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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Babies, Incest, Riddles, & the Bad Air of South End: Emma Chapter 12 as black comedy version of an SVU Episode



Diane Reynolds wrote the following summary of Emma Chapter 12 in our ongoing group read in Janeites & Austen L: 

“The chapter opens with Emma deciding to make it up to Mr. Knightley and doing so by greeting him as he visits with her niece (and his niece), baby Emma, in her arms, a bit if artifice that Emma uses to disarm him. Again, atmospherics come into play--the text never says that the current baby Emma reminds Mr. Knightley of the baby Emma he remembers from when he was 16--the baby Emma who is now the grown up Emma holding a baby Emma--but clearly the implication--or background note--is all over the passage. And Emma works very hard to be a peacemaker, to smooth over differences for the family Christmas. The baby gambit works. Mr. K is led to "talk on of them in the usual way" and to take the baby in his own arms with "all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity." Mr. K does then lecture the older Emma in an overbearing way, accusing her of being under the power of "fancy" and "whim" in her dealings with adults, but not so with children--and if she would act with men and women as she did with children they might "always think alike." “

As usual, Diane, your attention gravitates to the most significant aspects of each chapter which lead off the page into shadowy realms. In this case, you rightly pick up on what I see as the latent pedophilia in which Chapter 12 is drenched, as I will now explain.

First, it’s Knightley’s disturbingly fond free associations from holding a baby girl in his arms to remembering holding the infant version of his now 21 year old sister in law in his then 16 year old arms.

The universal response should be “EEEWWWW!”  The creepiness factor is off the charts. It was a memorable moment at the 2011 JASNA AGM in Ft. Worth when Andrew Davies drew a collective gasp from 800 attendees at his plenary address by daring to suggest that Knightley’s interest in Emma is very disturbing.


Diane also wrote: “He is holding baby Emma when he agrees with the adult Emma. "Yes ... I was sixteen years old when you were born."  How can the baby Emma he is holding not be jogging this memory--and awareness--of their age difference? How can he not be thinking of adult Emma in her babyhood? Emma tries to reduce the difference Mr, K perceives by noting that she is now 21, implying they are both now adults, which they are. But Mr. K won't give it up: "I have still the advantage of you by 16 years experience" and then he says patronizingly, pointing directly to his male privilege, "and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child." If Emma looks to establish some equality with him as an adult--and she IS an adult--he insists on characterizing her  as a child. Mr. K then turns to address baby Emma directly, asking her to tell her aunt to set  "a better example than renewing old grievances."

Indeed, Jane Austen is showing us, without saying it out loud, that the age difference is what really turns Knightley on --- he’s like one of the pedophiles on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit who loses interest in his victim unless he can keep seeing her as very young. We see Knightley in this scene charmed by Emma from angry thwarted petulance to smiling joviality—we see a side of him we’d rather not.

This whole creepy theme will be revisited, in spades, when Emma and Mrs. Weston chortle over baby Anna Weston near the end of the novel.

But enough about Knightley---I say the chapter is drenched in pedophilia, because the far greater portion of Chapter 12 is then given over to Mr. Woodhouse’s disturbingly strong feelings about having some alone time with daughter Isabella.  We see that Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse have an awful (all puns intended) lot in common when it comes to their attentions to much young females--- in their own families, no less.

Otherwise, I will also note that last year I posted several times about my seeing Mr. Perry as Mr. Woodhouse’s imaginary friend…..
….as to which the narrator (audaciously) slides in a giant hint to that effect at the very end of this chapter, in which Mr. Perry is mentioned a dozen times:

“Mr. Woodhouse was rather agitated by such harsh reflections on his friend Perry, to whom he had, in fact, though unconsciously, been attributing many of his own feelings and expressions…”

I love that “though unconsciously”, because it perfectly plays on the double meaning of that word—on the surface, it appears to mean “unintentionally”, but, against the grain, it means that Mr. Woodhouse is completely unaware that Mr. Perry is his IMAGINARY friend, not a living, breathing person.

And in the middle of those three posts, I point out how Mr. Woodhouse is a representation of the depraved incestuous King in Shakespeare’s very disturbing “romance”  Pericles: Prince of Tyre”, the King who gets off on killing potential suitors for his daughter by posing them a riddle, the answer to which is father-daughter incest. And Chapter 12 is perhaps the epicenter of that incestuous subtext, given that both Knightley AND Mr. Woodhouse take center stage in that regard, one after the other.


And…I’ve also written about this Chapter 12 from another shadow perspective, i.e., that the “mud” at “South End”, and the “bad air”, and Isabella’s assurances to her father that Brunswick Square has clean air, are all part of Jane Austen’s inter-novel theme of the pervasive presence of  feces (both animal and human) on the ground in Jane Austen’s world, especially in the parts of towns where the likes of Miss Bates and Mrs. Smith live:



And… to conclude,  if you use your imagination a little bit, you realize that these two themes, of incest and obsession with “south ends”, are directly connected, such that these two “codes” overlap in a most disturbing way.

And all of it goes entirely over Emma’s head—this is bravura hiding in plain sight on Jane Austen’s part.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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