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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, March 15, 2020

More Evidence of Mr. Elton’s ‘invasion’ of Emma, during their snowy carriage ride,as a parody of Napoleon ‘frozen’ in Russia

In November, 2015, I wrote a post in this blog…..    …..entitled “Mr. Elton’s ‘invasion’ of Emma, during their snowy carriage ride, as a parody of Napoleon ‘frozen’ in Russia!
In that post, as the title makes clear, I gave a variety of evidence for the following:

“…the comic theme of the danger of the carriage ride between Hartfield and Randalls on Christmas Eve in Emma is actually a brilliant (and savagely satirical) parody of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812-13, when he was defeated by the harsh Russian winter and brilliant scorched earth Russian tactics. That spectacular and horrific defeat (in terms of lost lives and suffering) led quickly to Napoleon’s first exile to Elba as a result of the Congress of Vienna in 1814. We may infer from JA’s letters from June 1814 that she did not live with her head buried in the group, but knew all the details of Napoleon’s defeat, including whatever inside dope brother Henry may have gathered while attending the fabulous London ball that celebrated Napoleon’s defeat.”

To read all the evidence I presented then, I invite you to click on the link to my earlier blog post, and read it. I’m back today with an unexpected addendum of one more remarkable piece of evidence in the text of Emma which I failed to take notice of 4 ½ years ago, and which I stumbled upon by serendipity today, while looking at another topic entirely in Emma.

Here’s the passage in Chapter 26 which I read with fresh eyes today. The scene is the party that the Coles throw, that Emma grudgingly attends, knowing that in part she will have to endure hearing about Mr. Elton (who is a friend of the Coles) and his bride-to-be, Miss Hawkins of Bristol. And indeed, at one point in this very long chapter, he is mentioned, but only in brief passing:

“The party was rather large, as it included one other family, a proper unobjectionable country family, whom the Coles had the advantage of naming among their acquaintance, and the male part of Mr. Cox's family, the lawyer of Highbury. The less worthy females were to come in the evening, with Miss Bates, Miss Fairfax, and Miss Smith; but already, at dinner, they were too numerous for any subject of conversation to be general; and, while politics and Mr. Elton were talked over, Emma could fairly surrender all her attention to the pleasantness of her neighbor [i.e., Frank]. The first remote sound to which she felt herself obliged to attend, was the name of Jane Fairfax. Mrs. Cole seemed to be relating something of her that was expected to be very interesting. She listened, and found it well worth listening to.” 

With the background I’ve given you, above, about Mr. Elton’s snowy quasi-Napoleonic disaster in Chapter 15, can you figure out what it is that just leapt out at me in Chapter 26 that relates back to it? After you give it some thought, scroll down a bit for my answer:



I never before noticed, and thought about the meaning of, the conversation which Emma so studiously ignores, in which “politics and Mr. Elton were talked over”. When first examined, it might seem nothing more than a bit of quintessential wry, absurdist, Austenian irony, i.e., that the two discussion topics of greatest interest to the partygoers that float by Emma’s self-absorbed ears are, so to speak, “apples and oranges” – i.e., the great ---political affairs of state affecting the entire nation, versus the small -- small town gossip about Mr. Elton’s shockingly sudden marital success. And ironically, Emma is surely much more interested in Mr. Elton than politics.

16 chapters later, we will witness Emma, in the full bloom of her narcissism, utterly uninterested in matters of great import in England -- the only sort of attention she gives to England is when she sits outside at Donwell Abbey:

“It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.”

Not for a nanosecond does the fate of the English people -- especially the rural poor who have been displaced by major enclosure of the commons by squires like Knightley, to say nothing of the soldiers whose lives are at risk at that very moment on the Continent --- intrude on her fantasy that views the English countryside as nothing more than a grand painting created for her personal, exclusive viewing pleasure.

But that description certainly does not apply to Jane Austen herself, whom we all know to have been among the keenest-eyed and most well-informed of English citizens. And so, it occurred to me that this passing reference to “politics” must be much more than a trivial offering to lovers of her small ironies. But what could it really mean? At that moment, I recalled that the Coles’ party occurs right before
Valentine’s Day, 1814, when Frank goes to London to get his hair cut (and, I suggest, much more). And when I Googled “February 1814”, look what popped up in Wikipedia:

“The Battle of Champaubert (10 February 1814) was the opening engagement of the Six Days’ Campaign…a final series of victories by the forces of Napoleon… as the Sixth Coalition closed in on Paris… It was fought between a French army led by Napoleon and a small Russian corps…After putting up a good fight, the Russian formation was effectively destroyed…”

However, Napoleon’s shocking victory, which surely was reported as very bad news in England shortly thereafter, was strikingly akin to the Battle of the Bulge 130 years later – e.g, it was a short lived surprising victory for a Continental conqueror, that was rapidly followed by his defeat – Paris fell two months later, and Napoleon was exiled to Elba in April 1814.

So we see, once again, as with the slavery subtext that pervades all of Mansfield Park, Austen places major world events just at the edge of her stories. And knowledgeable early readers of Emma in 1816, only two years after the Six Days’ Campaign, could, with a small mental effort, have discerned the hidden calendar of the novel, and figured out exactly what was meant by “politics” – which, by the way, only adds to the absurdist humor of placing Napoleon’s fleeting military resurrection and Mr. Elton’s courtship triumph on equal footing!

But then, as I said at the beginning of this post – this is not a stand-alone allusion – knowing what I first saw 4 ½ years ago, there is no question that we’re meant to connect Mr. Elton’s disastrous miscalculation in the snowy Christmas Eve carriage ride with Emma, to Napoleon’s disastrous miscalculation in the snowy steppes of Russia in the Winter of 1812-13!

And many readers of Emma would say that Mr. Elton’s landing the Bristol heiress Miss Hawkins would, after the end of the novel, ultimately turn out to be his own personal Waterloo.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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