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

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

“disposing of poor Mr. Woodhouse…”: “removing impediments” to marriage, Austen style!

As those who follow this blog know, I just wrote a series of posts about Shakespeare’s self-intertextual wordplay between Othello, on the one hand, and Sonnet 116 and the Anglican marriage vows, on the other. I was prompted to do so after noticing the word “impediment” used twice in a thematically significant way in Othello. However, it was only today that it occurred to me to check for usages of “impediment” in Sense & Sensibility. And why should that have occurred to me?

Because, as I wrote up my Shakespearean observations this past week, only six weeks ago, I wrote a post… …about the veiled Austenian allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit Impediment. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds”), which Emma Thompson plucked from the subtext of S&S, and made explicit in her film adaptation of S&S.  

To be more specific, I suggested that Thompson recognized that JA deliberately echoed the keyword “alters/alteration” from Sonnet 116. As you’ll see, below, it turns out that Jane Austen left an additional textual hint in S&S pointing not only to Sonnet 116 and the Anglican wedding vows, but also to Iago’s match-breaking in Othello, all via the word “impediment”, in a way that Thompson does not appear to have recognized.

And that in turn led me to find and decode JA’s usage of “impediment” in Emma which I’ve hinted at in my Subject Line, which is so wickedly funny and subversive that I hope you’ll agree that JA’s imagination sufficed to “remove” all the “impediments” her society placed in her artistic path.


First, in Chapter 25, in Elinor’s throwing cold water on her mother’s enthusiasm for the elder Dashwood girls accepting Mrs. Jennings’s invitation to stay with her in London, we find the linked Shakespearean keywords “alteration”, “impediment” and “removed”, all three in very close textual proximity:

“  "I am delighted with the plan," [Mrs. Dashwood] cried, "it is exactly what I could wish. Margaret and I shall be as much benefited by it as yourselves. When you and the Middletons are gone, we shall go on so quietly and happily together with our books and our music! You will find Margaret so improved when you come back again! I have a little plan of ALTERATION for your bedrooms too, which may now be performed without any inconvenience to any one. It is very right that you should go to town; I would have every young woman of your condition in life acquainted with the manners and amusements of London. You will be under the care of a motherly good sort of woman, of whose kindness to you I can have no doubt. And in all probability you will see your brother, and whatever may be his faults, or the faults of his wife, when I consider whose son he is, I cannot bear to have you so wholly estranged from each other."
"Though with your usual anxiety for our happiness," said Elinor, "you have been obviating every IMPEDIMENT to the present scheme which occurred to you, there is still one objection which, in my opinion, cannot be so easily REMOVED."
Marianne's countenance sunk.
"And what," said Mrs. Dashwood, "is my dear prudent Elinor going to suggest? What formidable obstacle is she now to bring forward? Do let me hear a word about the expense of it."
"My objection is this; though I think very well of Mrs. Jennings's heart, she is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure, or whose protection will give us consequence."
"That is very true," replied her mother, "but of her society, separately from that of other people, you will scarcely have any thing at all, and you will almost always appear in public with Lady Middleton."
"If Elinor is frightened away by her dislike of Mrs. Jennings," said Marianne, "at least it need not prevent my accepting her invitation. I have no such scruples, and I am sure I could put up with every unpleasantness of that kind with very little effort.”

I see Elinor’s speech as an unwitting ironic allusion to Sonnet 116 and the Anglican marriage vows – ironic, because Elinor is not playing Cupid here, but, inadvertently, Iago! Sounds wild? Then consider. At this point in the story, Elinor knows that the torch Marianne is carrying for Willoughby, and therefore her wish to see him in London and rekindle their romance, remains brightly lit. Recall that neither of them is aware in Chapter 25 that Willoughby has already moved on to the heiress Miss Grey, whom they (and we) won’t hear about till Chapter 30.

And yet, Elinor, not once, but twice in Chapter 25, does her very best to put the kibosh on the proposed trip by her and Marianne to London---first by taking it solely upon herself, without consulting Marianne or their mother, to respond to Mrs. Jennings that they cannot leave Mrs. Dashwood,. Then, when Mrs. Jennings persists, and repeats her invitation, and that first objection is quickly disposed of by Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor does not give up her obstruction, but instead shifts to another argument, which is that Mrs. Jennings, despite good intentions, would be an unpleasant and unprotective host. This argument is, upon examination, transparently lame, in that, as between the two sisters, it would be Marianne, not Elinor, who would find Mrs. Jennings intolerable as a host, and Marianne has made it crystal clear that the contrary is the case.

Although a benign explanation of all this would be that Elinor wishes to spare Marianne a reopening of raw emotional wounds vis a vis Willoughby, one begins to suspect that what Elinor is really afraid of, in the aftermath of her learning about Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy, is not that Marianne will get her heart re-broken, but that Marianne will reconnect with Willoughby, and Elinor will then be left to wither on the proverbial vine alone with her mother and Margaret. In short, I believe JA means for us to suspect that Elinor is unaware of her own subconscious, but powerful, jealousy of Marianne!

And so in that regard, there is the unwitting irony of Elinor using verbiage, in that short speech in Chapter 25, associated with the marriage of true minds theme in Sonnet 116, and with the Anglican wedding vows echoed in Sonnet 116. There is irony because, instead of taking on the happy role of maid of honor, Elinor instead has assumed on the role of the curmudgeon in the pew who does the unthinkable- i.e., taking the rhetorical prompt of the presiding clergyman seriously, and voicing one objection after another to the marriage she is supposed to be celebrating! In other words, it is Elinor who is the “impediment” to the marriage of true minds that Marianne still believes, at that moment, she can have with Willoughby.

And, to reinforce this subversive reading, I believe JA also hinted to her readers who were as deeply steeped in Shakespeare as JA was, that Elinor was even going so far as unwittingly echoing the speech early in Othello which I wrote about in my post a few days ago, when Iago cynically fans the flames of Roderigo’s gold-digging ambition to marry Desdemona:

Sir, [Cassio] is rash and very sudden in choler, and haply may strike at you: provoke him, that he may; for even out of that will I cause these of Cyprus to mutiny; whose qualification shall come into no true
taste again but by the displanting of Cassio. So shall you have a shorter journey to your desires by the means I shall then have to prefer them; and the IMPEDIMENT most profitably REMOVED, without the which there were no expectation of our prosperity.

There you have that same “impediment/removed” verbiage as we find in Elinor’s short speech, both referring to the removal of an impediment to a marital match. But Iago is insincere and depraved in egging Roderigo on, in referring to Cassio and Othello as the two-headed impediment to Roderigo’s hoped-for marriage to Desdemona, because the “removal” Iago lobbies for is the death of Othello.

Whereas Elinor is not Machiavellian, just utterly clueless about her own motivations.  Which fits with JA writing comedy rather than tragedy. In this reading, Elinor is a comic Iago, unwittingly scheming to prevent her sister from marrying Willoughby, the man whom Marianne (and maybe also Elinor?) loves.

Which brings me to the second half of this post, in which I will discuss the other passage in JA’s novels where “removal” of an “impediment” to marriage is before the reader.


The following (edited) passage in Chapter 53 of Emma is all about the formidable  “impediment to the marriage of true minds” that faces Knightley and Emma after they become quasi-secretly engaged—of course I am referring to……poor Mr. Woodhouse!

“As soon as Mrs. Weston was sufficiently recovered to admit Mr. Woodhouse's visits, Emma having it in view that her gentle reasonings should be employed in the cause, resolved first to announce it at home, and then at Randalls.—But how to break it to her father at last!—She had bound herself to do it, in such an hour of Mr. Knightley's absence, or when it came to the point her heart would have failed her, and she must have put it off; but Mr. Knightley was to come at such a time, and follow up the beginning she was to make.—She was forced to speak, and to speak cheerfully too.,,,.
Poor man!—it was at first a considerable shock to him, and he tried earnestly to dissuade her from it. She was reminded, more than once, of having always said she would never marry, and assured that it would be a great deal better for her to remain single; and told of poor Isabella, and poor Miss Taylor.—But it would not do. Emma hung about him affectionately, and smiled, and said it must be so; and that he must not class her with Isabella and Mrs. Weston, whose marriages taking them from Hartfield, had, indeed, made a melancholy change: but she was not going from Hartfield; she should be always there; she was introducing no change in their numbers or their comforts but for the better; and she was very sure that he would be a great deal the happier for having Mr. Knightley always at hand, when he were once got used to the idea.—Did he not love Mr. Knightley very much?—He would not deny that he did, she was sure.—Whom did he ever want to consult on business but Mr. Knightley?—Who was so useful to him, who so ready to write his letters, who so glad to assist him?—Who so cheerful, so attentive, so attached to him?—Would not he like to have him always on the spot?—Yes. That was all very true. Mr. Knightley could not be there too often; he should be glad to see him every day;—but they did see him every day as it was.—Why could not they go on as they had done?”

So far, then, Mr. Woodhouse sounds alarmingly like Elinor: both give one reason after another in objection to the marriage of a close relative. Let’s go on:

“Mr. Woodhouse could not be soon reconciled; but the worst was overcome, the idea was given; time and continual repetition must do the rest.—To Emma's entreaties and assurances succeeded Mr. Knightley's, whose fond praise of her gave the subject even a kind of welcome; and he was soon used to be talked to by each, on every fair occasion.—They had all the assistance which Isabella could give, by letters of the strongest approbation; and Mrs. Weston was ready, on the first meeting, to consider the subject in the most serviceable light—first, as a settled, and, secondly, as a good one—well aware of the nearly equal importance of the two recommendations to Mr. Woodhouse's mind.—It was agreed upon, as what was to be; and every body by whom he was used to be guided assuring him that it would be for his happiness; and having some feelings himself which almost admitted it, he began to think that some time or other—in another year or two, perhaps—it might not be so very bad if the marriage did take place.”

And only after all stops are pulled out do Knightley and Emma even induce Mr. Woodhouse to agree that it could happen in a year or two.

And then, a paragraph later, we reach Jane Austen’s Shakespearean punch line:

“…And who but Mr. Knightley could know and bear with Mr. Woodhouse, so as to make such an arrangement desirable!—The difficulty of DISPOSING OF POOR MR. WOODHOUSE had been always felt in her husband's plans and her own, for a marriage between Frank and Emma. How to settle the claims of Enscombe and Hartfield had been a continual IMPEDIMENT —less acknowledged by Mr. Weston than by herself—but even he had never been able to finish the subject better than by saying—"Those matters will take care of themselves; the young people will find a way." But here there was nothing to be shifted off in a wild speculation on the future. It was all right, all open, all equal. No sacrifice on any side worth the name. It was a union of the highest promise of felicity in itself, and without one real, rational difficulty to oppose or delay it.”

At first, as I read this passage, I thought it was only another “impediment” winking at Sonnet 116. But then, as I reread the words “The difficulty of disposing of poor Mr. Woodhouse had been always felt in her husband’s plans and her own, for a marriage between Frank and Emma,” I suddenly realized what Jane Austen, that wicked satirist, was really winking at---“disposing of” being code for “killing”!

And that made me LOL, as I realized that this passage is the bookend to the subtext eight chapters earlier in Chapter 45, that Leland Monk first discovered WAY back in 1990, and which I first learned of in early 2005 from a passing comment in Janeites: the notion that when we read that “a sudden seizure of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state, had carried her off after a short struggle. The great Mrs. Churchill was no more”, this is Jane Austen’s wickedly clever code for  “Frank Churchill murdered his aunt, Mrs. Churchill, in order to remove the single, major impediment between him and the financial independence that would allow him to marry the penniless Jane Fairfax.”

Now I see that plotting to “dispose of” uncooperative elderly “impediments” to marriage is a Weston family predilection----the only difference being, apparently, that Mr. Weston merely planned a “disposition” of Mr. Woodhouse, which turned out to be unnecessary when Frank and Emma ceased to be “an item”, whereas Frank, under the exigencies of the moment, actually “removed” the “impediment” that was Mrs. Churchill, forever.

Think I’ve really gone too far this time, imagining a dark meaning of “dispose of” that Jane Austen could never have intended? Well, what if I tell you that I have found the literary source where Jane Austen got the idea to use “dispose of” to refer to “murder”? 

Here’s a giant hint, see if you can guess which speech it is:

I’m thinking of a speech in the first scene of a Shakespeare play, spoken by a rich, cruel, selfish widower father who unashamedly asserts his right to stymie his daughter’s desire to marry the young man she loves, and who loves her; and then, immediately afterward, there is a speech spoken by that very same young man to the rich man’s daughter, in which that young man bemoans their dim marital prospects with this famous line:  “The course of true love never did run smooth” ----which just happens to be a line which every Janeite knows which is quoted by Emma to Harriet!

So, what play, who is the father, and who are the lovers?

Of course, every Bardolater, and many Janeites, know that I am talking about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Egeus is the father, Hermia is the daughter, and Lysander is the lover. And here’s the speech—please pay particular attention to Egeus’s final four lines:  

Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitch'd the bosom of my child;
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,
And interchanged love-tokens with my child:
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stolen the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, messengers
Of strong prevailment in unharden'd youth:
With cunning hast thou filch'd my daughter's heart,
Turn'd her obedience, which is due to me,
To stubborn harshness: and, my gracious duke,
Be it so she; will not here before your grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

“As she is mine, I may DISPOSE OF HER…either to this gentleman or TO HER DEATH….”

Which casts a pretty dark light on “disposing of poor Mr. Woodhouse”, doesn’t it?  And it also makes us wonder what Mr. Weston meant by:

“Those matters will take care of themselves; the young people will find a way." ---Frank certainly “finds a way” to do away with Mrs. Churchill.

“But here there was nothing to be shifted off in a wild speculation on the future.” --- In other words, don’t leave the future to a game of chance depending on an older relative to die a natural death.

“It was all right, all open, all equal. No sacrifice on any side worth the name.” --- as in a sacrifice of Mr. Woodhouse!


Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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