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

Monday, January 29, 2018

The ‘Lucifer Geese’ of S&S & Emma vis-a-vis Jane Austen’s Michaelmas/S&S 1813 letters: FIRST FOLLOWUP

Diane Reynolds replied to my prior post in this thread:
“Arnie, As you know, I have long thought Lucy Ferrars is Jane’s rejoinder to all the Catherine de Boughs and etc of the world who try to lord it over women like Elizabeth and Elinor: if Lucy Steele, of no class, is to become the Ferrars matriarch, where did these other women come from?”

Exactly! You and I are in complete agreement on this point. In particular, I’ve long wondered about the backstories of Mrs. Churchill and Mrs. Ferrars, who each behave so abominably toward young women they perceive as lower-status upstarts-- like Frank Churchill’s mother in Emma, and both Lucy and Elinor in S&S, respectively. It’s awfully tempting for me to speculate that a significant portion of that hostility is a projection. By this I mean, that I suspect that each of them was once a “nobody” herself, who had to maneuver to get to the top, by marrying into real money. But, having made it to the top, they then compensate for feeling like impostors themselves, by the intensity of their hostility to any young woman who reminds them of the “inconvenient truth” of their own origins!

Lady Catherine, on the other hand, seems different from Mrs. Churchill and Mrs. Ferrars, because we know for a fact that she was born to privilege and status as the daughter of an earl. So her hostility to Elizabeth, like the Elliot’s initial disdain for Wentworth and Mrs. Smith, appears to me to be the less complicated, more garden-variety, lifelong snobbery of a born aristocrat.

Diane also replied to me: “As for Harriet, the text to me screams that she is another Lucy, only Emma, unlike Elinor, is too clueless to see what a schemer she is.”

Yes, you and I have also been agreeing about that for nearly a decade ---in a word, Shamela – but, unlike Shamela, Jane Austen gives us a flesh and blood, psychologically realistic young woman using her strong mind to level the playing field – especially in Harriet’s devastating speech to Emma when Harriet takes off the mask of docile imbecility, and reveals her brilliance and steely resolve.

Diane again: “But as for that goose—the Michaelmas connection is interesting, and I agree that JA would very much have wanted Hastings to help out Henry, though my sense is that Hastings had long since wearied of the connection.”

Indeed, while it is clear to me that by “Eliza” JA was referring to the real life Eliza Hancock Austen as represented by the fictional younger Eliza Williams, there is more than one plausible explanation for why JA wanted the elderly Warren Hastings to reflect on his having fathered Eliza a half century earlier.

Diane one last time: “To me, however, the goose episode is very telling for another reason, and one that makes Harriet more sympathetic than Lucy, showing JA’s development as a writer. The goose is clearly meant for Harriet—or so I take it. It is sent on Harriet’s behalf and, even though propriety dictates it is from Mrs. Martin, obviously it is from Mr. Martin, to woo Harriet (as in a parallel gesture, Mr. Knightley woos Jane with the apples.) However, to my mind cruelly, Mrs. Goddard doesn’t share it with Harriet but with the other teachers. This shows what Harriet is up against, how she is devalued at the school. Of course, she is going to use her wits to get out of that situation—who wouldn’t? I think she is telling this story to Emma, pretending innocence, but wanting, as Miss Bates is always doing, to communicate how she has been wronged—and perhaps elicit some sympathy. But Emma, par for the course, is deaf to that.”

Let me first add a P.S. to my earlier post, which relates to your above comment. I realized after posting that I had neglected to do the obvious, and search the text of Emma for “Michaelmas” – when I did so, I found the following retrospective exclamation by Harriet to Emma in Chapter 9, which is what Maggie Lane surely relied on in identifying the goose given by Mrs. Martin to Mrs. Goddard as a Michaelmas goose:

“That Mr. Elton should really be in love with me,—me, of all people, who did not know him, to speak to him, at Michaelmas!...”

JA is such a sharp elf, because Harriet’s statement also subtly alerts us to the relevant chronology. I.e., Harriet must have returned to Mrs. Goddard’s school from Abbey Mill Farm just in time to attend Michaelmas services at the church --- which of course would have been conducted by Mr. Elton. So it does then seem likely that, as your comment suggests, Harriet was already back at Mrs. Goddard’s prior to the Michaelmas goose dinner to which Harriet was apparently not invited.

Your excellent suggestion that this is evidence that Harriet was devalued at Mrs. Goddard’s is plausible, but not exclusively so. For example, I don’t believe it’s certain that the gift was sent on behalf of Harriet – instead, picking up on the idea of paying debts, it seems equally likely to me that it could have been intended as a pointed hint to Mrs. Goddard by Mrs. Martin to repay a debt --not necessarily of money, but rather an obligation to keep Harriet away from her son Robert!

That latter reading would have the great virtue of being exactly the opposite of what Emma believes, i.e., Emma smugly assumes that Mrs. Martin is desperately trying to marry off her “clownish” son to Harriet, and so Emma takes as insincere Mrs. Martin’s statement to Harriet that she is in no hurry for Robert to get married. But what if Mrs. Martin was sincere, and really is glad to be rid of Harriet, whom she (rightly) suspects of being a fortune hunter. But, if so, Mrs. Martin is only half-correct, because Harriet is indeed a fortune-hunter, but Harriet’s marital prey is not the small fry Mr. Martin, it’s the “whale” Mr. Knightley! 😉

Aside from that, it bears repeating that Harriet’s statement is what alerts us to the Michaelmas subtext in Emma, which satirically echoes the war between Archangel Michael and Satan. And, in that vein, I realize now that such Michael-Satan subtext also ties in perfectly with the Charles Lamb poem and the Cruikshank caricature of the “Prince of Whales”, both of which depict Satan as a whale, in overtly alluding to Milton’s Paradise Lost!

Your interesting interpretation also alerted me to do something else I had failed to do earlier ---you made me realize that I needed to go back and reread that entire passage in Chapter 4, to discern the full context and possible meanings of the gift of the goose. And it turns out to be a revelation (ha ha, re the war in heaven) in a variety of ways, as you’ll see. Here are what I consider the relevant portions of that passage:

“…the Martins occupied [Harriet’s] thoughts a good deal; she had spent two very happy months with them, and now loved to talk of the pleasures of her visit, and describe the many comforts and wonders of the place. Emma encouraged her talkativeness—amused by such a picture of another set of beings, and enjoying the youthful simplicity which could speak with so much exultation of …their having eight cows, two of them Alderneys, and one a little Welch cow, a very pretty little Welch cow indeed; and of Mrs. Martin’s saying as she was so fond of it, it should be called her cow…
…Harriet was very ready to speak of the share he had had in their moonlight walks and merry evening games; and dwelt a good deal upon his being so very good-humoured and obliging. He had gone three miles round one day in order to bring her some walnuts, because she had said how fond she was of them, and in every thing else he was so very obliging. He had his shepherd’s son into the parlour one night on purpose to sing to her. She was very fond of singing. He could sing a little himself. She believed he was very clever, and understood every thing. He had a very fine flock, and, while she was with them, he had been bid more for his wool than any body in the country….
“And when she had come away, Mrs. Martin was so very kind as to send Mrs. Goddard a beautiful goose—the finest goose Mrs. Goddard had ever seen. Mrs. Goddard had dressed it on a Sunday, and asked all the three teachers, Miss Nash, and Miss Prince, and Miss Richardson, to sup with her.”
“…And I know he has read the Vicar of Wakefield…”

Do you see what I see? First, apropos Maggie Lane’s suggestion that Harriet is (metaphorically) a goose, we see Harriet’s micro-details on another farm animal, Mrs. Martin’s cows. In that regard, Susan Jones, in her 2016 Persuasions Online article, explains how the cows can be seen as a symbol for Harriet herself:

“Like Harriet, the breeds in question have their own semiotics of origin…Jersey cattle were sometimes referred to as Alderneys, confusing the origins of the cattle completely. Likewise, the Welch cow belonged to a breed that varied widely in description and conformation.  A breed standard was not set up for the Welch cow until the late 19th century, long after Austen’s death. So, like the Alderneys, the Welch cow had no background or lineage that could be determined. “Welch cow” could be a name for any one of a number of mixed breed of cattle. Thus, the relationship between Harriet, “the natural daughter of somebody”, and the cows is highlighted, and more than one critic has commented on the cows. Seeber tells us that “Gifts of food enact power relations,” and she further suggests that Austen links “agriculture and marriage as systems in which nature and women are born to submit”. The gift by which the Welch cow is said to be Harriet’s cow confers an agricultural gift of potential food in the form of milk. Critics have suggested that Harriet is being added to the Martin “herd,” with the prospect of motherhood (like the dairy cows) in her future, or even that the cows and Harriet share some common identity.  In a very specific sense, they may. The cows that Harriet mentions with such favor and the cow that will be called her cow are all cows of indeterminate background, like Harriet herself.  In spite of this, they are valued and cared for by the Martins….” 

And one last discovery, this one my own. The above quote passage also refers to Robert Martin going out of his way to give walnuts to Harriet, and further that he has read The Vicar of Wakefield. Guess what? It turns out that Goldsmith’s vicar describes his farm in idyllic terms that are eerily similar to Harriet’s account of her idyllic summer at Abbey Mill Farm (with a dash of Emma’s pastoral musings while gazing out at the Abbey Mill Farm from Donwell Abbey much later in the novel), including in particular the cracking and eating of nuts in church on Michaelmas Eve!:

“A proof that even the humblest fortune may grant happiness, which depends not on circumstance, but 
constitution.” The place of our new retreat was in a little neighbourhood, consisting of farmers who tilled their own grounds, and were equal strangers to opulence and poverty. As they had almost all the conveniences of life within themselves, they seldom visited towns or cities in search of superfluity. Remote from the polite, they still retained a primaeval simplicity of manners, and frugal by long habit, scarce knew that temperance was a virtue. They wrought with chearfulness on days of labour; but observed festivals as intervals of idleness and pleasure. They kept up the Christmas carol, sent true love knots on Valentine morning, eat pancakes on Shrovetide, shewed their wit on the first of April, and religiously CRACKED NUTS ON MICHAELMAS EVE. Being apprised of our approach, the whole neighbourhood came out to meet their minister, drest in their finest clothes, and preceded hy a pipe and tabour: a feast also was provided for our reception, at which we sat chearfully down; and what the conversation wanted in wit, we made up in laughter.
Our little habitation was situated at the foot of a sloping hill, sheltered with a beautiful underwood behind, and a prattling river before; on one side a meadow, on the other a green. My farm consisted of about twenty acres of excellent land, having given an hundred pounds for my predecessor's goodwill. Nothing could exceed the neatness of my little inclosures: the elms and hedgerows appearing with inexpressible beauty.” 

And, of course, the likelihood that this was an intentional allusion by JA to Goldsmith’s novel is further confirmed by the later, famous, explicit allusion thereto in the account of Mrs. Churchill’s death (“when lovely woman stoops…”).

And finally, I read at the following remarkably relevant factoid:
“In Surrey, [Michaelmas Eve] is known as Crack Nut Day and nuts are cracked and eaten in churches

So, it turns out that even Robert Martin’s walnut gifts are part of the Michaelmas matrix that envelops Harriet Smith like the armor that Satan and his hellish horde wear into battle with Michael & the godly angels.

Cheers, ARNIE

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