Are You an Upstart? Emma vs. Mrs. Elton

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”?)

Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) and Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) in “Emma” (1996)

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,
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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!

 

How the Internet Ruined Jane Austen

The internet ruined  Jane Austen.

It has ruined:  attention spans, rock album playlists (I’m sure the songs on albums were deliberately arranged in a certain order), newspapers, book reviews, and respect for expertise.  That’s what happens when you depend on Facebook.

I’m  not exaggerating about Austen.  When I first got wifi, I joined a Janeites group.

Fanny Price (Billie Piper) and Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) in TV movie “Mansfield Park”

And what a long, strange trip that was.  Though there are many brilliant fans and scholars in the group, some read Austen like Georgette Heyer.  I was never crazy about Mr. Darcy, but all romance fans “heart” Mr. Darcy.  Mind you, I’m not a fan of Austen’s heroes anyway.  My favorite is the immoral Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.  I know he’d  make a horrible husband, but I can’t help it:  he’s so much fun!

My real problem is not with Mr. Darcy, though.  It’s with the more literal readings of Emma, my favorite Austen.

I fell in love with Emma in college.   The 19th-century lit professor dismissed a timid student who asked why we weren’t doing Pride and Prejudice:  “It is so much done.”  She was right, though we hadn’t done it much!

And we all loved Emma.  She is witty and her misconceptions are hilarious.   Though the marriage plot is in earnest, as always, Emma is more independent than most of Austen’s heroines.  She is handsome, clever, and rich, as Austen says in the first sentence, and since she doesn’t have to marry, she can do as she likes.

The professor thought Austen was a  horrible snob and couldn’t see any satire in the book.  I find Emma comical from beginning to end:  Emma’s kindness to her ridiculous but sweet valetudinarian father, her conviction that her friend Harriet must be the bastard daughter of a well-connected gentleman, thinking Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet rather than with herself, and complete misunderstanding of the characters of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

I am not saying my reading of Emma is the “right” one.  Even Jane Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  Yes, Emma has faults but I can’t imagine  thinking her malicious, as some Janeites do.  She is conceited, often mistaken, and gossips like most young women, but becomes a nicer person by the end of the book.  So why the wrath?

For a few years after reading the Janeites posts, I  could not read Austen.  And the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 was so much written about in both professional and amateur publications that I overdosed on Austen.  (I now limit the number of online publications I read, because, what am I, a media critic?)

Austen and I recently got back together, now that I’ve had a break from the internet.  She is the greatest writer, well, except for Charlotte Bronte maybe.

So perhaps I’ll read Austen as my women’s fiction this Thanksgiving. Nothing like reading a good book while the guys are watching football…