Deborah Knuth Klenck teaches classes on Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, and other writers at Colgate University, where she is Professor of English, and she has spoken at several JASNA AGMs and regional meetings. Members of our JASNA Nova Scotia Region were delighted to hear her talk last May on “Learning to Read with Emma,” and I was especially pleased to host the event at my house.
A couple of weeks before the talk, she wrote a guest post for my blog on reading and rereading Emma with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Today I’m happy to share with you her guest post for Emma in the Snow, on long and short speeches in the novel and what they tell us about Austen’s characters.
I’ve been studying (in all her novels) how Jane Austen’s characters’ verbal style identifies who is right-thinking and who is wrong-headed—and sometimes even simply who is morally good or bad. In Emma, the most egregious examples of bad speech—diction, tone, and the like—are Mrs. Elton’s, of course. (Emma herself is not immune to errors of diction, like her pompous categorization of Robert Martin as one of “the yeomanry.” And, while she pounces upon Mrs. Elton for patronizing Jane Fairfax by using her Christian name, she never seems to consider how she herself addresses Harriet.)
But Sarah’s title for this blog series sent me straight to the snow, for a different aspect of bad taste in language: I’ll save diction (and the gender confusion of “cara sposo”) for another time.
The snowy episode of the Westons’ Christmas Eve party offers in a miniature dialogue a perfect example of how verbal style reveals character.
“Your father will not be easy; why do you not go?”
“I am ready if the others are.”
“Shall I ring the bell?”
“Yes, do.” (Volume 1, Chapter 15)
This terse exchange between Mr. Knightley and Emma shows their down-to-earth, no-nonsense relationship. They use no superfluous syllables. In fact, the perfect mutual understanding in these short speeches virtually announces that these characters are destined to marry. (The inaugural guest post in this series, by Nora Bartlett, draws the same conclusion from this “frank, intelligent, mutually confiding, mutually reliant exchange: no ‘he said,’ ‘she said,’ on the author’s part, no demurring and no hesitation on the characters’—here, these two are calmly decisive amidst all the confusion; they are co-operating, they are equal.”)
It so happens that Emma’s next conversation takes place in the John Knightleys’ carriage—with Mr. Elton, who is, of course
availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already known, hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible.
Emma “tried to stop him; but vainly; he would go on and say it all.” As soon as she can get a word in edgeways, she tries again to stem the tide of eloquence: “Command yourself to say no more, and I will endeavor to forget it.”
But he won’t.
In Austen’s free-indirect rendering of his speech, Mr. Elton has used almost every extant cliché in the stock vocabulary of marriage proposals—he has carefully prepared (“exactly so!”) this banal speech and is determined to get to the end.
Compare Mr. Knightley:
“I cannot make speeches, Emma:”—he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but the truth from me.—” (Volume 3, Chapter 13)
If Mrs. Elton were here and could assess the difference between these two proposals the way I do, she might offer one of her habitual hackneyed expressions, a saying first used by the writer Mrs. Elton would certainly call “The Bard”: “Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet 2.3.90).
(Alas, though: this is one cliché Mrs. Elton fails to live by.)
Brevity in speech or writing is one of the most reliable distinguishing characteristics of Jane Austen’s unequivocally good characters. Here’s another example: when Harriet hands Emma Mr. Martin’s letter proposing marriage,
She read, and was surprised. The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling. (Volume I, Chapter 7)
Having waited around—I imagine her hopping from one leg to the other—for Emma to finish, Harriet anxiously inquires, “Is it a good letter? Or is it too short?”
Of course, this scene is not Emma’s finest hour. She does what she can to dampen her own undeniable judgment that Robert Martin’s proposal is “a very good letter.” She needs to bolster her fiction that Mr. Martin is beneath Harriet by suggesting that, “one of his sisters must have helped him” write it. This explanation comes from another fiction, that the Martin girls have had “a superior education” to their brother’s (Volume 1, Chapter 4). But the narrative voice, with ironical litotes, has already described Mrs. Goddard’s school as a place whose alumnae emerge “without any danger of coming back prodigies” (Volume 1, Chapter 3). And Emma never contradicts Mr. Knightley’s assessment that Harriet has “been taught nothing useful” in the course of her “very indifferent education” (Volume 1, Chapter 8). Nevertheless, it suits Emma’s string of falsehoods to claim that Mr. Martin’s plain-spoken proposal has been ghost-written.
Convinced by Emma’s lies, Harriet closes out the episode with the flat observation, “it is but a short letter too.” Of course, though “Emma fe[els] the bad taste of her friend, [she] let[s] it pass with a ‘very true ’” (Volume 1, Chapter 7).
The complement to this scene is not long in coming. Harriet’s next bit of literary criticism concerns Mr. Elton’s charade. “I think it is, without exception, the best charade I ever read. . . . It is as long again as almost all we have had before.”
Oops: wrong again. Emma understates the case: “I do not consider its length as particularly in its favour. Such things in general cannot be too short.” Emma has lapsed into truth-telling for once, but “Harriet was too intent on the lines to hear.” She is busy putting together what may be the only independent thought she utters in the whole novel:
“It is one thing,” said she presently—her cheeks in a glow—“to have very good sense in common way, like every body else, and if there is any thing to say, to sit down and write a letter, and say just what you must, in a short way; and another, to write verses and charades like this” (Volume 1, Chapter 9).
Harriet has recognized an important difference between discourses, but of course her assessment is upside-down.
Volubility is not always a dangerous characteristic, though it can certainly be an annoying one. (In my opinion, Miss Bates’s good will in her gossippings exempts her from criticism: and her apparently disorganized ramblings often reveal a shrewd insight or two—as when she lets it drop that she and Mrs. Cole had guessed that Mr. Elton was courting Emma, long before Emma has come to this mortifying discovery herself.) But think of the brilliant, comical conversation between Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton in Volume 2, Chapter 18: Mr. Weston is as determined to talk about Frank as Mrs. Elton is to talk about herself and Hymen’s saffron robe—but her fit of coughing gives him an advantage.
Perhaps it’s an inherited characteristic that Frank’s letters are as long as his father’s speeches. “What a letter the man writes!” Mr. Knightley observes of the expository epistle that makes up Volume 3, Chapters 14 and 15. And, although I had always thought that the stream-of-consciousness paragraph that punctuates the strawberry picking in Volume 3, Chapter 6 reflects a collective conversation, I’m coming around to the idea, held by the redoubtable John Mullan, that the 131 words transcribe a monologue all Mrs. Elton’s own.
Emma has certainly committed rhetorical shortcomings in the novel. Verbosity is not generally her worst offense (though holding her tongue on Box Hill would have been a good idea). Nevertheless, by the novel’s end, she has certainly learned such an elegant restraint that she barely speaks at all, despite the occasion:
—What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. –She said enough to show that there need not be despair—and to invite him to say more himself. (Volume 3, Chapter 13)
Quotations are from the Cambridge edition of Emma, edited by Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan (2005).
Third in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Emily Midorikawa, Emma Claire Sweeney, Dan Macey, and Catherine Morley.