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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Harriet’s “Extremely Odd” Behaviour (and Speech) to Emma in Chapter 47: Which is the Statue and Which the Stepping Stone?

During the first 46 chapters of _Emma_, it is undeniable that whenever we hear Harriet speaking, she sounds exactly the way that Emma sees her, i.e., like a naïve girl incapable of original thought, a reed in the wind, and foolishly romantic. But….things do alter _quite_ significantly in that regard in Chapter 47.

To illustrate this alteration most vividly, I present to you herewith Harriet’s actual speech in Chapter 47, with all the narration (save one short paragraph) completely cut away.

At first there is not much change from the Harriet we know so well:

"Well, Miss Woodhouse! not this the oddest news that ever was?" ……"About Jane Fairfax. Did you ever hear any thing so strange? Oh!—you need not be afraid of owning it to me, for Mr. Weston has told me himself. I met him just now. He told me it was to be a great secret; and, therefore, I should not think of mentioning it to any body but you, but he said you knew it."……"Oh! he told me all about it; that Jane Fairfax and Mr. Frank Churchill are to be married, and that they have been privately engaged to one another this long while. How very odd!"

There we still have Harriet’s characteristic proneness to hyperbole and gossipy tone: “ever hear anything so strange--a great secret—I should not think of mentioning it---all about it---how very odd.”

But Emma, who, as usual, has very sensitive emotional antennae, senses a profound and disturbing alteration in Harriet, even _before_ Harriet drops the atom bomb about Knightley on Emma’s head:

“It was, indeed, so odd; Harriet's behaviour was so extremely odd, that Emma did not know how to understand it. Her character appeared absolutely changed. She seemed to propose shewing no agitation, or disappointment, or peculiar concern in the discovery. Emma looked at her, quite unable to speak.”

“Her character appeared absolutely changed”—and how prescient an insight that is on Emma’s part, because from _that_ precise instant forward, there is an unmistakable and seismic shift in Harriet’s mode of expression. I defy anyone to point to any among the following 653 words spoken by Harriet during the rest of Chapter 47—in contrast to every word spoken by Harriet up till that exact point in the novel-- that would be telltale giveaway signs that it was Harriet speaking, and not, say, Emma or Mrs. Weston. Removing the narration is akin to the final work of the sculptor, chipping away the extraneous stone, leaving the perfect image of the subject to be viewed with pristine clarity:
"Had you any idea…of his being in love with her?—You, perhaps, might.—You…who can see into every body's heart; but nobody else—……Me!...Why should you caution me?—You do not think I care about Mr. Frank Churchill…….Him!—never, never. Dear Miss Woodhouse, how could you so mistake me?"……I should not have thought it possible…that you could have misunderstood me! I know we agreed never to name him—but considering how infinitely superior he is to every body else, I should not have thought it possible that I could be supposed to mean any other person. Mr. Frank Churchill, indeed! I do not know who would ever look at him in the company of the other. I hope I have a better taste than to think of Mr. Frank Churchill, who is like nobody by his side. And that you should have been so mistaken, is amazing!—I am sure, but for believing that you entirely approved and meant to encourage me in my attachment, I should have considered it at first too great a presumption almost, to dare to think of him. At first, if you had not told me that more wonderful things had happened; that there had been matches of greater disparity (those were your very words);—I should not have dared to give way to—I should not have thought it possible—But if you, who had been always acquainted with him—……To be sure I am. I never could have an idea of any body else—and so I thought you knew. When we talked about him, it was as clear as possible…….Oh! Miss Woodhouse, how you do forget!......Oh, dear…now I recollect what you mean; but I was thinking of something very different at the time. It was not the gipsies—it was not Mr. Frank Churchill that I meant. No!...I was thinking of a much more precious circumstance—of Mr. Knightley's coming and asking me to dance, when Mr. Elton would not stand up with me; and when there was no other partner in the room. That was the kind action; that was the noble benevolence and generosity; that was the service which made me begin to feel how superior he was to every other being upon earth…….You would not have encouraged me, then, if you had understood me? At least, however, I cannot be worse off than I should have been, if the other had been the person; and now—it is possible……I do not wonder, Miss Woodhouse…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…….Yes…I must say that I have…….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…….I never should have presumed to think of it at first…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."

Upon closer examination, we see that the shift is not merely formal, it is substantive. Out of nowhere, we now hear an articulate flood of words spoken by a confident, insightful, self-possessed young lady, who also demonstrates that she has paid meticulous attention to, and has remembered, the exact words spoken by Emma on a variety of occasions. And, most amazingly of all, this is the first time in the entire novel that Harriet does not in any way look to Emma as a fount of wisdom—quite the contrary, Harriet makes no bones about bluntly informing Emma at several points in that speech that Emma’s opinions and judgments have been very _wrong_!

And there is also a great deal of Harriet’s speech to Emma that is not quoted, but is summarized through Emma’s mind as she listens, as Harriet outlines the history of her relationship with Mr. Knightley. It is a very sharp irony indeed that Emma, after 46 chapters of puffing Harriet up beyond Harriet’s apparent abilities, reverts to a harsh—and completely unjustified—intellectual snobbery when Emma is reeling backwards from the one-two combination of blows landed on Emma’s ego by Harriet:

“[Emma] 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.”

Yeah, right! Read objectively, there is no evidence of poor arrangement, or poor delivery, or feebleness, or tautology, in those 653 words I quoted above, so I believe it is fair to infer that the _other_ words spoken by Harriet to Emma were as strong and smart and decisive as her quoted words.

And here is JA’s usual amazing level of psychological penetration. Of course Emma would retreat into this defensive posture at that instant, because her only alternative would be to acknowledge the painful truth that Harriet had just revealed herself to be a formidable rival for Emma to reckon with.
The conventional explanation for Harriet’s dramatic shift would be that Harriet’s ego has been inflated to gargantuan proportions by Emma’s playing at Pygmalion—and Emma, whose denial only increases as Chapter 47 ends, herself elegantly articulates that orthodox rationalization:

“How Harriet could ever have had the presumption to raise her thoughts to Mr. Knightley!—How she could dare to fancy herself the chosen of such a man till actually assured of it!—But Harriet was less humble, had fewer scruples than formerly.—Her inferiority, whether of mind or situation, seemed little felt.—She had seemed more sensible of Mr. Elton's being to stoop in marrying her, than she now seemed of Mr. Knightley's.—Alas! was not that her own doing too? Who had been at pains to give Harriet notions of self-consequence but herself?—Who but herself had taught her, that she was to elevate herself if possible, and that her claims were great to a high worldly establishment?—If Harriet, from being humble, were grown vain, it was her doing too.”

“Her inferiority, whether of mind or situation, seemed little felt.”—what a masterpiece of rationalization that is! Emma simply cannot fathom that there might be _another_ explanation for this mind boggling shift in Harriet. Had Fielding’s Shamela been on that reading list supplied by Mr. Knightley, and had Emma actually read it, she might have been equipped to guess the horrid truth, which is that Harriet had been camping up that naïve exaggerating, hyperbolic, gossipy style of speech, and concealing her true street smarts (and resemblance, in many respects, to Lucy Steele), for the precise purpose of twisting Emma around her little finger.

And it was only now that Harriet did not need to pretend anymore, and was finally having the satisfaction of revealing to Emma that, even as Emma had deluded herself with her Pygmalionesque fantasies of sculpting the rough-hewn stone of Harriet into a perfect statue of a wife for Mr. Elton or Frank Churchill, Emma had herself always been nothing more than a stepping _stone_ for Harriet!

Cheers, ARNIE

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