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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wicked, wicked, wicked, wickedly satirical Jane Austen: Crossing the Streams of the Post-Mortems of Mrs. Churchill and Elizabeth Austen Knight

In Chapter 46 of _Emma_, we read the following during the "post-mortem" (ha ha) between Emma and Mrs. Weston about the announcement of Frank and Jane's engagement not long after Mrs. Churchill's sudden death:

"_His_ [i.e., Frank's] sufferings," replied Emma dryly, "do not appear to have done him much harm. Well, and how did Mr. Churchill take it?"

"Most favourably for his nephew—gave his consent with scarcely a difficulty. Conceive what the events of a week have done in that family! While poor Mrs. Churchill lived, I suppose there could not have been a hope, a chance, a possibility;—but scarcely are her remains at rest in the family vault, than her husband is persuaded to act exactly opposite to what she would have required. What a blessing it is, when undue influence does not survive the grave!—He gave his consent with very little persuasion."

As I was reading that very familiar passage for another reason a short while ago, my gaze was unexpectedly arrested this time by the phrases "While poor Mrs. Churchill lived" and "What a blessing it is, when undue influence does not survive the grave!" and "He gave his consent with very little persuasion."

My eye was caught because the memory was extremely fresh in my mind from only 8 days ago, when I had written the following comments about another uncannily similar situation from real life Austen family history....

Specifically, I thought of the following section of my above blog post that I found so uncannily similar to the above passage in _Emma_:

"And the part I personally would have particularly enjoyed most, I found out later, had I been there, was when Joan [Strasbaugh] honored me with the following mention by name: "...On October 10, 1808 [corrected date], Elizabeth, the wife of Edward, dies delivering her 11th child....In less than two weeks, Edward finally offers Mrs. Austen and his sisters a place to stay.The timing of the death and the offer of Chawton certainly seems more than a coincidence." Arnie Perlstein, our own Jane Austen CSI, discovered the connection between the two events. In his blog, ...he says this: “All we know for sure is that when Edward Austen Knight's wife dies, within ELEVEN DAYS thereafter, BOOM!----apparently out of nowhere, Edward Austen Knight makes the decision to provide the Austen women with Chawton Cottage.” END QUOTE

...and it was only 13 days ago, that i had written the following comments about the death of Mrs. Churchill:

To paraphrase Dr. Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, when the streams of the above two posts crossed in my mind, I was truly stunned beyond the capacity for rational thought. But I will give it a go anyway at an explanation of the mind-altering portal into the dark corners of Gothic Austenalia that opened before my eyes! ;)

What this means, as I see it, is that Jane Austen has drawn a (razor) thinly veiled but dense parallelism between two situations, one real life, one fictional:

(i) Edward Austen Knight, during the period from 1805-1808 in the aftermath of his father's death, feeling powerless to override his wife's refusal to consent to his providing a decent place to live to his Miss Batesian widowed mother and 2 sisters (and of course also Martha Lloyd, who was in exactly the same boat, but without a rich brother).

(ii) Frank Churchill's stifled fury, for about that same length of time, waiting to be freed from his aunt's dictatorial control over his finances, itinerary/schedule, and indirectly his love life.

In both cases, it is the sudden death (after a very recent prior "scare" in that regard) of a wife in firm (psychological) charge of her husband's actions towards other member(s) of his family, that results in that husband, within a very brief time frame (11 days in the case of Edward Austen Knight, and almost exactly that same amount of time in the case of Mr. Churchill---Chapter 46 begins "One morning, about _ten days_ after Mrs. Churchill's decease..."), finally granting long overdue largesse that had been withheld for so long.

The mind reels at all of this...and at the top of the list, wondering how Edward Austen Knight, reading Emma for the first time in 1816 (and we know he read it, if there was any doubt, because he famously "corrected" Jane's "error" about the apple blossoms), could have possibly failed to take the hint, read between these lines, and see his own actions of seven years earlier writ large in faintly visible ink!--Especially when we consider that he himself had also lived, from the other side of the coin, through a very similar inheritance situation a decade before his wife's sudden death---but in that case, the benevolent Mrs. Knight had elected to voluntarily surrender Godmersham to Edward, and retain an annuity.

So we find Edward Austen Knight everywhere in _Emma_ --we see Frank Churchill as the Edward of the late 1790's, but then we see both Frank _and_ Mr. Churchill as the Edward of 1808.

And I wrote "wicked" four times in my Subject Line because JA not only depicts her late sister in law as the awful Mrs. Churchill, she also parodizes brother Edward's feelings about his wife's death, suggesting (by analogy to Leland Monk's 1990 article speculating about Frnk murdering his aunt, which I discussed in my Oct. 17 blog post linked above) that Edward was so "overheated" with fury for a long time before his wife suddenly died, that he might even have been wishing her dead---and that is surely what Jane Austen is drily hinted at in the passage in Chapter 46 I began this post by quoting---Edward's sufferings after the death of his wife did "not appear [to JA] to have done him much harm."

Now...I am _not_ saying that Jane Austen thought Edward killed Elizabeth, or wanted him to kill Elizabeth---I am saying that JA was, in _Emma_, venting a decade or more of very very bitter anger she held against Elizabeth _and_ Edward. And as I see Miss Bates as a self portrait of JA , this reaffirms what I already believed, which is that Miss Bates only pretends to be content with the "goodly heritage" that has fallen to her, while she works behind the scenes to even the score a bit for herself and Jane.

Wickedly satirical, yes--but justified? Yes!

Cheers, ARNIE

PS: [posted a short time after the above]

I see now that I did realize earlier this year that Mrs. Churchill was a representation of Elizabeth Austen Knight, but I never connected that earlier insight to the passage in Chapter 46 which I identified in my message a few moments ago.

Here is the link to my earlier blog post, in which I reached that same conclusion through another "portal", i.e., one of JA's letters written not long after Elizabeth Austen Knight's death:


Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Austen Knight died on 10 October 1808, not 1810 and that Jane, her mother and sister moved into Chawton Cottage on 9 July 1809?

Arnie Perlstein said...

You're right, that was a typo in Joan's presentation that I did not catch--I am correcting it now, it should read 1808, not 1810!

Thanks for reading so carefully and letting me know about the typo!

Any other reactions to what i wrote?

Cheers, ARNIE

Arnie Perlstein said...

And if you were also wondering, even though there was a 9 month gap between Elizabeth's death, and the move to Chawton Cottage, the Austen family discussions about that move did indeed begin 11 days after Elizabeth's death.