20th – 25th October: The long evenings Emma had fearfully anticipated
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Read: Vol. 1, ch. 3; pp. 11–13 ("Mr. Woodhouse was fond of society" through to "long evenings she had fearfully anticipated").
Emma attempts to entertain herself and her father with visitors. During this time as in the forgoing weeks, Emma is presumably left alone while Mr. Woodhouse takes his naps “as usual” between dinner (likely served sometime in the afternoon) and tea (served sometime in the evening) (Austen vol. 1, ch.1; p. 1). The “evening” in particular as a time of day that must be struggled through is brought up repeatedly in this and preceding chapters.
Readings and Interpretations
The Ranks of the Chosen
In this passage, we learn more about the stratification of Highbury society. A modern understanding of socioeconomic “class” that groups people together into various strata, and thus unites as much as it divides them, is less to the point here than a Georgian concept of “rank” or “degree,” in which each individual occupies their own rung on the ladder (see Hume, p. 58). Graham Martin notes another conceptual difference between the analyses implied by the two terms: “[w]here ‘class’ points to an economic structure of competing interests, ‘rank’ points to a social structure, a hierarchical order which, in ideological terms, is consensual” (p. 133). That is, a Burkean conservatism would hold that stratification in terms of rank is not only natural, but also to the benefit of all involved.
This passage divides Highbury, including characters we have already met and some whom we will see ‘on stage’ only later, into “the chosen and the best” and “a second set.” Among this “second set” is Mrs. Bates, who is described as being “considered with all the regard and respect which a harmless old lady, under such untoward circumstances, can excite.” This somewhat sardonic statement is notable to me in that it could mean just anything—however, the idea that Mrs. Bates’s “untoward circumstances” moderate rather than increase her neighbours’ respect is then immediately enforced with the subsequent lines about her daughter, Miss Bates: she “enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married” (Austen vol. 1, ch. 3; p. 11).
It is often pointed out that this last string of adjectives more or less reverses the famous “handsome, clever, and rich” that begins the novel. Thus Mary Hong:
The contrast between her possessing no features which would make Hetty Bates a character worthy of the reader's attention [such as intellectual superiority, beauty, or cleverness] and her inclusive tendencies [such as universal good-will] seems to cast her as the exact opposite of the "handsome, clever, and rich" heroine […] Miss Bates plays a secondary or supporting role to the centrality of Emma, as suggested through the similar syntax but oppositional language that introduces both (p. 240).
Louise Flavin follows a similar observation with the point that “[w]hile Miss Bates is unlike Emma Woodhouse in most obvious ways, a comparison is suggested by the fact that she, like Emma, cares for an aging parent and has a happy and contented disposition. This comparison prepares us for Emma’s growing obsession with Miss Bates and ‘her set,’ a rivalry that occupies Emma’s mind” in future installments (n.p.).1
Also in regards to Miss Bates, commenters who view Emma as being in part an indictment of the vulnerability of fortuneless women in Georgian society often read the description of her as standing “in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour,” having “no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect” as containing a particular asperity, or an ominous tone (see for example Harding, p. 350; Smith, p. 137).
The Most Come-at-Able
Some scholars attribute the hierarchisation of potential visitors in this section to Emma (meaning that the description of Miss Bates and company as “come-at-able” must be a demonstration of free indirect style). See for example John Mullan:
Austen, with a refusal of moralism worthy of Flaubert, abandons her protagonist to her snobbery and confidently risks inciting foolish readers to think that the author must be a snob too. Emma’s snobbery pervades the novel, from that moment when we hear Mrs Goddard, the mistress of the little girls’ boarding school, and Mrs and Miss Bates described as “the most come-at-able” denizens of Highbury (meaning that they are at the beck and call of Emma and her hypochondriac father) (n.p.).
Linda Bree, in contrast, considers the phrase “come-at-able” to be a “colloquialism” “in the narrative commentary,” rather than a phrase pulled from Emma’s perspective—such colloquialisms on the part of the narrator and the characters all “contribute to the sense of ‘ordinary life’ in Highbury” (p. 98). Either way, the phrase is certainly a snappy and evocative one.
A Good Old-Fashioned Boarding-School
Some scholars attribute the sentiments in the passage describing the difference between “a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school” and a “seminary” peddling expensive “nonsense” to Austen herself. In this reading, the outburst on women’s education indicates a rare looseness or break in the general tightness of the novelistic texture of Emma, which usually includes only what is necessary. For example, per Robert Merrett:
The novelist’s respect for traditional eighteenth-century ethical thought and ideas about the mind is very evident in her conduct of Emma. For example, she does not hesitate to drop her usually indirect narrative voice to satirize progressive education which would treat human nature too systematically […] This defence of traditional values on Jane Austen’s part clearly shows how much she enjoys promoting pragmatic, prudent, and rational expectations about human nature (p. 53).
In contrast, Massimiliano Morini argues that the passage represents “the narrator-as-a-character (a figure conflated by many with Austen herself) com[ing] out of impersonal hiding”: “the narrator comes out not by saying ‘I,’ but by expressing in a very direct manner his/her personal opinions on contemporary affairs (in this case, the confusion with the historical Jane Austen is almost inevitable)” (p. 422).
T.A.B. Corley gives some insight into the status of the boarding-school as a “commercial enterprise,” and to Mrs. Goddard’s placement in Highbury’s hierarchy:
Some scholars have had difficulty in deciding on Mrs Goddard’s precise social status in Highbury. She certainly belongs to the second set, and is willing to sit with Mr Woodhouse in the evenings when summoned, while her respectful request to Emma over Harriet Smith indicates a deference towards her social superiors. She is unlikely ever to have been entertained as an equal by Mr Knightley (p. 125).
Nevertheless, “[h]er gross income could have been well over £700 a year, with some being put away for her old age. She is neither depressed nor impoverished. Economically, therefore, Mrs Goddard is a not unimportant personage in Highbury.” Corley attributes the fact that she nevertheless considers herself at the disposal of a summons from the Woodhouses (rather than dining with another family in Highbury on terms of equality or near-equality) in part to the circumstance that “at Hartfield there is the advantage of an early hour of dismissal and a coach ride home” (pp. 125-6).
1. Maaja Stewart likewise compares Emma and Miss Bates on the strength of this passage (pp. 77-8). See also Elizabeth Sabiston, who reads Emma and Miss Bates’s shared care of an ageing parent as a marker of the “feminine plight of dependence and subordination” that recurs throughout the novel: “Emma is no freer, in fact, than the spinsters and widows living in genteel poverty” (p. 24).
1. What might cause the emphasis on “evening” (as opposed to morning, or afternoon) as a time of day that is particularly boring, lonely, or necessary to fill?
2. Is the description of “the chosen and the best” versus the “second,” “come-at-able” set focalised through Emma, is it narratorial commentary, or does it shade back and forth between the two? Is it possible for it to be both simultaneously? How does the answer to this question change how we read the book (and its attitude to things such as intelligence, beauty, and rank)?
3. Is the “seminary” passage a transparent outburst of Austen’s own opinions on women’s education, or can we attribute the point of view here to someone or something else? What is the purpose of this passage?
Bree, Linda. “Style, Structure, Language.” In Sabor (2015), pp. 88-104.
Corley, T. A. B. “Jane Austen’s ‘Real, Honest, Old-Fashioned Boarding-School’: Mrs La Tournelle and Mrs Goddard.” Women’s Writing 5.1 (1998), pp. 113-30. DOI: 10.1080/09699089800200035.
Flavin, Louise. “Free Indirect Discourse and the Clever Heroine of Emma.” Persuasions 13 (1991), pp. 50-7.
Harding, D. W. “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen.” Scrutiny 8 (March 1940), pp. 346–62.
Hong, Mary. "‘A Great Talker upon Little Matters’: Trivializing the Everyday in Emma.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 38.2/3 (Spring - Summer 2005), pp. 235–53. DOI: 10.1215/ddnov.038020235.
Hume, Robert D. “Money and Rank.” In Sabor (2015), pp. 52-67.
Martin, Graham. “Austen and Class.” Women's Writing 5.1 (1998), pp. 131–44. DOI: 10.1080/09699089800200028.
Merrett, Robert James. “The Concept of Mind in Emma.” English Studies in Canada 6.1 (Spring 1980), pp. 39–55. DOI: 10.1353/esc.1980.0046.
Morini, Massimiliano. “Who Evaluates Whom and What in Jane Austen’s Novels?” Style 41.4 Rhetoric and Cognition (Winter 2007), pp. 409–33.
Mullan, John. “How Jane Austen’s Emma Changed the Course of Fiction.” The Guardian. 5 December 2015.
Sabiston, Elizabeth Jean. The Prison of Womanhood: Four Provincial Heroines in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987.
Sabor, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to ‘Emma' (Cambridge Companions to Literature). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Smith, LeRoy W. Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman. London: Macmillan (1983).
Stewart, Maaja. “The Fools in Austen’s Emma.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 41.1 (June 1986), pp. 72–86.
28 notes · View notes