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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The answer to my Austen Quiz regarding six passages in Emma united by one hidden theme

In my previous post, I gave 3 final hints to the answer to my Austen quiz regarding 6 seemingly unrelated passages, taken from 6 different chapters, in Emma:

ONE: “oppression” is the word which appears in 4 of the 6 passages; and

TWO: “oppression” is the word which appears, not directly in the 5th passage, but indirectly, i.e., in the speech by Romeo which Emma recalls in that 5th passage, as she pities Jane Fairfax as a victim of “the world’s law”; and

THREE: In the 6th passage (in which Emma jokes with Mr. Knightley that perhaps it was not really Harriet who accepted Robert Martin’s second proposal), the keyword in that 6th passage (for purposes of my quiz) is one that resonates strongly with the animal allegory of the false friendship of the bull and the hare in Mrs. Elton’s quotation from Gay’s Fable “The Hare and Many Friends” just 2 chapters earlier.

I then said that Googling the keywords from the above 3 hints would lead straight to the answer to my quiz. No one has gotten the answer, so I will now reveal it.

To start, what keyword in the 6th passage resonates strongly with Gay’s animal fable/allegory? There’s only one animal mentioned by Emma – “the famous ox”. In a passage I long ago claimed was recalled by Sholem Aleichem (when Tevye the Milkman thinks Lazar Wolf wants to buy his favorite cow, when it’s Tevye’s daughter whom Lazar Wolf wants to marry), Emma playfully suggests that Knightley may be wrong in thinking that Robert successfully proposed to Harriet again, when, Emma teases, perhaps all Robert Martin really was talking about was buying a valuable ox.

We may guess that Emma is faintly recalling Harriet’s boast to her, 50 chapters earlier, about one aspect of the wealth of the Martin family:
“… their having eight cows, two of them Alderneys, and one a little Welch cow, a very pretty little Welch cow indeed; and of Mrs. Martin's saying as she was so fond of it, it should be called her cow…”
For Emma to now refer to an ‘ox’ is not just funny, it’s also a big clue from Austen to us.

So…the three keywords for my quiz are thus “oppression”, “law”, and “ox”. While we can readily imagine “oppression” and “law” appearing in the same sentence, where in the world would an “ox” come into that mix? What would oppression and the law have to do with oxen?

When I first Googled those three words together about 10 days ago, imagine my delight when the first hit was the following December 2013 blog post:

“The Lion & the Ox and the Law”
One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression. — William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

That blog post (I could not find a name of its unassuming author) begins thusly:
“Some people take particular offence at Blake’s assertion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell [1790] that “one law for the lion & the ox is oppression”. The statement concludes one of Blake’s “memorable fancies” in which he witnesses a debate between a Devil and an Angel over the merits of Jesus. Ironically, it is the Devil who extolls the virtues of Jesus and the Angel who comes close to negating them. Caught up in his own self-contradiction the Angel, subsequently, was consumed in “a flame of fire” and resurrected as a “devil” himself….”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time since I received that remarkable Googling result, sleuthing out all the implications I see in Austen’s veiled but undeniable allusion to Blake’s influential, politically radical masterpiece, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I’ve always believed that Miss Bates’s comment to Knightley (“My dear sir, you really are too bountiful. My mother desires her very best compliments and regards, and a thousand thanks, and says you really quite oppress her.”) was meant by JA to be read by us as a veiled barb at Knightley, i.e., that the thousand thanks are all sarcastically offered. Now I’ve got some extraordinary textual evidence to back up that subconscious intuition.

For today, I will only go so far as the following summary of the most significant aspects of this discovery, with the promise of future unpacking during the coming weeks (including my belief that Blake himself was inspired to write that particular epigram by prior authors). Here goes.

The analogy to the animal world as a way of understanding the ooppressive impact of “equal” laws on powerless, unprivileged people (which of course is the gist of Romeo’s cynical comment to the poor apothecary, and of Emma’s quoting same in her pitying concern for poor Jane Fairfax) is one that Blake examined in several passages scattered through multiple writings of his over a period of years, in particular involving Bromion, the slave overseer of his fantastical worlds.

The two most elegant explanations I’ve found online of Blake’s very famous epigram (it began being quoted and discussed during Jane Austen’s writing career, and that quoting and discussion has continued up to the present in 2019) are as follows:

A Tweeter calling himself “uncle dennis‏” @theyseemetweetn on 01/07/2018 tweeted as follows:
“Blake wrote, ‘One law for the lion and ox is oppression’. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be any law governing either "lions" or "oxen". Rather, rules & standards must factor in the imbalances of power, wealth, & influence that exist in society, or else be unjust & oppressive.”

And a blogger named Stephen Sedley gave this longer, powerful explanation:

“How Laws Discriminate” by Stephen Sedley 04/29/99
“ ‘One law for the Lion & Ox,’ wrote Blake, ‘is oppression.’ He was describing in his oblique way what Anatole France a century later described more brutally as ‘the majestic even-handedness of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ France’s English contemporary Lord Justice Mathew made the point in more genteel terms: ‘In England,’ he said, ‘justice is open to all, like the Ritz.’…”

In that same blog post, Sedley went on to make the following very interesting observation:

“…As to crime, it is not law – the argument goes – that criminalises some people and not others, but social conditions or personal choice that lead wrongdoers to do wrong. The law may be able to mitigate the consequences for those who offend through misfortune, but it cannot treat them as free of blame without forfeiting the very claim to even-handedness which its detractors mock. But Blake, too, was right to claim that one law for all is ‘oppression’. His was the age of large-scale enclosures and of the Game Laws when, as the jingle went:
The fault is great in man or woman
Who steals a goose from off a common;
But what can plead that man’s excuse
Who steals the common from the goose?
Enclosure in England was the work of the law, but few poor people benefited from it. The rich never found themselves trespassing in search of game: they could pursue it on their own or their friends’ land. The law which in form governed the powerful and the submissive -the lion & the ox –without distinction, was in substance a means by which the one could oppress the other, and was meant to be so. There is little doubt that the sole reason Georgian and Regency judges, who were otherwise active in developing new crimes, did not criminalise trespass by itself was that it would have made foxhunting impossible. The dilemma has plagued the law to the present day, resulting in the creation of statutory constructs like ‘trespassory assembly’. So undisguised an intention to discriminate by law between classes, genders or races may be a thing of the past, but the unequal effects of equal laws remain a living – indeed a growing – issue….”

Although Helena Kelly has never given me credit or acknowledgment, as I explained in detail here…. (“ALL the Shadow Stories of Jane Austen the Secret Radical (Feminist)”
 I will now take the high road and acknowledge her for being the first to explain, in a 2010 Persuasions Online article,  entitled “Austen and Enclosure”, how enclosure was an important subtext in several of Austen’s novels, including Emma. After first detailing several clues to the adverse effects of enclosure in Highbury and its environs, Kelly then points the finger at Knightley:

If the enclosure around Highbury is of recent date, then the identity of the culprit is obvious:  it is George Knightley. Knightley is, as Austen reminds us, a magistrate, but he is primarily a farmer—his Christian name of course denoting one who is involved with the earth—and transparently an improving farmer, occupied with drainage and fencing [quotation omitted].
There is notably no discussion of common land, though long-established Donwell Abbey, “rambling and irregular” with its “old neglect of prospect” surely must be the local manor.  Moreover, Donwell is—we presume--on the site of an abbey. Religious houses had often been “rectors” for the local parishes, meaning that they were entitled to the “predial” or “great” tithes, ten percent of the gross of all produce arising from the earth.  After the dissolution, the tithe rights were often sold along with monastic lands, meaning that they ended up in lay hands. There must be a distinct possibility that such is the case with Donwell. This assumption gains support from the fact that the parsonage house, home to the Reverend Mr. Elton, has a very small allowance of glebe, placing it “almost as close to the road as it could be”, and that Mr. Elton is said to be reliant on his “independent property”.  Donwell has its own parish, and all the rest of Highbury, that is, all of Highbury other than Hartfield, belongs to “the Donwell Abbey estate”. It would thus be very easy for Knightley to obtain an enclosure act for Donwell and for Highbury village, particularly if he is rector as well as lord of the manor.  He is overwhelmingly the largest landowner, and there is no one to oppose him.
 There is one problem with my assertion that Highbury is enclosed, a mention of common land.  On the occasion of the Christmas party at Randalls, John Knightley much upsets his father-in-law by asserting the likelihood of the carriages being “‘blown over in the bleak part of the common field’”.  Common field means either the common proper or the open fields, farmed in individual strips, which are characteristic of pre-enclosure agriculture patterns.  Randalls, however, is outside Highbury, “half a mile” the other side of Hartfield (6).  It seems likely that both Randalls and Hartfield would have an interest in the “common fields” that lie between them.  It is difficult to conceive that Mr. Woodhouse, with his hatred of change and his fussy concern for his servants and dependents, would agree to be an active encloser.  Mr. Weston, with his city background, might well not consider the investment required worthwhile.  Whatever the reasons might be, Austen indicates quite clearly that whereas Highbury and Donwell are under Mr. Knightley’s command, Hartfield and Randalls are not.  The only common land explicitly mentioned in the novel is firmly placed outside Highbury and so beyond Knightley’s control.
As the major landowner, it must be Knightley who has enclosed Highbury and Donwell, and the local poverty and desperation lie at his door.  Even the remaining common fields between Randalls and Hartfield will be swallowed up in time.  We are told that Hartfield is “a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate”, meaning that the concluding marriage between Emma and Knightley nicely rounds off the property.  When Mr. Woodhouse dies, Hartfield will pass to Emma and Isabella as co-heiresses:  in effect, it will pass to their husbands, the brothers Knightley.
Austen’s endings are rarely purely comedic, but in Emma the conclusion is even darker than usual…[more examples of Blake’s epigram in action in Highbury”]”

So, again, Miss Bates actually says it out loud, for Emma and everyone else, that Knightley is the Great Oppressor of Highbury – and so, I suggest, not only will Knightley take all of Emma’s income once she married him – he will also, perhaps, by incorporating Hartfield into Donwell Abbey, extend his enclosing campaign even further.

And one final point, regarding my recent thread about Sir Edward Knatchbull as a key source for the character of George Knightley. I would not be surprised to learn that the Knatchbull family, ancestral lords of the huge Mersham le Hatch estate to which I speculated Godmersham might be a “notch”, were the chief enclosers of that neighborhood in Kent as well.

From the above discussion of enclosure as oppression, please do not take away the impression that the only or main oppression which Jane Austen wished to critique in Emma was that of enclosing the commons. Of course, in addition to that form of oppression, the even more significant form of oppression displayed in Emma -indeed in all of Austen’s novels -- is that of male oppression of women, as epitomized by the desperate experience of Jane Fairfax, but also, in a more subtle sense, the threat to Emma's well being after she is married to Knightley and she disappears as a legal person with autonomous control over her wealth and her body -- and of course, there's also Harriet as the cow/ox being sold to Mr. Martin!

And there I will leave things for today, with the promise of more detail in the future, fleshing out this remarkable,  veiled, and seemingly improbable allusion by Jane Austen to the fire-breathing champion of radical (in the best sense) criticism of oppression of the poor by the rich, William Blake.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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