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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Harriet Smith’s a riddle, TO BE SURE, in Jane Austen’s Emma

I recently had the pleasure to make the online acquaintance of a sharp literary elf from across the Big Pond, Andrew Shields, who blogs at

I call Andrew a sharp elf, because he is sensitive to ambiguity in literature, and asks the right sort of questions when he encounters it. For example, in his 04/11/16 post, he wrote the following:

“The idea of “reading something into” a poem came up in a discussion just now. I was supposedly “reading something into” a poem; hence my reading of the poem was implied to be wrong. Whether or not I was doing so, I’m curious if anyone knows of any essays/research that address the issue of “reading into”. It seems like several issues are involved:
“Reading” the poem is distinguished from “reading into” the poem.
“Reading” the poem is *distinguishable* from “reading into” the poem.
The claim that someone is “reading something into” the poem, that something is being “read into” it, is used to call the validity of that reading into question.
The person making that claim is rhetorically staking out a position of being a better “reader” of the poem: “I am not ‘reading into’ the poem; you are. And my reading is thus better…” END QUOTE

Of course, Andrew’s question reminded me of how many times people have suggested to me that I read too much into Jane Austen’s words – and that indeed is the $64,000 question in close reading – how does each reader decide what sort of meaning it is valid to extract from a given text by a given author, and where’s the line that separates the valid reading from reading “too much” and going beyond the author’s intention? My experience on the ground has consistently been that writers like Austen and Shakespeare did leave much under the surface to be excavated by their readers.

So, Andrew and I are kindred spirits in our approach to literature—plus he has the very good taste of being a Janeite! Which brings me to the point---a great example of Andrew’s sharp intuition about Jane Austen can be found in his 03/26/14 post, which begins as follows: “[T]here are many…appearances of "TO BE SURE" in Austen's Emma. I really wonder about how to interpret this expression. It's quite slippery. Suggestions?“   Andrew then gave seven examples from the text of Emma – three spoken by Harriet, one spoken by Miss Bates, and three spoken/thought by Emma. Immediately upon reading Andrew’s question, my gut told me that Andrew had identified a phrase which needed to be added to my lexicon of the Jane Austen Code—but what did it mean in Emma

There are, notably, a total of 25 such usages in Emma. Miss Bates, Mrs. Cole, and Mr. Weston each use it once, Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates each use it 3 times, but I realized that it was likely significant that Emma and Harriet each use it a total of eight times! And so it seemed to me that Andrew’s sharp intuition had similarly led him to mostly choose 6 of his 7 examples from those spoken by Emma or Harriet.

After collecting all 25 and reading them as a group, applying the principles of the Jane Austen Code I’ve mapped over the past dozen years, I just figured out the answer to Andrew’s excellent question. It is indeed connected to that skewed distribution of usages among her characters in Emma. And, as I will now explain, it is very significant, catching Jane Austen in another of her myriad acts of subliminal greatness.

Emma uses the phrase “To be sure” routinely, both in her speech to others, and also in unspoken thoughts. In five cases, she uses or thinks it unironically, but the three exceptions to that general rule, all spoken to Mr. Knightley, are of special interest:

Chapter 8:  "Come," said [Emma], "I will tell you something, in return for what you have told me. He did speak yesterday—that is, he wrote, and was refused."
This was obliged to be repeated before it could be believed; and Mr. Knightley actually looked red with surprize and displeasure, as he stood up, in tall indignation, and said,"Then she is a greater simpleton than I ever believed her. What is the foolish girl about?"
"Oh! TO BE SURE," cried Emma, "it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for any body who asks her."
"Nonsense! a man does not imagine any such thing. 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."
…"Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have, is almost enough to make me think so too. Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do."
"TO BE SURE!" cried she playfully. "I know that is the feeling of you all. I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in—what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment. Oh! Harriet may pick and chuse. Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you. And is she, at seventeen, just entering into life, just beginning to be known, to be wondered at because she does not accept the first offer she receives? No—pray let her have time to look about her."

Chapter 12:
"What a comfort it is, that we think alike about our nephews and nieces. As to men and women, our opinions are sometimes very different; but with regard to these children, I observe we never disagree."
"If you were as much guided by nature in your estimate of men and women, and as little under the power of fancy and whim in your dealings with them, as you are where these children are concerned, we might always think alike."
"TO BE SURE—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong."
"Yes," said he, smiling—"and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born."

As you can see, Emma, saucy with self-confidence despite being 16 years younger, doesn’t defer, but is repeatedly playful, as she teases him for his claim to wisdom in regard to the Harriet Smith-Robert Martin relationship. And she emphasizes her satire by using that particular phrase “to be sure” ironically---she makes it clear that Knightley’s alleged superior wisdom is not assured in her mind!

The next important point is that all of Emma’s 8 usages of “to be sure”, whether ironic or serious, are in distinct contrast to the first 6 usages of “to be sure” by Harriet. In every one of those six, Harriet uses it the exact same way that Horatio repeatedly says “Yes, my lord” to Hamlet –i.e., as a clear signal of obedient, humble deference to the wisdom of someone (Emma) of far greater status and intelligence.

To hammer that subliminal point home, Jane Austen gives us a rapid-fire series of five such usages (not just the two of them that Andrew quoted) in one single, long conversation (actually, it’s more a lecture by Emma, punctuated by Harriet’s obedient agreements) in Chapter 4, all on the topic of the unsuitability (or should I say, “un-suitor-ability”?) of Robert Martin as a husband for Harriet:

"That may be, and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it."
"TO BE SURE. OH YES! It is not likely you should ever have observed him; but he knows you very well indeed—I mean by sight."
…"Well, and that is as early as most men can afford to marry, who are not born to an independence. Mr. Martin, I imagine, has his fortune entirely to make—cannot be at all beforehand with the world. Whatever money he might come into when his father died, whatever his share of the family property, it is, I dare say, all afloat, all employed in his stock, and so forth; and though, with diligence and good luck, he may be rich in time, it is next to impossible that he should have realised any thing yet."
"TO BE SURE, SO IT IS. But they live very comfortably. They have no indoors man, else they do not want for any thing; and Mrs. Martin talks of taking a boy another year."
"I wish you may not get into a scrape, Harriet, whenever he does marry;—I mean, as to being acquainted with his wife—for though his sisters, from a superior education, are not to be altogether objected to, it does not follow that he might marry any body at all fit for you to notice. The misfortune of your birth ought to make you particularly careful as to your associates. There can be no doubt of your being a gentleman's daughter, and you must support your claim to that station by every thing within your own power, or there will be plenty of people who would take pleasure in degrading you."
"YES, TO BE SURE, I SUPPOSE THERE ARE. But while I visit at Hartfield, and you are so kind to me, Miss Woodhouse, I am not afraid of what any body can do."
"You understand the force of influence pretty well, Harriet; but I would have you so firmly established in good society, as to be independent even of Hartfield and Miss Woodhouse. I want to see you permanently well connected, and to that end it will be advisable to have as few odd acquaintance as may be; and, therefore, I say that if you should still be in this country when Mr. Martin marries, I wish you may not be drawn in by your intimacy with the sisters, to be acquainted with the wife, who will probably be some mere farmer's daughter, without education."
"TO BE SURE. YES. Not that I think Mr. Martin would ever marry any body but what had had some education—and been very well brought up. However, I do not mean to set up my opinion against yours—and I am sure I shall not wish for the acquaintance of his wife. I shall always have a great regard for the Miss Martins, especially Elizabeth, and should be very sorry to give them up, for they are quite as well educated as me. But if he marries a very ignorant, vulgar woman, certainly I had better not visit her, if I can help it."
Emma watched her through the fluctuations of this speech, and saw no alarming symptoms of love. The young man had been the first admirer, but she trusted there was no other hold, and that there would be no serious difficulty, on Harriet's side, to oppose any friendly arrangement of her own.
They met Mr. Martin the very next day, as they were walking on the Donwell road…..
…"He is very plain, undoubtedly—remarkably plain:—but that is nothing compared with his entire want of gentility. I had no right to expect much, and I did not expect much; but I had no idea that he could be so very clownish, so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two nearer gentility."
"TO BE SURE," said Harriet, IN A MORTIFIED VOICE, "he is not so genteel as real gentlemen."
"I think, Harriet, since your acquaintance with us, you have been repeatedly in the company of some such very real gentlemen, that you must yourself be struck with the difference in Mr. Martin. At Hartfield, you have had very good specimens of well educated, well bred men. I should be surprized if, after seeing them, you could be in company with Mr. Martin again without perceiving him to be a very inferior creature—and rather wondering at yourself for having ever thought him at all agreeable before. Do not you begin to feel that now? Were not you struck? I am sure you must have been struck by his awkward look and abrupt manner, and the uncouthness of a voice which I heard to be wholly unmodulated as I stood here."
"CERTAINLY, he is not like Mr. Knightley. He has not such a fine air and way of walking as Mr. Knightley. I see the difference plain enough. But Mr. Knightley is so very fine a man!"

And then, for good measure, Jane Austen adds a sixth, in exactly the same vein, soon after in Chapter 7:

Harriet had not surmised her own danger, but the idea of it struck her forcibly.
"You could not have visited me!" she cried, looking aghast. "NO, TO BE SURE YOU COULD NOT; but I never thought of that before. That would have been too dreadful!—What an escape!—Dear Miss Woodhouse, I would not give up the pleasure and honour of being intimate with you for any thing in the world."
"Indeed, Harriet, it would have been a severe pang to lose you; but it must have been. You would have thrown yourself out of all good society. I must have given you up." 

So, we can infer from these six usages that Harriet demonstrates her obedience to Emma not only by agreeing frequently with the substance of Emma’s opinions (about Harriet’s love life!), but by using one of Emma’s pet expressions, “to be sure”, as the very words by which Harriet agrees –which doubles the impact of Harriet’s deference. Emma’s insouciant usages with Knightley are therefore the opposite of Harriet’s usages thereof with Emma, which are all unambiguously deferential………

…or are they??? Forgive me, but I was not sincere with you in the immediately preceding paragraph, in order to make my main point. Those who follow my posts about Jane Austen, and Emma in particular, know that I have long identified Harriet Smith as a completely ambiguous character, in the following sense:

In the overt story of Emma, Harriet is----to be sure-----the obsequious, naïve, foolish, impulsive teenager  that readers of Emma see when they read the novel text with the grain, taking Harriet at face value.

However, in the shadow story, Harriet is the opposite – a clever, worldly-wise, calculating young woman  (very much like Fielding’s Shamela) who is determined to even the courtship playing field that is so heavily tilted against her by a hypocritical, unjust, sexist, classist society, by using (as Jane Austen put it in a letter to her dear friend Ann Sharpe) the power of the strong mind over the weak.

And in this instance, shocking as it may sound to many Janeite ears, the weak minded individual in this equation is Emma! I.e., it is Emma, whom the shadow Harriet plays like a drum, by sucking up to Emma, playing on Emma’s narcissism with faux deference, all in order to get close to Harriet’s true goal, which from Day One of the action of the novel has been……marriage to Knightley!

So, while I’ve long believed there are these two Harriets, today Andrew’s brilliant intuition gave me yet another piece of textual evidence to support my alternative subversive reading of Harriet against the grain. And I’ve saved the “cream” of this implicit textual riddle (borrowing Emma’s phraseology from the charade scene in Chapter 9) for last. It is not delivered to the reader aware of JA’s authorial game, until near the end of the novel, in Chapter 47, when Harriet delivers a massive, totally unexpected shock to Emma:

“Harriet, who was standing at some distance, and with face turned from her, did not immediately say any thing; and when she did speak, it was in a voice nearly as agitated as Emma's.
"I should not have thought it possible," she began, "that you could have misunderstood me! I know we agreed never to name him—but considering how infinitely superior he is to every body else, I should not have thought it possible that I could be supposed to mean any other person. Mr. Frank Churchill, indeed! I do not know who would ever look at him in the company of the other. I hope I have a better taste than to think of Mr. Frank Churchill, who is like nobody by his side. And that you should have been so mistaken, is amazing!—I am sure, but for believing that you entirely approved and meant to encourage me in my attachment, I should have considered it at first too great a presumption almost, to dare to think of him. At first, if you had not told me that more wonderful things had happened; that there had been matches of greater disparity (those were your very words);—I should not have dared to give way to—I should not have thought it possible—But if you, who had been always acquainted with him—"
"Harriet!" cried Emma, collecting herself resolutely—"Let us understand each other now, without the possibility of farther mistake. Are you speaking of—Mr. Knightley?"
"TO BE SURE I AM. I never could have an idea of any body else—and so I thought you knew. When we talked about him, it was as clear as possible." “

Note that when Emma asks, in horror, whether Harriet is attached to Mr. Knightley, Harriet delivers the final blow to Emma’s pride using that very same phrase, “to be sure”, which, 40 chapters earlier, she had used while fawning on Emma by playing on her pride—now that’s poetic justice! Harriet has taken off her mask, and the same words once spoken deferentially are now uttered with cool self-assurance.

This is deliberate, Harriet’s little bit of revenge on Emma, releasing anger she must have been stifling for 40 chapters, finally believing that pretense is no longer necessary. That Emma winds up with Knightley anyway suggests that the joke was on Harriet after all, but the topic of how that final reversal of fortune comes about in the shadow story is a subject for another day. For today, I am just grateful to Andrew Shields for his good question prompting me to reach this further understanding of the enigma known as Harriet Smith.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

A few not yet fully developed ideas in response to your post:

You sum up your thorough and helpful reading of Harriet's early uses of "to be sure" as follows: "fawning on Emma by playing on her pride". I can see that element in her responses, but I also read her "to be sure" as a marker of her struggle with herself as she tries to understand Emma's take on Robert Martin. Harriet wants to accept his offer, after all, and is quite surprised to discover that Emma thinks she should reject it. At the same time, she wants to agree with Emma. She is "mortified" by this conflict between her two desires, and "to be sure" is the phrase that marks that conflict.

All this is indeed in stark contrast to the confidence that she displays in her use of "to be sure" at the end of the story. There, you contrast "deferential" speech with "cool self-assurance." But note that her use of "to be sure" at the end is not marked by the conflict between her own sense of things and her understanding of what Emma thinks. That is, Harriet has been thinking for a while that Emma approves of her infatuation with Mr. Knightley, so there has not been a conflict between her desire for Mr. Knightley and her desire for Emma's approval.


I wonder about the idea that Harriet picks up "to be sure" from Emma. If anything, I would have read it the other way around: Harriet says "to be sure" all those times in her conversation with Emma about Mr. Martin's proposal, and then after that, Emma says "to be sure" in her conversation with Mr. Knightley about Harriet's rejection of the proposal.

As you pointed out, Emma's use of "to be sure" in this conversation is ironic: she feigns agreement in order to disagree. Harriet's use of the expression, in contrast, is not ironic – but like Emma's ironic use, it does involve a doubling. Harriet does not say the opposite of what she means (irony in the strict use), but a double meaning is expressed (in the form of a conflict between two desires).