The other day, I had one of those rare epiphanies which bring a major aspect of one of her novels into startling new focus. Although I am still researching all the implications of my Aha! Moment, I want to reveal the bare bones of my insight now.
I have known since 2005 that the novel Emma is riddled, from one end to the other, with subliminal imagery pointing to pregnancy--but I have always believed that the sole purpose of that imagery was to point to Jane Fairfax's concealed pregnancy. Last week, it occurred to me that Jane Austen (in her typical Mrs. Norris-like fashion) would have made thrifty double use of that concealed pregnancy imagery--and the way she did it is, simply, breathtaking.
In a nutshell, as my punning Subject Line hints, there is a whole network of textual winks and hints in Emma which deliberately create a subliminal portrait of the heroine Emma Woodhouse as an EMBRYO!
I could write 10 pages detailing all the dozen ways in which Jane Austen accomplishes this masterful feat, and at some point I will, but not today. For now, I will merely point out one crucial allusive source that inspired Jane Austen to attempt (and pull off) such an extraordinary authorial stunt---the highly influential 18th century novel which I have previously identified, in a very different context, as a key allusive source for Jane Austen's fiction, including Emma----Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy! In that (so to speak) seminal novel, as a hundred literary scholars have explored during the past century, Sterne plays metafictionally way outside the box with the conceit of his protagonist as a fetus and baby. And so his naming his novel for his protagonist is especially fitting, given that he is both the narrator AND his own birth and infancy are at the heart of that narration.
And that is exactly what JA does in Emma (right down to naming the novel for her heroine, the only one of the six novels to be so titled), but of course in a completely original way which I find vastly superior to Sterne's heavy handed tactics. The nine months chronology of the novel not only corresponds to the term of Jane Fairfax's concealed pregnancy, it also corresponds to the forced metaphorical expulsion of embryonic Emma from her safe, insulated womb at Hartfield into the cold hard reality of marriage to a pedophile greedy to put his hands on her fortune. No wonder Emma cries like a newborn after Knightley castigates her for her mockery of Miss Bates at Box Hill:
“There was only Harriet, who seemed not IN SPIRITS, fagged, and very willing to be silent; and Emma felt the TEARS running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.”
Extraordinary tears indeed—but Emma is being born into another form of confinement and imprisonment- the institution of marriage in Regency Era England.
And I leave you with the Shandyesque suggestion that you think in a startling new way about Mr. Woodhouse's fear of open windows........ ;)
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