books, collections, collectors, E.T.A. Hoffman, Emma, Fiction, Jane Austen, keepsakes, literature, novels, souvenirs, The Sandman
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.
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While there are some elements of your post I can’t whole heartedly agree with, your last paragraph is fantastic!
Elisabeth Lenckos said:
Thank you! It’s my favorite, too, although I promise not to write the sequel.
Abigail Bok said:
What an interesting, and elegantly written, post about the universes to be found in small things. It was a pleasure to read and full of insight, as well as understanding of the contests between modern and traditional at the time of Jane Austen’s writing. Your interpretation of Emma (the person) accords closely with mine, though I might account more straightforwardly for Harriet by focusing on the craving of (essentially) an orphan for a loving family. Thank you for this wonderful essay!
Elisabeth Lenckos said:
What a lovely response. Thank you. I truly appreciate you taking the trouble to respond. And of course, you are right, I should have mentioned Harriet’s longing for a family, another need her marriage to Robert Martin fulfills. I had such joy writing this post, and now I am enjoying the Q and A very much, as well. Such a pleasure celebrating Emma with you!
Marsha Huff said:
Thanks, Elisabeth, for your thoughtful essay. Harriet’s treasures remind me of another instance in the novel where someone saves a memento from a loved one. Here’s Mr. Knightley talking about the lists Emma has made of books she plans to read: “The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time.”
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Thank you for reading my essay and finding it thoughtful. Your praise is always worth having. I am very happy you reminded me of Mr. Knightley as a thoughtful preserver of Emma’s reading list; in fact, I can imagine him hoping that she would ask for it back and embark on her course of reading. The ‘some time’ is intriguing, too, since it implies he no longer has it. Was it lost or did he throw it away, I wonder?
So lovely to hear from you. I do hope you are keeping well.
I have realized thanks to your post that what Emma scorns in Mrs. Elton and her intention of taking Jane Fairfax under her wing, she praises and exalts in herself with regard to Harriet. I understand why Emma is inclined to give herself so much credit, but I wonder if her issue with Mrs. Elton is that Emma views Jane Fairfax as an equal, despite Miss Bates’s straitened circumstances and the fact that Jane was raised by friends. Jane was provably a gentleman’s daughter, whereas throughout the novel Emma must try to convince herself and everyone around her that Harriet is as well, in the face of zero evidence. I wonder if she sees Mrs. Elton’s wish to provide assistance to Jane as especially vulgar *because* it emphasizes just how much Jane’s circumstances have been reduced.
Elisabeth Lenckos said:
I believe you are spot on. “Mrs. E” is such a thorn in Emma’s side because she will not accept that Emma is the “queen” of Highbury and competes with her for dominance. And of course, she only takes on Jane because she wants to copy Emma and her patronage of Harriet. I am sure she rejoices that Jane is so much more elegant and sophisticated! Never mind she does not seem like a grateful recipient of Mrs. E’s charity. In any case, I wonder how sincere Mrs. E’s offers of a position in her sister’s household really are, but it certainly provides her with ample opportunity to boast about the Sucklings. And yes, the difference between Mrs. E and Jane shows that money will compete with true accomplishment, even in Regency England. Thank you for writing to me!
Thank you for a lovely and informative post. It’s always fascinating to learn about the socio-historical context.
I’ve never thought of the Foundling Hospital, but now another difference comes to mind. If I remember rightly, it was the institution’s policy no to ask any questions about the children’s birth family. By contrast, Emma’s “first attempts at usefulness were in an endeavour to find out who were the parents, but Harriet could not tell.” So it seems that, right from the start, she approaches things the wrong way – something which JA’s contemporaries might have noticed and perhaps smiled at.
Mr Knightley’s “charity”, on the other hand, is “unostentatious” and down-to-earth, but far more effective.“I know no man more likely than Mr. Knightley to do the sort of thing–to do any thing really good-natured, useful, considerate, or benevolent.” He doesn’t keep horses and seldom uses his carriage, but hires them at the Crown so that Miss Bates and her niece might be conveyed to the Coles’ and taken back home in it. As Jane’s voice grows thick by the end of her second song, he gets her aunt to stop the performance. He provides them with apples from his orchard, being left with none for himself. His class-consciousness, unlike Emma’s, makes him aware of what is due to those below him in the social order: “It is on her [Mrs Weston’s] account,” he says, “that attention to Randalls is doubly due, and she must doubly feel the omission. Had she been a person of consequence herself, he would have come I dare say; and it would not have signified whether he did or no.” And we all remember his reproach at Box Hill: “Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation–but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.”
Mr Knightley is “a sort of general friend and advisor” who values Mr Martin’s “sense, sincerity,” “good humour,” and “true gentility.” He doesn’t set out to “improve” or change him, but proactively and discreetly helps him gain Harriet’s hand. The two men have interests in common: we’re told Mr Martin is a clever farmer who reads the “Agricultural Reports,” and Emma imagines they discuss “business, shows of cattle,” and “new drills.” We may assume, therefore, that they will go on talking about these subjects and enjoying each other’s company. But Emma and Harriet have been too close, and now “the intimacy … must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill.” Sadly, this would seem to rule out any future confidences … 😦 Miss Woodhouse used to think that she could never visit Mrs Martin – what about Mrs Knightley? I suppose she might still bring up the pencil and the plaster in the course of some ordinary conversation, and manage an apology of sorts … 🙂
Elisabeth Lenckos said:
I am very impressed with your post–thank you for adding your excellent thoughts here! Your comment on the Foundling Hospital’s policy is very much to the point, since the reason for Emma’s patronage of Harriet is that she believes her a kind of Cinderella, whose father might well be might a nobleman. Would she be as interested in Harriet, if she were a true charity case? I wonder. It is hard to imagine how Emma would feel, were she ever to venture into London and witness true poverty and deprivation. Although there are the gypsies… I also very much like your appreciative analysis of Mr. Knightley and agree with you on every point you are making about him. He really is the “best lord and master,” and a man able to see quality in those who are not as highly placed as he he is on the social ladder–what is more, he can form a friendship with someone like Mr. Martin. As to the relationship between Emma and Harriet, goodwill is a necessary component in a close-knit community such as theirs, and while they will be never as close as they were as young women, I am sure that their shared fates and interests will enable them to converse over children and cherished objects.. Again, my many thanks for your comments.
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Very insightful! I admit that the significance of it’s being a Tunbridge ware box had escaped me, but I see exactly what you mean. I have always thought that Emma’s friendship with Harriet was suspect – one in which Emma can play the “lady bountiful” and help Harriet improve. And it begins with the fact that she does not refer to Harriet as “Miss Smith” which would be proper if she felt they were equals.
I like Emma a lot, and I think her heart is in the right place, but I think she has no good idea of how to go about doing the right things, and has much too much idle time on her hands. If her mother had lived, I can’t help but think that she’d have viewed the world a little differently.
I did think it was interesting that the only time that Emma does any “charity work” (other than visiting Miss Bates and her mother, who really ought to be considered as friends, but are, rather, treated with a great deal of condescension) is when Emma is angling for Harriet to “run into” Mr. Elton. The scene, of course, was reminiscent, for me, of the visit in Little Women that the March girls pay to the German family (could their name really be Hummel?) on Christmas morning. As a child, reading this, I couldn’t imagine why one poor family would be performing charitable works toward another (albeit even more) poor family. An entire way of life is summed up in some of these kinds of passages, and I can’t help but wonder at them, even today. Were the “good works” received gratefully, or seen as intrusion and an assumption of position that rankled those who received the “largesse”. Okay – enough with the quote marks!
Elisabeth Lenckos said:
What an interesting comparison between the episode in Emma and the March girls’ visit to an even poorer family at Christmas time–it had not occurred to me. I agree with you that we as modern readers find the nature of the social interaction between the different classes as it is portrayed in the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hard to understand–how did people overcome these immense social gaps and form friendships? Did they, even? After all, they have a hard enough time getting along with members of their own class, don’t they–only think of the tension between Emma and Jane! As was suggested, a lovely contrasting example is the relationship between Mr. Knightley and Mr. Martin, who share an occupation and common interests, and what is more, enjoy each other’s company. However, I don’t see them overcoming the social order in which they live, and which decrees that Mr. K is a “gentleman farmer,” while Mr. Martin is a mere “farmer.” Was there resentment? Perhaps not in Robert Martin, but I believe in other cases, there might have been. The saying “Charity is cold comfort” must have come from somewhere, yes?
Thank you for debating Emma with me. It’s been great fun!
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