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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Jane Fairfax’s Secret Kiss (and Secret Pregnancy)

 In articles that appeared yesterday simultaneously in both the Guardian and the Telegraph, Prof. John Mullan was given major headliney kudos for (so these two articles stated) being the first to discover that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax share a secret kiss right before Emma & company open the door of the Bates residence in a scene in the middle of Jane Austen’s greatest novel.

There’s just this one little problem in the “giving credit where credit is due” department. John Mullan’s “Eureka!” fails to take into account that this very same discovery was actually made, in print, nearly a quarter century ago, in 1991, by Prof. Juliet McMaster! Let me show you.

First, here is the first part of the Telegraph article, detailing Mullan’s Eureka! moment:

“The Jane Austen kiss you didn't realise was there”  Think the characters in Jane Austen never kiss? (Prof John Mullan, an expert on the author, says a 'Regency snog' is hiding in the pages of Emma)
For Jane Austen purists, the sight of two characters sharing a kiss in a screen adaptation is enough to set hackles rising. There were no kisses in Austen’s novels, they argue, so why have Elizabeth Bennet locking lips with Mr Darcy, or Anne Elliot in the arms of Captain Wentworth?  One academic is attempting to prove them wrong. Prof John Mullan, an expert on Austen, claims to have found a scene she wrote which hints at a passionate kiss.  The book in question is Emma. The scene involves Jane Fairfax, the beautiful but penniless granddaughter of Mrs Bates, and Frank Churchill, to whom she is secretly engaged.
"The appearance of the little sitting-room as they entered was tranquility itself; Mrs Bates, deprived of her usual employment, slumbering on one side of the fire, Frank Churchill at a table near her, most deedily occupied about her spectacles, and Jane Fairfax, standing with her back to them, intent on her pianoforte,” it reads. According to Prof Mullan, University College London academic and author of What Matters In Jane Austen?, the pair have just broken off from a kiss…. He went on: “The main complaint from Austen aficionados is when you get a televised version, and what the true diehard don’t like is there is always a kiss. “But I have discovered the kiss. I put it to you they’ve been snogging. When I found this on my 15th reading of Emma, I shouted, ‘Eureka!’”  END QUOTE

And now, here is the relevant section of the 1991 Juliet McMaster article in the JASNA journal Persuasions linked here:  

Now I would like to consider the piano scene at the Bateses for a moment, because it furnishes Frank with his best opportunity for the spectacular display of his virtuoso’s talent in secret languages.  You all know the scene, which follows on one of the most passionate unwritten scenes in Jane Austen.  It is the morning after the Coles’ party.  Miss Bates and Mrs. Weston – “one voice and two ladies”! – have walked into the street to persuade Emma and Harriet to come and hear the piano.  Meanwhile, back at the Bateses, as we deduce, Frank is having his first moments alone, or almost alone, with Jane since he gave her the piano.  The piano was a Valentine’s gift, remember: it arrived on February 14. He has told her the gift was from him.  Her feelings must be tumultuous, if conflicting. Frank – dare we guess it? – has kissed her.  In any case, we have enough evidence that they have sprung guiltily apart.  Old Mrs. Bates, most accommodating of chaperones, is “peacefully slumbering”; Frank is “most deedily occupied” in mending her spectacles (a fine cover-up).  And Jane, who is not nearly so good as Frank at concealing her feelings or her guilt, is “standing with her back to them, intent on her pianoforté”  – or so Emma mistakenly supposes.  Even Emma can see that Jane is deeply disturbed.  She can’t yet play the piano: “she had not yet possessed the instrument long enough to touch it without emotion,” Emma explains to herself.  Whatever went on between Frank and Jane in their precious private moments together, Jane is still vibrating.” END QUOTE

But it’s not just Juliet McMaster’s article that preceded Mullan in print. In the 1996 Persuasions, Prof. Joseph Wiesenfarth wrote “Since Mrs. Bates can’t see, hear, or work, she falls asleep. Frank has effectually been alone with Jane. He is not wasting time with spectacles; he is making time with Jane!”. And then in 1997, John Wiltshire wrote “That ‘deedily occupied’ raises the suspicion that the young occupants have just sprung into those innocent positions. Poor old Mrs. Bates has been as effectively blinded as Emma.” (and then Wiltshire recently amplified that observation in his 2014 book The Hidden Jane Austen.).

And that’s not all. Besides Juliet’s catch, and Wiesenfarth’s and Wiltshire’s apparently unwitting reiterations of her discovery, this very same passage in Emma is one as to which amateur Janeites have been independently noticing that same subtextual kiss for quite some time. For example, it has been noted on more than one occasion in both the Janeites & Austen L groups during the past 15 years.

So what? Well, the part that brings out my inner curmudgeon is that John Mullan is a high profile Austen scholar, not an amateur unfamiliar with the importance of due diligence in citing prior publications of purported discoveries. Plus, he actually presented at the JASNA AGM in Minneapolis in 2013 (I saw him, and he did an excellent job), and had his paper about P&P published in the 2013 Persuasions Online! But most important of all, this claimed discovery was not buried amidst a flurry of comparable interpretations in a footnote in a journal article. It is the HEADLINE of articles in two major British newspapers giving Mullan (and only Mullan) credit for being the first to make this discovery!

Surely it would come with that rarefied territory to take on the tiny obligation of spending 5 minutes to use the search engine at the JASNA website, and find out that Juliet McMaster (and even Wiesenfarth and Wiltshire) were all actually far ahead of him in having such a “Eureka!” moment about Jane and Frank’s stolen kiss.

Now, I can’t say I am surprised that the fact checkers at the Guardian and the Telegraph were similarly asleep at the switch, because I have observed the most egregious errors in articles written about Jane Austen on dozens of occasions in major publications on both sides of the Big Pond.  For example, the endless trotting out of the image of the bogus portrait of Jane Austen created by her Bowdlerizing nephew for his 1870 Memoir, instead of the hard-edged but authentic original hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. I’m afraid this one is mostly on Prof. Mullan.

And that brings me to the second part of my curmudgeonly reaction to this latest Jane Austen news tidbit. The Guardian article about Mullan was actually written not by an arts editor without special claims to Austen scholarly knowledge, but by Prof. John Sutherland, who has long made a lucrative writing career out of publishing books with his version of literary sleuthing of hidden meanings in famous novels.

My eyes widened when I saw Sutherland’s byline, because he just happens to be the same fellow who 15 years ago claimed (in the TITLE of one of his popular literary sleuthing books) to have discovered “Who told Lady Catherine”, i.e., that it was Charlotte Lucas who likely was the secret originator of the rumor that Darcy and Elizabeth were engaged, of course in Pride & Prejudice. And the problem I’ve always had with that claim is that Prof. Sutherland, by his own (subsequent) admission, had forgotten that only a year previously, he had been informed in writing of that very same interpretation by the actual originator/discoverer thereof, Dr. Kim Damstra, a Norwegian biologist, who read P&P in English as a second language (and therefore it was an even more remarkable achievement on Damstra’s part).

And, for the record, as I’ve noted several times in the past, Kim’s article citation is as follows:
“The Case Against Charlotte Lucas” by Kim St. John Damstra,  Women’s Writing Vol. 7, #2 (2000).
I first found Kim’s article in 2004 after I independently came up with my own version of Charlotte as a master manipulator, and then found out that Kim had preceded me by several years.

I mention all of this because, in this current Guardian article at
Prof. Sutherland wrote: “Returning to Emma, an Austen heroine’s most prized quality is “bloom”. We are told – more than once – that Jane Fairfax (the name recalls “fair-face”) is so pale as “to give the appearance of ill-health”. I have always indulged the fantasy that she fears she may be a month pregnant and Frank will marry that snobby Emma bitch.”

It is interesting that Prof. Sutherland, who has over the years included several subtextual examples from JA’s novels in his books besides Charlotte Lucas’s rumor-spreading, never did (as far as I can tell online —someone please correct me if I’m wrong) include that speculation about Jane Fairfax’s pregnancy in any of them. He only pops it out now, almost as an afterthought to his plaudits for Prof. Mullan.

And I happen to take a very personal interest on that point of the cause of Jane Fairfax’s ill health, because I am the first to have publicly claimed that Jane Fairfax is already secretly pregnant when she arrives in Highbury. I first wrote that in January 2005 in the Janeites group, and I’ve given numerous presentations in both England (in June 2007 and July 2009) and the US (from 2010 onward) on the topic of Jane Fairfax as the shadow heroine of Emma, whose three trimesters of concealed pregnancy coincide with the three volumes of Emma itself!

For those who haven’t read or heard my detailed evidence in this regard, and are wondering what happens to Jane’s baby, I’ll give you the very quick version of what I believe happens in the shadows. Jane actually does give birth to her illegitimate daughter (not long after going into labor at Box Hill, which is the real reason why she leaves early without wanting to be noticed). But Jane successfully completes her concealment by secretly “handing off” her newborn baby girl to the (suspiciously very-lately-noticed pregnant) Mrs. Weston at the proverbial eleventh hour, who then announces to Emma and everyone else the arrival of “Anna Weston”. And…the bio father, by the way, is not Frank, it’s John Knightley—I refer you to the Search function on this blog for more details.

For now, I just wanted to set the record straight regarding Juliet McMaster’s discovery of Jane and Frank’s stolen kiss, Kim Damstra’s discovery of Charlotte planting the false rumor of Darcy and Eliza’s engagement, and my own discovery of Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy. There is a common pattern here that I wish to counteract. Such things may not amount to a hill of beans to the rest of the world, but in the world of Janeites, especially obsessives like yours truly, these claims may be of great interest.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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