our puzzlement over Harriet Smith begins at the first mention of her. She is introduced as “the natural daughter of somebody,” who years before had placed her at Mrs. Goddard’s school, where her situation is now that of parlour-boarder. And the action of one of the world’s great novels is to turn round the girl pursuing this humble existence: upon her capacity to engage the affections successively of an Elton, a Churchill, a Knightley. The story’s credibility and effectiveness, no less, depends on its sustaining the reader’s impression that she has qualities which can or will overcome her social deficiency. It takes the shock of Harriet’s potential power over Mr. Knightley to awaken Emma to her love for him – and the reality of the distress thus aroused to halt in memorable fashion his proposing to her, in terror lest he should be at the point of confessing an attachment to her protégée. Throughout the novel runs an insistent questioning, whether explicit or unspoken: is Harriet a commendable young woman, a lady in the making – or is she not?
Once she has met Harriet, Emma appears to be certain. She wastes no time, we are told, “in inviting, encouraging and telling her to come very often” to Hartfield (26), resolved to give her the needed sophistication. She has not found her to be clever; but while strength of understanding could not be imparted, Harriet’s evident appreciation of what was elegant and witty, her ready embracing of a style of living previously unknown to her, showed that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement. In Emma’s first estimation, this was a girl “who only wanted a little more knowledge and elegance to be quite perfect” (23).
The term raises more doubt than it settles. Other than providing herself with an acceptable walking companion, is it Emma’s intention to create an agreeable but lesser being, or one who will by these attentions graduate to true estimableness?
An answer is surely present in the fact of what Emma is doing. It is on the face of it unlikely that a woman of her accomplishment would select someone unworthy of her friendship and favour. For Emma is if anything distinguished amongst Jane Austen’s heroines by a discernment as to persons in terms both general and particular. Take, for instance, her comment upon Churchill’s sudden journeying to London for a haircut, that “‘silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way’”: it is a real insight into human conduct (212). And when, earlier, she has countered Churchill’s assertion that no one can be attracted by a reserved character with the retort, “‘Not till the reserve ceases towards oneself; and then the attraction may be the greater,’” she is as near as may be to divining the secret of his engagement to Jane Fairfax, which his remark was intended to conceal (203).
Amidst the flow of happenings in Highbury, Emma displays a quick apprehension of motive. She recognises the presence of “great fear, great caution, great resolution” in Jane’s determining to stay at her aunt’s (285); senses a new happiness after her collecting letters from the post office; and detects her embarrassment at the gift of the piano, and “very reprehensible feelings” as she begins to press the keys (243). The notion that Knightley might be the piano’s donor, or that he might care romantically about Jane, is as incisively dismissed as is his own professed indifference to whether he arrives at a dinner party on foot, or by coach as properly he should (226, 213). And, despite the force of her initial attraction to Churchill, Emma is soon sure that there can be no building upon “steadiness or constancy” in his disposition, and of her own undoubted preference not amounting to affection for him (265). His engaging manner towards her upon his reappearance in Highbury, further, does not conceal from her a restlessness, “a liveliness that did not satisfy himself,” which betokens a lessening of interest in herself – though she is mistaken, and understandably so, in putting it down to a fear of the effect of her personal charms (316).
The same percipient regard plays constantly upon Harriet. It is with an amused, ironic detachment that Emma contemplates “the many vacancies” of her mind (183), and what Sir Thomas Bertram would have described as her “rusticities” of demeanour. Harriet’s being nearly recovered from her cold inspires in Emma a wish “that she should have as much time as possible for getting the better of her other complaint,” or else “mania,” such being her estimate of her young friend’s feelings for Mr. Elton. But the emotion as such Emma is far from scorning: she is herself much affected by the artlessness of Harriet’s grief when she has disclosed to her the truth of Elton’s indifference, and the extent of her own error. But it is not without significance that, in the depth of her conviction at this point, “Harriet was the superior creature of the two - and that to resemble her would be more for her own happiness than all that genius and intelligence could do,” Emma can keep her sympathies in check with the wry thought that it was rather too late in the day “to set about being simple-minded and ignorant” (141-42). The surmise might be held as indication enough that her decision over Harriet will not have been other than clear-sighted.
However, there is evidence of a very different order regarding Emma: that while discernment in her is plentiful, her judgment is liable on occasion to impulsive aberration. She shows herself capable of both wilfully suppressing better knowledge, and reversing her opinion without the least awareness of having done so. The matter of the haircut provides an excellent example of the first. Troubled by its air of “foppery and nonsense,” she finds Churchill guilty of vanity, extravagance, and the like, but also more seriously open to the charge of ungentlemanliness in his disregard of the Westons’ feelings, and unconcern as to the impression his behaviour might more generally give rise to. Upon hearing, though, of his highly favourable reception in Highbury, as well as at Randalls, and, from Mr. Weston, how “very beautiful and very charming” he considers her to be, Emma finds that “she must not judge him harshly” (205-06). Nor, when the idea of a ball at Randalls is under discussion, is she able to condemn the lack of gallantry in his studiously ignoring her protest against “‘a crowd in a little room!’” while professing admiration of the phrase. Attributing his persistence to a wish not to lose the pleasure of dancing with her, “she took the compliment, and forgave the rest” (249-50).
Emma’s dealings with both the Martins and the Coles are tergiversation itself. The former family, she tells herself at the start, must be coarse and unpolished, quite unworthy of their previous association with her little friend; and as for Mr. Martin when she casts eyes upon him, he “looked as if he did not know what manner was,” being, as she proceeds to inform the mortified Harriet, “‘so very clownish, so totally without air.’” Her considering, at the end, that “It would be a great pleasure to know Robert Martin,” reveals her attitude to have been founded on pure prejudice (475). With the Coles it is much the same, except that they do not have to wait so long for the change to come about. Their invitation to the gentry Emma at first strongly reprehends. Such persons “ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them” – though the lesson, she very much fears, will come only from herself. Strangely, however, the prospect of aloofness affords her no contentment, the yielding of her peers demolishes her resistance: and recollection of the dinner party next day is graced with the persuasion that by her presence she must have delighted the Coles – “worthy people – who deserved to be made happy! – And left a name behind her that would not soon die away” (207, 231).
These inconsistencies, while perhaps laudable in denoting the softening of positions that were unduly severe, could scarcely be more evident. They are, it should be noted, in part the outcome of an inability in Emma to tolerate “‘a subjection of the fancy to the understanding,’” as Knightley has it (37). In the author’s terms, she is “an imaginist”: one whose lively mind and unacknowledged feelings can construct “a ground-work of anticipation” for what might prove either fact or fantasy, and cause the last to be treated as substantive (335).
More than this. Engaged as she is in influencing Harriet beneath an appearance of neutrality, Emma is herself subject to a powerful impulsion she can have no idea of, since it arises out of her own disposition. It reveals itself in her besetting imperative of how best to exercise her social superiority. Eminence might be the better word, for Highbury “afforded her no equals,” the Woodhouses being first in consequence there. And it is not status alone which makes for self-approval: Emma enjoys full awareness of her claims of personality and intellect. She can boast of having from the start planned the match between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, and rejoice at the thought of how “‘such success has blessed me’” (12); and in calmer vein can as hostess demonstrate the “real good-will of a mind delighted with its own ideas” (24), and as a daughter contemplate the benefits of such an affection in her father “as could never find fault” (6).
Might it be that these promptings in Emma combine to evoke instant approval for the girl who upon introduction displays “so proper and becoming a deference” to her, and appears “so pleasantly grateful” for her condescension, and “artlessly impressed” with Hartfield’s – and its mistress’s – grandeur: whose appreciative response is little less than tribute to all that Emma is, or takes herself to be? For from that moment she is afire with the purpose that is to direct her course through the novel, upon which her every instinct appears to be employed.
She would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers. (23-24)
The aim of Harriet’s improvement is to be achieved by the simple means of association with her patroness: mere acceptance is seen as conferring an immediate dignity and worth. It is not therefore surprising that Emma’s first remark on hearing of Mr. Martin’s proposing to Harriet should be upon his evident determination to “‘connect himself well if he can’” (50); or that she should respond to Knightley’s vexation later at the young man’s being refused with the deprecatory coolness of “‘I cannot admit him to be Harriet’s equal.’” And Knightley’s counter-claim thereupon of its being a beneficial offer for Harriet is met with the incensed reply, “‘a good match for my intimate friend!’” (61-62). This is the outcry of someone as entrenched in the concept of her own superiority as Lady Catherine de Bourgh; and it supports the possibility that Emma’s appraisal of Harriet has been unconsciously affected by the idea of her own status and capabilities: that she has viewed her protégée through the distorting glass of her estimate of herself.
In one respect, at least, the above cannot apply: Harriet’s remarkable prettiness is beyond dispute. It may be “of a sort which Emma particularly admired” (23), but corroboration is forthcoming from many other observers. There is a certain wonder in Knightley’s comment to Mrs. Weston that Emma appears very little concerned with her own handsomeness. She in fact seems more preoccupied with the looks of other women: Jane Austen has endowed her with a distinctive regard for feminine beauty. During her welcoming visit to Jane Fairfax, Emma sits looking at her with the “complacency” which Jane’s “very pleasing beauty” inspires. Elegance is its predominant feature; and when afterwards Churchill makes so bold as to belittle it, she is astonished to the point of concluding with some scorn that there must be a very distinct sort of elegance in the fashionable world he belongs to if Jane Fairfax is to be thought “only ordinarily gifted with it” (167, 194).
Emma indeed appears most in accord with Churchill, and as it were mentally attuned to him, when he is itemising Jane’s charms to her during their reconciliation at the Westons’. The sentiment of Alexander Pope, that “Fair tresses man’s imperial race ensnare, / And beauty draws us with a single hair,” would have gained her enthusiastic approval. Can it be, therefore, that Harriet’s fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features and look of “great sweetness” are in effect an assault upon Emma’s objectivity, and that “those soft blue eyes” (23-24) are all the while leading her into idealizing their possessor for graces not present in her: that, through an excessive preoccupation with what is outward in Harriet, to say nothing of other sources of misapprehension, Emma has come to be quite deluded in her regard for her protégée?
Emma’s lifelong acquaintance and future husband certainly thinks so. His view of Harriet, imparted even in the civil tones of his address to Mrs. Weston, is unequivocal. Her companionship will be positively harmful to Emma through the “‘hourly flattery’” that a nature so ignorant will render. She herself will gain only a little polish from the proximity; the “‘strength of mind’” which she sorely needs Emma will be unable to bestow (38-39). This assertion is but a prelude, however, to the scathing assessment Knightley delivers upon discovery of Emma’s part in Harriet’s declining Martin’s proposal. She is a girl of little sense and no information, who is totally lacking in experience, “‘and, with her little wit, is not very likely ever to have any that can avail her.’” A prospective lover would face the impediments of “‘illegitimacy and ignorance’”; and Harriet’s continued association with Emma will only bring about in her the mischief which “‘Vanity working on a weak head produces’” (61-64).
But this somewhat less than favourable judgment undergoes distinct moderation with the passage of time. Upon Emma’s being constrained to confess to him how much Mr. Elton has fallen in her estimation, the gratified Knightley is moved to declare that her friend has greatly risen in his, especially through comparison with the woman Elton has lately taken to wife. He has discerned Harriet to possess “‘some first rate qualities’” which the former Augusta Hawkins is without, amongst them a modest, unassuming nature which makes her “‘infinitely to be preferred’” by any man of sense – who would moreover find, as he has done, that she is “‘more conversable’” than at first appears (331).
True, this is not yet praise of the glowing sort; and some further qualification might be assumed in Knightley’s suggestion, in accounting for Harriet’s prompt acceptance of Martin upon their meeting in Brunswick Square, that a good-tempered, soft-hearted girl such as she was “‘not likely to be very, very determined against any young man who told her he loved her’” (473). But persuadableness in a young woman, even in a matter of such seriousness, was in that age deemed a virtue, a fact strongly impressed upon the reluctant Catherine Morland and Fanny Price: and had not Knightley himself jestingly taunted Mrs. Weston with it, in respect of the schooling which the young Emma had subjected her to? And on this occasion he is overlooking Harriet’s early preference. What though is apparent is that, by the end, his initial disapproval of her has vanished.
No such reversal occurs in Emma’s thinking. What she asserts about Harriet during the painful interview which followed Martin’s being refused is sustained through all that follows; indeed, there is even to be seen in her a heightening of regard for her young charge. Not that she ever comes to imagine Harriet intelligent: but she remains assured that the girl has “‘better sense’” than Knightley is aware of. The same is true of the prettiness and good-nature which he has discounted. These attributes Emma cannot believe to be trivial: the former, she tells him, will hold sway over men until such time as “‘they do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces’”; and the latter cannot fail of being a universal recommendation. In her uniting the two, she affirms, Harriet is “‘exactly what every man delights in’”: and were he ever to marry, “‘she is the very woman for you’” (63-64).
The last utterance is a riposte, made with jocularity and abandon by an Emma under attack from her formidable opponent. But that it springs from conviction is proved by the manner, later on, in which Harriet’s confiding her hopes of Knightley is received. The overpowering sensation in Emma is of course what springs from sudden discovery of her own love; but, this set aside – if it may be – her dominant concern at the news is the consequence for himself if he were to marry beneath him: as she pictures it afterwards, “the smiles, the sneers, the merriment it would prompt at his expense” (413). Neither in Harriet herself, nor in the evidence of his fondness she puts forward, does Emma find grounds for dismissing Knightley’s attachment as improbable through personal deficiency in its object. The disparity in qualities, as in rank, she is painfully aware of; yet, “Was it a new circumstance for a man of first-rate abilities to be captivated by very inferior powers?” It is very clear that in her own thoughts Emma accords Harriet the full status of a rival: that she sees her in all her attractiveness as little less than the incarnation of her own outlook and philosophy upon womankind.
To this conclusion, however, it might be objected that Emma’s mind at the time is not capable of any objective assessment. She is in the grip of new and tyrannical emotions: the desire to possess, accompanied by the terror of losing. Love and fear exert their full force; and, were this not enough, she is all the while being afflicted by the bewildering recognition of “[t]he blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!” (411-12). The state is one which, in her apprehension, would invest the plainest of plain Janes with the enchantments of a siren.
When, much later on, assured of the man she loves, and responding to life in the glow of the heart’s fulfilment, she expresses to Knightley a wish for the happiness of the betrothed Harriet and Martin, Emma answers his cryptic observation upon the change she has undergone since they last talked on the subject with the self-accusation, “‘at that time I was a fool.’” It would be unwise to take the emphatic remark as a confession of disenchantment with Harriet. It is acknowledgement, rather, of Knightley’s having been correct in his view of the sphere that life and fortune had marked out for the girl, and of her own lapse in having so romantically departed from the prevailing conventions she is now re-converted to. Here also, therefore, she is not in suitable mood to pronounce upon Harriet’s promise. No more, evidently, is Knightley himself, in the indeterminate approval he then voices as to her being “‘an artless, amiable girl, with very good notions, very seriously good principles, and placing her happiness in the affections and utility of domestic life’” (474). If there is apology of a sort in these words, repentance has been present in Emma’s little outburst, for the presumption she was guilty of in taking it upon herself to direct another’s destiny, and the blunders and embarrassments it has involved them in. The matter of Harriet’s personableness – her fitness to attach a man of some consequence, and gain respectability in the world Jane Austen’s novels reflect – is left still to be determined.
The question arises whether Harriet’s moderate mental powers would be a hindrance. Emma sees the want of cleverness as adverse; and our own early impressions are of a thoughtlessness and indecision implicit in the “‘Oh, dear, no’” and “‘Oh! dear, yes!’” of Harriet’s hasty assents during their first walk (87), the see-saw response to Emma’s inference that Mr. Martin does not read – “‘Oh, yes! – that is, no – I do not know – but I believe he has read a good deal – but not what you would think anything of’” (29) – and the agonising at Ford’s as to the destination of the purchased muslin and ribbon.
These are minor issues – but not so the cause which brings Harriet with all speed to ask advice upon her receipt of Martin’s letter. Emma, we are told, is even half ashamed of her young friend “for seeming so pleased and so doubtful” upon such a theme. The doubt persists throughout their interview, Emma’s approval of the letter on perusing it, and inquiry as to whether the answer is to be favourable, gaining little more than a “‘well – and – and what shall I do?’” and a “‘What would you advise me to do? Pray, dear Miss Woodhouse, tell me what I ought to do?’” And when, after being with solemn propriety cautioned that marriage is not a proper state to be entered into “‘with half a heart,’” and questioned as to Mr. Martin’s being “the most agreeable man’” she has ever been in company with, Harriet is propelled to a decision, it is couched in terms which reveal it as a lesser triumph of equivocation: “‘and I have now quite determined, and really almost made up my mind – to refuse Mr. Martin. Do you think I am right?’” (50-53).
But indecision at a first proposal is entirely fitting in Harriet’s case. She is scarcely out of school, “a green girl / Unsifted in such perilous circumstance”; and one, further, whose origins have precluded the ambience and support of a family, as they have acquaintance with the modes of decorum in the imposing world to which she has been so extraordinarily elevated. What is more natural than that Martin’s declaration should enhance the sense of her solitariness, and cause her fearfully to seek counsel and comfort from the greatness that has befriended her?
In whatever context she is finally settled, Harriet will not be renowned for resource and positiveness in reasoning. Her capacities as displayed in the novel are limited, from the instance of her wondering whether the solution of Elton’s charade is a “‘trident? or a mermaid? or a shark?’” (73) to its being “‘very odd’” that there should be a fortnight and a day’s difference between Mr. Martin’s birthday and her own (30), or her finding it almost conclusive that Martin’s letter of proposal is mere prose, in comparison to the verse of the charade (76). In the latter instances, though, we are encountering the force of affection – as we are in Harriet’s tempering the admission of Jane Fairfax’s playing being perhaps superior to Emma’s with the consoling irrelevance that “‘if she does play so very well, you know, it is no more than she is obliged to do, because she will have to teach’”; or in her designating, and actually enshrining, Elton’s bit of plaster and pencil-end as “Most precious treasures.” Her distaste for Italian singing upon the plea that “‘There is no understanding a word of it’” can, however, admit no such extenuation (232). And if her logic is more admissible when she reacts to Emma’s declared resolution never to marry, it springs from the commonplace notions of its being unusual to hear a young woman say such a thing, and “‘so dreadful’” to end up an old maid.
Be this as it may, amidst society at any level Harriet appears a lively and personable presence, taking a keen interest in all its manifestations. Possessions as such excite her, whether the Martins’ “‘very handsome summer house, large enough to hold a dozen people,’” or their “‘two parlours, two very good parlours indeed’” – or even the “‘beautiful goose’” Mrs. Martin presents to Mrs. Goddard. But it is people who truly hold her interest. She can, for example, speak with the same “exultation” of Mrs. Martin’s having “‘an upper maid who had lived five-and-twenty years with her’” (27-28); and she is most freely herself when concerned with the sayings and doings of others. In the recital of her being discovered by Miss Nash peeping with the two Abbots through the blind at Mr. Elton, and their being scolded away from the window only for Miss Nash to take their place and then good-naturedly call her back to let her see too, and their confiding to each other “‘how beautiful we thought he looked!’” Harriet is at her liveliest (75). She is so again when repeating to Emma, “with great delight,” what Miss Nash had told her about Mr. Perry’s meeting with Mr. Elton on the road to London, and being informed he is the bearer of “‘something exceedingly precious’” which Mr. Perry inferred must be to do with “‘a lady’” (68) – or, for that matter, when she is detailing the comments of anyone upon a subject she has at heart.
Harriet is in fact a social creature. Emma notes her gratitude at being first received in the way she is, and the pleasure she evinces at her hostess’s affability and parting handshake; and the responsiveness of a different order when, having been driven to the Martins’, Harriet looks around “with a sort of fearful curiosity” before her chilling resumption of relations with them (186). The account of the meeting she gives afterwards so well conveys the naturalness and delicacy of feelings on both sides as to cause Emma alarm. But there was in truth nothing for her to fear. Harriet’s protestation earlier, upon realising that Emma must have dropped acquaintance with her had she married Mr. Martin – “‘It would have killed me never to come to Hartfield any more!’” – had expressed what was for her the true scale of values. She feels as strongly as the other the distinction which admission to that demesne has accorded her (54).
This is to be confirmed in intimate terms as Emma endeavours to check her wistful preoccupation with Mr. Elton by mention of the pain which being reminded of her error brings, and Harriet’s need for her own sake to acquire the habit of proper self-command. By this hint of thanklessness on her part, Harriet is plunged into a violence of remorse.
“You, who have been the best friend I ever had in my life – Want gratitude to you! – Nobody is equal to you! I care for nobody as I do for you! Oh, Miss Woodhouse, how ungrateful I have been!” (268)
Nothing becomes Harriet more than this display of “tenderness of heart,” as Emma esteems it; nor is the latter wrong in being tempted at this point to consider the young girl as exceeding her in attractiveness. She recognises the want in herself of the capacity for affection which Harriet possesses in having an instinctive liking for people. It is in fact Harriet’s social predisposition which puts an end to her tenderness for Mr. Elton. Her sense of the humiliation she is subjected to at the Crown by his ostentatious declining to dance with her is acute: as is her awareness of its dissipation by Knightley’s courtly offer of his hand. The whole is an intense experience for her. “‘Such a change!’” she declares afterwards to Emma; “‘In one moment such a change! From perfect misery to perfect happiness’” (342). From what she had said before they quitted the ballroom Emma has realized that it was as if her eyes were suddenly opened to Elton’s character; but she does not appreciate the depth of deliverance socially speaking Knightley’s intervention has constituted for Harriet: what must be its significance for a nature as open and sensitive as hers.
For Harriet is naturally drawn to the opposite sex; and though always conducting herself with modesty, is not inhibited by undue reserve. There is an appreciative regard for the gentlemen she encounters at Hartfield, and a respect, which can amount to near-reverence, for their virtues. Mr. Woodhouse’s gentleness she had voluntarily remarked upon with admiration verging upon awe; first acquaintance with Mr. Knightley produces the open admiration of his being “‘so very fine a man!’” (32), and even when Mr. Elton is lost to her, she can aver that it will remain a pleasure to admire him at a distance, and “‘think of his superiority to all the rest of the world with the gratitude, wonder, and veneration which are so proper, in me especially’” (341).
Is this responsiveness to men the explanation of Harriet’s extraordinary amatory career? If it were, it would declare her more than a little of a coquette, and betoken an instability or shallowness of disposition making her unworthy of being taken seriously. If, though, it is not, the question must be asked why in the first place Emma should have found it possible to blight her protégée’s early but very real affection for young farmer Martin with little apparent difficulty.
The answer surely lies in the influence which Emma is able so cleverly and determinedly to exert. The slightest suggestion of an attachment from Harriet is enough to call forth the assurance of her being a gentleman’s daughter, and consequent necessity of supporting her claim to that status “‘by every thing within your own power,’” against those intent upon lowering her, to wit, the Martins. Their meeting with Mr. Martin next day on the Donwell road is prelude to deliberate vilification of his appearance and manner, which brings from Harriet the abashed admission that “‘he is not so genteel as real gentlemen.’” There follows a series of denigrating comparisons with men of the Hartfield circle, and introduction thereupon of Mr. Elton’s charms, with allusion to the recent “‘additional softness’” of address by which, “‘If he means anything, it must be to please you.’” By these means is “the very person fixed on by Emma” now flatteringly introduced to Harriet’s shaken sensibilities (30-34).
The business of prevailing upon her to reject Martin’s proposal is admirably contrived. There is no urging: instead, an assumption as between ladies of a negative in such a case being without question, of course accompanied by “‘expressions of gratitude and concern for the pain you are inflicting’” – succeeded by affected restrained surprise at the possible existence of “‘doubt as to the purport of your answer.’” Instantly, the intention is understood. “‘You think I ought to refuse him then?’ said Harriet, looking down.” Ensuing protestations of unwillingness to advise or influence are beside the point: the damage has been done. For her now to accept Martin, as Harriet is acutely aware, would mean the sacrifice of a unique friendship, an abandonment of all that Emma prizes in her and is yet to come to fulfilment, and a betrayal of the social convictions and aspirations that are a true component of her being (51-52).
Such loss and harm, at this early stage of her life, Harriet is not able to contemplate. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that once decision has been reached and letter despatched, she should display residual independence of mind to the extent of contradicting to her face what Emma has so strenuously impressed on her. Certainly, she concedes, with respect to handsomeness and manner he may not equal others; “‘However, I do really think Mr. Martin a very amiable young man, and have a great opinion of him’” (54). This view, here boldly stated, she can never change, under any form of persuasion, or whatever else may betide: and she confirms it the moment she has the chance.
In recommending Mr. Elton to her, Emma exerts influence of an entirely different kind. The method of disparagement with admixture of pretence, which Martin’s inferior social position had made requisite, now gives place to an impulsion of the purest friendship and goodwill. Emma “had no scruple with regard to Mr. Elton,” convinced as she is of his being “in the fairest way of falling in love, if not in love already” with her young charge; and while she cannot feel any doubt of having given Harriet’s fancy “a proper direction” at the earliest moment by assurance of his admiration, she assiduously follows it up “by agreeable hints” (42). She goes about her task with a delighted certainty, with an enthusiasm at the near-realisation of her dream, by which Harriet, in her inexperience, and fresh from her confined upbringing, is impelled to view matters through her benefactress’s eyes.
Emma’s attributing Elton’s attentions to a love for Harriet, gratifying though the idea be, is not a product of her active imagination. She cannot conceive of so inordinate a propensity in him as to have designs upon herself. Her action when he has presented his charade is thus fully expressive of her mind. Smilingly, she pushes the paper towards Harriet with the words, “‘take it, - it is for you. Take your own.’” The word courtship can be no other than “‘a very good hint’” of the desire to pay his addresses; and the poem’s application, as Emma construes it, is so pointed and particular a compliment ‘“that I cannot have a moment’s doubt as to Mr. Elton’s intentions. You are his object – and you will soon receive the completest proof of it”’ (70-73). The purpose it denotes is as clear, she assures Harriet, as her own wishes for her have been since she first knew her.
The interchange that follows is charged with Emma’s exclamations and congratulations: upon the naturalness and desirability of the attachment, its being in every sense prudential and advantageous, its acceptability to friends and family, its elevating tendency, its giving every prospect of happiness through Elton’s amiable character, its arising between people called together by situation, and belonging to each other “‘by every circumstance of your respective homes.’” The list is all but exhaustive: and the certainty is complete.
As far as Harriet is concerned, Emma speaks with a womanly and social authority that is irresistible; and yet, in the very act of yielding to it, she gives voice to intimations of a contrary sort. “‘Whatever you say is always right,’” she cries; “‘and therefore I suppose, and believe, and hope it must be so; but otherwise I could not have imagined it’” (74). The gradations of her acquiescence are significant – as are the reasons she puts forward for her misgiving. Elton in his eligibility is “‘so much beyond anything I deserve’”; his interest in her “‘is a sort of thing which nobody could have expected’”; and she “‘did not know him, to speak to him, at Michaelmas!’” (75). These considerations are commonsense. From their perspective what Emma is urging is most unlikely: but Harriet is without means of resisting it. And soon she is reduced to, “‘How nicely you talk; I love to hear you. You understand every thing’” (76).
That she is without defence is the fault, not of herself, but of the usages of social life that directed relations between the sexes. Attachment and wooing were on both sides a matter of suggestion – delicate, as in the bestowal of compliment, or more explicit, by such gesture or token as the conferring of Harriet’s portrait on Elton, or his ceremonious presentation of the charade. By her generous invitations to Hartfield, and the easy sociability she favours him with on Harriet’s account, Emma is unwittingly guilty of a liberality that Elton, and even the disinterested Mr. John Knightley, can understand only as encouragement (112). Ordinarily, however, a heedfulness alike in behaviour and in its interpretation is rigorously observed. The Eltons and Knightleys, the Wentworths and Bertrams, agonise over having their discreet inferences “understood” by the beloved: and Harriet is not the least credulous, fanciful or foolish in being guided by Emma’s appraisal of the indications in Mr. Elton’s conduct. There is for her, in addition, the flattering thought that, just as greatness in Emma’s person has lifted her out of obscurity into distinction, so it is now coming more wonderfully to her aid, in Mr. Elton, “‘who might marry any body!’” succumbing to her charms. Could someone as innocent and trusting as she be expected to oppose so felicitous a development, guarded and instructed as she is by an Emma Woodhouse? Harriet is no simpleton in believing herself beloved by this respected gentleman, but reacts to the unusual circumstance as would any well-conducted lady of her tender years.
For Emma, strolling on Hartfield’s lawns the morning after the Westons’ ball, her head full of gratified musings upon Knightley’s gallantry to Harriet, to be confronted with the sight of the sweep gates opening to admit the same Harriet in swooning state on Frank Churchill’s arm, after his rescuing her from the gipsies, is a masterpiece of literary construction. No manner of person whatsoever, as Jane Austen mischievously affirms thereupon, would have been dead to the happening’s romantic possibilities. Certainly Emma’s mind is not proof against them; and afterwards it seems to her the most natural thing in the world that Harriet should be confessing an utter devotion to her champion, though with hopelessness as to the likelihood of his stooping to her. Influence, therefore, is not called for here; and Emma, chastened now as she is by recollection of the confusion and distress she had involved Harriet and herself in over Elton, is resolved against the slightest interference, even to the mention of a name. Her advice is therefore what might properly be given to any young woman in this predicament: that matches of such disparity are not altogether without precedent, and that she should observe with the closest attention the beloved’s attitude towards her (342).
Harriet is of course talking about Mr. Knightley. The service he had rendered her the previous evening, in its moral and social implication, is for her infinitely greater than the physical deliverance Churchill has just effected. For the latter she is naturally obliged: but by the former she has been captivated. It would have reduced to insignificance any allure that Churchill’s forthright conduct might have conferred on him; but in fact Harriet has never even thought of Churchill, except to be conscious of his lacking the distinction, the true gentlemanliness, she had recognised in Knightley. In this she has shown herself possessed of a measure of discrimination which Emma, distracted possibly by romantic schemings, is yet to attain; and at the tense moment when misunderstanding is finally rectified, it is with indignation that Harriet rejects the idea of her having been predisposed as Emma had imagined.
“Mr. Frank Churchill, indeed! I do not know who would ever look at him in the company of the other. I hope I have a better taste than to think of Mr. Frank Churchill, who is like nobody by his side.” (405)
This outspokenness is in part due to the pressure of wounded feelings; but it tends at least to demonstrate that Harriet is far from being the sentimentalist, the innate romantic, that her dealings might at first suggest.
Falling in love with Mr. Knightley is something she does entirely of her own accord. It is a love born of admiration and esteem; but it arises also from immense gratitude. Knightley’s inviting her to dance upon her being scorned by Elton was more than rescue from social affront. It had in truth been a healing in emotional terms, for a nature simple and sincere, shocked and dismayed at sudden perfidy in the man for whom she had entertained a genuine affection. The restoration brought about in her manifested itself outwardly in her bounding “higher than ever” in the dance, and being “in a continual course of smiles”: but its effect upon the heart has been far more dramatic, though unseen (328).
It is the greater for what is not present in Harriet’s awareness. She has no means of comprehending Elton’s ill-treatment to have been a revenge upon Emma for the insult she had administered in specifying his social inferiority, both in the match she had sought to contrive, and that to which he had himself aspired. Quite what sense she might have gained of Knightley’s acting to quell a flagrant discourtesy, and in preservation of social decorum, would be hard to determine. But his deepest motive – a wish to remedy the injury to Emma in this public slighting of her friend, an impulse of love itself, which escaped Emma’s own recognition – Harriet could not begin to fathom.
As any young woman might, she views what has happened from a personal perspective: sees herself singled out, honoured, redeemed by the man she has throughout identified as in a class apart from the others. His asking for her hand in that situation was the highest compliment that could be paid within the sphere of her experience. With this certainty, enhanced as it is by powerful feelings of thankfulness, she cannot doubt herself as being the woman preferred – and as yet again distinguished by a benign suzerainty seemingly intent on claiming her as its own.
That his inviting her to the dance might be liable to such interpretation would not occur to Knightley. From his social altitude he would, like Emma, never expect persons admitted to a modicum of familiarity to venture above their condition, presuming upon an invulnerability which, however, in the nature of things, a moment’s inadvertence might dispel. What preoccupies him is a desire to defend his Emma against affront, and thereby perhaps re-establish himself in her goodwill by graciousness towards a girl he has without doubt judged too severely in the past. The particularity implicit in his so doing can but be regarded, by Harriet and onlookers alike, as a marked attention. The incident, with all that subsequently flows from it in Knightley’s seeking with the same determination to cultivate further acquaintance with her, has the appearance in ordinary social terms – as ultimately to Emma’s own understanding – of plain romantic attachment.
Harriet is therefore justified in the hopes of Knightley which, in discourse somewhat hesitant and by no means “[m]ethodical, or well arranged” (409), she is later to confide to her sponsor. Bearing in mind the vulnerability with which she is beset by reason of her few years and scant experience, and the pressures social and emotional so arbitrarily brought to bear upon her at Hartfield, her having been or fancied herself in love with him, as with Elton, is in the light of events not at all as remarkable as would appear. And when, freed at last from the affliction of Emma’s tutelage, she chances to re-encounter Martin in London, she gives evidence of a praiseworthy maturity, both in the constancy of her first love despite the onslaught made against it, and in the decisiveness she demonstrates in there and then accepting him.
When Fanny Price comes to live at Mansfield Park, the Bertram girls are unremitting in their disparagement of their poor cousin for her inferiority. The one respect in which they will allow her any equality with them is disclosed in the grudging admission that “‘Fanny is good-natured enough.’” This attribute is largely to be seen in Fanny’s compliance with the obligations of her dependent situation at Mansfield, and a readiness to be generally helpful: but with Harriet Smith, it is evident in a variety of relationships in Highbury and at Hartfield. It is perhaps at its most moving in her reception of the news of Emma’s having been in error as to Elton’s feelings and intentions. There is no blame, no recrimination; instead, a “lowly opinion of herself” which acquits the other of accountability. The affection of such a man, she protests amidst her tears, would have been “‘too great a distinction.’” She never could have merited it; indeed, “‘nobody but so partial and kind a friend as Miss Woodhouse would have thought it possible’” (141-42). Both he and the as yet unknown Miss Hawkins are held in high regard: and merely to reflect that he had not thrown himself away is for Harriet “‘such a comfort!’” (272).
Almost as affecting is the sensitivity and the tenderness that is demonstrated during her accidental encounter with Mr. Martin and his sister at Ford’s, after relationship with them has been abruptly ended. She is near fainting, knowing that she will have turned as white as her gown. In the sister’s coming forward and seeming ready to shake hands, Harriet is sorely conscious of the reluctance Elizabeth has contrived to overcome. Her state is not so much embarrassment, as misery at the couple’s struggling to hide their pain in complaisance; and Elizabeth’s expression of regret at their not meeting now is “‘almost too kind’” for her to bear (179).
But it is surely in her unfailing amiability towards Emma that Harriet’s good nature is most apparent. Not only has she repeatedly been led into disappointment and grief, but the friend whose self-centred enthusiasms have been responsible is unmasked at the close as an enemy. Yet so unassuming, gentle and mannerly has she been in all, that not the least semblance of reproach has passed her lips or appeared in her reactions. After Harriet is banished from Hartfield to the John Knightleys in London, Emma can fancy there being present in her letters “something of resentment, a something bordering on it in her style,” which, she realises, “might be only her own consciousness” – or in other words, the trick of a merited self-reproach. But even if the former, as she goes on to tell herself, “it seemed as if an angel only could have been quite without resentment under such a stroke” as her appropriation of Knightley. Having, in short, consistently been made a fool of in concerns close to the heart, Harriet reveals, in disposition and in conduct, qualities which by any standard must be seen as admirable (451).
Amongst them is one which her naiveté and want of cultivation might lead us not to expect. It is to be detected in the conversation with Emma that follows their encountering Mr. Martin. When the mistress of Hartfield, describing him as awkward and abrupt, asks with rhetorical emphasis what he will be at Mr. Weston’s time of life, Harriet responds with a solemn, “‘There is no saying, indeed!’”; and the answer of Emma’s own providing, that he will have become “‘a completely gross, vulgar farmer,’” receives the quiet accord of “‘Will he, indeed, that will be very bad’” (33). Even allowing for Harriet’s inclination and habit of respectfulness, there is, in her demeanour as she meets this slander of the man in whose company she had experienced much pleasure, a deliberative reticence that merits the name of composure.
It is evident also when, under Emma’s reproof as to her being “‘overpowered’” by so small a token of admiration as Mr. Elton’s charade, she replies with the brevity and self-possession of “‘Oh! no – I hope I shall not be ridiculous about it. Do as you please’” (77-78). The same tones accompany her appearance before Emma one morning with the Tunbridge-ware box, and confession of having treasured Elton’s relics therein. Now professedly an altered creature, she declares a duty and wish to have no reserves from Emma on the subject; and continues, “‘it is very fit that you should have the satisfaction of knowing it. I do not want to say any more than is necessary – I am too much ashamed of having given way as I have done, and I dare say you understand me’” (337). The matter itself is trivial: but the language by which it is conveyed, in its simplicity, has an elegance of its own.
More often than not, the mode of speech mirrors the mind of the speaker. What, therefore, are we to make of Harriet’s words at the moment when realisation has dawned upon Emma that it is Mr. Knightley, and not Frank Churchill, for whom her friend has been nurturing so passionate a regard? “‘I am sure, but for believing that you entirely approved and meant to encourage me in my attachment,’” she protests, “‘I should have considered it at first too great a presumption almost, to dare to think of him’” (405-06). That a degree of sophistication rings through these accents is borne out by the style and content of what ensues. Emma, exclaiming at the “‘most unfortunate – most deplorable mistake!’” (407) she has made, is reduced to silence. Its significance is not lost upon Harriet, and she responds with an injunction whose mild terms in no way belie its directness. The possibility of such a match has been Emma’s own urging: and “‘if Mr. Knightley should really – if he does not mind the disparity, I hope, dear Miss Woodhouse, you will not set yourself against it, and try to put difficulties in the way. But you are too good for that, I am sure.’”
Her meaning could hardly be more plain, yet it is not offensive. Perhaps its very clarity takes any hurtfulness from it: but this can only be when the disposition behind the utterance is innocent and engaging. Of its being so with Harriet, if it were not evident from her previous attitudes, there would be confirmation in her final remark. Until this point, she declares, she had as instructed gone by outward indications of regard in Knightley: “‘But now I seem to feel that I may deserve him; and that if he does choose me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful’” (411). In this speech there is a confidence and womanliness which impresses – and conveys the truth that Harriet has about her at this testing juncture an innate dignity, which others, of more years and greater claim, might well envy.
But does Harriet have the stature which might make some future Austen heroine? The comparison suggests itself with Catherine Morland, who is also at the stage between girl and woman, and certainly not a giant of intellect – but who displays an adherence to principle, a resolution in the face of difficulties, and an ability to think something through which can unsettle even a Henry Tilney. But Catherine has not been subjected to another’s authority – save that of Mrs. Allen, which for all practical purposes can be safely discounted. She is obliged almost throughout to stand on her own feet, whereas Harriet, confined to a subordinate role, has small scope for initiative; were she placed in a similar situation, indications are that she would acquit herself creditably. In Fanny Price, by contrast, we observe a profoundly moral nature and contingent strength of personality that can slowly impress itself upon wholly adverse circumstances. But the demands of everyday living oblige her to withdraw into a diffidence which masks her superiority from all who do not know her well; and the hesitation and solemnity of manner which results robs her, in the opinion of many, of heroic pretension.
How different is Harriet’s refreshing spontaneity and naturalness. Certainly there is little in her outlook of a detached and speculative kind: her thoughts are a process of responses to events around her, and the hopes, joys and sorrows they give rise to. But the same can largely be said of all Jane Austen’s young women: none of them is the stuff philosophers are made of. They are in love with the present as they encounter it, with the men they will marry, when they have found them; and do not seem at the point we know them to be seeking much beyond.
However, there is an exception to what has just been said that concerns Harriet. It has to do with a remark she makes at the end of her account of the distressing meeting with Martin and his sister at Ford’s, from which the rain permitted no escape. She would rather have done anything, she tells Emma, than have had it happen: “‘and yet, you know, there was a sort of satisfaction in seeing him behave so pleasantly and kindly. And Elizabeth, too’” (179). In the midst of her anguish at such close contact after the estrangement, she has been struck by the rightness of conduct and delicacy of sentiment in those now permanently distanced from her. Her being so is a piece of wonderment and true reflection. But it is more.
If what defines a gentleman is his predominant desire to set others at their ease, may it not be that a corresponding pleasure in fineness of comportment, and the decencies of social interplay, is what distinguishes a lady? If this be allowed – and who would pronounce otherwise? – it suggests, with much else, that, deceived though Emma may sometimes have been as to character and conduct in the unfolding of events, she made no mistake in her choice of Harriet Smith.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933.