Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (2016)
What kind of novelist is Jane Austen? Sir Walter Scott, in his comprehensive review, finds in Austen the virtues and defects of a devout realist. “Instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world,” Austen offers “a correct and striking representation” of the world as it is, treating “such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks.” He compares her work to that of the Flemish school of painters—not a very high ranking, as Austen would have known from Reynolds’s Discourses. Jane Austen, in Scott’s view, omits love and romance in favor of calculation, determined to “couple Cupid . . . with calculating prudence,” displacing romantic love by “more sordid and more selfish motives.”1 The word “sordid”—important to Frederick Morton Eden—seems to have stuck with Austen after Scott’s review. In Sanditon, Charlotte is shocked at Lady Denham’s meanness and annoyed with herself for politely not disputing the righteousness of the lady’s misshapen principles:
And I am Mean too, in giving her my attention, with the appearance of coinciding with her.—Thus it is, when Rich People are Sordid. (Sanditon, ch. 7, Later Manuscripts, 486)
Scott had not comprehended—or refused to admit—that this is a “sordid” world. We are all—even young lovers—affected by our own struggle for survival and by our world’s assumptions regarding what is correct and successful. Not one of us, not even a heroine, escapes the taint. In various ways we are persuaded to conform—as is shown, perhaps in a kind of answer to Scott, in Persuasion.
A decade later, Scott saw more in Austen. Rereading Pride and Prejudice in 1826, he praises her manner and style:
The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting . . . is denied to me.2
His comment fits with Austen’s own well-known ironic self-praise, suggesting that Pride and Prejudice is “rather too light & bright & sparkling,” wanting some intermittent and irrelevant introduction of the “Big Bow-wow strain,” masculine stuff such as “a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté” (4 February, 1813; Letters, 203). The “exquisite touch” makes Austen a type of Pope’s spider: “The Spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine, / Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.”3 For Swift, the spider disgustingly epitomizes the modern, spinning “original” material out of her own entrails.4 Austen, however, certainly turns to the outer world, to which she does not merely submit (as Scott implicitly complains). In acknowledging the external she lets us see more of it (past passions, old causes) than mere staid realism thinks desirable. True, Austen is never content with inner life alone—certainly not with her own inner life. But the sensitivity that links her to each thread of her narrative, and to her own poetics, raises the danger that she will be trapped by others, an exhibit in a glass-walled terrarium of style.
Indeed Austen has at times been caught—trapped and exhibited—as the perfect stylist. D. A. Miller lays out that view:
Here was a truly out-of-body voice, so stirringly free of what it abhorred as “particularity” or “singularity” that it seemed to come from no enunciator at all. . . .
And in the other constituents of person—not just body, but psyche, history, social position—the voice was also deficient, so much so that its overall impersonality determined a narrative authority and a beauty of expression both without equal. The former, bare of personal specifications that might situate and hence subvert it, rose to absoluteness, while the latter, likewise emptied of self, achieved classic self-containment. No extraneous static encumbered the dictation . . . such thrillingly inhuman utterance was not stylish; it was Style itself.5
For Miller, Austen’s style is a triumph of absences—and absence of person and specifics. She has whittled herself down to nothing, to “Style itself.” A dried husk with but a voice left, she pathetically resembles Ovid’s Echo. Thin and elegant, her work denies the earth and all substance. No wonder she was incapable of “the Big Bow-wow style”! I agree with Claudia Johnson in her repudiation of Miller’s characterization of the author as “anorectic.”6
My own examination of her novels through the names of places and persons has revealed to me a Jane Austen very different from Miller’s. She is not general but particular, not abstemious but replete. Rather than austere, she goes perilously close to over the top, muddling deliberately the combinations of elements of her startling particularities. The world may not be quite ready for her surreal and unholy mixtures. The world was not quite ready in 1816 to read Emma. Maria Edgeworth, taking her cue from the anorectic Mr. Woodhouse, could see nothing more than chitchat about gruel and couldn’t finish her complimentary copy. Assumptions about realism have often got in readers’ way, occluding Austen’s treatment of angles of vision and the role of assumptions and biases and habits in creating what passes for “reality.” Many readers still blame Austen for Emma’s notions transmitted through style indirect libre. Craving the authoritative narrator, we think we are walking on a solid surface, but we tread unsteadily on crumbling shale or sliding cliff, as in the disconcerting geology of Persuasion. Austen reassures us at one level, for she is attentive to the world outside the self. Yet she profoundly questions the procedures and habits by which characters and readers compose individual and social reality. Her attentiveness and questioning are combined, not separable.
In 1993, in the introduction to Catharine and Other Writings, I said that Austen in her early works had struck out a new and powerful line of nonrealistic comedy. The contents of the young Austen’s three notebooks or “Volumes” had been conventionally looked at, when examined at all, as mere juvenile rehearsals for the recognized six published novels. I felt—and feel—that is the wrong way to read them. I had only G. K. Chesterton to back me up. Introducing Volume the Second in 1922 he had praised this freshly discovered Austen as a comic artist in the line of Rabelais and Dickens.7 I lamented the necessity that had forced the exuberant and tough author to suppress original dynamic talents and produce more soothing and regular courtship novels: “she had to pretend that the world was better and its general fictions more reliable than she knew them to be.”8 Jane Austen’s earliest known works defy realism. They deploy the rhetoric and tropes of conventional fiction in order to set narrative on its ear. These early fictions are brilliantly discordant and nonrealistic, sometimes merely parodic but more often pushing through the parodic into the fantastic and splendid. Jane is a mistress of the surreal. Austen, so it seemed to me, had sacrificed a great deal not only of her original humor and wit but of her vision of the world, in order to please the circulating libraries and get published at last.
I have now ceased my lamentations. At that point I had not realized the full magnificence of Austen’s achievement. She had not let go of the surreal and fantastic and edgy elements so wonderfully present in the first works. Instead, she combined these elements with the decorum and concerns of the courtship novel. Her daring pretence to be only realistic is as good as a masquerade. But Austen used the popular motif of masquerade only once in “Jack and Alice,” where the real masquerade is in language. Austen’s full style creates a kind of masquerade in which the historical continuities of a pageant are broken up in kaleidoscopic fury. Think of putting an Elizabethan Dudley and Virgilian Camilla together or smashing together such warring atoms as the Whig billionaire Fitzwilliam and the Tory martyr Darcy! How can a murderous Ferrars court a blasphemous and luxurious Dashwood? What Russell could tolerate a Wentworth? And what is Marianne—a nation in need of cure—doing in sprinting down that Devon hill? There is a religious meaning to much of Austen’s work, though one hesitates to say this, for that leads to the danger of merely allegorizing Austen. Assertive linear allegory she dislikes and defies. Still, how does a Darcy make his way at last to Gracechurch Street or a pupil of Lady Russell accept the divinity of uncertainty? Does Marianne ever make it to the holy “White well” or the “Abbey land”? Gilpin’s multiple Observations tell us how to get along without charity by enjoying little thrills of aesthetic enchantment. Austen’s narrative won’t allow that kind of rapture (so seductive to the young Tilneys). For Austen, history is painful, rather than merely enchanting. Painfully exciting, it is not moribund. It is a continuous present. Austen makes sure that some stones remain for us to trip over. Yet her characters like Elizabeth and Wentworth rush through spaces for affection’s deep sake, leaving radiant traces in the air.
Austen’s variably textured and multilayered fiction could come into being partly because of the pioneer work of other fiction writers. The women writers of the 1790s, novelists who created historically based imaginary locations, like Bennett’s Castel Coed or Smith’s Grasmere Abbey, offered complex images of an iridescent historical reality, visible and invisible at once. Jane Austen was thus enabled to cover the ground more rapidly and allusively than her predecessors. Historical allusions abound in her fiction—they are part of the consciousness of each novel in itself. Combinations of place names and personal names point both back and forward. Or rather, references and images are more than just allusions; we find we are within history all the time. The writing is dense with allusion, thick with multiple sensations and meanings.
Austen’s sense of British history is closely linked to geographical consciousness. Imaginary but accurate maps form the background of each novel. The heroine’s natal county functions as a distinctive patria. “Places” apparently cannot contain these characters; they are on the move. Yet in each case the central characters are visibly the products of their place, as Catherine Morland is recognizably a product of Wiltshire. Austen seems particularly fond of the West Country. Catharine Percival lives in Devonshire. Catherine Morland is born in Wiltshire, and Anne Elliot in Somerset. They are natives of Wessex. (Until Hardy no novelist had done more for Wessex than Austen.) These rural counties are out of the fashion (save for the cultural island of Bath on an edge of Somerset). The younger, more naive, heroines from Wessex have time in which to adjust their ideas. Even in Anne Elliot there are touches of naïveté. South-central England faces outward from the old culturally powerful and historically dominant regions of Kent and Sussex. Arrogant Kent is represented by Lady Catherine De Bourgh (with her marital Norman surname of invader and controller), and the confident South Saxons by the grasping Dashwoods. Elinor and Marianne, however, adopt Devonshire and then Dorsetshire, contradicting the more conventional move made by Lucy Steele as she moves from coastal periphery (Dawlish and Plymouth) to the center—to the West End of wealthy London upon her marriage to Robert Ferrars. The successful move is traditionally from coast to center, and (even more important) from north to south—the track of the Elliots all the way from Scotland. But Darcy returns to the north, and Bingley after a southward swerve remains true to Yorkshire.
Through the language of names and the language of place, Austen shows how each person is already shaped by the culture and history of the birthplace. The English language speaks through us, but it is many languages, and in one speech different eras drop out of our mouths. English persons contain Celtic, Danish, Saxon, and Norman possibilities simultaneously. Places also speak, telling of former inhabitants; they are multiple, made of shifting layers. With one strong exception in Emma Woodhouse, Austen heroines must change places and are thus engaged in running up against cultural differences. Counties are like magnets; they pull—or require—new qualities from you when you get there. These qualities may be good, or they may be unwholesome, even malignant, as in the case of Lady Bertram (née Maria Ward) affected by her dire enclosure within a small area of Northamptonshire.
Anne Elliot recognizes the cultural difference between Kellynch and Uppercross, only three miles away. Elizabeth Bennet runs into cultural difference in her visit to Kent and enforced acquaintance with Rosings. But Darcy also changes places in visiting Netherfield; after his Hertfordshire experience he sees Rosings differently. Frank Churchill believes—or affects to believe—that cultural adjustment means no more than buying gloves at Ford’s, which will make him “a true citizen of Highbury” (Emma, II, ch. 6). Few characters pretend to adapt so readily. Not only the heroines but other central characters are immigrants or nomads. This is true of Lady Bertram (and thus also of her children), and of Mrs. Norris, Fanny Price, and seafaring William—but also of the Crawfords, Scottish incomers to southern England. Maria and Elizabeth Ward both had great difficulties and are not at ease with a new and different local environment. The Huntingdon peasant lurks within them, haunting the family—a problem Fanny cannot recognize (though she inherits it).
The child Fanny, moved without volition from Portsmouth to Northamptonshire, really has two places to be not at home in. After revisiting (at the will of her uncle) her natal town of Portsmouth, Fanny returns to Northamptonshire; she will remain immobilized within the Mansfield enclosure. Isabella Woodhouse seized her chance to evade Suburbia. She can settle in London, saving herself from being buried in High-bury, in a life at home as the caretaker daughter—a mantle that seems to settle over Emma like an invisible cobweb. Elizabeth Bennet is born in cozy southern Hertfordshire, close to London, and threatened as Suburbia; on her marriage she moves north, moving away from and toward modernity in coming to Derbyshire, site of new industrial developments. Darcy belongs to Derbyshire; he seems like a southern gentleman when we first meet him but we are wrong—despite his Kentish ancestral ties. He returns to Derbyshire where Elizabeth must make a new place for herself. Her children will be northern, not southern—as will Jane’s Yorkshire-born children by Bingley. The girls’ old haunts in Hertfordshire will be largely forgotten.
It is necessary to have a place in which to be—the sensation of “being in place.” Austen has memorable description of imaginary spots of earth where that sensation is especially satisfying: Pemberley, Winthrop. Yet no sooner is one “in place” than “place” changes. Movement happens; other places run toward us. Everything slips, moves, falls through time—has been falling through time: “many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling off the cliff prepared the ground” (Persuasion, I, ch. 11). The transitory makes life fascinating and dangerous. Everyone desires to have meaning in the world, some slender importance, though it may come to nothing more than a plaque on the church wall or a page in the Baronetage that will be soon rewritten. Sir Walter’s fascination with his meager personal entry in the big book is contemptible but not without pathos. We all yearn to be registered in the Book of Life. Frederick gives voice to this desire when he recalls a near thing:
“Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me.” (Persuasion, I, ch. 8)
“Lost in only a sloop”—not where one would be caught dead in, not being in place. Born into a manufactured identity as we all are, Sir Walter knew Kellynch as his place—but forsakes it. He probably will not die there; he will depart this life in lodgings in Bath, like any Mrs. Smith.
We are all haunted without knowing it, but the “ghosts” are a reality within and without. Hartfield is haunted by the memory of an abbey, by recollections of farms—and by Maple Grove, specter of the future. References to actual historic sites and personages in Austen are neither realistic decor nor simple allegories. They pop up suddenly and inexorably, cheekily inviting and not caring about our approval or disapproval—Queen Elizabeth, Barbara Palmer (Duchess of Cleveland), Sarah Churchill, Battle Abbey. As soon as we become conscious of the impish presence of history we become uneasily aware that we are not merely surrounded by but plunged within it—within all these tensions and opposing stresses. In a brilliant move of estrangement, William Camden with his categorization by tribes and tribal regions of Britannia had begun to alienate English readers from accustomed acceptance of our place in the world as inevitable and continuous. “Here” is not consoling sameness. What have our tribes been up to? Place has a geographical or “chorographical” plotting of certainty—and a political and social and industrial and even geological uncertainty. So much is man-made, and both Nature and the human-made repeatedly change.
The movements of Austen’s characters are credible, and the counties acutely chosen and observed. But while Austen magnificently deploys realism, reinventing it with uncanny scrupulousness in her novels (deceiving even Walter Scott), she is simultaneously setting up allusions and stirring them together to create an underlying surrealism that is all her own. Here victims of Tudor beheadings may play with Civil War victors; Saxon kings and modern courtesans wander through the new shrubbery. Everything shows how (as has been famously said) the past is neither dead nor even past. To be a person is to be caught not in a static ordered station but amid conflicting streams or dancing particles of history and human thought that cannot be still.
Consider the extraordinary world inside the poetic names and images in Mansfield Park. Everywhere Austen is a poet, without telling us so. We find a number of dead things: dried rose leaves, amber. A dying king shot with arrows twirls from a branch while the cannon of Napoleonic warships fight in the Mediterranean. Endymion and Cleopatra lie down together. Sugar lurks far beyond the sea, while a ha-ha laughs at an expanse of waste. Tintern Abbey holds its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlight lake in Cumberland. A ball is ordered, and a slave owner cuts his throat in a drawing room. The stars shine still, while Scottish intruders threaten and are threatened. Ravens and crows fly about, as in a “Ravens’ shaw,” and young men are adorned with dead birds. There are iron gates, golden chains, and a silver knife of discord. Three Ward sisters, three weird sisters, begin a story, the eldest engaging in witchcraft. Lovers’ vows are false or stifled. Love is scarce. Outcasts are indeed cast out. A palace of dread must deny the existence of the dreadful—a worse experience than the “Gothic” acknowledgement.
Every novelist enters into competition with history, running—as Samuel Johnson noted of time—against an adversary not subject to casualty. History is a perfect Proteus, shape changing, artful, never quite defeated nor knowable. Austen’s invocation of historical realities is her mode of the fantastic. Yet her representation also doubles back on itself to show us that little is actually “fantastic.” Life is violent and absurd. Silly Catherine Morland believed a general might lock his wife away—but a King of England locks his wife away. An old crime of theft of Church lands for private enjoyment remains unspoken and unrepented. An earl shoots a servant to keep the secret of his abuse of his imprisoned wife—and is hanged for murder. Various particularities roost upon each other. Behind hot roses are carrion birds and witches. The horrible crime committed in a hot climate, the crime of slavery, is unspeakable and yet overt. Within the stones of a dignified Derbyshire mansion there lurks an old memory of a bloodstained scaffold at Tower Hill. We think we can keep the main story—the proper account—cleanly separate from mere allusion. But the embodiment of names keeps showing that these are not separate levels, but elements that collapse into one another or are fusing. Each of us living humans is likewise dwelling in a shifting set of allusions to something else.
One of Austen’s greatest techniques proves to have nothing to do with interiority, or ease of style—nor even with rational knowledge, or psychological skill. Before they have thought and agency, all characters emerge from Britannia’s whirling and colliding histories. They perk into being among and because of phenomena for which they are not individually responsible at all—any more than they are responsible for the English language in which they express their thoughts even to themselves. Style indirect libre is not exactly “free.” A brilliant device with which to express complex limitation, it lets us in on the limitations of freedom, the comic inadequacy of consciousness trying to make terms with the rest of everything that is.
Where all is moving metaphor, then all is reality. But Austen forbids us to cry “Metaphor!”—For people do not live and die metaphorically. The Bloody Assizes in Taunton are not metaphorical. The most “fantastic” source is the reality we cannot quite take in, that which goes beyond the grasp—or wishes—of written history or of consciousness. Personages in the stories live within intense history. Frederick Wentworth fights Bonaparte’s navy—with the memory of Nelson, the fallen hero, to keep him company. And beside and beyond the once unfallen Admiral there is a lovely woman dancing her attitudes in volcanic Napoli, the picture of health. And behind Wentworth—as behind Darcy—are the scaffold and the ax. A queen picks her way across hot plowshares. Suffering is always possible, but suffering itself requires images and memories—and energy. Joy is always possible, but it cannot be separated from facts as hard as the stones beneath the Cobb upon which Louisa fell.
Austen no longer needs the trappings of the “Gothic,” for she has made the Gothic her own. She exhibits this in Northanger Abbey where she discards the capsule the Gothic first came in. But Austen (who never left off reading “Gothic” fiction) is grateful to the Gothic novelists—as Catherine Morland should be grateful—for teaching what a horror history is and how hard it is to come individually to any decent terms with social life. Austen notices things going wrong. Her favorite Shakespearean character seems in the end to be Cardinal Wolsey, for whom everything went wrong. Where’er we walk she lets us know there are stones, the ruined abbeys poking above the earth. Or there are bones beneath our country lanes and hedgerows, the men who died at Sedgemoor and elsewhere. The earth itself cannot afford to care, any more than it must care that you or I or Jane Fairfax or Anne Elliot—or Jane Austen—may think the last spring has come and gone.
Austen’s works are decidedly earthy. She constantly brings us into contact with the earth that sustains us—and into which we shall disappear. Emma Watson and her sister Elizabeth splash along a muddy lane. The damp valleys of the lovely Devonshire hills create muddy roads displeasing to Edward Ferrars. Elizabeth with mud on her petticoats hops over the fields. The earth is always doing something, saying something, offering or removing something. Human beings are forever acting within and on it. In each novel, in different ways, Austen brings us back to our reactions to the earth. She insists on the particularity of each patch, each particular place. She senses the underlying “thisness,” the “hereness” of land, its generosity and withholding, in the slightest hint of elder buds in February. The need for cultivation of the land, human work with plow or coppicing, with sheep or a few more cows—all this is noted, as is the desecration of sacrificing earth’s s human use for the sake of inanely boastful decoration. The insistent presence of the land—this is a deep base melody to her song. Only in her later novels does she acknowledge the tremendous and powerful and bright presence of the sea, but she never loses touch with the land and its hold upon us. This land goes all the way down in the depth of her work, to the bedrock that we come upon at last, rockfalls at Lyme and the sliding sand of Sanditon.
We inherit the earth and the sins of the ancestors—like the Dissolution of the Abbeys. All human arrangements are incomplete and changeful. Our energies seek their “resources” in a more dangerous manner than Mrs. Elton. The energies of our predecessors and contemporaries may leave us in a fine pickle of mayhem. Gross and horrible things manifest themselves repeatedly, and we smooth them over in the history books, as we do the Dissolution or King George I’s wife. On the whole Austen is not afraid of the mayhem but castigates the cover-up. At the same time, she doesn’t make a Gothic fuss as if we could rid ourselves of human turbulence. That is the foundational error of Sir Thomas Bertram, whose stop-short efforts at repentance do not let him see the sin deep within himself that he cannot banish from Mansfield. Nobody is separate from the sinners. Emma Woodhouse, “the picture of grown-up health,” shares that status with the other Emma, the lowborn and beautiful Emma Lyon, later Hart, later Hamilton, who worked for James Graham’s Temple of Health.
Austen’s novels do not communicate a sense of people living in a truly settled world—despite our self-assurances that she is gratifying our desire for the peaceful, calm world of a mannerly past. As Mary Favret emphasizes, Austen is living in and describing a world at war. Not only so, the old wars are also still present—the Conquest, the Civil War. Places are products of somebody’s gain, and somebody’s loss. (Donwell Abbey is the result of a ruthless takeover; Mansfield Park battens on the proceeds of plantations worked by slaves.) Critical readers blithely assume that The Romance of the Forest and The Children of the Abbey (stories of abuse and displacement) are inferior books because Harriet Smith likes them. A strange reading of Austen’s dodgy novel, which centers on the fallibility of assumptions! References to other works of literature, like historical allusions, punning and playful, get into our eyes like grit in the air and disturb our vision. We are partial, prejudiced, and ignorant. The energies of world and thought play through us just the same, while the earth hums and stirs beneath our feet, meaning to have spring again—and meaning to have winter.
Austen has many satiric excellences, but she is not in the last analysis a satirist. She does not want to lump up human dreadfulness in a safe container quarantined from love, affection, duty. Happiness and mourning appear together. Names create a poetic fabric of connections and relationships, parallels, parodies and memories. The Dashwood and Ferrars families bear the names of spectacular sinners; they and the Middletons walk over holy ruins. In the names of persons and places (real and imaginary) the author refers us to the work of different generations and tribes who have created names and human “places” in layers of coral-like accretions, leaving lively traces—including traces of distress and violence. Miss Bates wishes to think “good people” always get together (Emma, II, ch. 3), but the “good people” may sometimes be malicious, careless, or sordid.
Austen’s characters live in time, inscribed by the past and proceeding toward the future. The last two novels (Persuasion and Sanditon) deal overtly with living in history in the process of formation. The land itself seems to be in formation, with its rock slips, uncannily reflecting or presaging the oncoming interest in fossils and geology associated with Lyme and nearby regions. Earth is destabilized; everything may fall or tip over or be overset—a young lady jumping off a wall, a gentleman’s carriage on a cart track. Certainty is unobtainable. Anne and Frederick at the end of Persuasion cannot know what will happen to Napoleon, the navy, or themselves. The author knows what happened to Napoleon at Waterloo but knows no more than her heroine what will follow. Sanditon (ironically not completed) stretches the exuberance of modern delight in the future. The Parkers are truly modern, in that they live for and in “the future”—but forget that the future is under no contract to be kind to them. The war is over, but wars are still with us. Conquest looms over this narrative.
Sanditon gives us new scenery—rocks, seaweed, shore. Oceans rise in Austen’s late works; even Emma gets to the sea at last. The sea itself becomes unignorable in Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Sanditon. In Sanditon we see something ludicrous in the desire to tame the sea, to subject it to the commands of advertising and the marketplace. How can we ever put a park pale around it? This commercial endeavor somewhat resembles taking over the abbeys, a private appropriation of something immense and complex, God-given and not meant for the presumption of human ownership.
Austen’s view of “love” is compassionate and Christian. Love—erotic love—is too near the essence of the human to be idealized or rendered pretty. Put two sinners together—and watch out! A mortal reader put together with a character may go astray. We may, for instance, give way to the normal corruption of our own hearts under the inexpert guidance offered by the prejudiced consciousness of an Emma. Here are topics too big for satire alone, unless it is mere misanthropy. Presumption, “terrible blunders,” and misreading are normal. The narrative device known as style indirect libre, or “free indirect style”—which Austen developed to such an extent that it dominates English fiction for over two hundred years—is perfect for conveying folly sympathetically. It works partly by making readers themselves fall into folly or wrong belief. The joke may be on us. Observing with the arrogated superiority of Emma or Mr. Knightley, we engage to ourselves (like Mrs. Elton) the right to look down on Harriet Smith. But every “Smith” in Austen is a maker, beating upon the anvil a new possibility. (Willoughby’s relative in Sense and Sensibility and the crippled former schoolmate in Persuasion are salient cases.) Reading Emma, we fancy that judgment is the objective, and that we are on the right way to it. But beneath the comedies of “poor little Miss Smith” and her inadequacy—and the uses made of her by Emma and the narrator—there is more, and more gracious, irony still. Emma blunders around in her understanding of love in relation to others and herself. Under her guidance, Harriet blunders too. But Harriet has already encountered Eros and knows true love.
He had gone three miles round one day, in order to bring her some walnuts, because she had said how fond she was of them—and in every thing else he was so very obliging! He had his shepherd’s son into the parlour one night on purpose to sing to her. (Emma, I, ch. 4)
We can recognize this—or we can if we are readers like Austen: “here a shepherd’s boy piping, as though he should never be old.” Behold!—perfect pastoral, the thing itself! These images have been present in literature since the ancient Greeks. Rendered elegantly if apparently artlessly, the ideal is incarnate in Harriet’s experience. While Emma and others must struggle and bargain for some love, to Harriet—the character we enjoy looking down on—is given the erotic ideal. Her namesake Harriet Byron, heroine of Sir Charles Grandison, went to a masquerade in the “dress of an Arcadian princess.”9 Harriet Smith does not have to dress up for her role. The last shall be first and the first last. Although her status is low in the worldly game of thrones played out in Highbury, in the competition of Eros Harriet has already won. Love, the great prize, is hers, and she is the princess of Arcadia.