|C.E. Brock's illustration for Emma - mollands.net
Even at this time, Austen cannot be far from my thoughts. I am reading (slowly) the newly released Annotated Sense and Sensibility by David M. Shapard, whose work I adore, and my thoughts inevitably drift to those Austen novels where babies play a role. Most prominently, I keep pondering that scene at the end of Emma in which the Woodhouses meet Frank Churchill upon visiting little Ana Weston. It suddenly strikes me in a manner it never has before, and I wonder if Austen set it up this way on purpose. As you will recall, Mr. Churchill gives a speech in which he praises Jane Fairfax's previously disparaged complexion to Emma, all while the "others had been talking of the child". He says: "Did you ever see such a skin?--such smoothness! such delicacy!--and yet without being actually fair.--One cannot call her fair. It is a most uncommon complexion, with her dark eye-lashes and hair--a most distinguishing complexion!" As I have spent the better part of my time staring at a newborn lately, I must marvel that anyone could make such a statement with a baby in the room, an immediate example of far better skin, with greater smoothness and delicacy than any lady, no matter how beautiful, can ever hope to possess. Is this is yet another intentional example of Mr. Churchill's extreme egocentricity, or could Austen's childless state have possibly rendered her oblivious to the irony of these lines? I certainly prefer the former explanation to the latter, especially as Austen was certainly no stranger to the charms an infant possesses. Her familiarity with the concerns and cares of the new parent are made abundantly clear later in this scene when Mrs. Weston relates her alarm over the baby's health and having considered calling in Perry for consultation:
She believed she had been foolish, but it had alarmed her, and she had been within half a minute of sending for Mr. Perry. Perhaps she ought to be ashamed, but Mr. Weston had been almost as uneasy as herself.--In ten minutes, however, the child had been perfectly well again. This was her history; and particularly interesting it was to Mr. Woodhouse, who commended her very much for thinking of sending for Perry, and only regretted that she had not done it. "She should always send for Perry, if the child appeared in the slightest degree disordered, were it only for a moment. She could not be too soon alarmed, nor send for Perry too often. It was a pity, perhaps, that he had not come last night; for, though the child seemed well now, very well considering, it would probably have been better if Perry had seen it."Yes, this is a great opportunity to once again laugh at Mr. Woodhouse's hypochondria, as well as the paranoia of the new parent, just as Austen has poked fun at Isabella Knightley's motherly concerns throughout the novel, but only familiarity with the realities confronting new parents could have allowed Austen to leverage her wit so effectively on this subject. In fact, Austen was so well acquainted with the less pleasant realities of child rearing that she seemed to find great satisfaction in not having to take such cares upon herself. She certainly attributes such feelings, or rationalizations, to Emma, as in this explanation to Harriet Smith regarding her feelings on marriage:
"And as for objects of interest, objects for the affections, which is in truth the great point of inferiority, the want of which is really the great evil to be avoided in not marrying, I shall be very well off, with all the children of a sister I love so much, to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need. There will be enough for every hope and every fear; and though my attachment to none can equal that of a parent, it suits my ideas of comfort better than what is warmer and blinder. My nephews and nieces!—I shall often have a niece with me."Undeniably, such an arrangement would be more comfortable, but could Austen have experienced such warmer and blinder sensations she certainly would have adapted herself to them, just as Emma surely will upon her marriage to Mr. Knightley. Little of my experiences in these two weeks of parenthood can be described as comfortable, but never have I embraced discomfort so willingly, nor has it ever been more felicitous.
Such are my musings as we approach my daughter's two week birthday. I'm sure there are many more to come. Poor little girl! To be so quickly subjected of my Austen obsessions.