(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, July 29, 2016

“Not poor Harriet, but poor Emma to be a second time the dupe of her misconceptions and Harriet’s (designed) flattery”!

As I hoped and expected, yesterday I received an excellent, thought provoking response from Andrew Shields to my post… …in which I took up the friendly challenge of answering Andrew’s question as to how to interpret the “to be sure” usages in Emma, and I’d like to respond to the first, and for my purposes, most important, paragraph of his response:

Andrew wrote: “You sum up your thorough and helpful reading of Harriet's early uses of "to be sure" as follows: "fawning on Emma by playing on her pride". I can see that element in her responses, but I also read her "to be sure" as a marker of her struggle with herself as she tries to understand Emma's take on Robert Martin. Harriet wants to accept his offer, after all, and is quite surprised to discover that Emma thinks she should reject it. At the same time, she wants to agree with Emma. She is "mortified" by this conflict between her two desires, and "to be sure" is the phrase that marks that conflict.”

Andrew, your excellent further development of my idea has in turn led me to a deeper understanding of Harriet Smith’s “to be sures” on even more levels, and to now see even more clearly how that phrase resonates at the deepest levels of Emma, the greatest of all novels, as I will now explain.

First, your above reading is spot-on vis a vis the naïve, impulsive, deferential Harriet Smith of the overt story – Harriet does indeed articulate, in detail, her grappling with Emma’s pontifications, trying to find a way to act on her desire to say yes to Mr. Martin, but finding Emma’s counterarguments too strong to overcome. And those repeated “too be sures” are indeed the marker and mantra of Harriet’s conflict.

It is equally clear, I suggest, that Harriet’s articulation of her ongoing struggles also prompts Emma to repeatedly press and elaborate her advice (that Emma repeatedly tries to mask, and pretend she is not really giving advice). This process makes Emma feel like Perry Mason: a clever expert—in her own mind---in the study of human character. Emma is pushed to work harder to achieve the result of convincing Harriet to make the “right” choice, without Emma having had to be explicit in her directives. A job well done, is clearly how Emma feels about her own campaign of subtle persuasion, precisely because she had to work so hard to achieve her goal, it did not come easy. That which must be fought for is all the more satisfying.

But, as you may have already guessed where I was going with that last paragraph, Andrew, your reading is also spot-on vis a vis the worldly wise, calculating, faux-deferential Harriet Smith I see in the shadow story! I.e., Harriet’s seeming to put up a struggle, and seeming to keep struggling over and over again in different ways, all makes for far more satisfying flattery of Emma’s bloated vanity than a few simple “Yes, Miss Woodhouse” replies could ever have produced---and Harriet knows it! Emma’s excessive pride is stroked by every twist and turn in Harriet’s apparent struggle. If you don’t believe me, just ask Mr. Knightley, who puts it (or should I better say, predicts it) to a tee one chapter laterr, in Chapter 5, as he confidentially vents his spleen to Mrs. Weston:

“But Harriet Smith—I have not half done about Harriet Smith. I think her the very worst sort of companion that Emma could possibly have. She knows nothing herself, and looks upon Emma as knowing every thing. She is a flatterer in all her ways; and so much the worse, because undesigned. Her ignorance is hourly flattery. How can Emma imagine she has any thing to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?”

By the way, I was just kidding about Knightley as prophet. That Knightley can so accurately describe the effect of Harriet’s slavish orientation toward Emma in the previous Chapter 4, in a tete-a-tete at which he was not present, is actually telling evidence that Harriet has not just started flattering Emma in this way at that moment. No, she must have started doing it, both in and out of Knightley’s presence, from the first minute Harriet showed up at Hartfield! Indeed, besides her alluringly plump blond beauty, perhaps the most essential part of what makes Harriet’s company so attractive and necessary to Emma is precisely that Harriet is such a continual flatterer in so many ways.

So, as I said, the threshold question, for purposes of interpreting these scenes, is whether Harriet’s flattery via “delightful inferiority” is, as Knightley refers to it, “undersigned” –that is the Harriet of the overt story---or designed, in which alternative reading of the novel it is Emma who is from start to finish Harriet’s “delightful inferior”---or, to be more specific, it is Emma who is a foolish narcissist who is easily led around by the nose via Harriet’s flattery!

I’m reminded very strongly of that episode in the original Star Trek TV series, the one when Kirk, McCoy and other members of the Enterprise crew beam down on a planet where their deepest desires and fantastical wishes are satisfyingly gratified (and by the way, wow, is it an eye-opener to see the crude blatant sexism that permeates this 1969 episode---how far we’ve come in 47 years!):
Just as the advanced race that created the “amusement park” that so dazzles Kirk, McCoy et al, have the power to provide satisfying wish fulfilment experiences---perhaps most perfectly symbolized by Kirk’s getting the chance to brawl with, and after a mighty struggle vanquish, the classmate at the Starfleet Academy who tormented him in his youth, so too does the scheming Harriet of the shadow story provide a satisfying but completely ersatz “victory” experience to Emma---who is so clueless she never realizes how she has been so easily manipulated—or, to put it more accurately, how she has been Satanically tricked by Harriet into fooling herself!

The above extended peek behind the curtain at Harriet the Wizard of Highbury, and how she performs her magic on Emma in Chapter 4 is (I only realized while writing this post) symbolized and heightened by the satisfying flattery of Emma’s ego in the very next chapter, Chapter 9, in which Emma (seems to) solve Mr. Elton’s charade by finding what Emma blithely assumes to be its only answer, “courtship”.

As Colleen Sheehan brilliantly showed in her 2007 article here…  ….Harriet’s “wrong” guesses about the superficially correct answer to Mr. Elton’s charade turn out to be 100% spot-on vis a vis the covertly correct second answer to the charade, “the Prince of Whales”. Sheehan brilliantly elaborates: 

“…Emma quickly and confidently dismisses Harriet Smith’s guesses to the charade and readily offers the solution:  court and ship, or courtship. While this is a perfectly credible solution to the riddle, I do not think it is the only one.  Harriet’s more literal guesses to the charade include kingdomNeptunetrident, mermaid, and shark.  If unlike Emma we are not so quick to reject the more literal approach to solving the charade, then “Lords of the earth” could be princes or, in the singular, prince. (Since in later lines “Lords” becomes “Lord,” we are encouraged to change plurals to singulars, and vice versa.) And the “monarch of the seas” is certainly whale or, in the plural, whales. United?  Well, you have it:  Prince [of] Whales! On 15 March 1812 a satirical poem about the Prince was published in the Examiner, the English periodical edited by James Henry Leigh Hunt and his brother John Hunt.  The poem was entitled “THE TRIUMPH OF THE WHALE,” replete with kings, sharks, mermaids, and a Regent to boot…”

But the ultimate triumph of Jane Austen’s genius in her subtle depiction of Harriet’s ambiguous undesigned/designed flattery of Emma is, I suggest, the following passage in Chapter 47 (only a few paragraphs before Harriet springs her trap on Emma and reveals, with her utterly unflattering “to be sure”, that she has her sights on Mr. Knightley, to Emma’s utter horror):

"Harriet, poor Harriet!"—Those were the words; in them lay the tormenting ideas which Emma could not get rid of, and which constituted the real misery of the business to her. Frank Churchill had behaved very ill by herself—very ill in many ways,—but it was not so much his behaviour as her own, which made her so angry with him. It was the scrape which he had drawn her into on Harriet's account, that gave the deepest hue to his offence.—Poor Harriet! to be a second time the dupe of her misconceptions and flattery. Mr. Knightley had spoken prophetically, when he once said, "Emma, you have been no friend to Harriet Smith."—She was afraid she had done her nothing but disservice.—It was true that she had not to charge herself, in this instance as in the former, with being the sole and original author of the mischief; with having suggested such feelings as might otherwise never have entered Harriet's imagination; for Harriet had acknowledged her admiration and preference of Frank Churchill before she had ever given her a hint on the subject; but she felt completely guilty of having encouraged what she might have repressed. She might have prevented the indulgence and increase of such sentiments. Her influence would have been enough. And now she was very conscious that she ought to have prevented them.—She felt that she had been risking her friend's happiness on most insufficient grounds. Common sense would have directed her to tell Harriet, that she must not allow herself to think of him, and that there were five hundred chances to one against his ever caring for her.—"But, with common sense," she added, "I am afraid I have had little to do."

Could Knightley have read Emma’s mind at the moment she thought “Poor Harriet! to be a second time the dupe of her misconceptions and flattery”, he might’ve wittily responded (as he did back in Chapter 1 when Mr. Woodhouse pitied “poor Miss Taylor”), “Not poor Harriet, but poor Emma to be a second time the dupe of her misconceptions and Harriet’s flattery”!

I.e., everything Emma cluelessly and mistakenly thinks at this moment, in that fleeting intervals when Emma believes that Harriet will be crushed by the shocking news that Frank Churchill is not free to marry Harriet, is clearly designed by Jane Austen to actually be applicable to Emma, when Harriet drops her shattering courtship bombshell on Emma minutes later.   

I suggest to you that there is no more elegant, decisive, brilliant, and mind-blowing example than the above, of Jane Austen’s mastery of anamorphism by the time she was writing Emma at the height of her powers—the creation of a double story that works with equal, extraordinary power in two completely different interpretations of the same novel.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 


Beverlee S said...

Unlike some of your readers, I have nothing very clever to say, nor even two moderately clever things. But I do have a rather dull and silly observation. In the font that I see, the two Rs in "Harriet" look like an M, and the lower-case I looks like an L, and I've been reading the entire article reminding myself that it is not, indeed, Hamlet who is flattering Emma. I have the Bard on the brain, it appears.

Andrew Shields said...

One problem for me with this reading of the two Harriets (the overt and the covert): the Harriet in what you call the overt story is much more interesting. She first struggles with a conflict what she wants to do and what she is told to do by someone whose authority she accepts, and later she makes the mistake of thinking that there is no such conflict anymore between her desire for Mr. Knightley and what she concludes that same authority figure wants her to do.

But the Harriet of your covert story is a conniving manipulator throughout. No development, no change, no ambiguity. In this case, in my eyes, the overt story wins in terms of complexity and psychological subtlety.