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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, August 19, 2013

“As if!”: Don’t Be Clueless About The Make-Believe Play-Acting Worlds of Mansfield Park & Emma: Part One

One of the most delightful and memorable motifs of the movie Clueless (which the entire Janeite world now knows is a modern version of Emma) is the way Cher (Emma) repeats the sarcastic phrase “As if!” as a kind of Valley-girl mantra. 

These playful video snippets capture this motif perfectly:

However, it only occurred to me this morning that this was actually a very very clever pickup by Amy Heckerling of something subtle in the text of Emma, which actually provides a wormhole deep into the shadows of Emma (and, it turns out, also of Mansfield Park as well!).

First look at these statistics for the number of usages of the phrase “as if” in JA’s fiction:

Work                            Usages              Usage/Word (from Low to High)                      

Other juvenilia:            0                           0
Lady Susan:                  4                      .00017319
Northanger Abbey:       21                                            .00027159
S&S:                            27                                .00022578
P&P:                            20                    .00016410
MP:                              48                                                        .00030012
Emma:                                     43                                            .00026795
Persuasion:                   25                                                        .00029994

As I have depicted visually, what is noteworthy in these statistics is the sharp divergence between the low frequency of this phrase in the Juvenilia and the two novels published first (S&S and P&P), on the one hand, and the four novels published later, on the other.  And the most striking divergence, novel to novel, is between P&P, published in 1813, and MP, published in 1814, where the frequency has been nearly doubled from one novel to the next.

All of which tells me that after publishing Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen significantly upped the frequency of her usage of the phrase “as if”, and continued that pattern till the end of her career. Now…why might that be?

I assert that this is extremely unlikely to be a random distribution, and that it suggests strongly that for some reason Jane Austen used the phrase “as if” much more frequently the deeper into her career that she went. Suddenly, that made Heckerling’s seizing on that phrase as a signature line in Clueless seem like much more than a cute, funny, and clever way of modernizing the language of  Emma.

But what might that reason be? I have now given that question some preliminary thought, after browsing through those usages in all the novels, looking for ones which leapt out at me as unusual in some way, in Mansfield Park and Emma in particular. And my working hypothesis is that this was intentional on Jane Austen’s part, and was a reflection of her desire to use frequent repetition of this phrase as a subliminal cue to the reader of a fictional world.  It was a way of "whispering" to the reader that you cannot know for sure whether the person in front of you speaking or behaving so as to communicate a particular attitude or opinion can be counted on to be sincere, or is merely speaking or behaving “as if” they were sincere, but actually, they are not. And first in line of those persons whom you cannot be sure that they are being sincere with you is author of all those insincere characters, Jane Austen herself!

Let’s test that hypothesis out on a sampling of passages which I believe support my claim of an intentional motif  which JA began implementing in her novels beginning in 1814:

Here’s the “as if” that first caught my eye not long ago—at first I just found it very funny, as the phrase “as if” entirely undermines the seriousness we ought to accord to Benwick’s “grief”.

Persuasion, Ch. 11: “…[Benwick] repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely AS IF he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry…”

And here’s my favorite from Emma, it’s in Ch. 10, and it entirely undermines the seriousness we ought to accord to Emma’s “generosity” to the poor cottagers:

They were now approaching the cottage, and all idle topics were superseded. Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will. In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could give comfort or advice, she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away,
"These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make every thing else appear!—I feel now AS IF I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?"

 And here in Chapter 27, the King of Insincerity, Frank Churchill, actually says “as if” twice in a short speech:

"And while Mrs. Weston pays her visit, I may be allowed, I hope," said Frank Churchill, "to join your party and wait for her at Hartfield—if you are going home."
Mrs. Weston was disappointed.
"I thought you meant to go with me. They would be very much pleased."
"Me! I should be quite in the way. But, perhaps—I may be equally in the way here. Miss Woodhouse looks AS IF she did not want me. My aunt always sends me off when she is shopping. She says I fidget her to death; and Miss Woodhouse looks AS IF she could almost say the same. What am I to do?"
"I am here on no business of my own," said Emma; "I am only waiting for my friend. She will probably have soon done, and then we shall go home. But you had better go with Mrs. Weston and hear the instrument."

The conventional reading, of course, is that Frank is doing his best to get out of staying with Emma at Ford’s while Mrs. Weston goes on to the Bateses, but I believe he is actually using reverse psychology here, trying to provoke Emma into asking him to stay with her—but then Mrs. Weston puts the kibosh on that plan straightaway.

 And here’s another favorite of mine, in Chapter 44, with Mrs. Bates putting on the mask of senility in a private performance for a special audience of one, Emma, when Mrs. Bates knows exactly what is going on with Jane!:             

There was a bustle on her approach; a good deal of moving and talking. She heard Miss Bates's voice, something was to be done in a hurry; the maid looked frightened and awkward; hoped she would be pleased to wait a moment, and then ushered her in too soon. The aunt and niece seemed both escaping into the adjoining room. Jane she had a distinct glimpse of, looking extremely ill; and, before the door had shut them out, she heard Miss Bates saying, "Well, my dear, I shall say you are laid down upon the bed, and I am sure you are ill enough."
Poor old Mrs. Bates, civil and humble as usual, looked AS IF she did not quite understand what was going on.
"I am afraid Jane is not very well," said she, "but I do not know; they tell me she is well. I dare say my daughter will be here presently, Miss Woodhouse. I hope you find a chair. I wish Hetty had not gone. I am very little able—Have you a chair, ma'am? Do you sit where you like? I am sure she will be here presently."

And I will end there, but with the intention at some future date to do a followup post about the many “as ifs” of Mansfield Park.

AS IF I were going to just abandon this subject midstream, and fail to accord the Crawfords and Fanny, all masters of behaving as if  they felt something other than they showed, the proper dignity of their own blog post of “as ifs”!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter  

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