Still Defending Mrs. Elton
It is nearly ten years since I first wrote In Defense of Mrs. Elton online, in the early days of the Jane Austen internet groups. At the time, to write an “internet serial” seemed like a most adventurous, novel, ground-breaking thing to do, and my introduction to the little, purple, tasseled edition that (to my delight) was illustrated by Juliet McMaster and printed as the conference gift for the JASNA 1999 AGM, clearly reflects what a heady experience and what fun it was. Today, it’s hard to believe that as recently as ten years ago, the hugely popular and widespread development of “fanfic” had barely begun. Vast and (relatively) venerable communities have grown up around the phenomenon of writing about characters originally created by authors as diverse as Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling. In Defense of Mrs. Elton may have been the production of a more innocent era, but even now, I don’t think of it as fan fiction; more pastiche than sequel, it’s an examination of the character of Mrs. Elton, and was informed by my fascinated discovery of the layered and clever way in which Jane Austen cunningly set about making her “the daemon of the piece.” I learned a great deal about Jane Austen’s writing by scrutinizing Mrs. Elton, but the down side was that I have consequently found myself suffering from an alarming identification with the character. Now it seems impossible for me to get away from her: she is like an outspoken Regency Tar Baby. If I find myself tied together with her for eternity, we will undoubtedly become one another’s punishment.
Not satisfied with merely defending Mrs. Elton, I have proceeded to imagine her before her transplantation to Highbury; to take her to America in a novel; and finally to enact her myself in a playlet that has been performed in many regions, including Vancouver, New York, Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis, Florida, Arizona, and (upcoming) Los Angeles. This is serious identification indeed, and in my brief interludes of sanity I am moved to wonder if Jane Austen has been playing tricks with me from beyond the grave by saddling me with an Eltonian Albatross. I suppose I can only be thankful that I did not adopt Mrs. Norris.
Like Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park, who had an “amplifying style” so that a very little matter was enough for her, I have, by this time, squeezed considerable information out of the few details that Jane Austen tells us about my mascot character. One of the most interesting avenues has been to research Mrs. Elton’s place of origin. The daughter of a “merchant, he must be called,” her home was in the “very heart of Bristol,” and Bristol’s thriving port, was, in the youth of Miss Augusta Hawkins, at the very heart of the slave trade. This is a fascinating subject for study, as are the winds of feminism that were abroad in early 19th century Bristol, which may have given Mrs. Elton a tone that is at variance with the Highbury world. Such considerations have led me to see Mrs. Elton as a harbinger of modern fashions, not only an outsider but a disturbing intruder. She is a comic villain, yes, but also a conflicted character, more complex than she seems on the surface, and one whom Jane Austen’s contemporary audience would have known more about than we do.
So here I am, at my post, still defending Mrs. Elton. No, I won’t apologize for it: for when that writer who wrote on “a little bit of ivory” entraps you in her art, you begin to discover that even the smallest study can provide a window into all of Jane Austen.