Friday, January 29, 2010

Reflections on Emma: "Poor Little Miss Smith"

I have always found it fascinating that Austen doesn't provide anything but the vaguest physical descriptions of her heroines, allowing us the freedom to engage in this fascinating debate over whether Emma should be depicted as a blonde or a brunette. Actually, we know a lot more about Emma's appearance than any of the other heroines, thanks to Mrs. Weston's description:
"Such an eye!—the true hazle eye—and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure! There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears sometimes of a child being 'the picture of health;' now, Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health. She is loveliness itself. Mr. Knightley, is not she?"
Still, this only gives us an idea of her appearance; other than her eye color, we are free to imagine Emma as we will. This is why it is so striking that Harriet Smith's appearance is described in rather precise detail:
She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
Of course, as Harriet has little to recommend her other than her appearance (unlike Austen's heroines who are defined by their personalities), her physicality takes on a heightened importance.

Louise Dylan cannot exactly be described as plump, but other than her figure she fits the description fairly well. Unfortunately, her portrayal of Harriet is that of an even bigger dimwit than she appears in the text. The scene in which she first dines at Hartfield is, frankly, embarrassing. The following exchange takes place when Mr. Elton enters the dinning room after all the other guest are already seated:
Mr. Elton: "Excuse me Miss Woodhouse. I have been delayed in the village on the errand of one whose business I hold in only just higher regard than yours."

Harriet: "On whose business?"

Mrs. Goddard (sotto voce): "The Almighty's."

Harriet: "God's? Oh, of course. God's business. Just a little more regard than Miss Woodhouse. Yes I see. How very civil.
And then Emma has to demonstrative for Harriet how to correctly use her spoon. Certainly table manners would have been included in Mrs. Goddard's curriculum, safely taught without any danger of turning her pupils into "prodigies". This would also have included instruction on not speaking out of turn, especially without an introduction, across the dinner table, as Harriet is here depicted doing. Also recall that Emma was "as much pleased with her manners as her person." Once again, the amount of license the directors took with the text stands as my biggest impediment to fully enjoying this adaptation.

Harriet Smith is one of the most victimized characters in all of Austen: Emma toys with her emotions like she is a doll, the Eltons go out of their way to snub her, and she is even besieged by Gypsys. In the new film, she is forced into even greater suffering by the extreme ridiculousness of the pose she is forced to hold while Emma takes her likeness (Ms. Dylan should be given credit for the incredible dexterity she displays when secreting away Mr. Elton's abandoned pencil while holding that impossible vase above her head). My point is that there is absolutely nothing threatening about Harriet Smith - she is all innocent complaisance - which is what makes Emma's insecurities so dramatic when she begins to perceive her as a menace. That the haughty Miss Woodhouse, safely ensconced at the pinnacle of Highbury society, should consider Miss Smith, grasping at the rungs of gentility, a rival perfectly demonstrates how effectively humbled Emma has become by the end of the book. Earlier she unthinkingly swats Mr. Knightly with the words: "Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you." When forced to consider the realities of such an arrangement, it becomes clear just how hasty Emma had spoken:
Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith!--It was a union to distance every wonder of the kind.--The attachment of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax became commonplace, threadbare, stale in the comparison, exciting no surprize, presenting no disparity, affording nothing to be said or thought.--Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith!--Such an elevation on her side! Such a debasement on his! It was horrible to Emma to think how it must sink him in the general opinion, to foresee the smiles, the sneers, the merriment it would prompt at his expense; the mortification and disdain of his brother, the thousand inconveniences to himself.--Could it be?--No; it was impossible. And yet it was far, very far, from impossible.
Wrapping up these meandering thoughts, my mind turns to the cinematic depiction of Harriet that most emphasizes her heightened sense of her own worth, that makes the most of the lines:
How Harriet could ever have had the presumption to raise her thoughts to Mr. Knightley!--How she could dare to fancy herself the chosen of such a man till actually assured of it!--But Harriet was less humble, had fewer scruples than formerly.--Her inferiority, whether of mind or situation, seemed little felt.
This distinction belongs to the recently deceased Brittany Murphy, who played Tai in the modern adaptation of Emma from 1995, Clueless. Regardless of your feelings for this film (some people think it's the best Emma ever while others consider it a travesty), Brittany Murphy was a talented actress who met a tragic death, the result of her own capitulation to the outrageous physical expectations our society has for women. Like Harriet, she would have been happiest being who she was born to be - the "short, plump" brunette with "a great look of sweetness" that I first became entranced with in films like The Devil's Arithmetic and Drop Dead Gorgeous. She was only a year older than I am, on the cusp of what is proving to be the most exciting phase of life. She will be sorely missed.


  1. While I agree with the fact that Harriet Smith would have learned basic table etiquette at Mrs. Goddard's, I think that particular scene is the fault of either the director or possibly the screenwriter (although I can't believe Sandy Welch would have written that moment). Nevertheless I understand why they included it. Just look how Emma revels while she teaches Miss Smith how the use her spoon correctly!

    I like Louise Dylan's portrayal of Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton's is still my favorite though). I like how they both show Harriet as gentle and sweet, but not stupid, she's just a little slow, and indecisive but she's still young and I do believe that Robert Martin may improve her mind.

  2. Hi Katherine. I definitely blame the scene on direction/screen writing and understand what you're saying about Emma reveling in her mentorship. Nonetheless, I feel they could have expressed this in a manner that didn't make me want to bury my head in the couch.

    Louise Dylan isn't a bad Harriet, but my favorite will always be Debbie Bowen from the '72 version. I should have said something in this post about the impressive dexterity Ms. Dylan displays when she slips Mr. Elton's pencil into her pocket while holding that ridiculous pose for Emma to paint. I think I'll go back and see if I can't slip it in.

  3. i like this point about harriet. and too, miss bates is described well in the original book. not ditzy like in the emma '96 with gwyneth paltrow.

  4. See, I thought Louis Dylan played the "not the brightest" bits without overdoing it, as I felt the others Harriets (much as I love Samantha Morton) did.

    However, as I felt that only Mrs. Elton made any part of the 1972 Emma even slightly more than a 5 hour nap, I have to disagree about Harriet in that version. But then, they deliberately made Emma a neurotic, so I naturally don't like most of that film.

  5. Oh! I forgot about Debbie Bowen! Yes, she did a lovely performance too!

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    vvb32 - It always bothers me when Austen's characters are turned into caricatures. As the new Emma progresses, Louise Dylan become more real, but this first scene with her really does irritate me.

    ibmiller - I've heard you say this about the director's (or was it the screen writer's?) odd psychological interpretation of Emma, but I'm still not convinced it really comes through in the film. I just rewatched '72 relatively recently and continue to really enjoy it.

    Katherine - I just love the huge grin of happiness Debbie Bowen has as she says "Yes Miss Woodhouse" when first being honored with her favors. That's my idea of Harriet Smith.