Impropriety by the Seaside III

July 27, 2007 § 2 Comments

Weymouth

“Very lucky–marrying as they did, upon an acquaintance formed only in a public place!–They only knew each other, I think, a few weeks in Bath! Peculiarly lucky!– for as to any real knowledge of a person’s disposition that Bath, or any public place, can give–it is all nothing; there can be no knowledge.”

What is Frank Churchill doing in Emma (1816) when he makes this statement at the Box Hill Picnic, ridiculing the Eltons, whom this speech was about, with disdain? Carrying on the campaign of deceit in Highbury to hide his secret engagement with Jane Fairfax, which had also been formed on a few weeks’ acquaintance in a public watering place – Weymouth – and attempting to share a private joke about it? Trifling with the affections of Jane Fairfax by insinuating that he might have tired of their engagement? He is doing all of these and giving voice to an opinion commonly held at the time; that acquaintances, let alone engagements, formed in watering places were carelessly formed, unsuitable, indiscreet and even unprincipled.

Knightley holds this opinion himself and expresses it in his succinct history of their engagement:

“He meets with a young woman at a watering-place, gains her affection, cannot even weary her by negligent treatment–and had he and all his family sought round the world for a perfect wife for him, they could not have found her superior.”

The fact being of course that at watering places such as Bath and Weymouth, unscrupulous men were far more likely to be snared by Isabella Thorpes and Lydia Bennets than be fortunate enough to gain the heart and hand of an incomparably superior Jane Fairfax. Interestingly, its Frank Churchill’s impropriety that is more closely associated with seaside Weymouth than Jane Fairfax’s. Even before he enters the storyline himself, he is depicted by Knightley as at his leisure in ‘the idlest haunts in the kingdom’ and ‘forever at some watering-place or other’ when it was his duty instead to visit his newly wedded father and stepmother in Highbury, though he had claimed to not be at liberty to do so. It is Weymouth furthermore that Emma envisions as the setting for feelings she imagines Jane Fairfax to have for Mr Dixon, a fantasy Frank Churchill encourages her in, pretending to speculate about illicit feelings between his own fiancé and Mr Dixon, a married man; an unfeeling ruse designed to defer any possible suspicions away from himself.

It was unseemly undoubtedly of Jane Fairfax to agree to an engagement, and a clandestine one at that, with a man who’s guardians it’s known as a certainty will object to her poverty despite her excellent character and real attachment to their kinsman. The treatment she receives from Frank Churchill and Emma however, the irksomeness of Mrs Elton’s attentions and the tediousness of Miss Bates’, and the very uncomfortable notion that such a woman as Jane Fairfax should have to waste her life as a governess, more than makes up for losing her head by the seaside, no? On the topic of Mrs Elton, Austen so easily hints at the depth and root of that lady’s vulgarity and lack of propriety by deliciously allowing her so many aspirational referals to her Bristol and Bath connections.

Osmington Bay circa1816 John Constable

Austen visited the seaside many times, and at many different spots, during her life, and impropriety by the seaside was on it’s way theme-ing itself into an entire novel but Austen’s last illness and her sad early death left her novel of a seaside town, entitled Sanditon (1817) unfinished.

The Sanditon fragment may be read here at the University of Virginia Library website.

Conclusion

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