Shefali (the Harriet character in Aisha, Amrita Puri)
“Jane Fairfax has feeling,” said Mr. Knightley. — “I do not accuse her of want of feeling. Her sensibilities, I suspect, are strong – and her temper excellent in its power of forbearance, patience, self-controul; but it wants openness. She is reserved, more reserved, I think, than she used to be — And I love an open temper.”
“She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself.” [Emma thinking] –Jane Austen, Emma
Friends and readers,
It’s now way overdue for me to share those few papers and talks the set-up of the recent JASNA conference allowed any particular participant. A friend who is a long-time attendee of these JASNA conferences urged me to think of the meeting as a sort of sorority party cum-conference. Topics include Emma and sexual assault; a history of the book illustrations, and recent adaptations of Austen’s Emma strongly influenced by (deriving from) Heckerling’s Clueless. So, what one was permitted to reach on the mornings and afternoons allotted (I did not return for the mid-morning light lecture on Sunday):
On Friday, after the plenary speech (began at 1:00 pm), there were two break-out sessions, each of which had nine different papers and discussions going on at one time. Eighteen altogether of which any particular participant could get to hear/see only two. It was impossible to choose with any one over another. I chose for the 2:45 time slot, Jessica Richard’s “What Emma Knew: Modes of Education in Emma, because I had heard papers given by Jessica in other venues and knew she would be clear. Jessica’s argument was Emma is (another?) novel by Austen about education. She surveyed educational theories in the period, especially through a contrast between Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education and Rousseua’s Emile. Austen herself had little formal education. Her presentation of Mrs Goddard’s boarding school in Highbury is an element in a plot-design intended to question how female autonomy is experienced in pre-marriage young women. The novel itself suggests that Mr Knightley has had little influence on Emma’s education, and that Mr Knightley like Mrs Weston, fails to control her. He is motivated by jealousy of Frank Churchill. What Emma does right comes from her own self-correction which is somehow finally innate. Jessica asked the group, what lessons has Emma learned?
To sum up, Jessica was suggesting that Mr Knightly not the great teacher — as he says himself. Here the audience soon went off-topic to gossip about the characters. (For my part, I thought Emma had learned no lesson that truly punctured her sense of herself as overwhelmingly important, her values in themselves as impeccable. Yes she had made mistakes, but obviously her world’s order was not at all disquieted (about say how Jane Fairfax had almost gone down the tubes or Harriet ended up a desperate spinster at Mrs Goddard’s).
That there was only one hour each for the two sessions was felt as severe limitation in the second session I went to — at least the speaker kept hurrying us and herself along to be sure to end “on time.” I found I chose Celia Easton’s “The Encouragement I Received: Emma and the Language of Sexual Assault” for reasons similar to most in the audience. Her topic was felt as electrifyingly relevant since just the day before or so, the video and tape of Donald Trump, soon to be President of the US, showed Trump to be a boaster of grossly aggressive sexually predatory behavior to any woman he deems attractive; the Trump language of sexual assault includes “grabbing her pussy;” and far from ashamed, when accused he either mocked the women as not attractive enough to lure him (thus liars), or didn’t literally tell the truth (he sued 12 women who came forward after two decades of nightmares and anguish and loss of possible jobs and a thriving career). Since then when he won the election, we have learned that 60 million Americans did not think his typical behavior or many sexual assaults and actual court accusations of rape disqualified him from the presidency. Obviously this is an important topic. She brought up this immediate context frankly. So what did she have to say? that the experience of 18th century women is analogous to that of 20th and 21st century women, with the job market then for genteel women functioning as a metaphor (like today) for how the male patriarchy (to use a supposedly out-of-date term) works.
Celia said she put her proposal in a year ago so the immediate relevance was unintended but its deep-seated one all the more there. Celia felt that for many women readers rape stories make women into victims or opportunistic liars. In courts rapists attacked women’s credibility (as they do today), as showing her moral failure; people still credited the idea that if a woman became pregnant, she had willingly complied; except among the highest in rank, such cases were virtually impossible to prosecute. It’s sometimes surprising the people who raped women: George Cheyne was found guilty of raping a young girl. Writers used rape as a literary device, once in a while showing the depravity of the rapist (when victim had relatives high in UK gov’t). As most of us know Fielding’s Shamela is a burlesque of Pamela, accusing women of manipulating men’s desires to lead them to rape so they may be entrapped somehow or other. In his late last novel, Sir Charles Grandison, Richardson can still be found shoring up ideas that women lie about rape, seek to entrap men through sexual desire. While there is no overt rape in Emma, there are many instances where female characters feel themselves under a kind of direct assault.
In Emma we learn what language is used, what realities individual words testify to matters. Austen’s first scene of sexual assault occurs in the carriage between Emma and Mr Elton on their way home from Mrs Weston’s Christmas get-together. Celia suggested most readers today do not find the scene funny; they feel Mr Elton has been more sexually aggressive than he or the text he’s embedded in admits. In Emma Mr Elton learns to hate Emma. It’s not only her disdainful rejection of him in the carriage, but the whole of her behavior before and after he sees as arrogant, cold, manipulative (when she is just naive, dense, obtuse). In Austen’s Emma, fear of attack by gypsies as the destitute become brutal, and the real attempted assault on Emma’s friend Harriet may be seen as damning these desperate people without trial. Harriet is scared, she clings to Frank Churchill: we see how little contact she has had with people who have no income (like herself in that). In Jane Fairfax’s case, Mrs Elton is trying to imprison her in a humiliating job. Jane specifically forbids Mrs Elton to look for or push her into a governess post, but Mrs Elton won’t listen. (For my part I think Mrs Elton is intensely resentful of Jane’s subtlety, high culture, and wants to degrade her as well as show off her power over such a cultured woman. It’s a form of sexual dominance which is so deeply painful to Jane who feels much of her life afterward would not be so different from a chattel slave. We may say this is an over-reaction but if we look at the exploitation and destruction of Fanny Price’s vulnerability and self-esteem and how in Mansfield Park the parallel is made with slavery, perhaps Jane is voicing how Austen sees what job market there is for genteel women.
In effect Celia had covered the psychological assault on Jane Fairfax. The audience response was intense and for once stayed on topic. The popular readership in fan cults hardly ever talk on line, but unlike academics they will talk in sessions about what they feel about a favorite book or author. There was or would have been much questioning and raw discussion after the talk, but the clock (and hotel) were relentless and all was over at 4:45 so discussions were closed down before any points could be much explored. I get the feeling these people long to discuss Austen and their views and hardly ever get a chance to do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if social mores prohibit real talk in their small book clubs. Well they had less this year than previous ones.
Susan Allen Ford’s keynote speech was the high point of the conference for both myself and my daughter. She began with the idea that Emma is about reading just as surely as Northanger Abbey (whose extent text may be regarded as worked on directly after Emma). Emma’s list of books she means to read and will never get round to, what we do hear and see quoted as reading matter in Highbury, the likening of Mrs Weston to the Baroness of d’Almane and Emma to her daughter-pupil, Adele or Adelaide in Mme de Genlis’s Adele et Theodore (Englished as Adelaide and Theodore), and how we see everyone behave in these contexts, if explored, offer us ways of understanding what Austen wants us to take away from her novel.
We can get to know the kind of mind each character has through their reading and reading lists; the books and texts cited and and alluded to across the novel also capture a cultural moment among Austen’s class. I cite just one of the several groups of texts Susan went into. Harriet Smith’s is a jumble of compliance and imitative cant. She prods Mr Martin into genuinely trying to obtain Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, and Regina Maria Roche’s Children of the Abbey, though for his serious mind (as Austen sees this) much more meaningful and useful are the Agricultural Reports (serious farming and economic news and treatises). He likes poetry well enough and reads extracts from a popular anthology of the era, Elegant Extracts by Vicesmus Knox.
If we explore these books, we discover that Knox intends his volume to be read aloud, to provide elocution lessons, teach poise. The Vicar is a story of a family on the edge of destitution, a fragile situation sexually, where much misery is experienced until near its close. Prevost rewrote it as enormously popular Le Doyen de Killerine (almost immediately Englished) The two romances have no imaginative hold on Harriet as she cannot apply what she reads, but Austen knows we can see what they are: Radcliffe’s is a gothic novel with a male predator at the center; male tyrannies also dominate the sentimental romance in Roche’s book. Both give us glimpses into the interior life of genteel women at the turn of this century. Emma looks upon Mr Martin as clownish, gross, vulgar and disconcerted by the strength, concision and authenticity of his letter proposing marriage to Harriet, Emma has to resort to attributing it to his sisters — at first. But it is Mr Elton who attempts (mild) predation, and Frank Churchill a clandestine engagement whose seriousness for Jane he does not seem to take into account.
The whole subplot shows how entrenched is Emma’s prejudice, how little she understands how to use what she reads — beyond the unexamined pleasure she seems to get out of vicarious matching. We are asked to believe that at the end of the book she has been cured of her delusionary match-making. Her real virtues (as seen in this conservative reading) are those she begins with the book with: loyalty and care for her father, family, intuitive concern for vulnerable people when class and other issues do not blind her.
Susan’s talk was thorough and took up most of the time allotted. We then again had two sessions, nine papers and discussions going on at once, so eighteen altogether of which any one participant could attend only two.
I decided to go to “Where Health is at Stake:” Fictive Ills, Invalids, and Healers in Highbury” because the degrees of two of the three presenters suggested a real knowledge of medicine in the era. Drs Cheryl Kinney and Theresa Kenney had that but I didn’t realize they were giving three separate presentations and since they had only an hour altogether, and wanted to give some time for discussion, there simply was not enough time to say discuss gynecology which was in the description said to be her specialty (which I perhaps foolishly hoped for a serious outline about). She was very general about Marianne, Jane Bennet and Louisa Musgrove, and seemed unwilling to say anything untoward about any of the characters, so Mr Woodhouse’s “cognitive impairment” showed us how good a daughter Emma was. Nothing much about the realities of old age. Despite the implicit feminism of the titles of Theresa Kenney’s books she produced a set of upright moral lessons (she quoted Kant’s Doctrine on Moral Virtue) exemplified by the very kindly treatment of various ailments in the novel.
Liz Cooper pointed out that we never see the one physician (actually an apothecary) in Highbury, Mr Perry, whom she likened to (and seemed to think was based on) a well-known physician in Bath, a Dr Caleb-Hillier Parry (1755-1822). She first quoted Austen’s caustic remarks about this man in her letters (showing Austen was aware of this man). She then presented a positive portrait of his discoveries (in autopsy, in clinical work, about angina pain in the human heart); the work he did in a Royal Mineral Water Hospital, his friendly relationship with Edward Jenner; Liz saw Parry as unfairly ignored by the medical establishment. She did not want to end by saying how unfair Austen had been if she aimed her character at this hard-working doctor, so like the two previous speakers she ended on how much a model of daughterly forbearance Emma is. It seemed to me in all this the tone of Austen’s novels, the thrust was lost, and the often embittered desperate commentary (and walking) of her time in Bath as a spinster in her letters.
Isobel had gone to Deborah Barnum’s talk, “Illustrating Emma,” and enjoyed looking at the many illustrations Deborah discussed. Deborah (according to Izzy) discussed book illustration in the early 19th century and Victorian period, the technology of print-making, engraving and then she surveyed editions of novels from Bentley’s 1833 through the nineteenth and twentieth century up to the recent Marvel comic book renditions, Manga Classics, and fine art depictions of an imprint like the Folio society. Questions discussed included which scenes or characters would people have liked to illustrate, how strictly to keep to the text, should they comment on and foreshadow the story. Does an illustration that seems to go against your interpretation of the book “ruin” it for you (analogous to a movie). She offered a good bibliography of secondary studies.
The second and last session, which ended at 2:30 (so the rest of the afternoon there was nothing) had a number of topics I longed to have listened to (e.g, Catherine Ingrassia on “Slavery and Cultures of Captivity in Emma“). But since I have published so much on film adaptation on Austen, once dreamed of publishing a book on the film adaptations of Sense and Sensibility (“A Place of Refuge” — I’ve five finished chapters), and still keep up and love them, I chose Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield’s “Multimedia Emma: Three Recent Adaptations.” They often give a witty and informative lecture which explicates Austen’s texts too and did so this time. They began with what they argued for was the centrality of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as an influence on Emma films, and then proceeded to show interconnections between the recent Emma films apart from their debt to Clueless.
Their first, the 2009 Emma (scripted Sandy Welch, BBC mini-series for TV) was a reaction against Clueless, which nonetheless picked up on the thorough build-up of a past, lost mother, child-like Emma (in Romola Garai’s performance) and took Miss Bates seriously. They dwelt on how toys are emphasized in various scenes and how Emma seems to be dependent on Mr Knightley as much as her father is on her. Everyone but Mr Knightley (and perhaps Mr Martin) seems to react to occupations in life as so much passing time with toys. The point that Emma is made childish until near the end of the film is important: the Emma in the book would be off-putting with her cool cruelties to Jane and stupidity over Harriet and Elton so Welch makes her child-like (naive) to enable us to tolerate here.
It has been noticed that Aisha, an Anil Kapoor film (2010) is modeled on Clueless (see my blog on Aisha as a redo of Clueless for example): the point in Clueless and Aisha is to make Emma contemporary. Again there is a seriousness about poverty; this time the Harriet character, Shefali upbraids Emma for using her, for looking down on her as a toy (again dressing up enters into this). It’s interesting that both Clueless and Aisha pick up on how paradoxically place does not matter in Emma: though the atmosphere and claustrophobia (ennui) of Austen’s book is central to our experience of it, central paradigms can be transported in place and time. In 2016 as we watch, we feel the pursuit of fun has been relentless, is punishing, in all three films there is flamboyance in the costumes, the parties, which is cheerless (seen also in Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice). Everyone working so hard at being happy by the end they are exhausted and the Austen heroine accused of being unfeeling.
The third “film,” Emma Approved influenced by Clueless they took up is a 2014 digital multimedia interactive blog. This seems to consistent of many videos, webpages which you can spend huge amounts of time clicking through. Now Emma wants to document her lifestyle on-line to show how excellent it really is. As with Clueless, each of the Austen characters has its 21st century type (teenager or college student) equivalent. Knightley (no Mr) is again the somber character who is out of sympathy with the frivolity of all the convivial, conformist fun. The triumph in this universe is to have and keep a boyfriend or girlfriend. It is much influenced (of course) by the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (also a series of blogs made by the people playing the roles). Again the parallels are made contemporary (email is used, a wedding for the Dixons — would not want to be without a wedding). Linda and Sayre discussed how vlogs are made. The overall effect is to celebrate materialism, its bright, hard and technologically impressive: they gave examples from the characters’ behavior. Emma is a good girl and what she approves of is good. Lifestyle choices replace morality, but still above all one must marry to be regarded as successful in life.
And so the sessions and panels of the conference ended. 36 papers set up in such a way as to permit someone to listen to and join in a brief discussion of 4. Think about it. Watch what people do, not what they say to grasp what they value. 36 papers divided into nine sessions could be comfortably got in for mornings and afternoons over two and a half days. Who is that does not value the sessions? not the generality of the members. Since the actual get-together starts on Tuesday for some, Wednesday for many (thus effectively at conflict with the Burney conference), there would be plenty of time for tours, private (now we reach where the sorority party metaphor fits) meals or get-togethers elsewhere, evening events (public and private) and networking for publication, teaching events …
I’ve been working on a paper for a coming conference on Jane Austen and the Arts, have after a week and a half reread for an umpteeth time Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and am now well into Mansfield Park. I’ve been delving into contemporary works on the picturesque, Maud Batey’s beautifully packaged and illustrated study, Jane Austen and the English Landscape (heavy art paper, gorgeously colored reproductions), Duckworth’s old but still invaluable The Improvement of the Estate, and wonder to myself with Austen’s tones and tastes strong in my head what she would think of this set-up, and those papers I’ve described, which she’d have liked, been amused by, or recognized herself in.
“Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. There is the parsonage: a tidy–looking house, and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people. Those are almshouses, built by some of the family. To the right is the steward’s house; he is a very respectable man. Now we are coming to the lodge–gates; but we have nearly a mile through the park still. It is not ugly, you see, at this end; there is some fine timber, but the situation of the house is dreadful. We go down hill to it for half a mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill–looking place if it had a better approach.” — Maria Bertram, showing off Sotherton, Mansfield Park
My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. — Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)