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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, June 24, 2011

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

[Diane Reynolds responded to my first post under the above subject line as follows:] "Could you point out Harriet's defiance towards Emma when announcing that her love interest is Mr. Knightley? I remember her being surprised that Emma thought she was in love with Frank, then probably protesting too much that it was all because of Emma that she even thought of Mr. Knightley--more of Harriet's over-the-top flattery than defiance, as I remember it. I see Harriet--who i see as playing and flattering Emma--seeing an opening with Mr. K (even though she must be aware that Emma is in love with Mr. K) and then blaming Emma for encouraging it--but in terms of flattery. I think Harriet knew all along that Emma was encouraging her towards Frank but pretending that she thought Emma was encouraging her toward Mr. K. "

Over the top flattery, playing Emma like a drum, that was a constant from the beginning of the novel till that climactic scene in Chapter 47, but look at the subtle but clear shift that occurs right then, which throws Emma into a state of profound shock, very much the way Lucy Steele speaks to Elinor at a _very_ similar moment in the action of S&S--and that resemblance is _not_ coincidental:

"I do not wonder, Miss Woodhouse," [Harriet] resumed, "that you should feel a great difference between the two, as to me or as to any body. You must think one five hundred million times more above me than the other. But I hope, Miss Woodhouse, that supposing—that if—strange as it may appear—. But you know they were your own words, that more wonderful things had happened, matches of greater disparity had taken place than between Mr. Frank Churchill and me; and, therefore, it seems as if such a thing even as this, may have occurred before—and if I should be so fortunate, beyond expression, as to—if Mr. Knightley should really—if he does not mind the disparity, I hope, dear Miss Woodhouse, you will not set yourself against it, and try to put difficulties in the way. But you are too good for that, I am sure."

[Translation: "You're not going to try to throw a monkey wrench into my plans, are you, Miss Woodhouse?" There is a very very subtle defiance in Harriet's tone, a momentary seismic shift in the dynamic between them, from over the top sucking-up to a calm, resoluteness that is especially shocking to Emma precisely because it is like a bolt from the blue by comparison to Harriet's former behavior toward Emma.]

Harriet was standing at one of the windows. Emma turned round to look at her in consternation, and hastily said, "Have you any idea of Mr. Knightley's returning your affection?" "Yes," replied Harriet modestly, but not fearfully—"I must say that I have."

[Note that the narrative description of Harriet speaking "modestly, but not fearfully" is, in this interpretation against the grain, how Harriet seems to _Emma_, not what Harriet actually feels. That is key to the alternative reading, to see such narration as reflections of Emma's perceptions, not of objective reality. Then, for two memorable paragraphs, Emma gets lost in her thoughts as she realizes that she wants Knightley for herself, until Harriet, having softened Emma up with a body blow, now returns to her role as the trembling waif....]

"Harriet, who had been standing in no unhappy reverie, was yet very glad to be called from it, by the now encouraging manner of such a judge, and such a friend as Miss Woodhouse, and only wanted invitation, to give the history of her hopes with great, though trembling delight.—Emma's tremblings as she asked, and as she listened, were better concealed than Harriet's, but they were not less. Her voice was not unsteady; but her mind was in all the perturbation that such a development of self, such a burst of threatening evil, such a confusion of sudden and perplexing emotions, must create.—She listened with much inward suffering, but with great outward patience, to Harriet's detail.—Methodical, or well arranged, or very well delivered, it could not be expected to be; but it contained, when separated from all the feebleness and tautology of the narration, a substance to sink her spirit—especially with the corroborating circumstances, which her own memory brought in favour of Mr. Knightley's most improved opinion of Harriet."

[And Harriet now proceeds to consolidate her newfound power over Emma, by carefully leading Emma through her paces, giving Emma exactly the pathetic narrative that will reinforce Emma's terrified but growing conviction that Harriet really does have a firm hold Knightley's affections. Except that Emma is not that stupid, and, under the tremendous pressure of that moment, Emma comes up with something very close to the reality of the situation] :

On the subject of the first of the two circumstances, she did, after a little reflection, venture the following question. "Might he not?—Is not it possible, that when enquiring, as you thought, into the state of your affections, he might be alluding to Mr. Martin—he might have Mr. Martin's interest in view? But Harriet rejected the suspicion with spirit. "Mr. Martin! No indeed!—There was not a hint of Mr. Martin. I hope I know better now, than to care for Mr. Martin, or to be suspected of it."

[As occurs several other times during the course of the novel, Emma actually gueses _right_ but let's herself be talked out of it by a very clever manipulator! And now Harriet, just like Lucy Steele, sticks in the needle and twists it, by making Emma believe that it all happened only because of Emma!]

When Harriet had closed her evidence, she appealed to her dear Miss Woodhouse, to say whether she had not good ground for hope. "I never should have presumed to think of it at first," said she, "but for you. You told me to observe him carefully, and let his behaviour be the rule of mine—and so I have. But now I seem to feel that I may deserve him; and that if he does chuse me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful." The bitter feelings occasioned by this speech, the many bitter feelings, made the utmost exertion necessary on Emma's side, to enable her to say on reply, "Harriet, I will only venture to declare, that Mr. Knightley is the last man in the world, who would intentionally give any woman the idea of his feeling for her more than he really does." Harriet seemed ready to worship her friend for a sentence so satisfactory; and Emma was only saved from raptures and fondness, which at that moment would have been dreadful penance, by the sound of her father's footsteps. He was coming through the hall. Harriet was too much agitated to encounter him. "She could not compose herself— Mr. Woodhouse would be alarmed—she had better go;"—with most ready encouragement from her friend, therefore, she passed off through another door—and the moment she was gone, this was the spontaneous burst of Emma's feelings: "Oh God! that I had never seen her!"

[And there Harriet, the consummate actress, gives herself her own cue to exit, pursued neither by a bear nor by any suspicion by Emma of how thoroughly she has been gulled by Harriet!

Cheers, ARNIE

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