Wolfson, "Boxing Emma; or the Reader’s Dilemma at the Box Hill Games"

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

Boxing Emma; or the Reader’s Dilemma at the Box Hill Games

Susan J. Wolfson, Princeton University

  1. The Box Hill games are the famed harrowing of Emma’s pride and flippant self-esteem: for publicly mocking a vulnerable Miss Bates she privately gets her ears boxed by Mr. Knightley, the reprimand constituting the last round of her training for the big box on the hill, Donwell Abbey, as Mrs. Knightley. This disciplinary sequence—his rebuke, her "true contrition" and "penitence," then a restoration to "perfect amity"—has entered the critical literature as a story of the heroine’s moral and emotional maturation. Yet the novel has also been busy weaving other designs that not only resist neat alignment but provoke contrary sympathies—a conundrum that the close, if not the closure, of Emma lets stand. To make this case, I’ll be setting the critical moralizing that presumes to be channeling an absolute authorial intention against the way other readers have made their way toward and out of Box Hill, not with any perverse resistance to Austen but teasing out her several apparent intentions.

  2. That something is at stake for any interpretation is suggested by the misshape of Box Hill. Much anticipated, frustratingly postponed, effected at last, the summer outing almost immediately a hits a sour note. Though "they had a very fine day" and everything is formally perfect—"outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality"—the banded host of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds: "there was deficiency [. . .] a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over" (III.vii, 331-32). Bored even in play-acting a public flirtation with Frank Churchill (Emma does not know she lacks the full set of director's notes), "gay and thoughtless," eager for entertainment, she snaps the bait of garrulous Miss Bates's chance self-abjection (III.vii, 333). Pretending Emma's authority, Frank casually provides the general set-up:

    Ladies and gentlemen—I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse to say, that [. . .] she only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all."

    "Oh! very well," exclaimed Miss Bates, "then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?—(looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?"

    Emma could not resist.

         "Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once."

         Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her.

          "Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend." (III.vii, 335)
    Although Miss Bates may have asked for it (being just self-conscious enough to know her faults but too weak or vain to reform them), Emma’s jest violates even Frank’s Law: "She is a woman that one may, that one must laugh at; but that one would not wish to slight" (II.xii, 234)—and he’s no stranger to taking his amusement at the expense of vulnerable women. Mr. Knightley, who has been itching with judgment even before this slight ("Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear what we are all thinking of?" [334]), would never have said such a thing (would never, he is sure, even thought it), and he lets Emma have it, soon and hard. Austen has gotten us used to reading by Knightley-lights, flattering us ever since Volume I with a cognitive alliance, if we too had guessed Mr. Elton’s true designs and foresaw Emma’s first humiliation. And the Knightley view haunts any rereading, by which time the reader knows his rebuke is impending. Our convener, Bill Galperin, sees Frank as his narratological ally here (71-72): casting Emma as Picnic Queen is an arbitrary empowerment that in effect solicits Mr. Knightley’s coup de grace. His educing her better self through such chastisement is related to something else we know on rereading: that Frank has been frank with no one about his romance with Jane Fairfax, having kept all Highbury, including the usually "penetrating" Mr. Knightley, (and of course us) in the dark[1]. When we learn of this "offstage" plot, we can think only less of him and less of Emma for the self-deluded conceit that lets him use her to taunt Jane: "Very lucky—marrying as they did, upon an acquaintance formed only in a public place!" he gossips of the newlywed Eltons in terms that he knows Jane must take to heart; "They only knew each other, I think, a few weeks in Bath! [. . .] How many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance, and rued it all the rest of his life!" As if this were not pain enough, he then enlists Emma in what he knows she loves best, managing a marriage: "I shall go abroad for a couple of years—and when I return, I shall come to you for my wife" (III.vii, 337-38).
  3. The "artificial amiability" fronting such cruelties makes Frank the real "villain of Box Hill," says Richard Poirier (167). In a "moral nadir" for both, he is "uglier," Marilyn Butler agrees (257)[2]. That Emma has been flippant rather than villainous is the saving grace that makes Mr. Knightley’s reprimand seem not only tolerable but meliorative, an appeal to a latent, better self, one informed by the "natural charity" of her "heart," as A. Walton Litz puts it (141). The canonical critical gesture is thus to anoint Knightley as knight exemplar, not just of Highbury social propriety but of English decency itself. How could Knight St. George not be Emma’s ideal reader and reformer? He "remains the normative and exemplary figure he has traditionally been considered," declares Alistair Duckworth (148); "he remains the reader’s objective point of reference" (160). A band of Knightley-readers has evolved into a virtual cheering gallery at Box Hill. The "Queen of Highbury" suffers a "humiliation of self-conceit, through a long self-wrought succession of disasters," intones Reginald Farrer with palpable savor; and a "real appreciation" of this process "is the final test of citizenship in [Austen’s] kingdom" (266-67). With a knightly nod to Farrer, Wayne Booth passes the test with a full charge at Emma, staged in the arena of the "reform" that will enable a "happy and deserved marriage" (244-45). Austen, he contends, makes "the reader" "desire" this reform (246) via the groom-to-be himself, ever "reliable," "directing our intellectual, moral, and emotional progress" (256), as if we all were bad Emmas in need of this "chief corrective": "He can tell the reader and Emma at the same time precisely how she is mistaken"; his attack on her "for being ‘insolent’ and ‘unfeeling’" is "Austen’s judgment [. . .] rendered dramatically" (253).

  4. The zeal with which Knightley-readers prosecute Emma’s indiscretion is worth noting. "She abuses Miss Bates because of her own essential lack of ‘tenderness’ and ‘good will’," is Booth’s reading of the charge (247). A judgment of Emma at fault or at least in default has pretty much held, even among critics who read a class- or gender-structuring in her instruction. Yet I am not forcibly struck with the inevitability of this verdict. I don’t mean that Emma is essentially moral, only that she is essentially human. Her harshest judges not only cut her no slack for this but also give a free pass to the deformation that is Mr. Knightley’s nightstick. My prompt is a recurrent, legible rhetorical effect: Austen’s enlistment of her reader in sympathy with Emma’s Box-Hill jab at Miss Bates. This is not the sort of "surprised by sin" plot Stanley Fish has famously proposed about Paradise Lost (to rationalize the effect of generations of readers signing on to the Devil’s party)—the Highbury version being our entrapment in a complicity with Emma’s humiliation of Miss Bates that requires our remanding, along with Emma, to Mr. Knightley’s reform school to earn back our certificate of English decency. This is always a potential effect, and I don’t want to coopt "the reader" as Booth & co. have done to claim its impossibility. But I do want to account for other readers, not necessarily benighted, for whom Emma and Emma have provoked and released energies that are not, finally, resolvable to Knightley’s reform.

  5. We all know Austen’s canonically quoted view of Emma as "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like" (Austen-Leigh 157). Her biggest challenge was not getting us to like Emma, after all, after her abjection, but getting us to like her at the moment when she "could not resist," and to admit our likeness—our likeness not only to Emma’s impatience, but to the deeper anxieties it would exorcise. The cumulative rhetoric of Austen’s fiction (if you will) is to jab at us with a dilemma at Box Hill: Would you have said such a thing? Thought it? Smirked? Every time I teach Emma, I poll students on how they negotiated the big blocks of babble that are the Bates hallmark. Did you give her polite, or at least dutiful, attention? Most say they gamely labored in the first event (II.i) but, exasperated by the slim return, when they sensed that strain coming round again (say, in III.ii), they (including professionally committed graduate students) felt more than a dying fall. Ever more quickly scanning the wall of words that promised only a stupefying wash of gossip, triviality, and inanity, they resumed slow reading only as Miss Bates dwindled into silence. My own confession is my listening to Emma on tape to spell a cross-country drive (I don’t recommend this, by the way): with the full vocal impact of Miss Bates—no silent text but a relentless, tedious chirping—I was soon pawing at the fast-forward, or if I felt duty-bound, was driven to daydreaming while she rattled on about everything and nothing.

  6. "I seriously doubt whether any real enjoyment could be extracted from Miss Bates," Agnes Repplier sighed back in 1893, just warming to her subject; "Miss Bates, I must confess, taxes my patience sorely. She is so tiresome that she tires, and I am invariably tempted do what her less fortunate townspeople would have gladly done,—run away from her" (208). "Make Miss Bates, there, stop talkin’ or I’ll die," cries Humberstall of an irritating woman in Kipling’s story "The Janeites." Of the professional readers I surveyed, only Nancy Armstrong noted (in passing) the semiotic of "places seamlessly filled with her speech as pages one can afford to skim over quickly" (155) and only David Miller was willing to describe the "abundant text" as "stupid [. . .] boring, supererogatory prattle" (40-41). Under constraints of courtesy and social surveillance, Emma has no option to absent herself from this infelicity, but must endure Miss Bates’s chatter, politely, and with more than a glazed semblance of attention. So when Austen’s narrator produces that terse, one-paragraph headline, "Emma could not resist," she is depending on two probabilities: our recognition that Emma has been more severely tried than we, and that we have already indulged our own escapes and exits.

  7. Booth seems to suspect the tendency, for his pains to chastise it are as notable as his zeal to prosecute its consequences. Our sympathy for Emma (i.e., our desire for her happiness) might "lead to a serious misreading," he cautions: "reacting to Emma’s faults [. . .] as if they were our own, we may very well not only forgive them but overlook them." Thus he warns that "readers who do not recognize her faults with absolute precision cannot enjoy details of the preparation for the comic abasement which must precede that marriage" (249-50). What Booth can’t admit is a reader who may not share his precise view of this prenup contract, who may not "enjoy" such precise clauses as "Emma’s faults and mistakes are brought home to her in a rapid and humiliating chain of rebukes from Knightley" (258), or who may feel some disproportion between the infraction and the Knightley effect: "Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. [. . .] She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel?" (III.vii, 340, my italics). The novel itself has always been rather more divided.

  8. But the division is of ambivalence rather than contradiction. Even as Miss Bates provokes ridicule, this is never separate from a horrific identification—namely, that save the contingency of class, marital status, sex, or age, anyone might be or become Miss Bates. That everyone cuts her slack (she is pathetic and sympathetic) and still finds her tedious or ridiculous is the dynamic of an identification that one wants to break but cannot. Miss Bates’s power (paradoxical as this term may seem) in the community as well as her trouble to Austen’s readers is her resistance to exorcism from this tangled web. The terms with which Austen limns her circumstances render her a specter for any woman without Emma’s fortune, including Austen herself:

    [. . .] a woman neither young, handsome, or rich, or married[,] Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her, into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman [. . .] thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings. (I.iii, 17-18)
    Coming just ten pages after the opening account of Emma as "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition," seeming "to unite some of the best blessings of existence" (I.i, 3), this is a calculated repetition with a difference.
  9. What brings it to Box Hill is a repressed link of gendered fate (see Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen 138-39). When Emma says that one of the things she can resist is marriage, Harriet cries, "But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!" Emma’s detailed denial suggests that this is not the first time she has thought about the likeness:

    That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. But between us, I am convinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried." (I.x, 77)
    With penetrating simplicity, Harriet remains fixated on the mirroring: "But still, you will be an old maid! and that’s so dreadful!" Old maid: there is a world of social difference between the deformation of the marriage-commodity thus called and the ever amiable "old boy." Scott’s blazon of Miss Bates as "a good-natured, vulgar, and foolish old maid" (345) is our witness, overwhelming any credit of nature with insults of class and gender. Emma’s primary safety-net is her money:
    "Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable." (I.x, 77)
    This sport is ever being put in her mind, however, first by Harriet, then by Mr. Knightley, who stings her with the inversion: not that you could be Miss Bates, but that she was once you, born to comforts and of sufficient consequence that her "notice" would constitute "an honour":
    She has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. [. . .] You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her [. . .] and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. (III.vii, 339-340)
    This is the topography of the "antisocial" that George Levine deftly sees claiming the modest heights of Box Hill: "the laws of civilization are violated as Emma cruelly insults Miss Bates" (208). Butler narrows this gloss to the law of gender and widens its application: this insult is part of "a pattern in the novel of vulnerable single women, whom it is the social duty of the strong and rich to protect" (257).
  10. Outside the novel but invested in this insult, the not-quite-missing link between Miss Bates and Miss Woodhouse is Miss Austen herself, a forty-something spinster when Emma was published, whose letters detail the small income (a few hundred pounds/an.) and abject economies on which her household survived after her father’s death (cf. Harding 350). Austen’s sense of her genteel vulnerability, suggests Mary-Elisabeth Fowkes Tobin, makes Emma’s jest a threat to "social order" not because it violates any ethical foundation, but because it exposes the social superstructure, its arbitrarily privileges. To drop "the veil of chivalrous manners" is to reveal the basis of social relations "on property and privilege, on wealth and rank" (421). Thus, regret about a slight to Miss Bates can attach a word such as "mortification" while the novel’s slight glances at the lives of the dirt-cottage-poor, at homeless gipsies, and at subsistence-wage laborers separated from their families, along with a pervasive, unironized discourse of contempt for new money (versus the old money that grabbed "Donwell Abbey" after the Dissolution) do not convey any such sociology, but serve merely as plot devices or conversational referents for the gentry. The "values and standards of the Highbury world," remarks Arnold Kettle (in a trenchant essay cut from the Norton Critical’s 2nd edition of Emma), are "based on the assumption that it is right and proper for a minority of the community to live at the expense of the majority"—among the latter, the cooks, porters and carriagemen whose labor produces the "pleasant party" at Box Hill. Kettle’s point is not the division of labor and leisure per se but "the fundamental condescension, the basic unkindness which permits the sensitive values of Emma to be applicable only to one person in ten or twenty. [. . .] the standards we are called on to admire may be inseparably linked with a particular form of social organization" (397).

  11. Miss Bates’s lack of resources to "frighten those who might hate her, into outward respect" (I.iii, 17) puts her in jeopardy of unkindness. Should Austen default on her cultural capital, her wit and irony, she could also lose respect. The appearance in 1932 of a volume of her Batesy-letters "profoundly disillusioned some of the more fastidious admirers of her novels," Robert Donovan reminds us; "Harold Nicolson and E. M. Forster professed themselves disenchanted with the triviality of the letters and the vulgarity of the mind which produced them" (109, referring to reviews in New Statesman and TLS). "Trivial and dull," Nicolson sighed; a "desert of family gossip." If Miss Bates is "a great talker upon trivial matters" (I.iii, 18), so seems Austen. Forster implied the link, and Virginia Quarterly Review was explicit: the letters "contain the raw materials" for Miss Bates. "Triviality, varied by touches of ill-breeding and sententiousness," it elaborated; "she has nothing in her mind except the wish to tell her sister everything; and so she flits from the cows to the currant bushes, from the currant bushes to Mrs. Hall of Sherborne, gives Mrs. Hall a tap, and flits back again" (362-63; cf. even Austen-Leigh’s Memoir 207). A habitually dyspeptic H. W. Garrod was inspired to fresh bile: "a desert of trivialities punctuated by occasional oases of clever malice," he sneered, setting the lexicon; "wearying lengths in which one meets nothing but the most uninspired talk about petticoats and drawing-room curtains, colds, coquelicots and magnesia" (23); "feminine triviality interests her immensely and entertains her adequately" (26). To discount such reactions as "phallocentric" condescension to legitimate female interests, as Suzanne Juhasz proposes (418), seems sheer desperation, not the least because some of the complaints issued from avowed Janeites (see Johnson, "Divine" 150). A more interesting rescue is David Miller’s proposal that Miss Bates is Austen’s mother-tongue, her "tribute to the gestation of her text in the womb of trivial communications and unreserved gossip" (39), or Finch and Bowen’s hope to convince us that the narrator’s free indirect style is of a piece with Bates-gossip, both discourses constituting the Austenian social-text and its ideological imperatives (3-4).

  12. Yet what seems more noticeable are not the tributes to "family resemblance" but the stylistic differentiations, as if, Miller suggests, these were a "reaction formation" (40). Here we find ourselves back at Box Hill, with the narrator’s parody of Bates-gossip:

    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—and having it sent off in a letter to Maple Grove by one lady, to Ireland by another. (III.vii, 332-333)
    This wry one-sentence report is worlds away from the wall of words that bears Miss Bates’s voice, whose description by Richard Simpson in 1870 has stood uncontradicted: her "fluent talk only requires memory....etc., etc., for it might go on for ever" (350-51). And throughout the novel, it does.
  13. "Everybody’s words were soon lost under the incessant flow of Miss Bates, who came in talking, and had not finished her speech under many minutes after being admitted into the circle of the fire. As the door opened she was heard [. . .]"; "after a pretty long speech from Miss Bates, which few persons listened to [. . .]"; "Miss Bates, who had been trying in vain to be heard the last two minutes [. . .]"; "Some laughed, and answered good-humouredly. Miss Bates said a great deal [. . .]." None of these sentences is Emma’s or even the free indirect style of her thoughts. All are the narrator’s objective reports (III.ii, 289; III.v, 310, 312; III.vii, 334). If, as Miller writes, "Emma finally [comes] to share the narrator’s view of her errancy" (109), it also seems clear that the narrator has been sharing her view. Funding this share, moreover, is Austen’s "clever malice" (that "sharp tongue" to which Garrod attributes her winding up an old maid [33-34]), which can exceed Emma’s worst moments: "Mrs Hall, of Sherbourn, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright.—I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband" (October 1798; Letters 17); "Dr Hall in such very deep mourning that either his Mother, his Wife, or himself must be dead" (17 May 1799; Letters 40). Donovan sees Austen enacting "the same impish prompting which leads Emma to make fun of Miss Bates at Box Hill—the sudden and overwhelming impulse to treat irreverently what we have been taught to regard with respect and solemnity" (379-80).

  14. This "we" assumes a different consensus from the Knightley "we"—the club cherished in Farrer’s claim that Miss Bates "comes so near our hearts that Emma’s abrupt brutality to her on Box Hill comes home to us with the actuality of a violent sudden slap in our own face" (268)[3]. Donovan’s "we" speaks to the human impulse that prompted Poirier to ventriloquize,

    What [. . .] is all the excitement about? Emma has, after all, in a moment of flightiness, only made a thoughtless remark to garrulous old Miss Bates. And when she does so, no one except Miss Bates and Knightley himself seem even to notice it. [. . .] Mightn’t it legitimately be asked [. . .] if her notions of "grief" and "mortification" are not as superficial as is the meaning assigned in all her novels to the term "evil"? (164)
    Poirier raises these skeptical questions only to limit them to an aberrant theatrical moment in which "Emma literally forgets who she is" (176), saying that they become "irrelevant" in the symbolic structure of the novel, which implies a contract with "a vision of English life and society": the definition of "English delicacy" at once embodied in Mr. Knightley and so deficient in Box-Hill Emma as to make her "a ‘denaturalized’ citizen’" (165; 174). But I think his initial protest withstands his restriction, because (as I think he senses) the episode has more than one contract with the reader. It involves a vision of human probability that, while not delicate, does not require judgment as "denaturalized." In a brilliant reading of this energy, someone I know coined "boxhill" into a verb on the occasion of a department meeting when a colleague given to pointless long-windedness was requested by the chair (after years of polite forbearance) to come to a point. Although the orator was pained by being "boxhilled," no one else complained; all sighed relief.
  15. Emma’s boxhilling of her Miss Bates seems culpable of no more than expressing what oft was thought. Austen makes it clear that even Mrs. Weston, the novel’s unimpeachable feminine perfection, can be outed. To Mrs. Weston’s fancy of a match between Mr. Knightley and Jane (II.vii, 201), Emma reacts first with a mock-gothic ghost of her own fears of affinity ("How would he bear to have Miss Bates belonging to him?—to have her haunting the Abbey [. . .]?"), then with a mimicry so dead-on that Mrs. Weston could not resist:

    " [. . .] thanking him all day long for his great kindness in marrying Jane—‘So very kind and obliging!—But he always had been such a very kind neighbour!’ and then fly off, through half a sentence, to her mother’s old petticoat. ‘Not that it was such a very old petticoat either—for still it would last a great while—and, indeed, she must thankfully say that their petticoats were all very strong."

         "For shame, Emma! Do not mimic her. You divert me against my conscience." (II.viii, 203)
    Mrs. Weston protests not because her conscience has been offended, but because it hasn’t; it’s been successfully diverted by a recognition.
  16. Her attempt to admonish her former charge on the conjecture of Mr. Knightley’s courtliness only helps Emma’s Box Hill case: "I do not think Mr. Knightley would be much disturbed [. . .] she might talk on; and if he wanted to say any thing himself, he would only talk louder, and drown her voice" (203). Not long after, Austen makes good on this "if": "So began Miss Bates; and Mr. Knightley seemed determined to be heard in his turn, for most resolutely and commandingly" did he have his say before a small company (II.x, 219-220). It’s hard to know whether this vocal terminator (not merely mastering Miss Bates but also exposing her provocation) humiliated her any less than Emma did. To recall Mr. Knightley’s impatience is to wonder whether the real problem for him with Emma’s barb was its reminder of his own failures to resist. Is silencing Miss Bates a male prerogative only? And what of his gratuitous rudeness to her, in a pique of jealousy about Frank’s duets with Jane?

    "That fellow," said he, indignantly, "thinks of nothing but shewing off his own voice. This must not be." And touching Miss Bates, who at that moment passed her—"Miss Bates, are you mad, to let your niece sing herself hoarse in this manner?" (II.viii, 206)
    Austen’s play from Knightley’s "indignantly" to his accusing Miss Bates of being "mad" is a telling collation. In the guise of chivalrous concern, he lets fly a rebuke that wounds Miss Bates where she lives: her unerring solicitude for Jane’s well-being.
  17. If Box-Hill Knightley is not quite a "hypocrite lecteur," Austen at least invites us to see him as projecting what he can’t accept in himself on to Emma: would Mr. Knightley like to hear what we are thinking of? Over and against any chance of this imperfection, Knightley’s enablers in the critical community embrace him as "mon semblable—mon frère," usually with an appeal to what is "natural." "Emma recognizes and rejects social artifice and is then in a position to accept her natural place in society as Knightley’s wife," is Poirier’s story (177); "His commentary on Emma’s errors is a natural expression of his love," says Booth (253); Knightley speaks for what is "natural" in Emma’s heart, adds Litz (141), likewise sure that Austen’s "authority is quickly vested in Mr. Knightley" (148). Yet as Wollstonecraft commented in Rights of Woman (1792), what’s "natural" is a matter of "prevailing opinion." Austen herself suggests as much in the scene in which Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Elton negotiate a pre-Box Hill party at Donwell Abbey. Mrs. Elton is eager to have "everything as natural and simple as possible," a "sort of gipsy party" out of doors; Mr. Knightley’s "idea of the simple and natural" is to have a "table spread in the dining room" to match the "nature and simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants and furniture" (III.vi, 320-321). While his concern for his guests’ comfort prevails both socially and morally over her whimsy, his refutation betrays no irony about a "simple and natural" order of things marked by dining rooms and furniture, gentlemen, ladies, and servants. Whether or not this is also Austen’s irony (I confess on such occasions I am never sure), I don’t agree with Poirier that it is only Mrs. Elton’s idea of the "natural" that is "false, affected, and pretentious" (175).

  18. This debate inflects the novel’s conclusion, and not just because the Knightleys are once again at odds with Mrs. Elton’s sense of style. Booth’s price of admission is our agreement that "marriage to an intelligent, amiable, good, and attractive man is the best thing than can happen to this heroine," and that any indifference on her part only betrays "her totally inadequate view of the sources of human happiness." But when he adds, "readers who do not experience it as such are, I am convinced, far from knowing what Jane Austen is about" (260), the need of personal conviction concedes more than he knows. "I am a little sorry for both parties when Emma marries Mr. Knightley," grumbled Garrod, testy about the apparatus of "happy ending" (39). When Booth contends that Mr. Knightley has "stood in the reader’s mind for what [Emma] lacks" (244), he means moral maturity, but another way to fill in the blank is just plain years, seventeen in fact. Knightley’s resistance to marriage ever since his majority is another of those offstage histories, this one paced in an Elvisy fascination with a child he has seen grow up from a period when his notice was an honor. While husbands bear a sociocultural script for "paternal" authority, his enactment flirts with a severe extreme[4]. The projected post-nuptial seems a tad perverse. Do we all agree with Stuart Tave that "we can only rejoice that Emma says she will never call her husband anything but Mr. Knightley" (231; see Emma III.xvii, 420)? Or is this Austenian frisson at the periphery of perfection?

  19. No wonder that the too-harmonious-by-half close of her novel—"the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union" (313)—has struck more than a small band of readers as so patently artificial as to invite a guess at irony. It seems only the latest turn in the novel’s larger suspicions about plots of amelioration. In the arena of Box Hill, "Mr. Knightley gravely said, [. . .] ‘Perfection should not have come quite so soon’" (336), and it’s not clear that it has come here, at last, either. As the plot of Emma drives toward closure, the energies that impel this drive exceed its full government. Amid other plots, Mr. Knightley’s masterplot remains a relative construction. If, in another oft-quoted remark, Austen confessed to her sister that she found Pride and Prejudice "rather too light & bright & sparkling;—it wants shade" (letter, 4 Feb. 1813; Letters 203), she compensates in Emma not by rejecting the glints, but by putting them in a shady setting. At Box Hill, Emma gives a chance expression to human, communal impulses and frustrations in ways that Austen has made it difficult to close the lid on. Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure. And where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may indeed be very material.

    Notes

    1 Mary Lascelles, who argues that the novel's pleasures accrue on "re-reading" because "so much is missed" by any brief "failure of attention," has pointed out that hints could be sifted from Miss Bates (175-78; Frank has news he could have heard only from Jane); but Lascelles's level attention, though impressive, is hardly exemplary (Austen's narrator embarrasses no one with such missed intelligence).

    2 It's hard to redeem him, even with Mary Poovey's view that "the passion between Jane and Frank contains all the disruptive elements" that Austen's masterplot "is at pains to control. Their desire for each other defies class distinction, social decorum, parental approval; it is an alliance formed in secret and operating subversively" and so promising "autonomy and power" (394); cf. Galperin's adroit argument that unrepresented (passion) constitutes an escape from the "cultural aegis" wielded by the knights of Highbury (67ff). Yet for Jane, this is a distinction without a difference. Whether under or outside the cultural aegis, Jane is radically dependent: in the strength of her "love for Frank and the weakness of her social position, she suffers more than we will ever know" (Poovey 394; cf. Duckworth 178).

    3 Kettle repeats this language in commenting on Austen's ability to enchant her readers with the class-formed "values and standards" of Highbury: "When Emma is rude to Miss Bates on Box Hill we feel the flush rise to Miss Bates's cheek" (394; his italics).

    4 Litz describes Knightley as "fatherly" in his function "as a moral chorus" (134); Johnson calls him "half paternal" (Jane Austen 140), while Gilbert and Gubar go all the way: "the happy ending of an Austen novel occurs when the girl becomes a daughter to her husband, an older and wiser man who has been her teacher and her advisor" (154).

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Published @ RC

April 2000