Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 34-38
Jane Austen’s Use of Frank Churchill’s Letters in Emma
PATRICIA D. DAVIS
Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721
Jane Austen’s novels are filled with memorable letters. Who can forget Darcy’s long letter to Elizabeth or Willoughby’s terse note to Marianne? Such letters do more than serve the plot, which, of course, they do very well. More often than not, the content of a letter, sometimes reproduced in full, sometimes summarized by a character, does double or even triple duty in an Austen novel. The reader learns more than to evaluate events which have occurred or to anticipate events which may occur. Often a letter will reveal something of the character of its writer; just as often, a letter will reveal something of the character of the person who reports or discusses its content; and sometimes a letter does both. In Emma, a novel in which only one letter is reproduced in full but in which letters and their writers are a subject of much discussion, Austen uses the letter more to inform the reader of qualities in its recipients than either to move the plot forward or, with the important exception of the final letter from Frank Churchill, to reveal something of the nature of the writer. This paper will examine Austen’s use of the letters from Frank Churchill in Emma and discuss those qualities of character brought to the surface by their reception.
Action in the novels of Jane Austen is often the action of the mind attempting to solve problems, recognize truths, determine feelings, maintain equilibrium, and sort through a mixed bag of thoughts and feelings, fixing upon one. These mental processes create in the reader a tension, pleasant because it anticipates resolution, a tension he wishes to experience again and again. Against the background of the familiar and the ordinary – family, friends, neighbours, conversation, gossip, everyday tasks – extraordinary thoughts and feelings are measured, sorted, and defined. Emma sits with Mrs. Weston and reads Frank Churchill’s latest letter to his stepmother:
… she read it with a degree of pleasure and admiration which made her at first shake her head over her own sensations, and think that she had undervalued their strength … Gratifying, however, and, stimulative as was the letter in the material part, its sentiments, she yet found, when it was folded up and returned to Mrs. Weston, that it had not added any lasting warmth, that she could still do without the writer, and that he must learn to do without her …. Her resolution of refusal only grew more interesting by the addition of a scheme for his subsequent consolation and happiness. (pp. 265-66)1
The dashing and handsome Frank Churchill, for years well known to the residents of Highbury through his letters, has finally made his appearance in town. For a time, Emma fancies herself to be in love with him or at least enough attached to him to bring forth a flood of new sensations which must continually be evaluated and defined. The arrival of a letter stimulates, as it often does in Emma, the action of the mind to intensify and, here, to resolve the process of evaluation.
The arrival of another of Frank Churchill’s letters, one in which he announces that he must again postpone his long-awaited visit to Highbury because of some new indisposition of Mrs. Churchill, stimulates a variety of different responses which give one insights into the nature of those who react. The gregarious Mr. Weston, Frank’s natural father,
for half an hour … was surprised and sorry; but then he began to perceive that Frank’s coming two or three months later would be a much better plan; better time of year; better weather; and that he would be able, without any doubt, to stay longer with them than if he had come sooner. These feelings rapidly restored his comfort …. (p. 144)
For Mr. Weston, the inevitable must be inevitably good. Here, one happy idea gives rise to another even happier idea at the expense of reason.
The same letter provokes different sentiments in Emma and Mr. Knightley. Emma, who defends Frank Churchill’s postponement with more spirit than she actually feels, is challenged by the opposite sentiments of Mr. Knightley. The discussion, which began by Emma’s account of the letter, becomes a debate. Though their views are very different, the style of their argument, syntax, pacing, emphasis, is so similar that one almost cannot resist tapping one’s foot knowing that no beat will be lost from one speaker to the other:
G.K. … I dare say he might come if he would.
Emma I do not know why you should say so … he wishes exceedingly to come.
G.K. I cannot believe that he has not the power of coming ….
Emma … you suppose him such an unnatural creature?
G.K. I am not supposing him at all an unnatural creature.
Emma … he may, at times, be able to do a great deal more than he can at others.
G.K. There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is his duty … there would be no opposition made to his going.
Emma No … but perhaps there might be some made to his coming back again.
G.K. … their little minds would bend to his.
Emma You are very fond of bending little minds … a yielding, complying, mild disposition may cut him off from some advantages, it will secure him many others.
G.K Yes; all the advantages of sitting still when he ought to move … his letters disgust me.
Emma Your feelings are singular. They seem to satisfy everyone else.
G.K. I suspect they do not satisfy Mrs. Weston.
Emma You seem determined to think ill of him.
G.K. I do not want to think ill of him.
Emma My idea of him is ...
G.K. And mine … is … (pp. 145-50)2
Reason is on the side of Mr. Knightley, but Emma claims wit. That the reasonable Mr. Knightley should be mated to the witty Miss Woodhouse seems presaged by the verbal bonding which draws them together even in argument. What impresses one most in the dialogue between Emma and Mr. Knightley is how extremely well matched they appear to be. If arguments can ever be called harmonious, this is an argument with at least rhetorical harmony. Letters, then, in Emma, stimulate responses both silent and audible. From such responses the reader gains a more intimate knowledge of character and the relationship between characters.
The single letter which is reproduced in Emma, Frank Churchill’s letter to Mrs. Weston, is a masterpiece in what it manages to accomplish. First, though the letter does not function as plot, it binds together several loose ends of the plot; second, the reader is given fresh evidence to decide whether Frank Churchill’s character conforms to the opinions of Mr. Knightley on that subject or those of Emma; third, the response of three major characters to the letter, Mrs. Weston’s, Mr. Knightley’s, and Emma’s, is telling; fourth, in the dialogue which ensues as a result of the letter, the relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley may be further explored; and fifth, the letter so placed, in all its seriousness and self-importance, a few chapters short of the final chapter, renders the conclusion of the novel more ironical than it might otherwise have been.3 The letter, then, may be said to serve the novel in a variety of ways, each of which will be explored in turn.
Frank Churchill’s letter contains no revelations which add to the plot of Emma: his engagement to Jane Fairfax has already been announced by himself (in person) to the Westons, and they, in turn, have given the news to Emma; but a few puzzling questions are answered: Who sent the pianoforte to Jane Fairfax (for those who may have guessed wrong)? Why did Jane Fairfax leave Donwell Abbey so abruptly? Why did Jane Fairfax accept a position as governess after she resolved not to be in a hurry to be employed? Why was Frank Churchill in such a bad temper on the Box-Hill outing? Frank Churchill’s letter is a very long one indeed, yet coming as it does, at almost the end of the novel, the reader has long given up ever expecting to know him. Having kept any real knowledge of his person from the reader (one is never allowed to enter his mind except in the letter), Austen uses Frank Churchill almost more as subject than character in Emma. His letters, though, always give rise to commentary of some sort, and always tell one something of the mind of those who respond to them. This particular letter is no exception.
Mrs. Weston’s note to Emma, which serves as a preface to the letter of Frank Churchill, describes the letter as “the cure of all the little nervousnesses [she had] been feeling lately” (p. 436). Mrs. Weston’s anxiety appears to be kept in check by her reserve. Her reluctance to make further commentary on the letter’s content beyond what she does may be seen in her taking equal space on the subject of yesterday’s weather.
Emma found, in reading his letter, that she was more willing to forgive Frank Churchill his improprieties than she had been when she was informed of his engagement by the Westons a short time earlier:
As soon as she came to her own name, it was irresistible; every line relating to herself was interesting, and almost every line agreeable; and when this charm had ceased, the subject could still maintain itself, by the natural return of her former regard for the writer, and the very strong attraction which any picture of love must have for her at that moment. She never stopt till she had gone through the whole; and though it was impossible not to feel that he had been wrong, yet he had been less wrong than she had supposed – and he had suffered, and was very sorry – and he was so grateful to Mrs. Weston, and so much in love with Miss Fairfax, and she was so happy herself, that there was no being severe; and could he have entered the room, she must have shaken hands with him as heartily as ever. (p. 444)
Such a response on Emma’s part is telling: she has before her the intimate details of another person’s life, yet she must think of herself. She cannot lose sight of herself long enough even to judge impartially: “she was so happy herself, that there was no being severe.” Austen, more than once, uses the letter to indicate Emma’s self-absorption. In an earlier letter of Frank Churchill to Mrs. Weston, “the charm of her own name was not wanting.” (p. 266) Again, when Frank Churchill tells his father in a letter that the Churchills had taken a house for two months just nine miles from Highbury, “Emma saw how Mr. Weston understood these joyous prospects: he was considering her the source of all the happiness they offered.” (p. 317) Yet in the very next paragraph the reader is given Mr. Weston’s thoughts on the news of his son, and Emma appears to have no part in his feelings of gratitude: her name is never mentioned.
Mr. Knightley, though, has had no difficulty judging Frank Churchill’s behavior impartially. Overall, he disapproves of the young man’s past actions and, unlike Emma, can, for the most part, separate personal prejudices from judgement. He mentions himself but once. When Emma hands him the letter to read, he tells her that a few months earlier he might have been unable to read a letter written by Frank Churchill with such indifference. A few lines later, this modest admission is further qualified. When Emma reminds him that he was correct in certain of his pronouncements, he replies: “I was not quite impartial in my judgement, Emma: – but yet, I think – had you not been in the case – I should still have distrusted him.” (p. 445) The reader has faith in Mr. Knightley’s judgements almost from the beginning of the novel, but not until the end of the novel, when the depth of his regard for Emma is known, does the reader fully appreciate how deserving Mr. Knightley is of the faith the reader has invested in him.
Why does Jane Austen choose to reproduce an entire letter from Frank Churchill at almost the end of the novel? Why, finally, is the reader given firsthand the thoughts of Frank Churchill? Why isn’t his letter summarized here as others are elsewhere in the novel? When one considers how letters have been used in Emma up to now, to inform one of qualities in those who respond to them, it seems not unreasonable to question what appears to be a shift of interest from the recipient to the correspondent. To address these issues, some speculation of what the author was about in writing Emma is necessary.
In Emma, Frank Churchill functions more as subject than character. As subject he can be omnipresent through his letters and yet not draw interest away from Emma. In fact as subject, he serves to increase interest in Emma. The reproduction of his letter causes the reader to shift his attention from the subject of Frank Churchill to Frank Churchill himself. In reproducing the letter rather than summarizing its content, Austen resurrects Frank Churchill as character. Part of that revelation proves him to be a rather spoiled “child of good fortune,” as Mr. Knightley has suspected. But the letter as a whole also reveals his warmer, more affectionate side. Like Emma, Frank Churchill is a person with more than one dimension to his self – with possibly unknown aspects to that self – which outsiders should not venture to guess at arrogantly and blindly. His letter is thus an effective device for the further exploration of the self.
If Emma is a novel which explores the self, and more than one critic thinks that it is,4 Emma’s response to Frank Churchill’s letters demonstrates how tenaciously the self, be it Emma’s or Frank’s, maintains the right to its own perception. Emma never loses sight of herself, and, with no little assistance from Frank Churchill’s letters, the reader never loses sight of Emma.
1 Here and elsewhere in the paper, citations are from R.W. Chapman, ed., The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. iv (London: Oxford University Press, 1956).
2 The italicized words are used to demonstrate what I call verbal bonding. The italics are my own.
3 Here, the letter may be said to serve the tone of the novel. If one finds, as I do, the pilfering of a henhouse hastening the marriage of Emma and Mr. Knightley an ironical conclusion, the placement of Frank Churchill’s letter, with its tone of high seriousness, just short of the end would seem to add to the irony of the conclusion.
4 See, for example, Susan Morgan, In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen’s Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 23-50; Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 260; Douglas Bush, Jane Austen (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 167.