Among my circle of friends in college, comedy began and ended with the wacky brilliance of the Firesign Theatre: http://firesigntheatre.com/media/media.php?item=wc-rv Among their many brilliant verbal concoctions, “the Powerhouse Church of the Presumptuous Assumption of the Blinding Light” ranks very high. I never thought I’d have a chance to connect the Firesign Theatre to Jane Austen, but today is the day it has actually happened, as you’ll see, below.
In Janeites today, Jane Fox posed another one of her excellent questions: “On first seeing Captain Tilney, Catherine Morland thinks, "[H]is air was more assuming, and his countenance less prepossessing.” From the OED, I get that by “prepossessing” JA meant: “giving a favourable first impression; attractive, pleasing." But what did "assuming" mean? Does "taking for granted that one has a right to do so and so" fit?"
Yes, Jane, subject only to this tweak: “unjustifiably taking for granted that one has a right to do so and so”. I find your question excellent, because it points to something noteworthy in all of JA’s writing, not just Northanger Abbey. We find further evidence for ascribing your proposed meaning of “assuming” to Catherine’s take on Captain Tilney, and much more, when we turn to Emma, which contains four of the surprisingly small total of six other usages of the word “assuming” by JA in all her novels combined (the other two are in Mansfield Park and Persuasion, respectively, and are not noteworthy).
Things get more interesting when you realize, as I will now show, that all four of those usages in Emma relate directly to the “assuming” Mr. Elton! So come with me on another tour of JA’s incredibly fine workmanship in carefully crafting, as it sometimes seems to me, every single word of this 160,460-word masterpiece!
As to the first two such usages, Emma uses “assuming” exactly as you defined it, Jane, and as we today would use it-- “presuming”: first (in Chapter 15) in a verbal, and then (in Ch. 16) in an adjectival, form:
[Mr. Elton] “…Is this fair, Mrs. Weston?—Judge between us. Have not I some right to complain? I am sure of your kind support and aid."
Emma saw Mrs. Weston's surprize, and felt that it must be great, at an address which, in words and manner, was ASSUMING TO HIMSELF THE RIGHT of first interest in her [Emma]; and as for herself, she was too much provoked and offended to have the power of directly saying any thing to the purpose. She could only give him a look; but it was such a look as she thought must restore him to his senses….”
“…It was dreadfully mortifying; but Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; PROUD, ASSUMING, CONCEITED; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others….”
So far, that’s pretty cut and dried, but now here’s where it gets much more interesting. In her latter two usages, she plays with shades of the meaning of “assuming” in the subtlest, most ironic, and highly thematic ways.
First, later in that same Ch. 16, as Emma reflects back on her Elton courtship snafu in a refreshingly self-critical mode, the word “assuming” might upon a quick reading appear to refer only to an error of interpretation on Emma’s part, by Emma having “taken as given” the apparent (but mistaken) fact that Elton was in love with Harriet:
“If she had so misinterpreted his feelings, she had little right to wonder that he, with self-interest to blind him, should have mistaken hers. The first error and the worst lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, ASSUMING TOO MUCH, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more.”
However, a closer reading reveals that this phrase “assuming too much” is quite ambiguous. It is equally plausible for the alert reader to detect that Emma has, by thinking of herself as “assuming too much”, unconsciously hoist herself on her own rhetorical petard. The same derogatory meaning of “assuming” that she has just applied twice to Mr. Elton, also fits Emma’s own actions to a tee! Emma seems to me to have unconsciously portrayed herself as having proudly and conceitedly PRESUMED she had the right to run everyone else’s love lives!
And here’s where that Firesign Theatre word-concoction comes in: when it comes to presumptuous assumption, Emma is every bit as guilty, albeit in a different way, as Mr. Elton, and maybe even more guilty. Elton presumes to court a woman of a higher social status, and to the snobbish heiress Emma, that is a highly blamable “assuming” on his part. But most readers today, and many even back then, would not consider that a fault at all, if (a big “if”) he actually felt strong feelings for her, and was not just a fortune hunter. Whereas Emma presumes to run the romantic life of a woman of a lower status – and that is, to most readers both then and today, a truly blamable sort of “assuming”! So what do you think? Does Emma consciously intend to blame herself for that sort of presumptuous assumption?
In either event, isn’t that nugget of irony the essence of JA’s moral objectivity and brilliant psychological insight? JA’s usage of this single word “assuming” in the above passage conveys to us the message that Emma judges Elton for being “assuming”, in an act psychologists today would call “projection”, precisely because being “assuming” is Emma’s own worst character flaw!
And then, as we move forward in the novel, it turns out that Emma has not given it up, because, after about six weeks go by in the novel’s chronology, that just happens to take us to the fourth usage, when Emma returns to the matchmaking arena. She first lights upon the bright idea of Frank as a romantic interest for Harriet, to replace Elton, in Chapter 31:
“…It was well to have a comfort in store on Harriet's behalf, though it might be wise to let the fancy touch it seldom; for evil in that quarter was at hand. As Frank Churchill's arrival had succeeded Mr. Elton's engagement in the conversation of Highbury, as the latest interest had entirely borne down the first, so now upon Frank Churchill's disappearance, Mr. Elton's concerns were ASSUMING the most irresistible form.—His wedding-day was named. He would soon be among them again; Mr. Elton and his bride…”
At first blush, it might appear that JA is just being word-playful, associating Elton a fourth and last time with that word “assuming”, but this time with a third, neutral meaning, that of Mr. Elton’s upcoming nuptials “taking on” a strong appeal for the Highbury gossip circuit. Like Shakespeare, you might say, JA just could not resist a pun, and that’s all there is to that.
But….think about it--- maybe JA intentionally inserted another one of her rare usages of “assuming” in this particular paragraph, precisely because this passage describes the very instant when Emma, after a six week period of restraint (call it her matchmaking Lent) once again becomes “assuming” and presumes to start scheming to match Harriet with Frank! I, for one, suspect the country clergyman’s daughter of this last, sly invocation of the Christian season of giving-up.
So, even on this smallest of scales, we find Emma to be an exquisitely chiseled jewel of a novel, with even such tiny details as nuances of the word “assuming” receiving such supersubtle workmanship; tiny details which, upon closer analysis, prove to carry significant thematic weight.
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