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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A very pretty sort of young lady

In Chapter 32, when the Eltons return the visit which Emma and Harriet quickly paid at the vicarage to welcome the newlyweds to Highbury, we have our first, hilarious acquaintance with the formidable Mrs. Elton. But what I just noticed today for the first time was something Mr. Woodhouse says to Emma as soon as they begin "debriefing" the visit after the Eltons have left Hartfield, and Emma has had time to chill out. Here’s what the kindly old gentleman has to say to Emma:

""Well, my dear," he deliberately began, "considering we never saw her before, she seems a very pretty sort of young lady...."

What exactly does Mr. Woodhouse mean by this? Bizarre as his thinking often is, he always (to the best of my recollection) expresses his bizarre thoughts clearly, even to the point of punctiliousness. But here, he seems to have left out a sentence or two of explanation as to the connection between the first and second clauses in that sentence. The structure of that sentence, and in particular the word “considering”, sets us up for the notion that he was surprised that Mrs. Elton was very pretty and young, BECAUSE he and Emma had never seen her before!

But why exactly would his and Emma’s never having seen Mrs. Elton before have made it less likely (or MORE likely, for that matter) that Mrs. Elton would turn out, upon first viewing, to be a "very pretty sort of young lady"? It’s as absurd as if he had said “considering that it’s Tuesday, she seems a very pretty sort of young lady…” He is absurd and Mr. Magooish, but he’s not that absurd!

Any thoughts as to what he means? Is he implying that there was some expectation that Mrs. Elton would NOT be pretty or young, based on some OTHER factor? But then, what would that other factor be?

Elton’s prior track record in the courtship department, if known at all to Mr. Woodhouse, would suggest that Elton has an eye for very pretty young girls. After all, we know that he had his eye on Emma, and Emma thought he had his eye on the very pretty Harriet Smith.

Or would it be that Elton was not a rich man, and therefore he would not command a pretty young bride? But, unless I am forgetting something, we have no previous (or subsequent) hint in the novel to suggest that Mr. Woodhouse does not like or respect or admire Mr. Elton, or think he’s a great catch .

So why would Mr. Woodhouse have had an expectation that Mrs. Elton would NOT be pretty and young? I began to search around earlier in Chapter 32 to see if I could find some additional textual clues to help me out, and, sure enough, I immediately noticed that the beginning of Chapter 32 is unmistakably connected to Mr. Woodhouse's comment:

"Mrs. Elton was first seen at church: but though devotion might be interrupted, curiosity could not be satisfied by a bride in a pew, and it must be left for the visits in form which were then to be paid, to settle whether she were very pretty indeed, or only rather pretty, or not pretty at all."

So JA wants us to know that it has already been a topic of gossipy conversation, not only generally in Highbury but even between Emma and her father, as to where Mrs. Elton falls on the prettiness spectrum. And that seems promising. Is there some implication that Emma, while speculating with her father about Mr. Elton’s bride, has been less than complimentary in her comments? We know that Emma was unnerved at the rapidity with which Elton found his bride, and it would fit perfectly with Emma’s character for her to have spun a fantasy or two about how hideous and old Mrs. Elton must be, for her to be available at the drop of a hat when Elton desperately saved face and recovered from the devastation of Emma’s rejection (or so Emma’s fantasy would go).

We actually have already witnessed Emma’s dissing of Robert Martin’s clownishness, and later on we will witeness her dissing of Miss Bates’s volubility. For Emma to have trashed Mrs. Elton’s looks to her father, before seeing her, would be par for the course.

And so Mr. Woodhouse’s comment would be the tail-end of earlier unreported conversations on that subject (and how subtle of JA to do this—it reminds me a lot of the way Shakespeare would often begin scenes in the middle of a conversation, and leave it to the audience to figure out what was discussed BEFORE the play began!)

But that introductory passage in Chapter 32 raises fresh questions for me. Why exactly could curiosity NOT be satisfied by a bride in a pew? Is it that it was difficult at church to get a good look at Mrs. Elton? Wouldn’t she have been in close proximity to the other parishioners, before during and after the service? It’s not like they were worshipping in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, it was presumably a small country church, a very intimate setting. And note that Mr. Woodhouse did NOT say that it was merely that they did not get a good look at her in church, he is very clear that he believes that neither he NOR Emma has seen Mrs. Elton at all. It’s quite puzzling to me.

That leads me also the question of whether Mr. Woodhouse and Emma had not seen Mrs. Elton in church because they had not gone to church when she made her “debut” there! But a quick search of the word “church” led me to the following passage in Chapter 16, where it is clearly stated that bad weather gives Emma a perfect excuse not to go to church right after the unpleasantness with Mr. Elton in the carriage. So it seems clear, by negative implication, that Emma did indeed attend church regularly on other days when weather did permit. But isn’t it also equally suggested that Mr. Woodhouse NEVER attended church?:

“The weather was most favourable for her; though Christmas-day, she could not go to church. Mr. Woodhouse would have been miserable had his daughter attempted it, and she was therefore safe from either exciting or receiving unpleasant and most unsuitable ideas. The ground covered with snow, and the atmosphere in that unsettled state between frost and thaw, which is of all others the most unfriendly for exercise, every morning beginning in rain or snow, and every evening setting in to freeze, she was for many days a most honourable prisoner. No intercourse with Harriet possible but by note; no church for her on Sunday any more than on Christmas-day; and no need to find excuses for Mr. Elton's absenting himself.”

So could THAT be the explanation? If Mr. Woodhouse did not attend church, and let Emma go by herself, then perhaps when he says “WE never saw her before”, it’s a kind of unconscious “royal we”, consistent with all his many other narcissisms, and it merely means that if he has not seen Mrs. Elton, then he just assumes Emma has not seen her either?

But then again, as I said, I have this distinct impression of Mr. Woodhouse being very precise in his expression of his ideas (that’s part of what makes him such a memorable character, he is not stupid, just very very very strange). And so I think it would be a pretty big leap to argue that all the times he assumes that Emma shares his feelings about marriage, or his (imagined or real) illnesses and frailties, permits us to infer that he also goes so far as to assume that Emma (physically) sees only what he sees as well!

I just took a quick tour of Austen online sites and Google to see if anyone else has ever noticed any of these questions, and I see that the very discerning Richard Jenkyns in his excellent A Fine Brush on Ivory did address some of them at ppg. 159-60. He notes first that Mr. Woodhouse tends to describe pretty much EVERY young woman he sees, whether a servant or Jane Fairfax or Mrs. Elton, as being… pretty! But Jenkyns also catches the oddness of Mr. Woodhouse’s strange sentence, which first caught my own eye, and has this to say about it:

“…There is in this a mixture of imperceptiveness and solipsism…a person has no characteristics until she is before Mr. Woodhouse’s eyes…”

So Jenkyns comes down on the side of Mr. Woodhouse being Mr. Magoo. But, as I have questioned the standard reading of Miss Bates, so too I see unmistakable signs that we are also meant to see Mr. Woodhouse in a more complicated light.

There must be other passages in the novel which bear on the above questions, but I am tuckered out from this round, so I throw this out to you and ask for help in sorting this out.

What say ye all?


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