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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What Emma’s really thinking about during the “pregnant pause” in the Post Office discussion

In response to my last post, Jane Fox wrote:  “But doesn't a "pregnant pause" mean that the listeners wonder what the speaker will say? In this case, no one is paying attention to Emma. So my question is, why doesn't it bother her that no one is paying attention?”

First, thank you once again, Jane, for reading my posts with care, and for responding substantively—it’s always fun to engage with you in this way.

Second, I didn’t mean that it was a literal “pregnant pause” --I meant it punningly. I.e., the pause occurred, because Mrs. Weston was busy trying to rescue the very PREGNANT Jane from Mrs. Elton’s line of fire, and therefore was not paying Emma the kind of doting attention that Emma was used to.  

Third, in answer to your final question, I don’t believe that Emma was being ignored by the group---when she did eventually speak, Mr. Knightley immediately responded to her. As for Mrs. Weston ignoring her in that moment, I think Emma is not bothered by that, because Emma is so preoccupied by her own thoughts and feelings. I.e., JA is showing (rather than telling) us that Emma is so much inside her own head, that Emma doesn’t even register the identity of the ‘some one’  to whom Mrs. Weston is attending, let alone the words being spoken!

This scene is a particularly good example of one of the foundations of JA’s genius, especially in Emma--how JA writes polyphonically (to use an apt musical metaphor, given JA’s Mary-Bennet-like musical ability and knowledge). Even as the “principal melody” (the heroine’s conscious view of what is happening) engages the passive reader’s exclusive attention, the discerning reader who listens for the “thorough-bass” and subordinate melodic lines will always find these sorts of questions lurking on the edge.

What we have in the excerpt I quoted is, first, Mrs. Elton hounding Jane about getting her letters at the post office (with the coded pregnancy subtext I suggested), then Mrs. Weston chimes in to echo Mrs. Elton but in a kinder, non-intrusive way. Then Jane seizes that moment to turn the subject away from her letters, to the post office in general (exactly as Mr. Knightley turns the “path” of conversation to the footpath to Langham, when the words get dangerously heated between John and Mr. Woodhouse), and John follows Mrs. Weston in further deflecting Mrs. E from Jane, by immediately chiming in to support her, and ending with:

“…Isabella and Emma, I think, do write very much alike. I have not always known their writing apart."

Then George K and Mr. Woodhouse toss in their comments about male vs. female handwriting, and THAT’s when Emma is prompted to make a comment about Frank’s handwriting.

Now the most interesting question, which only occurred to me while responding to you, is, why does Emma think of Frank’s handwriting just then? Is it just random? The answer becomes clear, I suggest, when we look at the giant clue that JA provides to us, as she always does in such instances.

What is of  concern to Emma as she is reflecting on exactly how she wants to say her piece? She pauses and worries, for just a moment, whether she is “unequal to speaking [Frank’s] name at once before all these people”.

Of course! It was only a few chapters earlier, that Frank was abruptly summoned back to Enscombe, thereby putting a hold on the Crown Inn ball. And then we read a long paragraph in which Emma’s complex emotional reactions (while reading Frank’s latest LETTER to Mrs. Weston) are set forth, followed by this:

“Gratifying, however, and stimulative as was the letter in the material part, its sentiments, she yet found, when it was folded up and returned to Mrs. Weston, that it had not added any lasting warmth, that she could still do without the writer, and that he must learn to do without her. Her intentions were unchanged.”

There is that secondary melody in the Post Office scene—Emma has listened to Jane and John speaking about letters of friendship and letters of business, and has observed the tear in Jane’s eye, and being the narcissist that she is, Emma immediately recollects, and revisits, her own experience (which itself was perhaps also tearful) while she was reading Frank’s letter. Once again, JA does not tell us this, she shows it.

But of course, Emma is not going to reveal to the group in Chapter 34 her internal struggle to deny her real sadness about Frank’s abrupt departure (which attempts boil down, basically, to a game of  “I love him. I love him not. I love him. I love him NOT.”) . She is never ever going to reveal to the group that listening to their conversation has made her feel a sharp pang of missing Frank. And THAT’s why Emma wonders if she’s unequal to mentioning Frank’s name—she fears her voice may crack if she says his name, “Frank”, and her feelings will be totally exposed to everyone. She wants to pretend to them all that she has no feelings whatsoever for Frank, even though the opposite is true.

And all that from looking behind a seemingly trivial pause. Isn’t that a wonderful example of the hidden depths of JA’s writing? Everywhere we look, there are these sentences which open doors to treasure rooms of hidden meaning.

But I have one last question about another one of Emma’s private thoughts during that pause:

“…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.”

I am puzzled. Why would calling Frank “your correspondent in Yorkshire” mean Emma was being “very bad”? Presuming “your” means Mrs. Weston, that would be a little stilted, sure, but why “very bad”? Emma has earlier been “very bad” in her joking with Frank about Mr. Dixon, but I just don’t see that in either “Your Yorkshire friend” OR “your correspondent in Yorkshire”—but I won’t be surprised if someone responds and shows that the answer is right under MY nose, but, like Emma, I can’t see it!

Cbeers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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