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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

If you could see Mrs. Elton’s face through her lace veils and through Jane Austen's eyes, instead of Emma's…..what would you see?

 The group read of Emma in Janeites & Austen L appears to have stirred up stuff that’s been brewing in my subconscious for a while, and the latest such bubbling up has to do with my realizing that Jane Austen emphasized Mrs. Elton’s lace veils for a reason—a quick check of all the passages in the novel which pertain to her appearance confirmed to me that (unlike the case with every other young female character in the novel) we never actually get any objective report of what her face looks like! We don’t have the slightest idea.

Think about that bold assertion as you consider each of the following:

In Chapter 22, we have a great deal of apparent description of Mr. Elton’s new bride, even before she shows up---but it’s all vague gossip and hearsay, such as “The charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten”.

Then she arrives and we read: “Mrs. Elton was first seen at church: but though devotion might be interrupted, curiosity could not be satisfied by a bride in a pew, and it must be left for the visits in form which were then to be paid, to settle whether she were very pretty indeed, or only rather pretty, or not pretty at all. “

Now, why is it exactly that “it must be left for the visits” “to settle” how pretty she was? On first reading, that would be mysterious, but not on rereading—we realize from what Mrs. Elton says at the very end of the novel, about the wedding of Emma and Knightley (“Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!”) that she is almost certainly wearing a lace veil then, hence her face cannot be clearly seen.

Then Emma pays the necessary visit, and we read this: “The visit was of course short; and there was so much embarrassment and occupation of mind to shorten it, that Emma would not allow herself entirely to form an opinion of the lady, and on no account to give one, beyond the nothing-meaning terms of being "elegantly dressed, and very pleasing." She did not really like her. She would not be in a hurry to find fault, but she suspected that there was no elegance;—ease, but not elegance.— She was almost sure that for a young woman, a stranger, a bride, there was too much ease. Her person was rather good; her face not unpretty; but neither feature, nor air, nor voice, nor manner, were elegant. Emma thought at least it would turn out so.”

What is that Emma “was almost sure”, and why did Emma think “at least it WOULD TURN OUT SO”??  It sounds to me like JA is making sure we have a fair chance to realize that Emma has visited Mrs. Elton but has not in fact gotten a good look at her face, as Emma leaves still guessing, and that could include whether “her face” was “not unpretty”.

Then we come to three later passages, which make me even more suspicious about whether anyone ever sees Mrs. Elton’s face unobscured by a lace veil or other large covering to hide her face. Consider:

Ch. 34: “Mrs. Elton, as elegant as lace and pearls could make her, [John] looked at in silence …” ---of course the “lace” refers to the lace VEIL she wears.

Ch. 38: “…Stop, stop, let us stand a little back, Mrs. Elton is going; dear Mrs. Elton, how elegant she looks!—Beautiful lace!—Now we all follow in her train. Quite the queen of the evening!—“
And that time it was Miss Bates brings attention to Mrs. Elton’s lace veil. Seems like a lace veil is for Mrs. Elton like an AMEX card today—she doesn’t leave home without it!

And, to be sure we don’t miss it, how about this, as Mrs. Elton plans the summer outing to Donwell Abbey, an event that a woman simply cannot wear a lace veil to:

Ch. 41: "That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day:—but as you like. It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here,—probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see. And Jane will have such another. There is to be no form or parade—a sort of gipsy party.

A large bonnet would have the same fuction as a lace veil, the better to hide a face—just as—not coincidentally, I assert---Jane Fairfax wears pelisses and shawls and other clothing in that same very warm weather, the better to hide a large belly, my dear…..

Which leads to the real question-what exactly would Mrs. Elton be hiding about her face? Of course, one real possibility would be that she had smallpox scarring, like the Austen family member who did, who was in many ways Jane Austen’ s model for Mrs. Elton—Mary Lloyd Austen.

But I think there’s another possibility which came to my mind when I suddenly found myself humming the words from “If You Could See Her” from Cabaret:

Emcee (appearing with a Gorilla)

I know what you're thinking:
You wondered why I chose her
Out of all the ladies in the world.
That's just a first impression,
What good's a first impression?
If you knew her like I do
It would change you're point of view.

If you could see her through my eyes
You wouldn't wonder at all.
If you could see her through my eyes
I guarantee you would fall (like I did).
When we're in public togtheer
I hear society moan.
But if they could see her through my eyes
Maybe they'd leave us alone.

Spoken: (There you are my liebling. Your favourite!)
How can I speak of her virtues,
I don't know where to begin?
She's clever, she's smart, she reads musics
She doesn't smoke or drink gin (like I do).
Yet when we're walking together
They sneer if I'm holding her hand.
But if they could see her through my eyes
Maybe they'd all understand.
(Emcee and Gorilla dance)
Why can't they leave us alone.

Seriously, think about it…In Sanditon, we have the young biracial heiress Miss Lambe—Miss Hawkins was from a rich Bristol family, meaning they probably made their fortune in some way from the slave trade. Might Miss Hawkins be the “Harriet” of the family—an illegitimate daughter of a rich man sired on an African slave?

That would make Mrs. Elton’s comment about being “a friend of the abolition” particularly ironic, if she herself were biracial! And it would then make sense that she would be hiding her facial appearance, so as not to have her racial background be too obvious.

Of course, those with eyes and brains would know, but Mrs. Elton would not be the first character in the novel to have the truth known about her by others, BUT NOT BY EMMA. That is the running joke of the novel—Emma really is globally clueless! One of the joys of rereading the novel is to occasionally spot another one of Emma’s blind spots!

And finally, it would make sense if Mr. Elton—he who is described at one point as “spruce, BLACK, and smiling”—married a biracial bride in casually racist Regency Era England. Maybe part of what made Mr. Elton so unacceptable a marital candidate for a woman of means (as opposed to the illegitimate Harriet) was the dark color of his skin?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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