August 24, 1999
Re: S&S, II:6 (28): The Terrible Strain of It
Why is it that people who like Austen and respond deeply to her novels often say Box Hill is so very painful, is a scene they never want to read again, a scene equivalent or far more moving than what they are supposed to feel when they read classic tragedy, when, considered against this scene at the fashionable party, Miss Bates's bad moment passes very quickly, is probably hardly observed, and is the result of a careless irritated young woman's momentary pique while Marianne has given her heart to Willoughby, and he knows it, and the scene is one which calls attention to itself as a scene. Miss Bates herself knows better than to call attention to herself except by the fleeting remark which could be enigmatic to some that she didn't know what she had done, while we are told:
'With difficulty, however, could she prevent her from following him herself; and to persuade her to check her agitation, to wait, at least, with the appearance of composure, till she might speak to him with more privacy and more effect, was impossible, for Marianne continued incessantly to give way in a low voice to the misery of her feelings, by exclamations of wretchedness ... (Penguin S&S, ed RBallaster, II:6 or Ch 28, p. 150)
Picture it. Marianne sits or stands there in public not for a moment hiding what she feels.
I wonder how many of us have ever been stood up by someone. Waited there in public. Did we hide the hurt afterwards? Or admit it to a sympathetic family member or friend? Who groans in public? There is, I submit, a beauty and strength in the character which can admit vulnerability, but we all know, given human nature, you had better keep it to a trusted friend.
The one good moment Lady Middleton is given is her willingness to come away and immediately (p. 150).
Marianne is given hartshorn when she gets home (p. 150). There was no xanax available.
At least Marianne does allow Elinor to help her. That's something. There's many wouldn't. Marianne is not a hypocrite in front of herself. I suppose it takes a kind of strength to found oneself upon the truth. Let us give Marianne that.
Elinor again cannot but assume 'some kind of engagement had subsisted between Willoughby and Marianne'. We are told that Elinor is not as indignant as she would have been because she sees in Willoughby's face 'embarrassment', a 'consciousness of his misconduct'. It's clear a 'regard' had existed, for without it Willoughby would have acted much worse, more clearly obnoxious (p. 151).. There is a kind of tenderness in his attempt at courtesy.
If Elinor's situation gains in comparison it's because she has herself interpreted Edward's conduct so 'candidly' or in its best light (a la Jane Bennet). I am not sure that on the face of it insofar as she has seen Edward, he has behaved much better. He was never confronted by her with the aggressive kind of demand that Marianne is capable of. In this Elinor is kinder, more selfless -- I am thinking about the heroic scene later in the book where she leaves Lucy with Edward. This looks forward to Trollope's Plantagenet Palliser leaving his wife, Lady Glen, alone with her lover; the Bigness of the gesture 'kills' her, she says.
It is an embittering moment when understood from all points of view -- including the loss of the place the girls lived in, their small income, their dependence on the charity of a cousin and Mrs Jennings -- the list goes on.
Why do people talk of Box Hill and not this? Is it that the insult and pain are pointed out in Emma, as it were underlined by Mr Knightley? Perhaps it's the unevenness of S&S, that this one can't stand out sufficiently? We are surfeited. Perhaps it's that what we respond to is Mr Knightley's poignant reproach ('Consider Emma ...') and not the moment itself.
It's worth noting this is a short chapter. The chapters on the trip to Donwell Abbey and excursion to Box Hill are a pair and each one much longer and more developed.
At any rate what a strain is here. The terrible of strains of life, the difficult of enduring it, the courage, as the man said, to be, to carry on. What is, ironically, great about the scene -- and the book -- is it does betray the strain. Is there another book before this one that does this as we feel it in ordinary life?
--- '"Pray, pray be composed", cried Elinor, "and do not betray what you feel to everybody present ..."'