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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, January 16, 2015

“Mrs. Weston, who seemed to have walked there on purpose to be tired”: Miss Austen did NOT forget Mrs. Weston’s baby!

Four years ago, I posted a series of three posts on the subject of Mrs. Weston’s supposed pregnancy:

As I will shortly explain, and have already hinted at in my Subject Line, I came across something wonderful last night, which prompts me to revisit this topic, which is always especially interesting to me, because of my longstanding claim that the baby Anna Weston is not Mrs. Weston’s biological child, but is Jane Fairfax’s. I now have some fresh new perspectives, including the identification of a smoking (hot) gun in the text of Emma, to add to those I articulated comprehensively 4 years ago.

To begin, in a novel in which we hear all the time about Jane Fairfax’s feeling ill, and Harriet getting sick, and Mr. Woodhouse and his daughter Isabella predictably paranoid about everyone getting sick—a novel riddled, so to speak, with hypochondria from first chapter to last---it’s extraordinary, when you reflect on it--that we never hear a word during the first “trimester” of the novel (i.e., prior to Jane and Frank showing up in Highbury) about Mrs. Weston having anything remotely resembling morning sickness during what would have had to have been the first trimester of her pregnancy. With all the textual “smoke” swirling through this novel about illness, the absence of that “fire” vis a vis the first 2/3 of  Mrs. Weston’s pregnancy is very suspicious. Let’s walk through some of the highlights of that absence.

Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley have their big pow wow in Chapter 5, by which time she would have recently realized she was pregnant, but not a syllable is spoken by her or by him that in any way suggests this to be so. In fact, JA has Knightley pun on the word “bear” in its two senses of “endure” and “gestate”, suggesting that Mrs. Weston might never have a child from this late marriage:
"Why, to own the truth, I am afraid you are rather thrown away, and that with every disposition to bear, there will be nothing to be borne.”

But Mrs. Weston does not respond with something like “Guess what, George—I am very much disposed to bear a baby which I will not throw away!” No, she just responds to the latter part of his comment about Frank, and ignores the sly joke about her future as a barren wife.

Then, there is a gap of 5 chapters during which we hear almost nothing of Mrs. Weston. Now, this could be a subtle hint that she is experiencing daily morning sickness which prevents her from seeing Emma, right? That would be a wonderfully subtle way for JA to raise that as a possibility in the mind of a close rereader of the novel. But then JA turns out to have been toying with that close rereader, because JA goes out of her way in Chapter 11 to let us know, in spades, that Mrs. Weston has not been prevented during that entire time period from often walking over to Hartfield from Randalls and back, and often in the morning. And remember, Mrs. Weston is not a young adult woman, she is at least 36, if not a bit older:

"Ah, my dear," said he, "poor Miss Taylor—It is a grievous business."
"Oh yes, sir," cried [Isabella] with ready sympathy, "how you must miss her! And dear Emma, too!—What a dreadful loss to you both!—I have been so grieved for you.—I could not imagine how you could possibly do without her.—It is a sad change indeed.—But I hope she is pretty well, sir."
"Pretty well, my dear—I hope—pretty well.—I do not know but that the place agrees with her tolerably."
Mr. John Knightley here asked Emma quietly whether there were any doubts of the air of Randalls.
"Oh! no—none in the least. I never saw Mrs. Weston better in my life—never looking so well. Papa is only speaking his own regret."
"Very much to the honour of both," was the handsome reply.
"And do you see her, sir, tolerably often?" asked Isabella in the plaintive tone which just suited her father.
Mr. Woodhouse hesitated.—"Not near so often, my dear, as I could wish."
"Oh! papa, we have missed seeing them but one entire day since they married. Either in the morning or evening of every day, excepting one, have we seen either Mr. Weston or Mrs. Weston, and generally both, either at Randalls or here—and as you may suppose, Isabella, most frequently here. They are very, very kind in their visits.   END QUOTE

So much for morning sickness! And we also may safely infer that at no point prior to the very end of the novel does anyone tell Mr. Woodhouse that Mrs. Weston is pregnant —because it is impossible that he would not be constantly talking and worrying about her health, and how she should only eat thin gruel, and Mr. Perry said this or that. The same with Isabella, no one tells her either, or else Mr. Wingfield’s opinion would be called for.

Then, not long after, the Westons decide to host a Christmas Eve party—hardly the idea you’d expect from a woman in the full flush of morning sickness as she reaches the end of the first trimester. Insteaad, we read this in Chapter 14:

“She could tell nothing of Hartfield, in which Mrs. Weston had not a lively concern; and half an hour's uninterrupted communication of all those little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends, was one of the first gratifications of each.
This was a pleasure which perhaps the whole day's visit might not afford, which certainly did not belong to the present half-hour; but the very sight of Mrs. Weston, her smile, her touch, her voice was grateful to Emma, and she determined to think as little as possible of Mr. Elton's oddities, or of any thing else unpleasant, and enjoy all that was enjoyable to the utmost. “

And yet, with all that mutuality of disclosure, not a word from Mrs. Weston to Emma about being pregnant—do you hear that dog not barking again? It’s ringing in my ears!

And JA teases the rereader again, as with Knightley’s pun in Chapter 5, when as at one point Emma wishes Mrs. Weston joy—which is an expression normally reserved for events like the birth of a child, but is actually spoken by Emma in regard to Frank’s impending “arrival” at Randalls! Jane Austen is like Oberon, diabolically stage managing the experience of her readers, leading them here and there on wild goose chases through the text of the novel, but always playing fair by hinting at the true path.

Now we move on to Chapter 15, later in the Randalls dinner party, and yet again JA teases the rereader:

“But at last there seemed a perverse turn; it seemed all at once as if he were more afraid of its being a bad sore throat on her account, than on Harriet's—more anxious that she should escape the infection, than that there should be no infection in the complaint. He began with great earnestness to entreat her to refrain from visiting the sick-chamber again, for the present—to entreat her to promise him not to venture into such hazard till he had seen Mr. Perry and learnt his opinion; and though she tried to laugh it off and bring the subject back into its proper course, there was no putting an end to his extreme solicitude about her.”

Where’s the teasing? Because if anyone present at that moment was aware of Mrs. Weston’s pregnancy, wouldn’t they urge Emma to stay away from Harriet, so that Emma would not infect Mrs. Weston and possibly cause a miscarriage? After all, isn’t that exactly the sort of concern that prompts Mrs. Palmer to leave Cleveland with her newborn when Marianne contracts her life threatening infection? But again, not a syllable on any danger to Mrs. Weston’s pregnancy.

And then in Chapter 18, when Frank once again disappoints by delaying his visit, it is Mrs.Weston who is most disappointed—whereas, if she is really keeping her pregnancy a secret, that delay might be something she’d welcome—so as not to have pretend, at Randalls, for a while longer. But instead she keeps acting like a woman who is channeling her maternal instincts exclusively into her new stepson, not a new baby!

And from that point in the story, my three posts from four years ago pick up the ball, and adequately encapsulate the textual evidence from the second and third volumes of Emma which supports my claim that Mrs. Weston is not really pregnant--- so I refer you back to them if you want to read it all.

So, considering all of that, why would JA not plant a half dozen clues in the first two thirds of the novel, which, upon rereading, would have brought a smile to the rereader’s face, by pointing to Mrs. Weston’s pregnancy—exactly as JA did with the concealed relationship between Jane and Frank.  The absence of such subtle clues is meaningful—a metaphorical dog not barking—and by now it’s a very loud silence.

With that introduction, I am now ready to tell you what I found last night, that adds a wonderful new twist to all of this. When I Googled “Mrs. Weston” together with “baby”, curious to see if anything new on that subject might have appeared on the Internet in the past 4 years since I last looked closely at this question, imagine my pleasant surprise when I read the following:

‘Miss Austen Forgot the Baby’  by Genusrosa
“Sharp was a sincere admirer of Jane Austen’s novels. ‘One of the great delights of Miss Austen’s works,’ she writes, ‘is that one can read and re-read them indefinitely, always making fresh discoveries.’
Emma was Sharp’s idea of a perfect novel. Yet one ‘fresh discovery’ Margery Sharp made, while re-reading Emma, surprised her a great deal. Jane Austen had blundered. As Margery Sharp puts it, ‘I am aware that I must take every precaution to document myself.’ As, quite possibly, no other body of literary work has been as exhaustively scrutinized as Jane Austen’s, this is no understatement.
The interview with Margery Sharp was printed in the magazine Books and Bookmen, in the October, 1964 issue. Sharp’s ‘discovery’ is the unlikely circumstance of Mrs. Weston walking possibly a mile and a half from Randalls to Donwell in the heat of the day, mid-summer, while eight months pregnant.
The heat alone would be a danger,” says Emma, attempting to dissuade Jane Fairfax from walking home.
Madness in such weather!” says Frank Churchill, (quite piqued for different reasons that Jane is walking home). “Absolute madness!”
And the not-to-be-forgotten running commentary of Mrs. Elton while gathering strawberries that ends with:
“only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping…glaring sun….tired to death….could bear it no longer…must go and sit in the shade…”
‘So it was a very hot day’, Sharp points out. ‘No wonder Mrs. Weston was tired. She had walked something between half-a-mile and a mile-and-a-half. And scarcely a month later ‘all her friends were made happy by her safety’ upon the birth of a baby girl.’
‘Surely Mrs. Weston, at least 36 and a pattern of prudence–entrusted with the wrapping up of Emma after measles–surely Mrs. Weston wouldn’t have undertaken such a walk at the end of her eighth month? Surely those friends wouldn’t have let her?’
‘Can it be,’ Sharp concludes, ‘that Miss Austen, in the natural high spirits engendered by describing the strawberry gathering, temporarily forgot Mrs. Weston’s interesting condition? I believe she did. Even Homer nods; Miss Austen forgot the baby.
Curiously, the other ‘possible’ oversight on Austen’s part, is in Emma, as well. The mention of apple trees blossoming in June was an unusual slip-up for this tree-loving author. Even Austen’s brother Edward Knight remarked upon it. The new annotated version of Emma, by Harvard University Press, comments on this in the margin as ‘one of the most famous apparent “continuity errors” in Austen’s fiction’. It begs the question, was it intentional?”  END QUOTE

Jane Austen forgot the BABY???????

Those of you who follow my posts about shadowy elements in JA’s novels know that I imagine a special Dantean circle that awaits those tragically misguided souls who read Jane Austen’s novels, spot a crux, but then pronounce that Jane Austen must have made a mistake.

And this is a special case close to my heart, given that Margery Sharp happened not only to spot a significant crux I had not previously attended to closely enough (in 2010 I wrote this note to myself in a file: “very weird that [Mrs. Weston] walked over [to Donwell Abbey]”, but I failed to take the crucial next step of thinking about the cause of that weirdness)---a crux which adds great support to my claim that Mrs. Weston is not really pregnant----but Sharp also cited, in analogous support of her assertion of mistake about Mrs. Weston’s strenuous walking, the very famous “apples blooming out of season” crux from Emma, which I have long asserted was also not a mistake at all, but was another giant hint at Jane Fairfax’s pregnancy!

So, how ironic that Margery Sharp, a half century ago, experienced what I call a “Trojan Horse Moment”, when her subconscious was sharper than her conscious mind, and she unwittingly lumped together two cruxes which both point to the same huge shadow story element, i.e., Jane Fairfax’s pregnancy! Jane Austen would be smiling broadly if she knew how this all went down!

But it gets even better when we examine Sharp’s catch more closely. Here is the textual passage in Chapter 42 in which we learn about “the unlikely circumstance of Mrs. Weston walking possibly a mile and a half from Randalls to Donwell in the heat of the day, mid-summer, while eight months pregnant”:

“Under a bright mid-day sun, at almost Midsummer, Mr. Woodhouse was safely conveyed in his carriage, with one window down, to partake of this al-fresco party; and in one of the most comfortable rooms in the Abbey, especially prepared for him by a fire all the morning, he was happily placed, quite at his ease, ready to talk with pleasure of what had been achieved, and advise every body to come and sit down, and not to heat themselves.—Mrs. Weston, who seemed to have walked there on purpose to be tired, and sit all the time with him, remained, when all the others were invited or persuaded out, his patient listener and sympathiser.”

“on purpose to be tired”? WOW! Talk about hiding a large clue in plain sight! Indeed, we can see that JA has once again gone to great lengths to foreground and underscore the strangeness of Mrs. Weston’s actions, and of the deafening silence of everyone (but especially Knightley and Miss Bates) about Mrs. Weston’s getting overheated, and then sitting down in an overheated room with heat-crazy Mr. Woodhouse to compound the discomfort.

And JA subtly directs our attention to this point as well, with “…his daughter resolved to remain with him, that Mrs. Weston might be persuaded away by her husband to the exercise and variety which her spirits seemed to need.”

And, as Sharp sharply observes, we hear all about how walking outside makes the young, athletic Frank overheat, and causes everyone to worry about Jane’s overheating—and I have long maintained that it is JANE whom Mrs. Elton harasses into joining in the strawberry picking, until Jane is tired to death and has to get into the shade.  Jane Austen must have been laughing and laughing as she piled it on! She knew so well that as long as we the reader identified with Emma, we would continue, on many rereadings, to follow Emma right down the garden path to clueless misunderstanding of all she sees.

Here is an example from an Austen scholar, Nicholas Preus, who has bought into the same delusion as Emma:

“The frequency with which Mrs. Weston is shown to be taking exercise, to be out in public, cheerful, healthy and enjoying herself, is an indication that sexuality and pregnancy are to be taken as positive individual and social conditions. “

The greatest wonder is that Sharp was (apparently) the first Austen scholar to take note of this anomaly in a published comment. But I am grateful for doing this research in the era of the Internet, which has allowed me, nearly a decade after figuring out Mrs Weston was not pregnant at all, to be directed to the highest quality evidence in support of my theory, courtesy (ironically) of someone who, a half century ago, shared with the world her worried belief that it was evidence of a giant mistake by Jane Austen!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: By the way, Margery Sharp, per Wikipedia, died in 1991 at age 86, “an English writer of 26 novels for adults, 14 children’s novels, 4 plays, 2 mysteries, and numerous short stories. Her most famous work is The Rescuers series about a mouse named Miss Bianca, which was later adapted in two animated feature films, The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, by Disney.”

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