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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mr. Elton’s Wild Goose Chase

 Some time in 2005, when I was first poring over every word of Emma, searching for more and more clues to the shadow story I was in the first stage of decoding, I read the following scene in Chapter 52 and realized I had found another clue. Can you spot it?

At this point late in the story, the Box Hill episode had just occurred, Jane Fairfax was recovering from her illness and had been visited that morning for quite a while by Mrs. Elton:

“Mr. Elton made his appearance. His lady greeted him with some of her sparkling vivacity.
"Very pretty, sir, upon my word; to send me on here, to be an encumbrance to my friends, so long before you vouchsafe to come!—But you knew what a dutiful creature you had to deal with. You knew I should not stir till my lord and master appeared.—Here have I been sitting this hour, giving these young ladies a sample of true conjugal obedience—for who can say, you know, how soon it may be wanted?"
Mr. Elton was so hot and tired, that all this wit seemed thrown away. His civilities to the other ladies must be paid; but his subsequent object was to lament over himself for the heat he was suffering, and the walk he had had for nothing.
"When I got to Donwell," said he, "Knightley could not be found. Very odd! very unaccountable! after the note I sent him this morning, and the message he returned, that he should certainly be at home till one."
"Donwell!" cried his wife.—"My dear Mr. E., you have not been to Donwell!—You mean the Crown; you come from the meeting at the Crown."
"No, no, that's to-morrow; and I particularly wanted to see Knightley to-day on that very account.—Such a dreadful broiling morning!—I went over the fields too—(speaking in a tone of great ill-usage,) which made it so much the worse. And then not to find him at home! I assure you I am not at all pleased. And no apology left, no message for me. The housekeeper declared she knew nothing of my being expected.—Very extraordinary!—And nobody knew at all which way he was gone. Perhaps to Hartfield, perhaps to the Abbey Mill, perhaps into his woods.—Miss Woodhouse, this is not like our friend Knightley!—Can you explain it?"
Emma amused herself by protesting that it was very extraordinary, indeed, and that she had not a syllable to say for him.
"I cannot imagine," said Mrs. Elton, (feeling the indignity as a wife ought to do,) "I cannot imagine how he could do such a thing by you, of all people in the world! The very last person whom one should expect to be forgotten!—My dear Mr. E., he must have left a message for you, I am sure he must.—Not even Knightley could be so very eccentric;—and his servants forgot it. Depend upon it, that was the case: and very likely to happen with the Donwell servants, who are all, I have often observed, extremely awkward and remiss.—I am sure I would not have such a creature as his Harry stand at our sideboard for any consideration. And as for Mrs. Hodges, Wright holds her very cheap indeed.—She promised Wright a receipt, and never sent it."
"I met William Larkins," continued Mr. Elton, "as I got near the house, and he told me I should not find his master at home, but I did not believe him.—William seemed rather out of humour. He did not know what was come to his master lately, he said, but he could hardly ever get the speech of him. I have nothing to do with William's wants, but it really is of very great importance that I should see Knightley to-day; and it becomes a matter, therefore, of very serious inconvenience that I should have had this hot walk to no purpose." END QUOTE

As anyone who has been reading this blog at all knows, in the shadow story of the novel, I claim that Jane Fairfax’s illness was actually a concealed pregnancy, and the above scene occurs a few weeks  after she has secretly given birth and given her baby to Mrs. Weston.

What I realized in 2005 was that Mr. Elton had been sent by Mr. Knightley on what we today still call a wild goose chase, and my inference then, and still today, was that the purpose was to leave the vicarage and church empty, so that someone could get at the parish register that would have been kept there, the better to change various birth or baptism records relating to Jane, Emma, Frank, and/or Harriet.

My friendly skeptical adversary on all my shadow story claims, Nancy Mayer, in various ways, suggested that there were very likely no such birth records, and probably no baptism records either, and anyway, it was just an honest misunderstanding between Knightley and Elton, why read more into it.

Here is a quick summary of my responses to her arguments:

First, there are a half dozen passages referring to parishes in the novel, and they collectively make clear that there are two parishes involved, one for Highbury and Randalls, the other for Donwell Abbey and surroundings, with Hartfield falling in either one or the other. Apparently Mr. Elton is the vicar in charge of the spiritual needs of both parishes, God help them. So he would definitely be the holder of the parish register for both parishes.

But then when I saw at the following website the following…. image of Jane Austen's baptism record, I was reminded of something else I had come across a few years ago during my research, something which I think gives me even more evidence to support my claim that I am not just conjuring up Mr. Elton’s wild goose chase out of my own imagination: That evidence is provide, ironically and improbably, by Deirdre Le Faye in A Family Record:

It was probably also in 1790, now that Jane was in her fifteenth year, thinking of love and friendship and perhaps beginning to 'curl her hair and long for balls,' that she could not resist the temptation of filling in mock marriage entries for herself on the printed specimen page at the beginning of the marriage register then in use in Steventon church. For the banns entry she created a 'Henry Frederic Howard Fitzwilliam, of London'; for the marriage entry changed him to 'Edmund Arthur William Mortimer, of Liverpool'; and finally decided that her mythical husband would be plain 'Jack Smith' and herself 'Jane Smith late Austen.'"

Plain Jack Smith? As in Harriet Smith?

I knew that I had not conjured up the idea of amended parish registers totally out of thin air, but till today, I was unable to recall where I had first read about such a thing in 2005.

So, I cannot believe that it is just a coincidence, when we find out the "true" identity of the birth father of Harriet Smith, as written by Jane Austen at age 40, that it so strikingly echoes the playful entry she wrote at age 15.

And that’s where I will stop and leave it to you to satisfy yourselves that I have not led you on an intellectual wild goose chase!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


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