(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, June 24, 2011

Harriet Smith’s "Provision for the Evening of Life"

I have been claiming for over 4 years, including at my talks in Oxford in 2007 and at Chawton House in 2009, and at all my JASNA AGM talks around the country during the past 13 months, that the character of Harriet Smith may be validly interpreted as being a Shamela and not a Pamela. I.e., Harriet can fairly be read as having her eyes firmly set on Mr. Knightley from the beginning of the novel, as an alternative to the normative interpretation of Harriet as having been corrupted by receiving dangerous encouragement from Emma to think too big, and to set her sights too high.

I just found another interesting bread crumb in the text of Emma which supports this alternative view of Harriet, and I found it, as often is the case, by accident, as I reread my post earlier today about the word “uncommon” as it appears in Chapter 9 of _Emma_ in the following passage:

"...the only literary pursuit which engaged Harriet at present, the only mental provision she was making for the evening of life, was the collecting and transcribing all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with, into a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper, made up by her friend, and ornamented with ciphers and trophies. In this age of literature, such collections on a very grand scale are not uncommon. "

I was struck this time around by the phrase “for the evening of life”, and felt certain that it was an allusion that would somehow relate to the alternative view of Harriet that I just outlined.

Google Books proved me correct, as I was led to “The Works of Alexander Hamilton…” originally published in 1793, and reprinted in 1810, where I read the following passage in a section where Hamilton is discussing the pros and cons of various ways of a government structuring its public debt instruments (i.e., its bonds) so as to makes those bonds attractive to individual investors, and thereby enable governments receive the funding they need in order to operate efficiently:

“With regard to individuals, the inducement will be sufficient at four per cent. There is no disposition of money, in private loans, making allowance for the usual delays and casualties, which would be equally beneficial as a future provision. A hundred dollars advanced upon the life of a person of eleven years old, would produce an annuity [as follows]: if commencing at 21, of $10; if at 31, of $18; if at 41, of $37, and if at 51, of $78. The same sum advanced upon the chance of the survivorship of the youngest of two lives, one of the persons being twenty-five, the other thirty years old, would produce, if the youngest of the two should survive, an annuity for the remainder of life of 23 dollars…From these instances may readily be discerned, the advantages which these deferred annuities afford for securing a _comfortable provision for the evening of life_, or for wives who survive their husbands.”

There you see almost the identical phrase, “securing a comfortable provision for the evening of life” as the narrator used to mock Harriet’s riddle collection, and it fits perfectly with the mercenary Harriet Smith whom I perceive. Emma thinks that all Harriet reads are silly riddle books, but it turns out that Harriet only plays dumb, but actually reads Alexander Hamilton (a wonderful bookend to Emma's disdain for Robert Martin _also_ having a shrewd business head and reading the Agricultural Reports), and Harriet has a very canny sense of Mr. Knightley as a shrewd investment, a man twice her age who can therefore be expected to predecease her by a period of years, leaving her, at age 45 or so, with a very tidy sort of “deferred annuity” that will make Harriet, like Lady Denham in Sanditon, a great lady!

Read Harriet’s defiant response to Emma’s stunned reaction when Harriet first tells Emma about her aspirations to marry Knightley, and you will see that it fits perfectly with the above interpretation, as you will see a Harriet who thinks (and I happen to agree) that there’s nothing wrong with an enterprising young woman (who has to contend with the prejudice of an unjust society which treats her as someone beneath even “common” people, because she is illegitimate—a society that treats her as, in Emma’s words, literally a _nobody_!) watching out for herself, and making provision for the evening of her life by pretending to be a fool in order to get something from those who were lucky enough to be born into wealth and property!

And there is (at least) one other hint which I find in the text of _Emma_, which points toward Hamilton's writing. The preface to the Hamilton 3-volume set begins with the following sentence:

"Of Alexander Hamilton, it may be said, nothing came from his pen or his lips which should not be treasured up with care….."

When I read that, I knew that it was no accident that we read the following in Chapter 40 that Harriet had been collecting the even more mercenary Mr. Elton's used bandaid and worn down pencil nub and had called them "Precious treasures"! Apparently Harriet had learned what she needed to learn from observing Elton in his pursuit of Emma, and was ready to move on to the next level, and toss her Elton memorabilia into the fire, as she was already planning to get herself _very_ cozy and warm at Donwell Abbey!

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: