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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The pregnant pause when Mrs Weston shields Jane Fairfax from exposure of Jane’s concealed pregnancy by “some one else”

How many of you have ever wondered, when reading the following passage in Chapter 34 of Emma, who is the “some one else” to whom Mrs. Weston is attending, when Emma wishes to add her two cents to the group conversation about handwriting styles by expressing to Mrs. Weston a compliment about Frank’s handwriting?:

"I never saw any gentleman's handwriting"—Emma began, looking also at Mrs. Weston; but stopped, on perceiving that Mrs. Weston was attending to some one else—and the pause gave her time to reflect, "Now, how am I going to introduce him?....”

My guess would be, “None of you reading this.” And yet, one of the surest signs I know of a wormhole that leads deep into the shadow story of a Jane Austen novel is such a reference to an unnamed character. I.e., I’ve learned, from a decade of fruitful experience, that this sort of reference is, under the guise of a throwaway, meaningless bit of narrative filler, actually and invariably a clue to a significant detail in the shadow story.

I was prompted to take a closer look at the above particular passage in Emma after reading a short essay posted today elsewhere online, in which the topic was the subtle meaning of the many “pauses” which are explicitly mentioned in JA’s novels. I had not previously considered the meaning of the word “pause” in my ever-growing lexicon for the Jane Austen Code, and so, even though I was not particularly taken by  the orthodox interpretations of Austenian pauses in that other blog post, I was nonetheless grateful for the prompt to take a look at JA’s usages of the word “pause” through the spectacles of my own theory of Jane Austen’s shadow stories, so as to add it to its proper place in the Jane Austen Code.

In particular, the common expression of a “pregnant pause” popped into my head, and given the centrality I have long claimed for concealed pregnancies in Jane Austen’s shadow stories—most of all Jane Fairfax’s----I decided to go searching in Emma for any usage of the word “pause” there which might pertain in some interesting way to Jane Fairfax’s increasingly challenging efforts to conceal her increasingly enlarging abdomen, especially from Emma.  And as I will now show you, I struck gold in the above passage.

And I begin by first asking you to read the full context in which such usage occurs. See if YOU can guess who that unnamed “some one” is to whom Mrs. Weston briefly attends—I’ll bet you can, once you focus on the question---and I’ll give you my answer immediately afterwards, see if it’s the same as yours:

“By this time, the walk in the rain had reached Mrs. Elton, and her remonstrances now opened upon Jane.
"My dear Jane, what is this I hear?—Going to the post-office in the rain!—This must not be, I assure you.—You sad girl, how could you do such a thing?—It is a sign I was not there to take care of you."
Jane very patiently assured her that she had not caught any cold.
"Oh! do not tell me. You really are a very sad girl, and do not know how to take care of yourself.—To the post-office indeed! Mrs. Weston, did you ever hear the like? You and I must positively exert our authority."
"My advice," said Mrs. Weston kindly and persuasively, "I certainly do feel tempted to give. Miss Fairfax, you must not run such risks.—Liable as you have been to severe colds, indeed you ought to be particularly careful, especially at this time of year. The spring I always think requires more than common care. Better wait an hour or two, or even half a day for your letters, than run the risk of bringing on your cough again. Now do not you feel that you had? Yes, I am sure you are much too reasonable. You look as if you would not do such a thing again."
"Oh! she shall not do such a thing again," eagerly rejoined Mrs. Elton. "We will not allow her to do such a thing again:"—and nodding significantly—"there must be some arrangement made, there must indeed. I shall speak to Mr. E. The man who fetches our letters every morning (one of our men, I forget his name) shall inquire for yours too and bring them to you. That will obviate all difficulties you know; and from us I really think, my dear Jane, you can have no scruple to accept such an accommodation."
"You are extremely kind," said Jane; "but I cannot give up my early walk. I am advised to be out of doors as much as I can, I must walk somewhere, and the post-office is an object; and upon my word, I have scarcely ever had a bad morning before."
"My dear Jane, say no more about it. The thing is determined, that is (laughing affectedly) as far as I can presume to determine any thing without the concurrence of my lord and master. You know, Mrs. Weston, you and I must be cautious how we express ourselves. But I do flatter myself, my dear Jane, that my influence is not entirely worn out. If I meet with no insuperable difficulties therefore, consider that point as settled."
"Excuse me," said Jane earnestly, "I cannot by any means consent to such an arrangement, so needlessly troublesome to your servant. If the errand were not a pleasure to me, it could be done, as it always is when I am not here, by my grandmama's."
"Oh! my dear; but so much as Patty has to do!—And it is a kindness to employ our men."
Jane looked as if she did not mean to be conquered; but instead of answering, she began speaking again to Mr. John Knightley.
"The post-office is a wonderful establishment!" said she.—"The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!"
"It is certainly very well regulated."
"So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong—and not one in a million, I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder."
"The clerks grow expert from habit.—They must begin with some quickness of sight and hand, and exercise improves them. If you want any farther explanation," continued he, smiling, "they are paid for it. That is the key to a great deal of capacity. The public pays and must be served well."
The varieties of handwriting were farther talked of, and the usual observations made.
"I have heard it asserted," said John Knightley, "that the same sort of handwriting often prevails in a family; and where the same master teaches, it is natural enough. But for that reason, I should imagine the likeness must be chiefly confined to the females, for boys have very little teaching after an early age, and scramble into any hand they can get. Isabella and Emma, I think, do write very much alike. I have not always known their writing apart."
"Yes," said his brother hesitatingly, "there is a likeness. I know what you mean—but Emma's hand is the strongest."
"Isabella and Emma both write beautifully," said Mr. Woodhouse; "and always did. And so does poor Mrs. Weston"—with half a sigh and half a smile at her.
"I never saw any gentleman's handwriting"—Emma began, looking also at Mrs. Weston; but stopped, on perceiving that Mrs. Weston was attending to some one else—and the pause gave her time to reflect, "Now, how am I going to introduce him?—Am I unequal to speaking his name at once before all these people? Is it necessary for me to use any roundabout phrase?—Your Yorkshire friend—your correspondent in Yorkshire;—that would be the way, I suppose, if I were very bad.—No, I can pronounce his name without the smallest distress. I certainly get better and better.—Now for it."
Mrs. Weston was disengaged and Emma began again—"Mr. Frank Churchill writes one of the best gentleman's hands I ever saw."
"I do not admire it," said Mr. Knightley. "It is too small—wants strength. It is like a woman's writing."
This was not submitted to by either lady. They vindicated him against the base aspersion. "No, it by no means wanted strength—it was not a large hand, but very clear and certainly strong. Had not Mrs. Weston any letter about her to produce?" No, she had heard from him very lately, but having answered the letter, had put it away.
"If we were in the other room," said Emma, "if I had my writing-desk, I am sure I could produce a specimen. I have a note of his.—Do not you remember, Mrs. Weston, employing him to write for you one day?"
"He chose to say he was employed"—
"Well, well, I have that note; and can shew it after dinner to convince Mr. Knightley."
"Oh! when a gallant young man, like Mr. Frank Churchill," said Mr. Knightley dryly, "writes to a fair lady like Miss Woodhouse, he will, of course, put forth his best."
Dinner was on table.—Mrs. Elton, before she could be spoken to, was ready; and before Mr. Woodhouse had reached her with his request to be allowed to hand her into the dining-parlour, was saying—
"Must I go first? I really am ashamed of always leading the way."
Jane's solicitude about fetching her own letters had not escaped Emma. She had heard and seen it all; and felt some curiosity to know whether the wet walk of this morning had produced any. She suspected that it had; that it would not have been so resolutely encountered but in full expectation of hearing from some one very dear, and that it had not been in vain. She thought there was an air of greater happiness than usual—a glow both of complexion and spirits. …”

I think it must be obvious that “some one else” must be Mrs. Elton – who else would it be? But what does it matter, you reasonably ask? And my answer is that, as I have posted on numerous occasions over the past several years, Mrs. Elton already knows that Jane is pregnant, and is trying, under the guise of her zealous interest in every detail of Jane’s life, to blackmail and coerce Jane into either aborting or giving up her baby. Why? Because I also discerned long ago, and have several times posted, that Frank Churchill was the “abominable puppy” who jilted Mrs. Elton on Valentine’s Day by giving her the “acrostic” which is actually one and the same as the charade which Mr. Elton gives to Emma!

And, finally, I can also explain why Mrs. Weston was attending to Mrs. Elton at that very instant when Emma, as usual in her clueless utter lack of awareness of what is really going on right under her nose, wanted to compliment Frank’s handwriting, because she knew it would give Mrs. Weston pleasure.

Mrs. Weston has been observing Mrs. Elton hounding Jane about picking up Jane’s mail for her, repeatedly overriding Jane’s polite demurrals, and decides to jump in and engage directly with Mrs. Elton, so as to deflect Mrs. Elton away from Jane—and Mrs. Weston succeeds, as the conversation has by then turned away from Jane, which allows Mrs. Weston to disengage from Mrs. Elton and turn her attention back to Emma to hear the compliment to Frank.

And the clincher is that “pause” which, in Emma’s clueless mind, gives Emma time to properly phrase her compliment to Frank, but which, to the eyes of the knowing reader, gives Jane a chance to escape from Mrs. Elton’s relentless hounding, which is all about Jane’s concealed pregnancy—hence a very “pregnant pause” indeed!

I conclude by pointing you back to the end of the passage in which Emma cheerfully pats herself on her back for her supposed perspicacity: “Jane's solicitude about fetching her own letters had not escaped Emma. She had heard and seen it all…”  Actually, Emma in this scene in particular fits the words of John Lennon: “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see”. Emma has correctly and sharply observed Jane and noted that  “there was an air of greater happiness than usual—a glow both of complexion and spirits.” But what a rich and powerful irony that Emma mistakenly attributes that happy glow to Jane’s having received a letter from Mr. Dixon, when the shadowy reality is that Jane is actually seeing the father of her baby—Mr. John Knightley—for the first time since her arrival in Highbury months earlier, and is getting to talk to him, albeit in code, about her pregnancy---which is why the glow that Emma perceives is tempered by the tears that well up in Jane’s eyes when John tells her, in code, that he is not going to step up and leave his airhead trophy wife, Isabella, for the woman he really loves, Jane.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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