Nobody has much time for Frank Churchill, and little wonder. He comes across in the novel and various film adaptations as selfish and unreliable. He uses people to serve his own ends, flirting with Emma, and patronising his father and step-mother. He is deceitful and duplicitous. Mr Knightley doesn’t like him and that counts for a great deal. Mr Knightley is our moral compass in Emma; we trust his judgement.
A smooth operator he may be, and yet he is also a gentleman – his manners are unobjectionable. He is good company – witty and amusing. He is handsome and he is well-educated. He is rich. And, in Highbury, a small town populated by familiar faces and bemired in a dull routine of regular visits, tea-drinking and card-parties, he is new. What’s more, he has been much speculated about, his coming often announced and just as often put off.
And Jane Fairfax loves him. She loves him with a passion that is so powerful that she enters into a secret engagement with him in defiance of her own better judgement and society’s rules. She loves him so much that she suffers for him, and suffers greatly. I think he loves her too. Why else risk his aunt’s displeasure for her sake? We know he is as eager as a puppy for Jane’s arrival at the ball at the Crown, although he pretends to be curious about Mrs Elton. He can’t keep his eyes off her at Mrs Cole’s dinner, although claiming to be intrigued by the arrangement of her hair. He rides sixteen miles to buy her a pianoforte. He comes to Highbury, at last, because she is there.
The more you look at Frank Churchill the more of a conundrum he is; appealing, but flawed, charismatic but dangerous, mischievous in a way that would have a boyish appeal if it were not so thoughtless. It did not take me long to wonder if these conflicting characteristics were evidence of a deeply-seated psychological tension, a childhood trauma or even of abuse. To appear to be so very decidedly one thing on the outside, whilst being quite different underneath, to be so consummately practiced in deceit, suggested to me that there was much more to Frank Churchill than met the eye.
All we know of his youth and upbringing is that he was handed to his aunt and uncle at a very young age, brought up by them at Enscombe, their Yorkshire country house, and groomed to become their heir. It sounds like a fairy tale. But what if his aunt and uncle were not kind? Indeed we know that Mrs Churchill is a supremely demanding and difficult woman. What if Enscombe was anything but a comfortable home? How might these circumstances contribute to the enigma that is Frank Churchill.
Here I share an excerpt from Dear Jane.
Enscombe was a large house standing alone on the periphery of a broad-stretched Yorkshire moor. It was very imposing without being the least beautiful; old grey granite, very weathered; flat, utilitarian façades, a multiplicity of windows that managed to look blank and blind. No light shone from within and only the barest smudge of grey against the rain-laden clouds suggested a fire somewhere inside.
The last of the January snows lay on the moorland scrub. Black pools of peaty water shimmered with ice. The land stretched for mile upon mile; grey and featureless and unspeakably bleak. The way to Enscombe was long, straight and unmarked by tree or fence; only the coachman’s long familiarity with the way kept the horses on the narrow track, the carriage and its single occupant from foundering in the boggy pools or gravel pits which bordered it either side.
At last the carriage pulled up on the gravel forecourt of Enscombe. The ancient doorway opened just enough for a man-servant to come out. He descended the short flight of steps and opened the carriage door. ‘Good afternoon Mr Frank.’
The boy who stepped out of the carriage was about eleven or twelve years of age, with curly hair and an agreeable face. ‘Hello Monks,’ he replied, cheerfully enough. ‘I didn’t expect to see you so soon. What’s happened? Is my aunt unwell?’
In fact Frank Weston had only been back at school about a fortnight before being summoned to the head master’s office and told he was to return home. He was to pack all his belongings. It was not certain when, or if, he would re-join his school fellows. ‘You are required at home, Weston,’ was the headmaster’s only explanation.
Monks began to supervise the removal of the trunks from the rear of the carriage. ‘Mrs Churchill is in the library, Mr Frank. I believe tea has just been served.’
Frank ran up the steps and pushed his way through the door, whose hinges got stiffer and less accommodating with every year.
‘I declare,’ the young man muttered to himself with a wry smile, ‘one day this door won’t open at all and we’ll all be imprisoned in Enscombe until we die of cold and starvation.’
The hall was large, chill and bare of furniture save a hard chair on which Monks or his deputy was permitted to sit during the hours of the night watch. Frank Weston crossed it quickly and made for a long, gloomy passageway which took him deep into the interior of the house. He passed a dozen doors on either side, all closed, and a gallery beneath a high, glass atrium where marble statuary and enormous artworks were shrouded in sheeting. His footsteps rang and echoed as he walked, duplicating themselves five, ten, a dozen times. The occasional flickering lamp pushed back the shadows. Cold seeped from the walls and the floor un-checked by carpet, curtain, wall-hanging or rug. At last he came to the door he sought, knocked gently and waited. Presently a thin shard of voice called, ‘Enter,’ and he went inside.
The room was comparatively warm; a fire burned in the grate and some dozen or so lamps illuminated the towering shelves of books, reflecting the room back in the tall crazed windows. What light there had been during the day had faded. ‘Good afternoon, Aunt Churchill,’ Frank said, crossing the room and placing a kiss on the cheek of the lady who sat before the fire. ‘The day has turned to night. Shall I ring the bell and ask for the curtains to be closed? I suppose Uncle Churchill is in the estate office? Mmm. Tea cakes. May I have some?’
Mrs Churchill inclined her head and Frank helped himself from the plate. ‘I must say,’ he said, through crumbs, ‘I didn’t expect to be home again until Easter. What has happened? Frazer Minor said that probably the Churchill estate has been swallowed up in debt and my school fees hadn’t been paid. Have they?’
‘Of course they have, Frank. I wish you would sit down. Will you have some tea? You have not enquired after my health.’
‘Yes, tea, please aunt. I have been sitting down! For hours and hours. A fellow needs to move around, you know, or he seizes up.’ Frank sat down, however, and accepted the cup Mrs Churchill passed him. He dreaded asking after his aunt’s health as there was always a litany of ailments and complaints but he could not avoid doing so now. ‘How are you aunt? I hope I find you… improved.’ ‘Well’ was never a word to be used in association with Mrs Churchill.
‘Signally not improved, indeed much worse,’ Mrs Churchill grizzled. ‘Doctor Whimberry writes me off as a lost cause. Sundry aches, a tremor which is marked particularly in the morning and renders me almost incapable of holding a cup to my lips. The headache is my permanent companion. He has bled me until I have no blood left to drain and still sees no amelioration to my condition. I believe my veins have all-but collapsed. I do not know what keeps me alive.’
‘What does he do with the blood?’ asked Frank with the ghoulishness common to boys of his age.
‘Frank, that is an inappropriate speculation,’ his aunt snapped, although perhaps realising that the topic was not suitable for a child. ‘Whenever people relate anything regarding their health you ought to show sympathy and concern but by no means pursue details.’
‘Forgive me aunt. I feel very sorry for you and am most concerned.’
Mrs Churchill looked mollified, ‘Thank you. Yes, that is most satisfactory. And then you might offer a little compliment as to their stoicism, if you feel it apposite. Of course, not everyone suffers with such fortitude as I. There are invalids who bore one rigid with a catalogue of their supposed ailments. Thankfully, I am not amongst them.’
There was a pregnant pause. At last Frank said, ‘Indeed aunt, you suffer bravely.’
Mrs Churchill looked almost pleased. ‘You may have another tea cake, if you wish. The fact of the matter is simply this, Frank; I find I cannot do without you. Thus far I have sacrificed you to your education but you can have no notion of what it has cost me. I have suffered,’ she passed her hand before her eyes, ‘oh! Untold pangs. No mother could have suffered more than I have. Your being at school has almost been the death of me, Frank. Dr Whimberry has long been urging me to bring you home. He says you are essential to my well-being. But I refused, naturally. It is simply not in my nature to be selfish. From now on you will take your lessons here with a tutor. If I had my own son it is exactly what I would have done. I could not have sent him to school and I am determined to treat you as though you were my own.’ Mrs Churchill sat back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. ‘Yes,’ she said, through half-closed eyes, ‘if I do live you will have the great satisfaction of knowing that it was your company that has prolonged my life. When you are not at your studies you will be my constant companion. You may read to me when the weather is inclement, and when it is fine we will drive together. Will not that be most pleasant?’
‘Yes aunt,’ said Frank, but very doubtfully. ’
This excerpt is from Dear Jane, the third book in the Highbury Trilogy. The trilogy is now available as a box set, all three novels for a bargain price.