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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Emma Woodhouse as Fanny Knight, the rich girl who "refined too much" on refinement



I’ve long seen Emma Woodhouse as a thinly veiled portrait of Jane Austen’s eldest niece, Fanny Knight, who was, in 1814 (when JA was writing Emma) also a 21-year old heiress of a southern English country estate living with a long widowed, hypochondriac father. Because JA’s fictional portrait of her snobbish niece is, when fully understood, satirical and unflattering, the still widely held notion of Fanny K. as Jane’s “favourite niece” is, I suggest, one of the biggest myths about JA foisted on unsuspecting Janeites.

Here’s what I wrote 7 ½ years ago in Janeites and Austen-L on this topic:
“…after Box Hill, [Emma] does feel very bad for at least a short while, and she believes she has, through the acute bad feelings engendered by Knightley's dressing down, become more sensitive to the real experience of someone like Miss Bates. But....still and all, at the end of the novel, it's hard to discern in her any real change, she's still the unconscious snob she was before. Look, e.g., at what she thinks about Harriet even then. Emma is the same kind of person as the one [i.e., Fanny Knight] who, in the twilight of her life, unrestrained by the stern voice of a Knightley, could write something like: 

“Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, and if she had lived fifty years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course tho’ superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes–but I think in later life their intercourse with Mrs. Knight (who was very fond & kind to them) improved them both & Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of ‘common-ness’ (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be more refined at least in intercourse with people in general. Both the aunts (Cassandra and Jane) were brought up in the most complete ignorance of the World & its ways (I mean as to fashion etc.) & if it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent, & the kindness of Mrs. Knight, who used often to have one or other of the sisters staying with her, they would have been, tho’ not less clever and agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society and its ways. If you hate all this I beg yr’ pardon, but I felt it at my pen’s end & it chose to come along & speak the truth.”

The resemblance to Emma is utterly, almost creepily uncanny, and it shows an unbelievable greatness of mind and prescience, that JA could in effect predict that such words might be written, in what is obvious and utter obliviousness, in the privacy of a personal letter where such ugliness of soul and mind would not be masked, over a half century after JA wrote Emma.” END QUOTE FROM MY 2008 POST

I’m back to revisit this topic, because of a textual discovery I came to after noticing the odd verb that Emma uses after Harriet ventures several guesses for the answer to Mr. Elton’s charade:  
"My dear Harriet, you must not refine too much upon this charade.—You will betray your feelings improperly, if you are too conscious and too quick, and appear to affix more meaning, or even quite all the meaning which may be affixed to it. Do not be overpowered by such a little tribute of admiration…”

What, I wondered, did Emma mean by “you must not refine too much upon this charade”? Google Books quickly revealed this to be an archaic usage of “refine”, for when we in 2016 use “overthink” or “obsess over”. I.e., Emma warns Harriet not to go off the deep end in giddy overreaction to Mr. Elton’s dropping off his charade (which, as we all know, he actually intended for Emma herself).

Having solved that tiny textual mystery, I was inspired to take a close look at the ways Jane Austen used the verb “refine”, as well as its adjectival (“refined”) and noun (“refinement”) forms, in her writing. It turns out that this word was a chameleon in JA’s hands, taking on several different shades of meaning when spoken by different characters in different contexts. Sorta like the word “nice”, the flexibility of which Henry Tilney pedantically, memorably and wittily deconstructed as folllows:
"Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word."

By that speech, we know for sure that Jane Austen was (no surprise!) a studier of words---but did you also notice “refinement” in his short list of words usurped by the universal “nice”? That was not accidental. Let’s take a turn through the many shades of “refinement” in Austen’s novels, culminating in the novel where it appears most frequently and variably---Emma. And guess what: at the end of our stroll, we’ll find ourselves back at the very “refined” Fanny Knight and her fictional alter ego Emma Woodhouse!


The modern dictionary definition of the verb “refine” breaks down into two closely related meanings:
“To remove impurities from (a substance), typically as part of an industrial process.
To improve (something) by making small changes, in particular to make (an idea, theory, or method) more subtle and accurate.”

Putting the science definition aside, here’s the catch I see in the other one---a catch I believe JA,  studier of words, also saw: i.e., what constitutes “improvement” and/or greater “subtlety” or “accuracy” is in the mind of the beholder.

So, in JA’s juvenilia Love and Freindship, Laura and her correspondent, both cultists of sensibility, repeatedly use “refined” to refer to extreme expressions of emotion as an “improvement” over ordinary levels. To them, those with refined (intense) sensibility constitute an aristocracy of the passionate heart:

“I soon perceived that tho' though Lovely and Elegant in her Person and tho' though Easy and Polite in her Address, she was of that INFERIOR ORDER OF BEINGS with regard to DELICATE FEELING, TENDER SENTIMENTS, and REFINED SENSIBILITY, of which Augusta was once one .….Nothing therefore could be expected from her ‒she could not be supposed to possess either EXALTED IDEAS, DELICATE FEELINGS or REFINED SENSIBILITIES ― She was NOTHING MORE THAN a mere good tempered, civil & obliging Young Woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her she was ONLY AN OBJECT OF CONTEMPT.…As I was SENSIBLE myself, that I had always behaved in a manner which reflected Honour on MY FEELINGS & REFINEMENTS…. whilst the rest of the party were devouring Green tea & buttered toast, we feasted ourselves in a more REFINED & SENTIMENTAL Manner by a confidential Conversation...I graciously promised that I would, but could not help observing that the unsimpathetic Baronet offered it more on account of my being the Widow of Edward than in being the REFINED & Amiable Laura.”

But, in The Watsons, written by JA more than a decade later, we find Elizabeth Watson using “refined” very differently---to describe sister Emma as a paragon of scrupulous attention to manners and restraint:
“I would rather do any thing than be Teacher at a school said her Sister. I have been at school, Emma, & know what a Life they lead; you never have. ‒
I should not like marrying a disagreable Man any more than yourself, ‒
 but I do not think there are many very disagreable Men; ‒
I think I could like any good humoured Man with a comfortable Income.
I suppose my Aunt brought you up to be rather REFINED.  Indeed I do not know. ‒
My Conduct must tell you how I have been brought up. I am no judge of it my self. I cannot compare my Aunt's method with any other persons, because I know no other.
But I can see in a great many things that you are very REFINED. I have observed it ever since you came home,
….I should like to look in upon you Emma. If it was but a good day with my Father, I wd. would wrap my self up, & James should drive me over, as soon as I had made Tea for him  & I should be with you by the time the Dancing began.
What! would you come late at night in this Chair?
To be sure I would. ‒ There, I said you were very REFINED; ‒ & that's an instance of it. ‒
Emma for a moment was silenced ‒ made no answer at last she said ‒
I wish Elizabeth, you had not made a point of my going to this Ball, I wish you were going instead of me.”

And it turns out that in JA’s completed, published novels, both of these very different meanings of “refined” reappear:

Earlier, in Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen revisits the sentimental “refinement” of Love & Freindship in these two passages, first in Brandon’s, and then in Elinor’s, respective descriptions of Marianne’s mind:

"Upon my word, I am not acquainted with the minutiae of [Marianne’s] principles. I only know that I never yet heard her admit any instance of a second attachment's being pardonable."
"This," said [Brandon], "cannot hold; but a change, a total change of sentiments—No, no, do not desire it; for when the romantic REFINEMENTS of a young mind are obliged to give way, how frequently are they succeeded by such opinions as are but too common, and too dangerous! I speak from experience….”

"No, no, no, it cannot be," [Marianne] cried; "’[Mrs. Jennings] cannot feel. Her kindness is not sympathy; her good-nature is not tenderness. All that she wants is gossip, and she only likes me now because I supply it."
Elinor had not needed this to be assured of the injustice to which her sister was often led in her opinion of others, by the irritable REFINEMENT of her own mind, and the too great importance placed by her on the delicacies of a strong SENSIBILITY, and the graces of a polished manner.

Although the usages of “refined” in NA, P&P, MP, and Persuasion are all interesting, I’ll bypass them to keep this post shorter, and cut to the real chase: Emma.

One of Emma’s favorite words is “refined”, and she uses it repeatedly in that second sense, i.e., as an antonym for “vulgar”:

“Harriet would have been a better match. If not wise or REFINED herself, she would have connected [Elton] with those who were; but Miss Hawkins, it might be fairly supposed from her easy conceit, had been the best of her own set.”

“Harriet kissed her hand in silent and submissive gratitude. Emma was very decided in thinking such an attachment no bad thing for her friend. Its tendency would be to raise and REFINE her mind—and it must be saving her from the danger of degradation.”

"I think Mrs. Goddard would be very much surprized if she knew what had happened [i.e., if Harriet had married Robert Martin]. I am sure Miss Nash would—for Miss Nash thinks her own sister very well married, and it is only a linen-draper."
"One should be sorry to see greater pride or REFINEMENT in the teacher of a school, Harriet. I dare say Miss Nash would envy you such an opportunity as this of being married. Even this conquest would appear valuable in her eyes. As to any thing superior for you, I suppose she is quite in the dark…”

“Emma made no answer, and tried to look cheerfully unconcerned, but was really feeling uncomfortable and wanting [Knightley] very much to be gone. She did not repent what she had done; she still thought herself a better judge of such a point of female right and REFINEMENT than he could be; but yet she had a sort of habitual respect for his judgment in general, which made her dislike having it so loudly against her…”

“Harriet would have been a better match. If not wise or REFINED herself, she would have connected [Elton] with those who were; but Miss Hawkins, it might be fairly supposed from her easy conceit, had been the best of her own set.”

“Harriet kissed her hand in silent and submissive gratitude. Emma was very decided in thinking such an attachment no bad thing for her friend. Its tendency would be to raise and REFINE her mind—and it must be saving her from the danger of degradation.”

And Emma is not alone. Knightley used “refined” in a similar sense when describing Harriet to Mrs. Weston:   ”... And as for Harriet, I will venture to say that she cannot gain by the acquaintance. Hartfield will only put her out of conceit with all the other places she belongs to. She will grow just REFINED enough to be uncomfortable with those among whom birth and circumstances have placed her home. I am much mistaken if Emma's doctrines give any strength of mind, or tend at all to make a girl adapt herself rationally to the varieties of her situation in life.—They only give a little polish."

And so does Frank Churchill in describing Jane Fairfax:   “…though the event of the 26th ult., as you will conclude, immediately opened to me the happiest prospects, I should not have presumed on such early measures, but from the very particular circumstances, which left me not an hour to lose. I should myself have shrunk from any thing so hasty, and she would have felt every scruple of mine with multiplied strength and REFINEMENT.—But I had no choice. The hasty engagement she had entered into with that woman…”

But the chameleon takes on yet another shade in the following narration, which sardonically deploys an ironic oxymoron, “refined nonsense”:

“Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School—not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of REFINED nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon  NEW principles and NEW systems…”

And that irony, the sense that Jane Austen was skewering the snobbery of the ersatz “refinement” that passed for worthiness in the minds of Emma and other rich snobs of the Regency Era, is what leads me to my final destination: as promised, back to Fanny Knight, who at age 75, looked back on her Aunt Jane and Aunt Cassandra, and sounded exactly like Emma talking about Harriet!

Here’s my punch line—look against at the first half of Fanny’s diss of her “vulgar” aunts, and you’ll see that she used the Emma-esque word “refined” four times, and all of them dripping with brazen snobbery!:

“Yes my love it is very true that AUNT JANE from various circumstances WAS NOT SO REFINED AS SHE OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN from her talent, and if she had lived fifty years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to OUR MORE REFINED TASTES. They were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & THEY of course tho’ superior in mental powers & cultivation WERE ON THE SAME LEVEL AS FAR AS REFINEMENT GOES–but I think in later life their intercourse with Mrs. Knight (who was very fond & kind to them) IMPROVED THEM BOTH & Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of ‘common-ness’ (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be MORE REFINED at least in intercourse with people in general.

As I said in 2008, what greatness of mind in JA, to predict Fanny’s self-revealing snobbery more than a half century before Fanny unwittingly preserved it for eternity in her own words. And what a lack of true refinement in Fanny, in the sense that Juliet McMaster described so beautifully a few years back, in describing the refining effect of Gothic literature on the mind of Catherine Morland:

“I know that this passage can be read as a complete rejection of gothic and its artificial chilling of the spine. For many a year I read it that way myself. But now I believe that those synthetic horrors of fiction have actually given her fuller access to her own experience, deepened her consciousness, refined her awareness. Isn’t that what literature is supposed to do for us?”

Indeed, that is what Jane Austen does for her readers: the more time and effort we invest in deeper study of her words, the greater the refinement in awareness we gain as a result.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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