Persuasions #5, 1983 Page 14
DO YOU NOT DANCE, MR. ELTON?
When Mr. Elton refused to dance with Harriet Smith, Mr. Knightley rescued the little wallflower. Emma’s gratitude for his chivalry, and proposal of herself as his next partner produced agreeable recollections the next morning. The episode is a fine example of Jane Austen’s skill in making a minor social crisis reveal mighty things. Tucked into the account is a memorable piece of babble by Miss Bates, including the sweetbread-and-asparagus catastrophe, and evidence that Frank Churchill arranged to have supper with Jane Fairfax. The chapter ends significantly with Mr. Knightley: “Brother and sister! no indeed.”
With all these riches to contemplate, most readers, or all who have written criticism which has come under my eye, have failed to comment on the really awful depths of Mr. Elton’s rudeness. He offers to dance with Mrs. Weston, knowing that she will not accept – the poor woman is nearly seven months pregnant.
Mr. Elton knew, all Highbury knew, about Mrs. Weston’s interesting condition. Miss Bates is tactful: “I hope you are quite well. Very happy to hear it. So afraid that you might have a headache! [She means miscarriage,] – seeing you pass by so often, and knowing how much trouble you must have.” Impossible that Mrs. Weston might dance: a lady expecting her first child, and nearer forty than thirty. It was all very well for Harriet to bound higher than ever and fly down the middle in a continual course of smiles. Mrs. Weston could not risk health and respectability in such an exhibition.
Thus Mr. Elton is not merely cruel to little Harriet, not merely rude to Mrs. Weston, hostess of the Ball at the Crown, he is shatteringly uncouth towards a lady whose health and very life were known to be in danger by the population of the parish of which he was the incumbent vicar. We must read the expressions of indignation by Emma and Mr. Knightley in the knowledge that they could not, especially in a ballroom, discuss the enormity of Mr. Elton’s insult. Jane Austen expected us to be ingenious.
(Main reference, Emma, Chapman edition, pp. 326-332)