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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 23, 2017

On, Comet! on CUPID! on, BLUNDER and DIXON!: A (Girl) Child is Born in Austen’s Emma

As happens nearly every year at this time, the topic of Christmas in Jane Austen’s novels in general, and in Emma in particular, has again been raised in the Janeites group. I wish to briefly add my own latest offbeat perspectives thereon.

The first major pivot point in the story arc of Emma is the Christmas Eve dinner at Randalls midway through the first volume. It is pivotal, because it marks the first of Emma’s major realizations of her blunders about the un-smooth course of true love and marriage. In that context, I believe it was entirely intentional on Jane Austen’s part, that the highlights of that scene are not heartwarming moments of warm, cozy, spiritual family togetherness around the fire, singing Christmas carols.

No, instead, Austen creates a veritable anti-Christmas: an extended scene the highlights of which consist first of John Knightley (aka Scrooge, Jr.) venting his spleen over being forced to attend the dinner at all; followed by John sadistically tormenting his demented father in law, by stoking Mr. Woodhouse’s absurd fears of calamity in the snow; and then, as if all that were not un-Christmas-like enough, the scene culminates in the very drunk Mr. Elton nearly sexually assaulting Emma during the short but painfully slow carriage ride back to Hartfield!– which, in an odd way also seems intentional on Austen’s part, because it makes Mr. Woodhouse’s delusional fears of great danger during a less than one mile carriage ride seem like prescient greatness of mind, if somewhat offbase in specifics – because it turns out that the greater danger to Emma came not from Mother Nature, but from a more dangerous source – an avaricious, lustful young man feeling entitled to attempt to force himself on a rich, attractive young woman he desires.

Now, given that Jane Austen wrote Emma near the end of her all-too-short life, does that seem like the writing of the lifelong pious, traditional Christian that so many Janeites, as the bicentennial of her death draws to a close, still suppose her to have been? I learned only yesterday that the earliest published seeds of that erroneous belief were planted by Henry Austen’s 1832 revision of the 1817 Biographical Notice, when he added this entire section of pure propaganda at the end:

“Miss Austen has the merit (in our judgment most essential) of being evidently a Christian writer: a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste and of practical utility, by her religion being not at all obtrusive. She might defy the most fastidious critic to call any of her novels (as Celebs was designated) a dramatic sermon. The subject is rather alluded to, and that incidentally, than studiously brought forward and dwelt upon. In fact, she is more sparing of it than would be thought desirable by some persons; perhaps even by herself, had she consulted merely her own sentiments, but she probably introduced it as far as she thought would be generally profitable; for when the purpose of inculcating a religious principle is made too palpably prominent, many readers, if they do not throw aside the book with disgust, are apt to fortify themselves with that respectful kind of apathy with which they undergo a regular sermon, and prepare themselves as they do to swallow a dose of medicine, endeavouring to get it down in large gulps, without tasting it more than is necessary." Perhaps these volumes may be perused by some readers who will feel a solicitude respecting the authoress, extending beyond the perishable qualities of temper, manners, taste, and talents.-We can assure all such (and the being able so to do gratifies us more than the loudest voice of human praise) that Jane Austen's hopes of immortality were built upon the Rock of ages. That she deeply felt, and devoutly acknowledged, the insignificance of all worldly attainments, and the worthlessness of all human services, in the eyes of her heavenly Father. That she had no other hope of mercy, pardon, and peace, but through the merits and sufferings of her Redeemer.”

The Evangelical Henry Austen was a skilled casuist and master of rhetorical disguise, because it is not apparent at first that he is actually attempting to reframe the virtual absence of any overt religious content in his sister’s novels as an alleged strategy to promulgate Christian precepts to her readers by the back door, so as not to drive them away with a “dramatic sermon”. Nice try, Henry Austen, but you protest way too much, and thereby reveal your desperation to hide the far more probable meaning of that absence of pious messaging in Jane Austen’s novels – that she simply did not buy into traditional church dogma!

Actually, Henry was half-correct, because Jane Austen’s authorial strategies were indeed often indirect and subtle, and she did have what could broadly be described as a Christian moral agenda she wished to promote. But where he is dead wrong, I claim, is that Jane had in mind a very different sort of Christianity than Henry was alluding to; most of all in her challenge to male domination of Christianity –whether Anglican or Evangelical--- in all aspects. And so, I claim, we can see that defiant challenge in her Christmas Eve scene, which foregrounds the depiction of various men, including an Anglican “man of God”, Mr. Elton, acting badly, and completely against the spirit of universal love at Christmas.  

But it was only while writing this post that I realized that the core idea of Christmas actually undergirds the entirety of Emma in a much more fundamental way. I.e., I believe we see Jane Austen’s most powerful assertion of an equal female seat at the table of Christian power, in the shadow story of Emma, which, I have claimed for nearly 13 years now, entirely rotates not around Emma, but around Jane Fairfax and her concealed pregnancy which exactly coincides with the three “trimesters” of the novel’s timeline.

How so? Because the climax of that concealed story arc, I’ve long claimed, is the birth of Jane’s daughter, followed immediately by the “forwarding” of that girl child (like a letter delivered to the wrong addressee, apropos the discussion in Chapter 34 of letters delivered by the English postal system) to Mrs. Weston, who only began pretending to be pregnant two months earlier, just long enough to support a thin veil of pretense to have borne that child herself.

And it is in the description, in Chapter 51, of the immediate aftermath of that pretended childbirth by Mrs. Weston, that I find the strongest echo of the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus -- but this time rewritten by Jane Austen to celebrate the coming of a female messiah, who will finish Jesus’s job, by delivering women from oppression:

“Mrs. Weston’s friends were all made happy by her safety; and if the satisfaction of her well-doing could be increased to Emma, it was by knowing her to be the mother of a little girl. She had been decided in wishing for a Miss Weston. She would not acknowledge that it was with any view of making a match for her, hereafter, with either of Isabella’s sons; but she was convinced that a daughter would suit both father and mother best. It would be a great comfort to Mr. Weston, as he grew older—and even Mr. Weston might be growing older ten years hence—to have his fireside enlivened by the sports and the nonsense, the freaks and the fancies of a child never banished from home; and Mrs. Weston—no one could doubt that a daughter would be most to her; and it would be quite a pity that any one who so well knew how to teach, should not have their powers in exercise again.”

Think about it—the Virgin Birth of Jesus has been a source of theological controversy, with some scholars suggesting…  …that there is an ancient tradition that it was a cover story for what was, in ancient times and today, the extraordinarily vulnerable circumstance of an unmarried woman carrying and bearing a baby out of wedlock. That is the heart of the poignant, dramatic story of Jane Fairfax, the shadow heroine of the novel named for the young woman, Emma, who yearns to know Jane’s story, and who, upon acknowledging her prior blindness,  asks for Jane’s forgiveness for not having been a true friend to her – that veiled image of female forgiveness for failure to protect each other is the heart of what I believe was Jane Austen’s Christianity.

As Anielka first pointed out a decade ago, the fictional baby Anna Weston is a code for the real life Anna Austen (Jane Austen’s niece, and perhaps more), and so this also suggests to me the hopes and dreams Jane Austen still harbored for Anna’s literary career in late 1815 as she completed the writing of Emma, hopes which were cruelly dashed when Anna, by early 1817 had become a “poor animal”, unable to keep writing because overwhelmed by serial pregnancies. Jane, writing less than 2 years before her own death, clearly had hoped to anoint Anna as a female messiah who would carry her beloved aunt’s feminist agenda forward far into the future, and help make the world a better place for women.

Speaking of “dashed” hopes…. I end by explaining the cryptic first part of my Subject Line, which is drawn from the following:

Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on CUPID! on, BLUNDER and DIXON!:

Of course that is a Spoonerized version of the most famous couplet from “The Night Before Christmas”, and, from that, perhaps some of you have already guessed why I put four of those reindeer names in ALL CAPS in a post about Christmas in Emma:

CUPID is the shadow protagonist of the full version of Garrick’s Riddle, which Mr. Woodhouse struggles to recall in full in Chapter 9, but which (as Jill Heydt-Stevenson first pointed out 20 years ago) alludes to syphilitic men appealing to the god of love to kindle their flame so they can “sweep” the chaste “chimneys” of virgins, in a barbaric attempt to cure their disease:

Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid,
Kindled a flame I still deplore.
THE HOOD-WINKED BOY I called in aid,
Much of HIS near approach afraid,
So fatal to my suit before.
At length propitious to my prayer,
At once HE sought the midway air,
And soon HE clear'd with dexterous care
The bitter relics of my flame.
To Kitty, Fanny now succeeds,
She kindles slow, but lasting fires;
With care my appetite she feeds;
Each day some willing victim bleeds,
To satisfy my strange desires.
Say by what title or what name,
Must I THIS YOUTH address?
CUPID and he are not the same—
Tho' both can raise or quench a flame —
I'll kiss you if you guess."
[The official answer is "A Chimney Sweep"]

BLUNDER and DIXON are, of course, the two words formed from Regency Era scrabble tiles, which so mysteriously upset Jane Fairfax at Donwell Abbey in Chapter 41. I’ve longed wondered at the uncanny perfection with which those that pair of words work as a Spoonerized version of ‘DONNER and BLITZEN’.

And, given that, how more curious still that:

In Chapter 26, the word “DASHED” appears in the same sentence as “DIXON”:  “I dare say you would; but I, simple I, saw nothing but the fact, that Miss Fairfax was nearly DASHED from the vessel and that Mr. DIXON caught her.

The word “DANCER” is associated with the man (Knightley) Emma at one point fears might love Jane, and also with the man (Frank) Emma is shocked to learn was involved from the get-go with Jame:

“Me!—oh! no—I would get you a better partner than myself. I am no DANCER.”

“…So Frank Churchill is a capital DANCER, I understand…”

But what could this possibly mean?

First and foremost, the coupling of “BLUNDER” and “DIXON” fits uncannily well with my assertion that Emma nearly blunders into the truth, when she suspects Mr. Dixon of being Jane Fairfax’s secret lover, because it is John Knightley, not Mr. Dixon, who is the married man who impregnates Jane Fairfax, and thereby triggers the entire arc of the novel’s shadow story.

Beyond that, you’re surely wondering, as I have, why Emma would seem to be strangely connected to “The Night Before Christmas”. To start, Wikipedia tells us that “this famous Christmas poem first appeared in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823. There seems to be no question that the poem came out of the home of Clement Moore, and the person giving the poem to the newspaper, without Moore's knowledge, certainly believed the poem had been written by Moore. However, several of Livingston's children remembered their father reading that very same poem to them fifteen years earlier.”

So, we have evidence that “The Night Before Christmas” was conceived by Clement Moore in 1808, seven years before Emma was published. But I also found this contrary claim in “Whither Evil” by the  Rev. Sharon Dittmar of the Unitarian Church in Cincinnati dated January 7, 2001: “Clement Moore did not write "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". Instead, another man wrote it, and when first credited to Moore, Moore neither agreed nor disagreed, letting people believe what they wanted. Twenty years later Moore was taking credit, and I assume royalties, for a plagiarized piece of verse. My favorite part of the story is that for over one hundred years no one thought to question the authorship because Moore was a theologian, and, as we all know, religious types such as theologians and ministers never sin, never participate in evil.”

Whatever the truth is as to who wrote “The Night Before Christmas”, and whether it was published in such a way that Jane Austen could have read it prior to writing Emma, are all of the striking resonances of reindeer names with keywords in Emma, the one Austen novel which prominently depicts a Christmas Eve scene, just a freaky coincidence?

In that regard, I will remain agnostic for now, and give the last word to Austen’s Scrooge, John Knightley:   “This will prove a spirited beginning of your winter engagements, sir. Something new for your coachman and horses to be making their way through a storm of snow.”

Was that John’s droll hint at Santa Claus, the coachman who meets his “winter engagements” every Christmas Eve, merrily wishing “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night”?

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAusten at Twitter

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