Potkay, "Leaving Box Hill: Emma and Theatricality"

Re-reading Box Hill: reading the practice of reading everyday life

Leaving Box Hill: Emma and Theatricality1

Adam Potkay, College of William and Mary

  1. As volume 3, chapter 7 of Emma and its "very fine day for Box Hill" both draw to a close, Emma takes a carriage ride home that removes her, literally and allegorically, from the novel's central scene of theatrical display. Emma leaves Box Hill and all that it represents. That she never gets very far from it, however, Austen makes clear at the outset of volume 3, chapter 8. In involving her heroine in both outward display and inwardness, Austen engages a central topos of what I take to be Romantic writing—its ongoing dialectic of the external and the internal, the eye and the I. "Radicalized," as de Man and de Manians liked to say, these oppositions may reduce to the representable and the unrepresentable, mimesis and the opacity of language; yet it seems with hindsight that deconstruction served but to put a spin on the story already told by Hartman and Abrams when they wrote of Wordsworth's poetry or, as its extension, Romantic literature.

  2. In volume 3, chapter 7 of Emma, Austen situates the dialectic of outer and inner between Hill and carriage or, generically—as the Hill like the theatre has its "Box" seats—between drama and the Christian conversion story. Theatricality, along with sociability itself, is banished at the end of chapter 7, when Emma is vexed into silent meditation; a somewhat chastened theatricality returns, however, in the very next chapter. While we might call this narrative trajectory Austen's Romanticism, we ought to note its signal debt to works by her two favorite moral writers of the eighteenth century—who were, according to her brother Henry, "Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse." For Emma, in the Box Hill episode and its immediate aftermath, veers between the interiority Cowper praised, and the inevitable posturing that Johnson, in Rasselas, gently exposed. A deep distress humanizes Emma's soul, showing her—and, in some reflective way, us—that at least some portion of the truth lies within. Austen, however, is as eager to curb excessive inwardness as she is to censure thoughtless play-acting; for we are, in part, what we are beheld to be.

  3. Before turning to a close reading of the Box Hill episode, I'd like briefly to address the roots of Austen's Romanticism—the road, as it were, to Box Hill. Austen would have found the song of the interior self, among other places, in William Cowper's The Task (1785). According to some of Cowper's more programmatic lines:

    He that attends to his interior self,
    That has a heart, and keeps it; has a mind
    That hungers, and supplies it; and who seeks
    A social, not a dissipated life,
    Has business; feels himself engag'd t'atchieve
    No unimportant, though a silent task. (3.373-38)
  4. For Cowper, interiority, while not incompatible with a chastened sociability, clearly takes precedence over it; indeed, the social life Cowper invokes seems forsaken once his sentence culminates in "a silent task." The credo of these lines is one that Cowper held in common with many other evangelical Christians of the later eighteenth century. More distinctive, and in retrospect more distinctively Romantic, are the lines of Cowper's from which Austen will quote, conspicuously, in Emma. They involve a description of staring at a fireplace on a winter evening:

    I am conscious, and confess
    Fearless, a soul that does not always think.
    Me oft has fancy ludicrous and wild Sooth'd with a waking dream of houses, tow'rs,
    Trees, churches, and strange visages express'd
    In the red cinders, while with poring eye
    I gaz'd, myself creating what I saw.
    Nor less amus'd have I quiescent watch'd
    The sooty films that play upon the bars,
    Pendulous, and foreboding, in the view
    Of superstition, prophesying still
    Though still deceiv'd, some stranger's near approach. (4.284-95)
    The individual mind creates or, properly speaking, half-creates the wondrous world it sees—note that strange visages here appear in familiar cinders, superstitious beliefs play on real soot. Cowper's aperçu, elaborating on a line of Edward Young's Night Thoughts (6.424), will of course become a banner for Blake, Wordsworth, and especially Coleridge.
  5. What does Cowper's musing on his own musing mean to Austen—or, at least, to the narrator of Emma? Cowper's lines, conjured within a passage of Austen's free indirect discourse, may attach either to the narrator (in a sly aside?) or to the train of Mr. Knightley's thoughts, or to both. In any event, they appear, in context, to be vindicated:

    Mr. Knightley, who, for some reason best known to himself, had certainly taken an early dislike to Frank Churchill, was only growing to dislike him more. He began to suspect him of some double dealing in his pursuit of Emma. That Emma was his object appeared indisputable. [. . .] But while so many were devoting him to Emma, and Emma herself making him over to Harriet, Mr. Knightley began to suspect him of some inclination to trifle with Jane Fairfax. He could not understand it; but there were symptoms of intelligence between them—he thought so at least—symptoms of admiration on his side, which, having been once observed, he could not persuade himself to think entirely devoid of meaning, however much he wished to escape any of Emma's errors of imagination. She was not present when the suspicion first arose. He was dining with the Randalls' family, and Jane, at the Eltons'; and he had seen a look, more than a single look, at Miss Fairfax, which, from the admirer of Miss Woodhouse, seemed somewhat out of place. When he was again in their company, he could not help remembering what he had seen; nor could he avoid observations which, unless it were like Cowper and his fire at twilight, "Myself creating what I saw," brought him yet stronger suspicion of there being a something of private liking, of private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane. (III.iv, 309-10)
    Conscious of Cowper's lines, Knightley—or the reader of Emma—is aware of the creative imagination as well as his drive to get the facts straight. As it eventually turns out, Knightley is right in seeing intimacy in Frank's glances at Jane Fairfax. But he is also right to note that his perception is not without the color of a wish fulfilled. Knightley resents Frank as a possible rival for Emma's affections—this is the "reason best known to himself" for disliking Frank from the start. Frank's casting his eyes elsewhere cannot but gratify Knightley, who, despite his turning the necessary dialectic of perception into a conundrum, knows this all too well. Indeed, in his case, the eye sees what the heart knows.
  6. Let us proceed to look at Emma's turn toward understanding her own heart—which in her case lies in a turn away from understanding life as only a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In evangelical—and, I will argue, Wordsworthian—fashion, the inward turn away from a dissipated life hinges on a moment of profound vexation. Emma had begun: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her" (I.i, 3). The Box Hill episode veers Emma away from "seeming," uncovering the terrible importance of being vexed.

  7. The picnic at Box Hill begins propitiously—or so hopes Emma, or the reader who attends wholly to outward circumstances, the stage scenery of life. "They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party" (III.vii, 331). Yet this view from a Martha Stewart magazine does not suffice: "There was a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over" (III.vii, 332). For Emma, the chief disappointment at first is that Frank fails to perform: "She had never seen Frank Churchill so silent and stupid. He said nothing worth hearing—looked without seeing—admired without intelligence—listened without knowing what she said." To Emma, who thinks only of social roles, Frank's abstraction is inexplicable; it is, indeed, not abstraction, but performing badly.

  8. Hence her relief when he resumes his guise: "When they all sat down it was better, for Frank Churchill grew talkative and gay, making her his first object. Every distinguishing attention that could be paid, was paid to her. To amuse her, and be agreeable in her eyes, seemed all that he cared for [. . .]" (III.vii, 332). Emma, although still not stirred to "any real felicity," seems contented with Frank's show. There follow thirteen volleys of wit, in dialogue form, between Emma and Frank—Frank, in command even as he professes being wholly "under [Emma's] command," begins and ends the exchange (III.vii, 333). (As will become clear later in the novel, his command of the course of these dialogues is framed by his broader scheme of theatrical diversion from his "real" situation with Jane Fairfax, a relationship made sensitive by being the one thing that depends on material circumstances beyond Frank's control.) Emma's narrator intrudes on their repartee only three times, in short stage directives that underscore the scene's mounting sense of theatrical self-consciousness:

    "Your gallantry is really unanswerable. But (lowering her voice)—nobody speaks except ourselves, and it is rather too much to be talking nonsense for the entertainment of seven silent people."

    "I say nothing of which I am ashamed," replied he, with lively impudence. "I saw you first in February. Let every body on the Hill hear me if they can. Let my accents swell to Mickleham on one side, and Dorking on the other. I saw you first in February." And then whispering—"Our companions are excessively stupid. What shall we do to rouse them? Any nonsense will serve. They shall talk. Ladies and gentlemen, I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse (who, wherever she is, presides,) to say, that she desires to know what you are all thinking of." (III.vii, 333-34)
  9. Mr. Knightley challenges Emma on this last point: "Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear what we are all thinking?" (III.vii, 334). Does she, that is, really want to descend from her theatrical elevation to the level of serious and perhaps mundane sentiment? Does she recognize how drunk she's grown on display? Is she ready for the inevitable hangover of a thinking being? Or perhaps Knightley's query recalls Cowper on the absences of thought: "I am conscious, and confess / Fearless, a soul that does not always think." In any event, Emma clarifies with good comic timing that snappy dialogue is all she desires: "Let me hear any thing rather than what you are all thinking of" (III.vii, 334).

  10. Frank then proceeds to elaborate: "Ladies and gentlemen— I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse to say, that she waves her right of knowing exactly what you may all be thinking of, and only requires something very entertaining from each of you, in a general way." All are called upon to offer "one thing very clever [. . .]—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed." The first reply comes, as it were, from the Box—the Box being, in Johnson's definition, "the seats in the playhouse, where the ladies are placed":

    "Oh! very well," exclaimed Miss Bates, "then I need not be uneasy. 'Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I?—(looking around with the most good-humoured dependence on every body's assent)—Do not you all think I shall?"

    Emma could not resist.

    "Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number— only three at once."

    Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her. (III.vii, 335)
  11. Emma here confounds the proper boundary between the stage on which she performs and the box which holds beings who do not always perform. Her most polished riposte—the perfection of the scene's theatrical mode—collapses with the recognition, offered us here by the narrator, that life is not all stage. The butt does not live solely for the jest. Things deemed uncomprehending or insensate have feelings like ours, perhaps more exquisite than ours. Miss Bates here differs more in degree than in kind from Wordsworth's scarcely yet poignantly human characters, Betty Foy's Idiot Boy or the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor. And Emma here resembles, to her great disadvantage, the "strutting and vap'ring" satirist deplored by Cowper (2.330), or worse, Wordsworth's dread Infant Prodigy: "Arch are his notices, and nice his sense/ Of the ridiculous" (Prelude [1805] 5.307-8).

  12. After Miss Bates's embarrassment, one more moderately clever thing is heard from the box, no one besides Knightley appearing to notice the indecency of the game's continuance. The stage show eventually ends for want of energy, not for any access of moral clarity. But later, as the party breaks up, Knightley confronts Emma, who is standing by herself, with her moral fault:

    "Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible."

    Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.

    "Nay, how could I help saying what I did? — Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me."

    "I assure you she did. She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it—with what candour and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honouring your forbearance, in being able to pay her such attentions, as she was for ever receiving from yourself and your father, when her society must be so irksome." (III.vii, 339)
    Knightley proceeds to enumerate Miss Bates's misfortunes: "She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!" (III.vii, 339). He concludes with the assurance that in rebuking her, he seeks not his own pleasure or her displeasure, but rather her moral reformation: "I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now" (III.vii, 340).
  13. There quickly follows what looks like the start of Emma's reformation. Emma, unpropped, enters the carriage that will take her away from Box Hill. The narrator evokes her interiority with a rush of thinking, beginning: "She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal" (III.vii, 340). Her thoughts may lie too deep for expression here, but she is not yet wholly out of the theatre: the inexpressible is still that which can be concealed. Nonetheless, Emma is, like Wordsworth in the preamble to The Prelude, vexed by the energies that lie between response and expression. In so vexing Emma—a vexation now seen to have been prophesied in Emma's opening sentence—Austen evokes (unintentionally, of course) Wordsworth's special sense of what it means to be vexed. For Wordsworth, "vexing" crosses the boundaries between physical commotion and mental flurry, and between things as they are and things as they could be recreated. It's well known that the breeze that opens The Prelude calls forth "a corresponding mild creative breeze" in Wordsworth; what we tend to forget is that this mild breeze "is become/ A tempest, a redundant energy, / Vexing its own creation" (1805, ll.43-47). This vexation, "breaking up a long continued frost, / Brings with it vernal promises, the hope/ Of active days, of dignity and thought [. . .]" (ll.49-51)[2]. Is Emma promised any less for her vexation?

  14. The subsequent course of her emotions suggests no less than broken frost and vernal promise, body blossoming into thought: "Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart." Emma's inner experience is limned with subtle mastery: she at first "feels," without a (conscious) object of feeling; she is, like a purely passive body, agitated and struck. Only then does thought, in the recognition of truthful representation, dawn upon her: "she felt it." "As she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more. She never had been so depressed. Happily it was not necessary to speak" (III.vii, 340).

  15. Presumably it is not necessary for Emma to speak because there is no one there with whom to speak. The reader certainly hasn't heard of anyone else's entry into Emma's carriage, and Emma has by now been in her carriage for the space of one long and very agitated paragraph. But then we learn, "There was only Harriet, who seemed not in spirits herself, fagged, and very willing to be silent; and Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were" (III.vii, 340-41).

  16. Why introduce Harriet here, somewhat surprisingly, in the very last sentence of the chapter? Why this complication of our intimacy with Emma's thoughts? Perhaps Harriet's body, distracted and silent, is here to remind us of how far we've traveled from Emma's earlier annoyance, at Box Hill, with an unresponsive audience—"seven silent people," every distracted "body on the Hill." Harriet's attenuated presence helps us better appreciate Emma's new inwardness. Harriet is there, but not there; Emma's tears, the object of her thought objectified, are not shed for effect, certainly not to affect any other character in the novel.

  17. Emma has attained that blindness to the external world that is the necessary prelude to insight, and to rejoining that world with deeper imaginative vision. This story goes back, of course, to Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus: "suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth [. . .] and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man.... And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink" (Acts 9:3-9). Paul's story became a template for the narratives of conscious conversion promulgated by eighteenth-century evangelicals, especially those written under the auspices of the Methodist movement[3]. Paul and those who re-write (or re-live) his tale gain new vision after their blindness—the scales, so to speak, fall from their eyes (Acts 9:18). In a similar manner, the once-blinded Emma will have her own revelation: "It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself! [. . .] She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before" (III.xi, 370). Emma's new eyes are emotional, erotic, and not a little conscious of social rank. Yet Austen discreetly hints that Emma has also experienced something of a divine awakening. Pondering whether Knightley might not actually stoop to marry the lowly Harriet Smith, Emma generalizes: "Was it new for any thing in this world to be unequal, inconsistent, incongruous—or for chance and circumstance (as second causes) to direct the human fate?" (III.xi, 375). The parenthetical remark, "as second causes"—secondary, of course, to providential order—may well be the most subtle sign of the eyes of faith ever inscribed.

  18. Alternatively, it might be literature's most perfunctory nod to religious orthodoxy. With Austen it's hard to tell. The core of her genius is precisely this fine give and take between decorum and irony, between muted pathos and gentle bathos. The parenthetical phrase "as second causes," I would suggest, oscillates between these poles. So too does the description of the immediate aftermath of the Box Hill outing. Having arrived back at her home:

    The wretchedness of a scheme to Box Hill was in Emma's thoughts all the evening. [. . .] In the warmth of true contrition, she would call upon her [Miss Bates] the very next morning, and it should be the beginning, on her side, of a regular, equal, kindly intercourse.

    She was just as determined when the morrow came, and went early, that nothing might prevent her. It was not unlikely, she thought, that she might see Mr. Knightley in her way; or, perhaps, he might come in while she were paying her visit. She had no objection. She would not be ashamed of the appearance of the penitence, so justly and truly hers. Her eyes were towards Donwell as she walked, but she saw him not. (III.viii, 341-42)
    Do the sentences that trace Emma's walk to Miss Bates's house do so with marmoreal restraint, or with gentle irony? "She had no," "She would not": one imagines Emma quite self-consciously holding her head high. Is there pathos or bathos in the paragraph's final flourish of inversion: "she saw him not"? It flattens Austen's art to think of these choices as mutually exclusive.
  19. Emma is contrite—but Emma takes pride in the thought of appearing contrite in the eyes of her ideal spectator (who looks a lot like Mr. Knightley). She is penitent, but posturing. She regrets Box Hill, but has not wholly left its stage behind. And, finally, how could she wholly leave it? Theatricality in some moderated form is instrumental to sociability itself, and sociability is, for Emma as for the novel form, constitutive. "Her eyes were towards Donwell," and her eyes still see more than her heart knows.

  20. In a general way, Emma's morning after draws upon and refines the already wan humor found in Johnson's Rasselas. Prince Rasselas's first moment of inwardness in the Happy Valley, an eloquent plaint on the hunger of the imagination which distinguishes thinking things from beasts, is promptly followed by the narrator's aside: "With observations like these the prince amused himself as he returned, uttering them with a plaintive voice, yet with a look that discovered him to feel some complacence in his own perspicacity, and to receive some solace of the miseries of life, from consciousness of the delicacy with which he felt, and the eloquence with which he bewailed them" (Chapter 2). Relative to the satiric vein of earlier English writers—or of Emma in her ridicule of Miss Bates—Johnson's archness here is refined, his irony generous. Austen would cultivate these qualities still further, in a prose itself considerably lighter and more intimate than Johnson's.

  21. But she would not lose Johnson's sense that the world is more often than not a stage. Emma en route to Miss Bates's is, in her chastened but resilient theatricality, not unlike Rasselas in his bower, conscious of the dignity of his lone thoughts, and admiring himself when there's no one else around to admire him. Attending to the interior self may, as Cowper insisted, be crucial; but apart from her extraordinary carriage ride, is Emma ever less alone than when alone? Vexation may be the first step towards moral wisdom, or even the rapprochement of inner and outer worlds; yet Emma's vexation, by the time she casts her eyes towards Donwell the next morning, seems in retrospect more like a flash of lover's pique than a pivotal moment in moral reformation. As Fielding's Shamela complains to her mother about her own (relatively) bashful lover: "Oh what a prodigious vexation it is to a Woman to be made a fool of!"


    1 For their generous assistance with this essay, I would like to thank William Galperin, Kim Wheatley, and the students in my Spring 1999 Juniors Honors seminar, especially Alethea White.

    2 The power of a vexing wind to efface the boundary between inner and outer, natural scene and imaginative recreation, is also evinced in the "spot of time" recorded in Prelude 11. 278-327.

                        I should need
    Colours and words that are unknown to man
    To paint the visionary dreariness
    Which, while I looked all around for my lost guide,
    Did at that time invest the naked pool,
    The beacon on the lonely eminence,
    The woman, and her garments vexed and tossed
    By the strong wind (ll. 305-15).

    3 The purest version of which I am aware comes in A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black (1785); see Potkay and Burr, eds., Black Atlantic Writers (78-80). Alongside this strain of spiritual autobiography, there develops as well a related line of poetic hymns to the insight fostered by blindness, from Milton's invocations of the Holy Spirit and Homer through to Wordsworth's invocations of Milton and the life of things.

    Works Cited

    Austen, Jane. Emma. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. Cited by volume, chapter, and page.

    Cowper, William. The Task and Selected Other Poems. Ed. James Sambrook. London: Longman, 1994.

    Fielding, Joseph. Joseph Andrews, Shamela, and Related Writings. Ed. Homer Obed Brown. New York: Norton, 1987.

    Johnson, Samuel. Rasselas and Other Tales. Ed. Gwin J. Kolb. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

    Potkay, Adam and Sandra Burr, eds. Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

    Wordsworth, William. The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.