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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, May 6, 2011

Jane Austen's Letter 23: The Emma Letter

What struck me about Letter 23 when I first read it closely a few years ago is that it has so many echoes of Emma, which supports the notion (which I heartily endorse) that Emma grew out of the ashes of The Watsons. It goes far beyond the resonance between Miss Bates and Jane Austen herself (which I have been claiming since 2006) that Ellen has suggested in Austen L, because there are so many particular details which ring very specific bells.

Here are the echoes/bells from Emma which I hear in Letter 23 (written, it is important to remember, 15 years before JA edited the final proofs of Emma!):

“I am not yet able to acknowledge the receipt of any parcel from London, which I suppose will not occasion you much surprise.-I was a little disappointed today, but not more than is perfectly agreable; & I hope to be disappointed again tomorrow, as only one coach comes down on Sundays”

Although we find out at the end of the letter that JA is awaiting a gown that CEA ordered for her while passing through London en route to Godmersham, we are at this first point reminded of the delivery of the piano from London to Jane Fairfax.

“You have had a very pleasant Journey of course, & have found Elizabeth & all the Children very well on your arrival at Godmersham, & I congratulate you on it. Edward is rejoicing this evening I dare say to find himself once more at home, from which he fancies he has been absent a great while.”

The Christmas visit of the John Knightleys with all their children to Highbury, and in particular John Knightley’s grumbling about traveling away from home.

“His son left behind him the very fine chestnuts which had been selected for planting at Godmersham, & the drawing of his own which he had intended to carry to George; + the former will there-fore be deposited in the soil of Hampshire instead of Kent; the latter, I have already consigned to another Element.”

Robert Martin gathering walnuts for Harriet.

“…we have been obliged to take advantage of the delightful weather ourselves by going to see almost all our Neighbours.-On Thursday we walked to Deane, yesterday to Oakley Hall & Oakley, & today to Deane again.”

Of course, that is Emma’s quotidian life in Highbury!

“At Oakley Hall we did a great deal-eat some sandwiches all over mustard, admired Mr. Bramston's Porter & Mrs. Bramston's Transparencies, & gained a promise from the latter of two roots of hearts-ease, one all yellow & the other all purple, for you.”

As Colleen Sheehan so brilliantly argued 10 years ago, the secret second answer to the _shorter_ charade in Chapter 9 of Emma is “heart’s ease”.

“At Oakley we bought ten pair of worsted stockings, & a shift.”

Emma and Harriet go to Ford’s.

“The shift is for Betty Dawkins, as we find she wants it more than a rug.-She is one of the most grateful of all whom Edward's charity has reached, or at least she expresses herself more warmly than the rest, for she sends him a " sight of thanks."

Emma and Harriet make their charitable outing.

“James went to Winchester fair yesterday, & bought a new horse; & Mary has got a new maid-two great acquisitions, one comes from Folly Farm, is about five years old, used to draw, & thought very pretty; & the other is neice to Dinah at Kintbury.”

Emma playfully saying to Knightley: “It was not Harriet's hand that he was certain of—it was the dimensions of some famous ox."

And as I have mentioned in the past, the above passage from Emma must have been on Sholom Aleichem’s mind when he wrote the hilarious scene between Tevye and Lazar Wolf .

“We have had no letter since you left us, except one from Mr. Serle of Bishop's Stoke to enquire the character of James Elton.-Our whole Neighbourhood is at present very busy greiving over poor Mrs. Martin, who has totally failed in her business, & had very lately an execution in her house.”

Surely I do not even need to point out that these two sentences contain _four_ surnames from _Emma_-!-three are from the surnames of these real people (if indeed they are all real people, and if these events actually did take place, which, in my opinion, is far from certain) and one (Mrs. Stokes, the proprietor of the Crown Inn) from the name “Bishop’s Stoke”.

“Her own Brother & Mr. Rider are the principal creditors, & they have seized her effects in order to prevent other people's doing it.-There has been the same affair going on, we are told, at Wilson's, & my hearing nothing of you makes me apprehensive that You, your fellow travellers & all your effects, might be seized by the Bailiffs when you stopt at the Crow & sold altogether for the benefit of the creditors.”

This droll sarcastic tale of a woman living on the economic edge, and then JA’s droll fantasy of CEA herself being sold to pay debts, of course reminds us of Miss Bates. And note that CEA s”stopt at the Crow”, which is only one letter away from “the CrowN”!

“In talking of Mr. Deedes's new house, Mrs. Bramston told us one circumstance, which, that we should be ignorant of it before must make Edward's conscience fly into his face; she told us that one of the sitting rooms at Sandling, an oval room with a Bow at one end, has the very remarkable & singular feature of a fireplace with a window, the centre window of the Bow, exactly over the mantlepeice.-Sunday.”

Ellen is right to hear an echo to General Tilney’s protesting too much about the lack of a bow window at Woodston, but there is another reference to a bow window in JA’s novels, and it is in Emma:

“…a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread…”

“Our Improvements have advanced very well;-the Bank along the Elm Walk is sloped down for the reception of Thorns & Lilacs; & it is settled that the other side of the path is to continue turf'd & be planted with Beech, Ash, & Larch.-Monday.”

And we have the following description of Harriet and the Gypsies:
“About half a mile beyond Highbury, making a sudden turn, and deeply shaded by elms on each side, it became for a considerable stretch very retired….Miss Bickerton, excessively frightened, gave a great scream, and calling on Harriet to follow her, ran up a steep bank…”

But here is the coup de grace, in terms of Emma echoes:

“I am surprised that Mrs. Marriot should not be taller-Surely You have made a mistake.-Did Mr. Roland make you look well?”

Of course this is Knightley commenting that Emma has drawn Harriet too tall!

Cheers, ARNIE

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