2007 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
In Emma, the question of Frank Churchill’s true nature functions as a minor mystery which Austen intentionally never resolves. She achieves this through a strategic fragmentation of Frank’s character, persistently complicating each new impression with his stubborn preference for secrecy and artifice until he and other characters can only evaluate his behavior in parts. By the novel’s end, even the prophetic Mr. Knightley cannot judge his mind or his future, and the unsolved mystery casts an uncertain light on an otherwise positive conclusion.
Those who would diminish the significance of Frank Churchill’s mystery argue that it is simply resolved in the discovery of his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax, one of the dominant detective plots in Emma. Such a view tends to limit Frank to a flat negative character, or as Hellstrom contends, the one who “embodies depravity” in the novel (610). Similarly, Lawry argues that he is merely an example of how Emma can manipulate reality to suit her own fantasies, so that she can find him pleasant when in fact he is “silly” or “faithless” (10). However, these claims neglect Austen’s careful ambiguity regarding Frank’s intentions, which contributes to his ultimate fragmentation. While Emma fashions him favorably according to her imagination, Mr. Knightley repeatedly berates him out of jealousy for Emma’s attention; in both cases, the view of his character is necessarily distorted. I contend that a fuller perspective includes the complexities and contradictions that render Frank Churchill a secondary mystery, separate from his secret engagement to Jane. Furthermore, I argue that the mystery is never solved.
Frank’s preoccupation with secrecy and artifice reveals the fragmented nature at the heart of this minor secret. In an exasperated response to his final letter, Mr. Knightley exclaims, “Mystery; Finesse—how they pervert the understanding!” (301). Mr. Knightley’s insight illuminates a dominant trend in Frank’s conduct from the first mention of a possible visit to Highbury to the long letter that comprises the majority of chapter fifty. Indeed, both “mystery” and “finesse” are elements Frank utilizes, even when they are not necessary or appropriate. The occurrence of each repeatedly designates conflicting intentions. The result is a series of clues found in dialogue and plot events which lead to no ultimate revelation.
Consider, for example, the deliberate drama he creates with the “anonymous” gift of the pianoforte. The rather flimsy excuse of going into London for a hair cut burdens his father and Mrs. Weston, and gives even Emma an impression of “foppery and nonsense” (136). Frank’s willingness to damage his reputation in Highbury in order to delight Jane is countered by the knowledge that Jane “never would have allowed [it]...had any choice been given to her” (296), which he freely admits in his letter to Mrs. Weston. Furthermore, Frank spurs talk of the mystery at the Coles’ party for his own pleasure, and later publicly teases Jane about the gift in an exchange that carries a multiplicity of meanings: to the others, it is meant to enliven speculation on the mystery; to Emma, it is meant as a covert reference to their secrecy; and to Jane, it is meant as a gentle sign of his affection. Upon looking at Jane, Emma “caught the remains of a smile, when she saw that with all the deep blush of consciousness, there had been a smile of secret delight” (162). A thorough dissection, then, of Frank’s behavior from the trip to London to the later conversations with Emma and Jane reveals a predilection for mystery and a web of intentions that only becomes coherent when isolated into individual parts.
Similarly, Frank’s ease of language, his “finesse,” belies his attention to form in moments where the occasion warrants a more authentic sentiment. When he confesses his assumption that he and Jane will reconcile after she breaks off their engagement, we can likely take him at his word. Jane has not changed her mind about wanting to marry him; she is just attempting to compel him toward an honest expression of feeling. However, Frank immediately writes a response only to lock it in his drawer and promptly forget about it. Can this mean that Frank is incapable of expressing himself plainly? His account to Mrs. Weston of the moment when he reveals his relationship with Jane to his uncle seems to suggest so. Here he uses a rhetorical device that simulates deep emotion instead of risking raw description: “Are you supposed to pity me for what I must have suffered in opening the cause to him, for my suspense while all was at stake? No; do not pity me till I reached Highbury, and saw how ill I made her. Do not pity me till I saw her wan, sick looks” (299). The rhetorical question at the beginning of the passage audaciously assumes the status of victim for the writer, who is undoubtedly at fault. Frank’s repetition of “Do not pity me” in the sentences that follow threatens to cheapen his emotional response to Jane’s real suffering with artifice and melodrama. Knoeplfmacher writes, “Frank’s sentiments are a trifle too predictable and uniform. Even his apologetic remark that the letter ‘will be longer than I foresaw’ acts as a warning to the reader who is by now amply trained to prefer brevity to circumlocution” (654). But this is more than a simple juxtaposition of Mr. Knightley’s plain brevity and Frank’s long-windedness. The same conflict of intentions that plagues the gift of the pianoforte is at work here, in the tension between Frank’s true affection for Jane and his more selfish priorities—in this case, the need to write eloquently and impress his readers.
As the novel progresses, Frank’s behavior becomes so fragmented that he and other characters can only evaluate him in “parts.” When Mrs. Weston informs Emma of Frank and Jane’s secret engagement, she says, “It hurts me, Emma, very much. It has hurt his father equally. Some part of his conduct we cannot excuse” (267). Mrs. Weston may be predisposed to show kindness toward Frank, but her honest appraisal of her and Mr. Weston’s feelings signals that the last sentence ought to be taken seriously. Furthermore, Austen chooses to set “Some part” in italics, an exceedingly rare technique in Emma. That Mrs. Weston does not elaborate on which parts of Frank Churchill’s conduct are excusable and which parts are not indicates that the mystery perplexes her as much as it does us. Emma’s response that “there was a period...when I did like him, when I was very much disposed to be attached to him,” followed a few lines later by the assertion, “I have really for some time past, for at least these three months, cared nothing about him” (267), perpetuates the emphasis on a disparity in Frank’s character. Emma explains that at some point she lost romantic interest, but her inability to use a specific time frame adds to the sense of confusion. Neither Mrs. Weston nor Emma can contribute any substantial assessment of Frank’s character, even after the major secret of his engagement with Jane is revealed. If anything, the discovery only further complicates the other characters’ attempts to understand him.
For that matter, the revelation of his secret engagement complicates Frank’s attempts to understand himself. Indeed, the mystery comes no closer to resolution when Frank reflects on his own actions in his letter to Mrs. Weston. He begins by confessing, “I believe there will be need of even all your goodness to allow for some parts of my past conduct” (294). Here “some parts,” although not italicized, clearly refers to Mrs. Weston’s choice of words in her conversation with Emma. The phrase also signals an important turn where Frank Churchill appears to be as astonished and perplexed by his behavior as everyone else. Even more, he is not able to distinguish between the good parts and the bad parts, and this inability paralyzes him. A few lines later, he writes, “You must consider me as having a secret which was to be kept at all hazards. This was the fact. My right to place myself in a situation requiring such concealment, is another question. I shall not discuss it here.” Frank does not discuss the question because he does not know the answer. As he proceeds, part in apology, part in defense, this becomes progressively clear. Fragmentation prevails even in his conclusion: he asserts himself to be “in a way” happier than he was before, and claims that “in one respect” his good fortune is certain (299). That is, some parts are fortunate, and some are not. Frank’s inner nature remains essentially a mystery.
By the end of the novel, even Mr. Knightley finds himself unable to search Frank’s mind or guess at his probable future. No longer blinded by jealousy, Mr. Knightley now sees that each of Frank’s actions is fragmented by a conflict of intentions. The fact that he cannot solve the mystery is significant because, by the conclusion of Emma, Mr. Knightley’s “judgment is recommended as invariably sound” (Kettle 96). He even divides his final statements on Frank’s letter into two dominant parts—one accepting, and the other condemning. First, he says, “Well, there is feeling here.... Certainly, I have no doubt of his being fond of her” (302). Then, a few lines later: “He has had great faults, faults of inconsideration and thoughtlessness; and I am very much of his opinion in thinking him likely to be happier than he deserves.” While these two statements do not exactly contradict each other, they certainly point to Mr. Knightley’s inability to fathom Frank’s true nature. Like the other characters, including Frank himself, Mr. Knightley is only able to observe that there are admirable parts and reprehensible parts to Frank’s character. He still cannot guess at why Frank does what he does.
This leads to an assertion about Frank’s future that is remarkably similar to what Frank writes at the end of his letter. Mr. Knightley says, “But still as he is, beyond doubt, really attached to Miss Fairfax, and will soon, it may be hoped, have the advantage of being constantly with her, I am very ready to believe his character will improve, and acquire from hers the steadiness and delicacy of principle that it wants” (303). Here Mr. Knightley temporarily abandons the directness of plain speech that usually guides him in order to leave space for uncertainty. The use of qualifiers such as “it may be hoped” and “I am very ready to believe” recall Frank’s statements that he is happier “in a way” and fortunate “in one respect.” While Austen prepares us for a series of resolutions to usher in the weddings, she is careful not to resolve the mystery of Frank’s true nature or even to offer a definite idea of his future. In Emma’s last conversation with Frank, she tells him, “I do suspect that in the midst of your perplexities at that time, you had a very great amusement in tricking us all” (323). Frank’s response, “Oh! no, no, no—how can you suspect me of such a thing? I was the most miserable wretch,” presents one final look into the mystery of his fragmented nature, and by now we are ready to accept that both statements are true.
Ultimately, the unanswered question of Frank Churchill’s true nature casts an uncertain light on the series of happy weddings which comprises the novel’s conventional ending. Although major and minor detective plots are resolved to the characters’ satisfaction, this lingering mystery presents us with a small but significant doubt. We must question, as Mr. Knightley does, the inevitability of future contentment between Frank and Jane Fairfax. Furthermore, we must reconsider the future of Highbury as a community, so that the prevailing assumption of complete happiness does not go unchallenged.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Kathy Casey. New York: Dover, 1999.
Hellstrom, Ward. “Francophobia in Emma.” Studies in English Literature 5 (1965): 607-617.
Kettle, Arnold. An Introduction to the English Novel, Vol. 1. London: Hutchinson, 1951.
Knoepflmacher, U. C. “The Importance of Being Frank: Character and Letter-Writing in Emma.” Studies in English Literature 7 (1967): 639-658.
Lawry, J. S. “‘Decided and Open’: Structure in Emma.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24 (1969): 1-15.