A Matter of Age

No wonder Jane Austen and her sister never married . If your imagination
keeps giving birth to amazing, charming, deserving young men, how can it be possible
to avoid the inevitable disappoint of harsh reality? Much better to end up an old maid.
Emma’s Mr Knightley is another Mr Perfect of Jane Austen’s fine gallery of men: rich, sensible, caring, sporty, quite the gentleman and if it were not enough, even handsome.
However, there is something not fully convincing about him, let’s call it a slight
imperfection especially at the eyes of a modern reader: the question of his age. At 37
he might be with reason considered too old as a life partner for Emma who is only 21.

In the previous post I explained Jane Austen’s choice of an experienced man at the side of her heroine with the necessity of a guide for a spoilt and still childish young woman
like Emma, and, of course, it has been rightly pointed out among the comments that such a difference of age in a married couple was not at all not something extraordinary at those times. By the way, the fact that this difference somehow mattered can be noticed in the passage where a possible attachment between Jane Fairfax, who is more and less Emma’s age, and Mr Knightley is talked of with positive remarks upon the whole, but for their difference of age, an issue that, of course, would have been easily overcome, considering who he was.

A modern reader might also turn up his nose at the point when Mr Knightley confesses he had been in love with her at least since she was thirteen. Thirteen?! Well then, when she was 13, he must have been 29, and nowadays there is a precise word to spot such an
interest toward a young girl and laws to protect her, but let’s leave this hero
safely to his time, we wouldn’t wish to ruin his impeccable reputation of righteous,
trustworthy gentleman. After all,these kind of matches did happen and even among well-known people. An example? Edgar Allan Poe.

If you are still wondering about Mr Knightley’s feelings toward a girl of 13, who was also his
sister-in-law, well, you should know that at the age of 26 Poe married his cousin,Virginia Eliza Clemm, and she was 13! Virginia was only seven years old when she met him the first time, that is, when her widowed mother Maria had then allowed Poe, who was 20 then, to stay with her family. Virginia saw her cousin with the girlish eyes of love and spent a lot of time with him. She even helped him in his love affairs delivering his letters of ardent admiration to a neighbor, until one day, his affections for her little cousin changed and decided to marry her.

Reality is always quite different from fiction. Of course, there was not the general approval at the announcement ( and if I do remember well, neither John Knightley was that enthusiastic once received the happy news from his  brother) as her mother Maria didn’t approve the match because of their age difference, and besides, Poe was practically penniless.  Regardless of family ‘s opposition, the couple did follow the example of many characters of Austen’s novels and eloped in Baltimore on September 22, 1835 to be married  in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16, 1836. The wedding was held at a boarding house, where the couple and Virginia’s mother stayed the night: a desperate attempt to preserve her daughter’s reputation.

What kind of marriage was it? Confused. The couple never had any children and it seems that their bond was more like brother and sister than husband and wife. By the way, Virginia adored him, but he was not indifferent to women’s charm and she was fine with it. Of course he was a women’s favourite. Poe’s friendship with the married 34-year-old poet Frances Sargent Osgood, for example, turned on the jealousy of another woman, Elizabeth F. Ellet, a fellow poet who had a crush on him, so that she started to spread rumors about their affair and Poe’s “lunacy.” The scandal which followed affected Virginia so deeply that on her deathbed she declared Elizabeth Ellet her murderer. Virginia died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis after 11 years of marriage and her afflicted husband “ used to cry over her grave every day and kept it green with flowers.”  It seems he had loved her very much, in his way, of course, which is not the way Jane Austen would have ever dreamed of, but it was intense, maybe selfish and desperately real.

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Faultess Despite Many Faults

I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, was Jane Austen’s famous comment about the main character of her novel, Emma. I have to say that this remark fitted pretty well my first reading of the book.  It was more than twenty years ago now and still I can remember how I was annoyed by her match making efforts and all that never-ending tittle-tattle about it. When I finished it, I quickly put it back in the library, never tempted to touch it again, till recently, my good blog friend Chris (Calmgrove) posted not one, but three enthusiastic reviews on the book one after another. Such genuine display of admiration and praise convinced me eventually to give the novel another try. Hence; I would rephrase the incipit  as follows:“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” the very first time you are acquainted with her, but you will change your opinion as soon as you will give her/yourself another chance.

Therefore; I would like to focus my attention on the main character here, as this time I couldn’t but notice some features in the making of this heroine, which I had previously missed, but that now made me better appreciate the exquisite wonder of Jane Austen’s craft even in this novel. I shall start by saying that Emma is very different from almost all the other female characters of Jane Austen’s world, who are mostly concerned in one way or another with one issue only: marriage. In this story there are not the threatening shades of a Mr Collins or a Mr William Elliot ready to dispossess the lady in question of her inheritance as soon as her father ceases to be, thus making marriage a necessity. There is no such danger at Hartfield, as Emma is the mistress of the house, the heiress with a fortune of 30.000 pounds. Furthemore she is” handsome, clever, with a happy disposition” with some little faults, by the way: ” the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself“. However, how can it be that such a young woman at the age of 21 still knows nothing about love? As far as we know, she has never been the protagonist a love reverie typical of her age but rather she prefers to fantasize on other people’s chance of making a match, pretending to be their Cupid, as if they were her dolls in Highbury playground. To her friend Harriet Emma confesses, that she will never marry and she is not afraid of being considered an old maid like Miss Bates, she will never be like her, because she is rich, showing that she is well aware of her social status and what is due to her.

So, if on the one hand we may say that she doesn’t need to marry, on the other we wouldn’t be too far from the truth if we added that she can’t as well, or better she feels she can’t. She has been looking after her old father since her elder sister’s marriage and he depends upon her. It is interesting here the parallelism with old maid Miss Bates who, just like her, is in charge of her mother, but without the comfort money can give. By the way, Mr Woodhouse is a hypochondriac “ easily depressed…hating change of any kind“, particularly any change in the vast, amazing world of human experience, whether it may be a short trip to Box Hill, for example, or an attachment to a man, especially if it regards her daughter. Emma is quite provincial, indeed. She has never travelled or seen the seaside as she says to her nephews, she has never been to London where her sister lives, she has never experience the feeling of love. When, eventually, she imagines herself intrigued by Mr Churchill, Mrs Weston’s step-son, who is so much talked of in the small circle of Highbury even before being introduced to everybody, she confesses to herself that she doesn’t want to fall to the temptation of even thinking about him. Hence; somehow Mr Woodhouse manages to keep her at the pubertal stage of her life.

Having lost her mother at a too young an age and having been in charge of her father for some years, the two figures who have guided her during her adolescence are Miss Taylor, her governess and Mr Knightley, her brother-in-law 16 years older than Emma. As surrogate father and mother, they are often engaged on parental like discussions on Emma’s education as they  seem to have different points of view about it. The proof that she needs guidance can be seen soon after the loss of one of these two figures, that is, when Miss Taylor marries Mr Weston. At first Emma tries to replace her company with Harriet Smith, but she is socially not her equal and too young to have any influence on her at all, then she starts to misbehave under the influence of young Frank Churchill. Mr Knightley often tries to correct her lecturing and scolding her, but he understands that his role, as it has been till then, cannot fit him any longer, as, despite his sharp insight and the goodness of his advice, his reasons are not entirely honest as he has found himself in love with Emma and  jealous of Frank Churchill . That is why Austen gives him  the task to guide her from adolescence to womanhood but no longer as a brother or friend but as a husband and what a husband, since Donwell Abbey, his estate, includes most of the property in Highbury. Ah, Lucky Emma!