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Your Sunday Austen Meditation

February 9, 2014

Church of AustenologyThis week’s lesson comes from Emma, Vol. II, Chap. XIV:

When the visit was returned, Emma made up her mind. She could then see more and judge better. From Harriet’s happening not to be at Hartfield, and her father’s being present to engage Mr. Elton, she had a quarter of an hour of the lady’s conversation to herself, and could composedly attend to her; and the quarter of an hour quite convinced her that Mrs. Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar; that all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish she was ignorant, and that her society would certainly do Mr. Elton no good.

Harriet would have been a better match. If not wise or refined herself, she would have connected him with those who were; but Miss Hawkins, it might be fairly supposed from her easy conceit, had been the best of her own set. The rich brother-in-law near Bristol was the pride of the alliance, and his place and his carriages were the pride of him.

The very first subject after being seated was Maple Grove, “My brother Mr. Suckling’s seat;”–a comparison of Hartfield to Maple Grove. The grounds of Hartfield were small, but neat and pretty; and the house was modern and well-built. Mrs. Elton seemed most favourably impressed by the size of the room, the entrance, and all that she could see or imagine. “Very like Maple Grove indeed!–She was quite struck by the likeness!–That room was the very shape and size of the morning-room at Maple Grove; her sister’s favourite room.”–Mr. Elton was appealed to.–”Was not it astonishingly like?–She could really almost fancy herself at Maple Grove.”

“And the staircase–You know, as I came in, I observed how very like the staircase was; placed exactly in the same part of the house. I really could not help exclaiming! I assure you, Miss Woodhouse, it is very delightful to me, to be reminded of a place I am so extremely partial to as Maple Grove. I have spent so many happy months there! (with a little sigh of sentiment). A charming place, undoubtedly. Every body who sees it is struck by its beauty; but to me, it has been quite a home. Whenever you are transplanted, like me, Miss Woodhouse, you will understand how very delightful it is to meet with any thing at all like what one has left behind. I always say this is quite one of the evils of matrimony.”

Emma made as slight a reply as she could; but it was fully sufficient for Mrs. Elton, who only wanted to be talking herself.

“So extremely like Maple Grove! And it is not merely the house–the grounds, I assure you, as far as I could observe, are strikingly like. The laurels at Maple Grove are in the same profusion as here, and stand very much in the same way–just across the lawn; and I had a glimpse of a fine large tree, with a bench round it, which put me so exactly in mind! My brother and sister will be enchanted with this place. People who have extensive grounds themselves are always pleased with any thing in the same style.”

Emma doubted the truth of this sentiment. She had a great idea that people who had extensive grounds themselves cared very little for the extensive grounds of any body else; but it was not worth while to attack an error so double-dyed, and therefore only said in reply,

“When you have seen more of this country, I am afraid you will think you have overrated Hartfield. Surry is full of beauties.”

“Oh! yes, I am quite aware of that. It is the garden of England, you know. Surry is the garden of England.”

“Yes; but we must not rest our claims on that distinction. Many counties, I believe, are called the garden of England, as well as Surry.”

“No, I fancy not,” replied Mrs. Elton, with a most satisfied smile.” I never heard any county but Surry called so.”

Emma was silenced.

“My brother and sister have promised us a visit in the spring, or summer at farthest,” continued Mrs. Elton; “and that will be our time for exploring. While they are with us, we shall explore a great deal, I dare say. They will have their barouche-landau, of course, which holds four perfectly; and therefore, without saying any thing of our carriage, we should be able to explore the different beauties extremely well. They would hardly come in their chaise, I think, at that season of the year. Indeed, when the time draws on, I shall decidedly recommend their bringing the barouche-landau; it will be so very much preferable. When people come into a beautiful country of this sort, you know, Miss Woodhouse, one naturally wishes them to see as much as possible; and Mr. Suckling is extremely fond of exploring. We explored to King’s-Weston twice last summer, in that way, most delightfully, just after their first having the barouche-landau. You have many parties of that kind here, I suppose, Miss Woodhouse, every summer?”

“No; not immediately here. We are rather out of distance of the very striking beauties which attract the sort of parties you speak of; and we are a very quiet set of people, I believe; more disposed to stay at home than engage in schemes of pleasure.”

“Ah! there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort. Nobody can be more devoted to home than I am. I was quite a proverb for it at Maple Grove. Many a time has Selina said, when she has been going to Bristol, ‘I really cannot get this girl to move from the house. I absolutely must go in by myself, though I hate being stuck up in the barouche-landau without a companion; but Augusta, I believe, with her own good-will, would never stir beyond the park paling.’ Many a time has she said so; and yet I am no advocate for entire seclusion. I think, on the contrary, when people shut themselves up entirely from society, it is a very bad thing; and that it is much more advisable to mix in the world in a proper degree, without living in it either too much or too little. I perfectly understand your situation, however, Miss Woodhouse–(looking towards Mr. Woodhouse), Your father’s state of health must be a great drawback. Why does not he try Bath?–Indeed he should. Let me recommend Bath to you. I assure you I have no doubt of its doing Mr. Woodhouse good.”

“My father tried it more than once, formerly; but without receiving any benefit; and Mr. Perry, whose name, I dare say, is not unknown to you, does not conceive it would be at all more likely to be useful now.”

“Ah! that’s a great pity; for I assure you, Miss Woodhouse, where the waters do agree, it is quite wonderful the relief they give. In my Bath life, I have seen such instances of it! And it is so cheerful a place, that it could not fail of being of use to Mr. Woodhouse’s spirits, which, I understand, are sometimes much depressed. And as to its recommendations to you, I fancy I need not take much pains to dwell on them. The advantages of Bath to the young are pretty generally understood. It would be a charming introduction for you, who have lived so secluded a life; and I could immediately secure you some of the best society in the place. A line from me would bring you a little host of acquaintance; and my particular friend, Mrs. Partridge, the lady I have always resided with when in Bath, would be most happy to shew you any attentions, and would be the very person for you to go into public with.”

It was as much as Emma could bear, without being impolite. The idea of her being indebted to Mrs. Elton for what was called an introduction–of her going into public under the auspices of a friend of Mrs. Elton’s–probably some vulgar, dashing widow, who, with the help of a boarder, just made a shift to live!–The dignity of Miss Woodhouse, of Hartfield, was sunk indeed!

She restrained herself, however, from any of the reproofs she could have given, and only thanked Mrs. Elton coolly; “but their going to Bath was quite out of the question; and she was not perfectly convinced that the place might suit her better than her father.” And then, to prevent farther outrage and indignation, changed the subject directly.

“I do not ask whether you are musical, Mrs. Elton. Upon these occasions, a lady’s character generally precedes her; and Highbury has long known that you are a superior performer.”

“Oh! no, indeed; I must protest against any such idea. A superior performer!–very far from it, I assure you. Consider from how partial a quarter your information came. I am doatingly fond of music–passionately fond;–and my friends say I am not entirely devoid of taste; but as to any thing else, upon my honour my performance is mediocre to the last degree. You, Miss Woodhouse, I well know, play delightfully. I assure you it has been the greatest satisfaction, comfort, and delight to me, to hear what a musical society I am got into. I absolutely cannot do without music. It is a necessary of life to me; and having always been used to a very musical society, both at Maple Grove and in Bath, it would have been a most serious sacrifice. I honestly said as much to Mr. E. when he was speaking of my future home, and expressing his fears lest the retirement of it should be disagreeable; and the inferiority of the house too–knowing what I had been accustomed to–of course he was not wholly without apprehension. When he was speaking of it in that way, I honestly said that the world I could give up–parties, balls, plays–for I had no fear of retirement. Blessed with so many resources within myself, the world was not necessary to me. I could do very well without it. To those who had no resources it was a different thing; but my resources made me quite independent. And as to smaller-sized rooms than I had been used to, I really could not give it a thought. I hoped I was perfectly equal to any sacrifice of that description. Certainly I had been accustomed to every luxury at Maple Grove; but I did assure him that two carriages were not necessary to my happiness, nor were spacious apartments. ‘But,’ said I, ‘to be quite honest, I do not think I can live without something of a musical society. I condition for nothing else; but without music, life would be a blank to me.’”

“We cannot suppose,” said Emma, smiling, “that Mr. Elton would hesitate to assure you of there being a very musical society in Highbury; and I hope you will not find he has outstepped the truth more than may be pardoned, in consideration of the motive.”

“No, indeed, I have no doubts at all on that head. I am delighted to find myself in such a circle. I hope we shall have many sweet little concerts together. I think, Miss Woodhouse, you and I must establish a musical club, and have regular weekly meetings at your house, or ours. Will not it be a good plan? If we exert ourselves, I think we shall not be long in want of allies. Something of that nature would be particularly desirable for me, as an inducement to keep me in practice; for married women, you know–there is a sad story against them, in general. They are but too apt to give up music.”

“But you, who are so extremely fond of it–there can be no danger, surely?”

“I should hope not; but really when I look around among my acquaintance, I tremble. Selina has entirely given up music–never touches the instrument–though she played sweetly. And the same may be said of Mrs. Jeffereys–Clara Partridge, that was–and of the two Milmans, now Mrs. Bird and Mrs. James Cooper; and of more than I can enumerate. Upon my word it is enough to put one in a fright. I used to be quite angry with Selina; but really I begin now to comprehend that a married woman has many things to call her attention. I believe I was half an hour this morning shut up with my housekeeper.”

“But every thing of that kind,” said Emma, “will soon be in so regular a train–”

“Well,” said Mrs. Elton, laughing, “we shall see.”

Emma, finding her so determined upon neglecting her music, had nothing more to say; and, after a moment’s pause, Mrs. Elton chose another subject.

“We have been calling at Randalls,” said she, “and found them both at home; and very pleasant people they seem to be. I like them extremely. Mr. Weston seems an excellent creature–quite a first-rate favourite with me already, I assure you. And she appears so truly good–there is something so motherly and kind-hearted about her, that it wins upon one directly. She was your governess, I think?”

Emma was almost too much astonished to answer; but Mrs. Elton hardly waited for the affirmative before she went on.

“Having understood as much, I was rather astonished to find her so very lady-like! But she is really quite the gentlewoman.”

“Mrs. Weston’s manners,” said Emma, “were always particularly good. Their propriety, simplicity, and elegance, would make them the safest model for any young woman.”

“And who do you think came in while we were there?”

Emma was quite at a loss. The tone implied some old acquaintance–and how could she possibly guess?

“Knightley!” continued Mrs. Elton; “Knightley himself!–Was not it lucky?–for, not being within when he called the other day, I had never seen him before; and of course, as so particular a friend of Mr. E.’s, I had a great curiosity. ‘My friend Knightley’ had been so often mentioned, that I was really impatient to see him; and I must do my caro sposo the justice to say that he need not be ashamed of his friend. Knightley is quite the gentleman. I like him very much. Decidedly, I think, a very gentleman-like man.”

Happily, it was now time to be gone. They were off; and Emma could breathe.

“Insufferable woman!” was her immediate exclamation. “Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley!–I could not have believed it. Knightley!–never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley!–and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery. Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady. I could not have believed it! And to propose that she and I should unite to form a musical club! One would fancy we were bosom friends! And Mrs. Weston!–Astonished that the person who had brought me up should be a gentlewoman! Worse and worse. I never met with her equal.

We have been thinking about Mrs. Elton lately, and thinking how real she seems. We have probably all met people like her: self-important, impertinent, and overbearing. She is not a villainous character in that she causes real trouble for our heroine–her plots are petty and do little more than show her true character. Common sense tells us that such people’s behavior stems from self-doubt, sometimes very deeply buried, but one cannot imagine that to be the case with Mrs. Elton. Some people really just are petty and ignorant, and insufficiently self-aware to realize it. Here endeth the lesson.

2 Comments
  1. February 9, 2014 8:22 pm

    I love love love Romola Garai’s portraying Emma’s rant above in Emma 2009. I’ve been known to play that when certain local parties act in a Mrs. Elton manner.

  2. February 10, 2014 10:16 am

    I believe Austen meant Emma to be seen by readers as seeing her own reflection, to some extent, in Mrs. Elton–unaware of it though she may be (ahem, just as unaware of her own flaws as Mrs. Elton is of hers). Emma is not as perfect and well-meaning and insightful as she believes she is.
    Emma is just as vain and “extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance …. she meant to shine and be very superior…. all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish she was ignorant.” Emma has never lived anywhere but Hartfield and has never interacted with anyone outside of her neighborhood and circle of aquaintance. All her ideas are formed by those people–who by and large tell her every day how perfect and wise she is. She thinks she is very important in her neighborhood. She intends to be a benefactress to Harriet and Mr. Elton. She is very satisfied with her situation in life, her position in society, and her standing in everyone’s esteem.
    Emma is just as overbearing as she sees Mrs. Elton as being. In fact, she’s more of a bull in a china shop in the lives of her aquaintances than Mrs. Elton ever could be. At least Mrs. Elton genuinely wants to do Jane Fairfax some material good by finding her a suitable governess position. This is something Jane has let be known that she intends to do. Poor Harriet never tells Emma “I want to marry up”; she doesn’t even express any romantic interest in any of the men Emma flings her at, except for Mr. Elton–but only after Emma puts it in her head.
    In any case, I believe Mrs. Elton is intended to present Emma with a reflection of her own flaws, if only she can open her eyes enough to recognize them. But of course, being as ignorant as she accuses Mrs. Elton of being, she can’t. Not until she’s wrecked such havoc in Harriet’s life–and it threatens her own happiness–that she can no longer ignore the evidence. And then what is her response? “I wish I had never met her”. Not “I wish I had just let her manage her own life.”

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