Reading Jane Austen 3

The fact is that Emma prefers the company of women, more particularly of women whom she can master and direct; the fact is that this preference is intrinsic to her whole dominating and uncommitting personality. The same tendency has been recognised by Edmund Wilson; but Mr Wilson adds that it is ‘something outside the picture which is never made explicit’. The tendency is certainly never made explicit; but is it for that reason external? The myth of Jane Austen’s simplicity persists; and its corollary, that in her work the unexplicit is an error of tone; for surface must tell all.
(my emphasis)

Marvin Mudrick’s 1952 essay Irony as Form: Emma had tremendous impact on academic literary thinking, not least in this insistence that Jane Austen was a more complex and sophisticated writer than was popularly imagined. To a modern eye the coyness of a ‘tendency … never made explicit’ seems, sadly, a somewhat dated courtesy; but a little later he addresses the situation more openly:

Yet Harriet is a very pretty girl, and being infinitely stupid and unperceptive, may be used in other uncommitting ways. Emma’s interest in Harriet is not merely mistress-and-pupil, but quite emotional and particular; for a time at least – until Harriet becomes slightly resentful of the yoke after Emma’s repeated blunders – Emma is in love with her; a love unphysical and inadmissible, even perhaps undefinable in such a society; and therefore safe. And in all this web of relations, by no means exhausted here, we return always to Emma’s overpowering motive: her fear of commitment.
(my emphasis)

By even discussing the sexual elements in the novel he opened the characters to a new critical gaze – and in that sense can be seen as a precursor to the more definite Queer Theorists writing today. As can be seen from the comments quoted above, he was careful to situate the sexual element as a subordinate aspect of the wider psychology of the character; it was, in that sense, an enlargement rather than narrowing of Austen’s subtlety.

However, recent research by Devoney Looser, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, points out (in an article published in The Atlantic magazine in July 2017 titled Queering the Work of Jane Austen Is Nothing New and promoting her new book The Making of Jane Austen) that from the Victorian era onward there is a long history showing that:

actors and playwrights shifted Austen’s characters away from traditional gender roles and heterosexuality, in works of entertainment that ranged from mildly gender-fluid to perfectly queer. In front of live audiences, Miss Bates was often a man, there were female Darcys aplenty, and the first professional actors playing Jane and Cassandra were real-life lovers.

Academics, it seems, were always more reticent to translate knowledge about the relationship and sleeping arrangements of the Austen sisters into speculation about how this might help shape Austen’s intention behind her characters’ behaviour. More reticent, that is, until 1995, when Terry Castle published her seminal essay Sister-Sister? in The London Review of Books. (For some reason the editors chose to headline the submission on the front page under the somewhat meretricious title Was Jane Austen Gay?not Castle’s choice.) Castle continued her argument in a 2011 review of Deidre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Letters:

The conventions of 19th-century female sociability and body intimacy may have provided the necessary screen behind which both women acted out unconscious narcissistic or homoerotic imperatives.

It is difficult to argue with this statement, given that modern psychology is well-versed in the notion of the importance of ‘screens’ when it comes to social interaction. And at first glance it is possible to apply it to some degree across the novels: Catherine Morland chooses Eleanor Tilney as her role model and delights in having her as her sister-in-law ; Elinor and Marianne Dashwood clearly share that sororal closeness that Terry Castle identified between Jane and Cassandra; and the same can apply to the two major Bennet sisters, who are very close and very much entangled in the friendship between Darcy and Bingley; there is much tension and confusion of emotion between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, especially in the rehearsal scene for the play Lovers Vows between the two and its interruption by Edmund; and then there is Emma and Harriet and the ‘great intimacy’ between them that so troubles Mr Knightley in Chapter Five and which he tells Mrs Weston is ‘a bad thing’. Perhaps Mudrick should have been more explicit himself in the Queer Theory manner which says that Emma is obviously a lesbian. As Emma Tennant said in an interview for The Telegraph about her 1996 sequel Emma In Love:

“I am not taking any liberties. Emma is known as the lesbian book in Jane Austen’s oeuvre. It has strong lesbian overtones and undertones. In the original, Emma absolutely adores Harriet Smith, her protégé and spends a lot of time with her. There’s a passage where she describes how Harriet’s soft blue eyes are just the type of eyes that Emma loves. I am not the first to draw out her lesbianism. Serious academics have found many clues to it in Emma.”

And yet Knightley’s concerns are not focused on a possible sexual involvement between the two but on precisely the potential and actual flaws in Emma’s character as outlined succinctly in the opening chapter:

The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself

His concern, he explains, is centred exactly on these issues and brings him into close alignment with Austen’s intention:

I think her the very worst sort of companion that Emma could possibly have. She knows nothing herself, and looks upon Emma as knowing every thing. She is a
flatterer in all her ways; and so much the worse, because undesigned. Her ignorance is hourly flattery. How can Emma imagine she has anything to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?
(my emphasis)

And Austen is at pains to show how Emma’s good intentions towards Harriet

… she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking

are clouded by self-regard rather than simple altruism

… certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers

Now a ‘Queer’ reading of the situation would (and does) point out the fact that also underpinning Emma’s interest is the fact that Harriet is a very pretty girl:

She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness
(my emphasis)

But even this passage introduces an equally (perhaps more) important factor in Harriet’s attractions:

before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
(my emphasis)

In the very next paragraph we are told why Emma was so much pleased by Harriet’s manners:

She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging – not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk – and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given.
(my emphasis)

It seems clear from these extracts that the central issue which Austen is concerned to explore is how Emma uses, misuses and abuses those ‘powers’ about which she is so self-satisfied. Even though Harriet’s physical appearance is clearly influential because it happens to coincide with Emma’s predilections (and immediately following on from the last extract quoted above is another reference to her ‘soft blue eyes and all those natural graces’) there is no substantial evidence to suggest that her physical and sexual attractiveness for Emma is the primary reason for Emma’s interest.

It seems to me that the enthusiasm and excitement of discovering a different perspective on female relationships across Austen’s novels – as outlined above – blinds proponents to the wider contexts in which the relationships take place. This exactly mirrors D W Harding’s description (in the first section of these comments) of readers whose expectations of what they think they are reading actually leads them to misread the text in front of them. And the upshot can be that the appeal of first glances is followed by the disappointment of second ones.

Sadly, Terry Castle seems to fall into this mistake in her 1995 piece when she follows her comments on how conventions might screen hidden relationships between female characters by saying:

… in the novels so many of the final happy marriages seem designed not so much to bring about a union between hero and heroine as between the heroine and the hero’s sister.

This surely very much overstates the case given that out of the principal marriages in the novels (five or seven, depending whether one includes Bingley’s marriage to Jane Bennet and Edward Ferrars’ to Elinor Dashwood as worthy of inclusion) three of the husbands – Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon and, of course, Mr Knightley – don’t have any sisters. Kit McMahon, in a response to Terry Castle’s original review, also pointed out:

John Bingley and Edmund Bertram have two each, but both pairs of sisters are unremittingly hostile to the women their brothers marry and definitely play no part at all in their achieved marital happiness. Wentworth’s sister, the wife of Admiral Croft, is a genial lady, well disposed to all, but there is no particular affection between her and Anne Elliot. Which leaves Darcy and Georgiana. While it is clear that Elizabeth is going to guide and inspire her husband’s unformed, motherless young sister, and will enjoy doing so, the prospect is dealt with in a paragraph and it would be ludicrous to regard it as a significant factor in the marriage.

But Castle is certainly correct to suggest that marriage is a more complicated issue than it might appear, presented as the satisfactory conclusion in all Austen’s novels. Throughout Emma, for example, we are constantly reminded of why marriage is so important for women through the characters of Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax: even for the genteel middle-classes it is a way of avoiding sinking into penury or the ‘governess-trade’. And many a reader cannot avoid a little shudder at the thought of what marriage to Mr Knightley might mean for Emma, so many years younger and full of youthful spirits. And this is not to consider the terrible anxieties painted in Pride and Prejudice and the desperation felt by Mrs Bennet at the thought of what will happen to her daughters if and when Mr Bennet should die, and the estate is entailed to Mr Collins. Further, we ought not to forget that marriage involves family – and families do not come out so well in the novels. Indeed, it is more than possible to argue that many of Austen’s marriages are important because they offer an escape from families – though Mansfield Park, as in other respects, seems to move in quite the opposite direction given that the question of almost-incest and its undesirability is raised as soon as Fanny arrives at the Bertrams as a child and provides a constant subterranean theme throughout the novel. As I shall suggest later, Persuasion sees one marriage at least as symbolic of the state of the nation.

Emma’s relationship with Harriet is very much entangled in the idea of marriage. Although I have argued that Austen does not present Harriet’s perceived physical attractiveness as the primary reason for Emma’s interest in her, she certainly admits it as part of the reason – Emma’s interest would not have been so quick and decisive had Harriet been less attractive. But even if Emma is conscious of Harriet’s physical attractions it is an ancillary element – because Emma is fixated on her notion of having arranged Mrs Weston’s marriage and is looking to expand her territory – and Harriet’s appearance makes her more marriageable. And at the first early stages of their relationship Emma’s intention is clearly that Harriet should marry Mr Elton and reject Robert Martin. The situation becomes more complex as the novel progresses and Emma slowly begins to recognise how cavalierly she has indulged herself in her treatment of Harriet. Note the different tone towards the end of the novel after she has agreed to marry Mr Knightley and tries to find a way to soften the disappointment that Harriet must feel at the news:

How to do her best by Harriet, was of more difficult decision; – how to spare her from any unnecessary pain; how to make her any possible atonement; how to appear least her enemy? – On these subjects, her perplexity and distress were very great – and her mind had to pass again and again through every bitter reproach and sorrowful regret that had ever surrounded it
(my emphasis)

The strength of the vocabulary underlines the genuine feeling Emma has for Harriet as well as acknowledging her responsibility for causing Harriet ‘unnecessary pain’. But genuine feeling can be based on emotional empathy rather than sexual involvement and be a sign of growing maturity and self-awareness.

That said, the argument that the restricted and segregated nature of Austen’s contemporary society could result in the sexual impulse flowering within same-sex environments seems valid enough. After all, so many of her characters caught up in what we might term ‘the queer gaze’ are quite or very young and inexperienced in developing emotional relationships with anyone. Emma, despite her self-confidence and domineering attitude to almost all around her, is only twenty-one; and a modern psychological assessment might well interpret that self-confidence and ‘dominating and uncommitting personality’ (as Mudrick describes it) as a form of displacement to disguise her anxieties about her father and her future and her ability to sustain an emotional relationship with someone else. Her sister has married and left Hartfield, her governess likewise; she tries to displace this loneliness by insisting on her own indifference to marriage while seeking it for others – and suspecting the worst of Jane Fairfax’s relationship with Mr Dixon. It is a clue as to how embedded the notion (and her reluctance to address it directly) is in her consciousness. One of the themes of the novel is how she slowly does come to address and deal with these anxieties – at least, so far as she can.

It seems to me that Mudrick is correct to interpret ‘the great intimacy’ between Emma and Harriet as the start of an experiment to test the possibility of entering a new emotional relationship while remaining ‘safe’ in her social and educational superiority – and that it involves some sexual interest. How active that interest might be is difficult to judge because Austen (however politically, morally and socially subversive she might be in her examinations of her society) is clearly not especially interested in foregrounding it. Again, to claim that Emma is obviously a lesbian is surely to superimpose a modern emphasis on the importance of sexuality – which Austen did not deny existed, but which she assimilated into the wider subtleties of her characterisation and depiction of the complexities of trying to find some way to accommodate personal happiness and social pressures and expectations within the formal relationship of marriage.

As a final observation on this question of the nature of Knightley’s perceived intimacy between Emma and Harriet Smith I want to refer to a fascinating and insightful 2016 essay by W Ray Crozier of Cardiff University entitled The Blush: Literary and Psychological Perspectives published in Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 46:4. Crozier summarises his purpose as follows:

Literary analysis of the blush in Austen’s novels identifies three themes, namely the potential ambiguity of a blush, its association with modesty, and its erotic and gendered nature … Analysis of Austen’s work suggests that greater attention should be paid to self-consciousness as it relates to threats to reputation, to the erotic dimension of the blush, and to potential gender differences.

In the section THE EROTIC BLUSH Crozier summarises literary criticism on Austen which addresses the act of blushing and states his findings thus:

Austen uses a blush to indicate the sexual attraction between characters or their awareness of the sexual implications of an encounter, a conversation or the contents of a letter. Almost all of the blushes in Emma occur in the context of relationships between the sexes.

And finally:

Reading literary critics’ writings on the blush in Austen’s novels suggests three themes: the blush has no single meaning; it is a sign of modesty; it is inherently sexual in nature

Now Crozier’s research in this area is far more developed than mine, but I can recall only one instance of blushing when Emma and Harriet are together – and that is in Chapter Seven when Harriet comes to Emma for advice after receiving Robert Martin’s letter proposing marriage. Emma is concerned to persuade Harriet to reject the offer:

‘Not for the world,’ said Emma, smiling graciously, ‘would I advise you either way. You must be the best judge of your own happiness. If you prefer Mr. Martin to every other person; if you think him the most agreeable man you have ever been in company with, why should you hesitate? You blush, Harriet. – Does any body else occur to you at this moment under such a definition? Harriet, Harriet, do not deceive yourself; do not be run away with by gratitude and compassion. At this moment whom are you thinking of?’

Emma assumes that Harriet blushes because she is thinking of Mr Elton and is delighted that her plan is working. This is, of course, to mistake the reason for the blush, for Emma would never be ‘run away with gratitude and compassion’.

Crozier says that Harriet blushes eight times in the novel, Jane Fairfax nine and Emma twelve. Jane blushes because of her shame at the secret engagement with Frank Churchill and Emma generally blushes when she is coming to terms with her mistakes. So far as I am aware there are no instances in the novel where a blush can be attributed to a consciousness of any meaningful sexual attraction between Emma and Harriet.

Persuasion is rather different in that it would be difficult to ascribe any sexual interest between the female characters. (Though as we shall see later, Queer Theory is happy to shift its focus onto the male characters). That said, there is one specific instance of a blush during a serious and darkening conversation between Anne and Mrs Smith concerning the previous evening’s concert Anne had attended that, at first glance, seems to mirror the conversation between Emma and Harriet just noted:

‘But I ought to have looked about me more,’ said Anne, conscious while she spoke, that there had in fact been no want of looking about; that the object only had been deficient.
‘No, no – you were better employed. You need not tell me that you had a pleasant evening. I see it in your eye. I perfectly see how the hours passed – that you had always something agreeable to listen to. In the intervals of the concert, it was conversation.’
Anne half smiled and said, ‘Do you see that in my eye?’
‘Yes, I do. Your countenance perfectly informs me that you were in company last night with the person, whom you think the most agreeable in the world, the person who interests you at this present time, more than all the rest of the world put together.’
A blush overspread Anne’s cheeks. She could say nothing.

(Chapter Twenty-One)

The similarity, of course, is in the mistaken interpretation of what the blush signifies on the part of Emma and now Mrs Smith, who is trying to introduce the notion of Mr Elliot for her own ends. But the situation here is far more complex and darker than Emma’s misreading – which provides so much of the comedy and structure of the earlier novel. Anne and Mrs Smith are most definitely not Harriet and Emma; they are older and more battered by experience; their relationship is different, founded on the early friendship of equals; and the purpose of this slight misunderstanding (because Mrs Smith is perfectly accurate in her reading of Anne as being in love) in the later novel is not comedic but arguably becomes in many ways the chief means of illuminating the dark and fractured moral world in which each in their different ways must find a modus vivendi, a way to live within its compass. ‘Arguably’, because this section of the novel is clearly compromised by the author’s accelerating ill-health and remains underdeveloped.

There is another significant moment in the following chapter as the novel hurries to its closure when Anne confronts Mrs Clay in front of Elizabeth about the somewhat furtive meeting between Mrs Clay and Mr Elliot that has been observed by Anne and Mary through the window of The White Hart:

… for having watched in vain for some intimation of the interview from the lady herself, she determined to mention it; and it seemed to her that there was guilt in Mrs Clay’s face as she listened. It was transient, cleared away in an instant, but Anne could imagine she read there the consciousness of having, by some complication of mutual trick, or some overbearing authority of his, been obliged to attend (perhaps for half an hour) to his lectures and restrictions on her designs on Sir Walter.
(my emphasis)

Here it is Anne who is jumping to conclusions and deciding that Mrs Clay was perhaps the victim of an unintended meeting where she was harangued by Mr Elliot about her relationship with Sir Walter. But this misunderstanding depends not upon a blush but upon the lack of a blush. Anne’s reading is structured by her moral code and beliefs: Mrs Clay must be relatively innocent because if she were not she would have blushed; as she doesn’t, Anne convinces herself that the transient guilt she thinks she sees is indeed only what she thinks she sees. Her reading is reduced only to ‘could imagine’, and the guilt is ascribed to some ‘consciousness’ on Mrs Clay’s part of an unlooked-for and awkward confrontation with Mr Elliot. But Mrs Clay is far from transparent because, as Austen skilfully reveals in the reply she creates for Mrs Clay, she may have consciousness, but she has no conscience:

‘Oh dear! very true. Only think, Miss Elliot, to my great surprise I met with Mr Elliot in Bath-street! I was never more astonished. He turned back and walked with me to the Pump-yard. He had been prevented setting off for Thornberry, but I really forget by what – for I was in a hurry, and could not much attend, and I can only answer for his being determined not to be delayed in his return. He wanted to know how early he might be admitted to-morrow. He was full of “to-morrow;” and it is very evident that I have been full of it too ever since I entered the house, and learnt the extension of your plan, and all that had happened, or my seeing him could never have gone so entirely out of my head.’

These words finish the chapter and so have no response or reaction from any of the other characters – they are, that is, carefully left for the reader to interpret. And this reader, at least, finds Austen exercising her very considerable control of all the nuances of language here: the tonal implications of the opening exclamation marks; the fact that, although Anne has asked the question, the reply is to ‘Miss Elliot’, Elizabeth; the fluent use of a mixture of provable truth (the geography of the streets) and avoidance of any other actual information (‘but I really forget by what’); and the sudden glimpse of how to extricate the situation by emphasising the importance of ‘to-morrow’ and Elizabeth’s plans – which would, of course, be perfectly understandable to Elizabeth because the importance of her plans in everybody’s mind is, after all, only to be expected.

This is a tour de force depiction of just how skilful and manipulative Mrs Clay is – qualities which have been (more or less) hinted at since her appearance at the beginning of the novel, but which here are presented much more forcefully and at just the time to emphasise the darker tone of the conversation which had caused Anne to blush in the previous chapter. Perhaps Austen was playing with the idea of making Mrs Smith Anne’s Mrs Clay. After all, when she emerges out of obscurity much of the background information of Mrs Smith’s situation given in Chapter Seventeen comes not via Anne nor by Austen but in the form of reported speech from Anne’s former governess recalled by Anne – that is, very subtly indeed, creating (were we to notice it) a sense of distance about how much we really know about the current Mrs Smith and how she might fit into other themes in the novel. And there is a telling paragraph that describes Anne’s Christian values of empathy and compassion outweighing any doubts or hesitations she might have had:

Anne found in Mrs Smith the good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend upon, and a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond her expectation. Neither the dissipations of the past – and she had lived very much in the world, nor the restrictions of the present; neither sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits.
(my emphasis)

Here the modifiers ‘almost’ and ‘seemed’ indicate that Anne’s judgment is based on her memories as a schoolgirl rather than on current proofs; her judgment is also based on Mrs Smith’s ‘agreeable manners’ and her ‘disposition to converse and be cheerful’ rather than on any deep knowledge; and the ‘dissipations’ (encapsulating not only the wastefulness of Mrs Smith’s marriage but reminding us of how dictionaries surround it with such concepts as ‘corruption’, ‘debauchery’, ‘depravity’ and even ‘perversion’) are hurried past. Further, Austen makes it clear that Mrs Smith was not an unwilling or helpless victim, given that ‘she had lived very much in the world’. Whatever the seriousness of her current physical condition Mrs Smith is not without personal responsibility for it. Austen makes it plain that Mrs Smith has had to adjust to and survive privations beyond Anne’s experience – and that makes their renewed acquaintance rather more complicated than their earlier history.

I propose to discuss the issues surrounding Mrs Smith more fully later.

So: having set out some of the complications of fulfilling Eco’s advice to read texts cooperatively it seems time to turn to considering how to read this text, Persuasion. Each of us has the freedom to select those elements we most feel shape our appreciation and assessment of a text, and as has been pointed out at some length, our individual choices will inevitably be different however much our schooling might try to develop ideas about what is and what is not the correct and acceptable way to read.

The particular elements I propose to discuss further as helpful to reaching a (hopefully) valid interpretation are: the title, given that it was chosen by Austen’s brother Henry rather than  by herself; how the opening chapters establish the plot and themes of the novel as well as the surface narrative; the role and implications of Mrs Smith; and how the awareness of illness both in the text and in Austen’s personal life impacts on the final structure of the novel.

© Mike Liddell 2019