Persuasions #7, 1985 Pages 14-15
“The word was blunder”: Who was Harriet Smith’s Mother?
More than one critic has noted that Emma may be read as a mystery story, pure and simple. Hints, deftly woven into the fabric of the novel, can easily pass unnoticed, so that each re-reading yields one more delighted, “Of course—why did I never notice that before?”
And yet, in 170 years’ study of the book, no one has ever caught the clue, mischievously left in plain sight by Jane Austen, to the identity of Harriet Smith’s mother.
Perhaps modern readers miss it because they forget the conventions governing the naming of daughters in Jane Austen’s world. The first girl was properly named for the mother; thus Jane’s older sister bore the name of Cassandra, and their cousin Jane Cooper was named for her mother, Mrs. Austen’s sister Jane Leigh.
As Jane Austen’s novels move away from the early burlesques, we find the convention more and more strictly observed. Miss Frances Ward becomes the mother of Fanny Price, and Miss Maria Ward’s first daughter is Maria Bertram. Lady Elizabeth Elliot, dead before Persuasion opens, has given her own name to her oldest daughter, and Jane Bates has left Jane Fairfax. Isabella Woodhouse’s oldest daughter is Bella, and poor Miss Taylor that was, referred to as Anne or Anna, names her infant, Anna Weston.
Lady Susan follows the rule, for her daughter Frederica bears the middle name of Susanna. Even an illegitimate child carries her mother’s name, witness Colonel Brandon’s lost love, his cousin Eliza Williams, whose daughter Eliza is eventually seduced and abandoned by Willoughby.
Which brings us to the only bastard with whom we are personally acquainted, innocent, blooming, Harriet Smith, the natural daughter of somebody.
It should be noted first that Jane Austen has no objection to using and re-using the same Christian names, including her own, in her stories. Thus, we know Elizabeth Bennet, and in other novels Elizabeth Martin, Elizabeth Elliot, Elizabeth Watson. Besides Anne Elliot, we know Anne Steele, Anna Weston, and even an Anne Thorpe. Mary Crawford, Mary Musgrove and Mary Bennet never meet, however, because they live in different books. Neither do Charlotte Lucas or Charlotte Heywood, Emma Woodhouse or Emma Watson.
Clearly, repetition of the same name within a novel is intended to signify mother and daughter.
And when Emma Woodhouse pays her penitent call on the Bateses, to find all in disarray, worthy old Mrs. Bates flutters about and, “…I hope you find a chair. I wish Hetty had not gone,” she says.
Why does Jane Austen take the trouble to name Miss Bates for us? And is that name a diminutive for Harriet?
The chronology, carefully constructed as always by Jane Austen, easily allows for a visit by the secretly pregnant Miss Bates to her dying sister, for Jane Fairfax was three years old when her mother died, and is not quite three years older than Harriet Smith. The child is born far from Highbury, and Lt. Fairfax’s widow, the only witness, dies soon after. And as old Mrs. Bates complains, nobody tells her anything.
We are never told about Harriet Smith’s infancy, but she was undoubtedly placed, like the Austen children themselves, with a country nurse who kept her until she was old enough to attend the establishment of the Bates’s friend, Mrs. Goddard. Miss Bates, whose warm heart and undemanding intellect resemble those of Mrs. Goddard—and of Harriet Smith herself—could keep a contented eye on the child without raising any comment, while maternal feelings found an outlet in the Fairfax child who became her “fondling.”
Jane Fairfax would have been too young to understand the significance of the infant—if indeed she ever saw it. In any event, Jane’s discretion is well established. If we assume she knew the parlour boarder at Mrs. Goddard’s was indeed her cousin, we have iron-clad confirmation of the relationship.
Many a scholar has argued, from a complete lack of evidence, that “such universal silence on the matter clearly strengthens my thesis.” And mannerly Jane Fairfax, who knows so well how to keep a secret, never once speaks a single word to Harriet Smith.
Of course, as Frank Churchill reminds us, sometimes one conjectures right and sometimes one conjectures wrong. There is always the distinct possibility that “Hetty” was meant as a diminutive for “Henrietta.”
Enough. As Emma says reassuringly (and not quite convincingly), it is “all in a joke…a mere joke among ourselves."