Persuasions #5, 1983                                                                                                                                            Pages 41-47

 

 

THE POWERS OF THE INSTRUMENT: OR JANE, FRANK, AND THE PIANOFORTE

 

Judith Wilt

Department of English, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA

 

“The amiable, upright, perfect Jane Fairfax was apparently cherishing very reprehensible feelings.” Oh, the shameful pleasure of discovering a flaw in the perfect, a fall in the upright, a focus of intensity in the invulnerably amiable. The “reserved” Jane Fairfax, we see, is “claimed” after all: the pale virgin flushed from cover. The sign of the crime, and I sometimes fancy the scene of the crime, is … an act in two words which make, unique in Jane Austen’s prose, a whole paragraph of their own:

“She played.”

We are in a tiny sitting room dominated by a pianoforte of mysterious origin, and further shrunk by the sudden entrance of an animated crowd. Where ten minutes before there had been only the female player and the male listener and a blind and slumbering chaperone, there are now in addition Emma Woodhouse, Harriet Smith, Mrs. Weston, and Miss Bates, who can shrink a room all by herself. The interrupted performance begins again, but the artist’s detachment is shaken (“the first bars were feebly given”), then retrieved (“the powers of the instrument were gradually done full justice to”), shaken again as the young man, who is interested only in some of the powers of the instrument, directs her away from her own choice to a different kind of music (“one of the waltzes we danced last night”).

“She played.”

This surrender confirms for the wise and witty Emma and for the alert reader that Jane Fairfax cherishes the reprehensible feeling of erotic attachment to the giver of the mysterious pianoforte. We are right, of course, though wrong in our guess at the giver’s identity: he is not the husband of the artist’s friend the former Miss Campbell, but the young man in the room, the conductor, the usurper, of the performance, Mr. Frank Churchill.

The story of Jane Fairfax and the giver of the piano has its place in the series of stories which Emma Woodhouse, the imaginist, tells herself and her friends, stories about the dangerous necessity of marriage, the painful psychic desirability of love – for everyone but herself. She tells the story of Jane and Mr. Dixon to amuse and engross her suitor-auditor, Frank Churchill (who is indeed amused), and at a deeper level of consciousness, to scratch again at the itch of her odd dislike of the multi-talented and universally liked Jane: constructing the melodrama of Jane’s helpless, hopeless attraction to her friend’s husband turns unladylike dislike into comfortable pity, changes the woman who is her sister, her equal, and in some ways her superior, into one of those “poor” whom Emma, as her station demands, visits and “does for,” into one of the “neices” with whose foibles and errors “Aunt” Emma intends to concern herself in the husbandless future she plans for herself.

This is the melodrama, seduced and abandoned, “swept away,” that Emma feels drawn to tell with the raw material of Jane Fairfax. But what is the story that Jane Austen is telling with that material?

Four intimately mixed elements make up the raw material of this character. Three of them – characterful “reserve,” a psychic subtlety and sensitivity which projects itself in crisis as illness, and a spiritualized beauty of “paleness” – are standard issue for important female protagonists of novels. Recall how Samuel Richardson built pale eroticism, sensitive illness and “reserve” into the person and plot of Clarissa. But Jane Fairfax has a fourth element that indicates Jane Austen may be telling in her a more complex additional story, a story that many contemporary critics wonder why more nineteenth century women artists didn’t tell. Jane Fairfax has art, important aesthetic talent, perhaps even genius. This is, when we look closely, issued not to the protagonists but to the antagonists or secondary characters in the novels of nineteenth century women. I want to refer to two of these characters, in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, in proposing tentatively for them an ancestress in Jane Fairfax.

Most readings of Jane Fairfax see in that character a rather simply psychic progress of recent date (October, at Weymouth) – aroused erotic feeling for Frank Churchill, a man out of her (class) star, issues in the famous repressed “reserve”; the conflict of eroticism and reserve produces the illnesses (starting in November, after Weymouth) which arrest our attention even before we knew their causes; and Jane’s art, that sensitive rendering of all types of music which makes her unique in her society, seems simply one of those peripheral pleasures in her life, like friendship or relatives, which are always being turned into poisons, either accidentally or deliberately, by her secret love. But I would like to suggest a reading that takes both Jane’s “reserve” and her art more seriously. These characteristic materials proceed and ground both her eroticism and her illness: they do not result from them. And the final term in that progression – art and reserve meet eroticism, results in illness – is marriage (one kind of cure) or death (another kind). Or first one, then the other. When Charlotte Bronte created a female artist of genius, the actress Vashti of Villette, she saw her as a material voice and body worn to vivid death by the erotic-illness (the Dame of the Camelias, the Traviata Figure) she was portraying on stage. When George Eliot created a female artist of genius, the singer Alcharisi, she imagined her as having strained her voice, her “instrument” so severely with the power of her performing art that in fear of death or failure she entered the living death and haven of marriage. We meet her, as we meet Vashti, when she is dying. There is a family tradition, reports Alistair Duckworth among others, that Jane Austen imagined a death for Jane Fairfax a few years after her marriage. And when in her first novel, The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf created a female protagonist-pianist, for whom the elegant “staircase” of 17th and 18th century sonatas and etudes provided the most stable sense of her own identity, and then introduced her to erotic feeling for a charming and worthy young man, the heroine, Rachel Vinrace, resolved the situation in the following progression – secret engagement, mysterious illness, death.

Jane Fairfax is not Rachel Vinrace or Clarissa Harlowe either, though her resemblance to these figures is suggestive, as is Frank Churchill’s to Lovelace. The stories that lie most obviously behind her story in Emma are the Gothic novels which treat of beautiful, reserved and high strung, unprotected and mysterious heroines, one species hinging on the villain’s sexual pursuit of her, and another kind where the villain simply blocks her access to the worthy hero for class, revenge, or economic reasons.

After we have read and reread the novel, that is, Jane Austen’s novel, not just Emma’s, we undergo the kind of chastening enlightenment – it was maybe our own suspicious disgusting minds that fell for this seduced-and-abandoned Gothic explanation – that Henry James offers as the last (or is it the next to the last?) Turn of the Screw in his story of that name. We might be tempted to compare the enlightenment to that which happens in Jane Austen’s earlier novel, Northanger Abbey, more overtly a parody of the Gothic novel. Helplessly enslaved women, tyrant lovers, monster parents – they might exist in the primitive Mediterranean mountains or Scottish coasts where the eighteenth century Gothic novel was set, but not here in the civilized south of England, said the narrator of that novel directly, seemingly says the plot of Emma indirectly. Both narratives seem to demonstrate this. The men might be devious or irritable, they might scoff, charmingly manipulate, or earnestly pontificate (I like Knightley too, but he is never going to forget that sixteen year’s advantage of wisdom he thinks he has over Emma, is he!) – but they don’t do murder. The women might be weak or momentarily confused or ambivalent, but they can tell the good guys from the bad guys in the end, and they can get out of, or come humorously to love, their prisons. Or if not, like Maria Bertram Rushworth, they deserve them.

Yet the story of Jane Fairfax receives a further turn of the screw than simple parody of Emma’s Gothic storytelling, doesn’t it? Even a casual look at it, once it’s out, reveals two genuinely painful blocking or harassing figures, tyrants in the orphan’s life – one, defeated by death, the crone figure of Mrs. Churchill, who dominated and persecuted Frank and through him Jane, like the monster parents or uncles – in Mrs. Radcliffe’s romances, and one, empowered by fortune, the seducer figure Frank Churchill, who went after the most upright female mind in creation and caused it to stoop, who aroused it erotically first in secret meetings and writings and then, darkly, in public demonstrations, with another woman, of his power to charm.

Frank is a deeply ambiguous figure from beginning to end; to love him is to be permanently at risk, whether there is or isn’t a blocking figure in Mrs. Churchill. As he takes leave of Emma and us in the last pages, bride-to-be in hand, nothing delights him more than recollections of “the impudent dog I was” as a secret lover, keeping everyone confused and Jane herself on the razor’s edge between pain and delight. Nothing, that is, except the impudent dog he still is, still making love to her through Emma (“Did you ever see such a skin? … Observe the turn of the throat …. She hears us, she hears us, Miss Woodhouse. I see it in her cheek, her smile, her vain attempt to frown”), still making her like what she has to take (“Jane was forced to smile completely, for a moment. So peculiarly the lady,”) rejoices Frank in this scene, valuing, restoring, glorying in Jane’s elegant “reserve” – so that he can shatter it again and again.

Let us look a bit more closely at Jane Fairfax’s reserve, its causes and effects, by way of a study of the complex treatment of “reserve” in Jane Austen’s Emma.

“I love an open temper,” says Mr. Knightley. But then he fell in love eight years before with the exceedingly free tongued, sassy, even blabber-mouthed Emma Woodhouse so he may be a bit prejudiced. “Watch their way of being silent and you will know a gentleman,” Emma tutors Harriet Smith, but then, she is unfairly comparing Robert Martin’s farmerish bluntness and ebullience with Mr. Knightley’s and Mr. Elton’s reserve for her own ends. So cold, so talked about but untalkative, so hard to get to know, complains Emma of Jane Fairfax as a teenager, and “one cannot love a reserved person,” echoes Frank Churchill of the Jane Fairfax he has just met as a young woman. But it appears that Jane’s self-possession made her one of Emma’s few failures as a manageress of her society. Worse still, Jane’s way of being silent is offset by, maybe even contributive to, her superior performance in all the departments of an accomplished woman. So much for Emma’s not liking Jane Fairfax. As for Frank Churchill’s supposed inability to love a reserved person, Emma observes the exact truth about the erotic appeal of reserve – when the reserve softens in your direction, the attraction will be practically irresistible.

We can construct a scale of “reserve” in this novel, from outright secret deceptions through instinctive ego-guarding to meditative self-control and judicious mental reservation through artless prattling openness to prurient meddling, and find only the two ends of the spectrum, Frank Churchill and Mrs. Elton, condemned by the narrative. Mr. Knightley’s moral ascendancy notwithstanding, it is not pure openness that the novelist upholds but rather the mystery and silence end of the scale, reserve. We deduce this from the narrative’s own guarding of the plot’s main secrets, from the narrator’s deliberate reserve of the details of the two scenes we readers would most like to have served up – how Knightley proposed to Emma in the shrubbery and how Frank induced Jane to forgive him after Mrs. Churchill’s death. We deduce it from her deeply serious comment that “seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure,” and her more mischievous evocation of “the Right Stuff,” English style, at the first meeting of the brothers Knightley:

How d’ye do, George” and “John, how are you?” succeeded in the true English style, burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment which would have led either of them, if required, to do everything for the good of the other.

That is reserved brotherhood. Sisterhood seems more complex. What is buried beneath the calm gentility with which Emma and Jane Fairfax, natural sisters, meet? On each side a mind self-reflexive, delighting in its own objects and its own workings, a mind therefore, from Jane Austen’s comic communal point of view, in need of a lesson, an assault on its self-created, strongly defended precincts, its silent self-communion. Mr. Knightley phrases it coolly: “I’d like to see Emma in love and in some doubt of a return.” Emma’s blood sister Isabella, always innocently busy and showering love with no doubts over those she doted on, “might have been a model of right feminine happiness,” says Jane Austen, sweetly sour. Emma’s intellectual sister Jane Fairfax, whom we may deduce relies even more strongly than Emma on a self-generated inner world, arrives in Highbury halfway through the novel radiating right feminine unhappiness, in love and in doubt. She has had Knightley’s lesson and her original reserve, sign of that reliant and tactful selfhood which Jane Austen unmistakably values, has become, in its new tense exaggeration, the poisoned opposite of itself, clear signal of her helpless given-ness.

Readers and critics sometimes talk as if Jane Fairfax’s “reserve” were simply the reflex of her newly born sexuality, the form virtue chooses to cloak its passion while the less virtuous Frank cloaks his single passion in random flirtation. But of course Jane’s reserve precedes her meeting with Frank and triggers his passion in the way Emma had carelessly put her finger on, and that Jane Austen’s predecessor Samuel Richardson had chronicled in the history of Clarissa Harlowe. Relative to Frank, Jane’s reserve was an erotic invitation. But what was it relative to her? A screen to ward off premature impingement of her orphaned governessing future? Yes, partly. But we may imagine it has all along had reference not only to her future but to her present state, a state characterized by happy inclusion in an adopted family, the Campbells. And here, Jane Austen reports, Col. Campbell had exercised a special sensitivity beyond the simple loyalty arising from friendship with Jane’s father. Colonel Campbell also early recognized in her what the eighteenth century called genius – that happy combination of inspiration and organization, of innate gift and trainability, of an inner wordless and reserved core of aesthetic self-knowing joined to a readiness to take instruction and discipline, which produced the important artists of the period. Jane Fairfax is a female artist, and that means she is in crisis.

This crisis, for a woman artist of the time, has resonance even beyond the obvious difficulty of finding room for the art in a society relentlessly shaping her primary role as wife-mother-caregiver. In Jane Austen’s novels the less intelligent good women have internalized that role as “nature”: but the intelligent women, already uneasily aware of womanhood as “role,” face a deep moral crisis about “performance” which reflects, is symbolized by, the artistic performance associated with them. A morally ambiguous figure like Mary Crawford has accepted “performance” and manipulates it intelligently and cynically, whether acting in plays, playing the harp or playing on Edmund Bertram. The young Marianne Dashwood, both performer and audience at her pianoforte, works up feelings to fever pitch and then, unable to exit the performance when she leaves the piano, falls into a fever. Thoughtful Anne Elliot, fingering the keys of her instrument in solitary performance, in silent dialogue with herself of the sort her family says Jane Austen used to like to do of a morning, is ignored, is “nobody.” This bespeaks an inept taste, finally a moral flaw, in her tone-and-character deaf family, true, but her moral crisis only comes when her performances as unpaid governess and caregiver, as pianist in private and student of music at public concerts begin to draw an audience, especially a competitive male audience. Emma Woodhouse tells stories and draws portrait sketches which have the genius of initial inspiration but insufficient “finish”: somehow between the inspiration and the disciplined goal, reachable only to the private self with its personal standards, there intervenes the doting audience of her family and community, and the performance is applauded before it well can be “finished.” Uneasily half aware of this, Emma veers between contempt for her performances and contempt for her audience: that “self love” which Lionel Trilling remarked gave her a moral life like a man’s and that genuine social care which culture applauds as the moral life of a woman keeping her forever fretful but also saving her from the cynicism of the deliberate social performance.

Without cynicism, then, though with irritation to both those sources of a moral life, can Emma recognize a genuine performer when she sees one? Such a one is Jane Fairfax at the pianoforte, amiably neither courting nor scorning the audience, but at some deep level beyond the apparent dichotomy of “taste” and “execution” wedding them both because wedded to the power of the instrument which at some deep level beyond the apparent dichotomy of her intellect and the pianoforte is both of these things.

In their study of nineteenth century women novelists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar note that in all Jane Austen’s novels women who are refused the means of self-definition which marriage offers are shown to be fatally drawn to the dangerous delights of conscious role-playing, impersonation, imposture, performance. That is why a “seduced and abandoned” plot is interpolated somewhere in almost all her novels – without marriage women perform the only other story their culture has constructed for them, half consciously duplicating the Gothic melodramas they read. Conceive then the astonishment, the terror, the self-loathing of a Jane Fairfax, portionless and therefore unmarriageable outside of fairy-tales orphan, wedded to the reserves of her instrument even if the minister will have to be a Mrs. Elton and the ceremony take place in the cold registry of the governess-finding bureau, when a Frank Churchill rises from the audience and lays a hand on the instrument. What did she say? Not quite what she ought, perhaps: a lady always tries to, especially when the gentleman is a new acquaintance, when he asks her for meetings in secret, when having been granted these meetings and having roused an unprecedented response, he requires a secret commitment which will be legitimized only when – well, who knows when. A lady tries to say no, but there he is, young, beautiful, self-assured, and ready to listen, with educated attention, and join with skill and taste in the performances which lead to the heart of her reserve. From then on life becomes a performance in the most poisoned sense: the secret meetings, we are told, provided “some happy moments but not one tranquil hour,” but they become the new reality. Life in public, heretofore free of corrupt courtship performance, but full of the happiest kind of self-situated artistic performance, demonstrating at no cost the power of her instrumentality, now becomes an elaborate screen to hide the secret actor in her life, the secret patron and audience of the performance. The scene I noted at the beginning of this talk shows the private performance slowly becoming public. “I have been assisting Miss Fairfax to make her instrument stand steadily,” says Frank to Mrs. Weston, describing the private time they had just spent together, and all their private time and again, “I wish I could conjecture how soon I shall make this rivet quite firm.” Frank’s comic script here incorporates their private relationship, with its unsteadiness and its rivets, into Jane’s public performance in Miss Bates’ room, and within it her performance, to the Marianne Dashwood-like point of sore throat and fever, at the Coles’ party the night before. She has given over her love, her uprightness, and now the last reserve of her music. And still, with all this terrifying new weight attached to the instrument, sick at heart and in head, with a paradoxical smile of secret delight ….

She Played.

Seduced Jane is, but not abandoned, we would want to say. Frank did bang off home after Box Hill, virtually stating that he was tired of the complex relationship and wanted no more of it, but we believe his later statement that he withdrew only to have the sweet pleasure of watching Jane “make the first advances” back to him after the quarrel. We don’t like it, but we believe it. That she does not advance, but retreats to the sour security of governessing, is surely another innocent example of that characterful reserve, that uprightness, which was the first erotic challenge to Frank, which makes abandonment impossible. This time the happy death of Mrs. Churchill makes his next seduction a legitimate proposal, and that marriage which, as a comedy or a tragedy, puts an end to music, offers to Jane Fairfax its new basis for identity – as the new Mrs. Churchill. Whatever mysterious malady the old one died of, the new one, though oddly resembling her blocking double in being familyless, portionless, new blood, has considerable reserve of intellect, and the new friendship of the elite of Highbury, to sustain her against it. At the end of the novel her colour and health seem better – “just colour enough for beauty,” enthuses that self-proclaimed impudent dog her fiance. And no doubt she still has the elegance, the taste, the execution, that demonstrate the power of her instrument, or at least, in her last moments with Frank in the novel we see her still trying to hang on to those evidences of a reserve.

But woman’s reserve has a hard time of it in the intimacies of nineteenth century marriage, Jane Austen seems to say. It disappears, or it becomes heartless authoritarianism, as it did with the old Mrs. Churchill. The new Mrs. Churchill loves her Peter Pan husband, but she has one more strand in her reserve than any other married woman in Jane Austen, the artistic excellence that Jane Austen lays light but memorable stress on in this character. I like to think she had happy moments, but I don’t think they had many tranquil hours, even when they married. Except for when he rashly rushed off somewhere to play charades, or get his hair cut, and late into the afternoon, while the sun went down over Enscombe ….

She Played.


Note: The color image has replaced the original black and white image for the on-line edition of this essay. C. Moss, 
JASNA Web Site Manager

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