The Evolution of Mrs. Elton


Perhaps it’s partly because I grew up in New York City that the first time I read Emma, I didn’t recognize what was so awful about Mrs. Elton. Her behavior seemed quite natural and understandable to me. I’ve always felt that there was something almost American (if not New Yorkerish) about Mrs. Elton, she’s so brassy, aggressive, larger than life. But those are traits we’re taught to admire in New York, in order not to get trampled. And I saw that Mrs. Elton was a newcomer, a bride, in a small town, unsure of her social position; she wanted to be friendly and to be accepted, and so she did things like propose to Emma that they unite to form a musical society. Yet whatever she did or said, it was always wrong, and the other characters – the discerning ones – reacted as though she were the crassest creature ever. However, instead of shuddering at her atrocious manners, as were meant to do, I felt rather sorry for her. Obviously the poor woman simply didn’t know how to behave. Yes, she was officious and inappropriate, but so were half the people I knew; so just why did everybody loathe her so?

As years passed, through many re-readings of Emma, I gradually grew to appreciate the nuances of Mrs. Elton’s bad behavior, and to realize that she was in fact one of the greatest and most maliciously drawn of Jane Austen’s characters. At the same time, you might almost say that Jane Austen served for me as a textbook in behavior. After years of living with her characters, steeping herself in her style, there is no doubt that I emerged not only knowing how to behave better, but also how to write better.

In 1997 the world changed and got a great deal smaller, when the invention of e-mail trickled down even to my very middling level of technical proficiency. It often seems to me that we are a generation like those which first got excited about railroads, or the telephone. Like millions of others who were learning about the internet, I gravitated toward the cyberspace niche where I felt most at home – the Jane Austen “Listserv” where a community of people, academics and laymen, the erudite and the eccentric, warlike and peaceful, newbies and sophisticates, all gathered to continue the discourse many of us had been carrying on under the aegis of JASNA for many years already.

It was on Austen-L that an extended Mrs. Elton-bashing discussion occurred. I remember my initial thoughts about the character, and asked the List, “Look, would you like to see me defend Mrs. Elton?”

“Yes!” chorused the electronic voices. So I had to do it. Now, I’m a writer, not a scholar, thinker, or logician. I’d written a couple of the despised pseudo-Austen sequellae, and had the highly developed, if heretofore useless skill, of being able to churn out pseudo-Austen prose for hours. (Writing styles of previous eras have fascinated me since I was a small child and went around saying “Pshaw” because I’d read it in an old-fashioned story.) So, instead of trying to construct a reasoned argument, I started relating the events in Emma as seen from Mrs. Elton’s viewpoint. And immediately I could see things in the book I’d never seen before. Jane Austen, cunning lady, never said a nice thing about Mrs. Elton. Yet if you cut away her editorial viewpoint and ignore her prejudice, Mrs. Elton’s actions and point of view were actually open to a more sympathetic interpretation. On the other hand, though Austen famously wrote that in Emma she was taking a character “whom no one but myself may much like,” her editorial treatment of Emma was actually surprisingly tender and benevolent. Emma could behave outrageously, but Austen presented her sympathetically, as a person of feeling, who could grow and learn. But analyzed apart from this softening envelope, Emma’s behavior can often be seen as colder than it seems in the novel, and quite the equal of Mrs. Elton at her worst. This was an interesting discovery, and there was so much more to come, that I divided up what I was writing into episodes, and began to post them onto the List, one every few days.

The response from the geographically far-flung, but intellectually close-knit Austen-L community was startling. I began to receive responses while I was still writing. Fan letters, even! I had never received such a thing in my life and it went to my head as attention would have affected Mrs. Elton herself. “Yes!” people told me by e-mail every day. “You go, girl!” I received over fifty letters, and had the infinite amusement of seeing more scholarly inclined readers analyzing what I was writing while I was still writing it. Sometimes they were discussing my meaning, or how the story would turn out, when I hardly knew it myself.

The discussion often helped form my theme, as for example when scholar Ellen Moody pointed out that Mrs. Elton was Emma writ small. And there were all sorts of phenomena I’d never experienced before, all of it delightful. One person wrote that watching “Mrs. Elton” unfold electronically must be like the way it was when people in America met ships from England at the dock and shouted “Did Little Nell die?” This is putting “Mrs. Elton” too high, to be sure; yet the early serial writers never knew the instant response that is now possible on line.

I’m not sure how “Mrs. Elton” will read in book form, when you’re not turning on your computer in anticipation of each new episode. The idea of computer books sounds deplorable to any old-fashioned reader worth his salt, yet there was a freshness and an immediacy in creating an online serial. This mixture of fiction and computers, the old and the new, has given me the thrilling feeling that I was pioneering some new medium. At the same time, the felicity and excitement of amusing a daily audience has been an entirely new satisfaction, for which I am grateful to my friends on Austen-L.

Having been asked to provide some biographical data, I will state that I work as a story analyst, reading novels for Warner Bros; and my biography of my grandmother, Onoto Watanna (Winnifred Eaton), the first Asian American novelist, a highly flamboyant character of the last fin de siècle, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.

Diana Birchall
October, 1999