The current chapter of Emma leads with the following right hook:
Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jane Austen is in the house!
Seriously, how anyone can read lines like that one—caustic, acerbic, radioactively unsentimental—and maintain an image of the woman who wrote them as a fluttery, breathy romantic is beyond me. This is a dame who eats romantics for breakfast. Scrambled. With a side of organ meats. Theirs.
And she’s in spectacular form going forward, as witness the passage that immediately follows, which hilariously smacks down the local chattering classes:
A week had not passed since Miss Hawkins’s name was first mentioned in Highbury, before she was, by some means or other, discovered to have every recommendation of person and mind,—to be handsome, elegant, highly accomplished, and perfectly amiable; and when Mr. Elton himself arrived to triumph in his happy prospects, and circulate the fame of her merits, there was very little more for him to do than to tell her Christian name, and say whose music she principally played.
Austen goes on to paint a devastating portrait of the gloating Mr. Elton, whose return to Highbury is sort of like that of Caesar’s to Rome after the conquest of Gaul. Only instead of dragging back tribal chieftains to publicly execute, Mr. Elton contents himself with publicly cutting dead both Emma and Harriet Smith—the first for jilting him, the second for daring to presume she was good enough for him. His weapon of choice is, of course, the reputation of his bride-to-be—of whom Austen tells us not much; just that aforementioned Christian name (Augusta), and that she “was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten”—dang, but she’s on a roll here. You may find yourself having to put the book down every few paragraphs and just catch your breath.
Emma, for her part, isn’t much affected by Mr. Elton throwing shade at her. She doesn’t care enough for his good opinion for it to matter a damn, and all he accomplishes is to give her “the impression of his not being improved by the mixture of pique and pretension now spread over his air.” The only pain he causes her is that he’s a reminder of her own gullibility. As for his much heralded fiancée, Emma’s so far from dreading that lady’s arrival that she actually can’t wait for her to get here—since “a Mrs. Elton would be an excuse for any change of intercourse; former intimacy might sink without remark. It would be almost beginning their life of civility again.”
As for Miss Hawkins as an individual, Emma “thought very little. She was good enough for Mr. Elton, no doubt; accomplished enough for Highbury—handsome enough—to look plain, probably, by Harriet’s side.”
What she was, must be uncertain; but who she was, might be found out; and setting aside the 10,000l., it did not appear that she was at all Harriet’s superior. She brought no name, no blood, no alliance. Miss Hawkins was the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called…Bristol was her home, the very heart of Bristol; for though the father and mother had died some years ago, an uncle remained—in the law line:—nothing more distinctly honourable was hazarded of him, than that he was in the law line; and with him the daughter had lived. Emma guessed him to be the drudge of some attorney, and too stupid to rise. And all the grandeur of the connection seemed dependent on the elder sister, who was very well married, to a gentleman in a great way, near Bristol, who kept two carriages! That was the wind-up of the history; that was the glory of Miss Hawkins.
We know that Emma’s superhuman snobbery will eventually rear up and bite her in the ass; but for the moment, she has our gracious permission to keep trash-talking in this vein all she likes. In fact, we insist.
Unfortunately, while Emma’s basically immune to Mr. Elton’s prancing around Highbury in celebration of himself, Harriet Smith is another story. Where Emma serenely repels his haughty looks, they pierce Harriet like the beam from a laser cannon. She is “one of those, who, having once begun, would always be in love.” Exacerbating the problem is that, while Emma, on her aircraft-carrier-sized estate, can sail through the average week without seeing Mr. Elton at all, rooming-house resident Harriet “was sure just to meet with him, or just to miss him, just to hear his voice, or see his shoulder, just to have something to preserve him in her fancy”—and how much do we love that single phrase, “or see his shoulder”?...A brilliant summation of Harriet’s character. She’s a fetishist, in the way erotically charged teenaged girls often are. You know the type…the kind who filches the cute boy’s used napkin from the lunch-room trash, and builds a little shrine to it, then spends dreamy afternoons writing his name over and over again in her very best cursive.
She’s also, unfortunately, the kind of girl who wallows in romantic victimhood, and she gets plenty of help by virtue of the fact that, for the rest of Highbury, Mr. Elton is still oh so very all that. Hell, at Mrs. Goddard’s, he’s basically the young Sinatra, and just strutting by the house he reduces everyone in it to bobbysoxers.
At about this time, Robert Martin's sister Elizabeth calls at Mrs. Goddard’s; and though Harriet isn’t in, she leaves a note for her, “written in the very style to touch,—a small mixture of reproach with a great deal of kindness”—so that Harriet’s thrown into a tailspin about that, too. At least, she is whenever Mr. Elton’s shoulder isn’t thrusting itself into view, at which time she’s naturally hurled into a tizzy over that. She’s basically a human weather-vane, being buffeted by two encroaching fronts.
Had it been allowable entertainment, had there been no pain to her friend, or reproach to herself, in the waverings of Harriet’s mind, Emma would have been amused by its variations. Sometimes Mr. Elton predominated, sometimes the Martins; and each was occasionally useful as a check to the other.
So we have this very funny situation of Emma calibrating Harriet like a finely tuned vehicle running at high speed. If she veers too far in one direction, Emma maneuvers the controls to get her back on course. And when she wanders too far in the opposite direction, a few taps get her back again.
Alas, this lovely, suspended state can’t last. The kindness of Elizabeth Martin demands kindness in kind; meaning, Harriet must return the visit. Emma’s caught in a catch-22 here: as a well-bred young lady, she can’t flout social protocol by encouraging Harriet not to go. On the other hand, as Harriet’s protector, she can’t just send her blithely back to the wolves who nearly devoured her once before.
Being Emma Woodhouse, she hits on the perfect middle ground: she herself will take Harriet to Abbey-Mill Farm in her carriage, and drop her at the front door—then return fifteen minutes later to fetch her back again. This way, Harriet won’t be seduced into a longer stay, and the revival of old intimacies that might come with it—because as we all know, even today, “My ride is here” is one of the few unarguable social imperatives; and Elizabeth Martin and her mother and sisters will be left with an understanding that their relationship with Harriet is “to be only a formal acquaintance.” It's as definitive as can be managed, under the circumstances, without Harriet actually spitting on their shoes.
[Emma] could think of nothing better; and though there was something in it which her own heart could not approve—something of ingratitude, merely glossed over—it must be done, or what would become of Harriet?
The day of the visit arrives, and it finds Harriet in another nervous state, because she’s just seen “a trunk, directed to The Rev. Philip Elton, White Hart, Bath” being loaded into the butcher’s cart, which of course upsets her because Tragedy. But by the time Emma’s hauled her to the grounds of Abbey-Hill Farm, Harriet’s gone and swung hard in the other direction, and is getting all dewy at so many fondly familiar sights, like the old stump with the axe in it and the dead ’coon on the tree limb, that Emma increases her determination not to leave her to her own devices for one nanosecond longer than the agreed-upon quarter-hour.
And in fact it’s, like, thirteen minutes and 57 seconds before Emma’s back out front, and if Regency carriages had car horns you know Emma would be repeatedly honking hers until Harriet came bolting out the door, waving goodbye with one hand and holding her bonnet on with the other. And a good thing too, for it turns out Emma’s timing was dead-on. Harriet reveals that the Martin women “had received her doubtingly, if not coolly; and nothing beyond the merest common-place had been talked”, until Mrs. Martin mentioned that she thought Harriet had grown a bit. And suddenly everyone remembered how they might tell for sure: a pencil mark on the wainscot where she’d been measured the previous summer. And the sight of that pencil mark opened the conversational—and emotional—floodgates.
He had done it. They all seemed to remember the day, the hour, the party, the occasion,—to feel the same consciousness, the same regrets,—to be ready to return to the same good understanding; and they were just growing again like themselves (Harriet, as Emma must suspect, as ready as the best of them to be cordial and happy), when the carriage re-appeared, and all was over.
We want to hate Emma here, and we do a little; but we can’t hate her entirely, because even though she’s the dastardly villainess in this affair, she’s far from rejoining in the success of her diabolical plan.
Fourteen minutes to be given to those with whom she had thankfully passed six weeks not six months ago! Emma could not but picture it all, and feel how justly they might resent, how naturally Harriet must suffer. It was a bad business. She would have given a great deal, or endured a great deal, to have had the Martins in a higher rank of life. They were so deserving, that a little higher should have been enough; but as it was, how could she have done otherwise?
As always when Emma’s moral bearings go a bit wobbly, she feels a sudden need to see Mrs. Weston—probably because Mrs. Weston has spent basically her whole life telling Emma she’s perfect. Which is almost always reassuring, you’ll have to agree. (My dogs performs the same function for me.) So Emma directs the coach to Randalls, but instead overtakes Mr. and Mrs. Weston in the road, where they stop her to deliver some epic news: Frank Churchill is to arrive the very next day.
At least, that’s what Mr. Weston says; but of course he’s been saying it, with the utmost confidence, every Tuesday since the Lower Paleolithic era. It’s not till his wife confirms the news, by standing on one leg and mewling like a cat, that Emma can take it as gospel.
It’s a good thing she’s seated in the carriage, because if she were on her feet Emma might be unable to resist breaking into the Snoopy dance. This news is exactly the thing to push the tired old Martins and snotty Mr. Elton waaaay off to the margins. Frank Churchill’s star power is sufficient to relegate everyone else in town to Best Supporting Nobody status. Mrs. Weston actually seems so unnerved at the prospect of finally meeting her stepson, that as they part she says, “Think of me to-morrow, my dear Emma, at about four o’clock,” which is the hour set for Frank’s glorious descent from heaven (or at least from Oxford).
And Emma means to comply. In fact, all the rest of that day and the morning of the next she's reminded to think of Mrs. Weston at the appointed time, whenever she passes one of Hartfield's nineteen gazillion clocks —“‘Tis twelve,—I shall not forget to think of you four hours hence”—which is pretty good evidence that the girl's got a lot of time on her hands, when she’s not busy reordering the planets and redrawing the laws of physics.
She’s just considering how long it might be before she herself has the privilege of meeting Frank Churchill, when she opens the parlor door and there’s Frank Churchill right there, like she's just conjured him out of a magic crystal or something. He’s arrived early, and his proud papa, unable to wait showing him off, is making the rounds with him—first stop being the inestimable Woodhouses.
Emma is only momentarily nonplused; it will take more than a handsome, charismatic, nearly legendary figure being thrust upon her by surprise, to derail her composure. The roof caving in might do it, or the whole house bursting suddenly into flame, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. She’s no sooner absorbed the astonishing fact of Frank’s presence than she’s about the businesses of appraising him (“he was a very good looking young man; height, air, address, all were unexceptionable”) and deciding that she's going to like him.
But we readers…we’re a bit warier. We read about Frank’s “well-bred ease of manner” and “readiness to talk,” his “spirit and liveliness”—and we’re all, uh-oh. Because we’ve been down this road before. We’ve spent enough time in Austenland by this point, to spot one of her archetypes when it surfaces, and Frank Churchill couldn’t be more recognizably The Cad if he had it tattooed across his brow. He’s Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Wickham all over again; and Henry Crawford, too, though of course Henry Crawford was a much subtler and more complex figure, as befitted Austen’s increased prowess when she created him. So, too, will Frank Churchill be; though he presents a clearer danger in this novel, than Henry Crawford did in his. In Mansfield Park, we just kept shouting at Henry, “Go on, then, ruin her, ruin Fanny Price already,” because for that particular heroine, any change, even degradation, would be a clear improvement; but Emma’s already about eighty-five percent perfect, and we want to see her score max out by the end of the novel, not get knocked back to single digits.
So we’re not at all satisfied by the pages that follow, in which Frank Churchill says exactly what everyone wants to hear him say, and spreads pleasure over the room like margarine over toast, and even makes a reference to “coming home” that makes the buttons on his father’s waistcoat just pop clean off. Emma has enough presence of mind to wonder why if he considers this his home, it’s taken him so long to get his bouncy little butt cheeks anywhere near the place; “but still if it were a falsehood, it was a pleasant one, and pleasantly handled. His manner had no air of study or exaggeration. He really did look and speak as if in a state of no common enjoyment.”
This is all very, very bad. In Austen, we’ve learned not to trust the easy charmers, the glib fawners, the dazzling wits. The only men worth trusting are the ones who speak plainly and spare no one’s feelings…and who aren’t comfortable in a room filled with social liars. Frank Churchill is very attractive; but he’s just so obviously poisonous. I sometimes wonder whether he, and his ilk, are Austen’s revenge on a whole class of gorgeous flatterers who chatted her up at assemblies and balls, made her laugh and blush and feel girlish, then dashed off at the first opportunity to dance with anybody else.
Frank is so practiced at his craft that he instantly determines how best to insinuate himself into Emma’s good graces. As mistress of Highbury, she gets nothing but praise from everyone within a fifteen-mile radius, so it won’t make any impression if he goes that route and compliments her directly; instead he wins her over by fawning excessively over the unparalleled super-duperness of his stepmother. Emma, again, isn’t entirely a fool—“He did not advance a word of praise beyond what she knew to be thoroughly deserved by Mrs. Weston; but, undoubtedly, he could know very little of the matter”—having known the lady for, at this point, all of eleven minutes.
He got as near as he could to thanking [Emma] for Miss Taylor’s merits, without seeming quite to forget that, in the common course of things, it was rather to be supposed that Miss Taylor had formed Miss Woodhouse’s character, than Miss Woodhouse Miss Taylor’s.
And yet Emma laps it all up like a dish of cream. Possibly because it can’t do any harm to allow him to cover her in so much insincere gush, since it’s kindly meant; and also, it is pretty pleasant to hear. And she’s already made her mind up to like him—made it up long before she ever met him, in fact. Without some really serious defect, why should she sour on him now? She’s got a fair amount invested in the guy.
Which makes her consider whether he might feel similarly about her.
Emma wondered whether the same suspicion of what might be expected from their knowing each other, which had taken strong possession of her mind, had ever crossed his; and whether his compliments were to be considered as marks of acquiescence, or proofs of defiance.
She can’t help catching Mr. Weston twinkling at them from the corner of his eye, obviously happily nursing those same expectations. Mr. Woodhouse, however, is completely oblivious to any such undercurrents; “it seemed as if he could not think so ill of any two persons’ understanding as to suppose they meant to marry until it were proved against them.” (Wonderful line!) He’s much more focused on learning whether young Frank caught a cold on his journey from Oxford, or was bitten by any poisonous adders, or perhaps lost the use of any limbs.
Ultimately Mr. Weston rises to take his leave, with the excuse that he has business in town. And then, because Austen is the kind of ruthlessly economical novelist who never wastes a word, our antennae go up, because Frank says:
“As you are going farther on business, sir, I will take the opportunity of paying a visit, which must be paid some day or other, and therefore may as well be paid now. I have the honour of being acquainted with a neighbor of yours (turning to Emma), a lady residing in or near Highbury; a family of the name of Fairfax. I shall have no difficulty, I suppose, in finding the house; though Fairfax, I believe, is not the proper name,—I should rather say Barnes or Bates. Do you know any family of that name?”
Emma now recalls that Jane Fairfax had met Frank at Weymouth, and says of course yes, she knows the family in question, and encourages Frank to pay the call. And he gripes and moans so much about how there’s no hurry, he can go any time, but he might as well do it now and get it out of the way, before his days start filling up with interesting things he’d rather be doing than to go and pay a visit to someone he barely knows at all…and Emma just smiles and buys every syllable. (Well, to be fair…the first time I read the novel, so did I. I was younger, then, and much more trusting.)
But she isn’t willing to let him go without at least taking a stab at getting some good dish on Jane. “I have heard her speak of the acquaintance,” Emma says; “she is a very elegant woman.”
[Frank] agreed to it, but with so quiet a “Yes,” as inclined her almost to doubt his real concurrence; and yet there must be a very distinct sort of elegance for the fashionable world, if Jane Fairfax could be thought only ordinarily gifted.
This is one of the only glimmers we get of anything approaching social anxiety in Emma. We’re reminded that for all her supreme self-confidence, she’s still very young, and has lived almost entirely in the country, so that her exposure to “the fashionable world” has been pretty much nil. The idea that such a world would be dismissive of a Jane Fairfax, causes her a tremor of self-doubt. We like her for it, even though we know she’d conquer any fashionable society she entered. Regency London, Gilded Age Washington, beatnik Manhattan…just give up and make her queen already.
Emma warns Frank that Jane Fairfax has an aunt who never stops talking—no, really, she never. Stops. Talking—and sends him off to pay the call. But she hardly has time to reflect on this first meeting, because he boomerangs back again the next morning, this time in the company of his stepmother. Emma is gratified to see her old governess looking so pleased—though of course Frank is the kind of silver-tongued devil who could reduce any woman to putty in his hands. Give him ten minutes with Hillary Clinton and she’d be blushing and giggling like an Olsen twin.
Emma joins them on a tour of Highbury, and Frank further raises himself in her esteem by the intensity of his interest in the town. “He begged to be shown the house which his father had lived in so long…and on recollecting that an old woman, who had nursed him, was still living, walked in quest of her cottage”—and so on, to the point that Emma is convinced he really can’t have stayed away for so long voluntarily; and if Mr. Knightley could only see him now, he’d be compelled to think so, too.
When they reach the Crown Inn, Frank is struck by its ballroom, which he is shocked—shocked, I tell you—to learn is no longer used for balls, the local population being too small for the endeavor. Frank is certain—certain, I tell you—that this impediment can easily be overcome, and that Emma of all people ought to know as much.
Why had not Miss Woodhouse revived the former good old days of the room? She who could do any thing in Highbury! The want of proper families in the place, and the conviction that none beyond the place and its immediate environs could be tempted to attend, were mentioned; but he was not satisfied.
Emma’s a little put off by his certainty that he could fill the place easily enough, just by reaching out his arm and scooping in anyone sufficiently ambulatory to cut a few capers on the dance floor; “his indifference to a confusion of rank bordered too much on inelegance of mind. He could be no judge, however, of the evil he was holding cheap. It was but an effusion of lively spirits.” Clearly, Frank is not the sort of person who’d look down his nose at the Martins of Abbey-Hill Farm, and might even partner one of the girls in the funky chicken, given the chance. We like him for this; I’m betting Austen does too. He’s not quite as thoroughly cretinous as Willoughby or Wickham; his creator is allowing him some layers. Just not quite as many as Henry Crawford—the weight of which capsized her last enterprise.
Conversation eventually turns to the visit to the Bates household, and Frank thanks Emma for having forewarned him about Miss Bates’s mutant ability to speak for six-and-a-half weeks before needing to take a breath; despite which Frank found himself held captive for so long he basically needed a shave by the time he got away.
When Emma asks how he found Jane Fairfax, he says “very will” and makes a remark about her “deplorable want of complexion”, which is so startlingly harsh that it prompts Emma—of all people—to come to Jane’s defense, arguing that her delicate paleness is in keeping with her overall elegance. But Frank stands firm in his judgment.
“Well,” said Emma, “there is no disputing about taste. At least you admire her, except her complexion.”
He shook his head and laughed. “I cannot separate Miss Fairfax and her complexion.”
But despite his willingness to disparage Jane’s looks, Emma can’t tempt him into any gossip about her activities at Weymouth, or her relationships with each of the Campbells, or even how well Frank knew her there. “It is always the lady’s right to decide on the degree of acquaintance,” he insists; “Miss Fairfax must already have given her account. I shall not commit myself by claiming more than she may choose to allow.”
Which prompts Emma to retort, “Upon my word, you answer as discreetly as she could do herself.” Despite which, she doesn’t find discretion in Frank Churchill quite as disgusting she does in Jane Fairfax. Possibly because Frank’s charisma is so high-voltage that it pretty much blinds Emma to everything else—as when she begins to talk pityingly about the sad destiny awaiting Jane, as a mere governess; which prompts Mrs. Weston, a former governess, to clear her throat and say, “Um, hello, standing right here.”
So no, Frank Churchill’s influence on Emma is not a good one. Not even a leeetle bit. But dang if it don’t feel good to Emma herself. She’s practically purring in his company.
Even so, Jane Fairfax seems to hover between them, like an invisible third wheel. Neither seems able—or willing—to leave her behind. Frank now asks whether Emma has ever heard her play. Emma has (“I have heard her every year of our lives since we both began” being the rather groaning way she phrases it), and commends her skill. Frank is glad to hear it, because he’s no judge of music himself. But he assumed Jane’s skill must be pretty rad, based on the opinion of another man, who once gave Jane musical pride of place over his own intended wife.
Emma realizes instantly that Frank must mean Mr. Dixon, and she pounces on this mini-scandal like a leopard on a wounded fawn. She wonders aloud about Mr. Dixon’s fiancée’s reaction to this obvious slight; “I could not excuse a man’s having more music than love—more ear than eye—a more acute sensibility to fine sounds than to my feelings. How did Miss Campbell appear to like it?”
Apparently Miss Campbell didn’t mind at all, because she, like every other inhabitant of planet Earth except, it seems, to two people now obsessing over her, just adores Jane Fairfax to itty-bitty pieces. Well, what about Jane herself, then, Emma wants to know? “She must have felt the improper and dangerous distinction.” And when Frank hems and haws, she realizes she’s given him an impossible question to answer.
“Oh, do not imagine that I expect an account of Miss Fairfax’s sensations from you, or from any body else. They are known to no human being, I guess, but herself; but if she continued to play whenever she was asked by Mr. Dixon, one may guess what one chooses.”
Frank allows that Emma’s guesses on that score must be better than his own, because she’s known Jane longer; but Emma protests that time in this case means nothing. She doesn’t know Jane at all, she never has. Everyone always expected them to be intimate friends, but this has never happened, because “I never could attach myself to any one so completely reserved.”
“It is a most repulsive quality, indeed,” said he. “Oftentimes very convenient, no doubt, but never pleasing. There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person.”
It’s only on repeated readings of Emma that we find ourselves wondering what the hell’s going on in Frank’s mind when he says things like this. It’s a sign of Austen’s expanded powers that we see him as a human being whose motivations interest us, in a way Wickham and Willoughby never did—they were painted with broad strokes; their actions spoke for themselves. But…Frank Churchill, man. What’s he feeling right at this moment? Triumph, at so completely suckering Emma? Regret, at feeling the necessity of doing so? A kind of sexual exhilaration in his ability to so easily manipulate women? What?
As for our homegirl, her thoughts are much more obvious.
Emma felt herself so well acquainted with him, that she could hardly believe it to be only their second meeting. He was not exactly what she had expected; less of the man of the world in some of his notions, less of the spoiled child of fortune, therefore better than she had expected. His ideas seemed more moderate—his feelings warmer.
She’s also convinced, from other inferences, that he has “a very amiable inclination to settle early in life, and to marry, from worthy motives…no doubt he did perfectly feel that Enscombe could not make him happy, and that whenever he were attached, he would willingly give up much of wealth to be allowed an early establishment.”
Emma’s already demonstrated that totally misreading characters is her mutant superpower; the irony is that, in this last reflection, she really isn’t so wide of the mark. But it will be a long time before she learns this, and it won’t make her a bit happy when she does.
Still, by that time, she’ll have plenty of other things to worry about.