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The Good, The Bad, and the Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen (Part 2)

"But there was no doing anything with Mr ...

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I meant to reveal my nomination for the worst proposal in Austen today, but I am sidetracked because I forgot to present the runner-up for funniest proposal:

In a very honorable second place:

Mr. Elton to Emma Woodhouse in Emma.

I thought about categorizing this as a bad proposal. But the proposal itself is not bad. It earns perhaps a 6.5 out of 10 on both artistry and technical merit.  Mr. Elton says some sweet ( if exaggerated) things. As you will recall, Mr. Elton has finagled a private carriage for himself and Emma on the way home from a Christmas party.  He is “hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him.”  He seizes her hand, calls
her charming, tells her he has thought of no one else for weeks.

Indeed, there’s only one thing wrong with this very fine specimen of a marriage proposal:

He’s proposing to the wrong woman.

As with Mr. Collins, it is Austen’s setup in the chapters leading up to this scene that makes the proposal so tragically funny. Emma has been trying to set Mr. Elton up with her friend, Harriet Smith.  Only here in the carriage does Austen reveal how her characters interpreted and misinterpreted the situation.  I think those who imagine Jane Austen as a detective (as seen in some spin-offs) are not so far off:   Tiny hints planted earlier are revealed and explained here in a new light, rather like the payoff in Agatha Christie.  Mr. Elton was praising Emma’s drawing, not Harriet as her subject.  His charade (riddle) about courtship might have been added to Harriet’s collection, it was Emma who asked him for a submission and it was for Emma he intended the hint.  The proposal reveals a good deal about character and twists the plot in a whole new direction, all in the  ¾ mile ride from Randalls to Hartfield.  Austen is, as ever, economic.

And funny.  Emma mistakes Mr. Elton’s first professions as inspired by too much Christmas wine.  And Elton, taking a page from Mr. Collins, is a hard suitor to unsuit.  Even after Emma assures him he is utterly mistaken in her feelings, as she sits in shocked silence, he takes another stab at matrimony:

“Two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton’s sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, as he joyously exclaimed: ‘Charming Miss Woodhouse!  Allow me to interpret this interesting silence.  It confesses that you have long understood me.’”

Ah, yet again the brilliance of Austen.  Pairing together just the right words.  Interesting silence.  Two words strung together, if they are exactly the right words, speak volumes. If only I could learn to edit myself like Austen!

So are there any lessons the Christian reader can take from this scene?  Certainly.

  1. Things are not always as they appear.
  2. The successful matchmakers in scripture tend to be older than those whose lives they are arranging.  Naomi did a pretty good job with Ruth and Boaz. Lots of useful man-catching hints about the use of perfume, good clothing, and gleaning.  But if you are in the same age group as your victims – er – the lucky recipients of your interference, you may be mistaken for a primary player instead of a Yenta. Matchmaking, as we see in Sense and Sensibility, is an old woman’s game.
  3. Don’t make important life decisions after nipping at the Christmas wine. Even if your judgment is not impaired, people might assume it is.

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