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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Playtime in Highbury: Beware of Geeky Vicars Bearing Gifts

This is a bit of a longish story, but I promise you, it leads somewhere significant, so I ask your indulgence to stick with it to the very end.....

I woke up today recollecting that in Chapter 40 of Emma, Mr. Elton's leadless pencil (actually, Harriet refers to it as being "good for nothing") is NOT the only precious treasure that Harriet has been harboring in her Tunbridge-ware box. I just now have had the chance to sit down at my computer, and to verify my recollection that, immediately before Harriet tells Emma what I would call the Tale of Mr. Elton's Good-for-Nothing Pencil, Harriet tells Emma what I would call the Fable of Mr. Elton's Court Plaister---the COURT plaister being the other precious treasure Harriet fondly retained from the days of Mr. Elton's "COURTship". And, by the analysis set forth below, I will show that, as with everything else in this novel, nothing is random, nothing is "trivial" or "filler", everything is connected to everything else, in the most interesting ways.

Here is the relevant portion of Chapter 40:

"....Cannot you guess what this parcel holds?" said [Harriet], with a conscious look.

"Not the least in the world. Did he 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.

"Now," said Harriet, "you must recollect,"

"No, indeed I do not."

"Dear me! I should not have thought it possible you could forget what passed in this very room about court plaister, one of the very last times we ever met in it! It was but a very few days before I had my sore throat -- just before Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley came; I think the very evening. Do not you remember his cutting his finger with your new penknife, and your recommending court plaister? But as you had none about you, and knew I had, you desired me to supply him; and so I took mine out and cut him a piece; but it was a great deal too large, and he cut it smaller, and kept playing some time with what was left, before he gave it back to me. And so then, in my nonsense, I could not help making a treasure of it; so I put it by never to be used, and looked at it now and then as a great treat."

"My dearest Harriet!" cried Emma, putting her hand before her face, and jumping up, "you make me more ashamed of myself than I can bear. Remember it? Aye, I remember it all now; all, except your saving this relick: I knew nothing of that till this moment -- but the cutting the finger, and my recommending court plaister, and saying I had none about me! Oh! my sins, my sins! And I had plenty all the while in my pocket! One of my senseless tricks! I deserve to be under a continual blush all the rest of my life. Well" (sitting down again) "go on: what else?"

"And had you really some at hand yourself? I am sure I never suspected it, you did it so naturally."

"And so you actually put this piece of court plaister by for his sake!" said Emma, recovering from her state of shame and feeling divided between wonder and amusement. And secretly she added to herself, "Lord bless me! when should I ever have thought of putting by in cotton a piece of court plaister that Frank Churchill had been pulling about! I never was equal to this." END OF EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 40

Of course we all (think we) know exactly what this is about--it is clear from this excerpt that Emma's breaking her shoelace strolling in Highbury with Harriet and Mr. Elton was not an isolated instance, but was part of a concerted campaign, waged by Emma over a period of time, to try to get Harriet and Mr. Elton alone together, to guide Cupid's dart toward its target, so to speak.

But what is cleverly left unstated, but instead is left for the proactive reader's inference, is that, unlike that day on Vicarage Lane, Emma's goal of leaving Harriet and Mr. Elton entirely alone that fateful evening at Hartfield has finally been achieved! We may plausibly infer that Emma does not immediately return to the room after she elvishly slips out pretending to go searching for some court plaister in Mr. Woodhouse's (no doubt amply stocked!) medicine cabinet. And so Harriet and Mr. Elton have been entirely alone together, in a room at Hartfield (where Hannah, the nosy maid, is no longer around, by the way, to eavesdrop and then quietly close the door) for some unknown, but surely not very short, period. Emma, like Mrs. Bennet hustling everyone out of the room at Longbourne so that Mr. Bingley will have his chance with Jane, would have made certain to stay away a "good deal" of time.

Where does that inference take us, you ask? I would like to suggest that the Fable of Mr. Elton's Court Plaister is really, in a theatrical sense, Act Two, immediately following Act One of an amateur theatrical for which Emma, so to speak, wrote the script, but Harriet wrote the subtext (and if you're reminded of MacEwan's Atonement, that is not accidental, I believe MacEwan understood a great deal about the shadows of Emma!)--Harriet herself very helpfully reports that there was a lapse of a day or two between the two encounters--Act One being the Tale of Mr. Elton's Good-For-Nothing Pencil. And I would further suggest that both acts of this short "play" relate DIRECTLY to the quadrille aka charade on the theme of "COURTship" which we read in Chapter 9 of Emma, and which has been a recent topic of intense conversation here.

To wit, I will now pull out from the above excerpt from Chapter 40, the key utterance by Harriet, which will make my point for me---I have deliberately edited out a few choice words, in order to allow the remaining words written by JA to speak for themselves in bringing into stark relief what I consider to be the "punch line" of this bit of theatrical legerdemain on JA's part:

"But, as you had none about you, and knew I had, you desired me to supply him; and so I TOOK MINE OUT....but IT WAS A GREAT DEAL TOO LARGE, and HE...KEPT PLAYING SOME TIME WITH WHAT WAS LEFT, BEFORE HE GAVE IT BACK TO ME."

As I believe is unavoidable from reading the above with an open mind, the "plump" Mr. Elton and the "plump" Harriet, quite unknown to Emma, apparently enjoyed some pleasant playtime with her "court" plaister---a very becoming conjunction, as the narrator might have added. And Harriet's coming to Hartfield in the first place, on her own impetus, expressly to make a "confession" to Emma, while throwing Emma a "conscious look" or two, makes you wonder how clueless Emma really could be....

And I immediately emphasize that this particular instance of sexual innuendo written by JA is entirely IN context, it is not forced on the scene in any way, it takes a romantic situation and makes it, well, a good deal more romantic--and it is thus a particularly fine (but not in any way atypical) example of the way JA layered in her fully furnished shadow story just beneath the floor of her fully furnished overt story. A two story WoodHOUSE.

And speaking of "becoming conjunctions", some of you may also be wondering at this point whether Jill Heydt-Stevenson picked up on this elegant bit of sexual innuendo in Emma. The answer is, she DID definitely spot the issue--in her Introduction, at page 4, she quotes David Lodge's immortal character Professor Morris Zapp opining that "Mr. Elton was obviously implied to be impotent because there was no lead in the pencil that Harriet Smith took from him..." However, neither JHS nor Lodge went any further with this "lead" (in the sense of a clue).

This is a great example of the "nose" for significant sexual innuendo that I claim JHS demonstrated in her book. She did the first stage of the heavy lifting by identifying a lot of material that really matters, and I have been privileged to have begun my own research at precisely the time when I could follow in her footsteps, and extend her insights deep into the shadow stories of JA's writings.

Anyway, apropos my discussion with Diana about the power of the unconscious, my retrieval of this citation from Unbecoming Conjunctions makes me realize that my waking up today thinking about Chapter 40 of Emma was no accident, but was the result of my having read the above passage in JHS's Introduction yesterday in preparation for writing the post I wrote about same, and clearly my unconscious was jogged to connect all of the above dots while I lay sleeping.

And I also now notice that JHS's quotation from Lodge was immediately preceded by her discussion of Garrick's Riddle, and that FORTUITOUS conjunction makes me realize, in light of Heydt-Stevenson's explanation of the concealed "syphilis subtext" of Garrick's Charade, whether Harriet's sore throat itself was the inevitable and highly unfortunate outcome of the events described in the Tale and/or the Fable described above--in which event, we may perhaps feel some compassion even for Mrs. Elton, when we speculate as to what "gift" Mr. Elton may have given to HER, when she donned, to use her phrase, 'Hymen's saffron robe" after their solemn nuptials---probably something that would require a special trip to Bath to deal with.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: I forgot to ask my final question, to wit: what is the moral of Harriet's story-telling? After all, Aesop's and Perrault's fables all have morals. I would argue that Harriet's moral would be the same as the moral of another story, written long long ago, but with a little modern twist for the fun of it:

Beware of Geeky Vicars Bearing Gifts.

P.P.S: To paraphrase Richard Nixon, I am not a geek. ;)

P.P.S.: BRAVO BRAVO BRAVO to you, Elissa, for detecting, and then explicating, the maritime significance of the quadrille, which is just FANTASTIC, and 1000% spot-on, on multiple levels!. What is most astounding is that each of the secret "quadrillic" levels of the "courtship" charade is an intricate, meaning-laden world of its own, and each such "shadow world" is a veiled commentary on each of the others. And the synergy of them all is nothing short of dazzling and overwhelming!


Anonymous said...

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Arnie Perlstein said...

I received a response in one of the groups which showed me I had erred in one respect in the above post, and here is the explanation of same:

"If you KNOW someone has something "about their person", you don't go running off to find something you don't have on you and then desire that that person supply a third party."

That is very true. And yet..... I have just revisited Chapter 40 yet again (it is incredible sometimes how one can reread a passage in one of JA's novels a half dozen times in 30 minutes, on consecutive days, and, each time, spot some new nuance--all depending on what one is looking for during each fresh turn of the investigatory screw!).

Based on this latest review, I conclude that what led me down the garden path of concluding that Emma left Harriet and Elton alone to get court plaister, was the context provided by the first 39 chapters. The reader is clearly meant to infer that Emma's motivation for pretending not to have court plaister when she really did, must have been to bring Harriet and Elton together. It is consistent with Emma's matchmaking repertoire that we've seen throughout the novel, for Emma to pretend not to have court plaister, solely so that Harriet can be the one to give some of the stuff to Elton. Yes, it's small beer, with very little payoff, that's true. But still, Emma is a diligent and patient matchmaking "artisan", and such a moment would be yet "another brick in the wall" Emma is patiently constructing---remember, Emma thinks it took FOUR YEARS for her matchmaking to bring Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston to the moment of "I dos"--we're talking "patient"!

And yet...... If that is all there was to it, how to account for Emma's over-the-top, extreme overreaction, when Harriet's questions prompt Emma to recall, and then confess, her little stratagem? Like T.S. Eliot's questioning Hamlet's excessive emotion at the beginning of the play, Emma's reaction does not match with small beer. First Emma JUMPS UP. Then she blurts out the following agitated confession of her own: "Oh! my sins, my sins! And I had plenty all the while in my pocket! One of my senseless tricks! I deserve to be under a continual blush all the rest of my life." Then she persists with yet another internal thought about herself and Frank.

That sort of reaction would fit with the "first degree felony" of Emma having schemed to leave Harriet and Elton alone for an intimate tete a tete, not the "tenth degree misdemeanor" of setting Harriet up as the goddess of court plaister. And so, even though I now agree that Emma did not leave the room on a phantom quest for court plaister at that instant, what matters is that we are meant to infer that, AT SOME POINT during that fateful week before Christmas, Harriet and Elton have been alone together, and in some way, Emma's over-reaction is her own unconscious recognition of that disturbing possibility.

"The question is, what was Mr. Elton doing with Emma's new penknife, especially as "knives are for grandpapas"?"

I agree that the presence in the same novel of Mr. Woodhouse's knife and Elton's maniacal pencil-sharpening is NOT an accident--JA made it explicit in NA that she was a subscriber to what we today think of as the Rule of Chekhov's Gun. And I, too, find that ultra-close reading of such nuances in JA's writing as you have done regarding the various permutations regarding knives and pencils is almost always very much worthwhile. But...regardless of whether it is the knives and pencils which are the key to this particular puzzle, what I am confident of is that, one way or another, one essential point that JA wished to press home was that Harriet and Elton have been alone together. Therefore I stand by all the rest of my inferences in my post "Beware of Geeky Vicars Bearing Gifts" , which all follow from that essential point.

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Arnie Perlstein said...

So, tell me which stuff you particularly liked, and why, so we can have a conversation about it! ;)