The past ten years have seen an explosion of sequels, continuations, and alternate universe fantasies based on Jane Austen’s novels, in which there is no end to liberties taken: her characters turn up in locations around the globe, in centuries past and future, and as vampires, zombies, and Americans. My purpose is to examine an unexpected result of this phenomenon: that a new understanding of Austen’s works can be gained by the unorthodox method of writing pastiche.
This discovery came to me through none other than the surprising channel of Mrs. Elton, who, as you know, always liked to enlighten people about how things should be done. It began when I wrote a little book called In Defense of Mrs. Elton. To my surprise, examining the novel Emma with such a purpose in mind was most productive because it resulted in giving me new insights into Jane Austen’s writing, and especially her subtle ways of framing a character. In Mrs. Elton’s case, “framing” has a double meaning because Jane Austen is not particularly kind to her character. I noticed in particular the layered and clever way in which Jane Austen cunningly set about making Mrs. Elton “the daemon of the piece” (MP 448). If you cut away Austen’s editorial presentation, it is possible to view Mrs. Elton in quite a different light. Austen’s treatment of Emma is tender. But analyzed apart from this softening envelope, Emma’s behavior is the equal of Mrs. Elton’s; you might say that she is Mrs. Elton writ large, or that Mrs. Elton is Emma writ small.
Mrs. Elton is one of the greatest and most maliciously drawn of Austen’s comic characters. The man with the best judgment in the book, Mr. Knightley, shows us how to think about Mrs. Elton. We are masterfully led by his pronouncing sentence upon her: Harriet Smith is “‘infinitely to be preferred . . . to such a woman as Mrs. Elton’” (331). Such a woman. Intrigued by Mrs. Elton, I examined what we know about her, both before her marriage and afterward. At least in my obsession, I have refrained from following the lady to what Jane Austen called “a juster appointment hereafter” (MP 468). In my imagination, however, I have gone so far as to accompany her on a trip to North America, in my novel Mrs. Elton in America. Poor Mr. Elton gets scalped by Indians, and their son grows up to be cabinet minister to Abraham Lincoln.
Why this fascination with one of Jane Austen’s least likeable characters? Why not focus like any sensible person on Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy, or even on Emma herself? Mrs. Elton is an unusually strong and vivid character. She cannot fail to be noticed. When Mr. Elton brings her to Highbury as his bride, we find her to be a pert, conceited, socially pushy woman whom Emma immediately dislikes for her presumption and her manners, which, she concludes sententiously, “had been formed in a bad school” (272).
The first time I read Emma, I must admit I was almost tone deaf to the outrageousness of Mrs. Elton’s behavior. Time and again Emma kept on being appalled by her. Nobody liked her. The right-thinking Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston disparaged her much as Emma did. Emma may often be wrong, but their opinions are those of sensible adults. Jane Fairfax suffered Mrs. Elton’s patronage, but without seeming to really like her, and only the kindly but completely undiscriminating Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse had absolutely no criticisms to make of her at all.
What is it that Mrs. Elton does that invites such general scorn and dislike? Why does Jane Austen hold her up to such opprobrium? When she and Emma first meet, Mrs. Elton proposes that they “‘have many sweet little concerts together’” and unite to “‘establish a musical club’” (277). Emma is outraged. Mrs. Elton keeps talking, as if nervously, trying to impress Emma with her sister’s big house, Maple Grove, but Emma just keeps getting more and more disgusted at everything she says. She keeps putting her foot in it: the woman can’t say anything right. Yet it didn’t seem to me that poor Mrs. Elton was doing anything so terribly wrong—nothing so shocking according to my idea of manners. Emma’s bad opinion of the new arrival might be one of Emma’s own misjudgments, but the narrator strongly indicates that Emma’s opinions of Mrs. Elton are in fact right, “‘exactly so,’” in Mr. Elton’s phrase.
Emma was not required, by any subsequent discovery, to retract her ill opinion of Mrs. Elton. Her observation had been pretty correct. Such as Mrs. Elton appeared to her on this second interview, such she appeared whenever they met again,—self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred. (281)
That is Jane Austen telling us what she means for us to think. Yet Emma is conceited and presumptuous herself. When she and Mr. Elton are talking about Harriet’s illness, “‘[N]ot even I can charm away a sore throat,’” she says (114). Or there’s her sweeping assumption that she herself made the match between the Westons. Or there’s her early snobbish disdain of Mr. Elton: when he proposes, she thinks of him as having “the arrogance to raise his eyes to her” (135).
Emma is as snobbish and arrogant as Mrs. Elton, yet Jane Austen approves of Emma, makes her a heroine who learns and grows, while Mrs. Elton is condemned to stay just the same at the end of the book as at the beginning, obnoxious and reviled. To emphasize this unchanged and unchanging Mrs. Elton, she is given the very final speech of the entire book, a characteristically catty remark about Emma’s wedding (“‘Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!’” ). Both Emma and Mrs. Elton do some kind acts—that is, Mrs. Elton does some things that might be seen as kindnesses if Jane Austen allowed us to look at them that way. Yet Emma is shown, quite simply, as having a heart, while Mrs. Elton is not credited with such an organ. Margaret Kirkham in Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction says that Emma has “a strong power of calling forth warm affection,” quoting John Henry Newman as saying, “I feel kind to her whenever I think of her” (123). That quality, Mrs. Elton has not.
In presenting Mrs. Elton in the way she does, Jane Austen is deliberately being a “partial, prejudiced . . . Historian” (MW 138). Mrs. Elton’s misdeeds are social crimes, not actual ones, and I would argue that she does far less damage than Emma. Calling Miss Fairfax “Jane,” urging her to look for a job, and always fishing for compliments are not in the same league as trying to manipulate people’s lives, as Emma does. But Jane Austen paints Mrs. Elton darkly so that Emma might appear light. She uses the unkind word “hardened” about her, showing her as a bad influence even on her own husband: “She did not think he was quite so hardened as his wife, though growing very like her” (328). Mr. Elton, you see, does not stay the same, as Mrs. Elton does: He grows worse. Yet Emma is certainly a very bad influence on at least one other person: Harriet. It’s not just that Emma helps Harriet prepare for the evening of her life by collecting foolish riddles, but she also breaks up her unexceptionable marriage proposal and fills her head with romantic, unjustified fancies about men who are not actually in love with her at all. Emma is without a doubt a harmful influence, but these acts are seen only as youthful “womanly follies” (463), which she grows out of.
Or does she? Even after her engagement Emma says about herself, “‘I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other’” (474). This seems a joking, casual statement, but it’s quite a self-indictment. A woman who never puts up with any but the best treatment is a formidable figure. Emma is no saint, but in my view, Mrs. Elton is no sinner. So what has she done to deserve the negative authorial treatment she receives? And what does it mean that I personally feel this alarming sense of identification with her? Enough to sympathize, defend her, and study her?
The reason for this may hark back to my own hometown, New York City, from where I was transplanted. That was where I first read Emma and responded to Mrs. Elton as somebody having the quintessential New York characteristics of vigor, brashness, adventurousness, take-charge action. In fact, I see her almost as a spiritual New Yorker, a sort of Regency Bella Abzug, if you will. Mrs. Elton is a transplant. “‘Whenever you are transplanted, like me, Miss Woodhouse, you will understand how very delightful it is to meet with any thing at all like what one has left behind’” (273). She has a transplant’s personality, that of somebody who is self-made, perhaps of immigrant background, with manners not quite assimilated, a stranger in a strange land. Of course Mrs. Elton comes from Bristol.
Miss Hawkins was the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called; but, as the whole of the profits of his mercantile life appeared so very moderate, it was not unfair to guess the dignity of his line of trade had been very moderate also. Part of every winter she had been used to spend in Bath; but Bristol was her home, the very heart of Bristol. (183)
Emma, in considering Mrs. Elton’s origins, does so in an arrogant, socially superior way; we find this sneering tone in all her thoughts about Mrs. Elton. Why does she so scorn her origins? It’s a small but important detail, for we form judgments of characters based on where they live. What did it mean to Austen’s contemporary readers to know that Mrs. Elton is from Bristol? Bristol in Jane Austen’s day was a major port of the slave trade; and Emma was written only a few years after the abolition. Jane Austen was pro-abolition. Her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh tells us in his Memoir of Jane Austen that she admired the abolition writer Thomas Clarkson (107), and a letter exists written by her brother Francis Austen when he visited the island of St. Helena in 1808 and observed slavery there. It is quoted in Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers, by J. H. and E. C. Hubback: “slavery however it is modified is still slavery, and it is much to be regretted that any trace of it should be found to exist in countries dependent on England or colonized by her subjects” (192). Jane was living in this brother’s household in Southampton at about this time. She also visited Bristol herself, and liked it: “It will be two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton [Bristol], with what happy feelings of Escape!” she wrote in that same year (1 July 1808).
Jane Austen had a technique of forwarding her opinions covertly. Gabrielle White, in Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition: A Fling at the Slave Trade, holds that Austen was indeed making some subtle “flings at the slave trade” in Emma (1). Mrs. Elton’s father left her a fortune of £10,000 and presumably her sister Selina the same. Emma’s sneering view of this sum calls it “so very moderate,” but it was a fair sum in those days; Captain Wentworth is called “rich” (P 61) for having made not much more. Still, Mrs. Elton’s merchant father did not make enough to suspect him of profiting from the slave trade. Her uncle, whom Emma calls “the drudge of some attorney” (183) though without knowing anything about him, evidently isn’t rich. Mrs. Elton was in fact a tradesman’s daughter, living with, perhaps keeping house for, her lawyer uncle. Lawyers do not rank high socially in Austen. Bingley’s sisters look down on the Gardiners, John Knightley is anything but “in society,” and everyone looks down on the lawyer John Shepherd in Persuasion. But coming from a lawyer’s household, Mrs. Elton has acquired a certain type of social facility: she knows people, women who keep lodgings; she makes contacts; she’s a networker.
I think we can clear Mrs. Elton of association with slavery. But Jane Austen has subtly put it in our minds that there may be a taint of slave trade association in her past, as there is of trade itself in her background. And Mrs. Elton seems to show defensive consciousness of this stigma. In the famous passage in Emma which refers to the slave trade, Jane Fairfax says, “‘There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.’” Mrs. Elton responds, “‘Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition’” (300).
Margaret Kirkham says, “The woman whose fortune has put her in a position to play the part of a patroness is a Bristolian. No wonder she is sensitive about the slave-trade” (132). At the time Augusta was growing up in Bristol, the slave trade was still going on and would have been a vital subject of discussion. Kirkham points out that “Bristol had been dissociating itself from the slave trade.” And that is what Mrs. Elton does. No wonder she is wild to leave Bristol, and very glad indeed to marry a clergyman.
Coming from Bristol, Mrs. Elton would also have been aware of many currents of the times that utterly bypass Emma in Highbury. We may see her as uncertain, embarrassed, and therefore defensive and strident. She’s ashamed of her family’s roots and yet mouths rhetoric that she, socially precarious and pretentious, is certainly not going to follow up on. Bragging in the way people do who are ashamed of their origins, Mrs. Elton is a more complex character than she may seem when we see her merely as a comic villain.
Let us examine her social crimes, for she is accused of no other kind. Her main one is assuming the role of Jane Fairfax’s patroness. This presumption is ironically funny because Jane Fairfax doesn’t need a patroness as she’s secretly engaged and far more of a lady than Mrs. Elton. Presuming as she is, Mrs. Elton is actually doing, in a clumsy way, exactly what Emma ought to do herself. Mr. Knightley tells Emma that Jane Fairfax “‘receives attentions from Mrs. Elton, which nobody else pays her’” (286). But Mrs. Elton’s hurrying Jane “into a delightful situation against her will” (343) is the kind of thing many efficient, networking sorts of people do, perhaps to show how capable and powerful they are but also to be kind to someone powerless. Jane Fairfax is not aggressive, and Mrs. Elton is. Mrs. Elton is a woman of action. Emma hardly moves out of the shrubbery, has never seen the sea, but Mrs. Elton transplants herself and moves into a new situation across the country, sight unseen. Once there, she gamely tries to make the most of things—a very modern approach. Her trying to get Jane Fairfax a situation is officious, but at worst it is misapplied kindness, kindness that Emma herself never pays Jane Fairfax until the day she sends her some equally unwanted arrowroot.
Another supposed crime is Mrs. Elton’s cruelty to Harriet. When Harriet is left without a partner at the ball, Mrs. Elton and her husband share their glee over his snubbing her, and Mr. Knightley shows them how a gentleman ought to behave. Mrs. Elton seems petty in her unkindness to harmless young Harriet, but Mr. Knightley astutely says, “‘They aimed at wounding more than Harriet. . . . Emma, why is it that they are your enemies?’” (330). Mrs. Elton is jealous of Emma. Her own position is not secure. Emma has rejected her—and her own husband, her one stay, once wanted to marry Emma. She wants to show Emma that she has triumphed, that she now controls Mr. Elton. So yes, she’s trying to wound the powerful, important Emma. It’s equally understandable why she wants to wound Harriet, a very pretty girl who is in love with her husband. It is hardly reprehensible of Mrs. Elton to want to put an end to those feelings, to cut off her fantasies, so there never will be any trouble in that direction.
Mrs. Elton may pay attentions to Miss Fairfax which no one else will pay her, but it’s never mentioned that no one pays attentions to Mrs. Elton. Only Mr. Woodhouse has an old fashioned sense of what is right: “‘A bride, you know, my dear, is always the first in company’” (280). But Emma, the doyenne of Highbury society, gives her no warm and friendly welcome, even though she is the vicar’s new wife, with whom Emma will associate forever. How cold and how unforeseeing it is of Emma not to be a little more gracious! To me, her quickness to judge and her rejecting manners are some of the most blatant and arrogant of Emma’s youthful misjudgments though Jane Austen carefully refrains from emphasizing them. Yes, Emma should have formed a musical society with Mrs. Elton! Yes, she should have allowed her the happiness of showing how ice should be used in the Highbury card parties! But Emma was too proud and vain. Later when Mr. Knightley chastises her for being unfeeling to Miss Bates, he reminds her that there were some who “‘would be entirely guided by your treatment of her’” (375). Yes, and those same people are also led by Emma’s bad behavior to Mrs. Elton. Gentle Mrs. Weston echoes the cutting things Emma says, rather at variance with her kindly and social husband, who always wants to include Mrs. Elton, much to Emma’s chagrin.
No, I cannot dislike Mrs. Elton simply because she “has manners formed in a bad school.” That is not her fault, and I think she is doing her best by her own lights. And how is she received? With cold civility. For Mrs. Elton is different from anyone else in Highbury. She has spent more time in the great world than Emma. Emma feels threatened by the first approach of this vigorous outside force, and her instinct is to repress and squash her.
I think it’s interesting to consider that Mrs. Elton is the only person in any Jane Austen novel to actually speak out in modern fashion in favor of women’s rights. Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, defends women in argument with Captain Harville (232), but she is not speechifying; it is only Mrs. Elton who sees “standing up for women” as a daringly modern antagonistic position to take. This assertion is advanced and unexpected in a commonplace woman who is no Mary Wollstonecraft. When Mr. Weston admits to opening his wife’s letters, Mrs. Elton chaffingly criticizes him: “‘No, indeed, I shall grant you nothing. I always take the part of my own sex. I do indeed. I give you notice—You will find me a formidable antagonist on that point. I always stand up for women’” (306).
Unfortunately she finishes this ringing statement by effacing it with trivia: “‘and I assure you, if you knew how Selina feels with respect to sleeping at an inn, you would not wonder at Mrs. Churchill’s making incredible exertions to avoid it.’” This is deliberately satirical; Mrs. Elton’s fine protestations of women’s rights go for nothing. Yet the fact remains that she is the only woman in Jane Austen to make any such statements at all. Whether she sincerely believes in supporting women, is not the point. It’s that she is the only one who uses this kind of rhetoric. Where does she get it from? For Mrs. Elton is not a woman to originate an idea of her own.
In her worldly life, Augusta Hawkins clearly was exposed to ideas. Ideas, anti-abolitionist, and also feminist, were circulating in Bristol. Hannah More kept her school there, and Mary Wollstonecraft lived for a time in Bristol. The winds of change and of women’s rights may not yet have reached the stodgy backwater Highbury, but they have obviously penetrated into Mrs. Elton’s consciousness, making her a more modern woman than Emma. She does not venture to make women’s rights statements unadorned; she conceals them in all the chat about Selina’s sheets, for she is no reformer. She is just as likely to display false romantic feeling, with her beribboned basket and old chestnut poetic quotations, as feminist ideas. But the ideas are there. Janet Todd writes, in “The Anxiety of Emma,” that “Mrs. Elton, the maker of events, who has travelled from Bristol to Bath to Surrey sight unseen, is a projector in her way” (21). And, she points out, “Considering how disliked the notion of Mary Wollstonecraft was by the 1800s, it seems that any strident feminist rhetoric would have to be placed in the mouths of fools or villains” (email to author). So it’s interesting that this character, with a half-baked mishmash of new ideas in her head, is one of Jane Austen’s characters of whom the author most strongly disapproves. Does this mean Jane Austen was against women’s rights? She would have thought of them in different terms than we do, but she carefully showed instances of the inequities of woman’s lot. She used covert demonstrations, not firebrand rhetoric. The fiery speeches she leaves to be casually flaunted by a mindless character whose flaw is that she does not know how to behave.
The person who does not know how to behave, brought up in a port city of dubious morality, is an outsider, longing to be part of civilized society. Perhaps this dimension is one of the things many people look for in Jane Austen: lessons in how to behave, how to live. Through Austen’s books, we can learn how not to be a barbarian, not to be like Mrs. Elton.
From thinking about a minor character in Emma, examining the story from her point of view, cutting away Austen’s editorial perspective, we see that Mrs. Elton’s behavior is open to a more sympathetic interpretation. Thus we are enabled to see the story afresh, and gain insight into Austen’s methods of genius. Jane Austen purposely made Mrs. Elton obnoxious, to make Emma seem less obnoxious. Emma is, Jane Austen said, “a character no one but myself will much like” (Le Faye 209). How better to make her more likeable than to give her an even more dislikeable foil? Both characters possess unpleasantly controlling qualities; one amends herself, the other does not. In seeing both good growth and bad example, we can face these qualities in ourselves if we have them, as perhaps Jane Austen felt she did herself, in part. We can then reflect on whether we should try to change or not: if we want to be like bad Mrs. Elton or good Emma.
Mrs. Elton is a small study but she is a window into all of Jane Austen, and knowing a small thing well—a little bit of ivory—can teach you more about everything: the world in a grain of sand. Can this approach be taken with other characters? His Cunning or Hers by June Menzies sees Persuasion from Mrs. Clay’s point of view. Can Mansfield Park be seen from Mrs. Norris’s side of things, Northanger Abbey from General Tilney’s, Pride and Prejudice from Wickham’s, Sense and Sensibility from Lucy Steele’s? Why not? We may, as Emma says, make some discoveries.
In closing, I should remind you that the meaning of the name Augusta is Divine. Jane Austen was making a joke when she named Mrs. Elton. Remember that Octavius took the name “Augustus” to confirm his status as conqueror and emperor after the battles with Pompey and Marc Antony for imperial control. Could the titanic battle between Emma and Augusta be an ironic echo? Emma and Augusta are young women, and their Mapp and Lucia-like struggle for domination over Highbury might easily last until, say, 1860. But that speculation takes us again into the world of continuation and pastiche, a world in which I have made some discoveries, and feel most at home.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1995.
_____. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-67.
Austen-Leigh, J. E. Memoir of Jane Austen. 1871. London: Century, 1987.
Birchall, Diana. In Defense of Mrs. Elton. JASNA, 1999.
_____. Mrs. Elton in America. London: Egerton, 2004.
Hubback, J. H., and E. C. Hubback. Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. New York: Lane, 1906.
Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction. Brighton: Harvester, 1983.
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: A Family Record. 2nd ed. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
Menzies, June. His Cunning or Hers. JASNA, 1993.
Todd, Janet. “The Anxiety of Emma.” Persuasions 29 (2007): 15-25.
_____. Email to author. 24 Aug. 2007.
White, Gabrielle. Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition: A Fling at the Slave Trade. New York: Palgrave, 2006.