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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Poor Starving Miss Bates & Poor Married Emma

 Diane wrote:  “Why do we cede so much authority to Mr. Knightley? He is older--but so, of course, is Miss Bates--he has property (though we always operate--or I do--with the suspicion he is short of ready cash) and of course, he's juxtaposed against Mr. Woodhouse, an incompetent paterfamilias ...I am fascinated by how equivocal, how biting, how double-edged, is Austen's prose. “

I am by no means the only Austen scholar to seriously question Mr. Knightley’s apparent authority, and to argue that JA intended her readers to do likewise, and to see Knightley as what General Tilney might have seemed like to an extremely uncritical observer (i.e., Emma). He’s overbearing, unconsciously sexist, dogmatic, easily angered, and somewhat prone to pedophilia. But when viewed through Emma’s rose colored glasses, he’s a hero. Allison Sulloway was the first, way back in 1976, to see Knightley as he really is. And Wendy Moffat did a great job in the same vein in 1991.

Diane also wrote: “Emma's hospitality shines against her father's whose ideas of entertaining conflict with his conviction that it is healthy for his guests to be starved--his desire not to feed his guests to safeguard their health has a sharp undercurrent if we understand they are coming to dinner to get fed--the implication behind the Bateses is that they would quickly go hungry if not for the invitations and food donations of their neighbors. This makes Mr. Woodhouse's desire to withhold food grim and dark as well as comic.”

Indeed, excellent catch, Diane! We are entering into the exact same territory as John Dashwood’s faux solicitude and concern for his stepmother and stepsisters the Dashwood women:

“…whatever I may give them occasionally will be of far greater assistance than a yearly allowance, because they would only enlarge their style of living if they felt sure of a larger income, and would not be sixpence the richer for it at the end of the year. It will certainly be much the best way. A present of fifty pounds, now and then, will prevent their ever being distressed for money, and will, I think, be amply discharging my promise to my father."  

This grotesque “less is more” pretzel logic is worthy of modern day “trickle down” economics. The delusions of the rich who think they are being most generous to those less well off when they withhold valuables from them!

And this is another great example of how JA shapes different readerly responses to the identical situation. With John and Fanny Dashwood, JA layers the irony on so thick, by making the greed and selfishness so blatant, that it is impossible for any reader to miss what JA wants us to think about him—Fanny Dashwood we all recognize as fully cognizant of how she is conning her husband, but we all recognize John as a perfect example of banal evil, a man who does great harm while sincerely thinking himself very generous every step of the way.

But with Mr. Woodhouse, JA gives us the story from Emma’s point of view, so there is not any sign in the narration that it would be grotesque to give tiny portions of food to people who haven’t had a square meal in a long while.

And now I will repay your insight, Diane, with a companion insight of my own, inspired by yours. Now that I think about it, the irony of Mr. Woodhouse’s delusion as to his own generosity is magnified a thousandfold, because we all know Mr. Woodhouse’s go-to catch phrase, the one he used constantly---POOR!!!!  Poor Miss Taylor, the poor horses, poor James, poor Isabella, poor Mr. Woodhouse, poor Harriet, poor Mrs. Weston, etc etc etc--- but, curiously, Mr. Woodhouse never utters the words “Poor Miss Bates”, even though she is the one person close to Mr. Woodhouse who actually deserves that description!

And so now we can see Mr. Woodhouse’s trademark withholding of food as inextricably linked to his trademark exclamation of compassion. In short, the man who does not stop talking about the poverty of those around him who are not poor, is the same man who  also talks endlessly about denying others who are poor the most basic good that poverty makes scarce---food—and isn’t that the quintessential example of talking out of both sides of one’s mouth at the same time?

And, as if we didn’t already know, we soon confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt that Emma has not only never left Highbury her entire life, she also metaphorically has not fallen one inch  from the family tree, philanthropically speaking. She constantly pats herself on her own back for her generosity to Harriet, and then takes Harriet along on her charitable errand to a poor sick neighbor. Note that Emma’s concern for those poor souls does not even survive her turning the corner after leaving:

"Very true," said Harriet. "Poor creatures! one can think of nothing else."
"And really, I do not think the impression will soon be over," said Emma, as she crossed the low hedge, and tottering footstep which ended the narrow, slippery path through the cottage garden, and brought them into the lane again. "I do not think it will," stopping to look once more at all the outward wretchedness of the place, and recall the still greater within.
"Oh! dear, no," said her companion.
They walked on. The lane made a slight bend; and when that bend was passed, Mr. Elton was immediately in sight; and so near as to give Emma time only to say farther,
"Ah! Harriet, here comes a very sudden trial of our stability in good thoughts. Well, (smiling,) I hope it may be allowed that if compassion has produced exertion and relief to the sufferers, it has done all that is truly important. If we feel for the wretched, enough to do all we can for them, the rest is empty sympathy, only distressing to ourselves."
Harriet could just answer, "Oh! dear, yes," before the gentleman joined them. The wants and sufferings of the poor family, however, were the first subject on meeting. He had been going to call on them. His visit he would now defer; but they had a very interesting parley about what could be done and should be done. Mr. Elton then turned back to accompany them.
"To fall in with each other on such an errand as this," thought Emma; "to meet in a charitable scheme; this will bring a great increase of love on each side. I should not wonder if it were to bring on the declaration. It must, if I were not here. I wish I were anywhere else."

Mr. Bennet, for all his flaws, at least knows himself well enough, and is honest enough, to recognize and acknowledge that his own stunted conscience will quickly subside, and his guilty feelings will melt away soon---but Mr. Woodhouse and Emma are both beyond oblivious to their own stunted consciences. And guess what, Knightley’s no better, he just knows right from wrong, and so is able to pretend better to be doing right. 

And so, once Knightley and Emma are married, as Reginald Hill imagined so well 25 years ago, that means “POOR Emma!”  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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