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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, August 28, 2017

“On, Blunder! On, Dixon!”: The Strange Case of the Swept-Away Third Word at Hartfield

Several days ago, Diane Reynolds posed this intriguing question in Janeites: “…In Vol III [Chapter 41 of Emma], Frank spells out ‘blunder’ and ‘Dixon’--and then a third word for Jane Fairfax, which we are told she angrily brushes away without reading. Any speculation on that word?”

Ellen Moody was the first to reply: “Was there a third word? I remember only the two: blunder (which Emma does not see) and Dixon (which she does and which Mr Knightley also sees). Blunder is swept away too quickly. Were Mr Knightley (the POV of this chapter) or Emma to see it, we would know it, and we would immediately work out for sure that Frank and Jane have a clandestine relationship, the blunder being his comment about Mr Perry having a carriage. We'd guess it was in a letter because of Jane's trips to the post office.”

Diane then clarified: “There is a third word: after blunder and Dixon, Jane signals to her aunt her desire to leave and then, “Mr. Knightley thought he saw another collection of letters anxiously pushed towards her, and resolutely swept away by her unexamined.” This is after blunder and Dixon: Dixon makes Jane angry enough to leave.  Now it's not entirely sure--Mr. Knightley just "thought he saw," but I am convinced he saw something.”

Ellen then replied again:  “You're right. There is a third. I just reread the passage. Yes the "he thought he saw" is a reaffirmation of the sudden switch in POV. This being an older fiction, we are supposed to work it out by the end of the book…Guessing as if I'd never finished the novel but understood by this point Frank and Jane have a clandestine relationship (which I did guess the first time I read the novel at this chapter though not that they were engaged), I'd say "forgive" or "pardon." Does anyone remember what the third word was?”

Diane, I’m so glad you’ve raised this question, which I see as another significant word puzzle that Jane Austen intended her most alert readers (like you) to spot. I’ve donned my deerskin cap and puffed on my sleuthing pipe for the past few days, and, with the aid of my faithful partner in detection, Mr. Google, I’ve arrived at two complementary solutions to this strange case -- solutions which, as I hoped, go to the heart of the shadow story of Emma I began to delineate nearly 13 years ago. It was in January 2005 when I first realized that Jane Fairfax’s “illness” could plausibly be read as (concealed) pregnancy, with Jane F. as the “shadow heroine” of the novel, but with her story in effect told by the most clueless observer in Highbury – Emma herself! And these two new posts of mine will illustrate how Emma is the literary puzzle which keeps on yielding fresh delights and insights, year after year!

As has, during the past two decades, been well established in Austen scholarly circles not frequented by the majority of Janeites, it is in Emma in particular that the “trivial” word games and puzzles which abound therein [most of all, the “courtship” charade, which I’ve long argued is one and the same as the “acrostic” poem given to Mrs. Elton by an unnamed “abominable puppy” (who I claim is actually Frank Churchill, as I last outlined a few years ago here: ] collectively function as a Rosetta Stone provided by JA in order to aid in decoding Emma’s shadow story. Diane, your question has catalyzed my figuring out the deeper meaning of that third word which is not explicitly stated in the novel text, but which, as I will demonstrate, is everywhere in Emma implied.

To keep this post from getting too long, I will lay out my solution to The Strange Case of the Third Word at Hartfield in two distinct stages, this post today being Part One. I’ll finish writing up Part Two, which will explicate a deeper layer of allusive meaning, within the next few days, after (hopefully) first prompting a lively round of interesting responses to Part One from the sharp elves in our virtual “room” who are so inclined, and who enjoy this sort of shadowy delving.

First, as was pointed out in Janeites after the initial posts quoted above, what Ellen was remembering was that Diane’s question was answered 150 years ago by James Edward Austen Leigh (JEAL) in his 1869 Memoir when he wrote that his aunt “certainly took a kind of parental interest in the beings whom she had created, and did not dismiss them from her thoughts when she had finished her last chapter...She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people. In this traditionary way we learned that…the letters placed by Frank Churchill before Jane Fairfax, which she swept away unread, contained the word ‘pardon’…”.

I also was reminded of another extratextual data point about Jane Fairfax which, as far as I can tell, was first published by JEAL’s nephew, W. Austen Leigh, in his 1914 Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters:
“According to a less well-known tradition, Jane Fairfax survived her elevation [to marriage] only nine or ten years.”

Do you find it interesting, as I do, that, from among the half dozen extratextual hints that JA gave about her novels, the actions and fate of the mysterious Jane Fairfax were, according to the report of members of the Austen family, sufficiently intriguing to have elicited not one but two of those six precious hints from JA? It’s even more interesting, because JA would have had to provide these glosses during the brief 18-month window between publication of Emma and JA’s tragic premature death, to family members who probably had only had the chance to read Emma once. That reinforces my gut feeling that Diane’s question is a very important one, worthy of serious analysis.

Mainstream Austen scholars have uncritically accepted JEAL’s report of Jane Austen’s “pardon” gloss without questioning it, whereas I, like Diane, believe skepticism is always called for with JEAL, given his long rap sheet of unreliability as a reporter of many aspects of his aunt’s life and work, including a few whopping lies, as well as several Bowdlerizing editorial deletions and alterations of passages in her surviving letters. So I started from a flexible position, seeking to determine if JEAL’s report was accurate or not:

Possibility #1: Was JEAL’s answer a smokescreen, i.e., a deliberately false answer invented by him, intended to discourage close readers from even asking that question left hanging in JA’s novel? Did he thereby wish to avoid some suspicious reader sleuthing out the correct answer, because the actual answer being concealed by JEAL would’ve revealed his aunt Jane not to have been a prim, unambitious, conservative, but instead the subversive radical feminist I assert she was? As I said, above, I would not put such an editorial deception past JEAL; or

Possibility #2: Did JA, as JEAL stated, actually share that answer “pardon” with some member(s) of her family, who (as JEAL implied) posed that same question to her two centuries ago?
That second possibility immediately led me to a further question:
If JEAL was telling the truth, did JA merely intend for unsuspicious readers of the overt story to infer that Jane F. was feeling guilty (i.e., wishing for a “pardon”) for her deception of Emma et al in Highbury, and therefore was furious at Frank for once again --- as with his “dream” about “Mr. Perry’s carriage” right before while standing at the Highbury sweep-gate --- nearly exposing their secret?
Or…was JA’s answer a clue not only as to the overt story, but also a clue, but with a radically different meaning, to the shadow story?

The second version of Possibility #2 sprang off the screen at me as I typed it, because it fits Jane Austen’s M.O. to a tee. I.e.,  I cannot count the number of times in Jane Austen’s novels when one of her many fools is made to unwittingly expose something they would devoutly wish to keep secret. So that would turn JEAL’s 1869 Memoir, with its mention of her answer “pardon”, a kind of literary Trojan Horse, whereby JEAL, despite his fervent desire to keep a lid on whatever was simmering in his aunt’s literary pot, was unwittingly providing a vital clue for solving the subversive meaning of the Strange Case of the Third Word! As I reread that passage in Emma very closely and in context with the entire chapter it appears in, keeping “pardon” in the foreground, I quickly realized that this “Trojan Horse” was my ticket to ride, sleuthily speaking, a “carriage” that led me straight back to Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy!

I start with a quotation of the relevant passage, beginning with Jane’s reaction to the word “Dixon”:

“…[Jane] was immediately up, and wanting to quit the table; but so many were also moving, that she could not get away; and Mr. Knightley thought he saw another collection of letters anxiously pushed towards her, and resolutely swept away by her unexamined. She was afterwards looking for her shawl—Frank Churchill was looking also—it was growing dusk, and the room was in confusion; and how they parted, Mr. Knightley could not tell.
He remained at Hartfield after all the rest, his thoughts full of what he had seen; so full, that when the candles came to assist his observations, he must—yes, he certainly must, as a friend—an anxious friend—give Emma some hint, ask her some question. He could not see her in a situation of such danger, without trying to preserve her. It was his duty.
“Pray, Emma,” said he, “may I ask in what lay the great amusement, the poignant sting of the last word given to you and Miss Fairfax? I SAW THE WORD, and am curious to know how it could be so very entertaining to the one, and so very distressing to the other.”
Emma was extremely confused. She could not endure to give him the true explanation; for though her suspicions were by no means removed, she was really ashamed of having ever imparted them.
“Oh!” she cried in evident embarrassment, “it all meant nothing; a mere joke among ourselves.”
“The joke,” he replied gravely, “seemed confined to you and Mr. Churchill.”

First, I respectfully disagree with you, Diane, and believe I can convince you to change your view, on one key point: I do not believe Knightley actually sees The Third Word. While I acknowledge that it is not impossible that Knightley sees it, I find the far more likely reading to be that Knightley is referring to the second word, “Dixon” as the word he actually saw, and I have three reasons to back me up, all arising out of the subtly ambiguous narration in that passage that I believe was entirely deliberate on JA’s part:
A: “Dixon” was the last word that we know for sure was presented to both Emma and Miss Fairfax; whereas the third word may very possibly have been presented only to Jane;
B: “Dixon” was the name as to which Emma and Frank shared “a mere joke among [them]selves” many chapters earlier –I don’t recall reading about another joke being shared by Emma and Frank, do you?; and
C: the word “Dixon”, we know for certain, was seen by Knightley.

Second, and equally destabilizing of the normative reading, I’ve noticed for the first time that it is not necessarily the case that Frank is the person who pushes the third word toward Jane Fairfax!:   
“…so many were also moving, that she could not get away; and Mr. Knightley thought he saw another collection of letters anxiously pushed towards her, and resolutely swept away by her unexamined….”

“Anxiously pushed towards” Jane, yes, but by whom? As JA does in a hundred other places in her writing, here she once again leads us all down a garden path of unfounded assumption---in this case, the illusion that we know for certain that it was Frank who pushed the third word in Jane’s direction. But all we really know for sure is that Frank presented Jane with the first two words – the identity of the “pusher” of the third word is, I argue, a matter of pure speculation.  And, as with the question of what Knightley hears, that uncertainty is deliberately heightened by JA by the data points that “so many were also moving” and “it was growing dusk”. In other words, JA is informing us, in the subtlest way, that it was very difficult to see who was doing what at that crucial instant.

So…if we assume for purposes of argument that it wasn’t Frank, and we know it wasn’t Knightley or Emma, then who could it have been? Viewing that question through the lens of the shadow story, I take note that in the scene in question, Jane is rapidly approaching her final hours before delivery, which is why, among other things, she is busy with her shawl as she walks by Knightley to enter the salon at Hartfield, so as to better conceal her very advanced pregnancy (we get other hints as well of Jane’s surprising wearing of a “large shawl” in the summer heat, because she needs protective covering of her late-term bulge).

As I’ve often noted, there are several key characters who already know about Jane’s pregnancy, but the reader never hears this explicitly, because the entire story (except for this and one other scene) is told through the eyes of Emma, who is utterly clueless about Jane in every way, but most of all in that regard.
But I believe the third word is pushed towards Jane by one of the other characters who is the opposite of clueless—a clueful character who would have the motive to expose Jane in Knightley’s presence – that rules out Miss Bates and Mrs. Weston, because I believe they are actually Jane’s most dedicated protectors, and leaves only two other suspects – Mr. Weston and Harriet.

These two “fools” would seem to be the least likely to engage in a deep game of psychological warfare against anyone, let alone against Jane Fairfax. But, that brings me back to the lessons of Mr. Elton’s charade. I’ve long asserted that the Harriet Smith of the shadow story is actually a very sharp elf who, e.g., sees the secret answer (“Prince of Whales”) of the charade, that Emma never even imagines could exist. The shadow Harriet I’ve come to know is a master manipulator, a “Shamela”, who has set her cap at Mr. Knightley from the start of the novel.

That’s why, during the first chapters of the novel, Harriet already ‘luckily’ finds herself firmly ensconced in close proximity to the two Highbury residents closest to Knightley: his principal tenant and friend, Robert Martin, and his local “favourite”, Emma. But Harriet also has a strong motive to put the kibosh on any romantic interest of Mr. Knightley’s in his other favourite, Jane (recall that Mrs. Weston explicitly suggests Knightley’s interest in Jane, to Emma’s horror). In short, then, Harriet has two romantic rivals whom Mr. Knightley might wish to marry besides herself, and one of them is Jane.

Harriet knows that Jane is pregnant, so I believe Harriet seizes the moment of confusion when the Hartfield game table group is breaking up, in order to deliver a third, veiled threat to Jane, also hoping to plant some doubt in Mr. Knightley’s mind about Jane’s purity. So I say it is Harriet who inobtrusively pushes the word “pardon” toward Jane. Why not “baby” or “pregnant”, you ask? Because Harriet is too clever to be obvious, she instead acts subtly, to threaten Jane with exposure (after observing Mrs. Elton repeatedly harass Jane in a very unsubtle way). And recall also who it was who said the word “blunder” aloud?: “The word was blunder; and as Harriet exultingly proclaimed it, there was a blush on Jane’s cheek which gave it a meaning not otherwise ostensible.” Harriet is no fool, she is actually, like Lucy Steele, a daring young woman who is proactive in promoting her own interest.

And finally, we can add the Strange Case of the Swept-Away Third Word to the numerous other plays on the number 3 in Emma (which points to the allusive presence of Mozart’s The Magic Flute): the 3 come-at-able ladies, the 3 teachers at Mrs. Goddard’s school, the 3 turns that Mr. Woodhouse takes during his constitutional, the apples baked 3 times at Hartfield, Mrs. Smallridge’s 3 girls, and the “three things very dull indeed” that Frank solicits at Box Hill – to that we can now add, the 3 words at the Hartfield game table!

And that brings me to the end of Part One. In Part Two, which, as I promised, will be forthcoming in the next few days, I will demonstrate that there’s a whole lot more to the word “pardon” at the Hartfield game table than I have discussed above. There’s a Shakespearean meaning which points the finger ten times more pointedly at Jane’s concealed pregnancy!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I will also be writing a post during the next few days to pick up on the hint in the first part of my Subject Line which will discuss another strange case—the remarkable resonance of “The Night Before Christmas” with Emma!

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