Are you ready for winter reading? Not a single flake has stuck to the ground, but the mix of mushy rain-snow is unpleasant. And so I did a LOT of laundry today, and then retreated into a 19th-century novel. Jane Austen’s Emma soon obliterated the gloom.
Each time I read Emma, I focus on a different aspect, and this time I was struck by the rivalry between Emma Woodhouse and the nouveau riche Mrs. Elton. Mr. Elton, the vicar, married Augusta on the rebound after Emma rejected his proposal of marriage. The first meeting between Emma and Mrs. Elton is awkward. Mrs. Elton marks her territory: she insists that Emma’s stately home, Hartfield, is exactly like her brother Mr. Suckling’s estate, Maple Grove. She is determined to rival Emma in society, and does not recognize their class differences. (Should I say, “Good for her,” or “How annoying”?)
Nobody likes bossy, vulgar Mrs. Elton. Emma considers her an upstart, Knightley thinks her manners deplorable, and the brilliant Jane Fairfax, Emma’s only real rival in terms of education and talent (Jane surpasses her), must bear Mrs. Elton’s condescension as long as she lives with her impoverished aunt and grandmother. Mrs. Elton assumes that a ball in Highbury has been put on for her, though it was planned before Mrs.Elton moved to Highbury. But the best people, though they despise Mrs. Elton, have such excellent manners that Mrs. Weston urges her husband to open the ball with Mrs. Elton. (It should have been Emma and Frank Churchill, we learn.)
Mrs. Elton is a kind of shadow Emma. She does good works with less grace: Emma has befriended Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown birth; Mrs. Elton has befriended, or more like dominated, the superior Jane Fairfax. Ironically Mrs. Elton “has a horror of upstarts.” When Mr. Weston explains that his son’s aunt, Mrs. Churchill, is not well-born but soon outdid Churchill family in snobbery, Mrs. Elton says,
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 neighborhood 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.”
We have all known social climbers, but the brazen Mrs. Elton thinks she has no need to climb. That’s much more American than English, isn’t it? Am I an upstart? I don’t know many upstarts, because I am no use to them in their clawing to the top!