Deborah Yaffe

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The worst Christmas ever?

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 24 2015 02:00PM

Despite the New York Times’ efforts to persuade us otherwise, Jane Austen is not a Christmassy writer. It’s true that the word “Christmas” appears in all six of the completed novels, but only three (Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion) include scenes set during holiday festivities. And even those scenes lack the trappings -- trees, stockings, gifts, etc. – that we have come to associate with the Victorian version of the day.


The Christmas scene in Emma – which celebrated its bicentennial yesterday – is actually a Christmas Eve scene. And surely the dinner party at Randalls must rank as one of the worst, if also one of the funniest, Christmases in English literature, bookended, for Emma, by two unpleasant carriage rides with self-absorbed men. John Knightley’s grumpy rant about the horrors of going out in the snow ("A man . . . must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and encounter such a day as this, for the sake of coming to see him”) is topped only by Mr. Elton’s won't-take-no-for-an-answer marriage proposal, as the glib vicar graduates, in the space of a few paragraphs, from tipsy faux-sentimentality to sincerely nasty social condescension (“Everybody has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss”).


Over at Sarah Emsley’s blog, Nora Bartlett takes a closer look at this scene, in the kickoff post for "Emma in the Snow," Sarah’s new blog series celebrating the birthday of this sublime novel. I, however, will confine myself to wishing you all a Christmas Eve much happier than Emma Woodhouse’s.


2 comments
Jan 7 2016 11:14PM by Jenny Allan

I love that the novel points out that Christmas can be a trial to many families. And despite Frank Chuchill's efforts at being amusing, and Elton's efforts to ingratiate himself, it's Mr. Knightley who is marked out to as the best mate for Emma. They pull together to manage all the personalities and potential disasters to keep the peace. They work together like a married couple in this scene:

Mr. Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences: thus --

"Your father will not be easy; why do not you go?"

"I am ready, if the others are."

"Shall I ring the bell?"

"Yes, do."
+++
People sometimes criticize Austen for only showing courtship, but if there was ever a glimpse in her writing of what married life will be like for one of her couples, it's that Christmas dinner party.

Mantel uses a similar style of minimalist dialog with no attribution in Wolf Hall where Cromwell and his wife, Liz, interact for the first time in the book.

"Forget where you lived?"
He sighs.
"How was Yorkshire?"
He shrugs.
"The cardinal?"
He nods.
"Eaten?"
"Yes."
"Tired?"
"Not really"
"Drink?"
"Yes."
"Rhenish?"
"Why not."

And that's all we really need to know about the Cromwell marriage.

-Jenny

Jan 8 2016 01:53AM by Deborah Yaffe

I agree -- it's clear from even this early scene that they're perfect for each other, as Nora Bartlett also notes in the post I referenced above. Love that Mantell, too. . .

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