Friday, September 07, 2007

Emma (13-15)--Harriet Smith

The second half of chapter three deals with the introduction of Harriet Smith, whose acquaintance will help form the outline of the plot that drives the novel. Harriet is brought by Mrs. Goddard to dine at Highbury for one of those evenings with Mr. Woodhouse that we have heard described already--amiable but rather taxing. Mr. Woodhouse has some problems being the host not because he is inhospitable but because of a genuine (if misguided) care for his guests' health. The point of Emma's social graces and own amiable character is reinforced yet again in the remark that she "had particular pleasure in sending them away happy" (14). The word "pleasure" suggests that as with her father, Emma genuinely desires to make other people happy. Her good intentions may not protect her from mistakes of judgment, but they ought surely to temper our judgment of her character.

Emma's interest in Harriet is clearly less altruistic than she makes out, and the ease with which the reader can see that hints to me that Austen maying be laying a trap for us. Certainly the reader can be so delighted at a quick discovery of Emma's somewhat mixed motives that it is easy enough to neglect the larger point that she is doing Harriet a real service and is not requiring of her the sort of slavish devotion or appreciation that someone like Mrs. Elton would require of Jane Fairfax. Harriet shows "so proper and becoming a deference" that she "must have encouragement" (13). It is also said of her (as filtered through Emma's perception, I think) that she is "artlessly impressed" (13), meaning that there is not self-conscious flattery in her appreciation of and esteem for Emma.

That Emma's vanity is provoked by Harriet's company is also hinted at in the line "her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired" (13). That the next line begins "she was short, plump, and fair [...]" hints that perhaps the sort of beauty that Emma particularly admires is the sort that complements (or compliments) her own. Not that Harriet is portrayed as ugly. She does have "blue eyes" that are mentioned three times. We are told that "those soft blue eyes and all those natural graces should not be wasted" and that Emma was busy in "admiring those soft blue eyes" (14).

Were one so inclined, one might speculate about whether there is some connection between Emma's stated disinterest in marriage and her pleasure in being able to "collect" (12) ladies into whose soft blue eyes she can stare long enough to get distracted. But I'm just being glib, really. The word "collect" indicates to me, if anything, a tendency to depersonalize and dehumanize her company that makes Emma's interest in Harriet appear more aesthetic than untoward. I don't think we are supposed to read Harriet as unattractive--just not as attractive as Emma (who is herself more "handsome" than "elegant" or "beautiful" and preternaturally conscious of pecking orders of all sorts and her place in them).

Where Emma's narcissism shows a bit more clearly is in the language used to convey her response to Harriet's homage. In describing Emma's assessment of Harriet's situation and resolution to better it, Austen three times uses the word "must" and twice uses the word "should." As George Justice discusses in “Must and Ought: Moral and Real Conditions in Emma" the word "must" carries with it a connotation of moral imperative. Here, its strident repetition indicates that Emma doth protest too much methinks. There is certainly nothing wrong with a young woman of a higher class taking an interest in and socially helping someone of Harriet's condition, but the language with which Emma considers this favor makes it come across as a duty more than a charity: "[Harriet] must have good sense and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given" (13; emphasis added).

This tendency to elevate inclination to the plane of duty and opinion to the level of certainty would be quaint but not too dangerous were it only attached to a benign enterprise. Unfortunately it extends to her estimation of the Martins as well, "very good sort of people" who nevertheless "must" be doing Harriet harm.

Is Emma carried away here, or is she deliberately shaping her estimation of the Martin's to justify conduct towards them she instinctively knows is wrong? The narrator tells us that Emma "well knew by character" the Martin family and "knew Mr. Knightley thought highly of them" (13). That's two "knows" in one paragraph--a pretty forceful declaration of fact for a narrator who generally eschews declaration for suggestion. That Emma can so quickly dismiss the regard of Knightley (a thing not easily gained, as she knows) is a strike against her but may also be an indication that she is less duplicitous than scatterbrained. Emma seems remarkably capable of sustaining contrary impressions or opinions (contrary to each other and contrary to evidence), and her claim that the Martins "must" be harming Harriet, although based on nothing substantial so far as we can tell is nevertheless presented, I think, as a sincere delusion--much like her certainty that Harriet is the daughter of a natural gentleman.

This passage helps to round out some of Austen's meaning in describing the "power of having rather too much her own way" (1) as an evil. Unchecked power, even when well intentioned can cause real damage. Perhaps because so many of Austen's heroines are themselves victims of unchecked power, we can understand both the accomplishment of Emma in being (eventually) able to discipline herself and the fear of Austen that many readers might not like Emma. It is always easier to root for the underdog and to see in her victimization some mirror of our own.

The passage that best expresses Emma's mix of vanity and sincerity is that which describes the lead up to the supper table:

...the evening flew away at a very unusual rate; and the supper table, which always closed such parties, and for which she had been used to sit and watch the due time, was all set out and ready, and moved forward to the fire, before she was aware. With an alacrity beyond the common impulse of a spirit which yet was never indifferent to the credit of doing everything well and attentively, with the real good will of a mind delighted with its own ideas...(14)

We are never far, in the opening of the novel, from a reminder of the many dreary nights Emma has to spend watching "due time." Once again that which is exceptional in her--a spirit never indifferent to the credit of doing everything well and attentively--is dismissed lightly as undeserving of much praise. Here it is done so by calling it a "common" impulse, but it is not an impulse I have found common. Still, the word "real" accompanying "good will" is telling. When Emma is not delighted with her own ideas but only cognizant of the credit of doing everything well, she is capable of rising to meet the challenge. Her good will in those instances isn't quite real, though. The difference may not be perceptible (or even important) to those who are the objects of her manufactured good will, but it is hard to sustain such practices through discipline alone.

If this is a defect in Emma, I stop to wonder what sort of defect it is. One can hardly manufacture "real good will" and in its absence the ability to earn the credit of doing things well and attentively is nothing to sneer at. I have a hard time counting it a moral failure that Emma's powers of self-delusion do not extend to being able to convince herself that she genuinely looks forward to or enjoys nights of insubstantial conversation around a dinner table. It certainly cannot be said of her (yet) that she allows her lack of deeper affection or good will to get in the way of her duties as hostess or that she is anything less than generous in performing them.

As someone who often finds myself restless in social situations that privilege superficial surface discourse over intimate or substantial conversation or activity, I can relate to Emma's restlessness and understand her pleasure at having found that time has passed more quickly than she anticipated. Nor can I really fault her for wanting more of Harriet's company or that of anyone that helps alleviate some of the tedium that I can well imagine Emma feeling on such nights. It is no surprise, then, that the next chapter will open by telling us how quickly Harriet becomes a regular fixture at Hartfield.

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

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