Printer-friendly versionSend by email

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

Saying What One Thinks: Emma—Emma—at Box Hill

William Walling, Rutgers University

  1. Among the many ironies soliciting us in the chapter Austen sets at Box Hill, Mr. Knightley's first recorded remark is the one I've chosen for my starting point. Until we come to it, Frank Churchill has been dominating the representation of the dialogue, eventually appropriating even Emma's voice as his own, grandly claiming that he has been "'ordered by Miss Woodhouse [. . .] to say that she desires to know what you are all thinking of'" (III.vii, 334).

  2. In the flurry of responses that follow, Austen neatly reinforces our sense of at least two of the seven people constrained by Frank Churchill into an audience: "Miss Bates said a great deal; Mrs. Elton swelled at the idea of Miss Woodhouse's presiding." It is only Mr. Knightley, however, who is given the privilege of an explicit reply: "'Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear what we are all thinking of?'"

  3. The question, of course, is one of those moments in Austen that her sophisticated admirers especially prize. At its most alluring, it seems to invite the watchful reader into a private pact with the knowingness behind the novel—a benign conspiracy, as it were, of two (or is it three?) intelligences too perceptive to be seduced by mere appearances. For what after all has the narrative authority been doing up to this point at Box Hill but unmasking, to even the least watchful of readers, the darker reality behind the bright charade Emma has been busily enacting with Frank Churchill? "Not that Emma was gay and thoughtless from any real felicity; it was rather because she felt less happy than she had expected" (III.vii, 333).

  4. Yet, as my parenthetical uncertainty about the number of intelligences involved in this superior knowingness implies, the issue of Mr. Knightley's relationship to the narrator's authority stands today as a troubling complication in our reading of the novel. It was not always so. To Wayne Booth for example, writing almost forty years ago, the "issue" I've posed was resolvable into a simple matter of highly sophisticated technique: "When [Mr. Knightley] rebukes Emma for manipulating Harriet, when he attacks her for superficiality and false pride, when he condemns her for being 'insolent' and 'unfeeling' in her treatment of Miss Bates, we have Jane Austen's judgment on Emma, rendered dramatically" (253).

  5. By this reduction of Booth's argument to the technical, I hasten to add, I don't at all mean to indulge in a facile dismissal of an earlier mode of close reading. Booth is quite clear that the rhetorical mastery he finds in Austen is inseparable from a profound moral concern. But the sea change of late twentieth-century feminism has carried most of us to a rather different shore, and I suspect attentive readers now are quite as likely to be struck by the circumstance of Austen's choosing a male voice to dramatize her "judgment on Emma" as by her skill in doing it.

  6. The dreaded name of patriarchy seems the inevitable explanation—except that such a label, in its overarching generality, doesn't help us very much with a writer so locally precise as Austen. Indeed, "patriarchy" and "feminism," concepts hardly unrelated to one another, may be the two terms most vexing the study of Austen today, since their very inevitability now in discussions of her work presents a constant temptation to dehistoricize, given the nearly transhistorical force these terms have assumed in our own time. What I'd like to do in the space remaining to me, then, is return to the specificity of Box Hill itself for a little while before concluding with a few summary remarks about the novel as a whole.

  7. I'll begin with the subject of cruelty, a somewhat more transparent matter at Box Hill than the issue of patriarchal control. Or so it would seem. Consider, for example, the manner in which Austen virtually compels the reader to register, by the episode's close, the heartless nature of Emma's "wit" at Miss Bates's expense (III.vii, 339). Clearly enough, it's done through the device of having Mr. Knightley spell out a detailed and unambiguous judgment on Emma's behavior, as though fulfilling the role Austen so often assigns to him of being the most reliable reader of her text.

  8. No doubt a recognition like this scarcely carries us much beyond the analysis I quoted earlier from Wayne Booth. Still, there is another implied cruelty enacted at Box Hill far more sustained and infinitely more calculated than Emma's, and because the very surety of Mr. Knightley's judgment tends to obscure the larger design implicit in the episode, I want to reconstruct what's been partially occluded.

  9. Admittedly, it's an occlusion that no one who's read the entire novel fails to recognize at some level—that the far greater presumptive cruelty at Box Hill is Frank Churchill's, inflicted upon an almost defenseless Jane Fairfax. Nevertheless, because Austen chooses to delay our initial knowledge of it for more than another two chapters (the excursion to Box Hill occurs in chapter 7 of Volume III, the revelation of the secret engagement between Frank and Jane occurs in chapter 10), the sense of outrage we might be expected to feel for the apparent brutality of Frank's behavior is—and, I would argue, remains—curiously muted.

  10. Unaesthetic as it may seem, then, the reconstitution of that second implicit cruelty in the face of Austen's design does emphasize the striking pattern of injustice which survives at Box Hill beneath the authority of even Mr. Knightley's voice. On the one hand, of course, there is the relatively minor offense of an impulsive rudeness on Emma's part to Miss Bates that is placed at center stage and soon merits its perpetrator unmistakable punishment. On the other hand, there is the contemptible malice we are tempted to find in Frank's coded language to a powerless Jane Fairfax for which Frank suffers no appreciable consequence at all.

  11. To be sure, Emma does cry out afterwards her incredulity that Jane Fairfax should have submitted to the treatment Frank inflicted on her: "'And how could she bear such behavior!'" (III.x, 360). But Emma is, as usual, the least reliable reader of Austen's text, and my point in reconstituting what Austen has obscured is to call attention to the extended similarity of the two injured parties at Box Hill—unmarried women without incomes, bound to each other by blood—and the conspicuous difference between the two actors who have assumed the right to impose on these paired women as they choose: a privileged woman and a privileged man.

  12. Such a similarity and such a difference does seem to prefigure the feminist dilemma in our own time of assessing the relative weight of gender and class. (I consign to parentheses the equally problematic issue of race, although few readers familiar with Austen will want to ignore the near-hysterical irruption of "the slave-trade" into one of Jane Fairfax's earlier conversations [271], as if in compulsive, belated echo of the formidable subtext haunting Mansfield Park.) For the moment, however, I'd like to leave these deliberate anachronisms and return to Emma and Frank as the joint agents of unfeeling privilege at Box Hill.

  13. Indeed, if we do reconstitute these two together as covert equals—secret sharers, as it were, in a sense of entitlement neither has earned and for which neither is worthy (until one of them, at any rate, is raised to the proper level of social responsibility by Mr. Knightley's admonishment)—then the extraordinary passage near the close of the novel on "the stain of illegitimacy" takes on a much sharper significance. But because the passage I'm referring to is so extraordinary, I'll quote it in full:

    Harriet's parentage became known. She proved to be the daughter of a tradesman, rich enough to afford her the comfortable maintenance which had ever been her's, and decent enough to have always wished for concealment.—Such was the blood of gentility which Emma had formerly been so ready to vouch for!—It was likely to be as untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman: but what a connexion had she been preparing for Mr. Knightley—or for the Churchills—or even for Mr. Elton!—The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed. (III.xix, 438)
  14. At first glance—and possibly at second—this seems to be Austen in her least attractive mode. All the same, I think something rather different can be made of the passage if we grant Austen the right to be anachronistic on her own terms. For what I would argue she's doing here is using the trope of "the bastard" in Emma's consciousness to address, however deviously and even anxiously, the fundamental issue of social inequity.

  15. Seen in this light, Harriet Smith becomes both more and less than the comic projection of Emma's own ambivalencies about her destiny as a woman. Clearly an almost flat character, Harriet may well appear to be contained in Emma's naively erotic view of her. All the same, Austen's larger narrative also suggests a far less manageable anxiety at work—the perpetual near-panic of Emma's father is the most obvious case in point—which Harriet's own "illegitimacy" can't help but adumbrate. Not unlike the latest fear of Mr. Woodhouse's we learn about, his terror of "housebreaking" on the final page of the novel, "the stain of illegitimacy" in Harriet offers a shadowy subversion to the ordered world that Mr. Knightley's marriage to Emma so presumably validates.

  16. Still, to say as much is to yoke Austen to a much earlier vision of the bastard as social trope. That this vision in its most preeminent form is Shakespeare's probably doesn't need a great deal of stressing. From the relatively crude Faulconbridge of King John to the unsettling culmination that Edmund represents in King Lear, Shakespeare apparently relished the concept of the "illegitimate" as the surest means for addressing the inherent arbitrariness of the "legitimate." And if Austen's use of the same trope two centuries later seems oddly dated, I suspect the very anachronism of her choice is a testament to the actual, contemporary anxieties Emma obliquely addresses and often contains. (Not for nothing, for example, is the subject of inequality one of the themes of Mr. Knightley's lecture to Emma at Box Hill—"'Were she [that is, Miss Bates] your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case'" [339].)

  17. This is not quite to suggest that what Mr. Woodhouse really fears at the close are "housebreakers" chanting Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite! in between stanzas of the Marseillaise. Nonetheless, I do want to maintain that Austen's choice of bastardy with Harriet may have been her own strategic anachronism for writing the beautifully controlled, seemingly "timeless" novel she has. Anachronism, in other words, is a strategy with at least two contrary energies whenever it confronts the "contemporary": it can impose the seemingly central concerns of the moment on an earlier time (as I suspect we too often do with Austen); or it can evade too direct a confrontation with the present by resorting to the formulations of an earlier time.

  18. That Austen often chooses the second of these strategies seems to me self-evident. And in this respect Shakespeare, particularly the Shakespeare of Lear, is arguably more central to her imagination than anyone else, not only with the bastard in Emma, but with the family structure she creates for her next novel, Persuasion—a widowed father not very far from madness through vanity, and three daughters, only one of whom has any value—as well as with the supererogatory third sister Austen unaccountably attaches to Elinor and Marianne in the much earlier Sense and Sensibility. (I leave for parentheses the far more outrageous proposition that Mansfield Park recasts, in the Bertrams and the Prices, the two families of Lear, so that Fanny Price is both put-upon Cordelia and uncanny cuckoo-child, somehow managing to cast Goneril and Regan out of their own patrimonial nest without even trying.)

  19. Still, rather than pursue this particular line of debatable argument any further, I'd prefer to return to the density of Emma itself, a density which for me is never far removed from the peculiar combination of irony and engagement that characterizes Austen as a novelist.

  20. The irony in Austen, I'm sure I don't have to stress, is an almost inescapable topic when commenting on her work. We can see it at its most transparent in one of the sentences describing the group's arrival at Box Hill: "Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there" (III.vii, 332)—where the wonderfully understated nothing is not unlike the equally dry all a century and a half later in the Beatles' "All you need is love." But we can find a rather more subtle example soon afterwards in the emphasis Austen places upon the "want of union" among the nine people so disjointedly assembled for the excursion, while she moves the narrative onward, beyond Box Hill, towards an ending where, more than a hundred pages later, we are to be assured in the novel's final six words of "the perfect happiness of the union" between Emma and Mr. Knightley (III.xix, 440; my italics), especially since the idea of perfection itself has been exploded at Box Hill through its witty association with Emma's name (see the illuminating discussion of "perfection" and "Emma" in Park Honan's biography [356]).

  21. Isolated occurrences like these, however, are less interesting than the more problematic moments where the ultimate point of the irony seems impossible to pin down. Consider, for example, Austen's notorious representation of the response Emma gives to Mr. Knightley's proposal: "What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does" (III.xiii, 391). Obviously, in its denial to Emma of explicit speech, one might argue (and I'm sure someone has) that the narrator has appropriated Emma's voice for her own as conclusively as Frank Churchill did earlier for his declarations at Box Hill. Or, with at least equal justice, one might claim that the "lady" in Austen's formulation is an arbitrary social construct effectively denying Emma all possibility of individual expression. Or, even more plausibly perhaps, one might argue that the three sentences reflect nothing more than Austen's good humored evasion of the cliches attendant upon the kind of "happy" ending that silly "lady" readers demand.

  22. But in no way can we be certain of the real direction of Austen's irony, and in that respect her unfathomable tone approximates the interrogation of irony itself that we've seen in the past quarter century or so. (I'm thinking not only of Wayne Booth's analysis of "unstable" irony—in his later Rhetoric of Irony, 1971—but even more of Paul de Man's quite independent critique of the New Critics' all-too-complacent understanding of where, in their own well-wrought readings, the irony "stops.") Still, to venture any farther into this area is to participate too passively in another kind of anachronism, the inescapable one implicit in Croce's maxim long ago that "all history" (not to mention all criticism) "is contemporary."

  23. Far less risky, on the other hand, is a simple recognition of a quality not commonly found in so distinguished an ironist: Austen's ability to maintain an illusion of engagement with the putative reality of her narratives, even while her impulse towards irony brings her so strikingly close—sometimes—to subverting their apparent integrity. And it is this surprising quality of engagement, I am sure, far more than any admiration for her wonderfully layered detachment, that explains her enduring readership. I choose to end, then, more or less where I began: with a sense of her truly remarkable resistance to reduction, even as that astonishing resistance continues to play itself not "out" but between the covers of Emma. That for now, at least for me, seems more than enough.  

    Works Cited

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

    Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1963.

    Honan, Park. Jane Austen. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

About this Page

Published @ RC

April 2000