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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 12, 2015

Frank Churchill’s freaky “heir cut”: A sudden “seizure” of a VERY different nature!


Not quite 4 years ago, after watching the then latest adaptation of Jane Eyre, I wrote a couple of posts in which I noted Charlotte Bronte’s sly homophonic punning on the words “Eyre”, “heir”, “air”,  and “hare”. I also noted how that punning seemed to have been inspired by Jane Austen’s own punning on most of those words, in particular in the allusion to “The Hare and Many Friends’ in Northanger Abbey:

A month ago, I revisited that analysis by extending it to Jane Austen’s allusion (via Mrs.Elton) to “The Hare and Many Friends” in Emma, adding to the list of puns the name “Harriet”, which sounds like “Hare Yet”.

Today it occurred to me that there was one more word in that rich lode of puns which I have been aware of since 2005, which fills out this punning matrix---that is Frank Churchill’s infamous “hair cut”. As my Subject Line hints, and I will demonstrate, Frank’s ‘heir cut” is perhaps the most thematically significant and ingenious pun of the bunch!

I am not the first to see wordplay in Frank’s “hair cut”—15 years ago, Jill Heydt-Stevenson first pointed out that the Regency Era slang definition for “getting one’s hair cut” was to visit a woman”. Stevenson, reading the novel straightforwardly, suggests that Frank’s trip to London is all about his secret relationship with Jane. However, Stevenson did not realize what I deduced in 2005, which is that Frank’s assignation in London is not with Jane at all, it is with none other than Miss Hawkins (soon to be Mrs. Elton), whom I claim he jilts during that brief trip to London which (ironically) occurs on Valentine’s Day, by giving her the “courtship” charade we read in Chapter 9 of Emma:


The pun I’ll unpack today is between the “hair cut” that Frank obtains in London on Valentine’s Day, and the “heir cut” (i.e., the inheritance) he solidifies by murdering his aunt Mrs. Churchill 4 months later.

That  Frank smothers Mrs. Churchill in Richmond was first suggested by Leland Monk in 1990, but Monk had no idea of the way that plot point was interwoven into the rest of the intricate shadow story of Emma that I have painstakingly excavated since late 2004.  I see the removal of Frank’s domineering aunt as constituting the forcible removal of a huge obstacle to Frank’s economic independence. As a result of her death, he then only has his very malleable (and also generous and aging) uncle Mr. Churchill to deal with –and we are given dramatic evidence of all of this, when we learn that the Churchill family jewels are to be set into a crown for Jane Fairfax.

Think I’m reaching with all of this? Well, consider the following passages in Emma which JA  ingeniously scattered throughout the novel, all to create an elaborate, cumulative, and entirely subliminal suggestion of this pun on Frank’s freaky “hair cut” and “heir cut”:

Chapter 2: When we first hear about Frank, we read that Mr. Weston, in marrying poor (literally!) Miss Taylor, “had only himself to please in his choice: his fortune was his own; for as to Frank, it was more than being tacitly brought up as his uncle's HEIR, it had become so avowed an adoption as to have him assume the name of Churchill on coming of age.”
So the idea of Frank’s expectancy of a great inheritance is “early implanted” in the reader’s mind, an idea which, like the baby growing in Jane Fairfax’s uterus, develops slowly over the remainder of the novel, and is “born” just before the end!          

In Chapters 25-26, after Frank has finally showed up in Highbury, the reader joins Emma in surprise in hearing via the gossip mill the details of Frank’s infamous hair cut:
“Emma's very good opinion of Frank Churchill was a little shaken the following day, by hearing that he was gone off to London, merely to have his HAIR CUT. A SUDDEN FREAK seemed to have SEIZED him at breakfast, and he had sent for a chaise and set off, intending to return to dinner, but with no more important view that appeared than having his HAIR CUT. There was certainly no harm in his travelling sixteen miles twice over on such an errand; but there was an air of foppery and nonsense in it which she could not approve.
…but for such an unfortunate fancy for having his HAIR CUT, there was nothing to denote him unworthy of the distinguished honour which her imagination had given him; the honour, if not of being really in love with her, of being at least very near it, and saved only by her own indifference—(for still her resolution held of never marrying)—the honour, in short, of being marked out for her by all their joint acquaintance.
…Frank Churchill came back again; and if he kept his father's dinner waiting, it was not known at Hartfield; for Mrs. Weston was too anxious for his being a favourite with Mr. Woodhouse, to betray any imperfection which could be concealed.
He came back, had had his HAIR CUT, and laughed at himself with a very good grace, but without seeming really at all ashamed of what he had done. He had no reason to wish his HAIR longer, to conceal any confusion of face; no reason to wish the money unspent, to improve his spirits….
…"…I never knew days fly so fast. A week to-morrow!—And I have hardly begun to enjoy myself. But just got acquainted with Mrs. Weston, and others!—I hate the recollection."
"Perhaps you may now begin to regret that you spent one whole day, out of so few, in having your HAIR CUT."
"No," said he, smiling, "that is no subject of regret at all. I have no pleasure in seeing my friends, unless I can believe myself fit to be seen."   END QUOTES FROM CHAPTERS 25-6

Rereaders of the novel believe the cover story presented at the end of the novel, which is that Frank went to London on a “sudden freak” to buy the mysterious pianoforte for Jane. But Jane Austen, via further wordplay, links Frank’s trip to London to two later trips by Frank. The key clue is the sentence “A SUDDEN freak seemed to have SEIZED him at breakfast”, describing Frank’s decision to abruptly leave Highbury to take a long ride. Keep that sentence in mind as you read the following (supposedly unrelated) sentences:

In Chapter 42: “He had been detained by a temporary increase of illness in her; a nervous SEIZURE, which had lasted some hours—and he had quite given up every thought of coming, till very late;—and had he known how hot a ride he should have, and how late, with all his hurry, he must be, he believed he should not have come at all.”

In Chapter 45: “The following day brought news from Richmond to throw every thing else into the background. An express arrived at Randalls to announce the death of Mrs. Churchill! Though her nephew had had no particular reason to hasten back on her account, she had not lived above six-and-thirty hours after his return. A SUDDEN SEIZURE of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state, had carried her off after a short struggle. The great Mrs. Churchill was no more.”

The word “seizure”, which echoes Frank being “seized” with a “sudden freak” earlier, is ripe with four different meanings, referring not only to (1) Frank’s impulsive decision and (2) Mrs. Churchill’s illness, but also to (3) Frank’s seizing something of value, meaning his inheritance, from his aunt, a seizure which he accomplishes by (4) seizing her throat and choking her to death! I.e., the word “seizure” is a smoking gun that shoots four bullets which subliminally but directly target Frank’s “hair cut” to Frank’s “heir cut!”

But there are still more subliminal textual hints which bolster my interpretation.

First, in Chapter 18: “"We shall never agree about him," cried Emma; "but that is nothing extraordinary. I have not the least idea of his being a weak young man: I feel sure that he is not. Mr. Weston would not be blind to folly, though in his own son; but he is very likely to have a more yielding, complying, mild disposition than would suit your notions of man's perfection. I dare say he has; and though it may CUT HIM OFF from some advantages, it will secure him many others."
Here we have yet another pun, this time on the word “cut”---when we read Emma’s usage of “cutting off” referring to the involuntary loss by Frank of something advantageous, we may think of Frank’s ‘hair cut”, and wonder if another slang usage was already extant in the Regency Era, in the sense we read about a bank “taking a haircut” on a bad loan by accepting pennies on the dollar.

And then, in Chapter 26, JA pings that same connection of “cutting off” and ‘inheritance” again:
"Dear Mrs Weston, how could you think of such a thing? -- Mr Knightley! -- Mr Knightley must not marry! -- You would not have little Henry CUT OUT from Donwell? “
….Her objections to Mr. Knightley's marrying did not in the least subside. She could see nothing but evil in it. It would be a great disappointment to Mr. John Knightley; consequently to Isabella. A real injury to the children—a most mortifying change, and material loss to them all;—a very great deduction from her father's daily comfort—and, as to herself, she could not at all endure the idea of Jane Fairfax at Donwell Abbey. A Mrs. Knightley for them all to give way to!—No—Mr. Knightley must never marry. Little Henry must remain the HEIR of Donwell.

And the following, in Chapter 38, is particularly witty by Jane Austen, as Mrs. Elton (who, as I opined above, was jilted by Frank only months earlier) echoes both Mr. Knightley’s earlier expressed opinion that Frank’s getting a haircut on a sudden freak makes Frank a fop, and associates that harsh judgment on puppies/fops with saying “very CUTTING things”!:
"A very fine young man indeed, Mr. Weston. You know I candidly told you I should form my own opinion; and I am happy to say that I am extremely pleased with [Frank].—You may believe me. I never compliment. I think him a very handsome young man, and his manners are precisely what I like and approve—so truly the gentleman, without the least conceit or puppyism. You must know I have a vast dislike to puppies—quite a horror of them. They were never tolerated at Maple Grove. Neither Mr. Suckling nor me had ever any patience with them; and we used sometimes to say VERY CUTTING THINGS! Selina, who is mild almost to a fault, bore with them much better."

And then, after Frank does Mrs. Churchill in, we have this passage in Chapter 45, which shows Emma’s dawning but very dim recognition of the significance of Frank’s expected windfall:

“How {Mrs. Churchill’s death] would affect Frank was among the earliest thoughts of both [Mr. & Mrs. Weston]. It was also a very early speculation with Emma. The character of Mrs. Churchill, the grief of her husband—her mind glanced over them both with awe and compassion —and then rested with lightened feelings on how Frank might be affected by the event, how BENEFITED, how freed. She saw in a moment all the possible good. Now, an attachment to Harriet Smith would have nothing to encounter….”

All the clueless Emma can see as Frank’s “benefit” from his aunt’s death is the phantom of the connection she fantasizes between Harriet and Frank, but the suspicious reader sees much more.

 And JA turns once more to black comedy in Chapter 46, when Mr. Weston alarms Emma with an  urgent but vague summons to come speak to Mrs. Weston:

“Emma found that she must wait; and now it required little effort. She asked no more questions therefore, merely employed her own fancy, and that soon pointed out to her the probability of its being some money concern—something just come to light, of a disagreeable nature in the circumstances of the family,—something which the late event at Richmond had brought forward. Her fancy was very active. Half a dozen natural children, perhaps—and poor Frank CUT OFF—This, though very undesirable, would be no matter of agony to her. It inspired little more than an animating curiosity.”

Once more we register the idea of Frank being “cut off” in relation to an inheritance. But the cat Jane Austen is STILL not done toying with this “mouse”. In Chapter 50, we read Frank’s letter to his stepmother where he protests way too much about how he values his inheritance of a hopeful disposition from his father more than he values the huge pecuniary inheritance he can now expect to receive from his uncle!:

: “…If you need farther explanation, I have the honour, my dear madam, of being your husband's son, and the advantage of INHERITING a disposition to hope for good, which no INHERITANCE of houses or lands can ever equal the value of….”

And last on this theme in Chapter 51, we read Emma’s revisiting for the final time of the theme of inheritance, as she, with characteristic casuistry, rationalizes her no longer worrying about John’s son Henry inheriting Donwell Abbey, which is based not on any shred of good morality, but instead is patent evidence of Emma selfishly reveling in her prospective marriage to Knightley, just as much as she dreaded his marrying Jane 25 chapters earlier—remarkable indeed!:
“It is remarkable, that Emma, in the many, very many, points of view in which she was now beginning to consider Donwell Abbey, was never struck with any sense of injury to her nephew Henry, whose rights as HEIR-expectant had formerly been so tenaciously regarded. Think she must of the possible difference to the poor little boy; and yet she only gave herself a saucy conscious smile about it, and found amusement in detecting the real cause of that violent dislike of Mr. Knightley's marrying Jane Fairfax, or any body else, which at the time she had wholly imputed to the amiable solicitude of the sister and the aunt.”

So, I hope you’ll agree that all of the above constitutes compelling evidence for the shadow story meme of Frank having murdered his aunt, thereby obtaining the “heir cut” he has long believed himself to have earned by his many years of sucking up to her!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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