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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Emma's Secret Satisfaction

Ch. 52, Emma:

"She soon resolved, equally as a duty and a pleasure, to employ half an hour of this holiday of spirits in calling on Miss Fairfax. She ought to go -- and she was longing to see her; the resemblance of their present situations increasing every other motive of good will. It would be a _secret_ satisfaction; but the consciousness of a similarity of prospect would certainly add to the interest with which she should attend to any thing Jane might communicate."

I never consciously registered the exquisite (and, to me, obviously completely intentional, on JA's part) ambiguity and depth of meaning in this innocuous little passage before, and I suspect that I am not alone in having failed to give this passage its due, so I hope that the following will be of interest to many of you, and I am curious to hear if anyone sees any other wrinkles I have failed to detect.

BUT PLEASE NOTE--I give you the following solemn vow--everything I say in this message is in relation to the OVERT story of Emma--no shadow story in this analysis today. ;)

I begin by posing the question which brings out the ambiguity I now perceive: What does "similarity of prospect" mean to Emma in relation to Jane? Is it merely that both she and Jane are engaged, and so Emma sees that as experience both she and Jane share? Or is there a further wrinkle in Emma's mind, i.e., not only that they are both engaged, but that now, as a result of Jane's engagement to a wealthy heir of a great estate, they are now, for the first time in their lives, equal in social status and wealth as well? I.e., is Emma feeling genuine camaraderie with Jane as women in love, or is this just another example of Emma's narcissistic snobbery? The former appears a benign judgment on Emma, the latter an uncharitable one.

Or, is it possible that BOTH apply? I.e., are we meant to infer that Emma consciously sees the similarity as merely being engaged, but unconsciously sees the similarity as both being of high status? You decide after you read the following, and tell me what you think.


The "both engaged" interpretation of Emma's feelings and thoughts is, on its face, plausible, but, as I will now argue, when you examine it more closely, it is NOT a very flattering one to Emma. First, right off the bat, the camaraderie is undermined, because this is to be a SECRET satisfaction for Emma, i.e., her own little private joke, one she is pointedly enjoying NOT letting Jane in on. It sounds to me like passive aggression--Jane kept her engagement secret from Emma all those months, so now Emma can have the satisfaction of a little karmic, and catty, revenge.

It's a private joke, of course, because, at that moment in time (although the narrator, with her typical discretion, fails to remind the reader) Jane does not know Emma is engaged--so if we look at this scene from Jane's point of view, at that precise moment, what is her likely opinion about the status of Emma's romantic affections, after observing Frank flirting with Emma all those months? Of course, it's that Emma still has a "thing" for Frank, and so Emma must, as the Westons fear, be broken-hearted at the news that Frank is engaged to Jane. That is exactly what the Westons feared.

And so surely Jane, at this first occasion when she is speaking with Emma after Jane's engagement has been revealed to Emma, is concerned that Emma might be quite upset at Jane. Jane alludes to this obliquely when she finally grabs a moment alone with Emma (away from the hovering Mrs. Elton, that is), but then Emma, equally obliquely, assures Jane there are no hard feelings. Does Jane read Emma correctly at that point, or are Emma's comments perplexing to Jane, the way Emma's comments "stagger" Mr. Knightley ten chapters earlier? We have no idea, because we are in Emma's head, not Jane's. But I'd say Emma's behavior demonstrates there definitely ARE some hard feelings, because (as much as Emma would not like to admit it), it must be apparent to Emma that Frank preferred Jane to Emma, and Emma surely must feel about that the same way she felt about the invitation from the Coles--she thought she didn't care, till she was put in doubt of it, and then she cared....A LOT!

But I must go on. Even if Emma perceives herself and Jane to be similarly situated as engaged women, they are nonetheless still DISsimilar in their knowledge of each other's romantic status. A flipflop has occurred, just like in Midsummer Night's Dream, but no "heart's ease" was required to cause this. It is simply that it is now Emma, and not Jane, who is (for the duration of 3 chapters) SECRETLY engaged, just as Jane was secretly engaged for 47 long chapters. Emma learns of Jane's secret engagement in Chapter 46, and Emma becomes secretly engaged to Knightley in Chapter 49, so the flipflop of circumstances is rapid.

And it's not just that they have each been, in sequence, secretly engaged---there's ANOTHER striking parallel, because-----sound familiar?------Emma and Knightley are keeping their engagement secret for EXACTLY the same reason that Jane and Frank did, i.e., the perceived necessity of concealment of the engagement from an older "tyrant" who would never consent to the marriage!

There is a complex dance going on here, then, where first it is Jane's turn to deceive Emma in this complicated way, and then it is Emma's turn to return the favor.

But all this leads to a THIRD, further parallel, also never flagged explicitly by the ever-coy narrator, which ALSO does not reflect well on Emma, to wit: in the aftermath of the public revelation of Jane and Frank's engagement, we hear all sorts of judgmental comments about their duplicity, the unfairness to others, especially to Emma, who appeared to love Frank. And yet, Emma, exactly like Jane, ALSO deceives a woman who appears to love EMMA's fiance, i.e., Harriet! Now it's Emma's turn to deceive Harriet, by not telling Harriet about Emma's secret engagement to Knightley, just as Jane deceived Emma.

What goes through Emma's head about Harriet? Read Chapter 50 carefully--it is there that we, the readers, are privy to Emma's thought process in the immediate aftermath of Knightley's proposal to her--and look at what Emma does--she avoids a face to face meeting with Harriet, and writes Harriet a letter instead--does the letter reveal the engagement to Harriet? I think the narrator leaves that ambiguous too: the letter will "communicate all that need be told", whatever that means!

It makes Emma sad to write the letter, so that could mean that Emma DOES give Harriet the bad news in that letter. On the other hand, it would also be quite natural for Emma to be feeling more than a little insecure about Knightley, after she has been shellshocked by the emotional rollercoaster ride she has just been on--hearing of Jane and Frank's engagement, then almost immediately hearing that Harriet loves Knightley, then almost immediately hearing that Knightley loves her (Emma), all in a very short time. So, Emma might plausibly worry that if she tells Harriet about the engagement, it is possible that Harriet, in her sudden disturbing assertiveness, might seize that moment to act like Lucy Steele or Mrs. Clay and throw herself at Knightley, and possibly prevail in inducing him to switch horses (so to speak) from Emma to Harriet?

After all, Harriet was very emphatic and very detailed in her explanation in Ch. 47 about all the reasons why she felt Knightley was interested in her. Upon such a line of reasoning, sending Harriet off to London would have the very desirable effect of removing Harriet from alarming proximity to Knightley!

So I see that as yet another deliberate ambiguity, and nothing i can find in the remainder of the novel removes that ambiguity--so it is very possible that Emma leaves Harriet hanging about Knightley until Robert Martin seizes the moment in London. And if Emma does that, note that Emma gets off scotfree from aspersions on HER character after she and Knightley announce their engagement. Why? How does Emma escape the judgments of the Highbury gossips on her and Knightley's character which are rendered on Frank and Jane? Because Emma makes very sure that nobody but Emma ever has all the information! SHE never tells anybody that Harriet had her sights on Knightley, and, as far as we know, when Emma and Knightley DO put the word out that they are engaged, there is nothing in the text to suggest that they felt it necessary to mention the detail that there was ever a secret engagement! So there is no one else in a position to put two and two together!

But there is that other interpretation of "similarity of prospect" still to consider.


I will not say too much in terms of this interpretation, beyond the obvious, which is that Emma comes off even more unsavorily if we view her sense of "similarity of prospect" as arising from Emma's snobbery. Standing alone, it is already unpleasant, to consider how Emma spends the entire novel avoiding being friendly to Jane, beyond her own nosy and jealous attempt to find out some dirty on Jane to bring her down a notch, suddenly warms up to Jane and the FIRST thing she thinks is, now Jane is no longer low-class, so now I can deign to be her friend.

But it's trebly bad, when we consider the role of Harriet in this equation. I.e., it makes Emma's abandonment of her friendship with Harriet (and as much as she sugar coats it in her own mind, repeatedly, that is what she does) even more blameful, because now Emma can rationalize that abandonment in the most expedient way, i.e., now that Jane will be a real lady, like myself, Emma can replace Harriet (who by the way, made the mistake of being interested in the same man Emma has now suddenly decided she loves), because Jane's no longer beneath Emma, and also because Emma's no longer interested in Frank, so Jane is no longer felt as a rival.

And finally, wen Harriet miraculously has her "stain" bleached out at the end of the novel, and winds up with Robert Martin, then Emma's feeble conscience is entirely extinguished.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: Even if not for all of the above, this passage would STILL be worth the price of close attention, for one of the hundreds of little poetic phrases which are everywhere in Emma--"holiday of spirits". I think Sheila Kaye-Smith paid that line its sincerest flattery by imitating it with great style and graciousness, as follows:

"I read Jane Austen for a holiday--a 'holiday of spirits'--and her main enchantment (for me) is the world, the life, she offers me--like enough to my own to be real, unlike enough to be stimulating--rather than the people she invites me to meet."

P.P.S. (added upon rereading of the above)

"So, Emma might plausibly worry that if she tells Harriet about the engagement, it is possible that Harriet, in her sudden disturbing assertiveness, might seize that moment to act like Lucy Steele or Mrs. Clay and throw herself at Knightley, and possibly prevail in inducing him to switch horses (so to speak) from Emma to Harriet? After all, Harriet was very emphatic and very detailed in her explanation in Ch. 47 about all the reasons why she felt Knightley was interested in her. Upon such a line of reasoning, sending Harriet off to London would have the very desirable effect of removing Harriet from alarming proximity to Knightley!"

The unconscious works in mysterious ways. When I was first typing the above section of my message just sent, I at first wrote "Charlotte Lucas" as an example of a single woman taking the action that Emma feared Harriet might take, to try to lure a man away from the woman he really loved. But then Charlotte did not seem to be a very good example of what Emma may have feared from Harriet, even if she was luring Mr. Collins away from Mary Bennet, because we know she was a good wife to Collins, and did not take advantage of him--that's when Lucy Steele and Penelope Clay came to mind instead as predominantly self-interested fortune-hunters.

But then as I just reread my message, I realized why Charlotte had come to my mind in the first place, and why she was actually the BEST example of all of what Emma feared from Harriet.

To wit, I recalled that in my message written only last week about Mr. Collins and Harris Bigg-Withers, I had pointed out that Charlotte had pulled off two brilliant stratagems in order to land, and then "secure" Mr. Collins. First, Charlotte put herself in his path right after Lizzy had rejected his addresses, and second (and relevant to the "secret satisfaction" passage in Emma), Charlotte then consolidated her fragile victory, by making Collins promise to immediately leave Longbourn WITHOUT telling the Bennets that he was engaged to Charlotte, so that he would not be subject to any sort of pressure from Mrs. Bennet to revoke his engagement to Charlotte. (which all actually does remind me of Lucy Steele, who probably swore Edward to secrecy after they got engaged, knowing it would give her "command of the board", so to speak)

So I am suggesting that Emma rationalizes her desire to get Harriet far away from Knightley (to make sure he does not change his mind about Emma!) by telling herself that Harriet needed a change of scenery, etc etc. Whereas Charlotte, clear-sighted self-aware pragmatist that she is, surely was fully conscious of her own motivations, and would, if asked (by a person who could keep a secret) have freely acknowledged her own stratagem---after all, it was only a perfect illustration of Charlotte's credo of courtship as expressed to Lizzy about the need for strategic action by Jane in order to land Bingley:

"When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chuses."

Indeed Charlotte does not rest until she is secure of Collins, and it is that same resolution and fortitude which Emma, unconsciously, fears from Harriet vis a vis Knightley.

Which is why I am now convinced that Emma does NOT, in the letter she writes to Harriet, inform her little friend of her engagement to Knightley. The narration ""communicate all that need be told" now sounds like just one MORE of Emma's rationalizations--not only does Emma not need to see Harriet in person, Harriet also does not "need to be told" about the engagement either---at least, not just yet!!!

Cheers, ARNIE

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