3rd December: Emma is quite convinced
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Read: Vol. 1, ch. 6; pp. 25–26 (“Emma could not feel a doubt” through to “it was spoken with a sort of sighing animation, which had a vast deal of the lover”).
Emma continues her plan to bring Harriet and Mr. Elton together. She is certain that each is appropriately conscious of the merits of the other. For the past several weeks she has been talking up each party to the other, and probably “smooth[ing]” “little matters” whenever the three are in company with each other at Hartfield.
This presumably occurs in late November or early December, as events shortly to be narrated occur in “December” or “the middle of December.”
Note that this write-up consists largely of spoilers.
Readings and Interpretations
Emma’s determination that other people accept her conception of reality as accurate is apparent from the first few lines of this section: Harriet is “more sensible than before” of Mr. Elton’s merits (not, for instance, the more subjective “had a higher opinion than before”); Mr. Elton’s “perception,” not “opinion,” “of the striking improvement of Harriet’s manner” is thought of (Austen , vol. 1, ch. 6; pp. 25, 26; emphasis mine).
On the conversation that opens this section, Linda Bree writes that
Because Emma is so confident about her own judgement, and is plainly so much more intelligent than many people around her, the reader is led into accepting her word for what is happening. […] The first directly related speech of Mr Elton to Emma sets the tone. […] [Quotes from “You have given Miss Smith” to “received from nature.”] In the context of her plans for Mr Elton and Harriet, Emma’s evident assumption that Mr Elton’s words relate to his feelings for Harriet rather than herself is natural enough. And so is the reader’s initial acquiescence with this reading (p. 95).
There is an identifiable disconnect, however, between Emma’s interpretation of Mr. Elton’s “perception” and what we can see evidenced in what he actually says. I am struck by the insistent repetition of the pronoun “you” in the aforementioned speech:
“You have given Miss Smith all that she required,” said he; “you have made her graceful and easy. She was a beautiful creature when she came to you, but, in my opinion, the attractions you have added are infinitely superior to what she received from nature" (ibid., p. 26; emphasis mine).
Mr. Elton then begins to object when Emma pretends modesty in attesting Harriet’s manner to nature rather than her own tutelage. He repeats Emma’s phrase “decision of character,” but with a meaningful difference—“superadded decision of character”—and follows it up with the exclamation “Skilful has been the hand” (ibid., emphasis mine). Emma echoes his syntax: “Great has been the pleasure.” This continues a pattern, apparent in Mr. Knightley’s and Mrs. Weston’s conversation in chapter five, for example, of interlocutors echoing each other’s speech—here, however, rather than evidencing maturity and mutual respect, this repetition-with-a-difference suggests a breakdown in communication.
Emma’s subconscious reckoning of these doubt-inducing circumstances (we know that she is a keen observer, for all that she sometimes turns her observations to poor account) may in fact come through in the first paragraph. The repetition of negatives (she “could not feel a doubt,” she “had no hesitation,” she “had no scruple,” she “could not suppose anything wanting,” it “was not one of the least agreeable proofs”; ibid., pp. 25, 26) and the superfluity of adverbs (“decidedly more sensible,” “remarkably handsome,” “pretty confident,” “quite convinced”1; ibid.) combine to create an overwhelming, flurrying sort of diction that, in Austen, never bodes well.2
Speaking by Rule
Consider this speaking em dash: “’If it were admissible to contradict a lady,’ said the gallant Mr. Elton—” (ibid., p. 26). It suggests, not only that Mr. Elton was interrupted before he could complete his speech, but that this is a speech which needed no completion and which he perhaps never meant to complete. His speech here—as many of his speeches are—is purely formulaic (“A lover, according to the code [of courtship], must admire his ladylove in all she does”; McMaster p. 95). Elton has probably assumed that Emma was speaking formulaically as well—that she affects modesty in response to a compliment as a matter of course, rather than in order to promote a high opinion of Harriet.
Scholarship tends to focus on Emma’s misinterpretations of events, and yet the circumstances that lead Mr. Elton to misinterpret these same situations in another direction are also readily discernible. In fact it is part of the skill with which Austen has constructed her cross-purposes that these incidents can be read from multiple perspectives. As Juliet McMaster notes, “Emma entirely mistranslates Mr. Elton’s secret language. But so does he hers” (p. 95).
Note that “quite” at this time is likely to have meant “thoroughly,” rather than the modern British English sense of “fairly” (which Harper suggests is attested from the mid-19th century). On the syntax of Emma and “could not feel a doubt” as an example of the fact that “Emma’s misinterpretations are reported with non-factives,” see Dry, p. 97ff.
Roger Gard notes that “precise” and “clear speech” serves as a “moral pointer” in Austen (pp. 162, 163).
How do Emma’s and Mr. Elton’s syntax and diction suggest their perspectives in this section? What kind of relationship do they appear to have with each other? What can we gather of their respective opinions of Harriet?
Austen, Jane. Emma (Norton Critical Edition). 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company,  2000.
Bree, Linda. “Style, Structure, Language.” In The Cambridge Companion to Emma, ed. Peter Sabor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2015), pp. 88–104.
Campbell, Teri. “‘Not Handsome Enough’: Faces, Pictures, and Language in Pride and Prejudice.” Persuasions 34 (2012), 207–21.
Dry, Helen. “Syntax and Point of View in Jane Austen’s Emma.” Studies in Romanticism 16.1 (Winter 1977), pp. 87–99. DOI: 10.2307/25600065
Gard, Roger. “Emma’s Choices.” In Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity. Avon: Yale University Press (1992), pp. 155–81.
Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of quite.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/quite. Accessed 2 December, 2021.
Jones, Wendy S. “Emma, Gender, and the Mind-Brain.” ELH 75. 2 (Summer 2008), pp. 315–43.
McMaster, Juliet. “The Secret Languages of Emma.” Persuasions 13 (1991), pp. 119–31. Repr. in Jane Austen the Novelist: Essays Past and Present. London: Macmillan Press (1996), pp. 90–105.
19 notes · View notes