoughts naturally find proper words. It is so with some men. Yes, I understand the sort of mind. Vigorous, decided, with sentiments to a certain point, not coarse. A better written letter, Harriet (returning it,) than I had expected."

Here is what Prof. Barbara Mann wrote on this subject in the 2002 issue of Persuasions:

“ ‘Your portion is unhappily so small:’ Jane Austen and the Dreadful Proposal”
“…Mr. Knightley angrily accused Emma of having written Harriet's refusal herself--she had--but it is just as obvious that he had written Mr. Martin's proposal. ("'Yes, indeed,'" Emma mused, "'a very good letter,'" so well composed that she could not help wondering whether the Martin sisters had written it for Robert.) Mr. Knightley's ire over Emma's interference (his own did not count) far outweighed the strength of his regard for Martin, the cover story for his anger….” END QUOTE FROM ARTICLE

I became aware of Barbara’s article when the same thought reoccurred to me early in 2007, and I reached out to her and found that we were kindred spirits in our shared love of sleuthing around in Jane Austen’s shadows. I wrote the following in an email to her at the time:

“…I have been of that exact same opinion for several years now, but yours is the only other statement to that effect that I have seen….What I wanted to ask you was, did you (as I did originally) just realize that it was so right that this was so, because it explains so wonderfully why Knightley is PARTICULARLY upset, not only because of his stated reasons, but, to add insult to injury, he knows, but feels he cannot disclose to Emma, that her secret scheme has defeated HIS secret scheme! I am guessing that is the case, I cannot find that any commentator prior to yourself ever made that claim.
The closest thing was that Jocelyn Harris, in her 1986 Art of Memory, speculates that Knightley intentionally brings Harriet and Robert Martin together  at the end of the novel, something I realized at the same moment I realized about Knightley's writing Robert's proposal to Harriet. The two speculations fit together like (literally) bookends…” END QUOTE FROM MY EMAIL

I.e., Knightley ghostwriting and otherwise stage-managing Robert Martin’s first proposal to Harriet early in the novel not only better explains the intensity of his upset when Emma ghostwrites Harriet’s rejection letter, it also dovetails perfectly with Knightley stage-managing Robert Martin’s second proposal to Harriet late in the novel.

That strong sense of hidden connections fleshing out a main character spanning the length of a long novel is what tells me Jane Austen consciously crafted all of this. It shows that these are not isolated wormholes, they are connected and are indeed part of a network of clues to a coherent shadow story that includes a few hundred other such inverted plot elements. I am not so creative as to construct these connections entirely out of my own imagination—I am merely a determined and clever sleuth who understands the Jane Austen Code, and knows how to solve a complex puzzle. And I can also recognize the beauty and depths of that alternative fictional universe.

And once you adopt the hypothesis that Knightley is someone who talks the talk of abhorring manoeuvring, finesse, trick, expediency, and untruth, and yet fails to walk the walk, your eyes are opened to the possibility of other evidence of Knightley’s manoeuvring hidden in plain sight in the novel.

That’s why I wrote the following in February 2011 in my blog, Janeites, and Austen L:
“Now, however, what is most curious to me about Knightley's saying these particular words [“abominable scoundrel”] is that (as I pointed out during a Q&A at one of the plenary addresses at the JASNA AGM about Emma in Vancouver in 2007) they are all words which appear in very similar form in Frank's letter to Mrs. Weston. And why is that curious? Because it is a letter which Knightley will not (we are told) read it until Chapter 50, when he debriefs that letter with Emma as if he has never read a word of it before!”

In short, I’ve been of the firm opinion since early October 2007 that Knightley ghostwrites the second part of Frank Churchill’s letter to his stepmother—the part that begins with the words “The hasty engagement she had entered into with that woman—Here, my dear madam, I was obliged to leave off abruptly, to recollect and compose myself.—I have been walking over the country, and am now, I hope, rational enough to make the rest of my letter what it ought to be “!

In short, I imagine that Knightley has interrupted Frank as Frank was in the process of writing a very different letter to his stepmother, and Knightley has “persuaded”  Frank to take a radically new “path”.
But how could Knightley have ghostwritten Frank’s letter, when Frank was not even in Highbury?
Well, where was Knightley when Frank wrote his letter to Mrs. Weston? Just recall what we are reminded of in Chapter 49, right before we hear about, and read, Frank’s letter:

“There, with spirits freshened, and thoughts a little relieved, she had taken a few turns, when she saw Mr. Knightley passing through the garden door, and coming towards her.—It was the first intimation of his being returned from London. She had been thinking of him the moment before, as unquestionably sixteen miles distant.”

Oh yeah, Knightley was not in Highbury, and (supposedly) was staying with brother John in London. So, he could have spent some of that time in….Richmond? And perhaps having a friendly chat with Frank about the suspicious circumstances of Mrs. Churchill’s sudden death? Hmm…..

There is much much more behind that wormhole into the shadow story of Emma, but for today, I just want to point out how perfectly that all fits with the idea of Knightley ghostwriting Robert Martin’s proposal letter to Harriet, and of Knightley stage managing Robert Martin’s successful second attempt in London.

It’s a pattern that extends from one end of the novel to the other. It fits with the “summit conference” that Knightley holds with Mrs. Weston in Chapter 5, in which we learn just how seriously Knightley takes his role . It fits with the discussion of the inheritance of handwriting style in families in Chapter 34.  It fits with Knightley giving Mr. Woodhouse legal papers to sign, without the old man having the slightest idea of what he has signed away.

As I playfully suggest in my Subject Line—in which I conflate the sexual imagery of Darcy’s repartee with Caroline Bingley about “mending his own pen” with Anne Elliot’s debate with Harville about men “holding the pen” of literature for too long---the idea of Knightley as the Alpha Male of Highbury---ghostwriting letters for the Beta Males buzzing around him (Robert Martin, Frank Churchill, and Mr. Woodhouse)---and by metaphorical extension, Knightley writing and directing the “playscript” of the “play” that is story of the real life of the real people of Highbury----is a potent, indeed, a pregnant, one.

I see Knightley as a Regency Era Oberon, which opens the door to a plethora of questions as to the identity of the other two supernatural beings who control the lives of mortals--Titania and Puck. And the answers to those questions (as Deep Throat tells Woodward and Bernstein) lead EVERYWHERE.

And once more, we see how Jane Austen has absorbed Shakespeare so profoundly that she could create her own fictional worlds which rival those of her great master in their transcendent perfection and anamorphism.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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