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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, September 4, 2011

And the Quintessential Austenian Self-Flatterer is........

In Janeites, Elissa Schiff, responding to an interesting exposition of Jane Austen's flatterers, wrote:

"Diana, you have omitted only one category of flatterer (although you mentioned both its practitioners) in your excellent summary: the category of *self-flatterer.* It is an important category because it allows the author's incomparable sense of irony and humor total freedom to soar to new comedic heights with two of her most memorable characters. "

I would suggest first that the self-flattery exhibited so extravagantly by Mr. Collins (studious learning, Christian compassion) and Mrs. Elton (generosity, accomplishment, connections) is not unique in JA's novels--there is at least one grotesquely ridiculous self-flatterer (aka a braggart) in each of the novels---don't forget John Thorpe (astuteness, virility), Fanny Dashwood (generosity), Lady Catherine (talent), Mrs. Norris (generosity, kindness) and Sir Walter (beauty). In aggregate, they constitute a veritable rogues gallery of the type, running through a laundry list of attributes they pride themselves on, for the most part without valid foundation.

I noticed, Diana, that John Thorpe and Mrs. Norris were included in your list of other-flatterers, and I suggest that this makes sense, in that they had been practicing flattering _themselves_ for their whole lives, so of course they would become expert at it and would eventually branch out and use it as a tool for manipulation of others!

But I would argue that JA's greatest triumph in the realm of portrayal of self-flattery, the quintessential Austenian self-flatterer, is hiding in plain sight---it is none other than _Emma_ herself! What makes this portrait of Emma's self flattery such a triumph is its subtlety and its realism, and also the way JA misdirects and teases us, to seduce us into not recognizing it even when it is flaunted in our faces. Emma's self-flattery is never grotesque and obvious, seeing it almost always requires us to step back and read the narration _against_ the grain.

The topic of Emma's self-flattery is actually raised by Knightley early, in Chapter 5, when he says:

"I will add this praise, that I do not think [Emma] personally vain. Considering how very handsome she is, she appears to be little occupied with it; her vanity lies another way. "

"Her vanity lies another way."----but Austen, with her usual discretion, does not spell it out explicitly. Instead she makes Emma's vanity the water that we, the reader, swim in as we read the novel--as such, we don't notice it, unless we pull ourselves out of the swimming pool and look back into it from dry ground. Then we notice that it is actually _everywhere_.

I would argue that the other side of the coin of narcissism and vanity is self-flattery and self-congratulation, and there is no character more narcissistic, in a realistic sense, than Emma. And I would argue further that Mrs. Elton's self-flattery serves a double function in the novel, both as absurd comedy in its own right, but also as a funhouse mirror reflection of Emma's own self-flattery.

For a brief window in the novel, after a series of shattering blows to her ego, Emma comes close to recognizing her own enormous vanity:

"With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body's destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing—for she had done mischief. " and "... in short, for (with a sigh) let me swell out the causes ever so ingeniously, they all centre in this at last—my vanity was flattered, and I allowed his attentions."

However, when Knightley proposes to her, that tear in the fabric of her self-flattery is instantly repaired and sealed up, never to open again. Knightley was right in Chapter 5, and what's more, I would suggest that in the last 6 chapter, Knightley reveals himself to be quite an adept flatterer in his own right.

In summary, then, few people reading _Emma_ are as grotesquely obvious and ridiculous in self-flattery as Mrs. Elton or Mr. Collins, and so it is safe for everyone to laugh at them. But I think JA's most serious point is that _many_ people reading _Emma_ (the Buddha would say, all of us, at some time or another) engage in self-deluding, unaware, complexly rationalized self-flattery as Emma does, on practically every page of the novel!

And what a bravura way for JA to depict narcissistic self-flattery than to present it to us AS EMMA EXPERIENCES IT. Filtered through the prism of her mind with its near infinite capacity for rationalization, it is a constant challenge to blink our eyes, and peer through the semi-opacity of the water to see Emma's self-flattery in its full glory.

Cheers, ARNIE

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