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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, August 19, 2011

Firm and Upright Figures & Other Objects in _Emma_: A Quick P.S.

After posting my last message under the above subject line, I did some quick checking and found a couple of other interesting things:

First, I had forgotten (but just realized from a search of the Janeites archives) that this same question arose five years ago in Janeites, when Victoria challenged a sexual interpretation by myself and others of the words "firm" and "upright" in _Emma_.

At the time, Victoria also raised the following additional objection to a sexual interpretation:

"How would that add anything to the story? I don't think the reader is supposed to believe that Emma all of a sudden is imagining herself in bed with Knightley. The story is all about Emma's gradual awakening to new feelings, new insights into herself, new ways of
looking at people, and so on. To have her abruptly start thinking of Knightley in an explicitly sexual way would not be true to the story here. So then, what would be the point of such an explicit sexual reference?"

To which Elissa Schiff gave what I consider a perfect rebuttal:

"Austen's language describing Emma's growing awareness of Knightley becomes an objective correlative of her romantic/erotic feelings for him. [Phrase coined by Keats about 1821] Simply put, we, as readers are meant to be aware of her growing sexuality toward this man even if the feelings are new and confusing to her. To read any text so superficially so as to dismiss all levels of irony, metaphor, allusion, and reference to mythos would seem to yield a very flat type of experience. Simple narrative with no heft of substructure , it seems to me, would be just that, simplistic...."

And I claim that my fuller analysis of the passages in three chapters of _Emma_ rotating around "firm" and "upright" only adds to the power of Elissa's concise rationale for why JA would so artfully and insightfully weave a web of partly-subliminal, partly-inyourface sexual suggestions.

And I also have a rebuttal to one _other_ point Victoria made, which was your assumption that Mrs. Weston's referring to Emma's "firm, upright figure" could not be sexual because this was a woman speaking about another woman's body.

Edmund Wilson, among many other Janeite scholars, amateur and professional, has suggested that there is a lesbian subtext in _Emma_, with most of the commentary rotating around the relationship between Emma and Harriet. And the relationship between Emma and Mrs. Weston is also extraordinarily close. And so, I claim, it is plausible to suggest that Mrs. Weston herself might feel at least a trace of unconscious attraction to Emma as well, and this would leak out in this way.

And JA's putting the word "firm" in Mrs. Weston's mouth in this regard turns out to be very interesting, when one looks at the usage of the words "upright" and "firm" in Cleland's Fanny Hill (which I have on several occasions argued that Jane Austen alluded to, particularly in _Emma_). Why? Because although the word "upright" is used twice in Fanny Hill, and both times to refer to male sexuality, the word "firm" is used more than a _dozen_ times in Fanny Hill, and nearly all of those usages of "firm" are Fanny speaking about either her own body or that of another _woman_--more specifically, in most of those cases, she refers to a young woman's breasts!

I think that makes for a persuasive extension of my earlier claims.


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