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

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The stealthy serial ghost-writer of young men’s letters in Emma

In Austen-L, Elaine Pigeon wrote the following: “Given yesterday’s fascinating thread on Austen's attention to language, here is the link to the blog posting I mentioned on Austen's attention to speech patterns, how verbal style reflects character:  

Thanks, Elaine, I’d love to hear more of your reactions to Diane’s and my discussion of  JA’s usage of “refined” and “elegance”, and my seeing JA tagging her niece Fanny in Emma via the word “refined”. Here is the link to the post Elaine refers to:

As for the article you linked to, I see great unwitting irony in it, because Deborah Knuth is so strongly tied to safe, conservative interpretations of JA’s writing, not just in the piece you linked, but also in others she’s written for Sarah, and for JASNA, over the years. I.e., her close reading fails to fulfill the promise of her self-styled Holmesian approach to literary criticism. Knuth is not Holmes, but Lestrade or Watson, because she routinely opens doors to interesting insights, but then, like those two clueless gents, and also like Emma Woodhouse, takes a 90 degree turn away from the true significance of a discovery she’s nearly made, and instead retreats into door-shutting, unenlightening orthodoxy.

A quintessential example: when Knuth points out the obvious (that Knightley’s writing is terse and honest while Elton’s is clichéd and bloated), then promisingly quotes Emma’s thoughts about Robert Martin’s letter to Harriet:

“Emma was not sorry to be pressed. She read, and was surprized. The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling.”

However, here is Knuth’s unsatisfying analysis:

“Of course, this scene is not Emma’s finest hour. She does what she can to dampen her own undeniable judgment that Robert Martin’s proposal is “a very good letter.” She needs to bolster her fiction that Mr. Martin is beneath Harriet by suggesting that, “one of his sisters must have helped him” write it. This explanation comes from another fiction, that the Martin girls have had “a superior education” to their brother’s (Volume 1, Chapter 4). But the narrative voice, with ironical litotes, has already described Mrs. Goddard’s school as a place whose alumnae emerge “without any danger of coming back prodigies” (Volume 1, Chapter 3). And Emma never contradicts Mr. Knightley’s assessment that Harriet has “been taught nothing useful” in the course of her “very indifferent education” (Volume 1, Chapter 8). Nevertheless, it suits Emma’s string of falsehoods to claim that Mr. Martin’s plain-spoken proposal has been ghost-written.” END QUOTE FROM KNUTH ARTICLE

It apparently never entered Knuth’s mind, even as a possibility, that such plain, unaffected terseness is actually a giant clue that it is Knightley who has ghost-written Robert’s letter to Harriet! That’s a catch I made a decade ago. But what’s worse is that Knuth cracked the door of discovery more than once. I.e. she also missed that Emma’s suggestion to Harriet that “one of his sisters must have helped him write it”----which Knuth insightfully rebuts, saying there’s no reason to believe the Martin sisters could ghostwrite in a gentlemanly style---is actually a second large clue that it was indeed written with outside help, but it ish Knightley’s invisible hand, not the Martin sisters’s, which firmly guides Robert Martin’s.

And there’s yet a third giant clue which Knuth just plain misses. Knightley’s astonished red-faced overreaction to Emma’s boast that she put the kibosh on Robert Martin’s proposal, is a telltale marker that Knightley was not merely Robert’s mentor, but his ghostwriter. I.e., he gets SO upset, because his own best-laid plan has been effortlessly sabotaged by the off-the-cuff meddling of a 21-year old girl lacking his university education—who indeed never even reads the great books she intends to. That adds a  narcissistic injury to the frustration of his secret matchmaking for Robert and Harriet.

Now, how could such a complex, tightly-woven, and delicious irony be (as some might suggest) the product of my own overactive imagination, and not be Jane Austen’s intentional creation? It is far too beautiful and tightly interwoven to be anything other than my decoding what was already there in the text!

I have found it to be invariably the case that one discovery of a genuine Austen textual wormhole can and should be readily extrapolated to another, and now I’ll give you the best evidence thereof. Eight years ago, I stumbled upon evidence in the text of Emma that Knightley’s invisible hand was also behind the writing of Frank Churchill’s letter to Mrs. Weston—the letter that purports to debrief the entire mystery of Jane and Frank’s secret involvement--that is reproduced in full in Chapter 50! And it turned out there are not one but three textual clues pointing to Knightley’s being the true “author” of yet another young suitor’s letter.

First, in the text of Frank’s letter, there is, when one is reading closely, a noticeable and curious double transition partway through (coincidentally in the passage which I quoted yesterday that includes one of the usages in Emma of “refinement”):

“…—I must still add to this long letter. You have not heard all that you ought to hear. I could not give any connected detail yesterday; but the suddenness, and, in one light, the unseasonableness with which the affair burst out, needs explanation; for though the event of the 26th ult. [Mrs. Churchill’s sudden death], as you will conclude, immediately opened to me the happiest prospects [freedom to marry Jane], 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—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.—It is, in fact, a most mortifying retrospect for me. I behaved shamefully. And here I can admit, that my manners to Miss W., in being unpleasant to Miss F., were highly blameable. …”

Superficially, it appears that Frank got halfway through the letter before ceasing to write in the evening; then awoke and reread it in the morning, and started explaining the abruptness of the decision to end the secrecy, when he got so upset he had to stop, before continuing again. But JA gives us subtle signs alerting the sharp elves and amateur sleuths among us to look beneath the surface and to question both of these appearances.

First, we hear in Frank’s reference near the end of the novel to “this long letter” the subliminal ping of an echo of the “short” letter that Robert Martin wrote to Harriet near the beginning. Why would JA do this?
Well, if you read Frank’s letter up till right before “I must still add…”, you realize that it is quite plausible that Frank intended to end the letter right there! I.e., had the letter ended there, it would’ve been a short cogent letter which adequately covered its apparent purpose, i.e., for Frank to apologize for misleading Emma. The first part of the letter (surprisingly) gives relatively short shrift to Jane, which is strange, given that this is Frank’s first chance to explain to Mrs. Weston his secret relationship with Jane. Does this not suggest that Frank was still focused more on Emma than on Jane?

And what could have induced Frank to continue the letter the next day? Was it really that he recognized that he had forgotten to explain the suddenness of the revelation of his engagement to Jane? Or…is the better question “Who could have induced Frank to continue the letter the next day?”

And in asking that question, we realize a plausible answer—there was indeed a person we’ve met during the novel (i.e., a resident of Highbury), who (from my above analysis of the true authorship of Robert Martin’s letter) not only had shown a penchant for ghostwriting other men’s letters to women, but also just happened to NOT be physically present in Highbury on the very day Frank wrote his letter to Mrs. Weston----Of course, that person is Mr. Knightley!

Now, you immediately ask: But why would Knightley have leaned on Frank to continue that letter to Mrs. Weston? Indeed, why would Knightley have been with Frank in the first place at that moment, and then not have disclosed any of this to Emma? I have good answers to both of these questions, but they are far beyond the scope of this post. So please indulge me and, for the sake of argument, go along with me as if I had already shown you that he had good, even compelling, reasons of his own for doing so. So let’s keep reading the above quoted transitional passage in Frank’s letter, which contains more clues in that regard.

Once he presents his segue, Frank starts right in explaining the suddenness of the disclosure of his connection to Jane. But then, did you notice a second discontinuity? He starts out well enough, and seems to get to the point: “But I had no choice. 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….”

The reference to “that woman” can only be Mrs. Elton, and the “hasty engagement” seems to refer to Jane accepting the position of governess at the Smallridges. But Frank stops on a dime, then uses a curiously passive construction: “I was obliged to leave off abruptly”. What if this is not just a figure of speech, but Frank literally was abruptly obliged (i.e., forced) to leave off that specific line of explanation about Mrs. Elton BY another person, i.e., Knightley?

Frank explains that second interruption as his getting so upset that he had to stop to calm down---but did you ever notice that Frank does not return to the subject of Mrs. Elton for quite a while? When he does, it is indeed in relation to Jane going to Mrs. Smallridge. But…what if Frank was about to write something very different, and much more disturbing, about Jane’s “hasty engagement” with Mrs. Elton, but was prevented—again, by Knightley--and when Frank resumed, he was back on the page (so to speak) with a safe explanation that would not shock Emma.

You then ask, what unsafe explanation would Knightley have prevented Frank from giving? Again, I have a plausible answer to that question, but it is also far beyond the scope of this post, so I will now go on to the second clue that Knightley was the ghostwriter of the second half of Frank’s letter.

WAY back in Chapter 8, in the following heated exchange between Knightley and Emma when (what a coincidence) he shows up at Hartfield to discuss a young man’s letter), we read:

“…But what is the meaning of this? Harriet Smith refuse Robert Martin? madness, if it is so; but I hope you are mistaken."
"I saw her answer!—nothing could be clearer."
"You saw her answer!—YOU WROTE HER ANSWER TOO. Emma, this is your doing. You persuaded her to refuse him."
"And if I did, (which, however, I am far from allowing) I should not feel that I had done wrong….”

Now, what if this was Jane Austen’s way of suggesting to us, subliminally and upon rereading, that Emma could have said exactly the same thing to Knightley about Frank’s letter, had Emma understood what Knightley was up to, right behind her back? I say it was.

But the killer clue is the third one—a real doozie, and it’s found in Chapter 49, one chapter BEFORE Emma reads Frank’s letter, and two chapters before Knightley (supposedly) sees it—it’s right before Knightley appears to experience a setback in building up his nerve to propose to Emma, because he gathers from what Emma says to him that she is still nursing her wounds from Frank having been engaged to Jane all along:

“For a moment or two nothing was said, and she was unsuspicious of having excited any particular interest, till she found her arm drawn within his, and pressed against his heart, and heard him thus saying, in a tone of great sensibility, speaking low, "Time, my dearest Emma, time will heal the wound.—Your own excellent sense—your exertions for your father's sake—I know you will not allow yourself—." Her arm was pressed again, as he added, in a more broken and subdued accent, "The feelings of the warmest friendship—Indignation—Abominable scoundrel!"—And in a louder, steadier tone, he concluded with, "He will soon be gone. They will soon be in Yorkshire. I am sorry for her. She deserves a better fate."   

Where’s the clue in that passage that Knightley ghostwrote Frank’s letter, which we won’t even see till the next chapter? It’s in the words that Knightley mutters “in a more broken and subdued accent” (i.e., almost inaudibly and under his breath), before he returns to “a louder, steadier tone”:

"The feelings of the warmest friendship—Indignation—Abominable scoundrel!"

And why are those snippets a clue that Knightley dictated the second part of Frank’s letter? Because Frank’s letter contains the following passages, in the same order as Knightley mutters those exact same words, as Knightley muttered!:

“…With the greatest respect, and the WARMEST FRIENDSHIP, do I mention Miss Woodhouse…as soon as [Jane] found I was really gone from Randalls, she closed with the offer of that officious Mrs. Elton; the whole system of whose treatment of her, by the bye, has ever filled me with INDIGNATION and hatred…In short, my dear madam, it was a quarrel blameless on her side, ABOMINABLE on mine.”

Don’t you see? Knightley has come to Hartfield intending to propose, but he suffers a momentary loss of nerve, when Emma responds in such a way as to suggest she was really into Frank. So, while flustered, Knightley lets down his mask of deception, and mutters those broken phrases from the letter Knightley himself has just ghostwritten for Frank! But then, he catches himself, and gets back in character, relieved that Emma has once again failed to see a vital clue to what is really going on offstage behind her back.

And we can only identify this clue to Knightley’s deception of Emma, when we reread the novel, because we need to hear the echo of those three words/phrases from the letter to understand the true meaning of Knightley’s muttering. Having just ghostwritten Frank’s letter, Knightley’s head is full of its words and phrases! And by the time he shows up at Hartfield in Chapter 51 to read the letter for (supposedly) the first time, he plays his part perfectly, pretending surprise at what he reads.

And so, in summary, we can see this as the culmination of Emma’s uncritical acceptance, throughout the novel, of Knightley’s mantra—his repeated (and totally dishonest) humblebrag about his own plainspoken honesty. And it is also the culmination, in this most perfect of novels, of the passive reader’s same uncritical acceptance thereof Knightley’s cover story---even though, as I’ve shown in this post, Jane Austen gave us all the evidence we needed, in order to see that Knightley is the most dangerous schemer of all, because he so successfully cloaks his deception behind a mask of sincerity.

But, you may well then ask this final skeptical question: do I consider Jane Austen to also be a dangerous schemer who cannot be trusted by her readers? No, because I believe that JA, like her two most famous literary “protégés”, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, always played fair with her readers, and scattered sufficient clues in the texts of her fiction to enable us to solve her mysteries. I.e., she hoped we’d put on our own deerskin caps and solve the quotidian mysteries she presented to us for our delight, but also our education in seeing through the deceptions (both by others and even more so by ourselves) which blind us to the truth.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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