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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, November 9, 2015

Poor Catherine…..& Poor Mrs. Knatchbulls (past and future!)

 PART ONE:  In Janeites, I received an interesting response to my last post about Knightley’s pedophilic interest in baby Emma, and the creepiness of their eventual marriage:

"Have a look at the biography of Ariel and Will Durant. We'd be extremely censorious of that relationship, yet it seems to have worked very well. In the other direction, check out Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli -- although he was old enough not to be taken advantage of when they married."

I was not previously aware of either one. As was implied, the one that is far more relevant to Knightley and Emma is the Durant marriage....     ...given that Ariel was only 15 and he was 28 when they got married (and she was only 13 when they met!). And, at least from a creative point of view, it seems as if they were, for a half century, an extraordinary intellectual team working together on their monumental historical works. I also see that they wrote A Dual Autobiography in 1977--it would be interesting to read it, and see how they each described the circumstances of their courtship, and the nature of their personal relationship during their very long marriage.

That reply prompted me to clarify that I see two levels of dubiousness about Knightley's marrying Emma:

#1. The much less concerning issue is the simple age difference of the marriage, given that Knightley is nearly double Emma's age (37 to 21). There is no question that such marriages were not at all uncommon in Jane Austen's era, and for many years beyond--and as we can all see, they still happen. No one uses the word "pedophilia" to describe such marriages, if the two parties met when the younger one was already an adult.

The most interesting question for Janeites, I suggest, is whether Jane Austen herself approved of this common practice --I say, emphatically, no! She not only makes little jabs at such age-discrepant marriages in her letters (I recall, e.g., that she made a sarcastic comment in one of her letters about her good friend, one of the Bigg sisters, marrying the much older Revd. Herbert Hill), but I see the Knightley- Emma relationship as her definitive in-depth exploration of that very issue--after all, it is the only such strongly age-discrepant marriage of one of her heroines.

As with my other interpretations of the doubleness of Austen's novels, I believe that while on the surface, she seems to be giving her authorial blessing to their marriage, underneath I perceive (and i am far from alone in this view among Austen scholars) a persistent subtle drumbeat of disapproval--basically, that this marriage will not end well for Emma, as she is clearly operating from a much inferior power position in their relationship. It is only in her head that she will be an equal.

That is the greatest achievement of Emma, as i see it-- the reader is trapped inside Emma's head, and so when Emma convinces herself in the end that she always loved Knightley and he will be a great husband for her, most readers take that as Austen's blessing. Whereas, I believe, in a myriad of subtle ways, JA is inviting us to question the wisdom of Emma marrying Knightley.
and that leads directly to....

#2.. Knightley's explicitly (and unashamedly) recollecting his strong affection for Emma when she was very young, and doing so as a result of a direct and recent encounter with a female baby --- that is a FAR more serious and heinous scenario, because it suggests a strong and persistent PEDOPHILIC tendency that Knghtley has indulged over a very long period of time. The "baby" focus that I have now shown to have been present in both of the Knightley-Emma tete a tetes about his early "love" for Emma, makes the situation ten times more disturbing and bad than #1 would have been, had #1 (a la the Durant scenario) been the only element present in the novel.

And finally, I also see Knightley scheming from the very beginning of the novel to eventually manipulate Emma into marrying him:  "She always declares she will never marry, which, of course, means just nothing at all. But I have no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she cared for. It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object. I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good. But there is nobody hereabouts to attach her; and she goes so seldom from home."

It is more than a little chilling to read that in light of Knightley's later unashamed proclamations that he has loved Emma since she was 13-. I.e., the entire remainder of the novel can be viewed, in a cynical light, as Knightley executing a complicated game plan for putting Emma in serious doubt of a return, so as to make her "realize" that she loved Knightley all along, and to reduce to rubble her blithe assertions to Harriet that she will never marry.

PART TWO: As soon as I hit the "Send" button on my reply in Janeites, I recollected that I had two other significant observations to make about the age-discrepant relationship of Emma and Knightley, with its additional pedophilic overtones---both having to do with real life Austen family history.

First, I went back to the Letters, and found the passage I had vaguely recollected, in which Jane Austen made a veiled negative comment about the marriage of her friend Elizabeth Bigg:  Letter 60 dated 10/25/08: “Tomorrow I hope to hear from you, and tomorrow we must think of poor Catherine.” Le Faye, in her typical deliberate editorial obscurantism when she does not want her readers to recognize something dicey in JA’s comments, footnotes the above sentence thusly:  Catherine: “Bigg”.

Why is this obscurantist? Because Le Faye deliberately fails to provide an explanation of JA’s otherwise cryptic comment---why would Jane say to Cassandra that they must think of poor Catherine the next day? And how do I know that Le Faye could have explained JA’s meaning? Because Le Faye’s biographical note for Revd. Herbert Hill reveals that Catherine Bigg and Revd. Hill were married on……(surprise surprise)  the very same date as JA’s Letter 60, 10/25/08!!!  

Therefore, JA’s reference to the need to think of old friend Catherine Bigg as “poor Catherine” turns out to be a quintessential Mr. Woodhouse Moment--- JA is really calling Catherine “poor” because Catherine, at age 33, is about to marry a man aged 60. And---final brilliant touch—JA suggests they need to think of “poor” Catherine  with compassion  “tomorrow”, not “today”, because of the event that would inevitably transpire the evening of her wedding day, which would result in Catherine potentially waking up  “tomorrow” pregnant with a child conceived on her wedding night!  

So, in part, I think one of the seeds of Emma was planted the day Catherine Bigg got married to Revd. Hill. But that’s not the only age-discrepant marital scenario that plays out in Emma, that I see lurking in the shadows of JA’s letters. As my Subject Line suggests, it’s not just poor Mrs. Hill, but also the past and future Mrs. Knatchbulls!

I.e., I've believed for nearly a decade, that Emma Woodhouse was Jane Austen's very deliberate but veiled representation of her niece Fanny Knight. And I've also believed for nearly as long, that the eventual marriage of Emma and Knightley in the novel, was a totally accurate veiled prediction by Jane Austen that, despite Fanny's well-known courtship angst over her young suitors like Mssrs. Plumptre and Wilder, Fanny would eventually marry a much older squire from her father's social circle--which did in fact occur two years after Jane Austen's death, in 1820, when the 27 year old Fanny Knight married the 39 year old Edward Knatchbull.

Today I dug a little deeper, connecting more dots between fiction and reality. I wondered what sort of interactions Jane Austen might have observed between Fanny and her future husband, Edward Knatchbull, that might have found their way into Emma. I noted first that Edward Knatchbull married his first wife in 1806----when Fanny was thirteen----and proceeded to eventually send his bride to her early grave in 1814, by death in childbirth, but only after she first bore him six living children in only eight years.

So, during the year (1814-15) that JA was writing Emma, Edward Knatchbull was a very recent widower, and father of six young children, and therefore probably a regular solo visitor at Godmersham, where the 21 year old Fanny Knight, whose mother was deceased, was reigning as “mistress” of Godmersham, pampering her hypochondriac father (Edward Austen Knight)!  But that’s not all ---- Edward Knatchbull was already part of the Godmersham circle as early as 1808—i.e., two years after his first wife died—when we read the following passing comment in Letter 54 dated June 26, 1808:

“Mr. Knatchbull from Provender was at the W. Friars when we arrived, & staid dinner, which with Harriot—who came as you may suppose in a great hurry, ten minutes after the time—made our number 6—Mr. K. went away early.”

My count is that the 6 at dinner consisted of Jane Austen, Edward Knatchbull, JA’s brother Edward, JA’s niece Fanny, Harriott Bridges Moore, and probably also nephew Edward Knight, Jr.  Presumably Edward Knatchbull had lived all his life at either Mersham Hatch or Provender, his family’s two ancestral Kentish estates both located not far from Godmersham. Therefore, he was also surely a friend of Edward Austen, at least as early as 1798, when Fanny was only 5, and Edward (still going only by Austen) took possession of Godmersham.  Sure sounds similar to the cast of characters at Hartfield and Donwell Abbey, even down to a flighty young woman named Harriot.

I’d give anything to have been a fly on the wall of that dinner party!  I imagine Edward Knatchbull, age 27, already the married father of two babies, out for the evening while his wife is at home, and Fanny Austen, age 15, engaged in a great deal of conversation with him in that intimate small gathering. And I especially imagine Jane Austen, the observer, watching them, very carefully but very inobtrusively, and taking mental notes. What subtle sparks did she see flying between the married father of two babies and the blossoming debutante with a snob’s interest in that noble heir’s future title?

Then, six years later, in 1814, when Jane hears of the sudden death of Edward Knatchbull’s first wife, and considers him and his brood of a half dozen young children, she connects the dots back to that 1808 soiree, and realizes that Fanny and Edward Knatchbull (who will become Sir Edward when he succeeds his father as baronet in 1819) might one day become M and N---and so, perhaps, was conceived in the mind of a genius the marriage  of Emma and Knightley!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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