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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The View from Ford’s: The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour of Perry Lane & Strawberry Fields For Emma

In my last post, about the mysterious horsemen of Emma, I claimed that in each case, Emma is deliberately misled by others as to the identity of a horseman passing by just far enough away not to be clearly identifiable, such deception in both instances being necessary in order to conceal crucial facts that bear on the mysterious circumstances of Mrs. Churchill’s death.

As I was working on that post, I suddenly glimmered on a third, earlier passage in the novel, where Emma again observes people passing by at a distance, sees someone who is not supposed to be there, but again, doesn’t realize who it really is. Here it is, from Chapter 27:

"Emma went to the door for amusement.—Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;—Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr. Cole's carriage-horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A MIND lively and at ease, can do with SEEING NOTHING, and CAN SEE NOTHING that does not answer."

As Diane has pointed out, Emma expects to see Mr. Perry, Mr. Cox, and Mr. Cole's carriage horses, and many reading too quickly infer that she does see Mr. Perry. But instead, what she ACTUALLY sees is a butcher, some children, and..."a tidy old  woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket".

That last bit made me wonder, who is this “tidy old woman”, and how would knowing her identity be significant? The fact that Emma expects to see Mr. Perry, who is such a key part of the mystery of the Chapter 41 horseman, is a signal that SOMETHING is going on in this street scene that Emma is failing to pick up on in some way. But  what was it?


Then it hit me! I have since 2005 believed that The Magic Flute, of course Mozart’s sublime opera, was an important allusive source for Emma. Indeed, long ago I tracked down a performance of that opera that took place in London in 1814, just when JA was in London visiting Henry and beginning to write Emma, which I suspected she would have attended.

Here’s what  Wikipedia  says about this: “Mozart belonged to a group of Freemasons. The Magic Flute is full of Masonic symbols. For example: the number three is an important number in masonry and there are lot of things in the opera that happen in threes: there are three long chords at the beginning of the overture, and the three chords appear again in the scene in the temple. Even the key is E flat major which has a key signature of three flats. There are three ladies, three young boys and three trials.”

To that list, I add my personal favorite, which is when, in a classic Mozartean combination of the sublime and the ridiculous, Papageno musically counts “Ein, zwei, drei” interspersed with his tripling leitmotif on his pipe, before getting ready to hang himself before the 3 boys stop him.

And in Emma, there are the three come-atable ladies who regularly visit Mr. Woodhouse, the three teachers whom Mrs. Goddard  invites to sup with her, the three turns that Mr. Woodhouse takes during his winter constitutionals, the three times Mr. Woodhouse insists on baking apples, the three months Jane plans to spend in Highbury and the Campbells to spend in Ireland, the three months passed since Mrs. Weston supposedly wrote to Frank about Mr. Perry’s carriage, to say nothing of the three months duration of each of Emma’s three volumes, and finally the three things very dull at Box Hill—I think you get the point, the number 3 is every bit as important in Emma as it is in The Magic Flute!

Well, with all that in mind, which pretty clearly establishes Jane Austen’s special focus on The Magic Flute, now check out this bit from early in Act Two of Mozart’s masterpiece, which was written, by the way, when Jane Austen was 15 years old:

Papageno: [An old woman enters] Is that for me?
Old Papagena: [carrying a tray of drinks] Yes, my angel!
Papageno: [drinks] Water! Ugh! How old are you, my dear?
Old Papagena: I'm eighteen years and - two minutes.
Papageno: [bursts into laughter] I see! Do you have a boyfriend?
Old Papagena: Oh, yes!
Papageno: What's his name?
Old Papagena: Papageno!
Papageno: Papa - Hey, that's me! Wait! What's your name?
Old Papagena:  Wouldn’t you like to know!

You must see what I am driving at---I’m suggesting that the “tidy old woman” whom Emma idly observes from Ford’s, is none other than Jane Fairfax in disguise as an old woman, precisely so that she can, even in her advanced state of pregnancy, pass freely in public without risk of detection!  

And this fits perfectly with (fittingly) three interpretations I have long espoused:  

ONE: I claim that Jane attempted to trick Frank into marrying her, by making him believe he was the father of her illegitimate child. In the end, Frank gets out of marrying her, but the price of freedom for him is the Churchill family jewels, which (as when Elinor Dashwood attempts to sell some of her mother’s jewelry for cash at Gray’s in London) will be Jane’s ticket to financial independence, so that she will not have to marry any man she doesn’t love, in order to achieve same. So Frank is in that sense, Papageno, a happy-go-lucky dupe who doesn’t really decide his own fate, but is under the control of a Sarastro (Knightley) who decides for him. Papageno’s fantastical suicidal thoughts are echoed with the finest  edge of witty irony in Frank’s profound angst  at Box Hill, when all seems lost to him.

TWO: If you read Chapter 27 all the way through, with the idea in mind that Jane is in disguise in the marketplace, you can quickly deduce the real reason why, in very short order, first Harriet takes forever to buy not one but two parcels at Ford’s; and then second, Miss Bates shows up and proceeds to inundate Emma with a flood of words. These two events, which Emma, clueless as always, sees as Harriet’s being high maintenance, and Miss Bates being a verbose fool, actually have the very predictable effect (and purpose) of delaying Emma’s ultimate arrival at the Bates residence. I suggest to you that when Emma walks in and finds Jane and Frank together, Jane has herself just walked in a minute before, after pretending to be there the entire time!

How unfortunate if Emma had already been at the Bates residence, and then Jane walked in wearing her “old woman” disguise. Just recall the climactic scene from Mrs. Doubtfire, when Robin Williams’s disguise comes loose, and suddenly his entire family realizes that it has been him all along.

THREE: And finally, that fits perfectly with my prior notion that Robert Ferrars’s endless shopping for toothpick cases, which delays Elinor’s being able to leave Gray’s, is itself also a covert  delaying  tactic, designed for that identical purpose as Harriet’s and Miss Bates’s delaying tactics at Ford’s. So we can see the parallel scene at Ford’s as JA’s characteristic echoing between her novels, such that if you realize the trick behind one of them, you have a better chance of realizing the trick behind the other!

Now, if that were all I had, it would be enough, as we recite at the Seder, but there’s more—in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I give you….


I saw the Beatles connection to Emma’s musings at Ford’s, when I noticed how that last sentence      takes on a whole new meaning if we think of Emma as chronically misinterpreting all she sees---she can "do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing”, and that brought me right back to my post of 2 years ago, in which I first claimed that John Lennon's famous line from Strawberry (as in Donwell Abbey strawberries) Fields Forever:  “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see”. I wrote about this then…

…but now it seems even more likely that John Lennon was also thinking of that passage of Emma watching the passing parade in Highbury, as well as the strawberry scene, when he wrote the lyrics of Strawberry Fields.

And…for that matter, now that I think about it, I bet Paul McCartney also was thinking about that SAME market scene when he wrote about a modern market scene, with quick snapshots of the passing parade on Penny Lane:

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs of every head he's had the pleasure to know
And all the people that come and go stop and say hello
On the corner is a banker with a motorcar, the little children laugh at him behind his back.
And the banker never wears a mac in the pouring rain, very strange
In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass, and in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen
He likes to keep his fire engine clean, it's a clean machine
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes, a four of fish and finger pies in summer.
Meanwhile back behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout, a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray, and though she feels as if she's in a play, she is anyway
Meanwhile back in Penny Lane, the barber shaves another customer, we see the banker sitting waiting for a trim, and the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain, very strange
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes, there beneath the blue suburban skies

Instead of a butcher, we have a barber and a banker; instead of gingerbread, we have finger pies; instead of little children laughing at the banker behind his back, we have a string of dawdling children; instead of a butcher’s tray, we have a poppies  tray. So I suggest to you that ‘the play’ the pretty nurse feels she’s in is, in fact, that street scene in Emma where Emma expected to see Mr. Perry coming and going! Which makes it, if you will, PERRY Lane!

So we see the very different personalities of John Lennon & Paul McCartney captured in their  very different  reactions to Emma: Lennon characteristically responds to Jane Austen’s mystical, epistemological bent, with Zen comments about human perception. Whereas McCartney characterically responds to Jane Austen’s hiding strangeness under a light bright and sparkling surface. And, what a perfect illustration of Jane Austen’s protean genius, that they’re both spot-on!

Which maybe also sheds fresh light on why Beatlemania has barely waned a half century after they invaded, and conquered, the United States, then the world. Lennon/McCartney, combined in popular music, was something like Jane Austen in literature. So we had Beatlemania a half century ago, and we have Austenmania today. Here’s to British invasions, past and present!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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