Friday, August 24, 2007

Emma (7-11): Mr. Weston's History

The first half of Chapter Two introduces Frank Churchill indirectly through the story of Mr. Weston's first marriage. The second half of the chapter repeats some of the information about Mr. Woodhouse's idiosyncracies, particularly his response to the Weston-Taylor marriage.

Mr. Weston's family had "been rising into gentility and property" (7). Austen's novel belongs to a place and time where the class system is becoming more fluid but still retains the resistance to class change characteristic of earlier periods. The idea of "rising" into gentility and property is a relatively new idea.

Emma is a book of contrasts, and this chapter introduces the first part of another contrast. The Churchills (the family of Weston's first wife) believe that Weston and his family are too far below them to marry their daughter. Their concern will mirror that of Emma when she doesn't wish Harriet to be married to Robert Martin. The birth of a grandson, as it often does, paves the way to a bit of a reconciliation with the in-laws, and when the first Mrs. Weston dies young, the Churchills adopt Frank and he takes their name.

The surface of this chapter's narrative lays the groundwork for a condemnation of Frank. To be sure, his failure to visit his step-mother is a breach of manners that can only be partially mitigated by the fact that his adpoted parents are apparently asserting some sort of negative influence on them. 1 In describing the adoption process, the narrator says of the biological father, "Some scruples and some reluctance the widower-father may be supposed to have felt; but as they were overcome by other considerations, the child was given up to the care and wealth of the Churchills, and he had only his own comfort to seek and his own situation to improve as he could" (8).

Does "may be supposed to have felt" provide a hint that, perhaps, Mr. Weston didn't actually feel much scruples or reluctance to give up his son? When I ask most students about Mr. Weston, they will usually describe him as a good guy who, rightly or wrongly, honestly thinks that it is in the child's best interest to be brought up in wealth. There is a more than a slight hint of resentment in the narrator's language, here, though. Weston was worse off than before the marriage, but he isn't destitute by any means, and that he is left to seek his own "comfort" might suggest that his choice is one of expedience rather than necessity.

Subsequent to giving up his son to his in-laws, Weston quits the militia entering into "trade" (8). 2 We are told he had brothers who provided him a "favorable opening" and thus he was able to make enough money to spend "leisure" days and allow the next eighteen to twenty years to pass "cheerfully" away. When he marries Miss Taylor, it is not as though he has finally erased a hole or deficit that his marriage placed him in. He has achieved a comfortable station in life and has enough to marry a "portionless" woman while still maintaining a "life according to the wishes of his own friendly and social disposition" (8).

Might it be possible to read this chapter as saying that Frank is not so much the spoiled child as the child sacrificed to the comfort of the older generation? Nowhere in this paragraph does it indicate that Weston, once he got on more solid footing (assuming that his motivations for giving up the child were fiduciary to begin with) sought out Frank and tried to be an active presence in his life. Perhaps this was mitigated by the Churchills sending a message that he had to give up claims on Frank once and for all, and he could be honoring their wishes. I'm merely stating from a certain point of few, this relationship could be described not so much as that of an ungrateful child who baffingly refuses to honor his parents as that of an abandoned child who is suddenly called on to show filial devotion to a parent who has never expressed much interest in him to begin with and who then acts hurt and bewildered when that child cares more about his own comfort than making up for lost time. One can almost hear Harry Chapin's "The Cat's in the Cradle" playing in the background: "He'd grown up just like me..."

The odd thing is how few readers and friends of the family see it that way. The last line of Weston's description talks of his "friendly and social disposition" and I think we are back to where we were when we spoke of Mr. Woodhouse's "amiability." Their is a superficial friendliness that passes for manners but isn't an adequate substitute for it. Weston is a "good guy" if by "good guy" we mean "pleasant to be around."

Of the first Mrs. Weston we are told that she had "one sort of spirit" but "not the best" (8). She has "resolution enough to pursue her own will" (8) but "not enough to refrain from unreasonable regrets" (8). The phrase "unreasonable regrets" reminds me of the "gentle selfishness" that was mentioned earlier. Our attitudes towards people can be shaded by the way in which they are described. What is "unreasonable" about her regrets? The implication is that because she knew going into the marriage that her family disapproved that it is unreasonable for her to regret their response. Regrets are, for the most part, emotional responses, and controlling them is the hallmark of a maturity far beyond that demonstrated by most of the characters in the novel who are described with less censure. To be sure, she apparently feeds these emotions and manifests them to a degree that pressures Weston to live beyond their means and she should learn to be content. I'm not saying the first Mrs. Weston is without fault, rather that her story (brief as it is) provides another contrast between those who are slammed for their faults and those who have their faults excused or rationalized. Thus far it seems women are described more severely for their faults than men and youth more severely than the middle-aged or elderly.

1 I say "apparently" because unlike, say, Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Churchill never makes an appearance in person in the novel. Her unreasonableness is taken at second hand and, we must suppose, primarily communicated through Frank. That Frank proves to be not the most reliable source of information will become apparent, but it is odd how few readers ever question whether or not the characterization of Mrs. Churchill might be among his many half truths or a convenient excuse for other, less excusable reasons for procrastinating about consummating decisions he might be insecure about.

2 It is curious that Emma views the Martins (yeoman farmers) as beneath her notice but has no scruple maintaing a relationship with Miss Taylor who marries into a family whose wealth is made in trade.

For more close readings of Emma, simply click on the hotlink label at the bottom of this post.

No comments: