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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Allusions to Emma in PD James's The Children of Men

The other day, someone posted a comment online about having noticed an explicit allusion to Jane Austen’s Emma in the 1992 sci fi novel by PD James (made into a film in 2006), The Children of Men (which I will call TCOM from here on in). That Janeite had written to James asking about the allusion, and James replied that Emma “was on a table near her typewriter, so she typed it in…in hindsight, she should have written "Middlemarch" which was more appropriate since the hero was a professor in Victorian studies.”

This has all come up because of the recent news that PD James, who has been at the top of the profession of mystery stories for half a century, is writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

I was very intrigued by this mysterious allusion, and here is the result of my own brief sleuthing into it:

I find James's explanation of the Emma allusion in TCOM fascinating, and I will try to explain why. I started by checking the text of TCOM in, and the following must be the relevant passages in TCOM.

First we have the final passage in Chapter 22, near the end of the novel, after Jasper (played by Michael Caine in the 2006 film adaptation) has just been discovered to have killed himself. As you will note, I think you have slightly misremembered the scene, although not in a material way:

"Carefully he edged the Renault out of the gate and parked it behind the Rover. Rolf, pacing beside the car, was indignant. 'You've been a hell of a time. Did you have trouble?' 'No, Jasper's dead. Suicide.
We've collected as much as the car will hold. Drive the Rover into the garage and I'll lock it and the gate. I've already locked the house.' There was nothing worth transferring from the Rover to the Renault
except his road maps and A PAPERBACK EDITION OF EMMA, WHICH HE FOUND IN THE GLOVE BOX. HE SLIPPED THE BOOK INTO HIS INNER COAT POCKET, which held the revolver and his diary. Two minutes later they were together in the Renault. Theo took the driver's seat. Rolf, after a moment's hesitation, got in beside him. Julian sat in the back between Miriam and Luke. Theo locked the gate and tossed the key over. Nothing could be seen of the darkened house except the high black slope of the roof."

And then, late in Chapter 26, we also read this:

"Luke busied himself with the stores. Rolf showed some natural leadership in giving him this responsibility. Luke decided that we should eat the fresh food first and then the tins in their date stamped
order, discovering in this obviously sensible priority an onwonted confidence in his own administrative ability. He has sorted out the tins, made lists, devised menus. After we had eaten, he would sit
quietly with his prayer book or come to join Miriam and Julian WHILE I READ TO THEM FROM EMMA. Lying back on the beech leaves and gazing up at the glimpses of the strengthening blue sky, I felt as innocently joyous as if we were having a picnic. WE WERE HAVING A PICNIC. We didn't
discuss plans for the future or the dangers to come. Now that seems extraordinary to me, but I think it was less a conscious decision not to plan or argue or discuss than a wish to keep this day inviolate..."

Now, I find it very curious that James called the reference to Emma a wrong choice on her part. Why?
First, because she wrote TCOM only a few years after writing her famous essay about Emma, in which she so carefuly analyzed Emma for narrative clues re the Jane-Frank romance. So Emma and its mystery would have been particularly fresh in her mind.

Second, because these two references in TCOM are not just throwaway details---James goes to the trouble of mentioning Emma _twice_, in two different chapters, which is exactly the way Jane Austen spreads her clues around her novels.
First,Theo (played by Clive Owen in the film) finds only two items from Jasper's Rover worth saving--his road maps (we can surely understand why they were worth saving) and Emma. So I think James is slyly saying here, that Emma is a kind of road map through the twists and turns of the human psyche. I find that a pretty darned good description of Emma, which, beneath its story in which “nothing happens”, we have the status of Western civilization in 1815 quietly tucked away inside, i.e., a story about _everything_!

And that interpretation is borne out in that passage in Chapter 26 of TCOM, when Theo reads to Miriam and Julian (Pam Ferris and Julianne Moore in the film) from Emma. He feels "as innocently joyous as if we were having a picnic."

Is this not the slyest of invocations of Emma's own rhapsodic ruminations on English verdure at the picnic at Box Hill? Which just happens to be the climactic scene in Emma, a moment of shattering (apparent) self revelation for the heroine.

So I _strongly_ suspect PD James not of a pun, but of an authorial unwillingness to explain one of her sly allusions----preferring, I’d guess, that her Janeite readers figure it out for themselves! Just as, I am sure, she would not have wanted to prematurely give away the “gotcha” at the end of her own mystery novels. In a very profound sense, James is showing that she realizes that Emma is a mystery story, not merely in terms of concealing what one character does with another, but also in terms of what Emma’s larger, thematic meanings are. And so James is paying the best sort of homage, by alluding to Emma in a thematically mysterious way!

And guess who also responded in that same sort of cryptic way to questions of that kind? I am thinking of Jane Austen herself, writing to James Stanier Clarke at the time of publication of Emma, and explaining to this pompous, clueless fool why she was not really up to the task of writing the kind of "great novel" he was advising her to write!

And...I will take it one step further. I see an equal slyness in PD James's referring to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which itself is a kind of midrash on Emma in a variety of ways, and so she took the opportunity of giving another layer of sly allusion to consider, i.e., how might Middlemarch be relevant to this whole question.

Now, I have never read Children of Men, and did not particularly enjoy the film when I saw it in 2006, but I'd be willing to bet a great deal that there is much more to the presence of Emma in TCOM than these two passing references, sly and significant as they already are.

I will conclude with pointing out that I did some browsing in scholarly articles written about TCOM during the past two decades, and what became immediately clear is that everyone is taking it as a kind of Christian allegory, in which James is having a bit of serious satirical fun poking at both the atheists and the true religious believers, and really raising deep theological questions about the purpose of human life on Earth.

And...I also believe it is no coincidence that the central conceit behind TCOM is that the human race reaches a point at which no more babies are being conceived, whereas I have argued for nearly 5 years now that every one of Jane Austen's novels refers to at least one concealed pregnancy, and I've been arguing since early 2009 that Jane Austen was not exactly a big fan of English wives being turned into breeding animals.

And what that immediately brought up for me was another English author, writing in the first half of the 20th century, TF Powys, who wrote two Christian allegories, Unclay and Mr. Weston’s Good Wine, which are both strongly steeped in cryptic Austen allusions, especially to Emma.

Somehow, some way, I am pretty sure that Powys’s fantasies were also on James’s radar screen as she wrote TCOM.

Cheers, ARNIE

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