Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Not What You Would Think Anything Of": Robert Martin and Harriet Smith

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Not What You Would Think Anything Of": Robert Martin and Harriet Smith

Article excerpt

PERHAPS AS MUCH AS Northanger Abbey, Emma is about reading. The heroine herself has made what Mr. Knightley terms '"very good lists'" of books, though among his early criticism is that Emma has never read what she ought--or even what she's planned (37). With Harriet, Emma has collected enough riddles to fill a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper; she seems to have read Madame de Genlis's Adelaide and Theodore (503); she quotes from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and has at least a passing familiarity with the kind of notes provided in the many editions of Shakespeare available to contemporary readers (80); she misquotes Romeo arid Juliet or, as Patrick McGraw has recently shown, aptly quotes an essay from The Rambler that has adapted Shakespeare's line (436); and, as indicated by her playful response to Mr. Knightley's request that she call him '"George,"' she has studied at least the marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer (505). As Mr. Knightley's criticism suggests, the extent of one's reading is a marker of intellectual discipline. But it's also, for Emma, a standard by which to determine culture and status--and that's a mode of valuation she appears to have passed to Harriet.

As Emma realizes that young Mr. Martin is not married, her questions to Harriet "increase[] in number and meaning" (27). Harriet talks about "moonlight walks and merry evening games," Mr. Martin's temper and obliging qualities, his cleverness, his success with his wool (27). Emma's first judgment spoken in both Harriet's and the reader's hearing defines Robert Martin in terms of reading: '"Mr. Martin, I suppose, is not a man of information beyond the line of his own business. He does not read?'" (28). The opening assertion, as the "I suppose" suggests, is the product of Emma's imagination. What follows, despite its punctuation, is not a question but a declaration thinly disguised. And Harriet's immediate response is a jumble of defense and compliance:

"Oh, yes!--that is, no--I do not know--but I believe he has read a good deal--but not what you would think any thing of. He reads the Agricultural Reports and some other books, that lay in one of the window seats--but he reads all them to himself. But sometimes of an evening, before we went to cards, he would read something aloud out of the Elegant Extracts--very entertaining. And I know he has read the Vicar of Wakefield. He never read the Romance of the Forest, nor the Children of the Abbey. He had never heard of such books before I mentioned them, but he is determined to get them now as soon as ever he can." (28)

This description provides a history and a program of reading for another character '"meaning to read more'" (37)--this one for different motives. Emma inquires about Robert Martin's looks, remarks on the social status of the yeomanry, determines that his age makes him '"too young to settle'" (29), and puts his future wife--'"probably ... some mere farmer's daughter, without education'" (30)--securely in her place. When "the very next clay" he appears on the Donwell road, Emma "soon [makes] her quick eye sufficiently acquainted with Mr. Robert Martin" (31) to define him as "clownish"' and project his destiny as '"a completely gross, vulgar farmer--totally inattentive to appearances, and thinking of nothing but profit and loss'" (32, 33).

These pages set the plot developments in motion: Emma's serial plans for Harriet; Emma's mistaken readings of Mr. Elton's, Frank Churchill's, and Mr. Knightley's intentions; Emma's discovery that "Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself" (444). My point here (which, I'm afraid, is not coming with the speed of an arrow) is that the question about reading practices and the book list that Harriet provides establish a way of thinking about these particular characters and also suggest ways for us to think about the novel as a whole.

Harriet's picture of Abbey-Mill Farm suggests the scope of Robert Martin's reading life: the Agricultural Reports and other books, presumably about farming, lying conveniently in the window seat, that he reads to himself; the Elegant Extracts, a set of anthologies of poetry and prose from which he reads aloud to the family; and The Vicar of Wakefield, one of the most celebrated novels of the day. …

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