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Re-reading Box Hill: reading the practice of reading everyday life

Unanswerable Gallantry and Thick-Headed Nonsense: Rereading Box Hill

Michael Gamer, University of Pennsylvania

  1. As Marilyn Butler and Claudia Johnson have noted, reading Emma is very different from rereading it. It is a difference, moreover, celebrated in a majority of critical treatments of the novel, whether as a proof of Austen's artistry or as a starting point for exploring her politics. Austen's technical mastery, Johnson argues, lies in her ability to make "Emma's misapprehensions seem utterly plausible when we read the novel for the first time" (133). Our pleasure in rereading Emma, then, comes in part from noting our own previous misreadings, with their tendency to ignore, like Emma, important details as superfluous because they happen to contradict existing hypotheses. For Butler, "Emma is the greatest novel of the period" because "every movement of thought finds its verbal equivalent in a nuance of speech" (250); or, put another way, she finds every speech both nuanced and interpretable. A first reading of Emma, then, provides us with the pleasure of speculating with Emma upon characters' intentions from their speech and actions, and of beginning to understand how Emma's own desires obscure her ability to read, as Knightley puts it, with "impartial [. . .] judgment" (III.xv, 404). Given Emma's denoument—which pledges for Emma the end of "disguise, equivocation, mystery, so hateful to her" and the beginning of "full and perfect confidence which her disposition was most ready to welcome as a duty" (III.xviii, 432)—we might expect our rereadings of the novel to supplement the prior pleasures of first- and second-guessing with the informed hindsight of close reading. Yet what I find emerging from my own (multiple) rereadings of Emma—and particularly the Box Hill Episode—is the growing conviction that few or none of the lessons learned in the course of the text provide access to the unobstructed reading that Emma ultimately promises.

  2. In focusing, like my fellow contributors, primarily on the Box Hill Episode of Emma (volume 3, chapter 7), part of my aim is simply to show its complexity of signification, particularly the degree to which Austen frustrates even the most fundamental acts of interpretation and upsets rudimentary correspondences between signifiers and apparent signifieds. If Nicola Watson and others are correct in charting in Emma a drive towards "transparency" (103), Box Hill undermines this notion by rambunctiously celebrating what various characters in Emma call "nonsense"—the very enigmas, disguises, and equivocations supposedly rejected at its closure. With this celebration Emma ceases to be a novel about disciplining a heroine into right reading, and instead becomes one intent upon exposing the possibility of autonomous right reading as a fantasy. This is not to say that Emma does not put forward various interpretive keys before Box Hill, but rather that those provided do not allow Emma (or Emma's rereaders) to understand fully what occurs there. I call attention to Butler's phrase ("verbal equivalent"), then, because it so nicely describes the ideal of verbal uprightness that Emma by its end claims to provide; and in this sense, Box Hill does function as the ideal's nightmarish opposite. But as Johnson has argued persuasively, Austen often raises such polemical antitheses—here opposing verbal transparency to verbal play and obfuscation—"in an exploratory and interrogative, rather than hortatory and prescriptive, manner" (xxi). I would like to trace a few of the strategies of reading Austen explored in Emma's earlier chapters before bringing them to bear on Box Hill and its aftermath.

  3. The majority of Austen's commentators—among them Butler (1975), Janet Todd (1980), Mary Poovey (1984), Johnson (1988, 1993), Adela Pinch (1996), Lisa Moore (1997), and Deirdre Lynch (1998)—have found her assumptions concerning the relation between speech and thought to arise out of her interest in, and suspicion of, a body of assumptions loosely grouped under the heading of "sensibility." With its roots in Lockean subjectivity and Enlightenment theories of emotion, sensibility usually structures social interaction and the acts of reading that come with it into an exterior-interior binary, where speech and physical signifiers like tone of voice, sighing, or physical unsteadiness promise to represent interior emotional states and, as Butler puts it, "every movement of thought." Sentimental fiction's obsession with involuntary bodily responses lies in its core assumption that human speech and countenances are reliably readable and that strong emotions produce physiological symptoms (like blushing and weeping) that cannot be counterfeited convincingly. Much of its drama therefore lies in the detection and performance of emotion and in the suspense of when and how feeling will betray or display itself.

  4. Within the early chapters of Emma, Austen characterizes John Knightley and Harriet Smith as initially transparent characters along these lines. In John Knightley's case, much of the tension of Emma's eleventh and twelfth chapters stems from the threat of his temper—that at some point during his visit to Hartfield he will become so irritated with Mr. Woodhouse as to lose patience and speak his feelings directly. Emma's primary social function in these chapters is as a sentimental reader whose job is to monitor John Knightley's speech for signs of vexation and, whenever possible, assuage these feelings or deflect conversation away from the source of their irritation. Harriet Smith, on the other hand, presents an equally readable female counterpart, although in this case Harriet's readability in the first half of the novel comes less from the strength of her feelings than from her total transparency. When Emma speaks with Harriet regarding Robert Martin, for example, Austen finds in it an opportunity to appropriate a foundational scene of sentimental fiction—that moment where an exterior (bodily and verbal) surface loses its ambiguity, becomes entirely readable, and betrays its depths of feeling:

    [Harriet and Robert Martin] remained but a few minutes together, as Miss Woodhouse must not be kept waiting; and Harriet then came running to her with a smiling face, and in a flutter of spirits, which Miss Woodhouse hoped very soon to compose. [. . .]

    "Only think of our happening to meet him! How very odd. It was quite a chance, he said, that he had not gone round by Randalls. He did not think we ever walked this road. He has not been able to get the Romance of the Forest yet. He was so busy the last time he was at Kingston that he quite forgot it, but he goes again tomorrow. So very odd we should happen to meet! Well, Miss Woodhouse, is he like what you expected? What do you think of him? Do you think him so very plain?" (I.iv, 27-28)

    Harriet's smiling face and running flutter of spirits here work in sync with the flutter of her speech, and Emma immediately interprets both as external semblances of a corresponding internal state—i.e., the beginnings of first love. Emma's response that Robert Martin "is very plain, undoubtedly—remarkably plain [. . .] so very clownish, so totally without air," is designed to do more than "compose" Harriet out of this state of excitement. When Harriet responds, as Emma anticipates, "in a mortified voice" that "'To be sure [. . .] he is not so genteel as real gentlemen" (I.iv, 28), Emma assesses Harriet's new state of feeling and proceeds to compare Robert Martin unfavorably to the other gentlemen of the neighborhood until Harriet can only agree "rather solemnly" to the truth of Emma's comparisons. As in the case of her successful regulation of John Knightley's temper, Emma's ability to persuade Harriet to refuse Robert Martin's eventual proposal stems less from her own skills at manipulating the language of feeling than from John Knightley's and Harriet Smith's openness of countenance and readability of speech.

  5. As Emma's subsequent misreadings demonstrate, however, part of Austen's project is to make the limitations of such sentimental reading clear from the outset. During these scenes, after all, Emma often must misrepresent her actual opinions—she respects Robert Martin far more than she says, for example—and suppress her own feelings of the moment. While characters like Miss Bates, Mr. Woodhouse, John Knightley, and Harriet Smith provide instances of easy readability in Emma, the bulk of its other characters are skilled at not providing verbal equivalences for every nuance of thought. These characters instead wield sentimental signifiers as elements of social performance or for social gain, and their activity renders them at best only imperfectly readable and at times downright puzzling. Mr. Elton might sigh like a sentimental man in love, but, as Emma discovers angrily, there is little way to ascertain his sigh's object. And even when Elton surprises Emma with his unlooked-for proposal of marriage—"declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him" (I.xv, 117)—she still doubts the authenticity of his feelings. Elton's own anger at her subsequent refusal arises from his belief that he has "marked" his feelings in acceptable verbal form and that she therefore has tacitly encouraged them. Emma's disbelieving silence at this claim, furthermore, provides Elton with a second opportunity to engage in further sentimental misreading: "'Allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me'" (I.xv, 119).

  6. My point here is that, for all its limitations and for all of the repeated critique and satire directed at it by Austen, sensibility remains a dominant mode of reading in Emma. Even after Emma ruminates on her misinterpretations of Elton's behavior, she still allows sensibility's assumptions concerning interiority and exteriority to structure her thinking:

    The picture! How eager he had been about the picture! And the charade! And a hundred other circumstances; how clearly they had seemed to point at Harriet! To be sure, the charade, with its "ready wit"—but then, the "soft eyes"—in fact it suited neither; it was a jumble without taste or truth. Who could have seen through such thick-headed nonsense? (I.xvi, 121-122)

    Rather than rejecting the belief that Elton's countenance and speech are interpretable, Emma concludes that his "thick-headed nonsense" stems from his being inarticulate in the language of feeling, an interior deficiency that in turn renders his words and actions "a jumble without taste or truth."

  7. Satirized yet not abandoned, sentimental misreadings in Emma differ in their causes from those produced by Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey. While Catherine's quixotic errors at Northanger stem from her misapplication of gothic fiction to reality, Emma's stem from her belief in her own powers of analysis and, by extension, her faith in the assumptions that govern her reading. In the chapter that follows Elton's proposal, Emma searches for other analytical tools to supplement her analysis of Elton's actions, and the critical approach that she ultimately adopts is the one previously recommended to her by Knightley—class:

    She thought nothing of his attachment, and was insulted by his hopes. He wanted to marry well, and having the arrogance to raise his eyes to her, pretended to be in love [. . .] Sighs and fine words had been given in abundance; but she could hardly devise any set of expressions, or fancy any tone of voice, less allied with real love. She need not trouble herself to pity him. He only wanted to aggrandize and enrich himself; and if Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield, the heiress of thirty thousand pounds, were not quite so easily obtained as he had fancied, he would soon try for Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten. (I.xvi, 122-23)

    On a first reading, one might suspect the above passage to be another instance in Emma's mistaken judgment were it not for the fact that, half a dozen chapters later, we find that Mr. Elton has engaged himself to a Miss Hawkins of some ten thousand pounds. In my own rereadings of Emma for this issue of the Romantic Circles Praxis Series, in fact, I have been most surprised by the relentless nature of Emma's class analysis—both the frequency and accuracy with which she employs it. Such arguments dominate her reasoning with regard to Robert Martin ("The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do" [I.iv, 25]), Mr. Elton ("he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior" [I.xvi, 123]), the Coles ("they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel" [II.vii, 186]), Mrs. Elton ("'A little upstart, vulgar being, with [. . .] her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery'" [II.xiv, 250]), and even the feared marriage Harriet and Mr. Knightley ("It was a union to distance every wonder of the kind. [. . .] Such an elevation on her side! Such a debasement on his!" [III.xi, 375]). Perhaps more surprising still is that Emma's class consciousness, while famously bordering on a kind of snobbery early in the novel, is never incorrect in the foundations of its reasoning. Her only real piece of mistaken romanticizing, in fact—her estimation of Harriet—comes because she ignores Harriet's class position and its discrepancy with her own. And in this case, Mr. Knightley correctively provides what can only be called the "facts" of Harriet's social status ("She is the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations. She is known only as parlour boarder at a common school" [I.viii, 54-55]).

  8. Knightley's reading, furthermore, is supported by Emma's own inconsistent behavior on the subject. Willing to ignore the difference in status between Harriet and Mr. Elton, Emma is perfectly able to comprehend the similar distance that lies between Elton and herself and to think his presumption in proposing to her offensive. Even in the case of Harriet, Emma by the end of the novel adopts Knightley's more "impartial" views:

    Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! Had she left her where she ought, and where he had told her she ought!—Had she not [. . .] prevented her marrying the unexceptionable young man who would have made her happy and respectable in the line of life to which she ought to belong [. . .] (III.xi, 375)

    By the end of Emma, class reading emerges as a reliable anchor to sentimental reading, one that secures signifiers of feeling to their correct signifieds and allows Emma to make sense of Mr. Elton's effusions, Mrs. Elton's aggressiveness, Miss Bates's agreeableness, Jane Fairfax's reservedness, and even Mr. Knightley's watchful benevolence.

  9. While sentimental and class reading constitute the two dominant modes of analysis throughout the novel, they meet their match at Box Hill. Or, put another way, neither mode provides Emma or Emma's readers with any kind of foothold or defense for what happens there. On Box Hill class does not even enter into consciousness until Mr. Knightley's closing reprimand of Emma as the excursion is ending; and to read the day's various conversations as sentimental representations of interior emotional states is to confront a series of linguistic surfaces without corresponding depths, where even apparent depths of feeling actually veil unknown motives, resentments, and agendas. What other Austen commentators have called the epistemological failure of Emma's ending—with Frank Churchill's letter of explanation not even beginning to explain what really has gone on in the novel and why—begins in earnest at Box Hill. For the remainder of this short essay, then, I would like to demonstrate how the episode celebrates the kinds of "disguise" and "mystery" Emma is taught to hate.

  10. As if to set up what follows, volume 3, chapter 7 of Emma opens with a series of statements about appearances and realities at odds with one another: the day is "very fine [. . .] and all the other outward circumstances [. . .] in favour of a pleasant party," yet over it presides "a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over" (III.vii, 331-332). In spite of Mr. Weston's competent hosting and general conviviality, the party soon splits off into groups that Austen presents as seemingly accidental yet "never materially var[ying]": "The Eltons walked together; Mr. Knightley took charge of Miss Bates and Jane; and Emma and Harriet belonged to Frank Churchill" (III.vii, 332). Given the oppositional logic of the chapter's opening statements, Austen invites her readers to interpret the group's divisions according to the same logic as the chapter's opening sentences. While appearing to be one party, the group is "really" at odds with itself, and the resulting divisions formed are tacit, unvarying, and natural. Such reasoning also agrees with the chapter's representations of the spirits of Frank Churchill and Emma. Frank Churchill for the first part of the day is "silent and stupid," but when sitting down he becomes "talkative and gay" (332). Emma, similarly, is not "gay and thoughtless from any real felicity [. . .] [but] rather because she felt less happy than she had expected" (III.vii, 333).

  11. Yet we only need look back at the party's groupings themselves to realize that they are not the underlying realities that they pretend to be. The Eltons walking together might strike us as possibly correct, yet the other groupings correspond neither to the novel's final allegiances nor those operating at the time of Box Hill. And when we consider the groupings themselves as signifying some buried reality we find further inconsistencies, for each group forms according to different rationales: the Eltons pair up in spite of their usual desire to be the center of all social intercourse; Mr. Knightley joins Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax out of a sense of social duty and pleasure in Jane's company; Harriet and Emma pair up out of either habit or friendship; and Frank Churchill, whether from his attraction to Emma, his pleasure in satisfying his own vanity, his desire to conceal his engagement to Jane, or his desire to inflict pain upon Jane, joins Emma and Harriet. Needless to say, the party divides for reasons neither natural nor coherent despite Austen's presentation of the divisions as such.

  12. A similar slipperiness informs Emma's and Frank Churchill's flirting, which Emma assumes to signify nothing yet expects will be misinterpreted:

    [His attentions] now, in her estimation, meant nothing, though in the judgment of most people looking on, it must have had such an appearance as no English word but flirtation could very well describe. "Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Woodhouse flirted together excessively." They were laying themselves open to that very phrase [. . .] (III.vii, 332-333)

    Far from meaning nothing, their flirting proves one of the unknowable puzzles of Emma, anticipating the unsatisfactory excuses of Frank Churchill's own letter at the end of the novel. Churchill's flirting with Emma may deflect suspicion from his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax, but it also (apparently) gratuitously and intentionally wounds Jane. And while this reading would appear to be further supported by Churchill's well-aimed request that Emma find a wife for him, and his disparaging comments about the "ill-luck" of "weak, irresolute characters" who have "committed [them]sel[ves] on short acquaintance," the Frank-Jane relationship also remains the one element of the novel that always remains unavailable to Emma's omnicient narrator (III.vii, 337). To borrow Emma's prophetic statement, "[Frank's] gallantry is really unanswerable" (III.vii, 333), and in the aftermath of Box Hill no account surfaces that can explain fully his motives or his part in the flirtation.

  13. If no satisfactory cause ever emerges for Frank's behavior, even less of one is provided for Emma's. Austen might gesture early in the chapter to her enjoyment of flattery, but the explanation makes little sense given the assiduity with which Emma usually attends to appearances. Even more striking (and unexplainable) is Emma's lack of consideration for Harriet. Having spent the bulk of the novel scheming to marry Harriet to one of the eligible young men around her—and having for the last four chapters conspired to throw Frank Churchill and Harriet together—Emma's behavior at Box Hill fundamentally does not make sense, whether from a matchmaking or a sororial point of view. One wonders what Emma, having become convinced (mistakenly) of Harriet's affection for Frank Churchill only three chapters before, can be thinking while flirting "excessively" directly in front of her. We might discover later with Emma that Harriet is oblivious to the affront because she has set her sights on Knightley, but the fact remains that Emma believes Harriet to be in love with Frank. In this light, it is difficult not to believe Emma cognizant of her own behavior, and therefore to be acting with an intention to hurt Harriet similar to Frank Churchill's apparent desire to hurt Jane. The scene becomes almost laughably complex when, in rereading, we find that Emma, while not affronting Harriet, has been unknowingly wounding Jane and Knightley. We are left with a situation in which, simply put, Emma and Frank affect an unknown portion of the party in unknown ways by acting nonsensically for unknown (or unascertainable) reasons.

  14. Austen, moreover, revels in this tangle of signification by further dwelling upon the situation Emma and Frank have brought into being. When Emma notes in a whisper to Frank that they have been "talking nonsense for the entertainment of seven silent people" (III.vii, 334), the combination of their own noise and their audience's silence suggests that the scene has become at least "unanswerable" if not unreadable. Rather than endeavoring to correct this situation, Frank instead responds with a further piece of "nonsense" that obfuscates things still further. By stating that "Miss Woodhouse [. . .] desires to know what you are all thinking," he attributes to Emma something that she does not desire; by first whispering to Emma that "any nonsense will serve" and then asking this question, he makes it unclear to Emma and to us whether he even wishes to know its answer (III.vii, 334). Knightley's response, "Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear what we are all thinking of?" (III.vii, 334), immediately calls attention to fallacious nature of the question by suggesting that it has not been asked out of a genuine desire to know the answer. Emma's nervous retraction and Frank's revised request that each member of the party say "something very entertaining" reiterates that conversation at Box Hill is without foundation. It is at this crucial moment—when language ostentatiously has lost its signifying status and become pure verbal play—that Emma, with "mock ceremony of manner," publicly humiliates Miss Bates by calling attention to her dullness. As if to seal this irony, Mr. Weston follows Emma's own remark with his conundrum, and it is no accident, at the moment in the text when Emma has fallen furthest from moral rectitude, that no one in the party can answer Mrs. Weston regarding which two letters ("M. A.," i.e., "Emma") spell perfection. Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax in vain attempt pointed comments that only their respective targets (Emma and Frank) will understand, but it is unclear whether they are heeded or even understood.

  15. In my own ruminations on how signification works at Box Hill, I find myself most often reminded of similar patterns that occur in Ann Radcliffe's fiction. There, character motivation and psychology are structured by sentimental assumptions even while the fiction itself systematically frustrates them through its dizzying labyrinths, sublime landscapes, mysterious portents, and unreadable villains. Reading a novel like The Italian, we become aware quite early on that, like Vivaldi and Ellena, we simply do not know what really is happening. With rereading, we find that one of the surprising pleasures of Radcliffe's fiction is not that of having our uncertainties explained but rather confirmed and expanded. Feeling this way, Radcliffe's early reviewers often noted the degree to which her fiction depended upon misdirecting readers and exciting them by tricks and coincidences. Yet by the time they arrived at The Romance of the Forest and the works that followed it, they came up against settings mired in the same kinds of linguistic ambiguity, disguise, and mystery that rule in a more mundane way at Box Hill. Given the central role that Radcliffe's fiction plays in Northanger Abbey, it does not suprise me that one of the first books that Emma hands the impressionable Harriet is The Romance of the Forest. Given the celebration of conundrum and unreadability that occurs at Box Hill, it surprises me even less that The Romance of the Forest ends up having little or no significance in Emma. It is exactly this kind of detail—potentially significant but actually signifying differently, if at all—that presides over Box Hill and gives both the episode and Emma an opacity that does not become less opaque or more deliciously ironic on subsequent readings.

  16. I dub Box Hill one of the scenes in which Austen pays most powerful homage to Radcliffe, then, because of this pleasure she takes in providing surfaces that point to corresponding depths, only to expose those apparent depths as surfaces that are never fully known or explained. Emma's final chapters may expose the "real" alliances that have driven the episode and that constitute Emma's ending, but they cannot account for Frank Churchill's behavior or describe Jane Fairfax's feelings, let alone explain Emma's loathing of Jane or her reasons for attacking Miss Bates. Even Knightley's attempt to close the episode by chastizing Emma leaves fundamental questions unanswered, such as whether Emma should support Miss Bates because she has fallen from her former stature (i.e., has become an object of sympathy) or because she remains, however tenuously, of the same class (i.e., is a person whose fall matters). Knightley's attempt to reduce the episode to class, moreover, occurs at the end of a chapter until then surprisingly free of such awareness; and class analysis, so useful in previous chapters, does not even begin to provide insight into how people behave at Box Hill. It neither answers why the parties divide as they do nor explains why they converse with such strain. I am left as well with a similar impression of Emma's ending, and (at least with this rereading of it) find the promise of perfect communication between Emma and Knightley too at odds with the kinds of misreading and disguise Austen celebrates elsewhere. The spectacular failure of Frank Churchill's final letter to explain his actions strikes me as a kind of corroborating testimony for the novel's unwillingness to bring its multiple strains together. I find myself, therefore, believing less in the deep interiority of Emma's characters—an interiority that would defy surface—than in Austen's belief in a social density that is unsortable, unexplainable, and therefore unanswerable to any discursive formation.  

    Works Cited

    Austen, Jane. Emma. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. Cited by volume, chapter, and page.

    Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

    Johnson, Claudia. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

    Moore, Lisa L. Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

    Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford UP, 1996.

    Todd, Janet. Women's Friendship in Literature (New York: Columbia UP, 1980).

    Watson, Nicola J. Revolution and the Form of the British Novel 1790-1825: Intercepted Letters, Interrupted Seductions. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

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April 2000

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