Diana Birchall has imagined a conversation between Mrs. Elton and her husband for Emma in the Snow, and I’m delighted to share her story with you here. One of the things I like best about hosting this celebration for Emma is the range of different approaches to the novel. Contributors to this series and to the celebration I hosted for Mansfield Park in 2014 include novelists, journalists, bloggers, booksellers, librarians, lawyers, and doctors, along with graduate students, postdocs, professors, and independent scholars. I’m always interested to see each contributor’s perspective on Jane Austen’s novels, and I like that sometimes the guest posts include recipes, for example, or fiction, along with literary analysis.
Diana recently retired from her career as a story analyst at Warner Bros., where she read novels to see if they would make movies. The author of a scholarly biography of her grandmother, the first Asian American novelist, Onoto Watanna (University of Illinois Press), and several “Austenesque” novels, including Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America (Sourcebooks), she has also written several plays performed at JASNA AGMs. In Defense of Mrs. Elton, written by Diana and illustrated by Juliet McMaster, can be read on the JASNA website. Diana’s guest post for my Mansfield Park series was a short story entitled “The Scene-Painter.” She tells me she plans to write more novels now that she no longer has to spend her days reading about dragons and robots.
She also tells me that she “apologizes for this ‘Emma in the Snow’ post having nothing whatever to do with winter, and even taking place in midsummer.” Her excuse, she says, is that she is not writing from Halifax, but from Santa Monica.
“I wish we had a donkey. The thing would be for us all to come on donkies, Jane, Miss Bates, and me—and my caro sposo walking by. I really must talk to him about purchasing a donkey. In a country life I conceive it to be a sort of necessary; for, let a woman have ever so many resources, it is not possible for her to be always shut up at home;—and very long walks, you know—in summer there is dust, and in winter there is dirt.”
— Mrs. Elton, Emma, Volume 3, Chapter 6 (Oxford University Press, 1933).
Mrs. Elton is a very old friend of mine. As a young woman, on my first reading of Emma, I had the perhaps somewhat abnormal reaction of identifying with Mrs. Elton (surely a heroine whom no one but myself could much like). I saw in her not the obnoxious embodiment of vulgarity, but someone over-compensating for her uneasy status as an outsider. Even Emma acknowledges her as “a stranger—a bride,” but is critical because she has too much “ease” (Volume 2, Chapter 14). I saw that ease as hard won bravado, and admired rather than disliked her, as Jane Austen skilfully prompts us to do. In her unwise, forward and unsuccessful approaches to Emma, her clumsy attempts to latch onto and even control the elegant Jane Fairfax, her obtuse and blundering ways, I saw a pitiable brashness to cover social insecurity. Emma’s snobbish and almost instantaneous rejection of her seemed more reprehensible than Mrs. Elton’s ill-judging attempts to make friends; more of Emma’s “little faults” which were just as great as Mrs. Elton’s (Volume 1, Chapter 5). Such meditations led to my writing “In Defense of Mrs. Elton,” most likely the first internet serial Janeite story, which was published as the conference gift of the 1999 JASNA AGM, and led to more Mrs. Elton stories and plays.
Mrs. Elton, “the most indefatigable, true friend” (Volume 3, Chapter 8), has never let me down, but I confess I was hard pressed to find anything new to say about her on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of Emma’s publication. (And of course the subject had to be Mrs. Elton, as in my mind the novel ought to be retitled “Augusta.”) The image that popped into my mind, and stubbornly balked against going away, was a detail in a single scene: Mrs. Elton’s imaginary donkey. Mrs. Elton in fact has no donkey; she and her husband are provided with an unexceptionable carriage and horses that suffice for their needs, though of course they cannot be compared with her wealthy sister’s equipage, a barouche-landau. But on one occasion, the Eltons’ horses fail them. One falls ill, and is the reason why the exploring-party to Box Hill cannot take place, and the more local strawberry party at Donwell Abbey is substituted. Therefore, it is when Mrs. Elton is temporarily steedless that she fantasizes about a donkey. Of course Jane Austen intended this detail—another tiny instance of how rich her details always are!
Mrs. Elton’s desire is a bit mixed, however. “I wish we had a donkey,” she declares, and it is one of her socially aspirational wishes, for although donkeys are not expensive (far less so than horses), the nouveau riche Mrs. Cole possesses one, and Mrs. Elton does not. The humble donkey can be seen as an aspirational object in another way, for by forming part of a Marie-Antoinette style of play on rusticity, Mrs. Elton can be the simple maid in a Highbury Petit Trianon of her own—i.e., an aristocrat.
Fanciful as it sounds, with its playful suggestion of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” there is actuality nothing outlandish or impractical in Mrs. Elton having a donkey, funny though Jane Austen makes the expressed wish sound in her mouth. Despite Mr. Knightley’s calm reassurance that there is no dirt in the roads between Donwell and Highbury in high summer, Mrs. Elton is very conscious of the mile-long walk before her, from Highbury to Donwell. Jane Fairfax, who claims to “walk fast,” later says she can do the walk in twenty minutes, which indicates a mile (Volume 3, Chapter 6). Though Jane makes little of this walk, Mrs. Elton is evidently not as fond of walking. “Very long walks, you know—in summer there is dust, and in winter there is dirt,” she protests to Mr. Knightley. And we may remember the evidence of her sister Selina who is quoted as saying about her: “I really cannot get this girl to move from the house … Augusta, I believe, with her own good will, would never stir beyond the park paling” (Volume 2, Chapter 14). Emma seems to share Mrs. Elton’s views on walking, if nothing else; even before the incident of the party of gipsies that confronted Harriet and her friend on a road half a mile out of Highbury, Emma felt that “solitary female walking” was “not pleasant,” and she saw having a walking companion in Harriet Smith as “one of her privileges” (Volume 1, Chapters 2 and 4). If Emma might have a Harriet, Mrs. Elton might have a donkey. A donkey was an inexpensive way for a lady to travel about her neighborhood, and Jane Austen knew all about this mode of travel, because her own mother, professedly subject to indifferent health, had both a donkey and donkey carriage. Sadly and ironically, only a few years after the donkey’s mention in Emma, Jane Austen herself became too weak to walk to the neighboring village, and resorted to her mother’s donkey carriage. (The carriage itself is still on display at Chawton.)
Mrs. Elton may have had yet another motive for wanting a donkey. Providing asses’ milk for Jane Fairfax would have been considered healthful for the fragile Jane, whose family was constantly apprehensive that she might have a pulmonary complaint. Asses’ milk was considered the best medicine for such complaints. More to the point for Mrs. Elton, she would have appeared even more of a Lady Bountiful, if she could have dispensed such to poor Jane. Still, she is unlikely to have thought this far, as she has not yet even considered the donkey request in practical terms. “We should all go on donkies—Jane, Miss Bates, and I,” she says. That would mean not one but three “donkies,” more than Mr. Elton would ever wish to purchase and keep, and more than Mrs. Cole could lend (as Mr. Knightley suggests). No doubt three donkeys might have been borrowed from the stable at the Crown, but it seems unnecessary trouble for what would be a primarily ornamental purpose, as the ladies, even the heavily pregnant Mrs. Weston, are perfectly able to walk to Donwell Abbey on a bright midsummer day. But Mrs. Elton, we notice, is not conceiving of a donkey-carriage to convey herself and her friends. No, she is picturing a parade of the three ladies on donkeys, a ridiculous spectacle, though the precise number to form “the picturesque.”
We may retreat from this glorious imaginary image to reflect on one of Jane Austen’s rather rare but sly word usages that associates a special animal with a character. This is done not by direct linkage, but by an airy mention in fairly near context: for example, elsewhere in this very novel, there is the “beautiful goose” Mrs. Martin (Harriet’s future mother-in-law) sends to the teacher Mrs. Goddard (Volume 1, Chapter 4); and what is Harriet herself but a beautiful goose? This may lead us to ponder on who, pray, is Mrs. Elton’s donkey? Could it be, perchance, her own servile husband? (To say nothing of the folly of an entranced and bedazzled writer, two centuries later, doing donkey duty to Mrs. Elton.)
Let us consider this aspect of donkey symbolism by daringly listening in on a connubial conversation between Mrs. and Mr. Elton.
“My dear,” Mrs. Elton said to her lord and master that night, as they mounted the stairs to their bedroom, “I really was sincere in my request for a donkey.”
“Were you indeed?” he replied. “I had no idea of it. I thought it was only your bewitching playfulness. Oh! the picture of a country scene you evoked, was there ever any thing so charming!”
“I knew you would appreciate it,” she said complacently, “but I doubt if any one else did. They were all too absorbed in their own concerns, as ever. Knightley so lost in his eccentricity—poor Jane desponding in her sad plight—and Miss Woodhouse, well! I would do better not to even mention her.”
“So you would. Exactly so. Such self-satisfaction, such conceit! Thinking all the world should worship at her feet. I pity who ever gets Miss High and Mighty. I know when I am well suited,” her husband agreed.
“I think,” Mrs. Elton said shrewdly, “our friends the Westons are rather angling for it to be Frank Churchill.”
“Oh! No surprise there. Money always marries money, you know. Poor Churchill, to be wed to such a headstrong young lady. One could pity him.”
Mrs. Elton was pleased with her husband’s correct sentiment, and continued, “Do not you think she was more abominably rude today even than usual?”
Mr. Elton was patting the bed-covers. “My dear, I cannot find my night-shirt. They forgot to lay it out. Do not trouble yourself about that woman’s rudeness. Every one knows what is due to you as a real lady.”
“Here is your shirt, upon the chair. Hold up the candle. But did not you hear what she said to poor Miss Bates? I was shocked. Insufferable woman. Three things, very dull indeed! I positively had to move away from her, or I should have given her quite a set down.”
“Never mind, my love. Your restraint was perfection. She could learn a good deal from your example, but I suppose she never will.”
“I dare say not; but Mr. Elton, now, what about the donkey?”
They had both climbed into their four-poster, and he yawned.
“Why, I will speak to the Crown ostler, if you wish it, my dear, and see what he has available. Though I hardly think a donkey a necessity. Our horse is well enough for Box Hill tomorrow, and you will not be so inconvenienced again.”
“Well, that is good news. It is monstrous to have no carriage available when one wants one.”
“And you know, you have only to send the boy to the Crown any day to bespeak any number of donkeys you like, on a moment’s notice.”
“Very true, Philip. Never mind then, I do not want a donkey after all. A lady does not appear elegant on a donkey.”
“To be sure not.”
“Mrs. Cole finds hers useful I believe, but she looks perfectly absurd, that stout little woman going along on an ass! I should not like to make such a figure.”
“You, my dear!” he sighed in a half-sentence, as if words could not express how little her elegant slenderness could be compared to Mrs. Cole.
“I will tell you what I do want,” Mrs. Elton said suddenly, from the depths of the feather pillows.
“What is that, my love?” he asked somewhat apprehensively.
“Only a complete set of new curtains—those yellows have let the summer sun in so strongly that our valuable carpet is sadly faded.”
“But they are only three months old,” he protested feebly, “they were new upon our marriage, purchased when I was preparing the house for you, my dear.”
“Oh, Philip, that is why you cannot depend on a man to new-furnish a house. They have no eye for the sort of thing. And we can afford new curtains, I hope. I have made so many economies in the kitchen, you know, not letting the second table have meat more than twice a week. And as we are not to have a donkey, there is the cost of its feed, all saved. I must have curtains that are in the fashion. Miss Woodhouse has a new chintz that is the prettiest thing. I would not have thought she had so much taste….”
After the subjects of Miss Woodhouse and the curtains had been canvassed and exhausted for another quarter of an hour, Mr. Elton, exhausted, agreed to every thing. The light was blown out, good night kisses exchanged, and in a little while there was quiet as the pair slept. If the vicar had the nightmare, we shall not enquire if he dreamed that he had turned into a species of jack-ass.
Ninth 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 Carol Chernega, Janet Todd, and Susannah Fullerton.