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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 4, 2011

Highbury Gossips! Tiresome wretches!

After Emma learns that Jane and Frank have been secretly engaged all along, we read:

"“Well,” said Emma, “I suppose we shall gradually grow reconciled to the idea, and I wish them very happy. But I shall always think it a very abominable sort of proceeding. What has it been but a system of hypocrisy and deceit, espionage, and treachery? To come among us with professions of openness and simplicity; and such a league in secret to judge us all! Here have we been, the whole winter and spring, completely duped, fancying ourselves all on an equal footing of truth and honour, with two people in the midst of us who may have been carrying round, comparing and sitting in judgment on sentiments and words that were never meant for both to hear. They must take the consequence, if they have heard each other spoken of in a way not perfectly agreeable!”

As a quintessential example of the irony that suffuses every word of this novel Emma, the pantheon of irony, we have, above, Emma working herself up to a hyperbolic indignant frenzy over the hypocrisy, deceit, espionage, treachery, over the judging, duping, dishonourable, secret league (those are all her own words, squeezed into those few sentences) composed of those wrongdoers, Jane and Frank.

And the irony, fittingly and typically, is unwittingly revealed by Emma herself--what bothers her most about all of these nefarious intrigues is not any genuine harms which may have resulted therefrom, but that Emma has been gossiping maliciously to Frank about Jane for over half the novel, and now Emma is horrified imagining that Frank has been passing Emma's speculations about Jane's love life right back to Jane all along. Not quite as bad as Emma's horrified suspicion that Harriet has had her sights set on Knightley, and that he has returned her affections, but still....pretty darned embarrassing! Emma cannot bring herself to turn the spotlight where it belongs, i.e., on herself, and to come to the explicit realization that she, herself, is the most tiresome, wretched gossip in all of Highbury!

But the richest irony is that I don't believe Frank has actually passed _any_ of Emma's whispered malice along to Jane in the first place--so Emma need not have worried!

Cheers, ARNIE


Arnie Perlstein said...

A quick response from Diane Reynolds and my own response to her response:

[Diane] "Do you really think Frank wouldn't have laughed at Emma with Jane F?"

Frank, like Henry Crawford, is a manipulative cad, and is a canny judge of human foibles. He knows his very different audiences, and how to perform differently to each of them.

Henry Crawford charms Maria and Julia with one sort of provocative and titillating gamesmanship, but tacks in entirely the opposite direction when he courts Fanny (and very nearly succeeds) by displaying his own very
considerable gifts for insight and (simulated) moral judgment.

The same contrast applies in Emma. Jane is not Emma, and would not have been a willing partner in that sort of petty, malicious, jealous gossip.

The courtship of Jane must proceed along very different lines. Jane is not merely Emma's superior in music, but in living.

Cheers, ARNIE

KKS said...

I have to disagree. While intelligent, Frank Churchill—like Emma—is not as skilled in reading people as he supposes, and he is impulsive. He does not really understand Miss Fairfax; he "thought her, on a thousand occasions, unnecessarily scrupulous and cautious" (his letter to Mrs. Weston), and he was stunned that she would end their engagement after his behavior with Emma on Box Hill. He also thought Emma knew he and Miss Fairfax were secretly engaged, yet did not realize Emma would not flirt with him if she had known.

Mr. Knightley noticed that in Miss Fairfax's reaction to "Dixon" in the word game, "her comprehension was certainly more equal to the covert meaning." Since we later discover that she is not secretly in love with Mr. Dixon, we must conclude she is embarrassed by it only because she knows from Frank Churchill what Emma has been conjecturing.

Frank Churchill could not resist repeating private conversation to Miss Fairfax (despite her delicacy), and Emma knew it!

emily michelle said...

I followed your link from Austenblog. When Mags posted the quote there, my reaction was that to think that if Emma doesn't want the things she says to be heard by certain people, maybe she shouldn't be saying them at all. So I liked your reaction here, which was much more eloquent than mine. :)

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks to both KKS and Emily for your replies!

KKS, your analysis is sound in regard to what I call the overt or revealed story of _Emma_, but my comments refer to what I call the "shadow story" of the novel, which is an alternative fictional universe in which many of the motivations and offstage actions of the principal characters OTHER THAN Emma are quite different than in the overt story that "everybody knows".

So, in that parallel alternative story, Jane and Frank were never engaged prior to Chapter 46, but were involved in a romantic relationship, and were also involved romantically with other characters from the story.

If you search in my blog for "Jane Fairfax" and browse some of the many entries that pertain to her, you will quickly get a much better idea of what I claim is going on in the shadow story.

Emily, I am very pleased that you agree with my take on Emma, and I would also be curious to hear your reactions to my shadow story interpretations of Emma and also the other five novels...

Cheers, ARNIE

KKS said...

The post appeared to be a discussion of Jane Austen’s book since it opened with a lengthy quotation, so I do thank you for letting me know that is not the case.

I will now take my leave back to the “revealed” universe of Miss Austen's book, as I admire the original text!

Arnie Perlstein said...


A very clever begging of the pertinent question on your part, but I am having none of it all the same.

I assert that everything I perceive as being part of the shadow story is in the actual text of the novel, and was put there INTENTIONALLY by Jane Austen herself.

You are of course free to continue to read the text in only one of the ways Jane Austen intended, if that floats your boat. As Mr. Darcy says in a similar situation, "I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours."

In any event, I thank your participation here.

Cheers, ARNIE