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Emma Chapters 34-36
Volume II, Chapters XVI – XVIII
October 25, 2016
8:21 AM
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“I hope I shall soon have the pleasure of introducing my son to you,” said Mr. Weston.

Mrs. Elton, very willing to suppose a particular compliment intended her by such a hope, smiled most graciously.

There is so much fantastic, Mrs. Elton hating fun to be had in these chapters, but I am going to focus in on chapter 36 (which begins with the above lines), the bulk of which is comprised of the cross talking conversation between Mrs. Elton and Mr. Weston. It’s a remarkable exchange. Here is what strikes me anew on this read: the two characters are amazingly alike. Mr. Weston is, of course, a kinder soul than Mrs. Elton, but both are so completely focused on their own concerns that their discussion cannot proceed along a linear path, as each narcissistically insists on directing its subject towards themselves. This is one of those beautiful moments when Austen forces us to reassess our assumptions. It is so easy to forget that we have judged these characters through Emma’s eyes. Here we realize that Mr. Weston might not be so agreeable to Emma had he not been so ready to be of service to Miss Taylor, and that Mrs. Elton might be a great deal more so had the unfortunate misunderstanding with Mr. E never occurred. 

“Indeed!–from Yorkshire, I think. Enscombe is in Yorkshire?”

“Yes, they are about one hundred and ninety miles from London. a considerable journey.”

“Yes, upon my word, very considerable. Sixty-five miles farther than from Maple Grove to London. But what is distance, Mr. Weston, to people of large fortune?–You would be amazed to hear how my brother, Mr. Suckling, sometimes flies about. You will hardly believe me–but twice in one week he and Mr. Bragge went to London and back again with four horses.”

“The evil of the distance from Enscombe,” said Mr. Weston, “is, that Mrs. Churchill, as we understand, has not been able to leave the sofa for a week together. In Frank’s last letter she complained, he said, of being too weak to get into her conservatory without having both his arm and his uncle’s! This, you know, speaks a great degree of weakness–but now she is so impatient to be in town, that she means to sleep only two nights on the road.–So Frank writes word. Certainly, delicate ladies have very extraordinary constitutions, Mrs. Elton. You must grant me that.”

“No, indeed, I shall grant you nothing. I Always take the part of my own sex. I do indeed. I give you notice–You will find me a formidable antagonist on that point. I always stand up for women–and I assure you, if you knew how Selina feels with respect to sleeping at an inn, you would not wonder at Mrs. Churchill’s making incredible exertions to avoid it. Selina says it is quite horror to her–and I believe I have caught a little of her nicety. She always travels with her own sheets; an excellent precaution. Does Mrs. Churchill do the same?”

“Depend upon it, Mrs. Churchill does every thing that any other fine lady ever did. Mrs. Churchill will not be second to any lady in the land for”–

Mrs. Elton eagerly interposed with,

“Oh! Mr. Weston, do not mistake me. Selina is no fine lady, I assure you. Do not run away with such an idea.”

“Is not she? Then she is no rule for Mrs. Churchill, who is as thorough a fine lady as any body ever beheld.”

Mrs. Elton began to think she had been wrong in disclaiming so warmly. It was by no means her object to have it believed that her sister was not a fine lady; perhaps there was want of spirit in the pretence of it;–and she was considering in what way she had best retract, when Mr. Weston went on.

“Mrs. Churchill is not much in my good graces, as you may suspect–but this is quite between ourselves. She is very fond of Frank, and therefore I would not speak ill of her. Besides, she is out of health now; but that indeed, by her own account, she has always been. I would not say so to every body, Mrs. Elton, but I have not much faith in Mrs. Churchill’s illness.”

Two things I’d like to draw to your attention: 

1) Mrs. Elton’s admirable (it is! forgive me) display of loyalty to her sex. This is an area in which Emma even admits to herself that she has failed (“She doubted whether she had not transgressed the duty of woman by woman, in betraying her suspicions of Jane Fairfax’s feelings to Frank Churchill.” – chapter 27).

2) Mr. Weston’s far from subtle dispersions on Mrs. Churchill. He says,”I would not speak ill of her,” and goes on, “I would not say so to every body, Mrs. Elton, but I have not much faith in Mrs. Churchill’s illness.” There may be good reason for his doubts, but he ought not to share them, if for no other reason than this is the woman who has stood in place of his son’s mother, yet he does so to anyone willing to listen. This moment is hilarious in it’s unconscious hypocrisy, a thing both characters exude as the conversation comes to a close, but first this gem:

She was stopped by a slight fit of coughing, and Mr. Weston instantly seized the opportunity of going on.

Just love that line. Mr. Weston cares even less for the woman than Emma does.

“I hope,” said he presently, “I have not been severe upon poor Mrs. Churchill. If she is ill I should be sorry to do her injustice; but there are some traits in her character which make it difficult for me to speak of her with the forbearance I could wish. You cannot be ignorant, Mrs. Elton, of my connexion with the family, nor of the treatment I have met with; and, between ourselves, the whole blame of it is to be laid to her. She was the instigator. Frank’s mother would never have been slighted as she was but for her. Mr. Churchill has pride; but his pride is nothing to his wife’s: his is a quiet, indolent, gentlemanlike sort of pride that would harm nobody, and only make himself a little helpless and tiresome; but her pride is arrogance and insolence! And what inclines one less to bear, she has no fair pretence of family or blood. She was nobody when he married her, barely the daughter of a gentleman; but ever since her being turned into a Churchill she has out-Churchill’d them all in high and mighty claims: but in herself, I assure you, she is an upstart.”

“Only think! well, that must be infinitely provoking! I have quite a horror of upstarts. Maple Grove has given me a thorough disgust to people of that sort; for there is a family in that neighbourhood who are such an annoyance to my brother and sister from the airs they give themselves! Your description of Mrs. Churchill made me think of them directly. People of the name of Tupman, very lately settled there, and encumbered with many low connexions, but giving themselves immense airs, and expecting to be on a footing with the old established families. A year and a half is the very utmost that they can have lived at West Hall; and how they got their fortune nobody knows. They came from Birmingham, which is not a place to promise much, you know, Mr. Weston. One has not great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound: but nothing more is positively known of the Tupmans, though a good many things I assure you are suspected; and yet by their manners they evidently think themselves equal even to my brother, Mr. Suckling, who happens to be one of their nearest neighbours. It is infinitely too bad. Mr. Suckling, who has been eleven years a resident at Maple Grove, and whose father had it before him–I believe, at least–I am almost sure that old Mr. Suckling had completed the purchase before his death.”

This coming from two fierce upstarts! In fact, what Mr. Weston accuses Mrs. Churchill of is precisely her beef with him, and then to have Mrs. Elton go on to detail Mr. Sucklings woes in a manner so approximate to Emma’s own! It is amazing in its obliviousness. Upstart might be a harsh condemnation, but it’s their word, and both are certainly still on the path towards gentility – it is not set in stone. Neither care for much beyond themselves and their immediate circle, and each is an inherently social creatures with a desire to be the center of attention. 

I think Austen is challenging us in this chapter to see beyond Emma’s assumptions, even as Mrs. Elton reveals herself to be just as obnoxious as feared. Here is today’s challenge: either respond to my hypothesis and share your take on Austen’s intentions in providing this long and fruitless conversation between two secondary characters, or put yourself in the shoes of either participant. What does this conversation sound like from their viewpoint? Or from both? My version supplied below. Have fun! 

October 25, 2016
9:26 AM
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Crosstalk 

”Mrs. Churchill is not much in my good graces, as you may suspect, but this is quite between ourselves.” Mr. Weston did not pause to wonder at the trustworthiness of his audience. “She is very fond of Frank, and therefore I would not speak ill of her. Besides, she is out of health now; but that indeed, by her own account, she has always been. I would not say so to every body, Mrs. Elton,” indeed he would, “but I have not much faith in Mrs. Churchill’s illness.”

Mrs. Elton knew how to respond to ill-health. Her reply was well rehearsed: “If she is really ill, why not go to Bath, Mr. Weston?” It was then she noticed Miss Woodhouse not far off and recalling the lack of warmth with which the same suggestion was met in that quarter, quickly improvised. “To Bath, or to Clifton?”

Mr. Weston gave no attention to the prescribed localities, only hearing an opening for elaboration on Mrs. Churchill’s capricious illness. “She has taken it into her head that Enscombe is too cold for her. The fact is, I suppose, that she is tired of Enscombe. She has now been a longer time stationary there, than she ever was before, and she begins to want change. It is a retired place. A fine place, but very retired.”

A fine place! But one association could occur to Mrs. Elton. “Aye, like Maple Grove, I dare say. Nothing can stand more retired from the road than Maple Grove. Such an immense plantation all round it!” Though Miss Woodhouse continued to loom nearby, our oratoress failed to recall that she had last heaped such praise on Hartfield, though it was comprised of little more than lawns and shrubberies, (as, too, was Maple Grove). “You seem shut out from everything, in the most complete retirement.” She paused and puzzled for further fodder. “And Mrs. Churchill probably has not health or spirits like Selina to enjoy that sort of seclusion. Or, perhaps she may not have resources enough in herself to be qualified for a country life.” Here was a favorite topic. “I always say a woman cannot have too many resources, and I feel very thankful that I have so many myself as to be quite independent of society.”

Mr. Weston, who knew not what the lady meant by resources, smiled indulgently and replied. “Frank was here in February for a fortnight.”

”So I remember to have heard. He will find an addition to the society of Highbury when he comes again; that is, if I may presume to call myself an addition.” Mr. Weston did not take the hint. “But perhaps he may never have heard of there being such a creature in the world.” 

This was too loud a call for a compliment to be passed by, and Mr. Weston, with a very good grace, immediately exclaimed,

”My dear madam! Nobody but yourself could imagine such a thing possible. Not heard of you!” What had he heard? “I believe Mrs. Weston’s letters lately have been full of very little else than Mrs. Elton.” Mrs. Elton’s behavior towards poor Miss Smith, Emma’s dislike of Mrs. Elton, and Mrs. Elton’s presumptuous familiarity in addressing Mr. Knightley. Be that as it may, he had done his duty and could now return to the delight of speaking of his son.

Finis.

October 26, 2016
1:36 PM
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I love the points you’ve made here, Alexa. I’ve never paid much attention to this conversation, but you’ve hit the nail on the head. Both Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton constantly redirect the conversation toward their own topic of interest–him to the Churchills and her to Maple Grove. I think this is a very human characteristic, and I know people who do the exact same thing. I think this is one of the strengths and also the weaknesses of Emma. The dialogue is so incredibly true to nature (think Miss Bates for example) that it can get a little tiresome. The passages you picked for today’s post, for example, are ones that I normally fly through to get to the more exciting stuff, but they portray human nature so realistically. 

I had never thought of Mrs. Elton and Mr. Weston as being similar. Nor had I considered that Mr. Weston might be a little hypocritical, but it’s quite obvious here that he is. It seems that no character gets off easy in this book. Everyone’s weaknesses are exploited.

October 26, 2016
4:14 PM
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I am not certain what to comment on about this conversation. I like how we are given some very good insight into daily life — the discussion of taking sheets with you when travelling, of a distance being either too far or not so far depending on the person, the daily walk to the post office, the importance of a letter in the hands of the one waiting expectantly for it.  So many little details and actions to consider.  Is it a throwaway section? I don’t think so. I think if I were to look at it again more closely, there might be little things to glean from it that are not readily seen — Austen does this sometimes 🙂 I particularly liked the instance of Mrs. Elton insisting on sending her man to gather the mail for Jane — as it Jane wishes anyone to know that Frank is writing her! And then insists on looking for a place for her to be employed — hahaha — that will be right awkward when Jane has to refuse the position due to a secret engagement!  And Emma thinking that Jane looks happy because of something in the mail, but it is not what Emma thinks, of course.  Mr. John Knightley’s horror at Mr. Weston willingly putting himself into company after a long day made me giggle. But Mr. Weston has had exciting news and cannot wait to share it — Frank is coming again and everyone must know posthaste!  I also enjoyed the little conversation between the Knightley brothers and Emma about the children.  I love how this section just lets us really take up residence among the characters.  

I’m not so convinced that Mrs. Elton really does always take the part of her own sex.  Maybe in retort to a man, but I have a feeling based on her treatment of Emma that she would very willingly toss another lady under the carriage to advance her position.  I think she is looking for a compliment and puffing herself up.  Unfortunately for her, Mr. Weston seems immune to her tactics and does not supply her with the praise she desires.  

I am pondering a creative writing response and if it comes together, I will post it later.  I enjoyed reading the thoughts you included between dialogue, Alexa. 🙂 

October 26, 2016
5:14 PM
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Ok, here is my quickly dashed off attempt at a creative writing exercise based on Mrs. Elton’s views. 

After Dinner Conversation

“Did you hear that Mr. Frank Churchill is to be arriving in the near future?”  Augusta tucked her skirts around her legs and made room for her husband to take his place next to her in the carriage.  Originally, he had been loath to be so improper as to sit with her instead of across from her, but he had not been too difficult to sway.  A slight pout, a little sigh, a longing look, and of course, a shiver now and again had soon brought him round to her way of thinking.   He would not be distanced from her.  She would see to it.  Other men might wander, but her dear Mr. E would not.  He would certainly have no need to look elsewhere.  She slid her hand onto his thigh as tapped on the roof, indicating that they were ready to depart. 

“Who did not hear, my dear?” he replied lifting her hand and kissing it.  “You were the most delightful woman in the room as always.” 

“Oh, I do not think Mr. Weston even knew I was there,” she pouted.  “All he could talk about was his son.  Is this Frank Churchill really as wonderful as he is touted to be?” 

Mr. Elton shrugged.  “I could not say, but I hear he and Miss Woodhouse became fast friends when he was here last.” 

“I dare say she probably thinks him half in love with her as, I imagine, she supposes all to be.  It really is most vexing to constantly hear her praised.  She is no better than I.”  She peeked up at her husband.  She needed to hear him say once more that Miss Woodhouse was but a mouse in comparison.  She smiled broadly as he complied and kissed him soundly on the cheek as a reward before snuggling close and resting her head on his shoulder.  “Mr. Weston  would say nothing lovely about me.  Ignored me completely, prattling on about his son this and his son that and then Mrs. Churchill.  Randalls is nothing in comparison to Maple Grove, I should think he would have listened to my suggestions more carefully than he did.  It is not as if he can claim such standing.”  She lowered her voice to a whisper.  “He married a governess, which is nearly as bad as a girl with no parents.” She laughed, and he joined her. 

“Well, my dear Augusta, not every man can have such high standards as I and be so fortunate as to find a woman who exceeds them.” 

It was enough.  His words had soothed her soul, and she would thank him for it.  “And not all women can be as intelligent as I to recognize such a man,” she cooed. 

“Indeed.  Some women are quite silly,” he agreed. 

“Yes,” she said contentedly, “quite silly, indeed.”