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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 11, 2014

“…she is very much to the TASTE of every body” Emma Woodhouse’s immodest (and appalling) views on Miss Bates, poverty & food

After sending my previous post…
..and then rereading it quickly a short while later, I realized what had been tugging at the edges of my memory---I recalled that there was something very Swiftian about this particular satirical construction by JA—the linkage of Mr. Woodhouse’s constant exclamations about other people beginning with “Poor…” with his constant worried ejaculations about the unhealthfulness of people eating “too much” or “too RICH” (interesting pun there!) food--it was strikingly reminiscent of Swift’s “Modest Proposal” for dealing with hunger in dirt-poor Ireland—the parents should just eat their babies, and (so to speak) kill two birds with one stone!  

I had first discussed that veiled allusion in Emma with Cathy Lamb way back in 2006 (when I was first looking at the Swift subtext in Mansfield Park), and then a year ago Diane independently raised the very  same point to me.

So clearly, Diane, your point about the darkness of Mr. Woodhouse’s concerns about people eating too much was informed by your earlier awareness, and your revisiting it now has prompted me to dive even deeper into this rich stew of allusion, and I think you will really like the way it all tastes in the end!  ;)

To start, this passage from Wikipedia makes it crystal clear that Mr. Woodhouse has been reading Swift on the sly:

“Swift goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion….These lampoons include appealing to the authority of "a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London" and "the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa" (who had already confessed to not being from Formosa in 1706)….the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift's solution when he states, "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."

In addition to all the discussion in Emma of the relative merits of baking, boiling, roasting in regard to the nourishingness and wholesomeness of food so prepared, we should also in particular consider the Swiftian allusion hidden in Miss Bates saying
there was a delicate FRICASEE of sweetbread and some aspaRAGUs brought in at first, and good Mr. Woodhouse, not thinking the aspaRAGUs quite boiled enough, sent it all out again.”   

I.e., Swift’s “fricaseee, or a ragout” becomes “fricassee of sweetbread and some aspa-ragout..” in JA’s Monty Pythonesque transformational wordplay! But where Swift’s satire was savagely overt, visible to even the most obtuse reader, JA’s pen was a satirical rapier, it pierced its victim almost subliminally, disguised as a fond touch—and so, undiscovered for nearly 2 centuries.  

And so, in that promising vein, I decided to dive back into the text of Emma and search for some further textual clues corroborating that Swiftian food satire that Diane re-raised, and I amplified in my previous post.

And, sure enough, I found it right away, right under my own nose. I.e., when I searched for the word “poverty” in the text of Emma, guess where I found the single usage thereof in the entire novel?  Right there in that same Chapter 10, when Emma visits the poor sick family!!

And that’s when I realized that the entirety of Chapter 10 can profitably be read exclusively from the angle of this Swiftian satire on the rich’s response to widespread poverty around them. I will now quickly sketch the rest of this satire with sequential quotations therefrom (although, for maximum satirical effect, you really should reread the whole chapter with that satire in mind).

“Though now the middle of December, there had yet been no weather to prevent the young ladies from tolerably regular exercise; and on the morrow, Emma had a charitable visit to pay to a poor sick family, who lived a little way out of Highbury.”

So, the question arises, what form will Emma’s charity take? It does not promise well, however, that what is on Emma’s mind is not the  illness of the family or the charity Emma will provide, but that the outing will be good exercise for her and Harriet to take a walk a little way out of Highbury during a rare break in harsh winter weather.

“Their road to this detached cottage was down Vicarage Lane, a lane leading at right angles from the broad, though irregular, main street of the place; and, as may be inferred, containing the blessed abode of Mr. Elton.”

Hmm…so is it just a coincidence that Emma decides to take that walk that day with Harriet, on a route that just happens to go right past the Vicarage? Of course not! As Knightley would have said to Emma had he known about it, “You made the charity visit precisely so that you’d have an excuse to walk Harriet by the Vicarage.”

“A few inferior dwellings were first to be passed, and then, about a quarter of a mile down the lane rose the Vicarage, an old and not very good house, almost as close to the road as it could be. It had no advantage of situation; but had been very much smartened up by the present proprietor; and, such as it was, there could be no possibility of the two friends passing it without a slackened pace and observing eyes.”

Aside from the nauseating snobbery of “inferior dwellings” (you can imagine Emma holding her nose as they passed those unfortunate hovels), we now see that Emma has indeed planned this as an “accidental” meeting between Harriet and Elton.

"I do not often walk this way now," said Emma, as they proceeded, "but then there will be an inducement, and I shall gradually get intimately acquainted with all the hedges, gates, pools and pollards of this part of Highbury."

And, again, we have Emma in effect confirming that she has probably NEVER paid a charitable visit to that poor sick family in her entire life!
And then we have a conversation between Harriet and Emma in which Harriet goads Emma into revealing why Emma feels herself above the need to marry:

"But still, you will be an old maid! and that's so dreadful!"
"Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is POVERTY ONLY makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross. This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates; she is only too good natured and too silly to suit me; but, in general, she is very much to the taste of every body, though single and though poor. Poverty certainly has not contracted her mind: I really believe, if she had only a shilling in the world, she would be very likely to give away sixpence of it; and nobody is afraid of her: that is a great charm."

You won’t often see “it is poverty only makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public!” in a list of favorite quotations from JA’s novels, because it is so disgusting and shocking an example of Emma’s attitude toward those less fortunately born than she. That she carves out Miss Bates as a single exception to her universal rule does not mitigate the horror of that general rule, it merely makes Emma’s blindness to her father’s “starvation diet” that much more poignant.

But then Jane Austen would surely laugh at my noticing the savage Swifitan irony of Emma saying the following about Miss Bates:

“…she is very much to the TASTE of every body…”

I mean, really!!!-would that be Filet of Miss Bates boiled, baked or in a ragout?  ;)

But let’s return for the rest of Chapter 10. After Emma completes her lecture about wealth and women, we read:

“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…”

So here we have Emma congratulating herself repeatedly for her compassion, understanding, empathy, and assistance-although it is still not clear to the reader what form Emma’s charity will take, beyond a few platitudes spoken before quickly exiting the sickroom.

“…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?"
"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 there, again, is Emma immediately upon catching sight of Elton undoing her own pathetically brief attempt at keeping her mind on the poor sick people. And we still wonder, what charity did/will Emma perform?
  "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."

So more talk about compassion and suffering, but all just for show. And STILL nothing about Emma’s actual charitable acts. And then begins the farce of the faux broken shoelace—and look what’s buried in that same passage:.

“ the time she judged it reasonable to have done with her boot, she had the comfort of farther delay in her power, being overtaken by a child from the cottage, setting out, according to orders, with her pitcher, to fetch broth from Hartfield. To walk by the side of this child, and talk to and question her, was the most natural thing in the world, or would have been the most natural, had she been acting just then without design; and by this means the others were still able to keep ahead, without any obligation of waiting for her. She gained on them, however, involuntarily: the child's pace was quick, and theirs rather slow; and she was the more concerned at it, from their being evidently in a conversation which interested them. Mr. Elton was speaking with animation, Harriet listening with a very pleased attention; and Emma, having sent the child on, was beginning to think how she might draw back a little more, when they both looked around, and she was obliged to join them.”

So, the sum total of Emma’s generosity to the poor sick family was to give them however much broth a (presumably a small, undernourished) child from the cottage would be able to carry in some sort of jug all the way to Hartfield and back—so, not even any food, but broth (“thin gruel” indeed!), and a pitifully small amount, transported on foot with backbreaking labor by a child, instead of Emma sending over some substantial edibles in a cart (don’t you think James and the horses could be spared?) that might actually save the lives of the sick and undernourished members of that family.

And the worst and cruelest of Emma’s callousness is that the fact that “the child’s pace was quick” ticks Emma off, because the kid keeps undermining Emma’s little scheme of lagging back to give Elton a chance to woo Harriet—when the fast pace of the child suggests to the sensitive reader that the child is famished and/or must get back to attend to some serious duties at the cottage. So Emma’s deliberate slowing down has actually been forcing the child to go much slower than (s)he wants to!

Etc etc etc—the bottom line is clear-Chapter 10 is another crucial component of the Swiftian satire of Emma- and how blind Maggie Lane was to recognize the central importance of food in Emma, and yet have absolutely no clue that it might be the darkest form of social satire.

And by the way, if you want a number of other sharp laughs, search the word “taste” in Emma  with Swift’s “Modest Proposal” in mind, and you won’t be disappointed, they are everywhere!

Cheers, ARNIE
@Jane AustenCode on Twitter

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