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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 29, 2018

More on the knowing (and 'singing') Harriet Smith of Emma

[This continues the Harriet Smith thread from my two immediately preceding posts]

Diane Reynolds: “A very interesting discussion. Arnie, what “popped” in reading the passage in which Harriet talks to Emma about Mr. Martin and her time on the farm that you quote, is how much it suddenly reminded me of Elizabeth at Pemberley. Everything is far less about Mr. Martin as a person and much about the money in one way or another. It’s the farm that impresses her—the prosperity of it—far more than Mr. Martin’s person. She also repeats twice that he is “obliging,” signaling that she values that trait—another indication that she might be using or less than enamored of  the less-than-obliging Emma. We are meant to take her speeches about Mr. Martin’s with as merely parroting what she has been told, but I wouldn’t be entirely sure of that”

That sure makes sense to me, Diane, well done! The conflation of man and lucrative estate is very very similar. And, coming from Harriet, it does indeed have the scent of irony – Harriet is “singing” a “song”, so to speak (apropos your later comments, which I respond to, below), the ironic melody of which the tone deaf Emma cannot “hear”.

Diane: “Harriet hasn’t missed that [Robt. Martin] had bid more for his wool than anybody—like Lucy, she has her eyes on the bouncing ball.”

Yes, excellent once again! She’s no fool, and neither is he, they can both tell a hawk from a handsaw, financially speaking—it is the staggeringly naive Emma who doesn’t know squat about such things.

Diane: “I also find it interesting that Austen repeats sing three times in a row and will now have to go and look back at other evidences of singing and Harriet—I know she says vehemently (not all sweetness and light) that she hates singing in Italian because she can’t understand it—could she be angry because she knows, as Emma does not, that Jane is a rival to her (Harriet) for Mr. Knightley’s affections …”

And that is your best catch, I totally blew by the reference to Harriet liking singing in that passage! My initial response to you on that point is that I’ve long been aware that “music” is code for “sex” in Emma. It’s most blatant in all the innuendoes about “playing” the “instrument” (pianoforte), which is straight out of the Fanny Hill school of sexual euphemism; but it’s also there in Mrs. Elton’s passionate advocacy for a female “musical society”, and also (as you point out) in Mr. Knightley’s anger at Jane being forced by Frank to “sing” too much.

I hadn’t previously associated Harriet with that music-as-sex subtext, and so thanks for bringing it to our attention! If you haven’t already done it, here are the passages I just found which relate to Harriet and singing, besides the one you quoted (are there any others?):

Ch. 7: “[Harriet] had heard, as soon as she got back to Mrs. Goddard’s, that Mr. Martin had been there an hour before, and finding she was not at home, nor particularly expected, had left a little parcel for her from one of his sisters, and gone away; and on opening this parcel, she had actually found, besides the two songs which she had lent Elizabeth to copy, a letter to herself; and this letter was from him, from Mr. Martin, and contained a direct proposal of marriage.”

So, how very interesting that Harriet, for all that Emma thinks Harriet is an uncultured rube, has actually loaned the sheet music for two songs to Elizabeth Martin to copy. That suggests that Harriet actually has musical knowledge, and that she performs! Harriet knows that Emma ignores everything that really matters, and, under Emma’s influence, I’d wager that very few Janeites have ever noticed it either!

And here’s the passage you recalled, about Harriet hating Italian singing, it’s quite complex, in Ch. 27, and chock full of sexual innuendo about “taste” and “execution”:

“The other circumstance of regret related also to Jane Fairfax; and there [Emma] had no doubt. She did unfeignedly and unequivocally regret the inferiority of her own playing and singing. She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood—and sat down and practised vigorously an hour and a half.
She was then interrupted by Harriet’s coming in; and if Harriet’s praise could have satisfied her, she might soon have been comforted.
“Oh! if I could but play as well as you and Miss Fairfax!”
“Don’t class us together, Harriet. My playing is no more like her’s, than a lamp is like sunshine.”
“Oh! dear—I think you play the best of the two. I think you play quite as well as she does. I am sure I had much rather hear you. Every body last night said how well you played.”
“Those who knew any thing about it, must have felt the difference. The truth is, Harriet, that my playing is just good enough to be praised, but Jane Fairfax’s is much beyond it.”
“Well, I always shall think that you play quite as well as she does, or that if there is any difference nobody would ever find it out. Mr. Cole said how much taste you had; and Mr. Frank Churchill talked a great deal about your taste, and that he valued taste much more than execution.”
“Ah! but Jane Fairfax has them both, Harriet.”
“Are you sure? I saw she had execution, but I did not know she had any taste. Nobody talked about it. And I hate Italian singing.—There is no understanding a word of it. Besides, if she does play so very well, you know, it is no more than she is obliged to do, because she will have to teach. The Coxes were wondering last night whether she would get into any great family. How did you think the Coxes looked?”

First, I get the feeling from “if I could but play as well as you and Miss Fairfax” that Harriet actually plays piano as well. Of course, it never occurs to Emma to even ask, and it’s not in Harriet’s best interest to be explicit about such an accomplishment with Emma, for fear of Emma recognizing that Harriet is not the “nobody” Emma assumes she is.

My first reaction about “Italian singing” is that in some way it is Harriet making a witty joke that sails right over Emma’s head, as to some form of alternative sexual practice. As we all know, Knightley advocates for old-fashioned “Englishness” as patriotism, whereas Frank’s “Frenchness” is dismissed as amoral. So… “English singing” would be mainstream heterosexual sex, but “Italian singing” – just use your imagination as to what that might be code for. 😉

Diane’s final reply to me: “I agree that the combination of the overt mention of the Vicar of Wakefield and the walnuts should send us back to that text—whatever is it that Austen wants us to discover?”

I actually have a post under construction on the topic of the subversive significance of the allusion to VoW in Emma – at its heart are some very disturbing parallels between the charming, rich villain of Goldsmith’s novel, Mr. Thornhill, and Mr. Knightley! But I had not till yesterday recognized that Robert Martin’s gift to Harriet of the walnuts was also inspired in part by the reference to the cracking and eating of nuts on Michaelmas Eve which I quoted last night from VoW.

Cheers, ARNIE

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