After teaching world literature for thirteen years, Elisabeth Lenckos is writing a novel about an adventuress who lived in the time of Jane Austen. She’s the co-editor, with Natasha Duquette, of Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety, and Harmony (2013), and, with Ellen J. Miller, of “All This Reading”: The Literary World of Barbara Pym (2003). Her Austen-inspired short stories have been published in Wooing Mr. Wickham (2011) and Beguiling Miss Bennet (2015). Elisabeth currently divides her time between London, Berlin, and Chicago.
When I hosted a celebration of 200 years of Mansfield Park, she contributed a guest post on flattery and charm in the novel, and I’m delighted to welcome her back to the blog with today’s guest post on Harriet Smith’s “Most precious treasures,” E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman, and the collector culture of Emma. She’s been posting photos of “flowers from London” on Facebook recently, and so I asked her if we could include one of her photos here (in lieu of more “Canada in the snow” photos from me). This is the display outside Dansk Flowers, near St. Mary’s Church in Islington.
If a small piece of court plaster and an old pencil are not among the things you remember from your perusal of Jane Austen’s Emma, you will be forgiven. Yet they feature prominently, albeit incongruously, in the novel as the “Most precious treasures” of Harriet Smith, who presents them to Emma Woodhouse as evidence of the crush she formerly had on Mr. Elton (Volume 3, Chapter 4). Signaling the death of an old infatuation and the birth of a new, Harriet disposes of the items in a ritual auto-da-fé, while Emma looks on, embarrassed at having to witness not only the pathos of the mementos, but the tragedy of their destruction. Little does she suspect that there is method to Harriet’s madness: “the natural daughter of somebody” (Volume 1, Chapter 1) has set her sights on the most eligible bachelor in Highbury and means to enlist Emma’s goodwill as she aspires to marriage with Mr. George Knightley.
Although Miss Woodhouse cringes at her friend’s sentimentality, Miss Smith’s exhibition betokens her acute understanding of the importance of icons and of the significance an item takes on when it becomes part of a collection. However misguided Harriet’s behavior might appear to Emma because the contents of her “pretty little Tunbridge-ware box” have no intrinsic worth, Harriet’s aspiration to be a collector shows that she is aware of the age’s famous passion for amassing and sheltering not only precious things, but specimens of any kind—animal, inanimate, botanical, and everyday. Given that this is the age of John Hunter, Hans Sloane, and Alexander Humboldt, who can say what might or might not belong in a future museum or cabinet of curiosities?
Harriet’s perspicacity reveals itself further in her specific choice of the Tunbridge-ware box. While inherently modest compared with such treasures as Mr. Woodhouse’s Pembroke table, the box is a product of Regency England’s burgeoning souvenir industry, and therefore a poignant reminder that Miss Smith has traveled more widely than Miss Woodhouse, and at least in this small regard, has the advantage over her. Not that Emma is wise to Harriet’s subtle message; her notion of Miss Smith as a candidate for improvement renders her blind to the possibility that her protégé has an existence other than the one she imagines for her. There are plenty of hints that Harriet leads a secret life, but Emma ignores them—until she discovers that they wish to marry the same man.
Why is Emma so oblivious? Because she, too, aspires to be a collector, not of things, but of charitable causes, which she hopes will further enhance her position in Highbury society. Convinced she has made a beginning with her governess, and enjoying the warm glow that comes from having done a good deed, she is keen to create another happy match and to score a further success. She does not listen to Mr. Knightley, who maintains she only guessed at the attachment between the future Mrs. Weston and her husband and fails to see how any good can come from her association with Harriet Smith.
As he intimates, Emma’s problem is that she has no equal in Highbury—but even if there were such a person, would she care keep her company? Emma’s dislike of Jane Fairfax, whom Mr. Knightley identifies as a likely confidante, reveals that Emma much prefers the role of lady patroness to that of friend; she selects Harriet precisely because she may condescend to her as a social inferior. Her refusal to consider Harriet’s thoughts and feelings as distinct from her own makes Emma appear like a rich girl playing with a doll—one of the famous automatons, perhaps, which fascinated Europe at the turn of the century and were sometimes mistaken as persons, an event recounted in the story The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann, published the same year as Emma.
Like The Sandman, Emma is about objectification—the expectations and fantasies human beings project on the objects of their desire, thus anticipating Freudian psychology. It is also about the perils of patronage, which creates relationships that are innately imbalanced and result in the personal self-aggrandizement of the giving partner at the cost of the supposedly grateful recipient. There is perhaps a good reason why the rising class of philanthropists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries described the disadvantaged members of society—widows, orphans, and the infirm—as the “proper objects of charity.” For while there is no doubt that benevolent individuals and institutions helped to relieve poverty and want, the language they employed resounds with the condescending attitudes that often informed their behavior.
One such institution, with which Jane Austen was almost certainly familiar, is the Foundling Hospital near Brunswick Square, London. Can it be a coincidence that Brunswick Square is the location of John Knightley’s home, where Harriet Smith reunites with Robert Martin at the conclusion of the novel? Although the Foundling Hospital is not explicitly mentioned in Emma, the heroine’s ambition to improve the fate of unfortunate loners reflects her awareness that “collecting orphans” might be an activity a nineteenth-century gentlewoman should engage in, if she wants to be thought virtuous. What Emma doesn’t understand is that unlike the work of the Foundling Hospital, her charity does more harm than good, since it is spurious, executed at little expense, and easily abandoned when it becomes inconvenient.
But Emma is not merely handsome, clever, and rich—she is also fortunate. Given the speed with which Harriet recovers from her attachment to Mr. Knightley, one might perhaps wonder whether the affection in which she held him was really profound. Is it possible that Harriet is not naïve, but rather, disingenuous? That she only pretended to be in love in order to please, and deceive, her overpowering patron? This is a very real possibility, but one at which Austen wisely only hints.
And why be hard on Harriet? She is (almost) the only woman in a novel about the boundlessness of female ambition—think Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Coles, Mrs. Suckling, and yes, Jane Fairfax—who is contented with being a farmer’s wife. Mr. Knightley feels strongly that in marrying Robert Martin, Harriet has done well, but I would like to give her more credit. Although Emma lays claim to being an imaginist, it is Harriet, in my opinion, who is the true visionary. She, who attaches importance to a piece of plaster and a discarded pencil, is able to see the beauty in a man who, to others, seems dull and awkward. More importantly, Harriet’s change of heart provides Emma with an insight into her own snobbery, which has kept her from acknowledging the superiority of quiet, temperate Mr. Knightley over the flashy, spendthrift Frank Churchill.
How does a man of moderate, even traditional, tastes deport himself in the culture of ostentation that pervades Regency England? In contrast to Mr. Elton and Mr. Churchill, who try to impress Highbury with their imported extravagance, Mr. Knightley invites his circle to a strawberry-picking party at his home, Donwell Abbey. Although the day is one of simple pleasures—tours of the house, strolls around the property, a cold repast—Emma enjoys herself, and more importantly, realizes how much she admires this old-fashioned estate. She is particularly struck by “its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up” (Volume 3, Chapter 6), an interesting description, given the startling contrast the fine, unspoiled trees make to Mr. Elton’s sad, empty shell of a pencil.
Perhaps not surprisingly in a novel whose heroine is called Miss Woodhouse, Emma abounds with references to the symbolic significance of wood. Although her father prefers his old Pembroke, she buys a modern table for Hartfield, envies Jane’s pianoforte, and does nothing to prevent Harriet from throwing the pencil on the fire—only to revel in the survival of Mr. Knightley’s arboretum. In this respect, Emma appears like the quintessential modern consumer, who has become estranged from nature and reexamines her attitude when faced with its beauty and productivity. What a fascinating ending! Emma, who was only interested in the artifacts she could purchase at Ford’s, intuits the beauty of agriculture and longs to live in the world it creates. Like Harriet, she marries its custodian, a farmer—even if he is gentleman farmer—and a man for whom collecting is not an indulgent pastime, but a sacred vocation.
I would like to imagine that as a married woman and a mother, Emma might perhaps be tempted to start her own collection of memorabilia. Who knows, she might even keep it in a Tunbridge-ware box her son or daughter buys with their pin money, a box that might contain another piece of court plaster and a bit of pencil? I can see Emma sitting at her desk, gazing lovingly at these banal-seeming keepsakes, thinking back to the time when she knew nothing about the value an object acquires when one knows it belonged to a loved one. She tenderly places the plaster and the pencil back in the box and wraps her Indian shawl around her shoulders. It is time she visited Harriet Martin and offered her an apology.
Quotations are from the Oxford edition of Emma, edited by R.W. Chapman (1933).
Twelfth 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, Sophie Andrews, and Cheryl Kinney.