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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Gifts in Jane Austen’s Novels

Jane: “I'm interested in the social context. Who gives large presents of food to whom. Such gifts are mentioned at least three times in Emma (Emma sends a large cut of pork to the Bates, Mr. Knightly sends them a lot of apples, Mrs. Martin sends that goose to Mrs. Goddard. Are food gifts mentioned in any of the other novels? How would readers at the time see these gifts? The only other mention of a large gift (but not food) that I remember is in S&S where Willoughby attempts to give a horse to Marianne. Surely someone has written on "Gifts in Jane Austen's Novels." 

Jane, apropos Willoughby’s gift of a mare (we may safely infer the female gender of the horse by the name, Queen Mab), as I’ve written before, Austen is broadly hinting to her erudite readers about Mercutio’s very famous speech in Romeo & Juliet, and also the Eve of St. Agnes, both about the sexual dreams (or night ‘mares’) of 'young women of good carriage', in both S&S and Emma, as I last elaborated in 2016:

Nancy: “The gifts of food to the Bates are the sort of thing that landlords sent to tenants, richer people sent to the less fortunate etc. Mr. Bates had been the clergyman who had the church Mr. Eldon now serves. The church had no retirement plans, no pensions so each man was responsible for putting aside enough for his family after he was dead. Jane Austen shows many fathers/ husbands who fail to do this. Jane's mother and father were supposed to help out the Grandmother and sister/aunt.
Boxing day was one day such gifts were often given if not any other time. The goose was probably at Michaelmas (or Christmas) and was from the family of some students in appreciation for Mrs. Goddard's position as head of her school.  Jane Austen's original readers would have understood this as Christian charity and looking out for the less fortunate.
Emma visits many in the village. Servants were usually given boxes on Boxing day Looking at gifts in Austen is a good idea. Lucy gave Edward the ring with the lock of hair. Emma gave Elton a picture. Knightley gave foodstuffs because the others didn't have gardens. Elinor Tilney gave Catherine the money for a post chaise to go home. The cross and chain in MP.
Have to think about others-  I think some gift giving is so ordinary we don't necessarily register it.”

Nancy, you’ve forgotten what is by far the most significant, high-profile gift in all of Austen’s novels – the gift of the piano to Jane Fairfax! First Jane and Frank speculate as to the identity of the donor –is it Colonel Campbell, or the Dixons, or just Mr. Dixon? Then Mrs. Weston speculates that the donor is Mr. Knightley; and then Mr. Knightley seems to put the kibosh on that speculation a few paragraphs later:

“This present from the Campbells,” said she—“this pianoforte is very kindly given.”
“Yes,” he replied, and without the smallest apparent embarrassment.—“But they would have done better had they given her notice of it. Surprizes are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable. I should have expected better judgment in Colonel Campbell.”
From that moment, Emma could have taken her oath that Mr. Knightley had had no concern in giving the instrument. 

In the end, we seem to be told that Frank was the donor, but I’ve long asserted that it is equally plausible that it is the same “donor” who got Jane pregnant via another “special delivery” five months earlier –John Knightley!

And now I see for the first time that JA indulged in a brilliant subtle pun ahead of all the gifts to or for the benefit of Jane Fairfax in the novel, when Emma and Frank first speak about Jane:

“I have heard [Jane] speak of the acquaintance [with the Dixons],” said Emma; “she is a very elegant young woman.”  He agreed to it, but with so quiet a “Yes,” as inclined her almost to doubt his real concurrence; and yet there must be a very distinct sort of elegance for the fashionable world, if Jane Fairfax could be thought only ordinarily gifted with it.”

I love that Emma calls Jane “only ordinarily gifted”, because Jane is extraordinarily “gifted”, repeatedly so, during the last 2 volumes of the novel – first, the Hartfield porker; then the pianoforte; then the apples from Knightley; then the shawl from the Dixons; then Mrs. Elton’s (rejected) offers of carriage rides, mail pickups, and job placement; and finally Emma's (also rejected) offer of arrowroot.

That is just another subliminal hint that connects seemingly unconnected passages; the kind of hint that  goes a long way toward creating the pervasive aura of mystery that hovers over the novel from one end to the other.

And don’t forget another “gifted” character in Emma ---Harriet Smith!:

“…Did [Elton] ever give you any thing?”
“No—I cannot call them gifts; but they are things that I have valued very much.”
She held the parcel towards her, and Emma read the words Most precious treasures on the top. Her curiosity was greatly excited. Harriet unfolded the parcel, and she looked on with impatience. Within abundance of silver paper was a pretty little Tunbridge-ware box, which Harriet opened: it was well lined with the softest cotton; but, excepting the cotton, Emma saw only a small piece of court-plaister….”

Jane: “Thank you for the context, Nancy. Sounds reasonable except that the money Miss Tilney gave Catherine Moreland, though Miss Tilney was probably ready to see it as a gift, was later returned, so I think that is a different category. And Lucy's hair ring, going as it does between engaged people, is different still. (BTW, what are we to make of Edward's not sticking it in the corner of a drawer?) It just strikes me that we have those three large gifts of food in E (plus the rejected offer of edible remedies for Jane F) and none in the other novels. Why nothing from Sir John Middleton to the Dashwoods, for example? Quite possibly once Austen had used the first to advance her plot she simply thought (consciously or not) it fitting to continue with the theme (or do I mean motif or something else?).” 

Nancy: “The gifts aren't enumerated in S & S though we are given to understand that Sir John does give them game and other gifts. He is most generous and helpful and that is the sort of thing that many did without thought or comment. Also, Marianne and Brandon send gifts of game and apples and other such foodstuffs to the parsonage. Austen's readers would have filled in those blanks.”

Jane: “I find it interesting how Austen used such gifts in Emma both for the plot and for characterization.”

Nancy: “I like your idea of looking at the gifts in her novels. We may differ as to what is a gift but that often happens before people refine their terms.
There are gifts in MP around that cross and chains. Mrs. Norris extorts "gifts" and just walks off with things. Doesn't Edmund give fanny a coin to send under seal to William when she first arrives?”

Apropos finding any existing article or chapter about gifts in Jane Austen’s novels, my first stop was the  JASNA website, where I found this recent, lengthy article,  “Small, Trifling Presents”: Giving and Receiving in Emma  by Linda Zionkowski   I skimmed through Zionkowski’s article --it’s not my cup of tea, because it does not go below the surface at all, but perhaps it will be of interest to you.

However, from further quick searching online, I cannot find any article or chapter about gifts in Jane Austen’s novels as a whole – it would be an interesting study, but I do believe that Emma is the Austen novel most saliently engaged with the theme of gift-giving.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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