All content on this blog is copyright by Marci Andrews Wahlquist as of its date of publication.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jane Austen's "Emma" as a Detective Novel?

I spent last Saturday with Emma, Jane Austen’s captivating heroine of the eponymous novel, and that is such a charming way to spend a Saturday!

This post is just to say I think that Emma could be analyzed and written up as the forerunner of the detective novel.

Emma spends most of the book trying to detect romances. She thinks she’s engineering the romances in question, but Mr. Knightly puts her in her place when she starts crowing about having made the match for her former governess, Miss Taylor, and Mr. Weston. Mr. Knightly tells her flatly that all she really did was to make a good guess.

The trouble with Emma’s guesses is that her detective skills are extremely defective. Emma lacks insight, and Mr. Knightly has it but doesn’t care much about using it. Emma spends most of the novel drawing the wrong conclusions about the evidence under her nose, while Mr. Knightly spends one chapter actually bothering to look at the evidence and draws all the right conclusions about it.

When Emma tries to engineer a romance between her little friend Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton, she does so because she thinks she has detected signs of romance in Mr. Elton toward Harriet. Emma is wrong—Mr. Elton is attracted to Emma, and Mr. Knightly tries to give Emma a hint, but Emma denies the evidence until the comic scene of Mr. Elton’s proposal in the carriage.

Next Emma detects a romance between Frank Churchill and Harriet that does not fit the evidence except in Emma’s mind. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston tells Emma she thinks there is evidence of a romance between Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knightly. Emma knows most of the rest of their society have drawn the erroneous conclusion from the evidence that there is a romance between herself and Frank Churchill. Harriet Smith finds evidence for thinking Mr. Knightly might be interested in her.

Mr. Knightly spends one chapter looking at the evidence and sees immediately that there is something suspiciously like a romance between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill; he also detects that Harriet Smith may still be harboring some feelings for the farmer Robert Martin whose proposal Emma persuaded Harriet to reject. His only blunder is in misunderstanding the evidence of Emma’s relationship with Frank Churchill, but we forgive him because his own feelings leave him unable to judge impartially where Emma is concerned.

The evidence for the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is fairly and evenly distributed throughout the novel, in plain sight, but hidden in the long inconsequential ramblings of Miss Bates, and in other throw-away lines. Jane Austen was a master of the red herring before any detective novels had been written.

So Frank Churchill could come to Highbury, visit the home of the Bateses and Jane Fairfax often and make it seem like nothing but social obligations. But if you start counting, the visits are frequent, and his demeanor after each one is telling. He can go to London ostensibly to get his hair cut, but really to order a pianoforte anonymously for Jane Fairfax, and then he plants bogus seeds of its origin in his conversation with Emma. He and Jane can correspond, a thing that was not done unless a couple were formally engaged in those days, and nobody becomes wise to the reason that Jane Fairfax is adamant that she be allowed to get to the post office first thing in the morning no matter what the weather. Frank Churchill can nearly come unglued with grief at having to part from Jane Fairfax, and Emma makes us think it is because he may be falling in love with Emma! Frank Churchill can play a word game with Jane Fairfax that shows them colluding in something hidden, and only Mr. Knightly among those present sees and interprets the evidence correctly. But by this time in the novel, Mr. Knightly’s credibility with the reader has been compromised by the very tangled web of bogus romance possibilities! Only the very careful reader would be able to sort the threads and know that only Mr. Knightly can be believed about anything, and it is Emma who cannot be trusted with the truth.

The real charm of Emma is that Emma learns and changes all along the way, starting with a pretty good character over all. Emma always treats her fussy, difficult father with extreme kindness and patience, a virtue that cannot be underrated. She adores her former governess. She makes allowances for those who are not as clever as she. 

Then when she realizes her blunders, she tries to reform. When her first attempt at matchmaking for Harriet goes so wrong, she learns to back off and not interfere as much, with the result that at least there is much less pain for Harriet by Emma’s direct hand when the Frank Churchill – Jane Fairfax engagement becomes public. Emma learns from her mistreatment of Miss Bates that she must change her behavior and wastes no time in making amends. She realizes her neglect of Jane Fairfax and tries to make amends there too, but at that time Jane cannot accept her overtures, though later Jane acknowledges Emma’s good will and the evidence that they would have become friends if they could have is there, but they are going to live too far apart: Jane in Yorkshire and Emma in Surrey.

I will always love Emma for many reasons, but now that I have detected the seeds of a detective novel in it, I have another reason to keep rereading and finding delight in its pages.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mirinda Piper's Adventures as a Young Lady of the 1850s

Mirinda Piper was the eldest living child of the traveling Baptist preacher Beverly Bradley Piper and his first wife, Delia Deborah Norton. At the beginning of 1856 the family were living in Charleston, Coles County, Illinois. Mirinda turned 16 in July of that year. Her younger siblings were Asa, Charles, and Ann. She married John Andrews when she was 18 years old.


We lived in Charlestown 18 months; March 1st we broke up housekeeping and started to move back to Posey County, Indiana. The furniture was shipped by railroad and river, and we went in the carriage by way of Grandpa’s as usual. Aunt Mirinda stayed at Uncle William’s; we stopped a few days and pushed on to our journey’s end. We settled in the old Bradley house two miles from Mount Vernon, Indiana.

The house was quite large and was partly occupied by John Hall’s family, old acquaintances of ours and Baptists. It was a lovely old place with plenty of fruit, cherries, apples, and pears.

I taught a little school that summer but did not like school teaching and was determined not to follow the business. As Mother’s health was so poor I was always needed at home, and neither of my parents wished me to teach. I never taught another school. There were a number of young people in the neighborhood, and most of them I had known before, so in a little while I had all the company I wanted. That summer passed quickly and pleasantly. I had some beaux, but Father discouraged their visits, and as he was a minister they were rather shy of him.

This was the presidential election year. The Republican candidates were Fremont and Dayton, the Democrats were Buchanan and Breckenridge, who were elected. The American candidates were Fillmore and Donelson.[i]

1856 wedding dress
One of my young lady friends was married in September. She was our nearest neighbor on one side. I was very intimate with her, and helped her sew some of her wedding clothes. There was a large wedding, most of the guests stayed all night, and we had a big breakfast party as well as supper the night before. 

During the summer Father took a trip through central Illinois. He had never been there before and was very much pleased with the country, and the people who were very kind to him and urged him to come and live among them. As he had some money to invest, he bought a farm one mile from Lincoln, Logan County, and in October we started to move there. 
Logan County, Ill.
Oh how I hated to leave my young friends! I thought it was too bad while I was having such a good time to break away and go among perfect strangers. But go we must, so I tried to make the best of it. It seemed nice to own a home of our own once more; we had been renting for two years. We were four weeks making the trip, as Father had appointments to preach all along the way. I remember one day when he had meeting we stopped at an old Brother Baptist’s house, and I stayed at the house and read Jane Eyre instead of going to meeting. I wonder Mother allowed it, but I went to all the other meetings.

Father had a bone felon[ii] on his hand and suffered greatly with it. We went by Grandpa’s of course, all roads led to Grandpa (not Rome), and now I think of it, that was our last visit there. When we arrived in Lincoln we went to a Mr. Rankin’s, who had kindly invited us to stay there ‘til we could get settled in our new home. We were there two weeks when the family in our house moved out and we soon got settled. Our land was mostly prairie, lying on the edge of the timber, through which ran Salt Creek. There were 160 acres in the farm. I used to roam through the woods and along the creek when I had nothing else to do, but Mother and I did all the work, sewing and all for six of us, and it kept us pretty busy, especially as her health was rather poor.

The house was very old fashioned, consisting of two large rooms with a big fireplace in each room. Father soon put on an addition of three more rooms, and divided one of the large ones so we had six. There was an orchard of excellent apples, and several cherry trees which bore heavily on the place.
We were all pleased with our new home and neighborhood; we were only a mile from Lincoln, which was in plain sight from the house. Our church, which was held in a school house, was only half way to town, but we usually rode to it, as Mother was not able even to walk that little distance. The three children went to school. 

Father had some acquaintances by the name of Landis, who lived sixteen miles away near Mount Pulaski. We visited them as often as possible and they came to see us. There was a large family of them, three young men and four girls grown, besides three little girls. The eldest of the family was a maiden lady of thirty named Elizabeth, whom we liked very much indeed; it was always a treat to us if we could persuade her to come and stay a week with us. At one time there was an association held at their church, and Father and I went in the carriage; there was no railroad communication between Lincoln and Mount Pulaski. What a grand time I had. I knew many of the young people and made the acquaintance of many more. Father enjoyed it too, but in an entirely different way.[iii] 

Mirinda, 1857
The only time I ever attended camp meeting was this summer. A young gentleman, who had been paying some attention to me, and one of the Landis boys hired a double carriage and took Miss Rankin, a friend of mine, and I one Sunday. We took a lunch, and as the meeting was several miles from our house, we were gone all day. We had a very pleasant time indeed.

This fall we had considerable sickness; in fact I know now that the farm was malarious as there was a pond of standing water only a few rods from the house, and the family who owned the place before us, seven in number, all died but one of typhoid fever. Father and Mother had a sick spell, and brother Asa was very sick with typhoid fever. I kept well and by the middle of October all had recovered. 

At this time my Aunt Mirinda Parker made us a visit; we were all delighted to see her and wanted her to stay all winter, but she would not hear of it. She staid a short time and left with John Andrews who had come from Indiana that fall to see me. We had been corresponding for some time before he came.
Mirinda's first letter to John Andrews

I don’t remember much about the winter of 1857 and ‘58. I was comparatively happy, but not entirely so, for Mother always told me her worries, and I had to share the burdens of the whole family. I had my letters to read and answer, which gave me much pleasure and occupation. It snowed a great deal that winter, indeed as we had never lived so far north before, the snow was quite a surprise to us, but it was not an extremely cold winter. Father was away much of the time preaching. Mother, the young ones and I were not afraid to stay alone, and as we had plenty of wood and enough to eat we had a very good time. We took two newspapers, had quite a number of books, and with our work, time never hung heavily on our hands. But we were poor, our income was small, and the family was growing older, so Mother and I had to plan considerable to make five dollars do the work of ten.

In the spring of this year Uncle Louis’ family moved to Lincoln; he wanted to build a house so Father asked him to remain with us ‘til it was finished. We were a little crowded but got along very well. His family consisted of his wife and four children. Aunt Mirinda came with them, so you see we were pretty thick. They came in April and stayed until October. 

In June John Andrews came again, and on the 21st of September we were married. The ceremony was performed by Mr. Moore, an old Baptist preacher long since dead. We went to live at the old Andrews place with John’s mother and brother Seth. Grandpa Norton was visiting at Father’s at the same time and left when we did; he was to stop at Vincennes, Indiana, but concluded to go on to Evansville [Indiana] with us. It was the last time I saw him; he died the next year at the age of 78. We spent one day at Vincennes, arrived at Farmersville in the night and were met by Seth and James and Harriet Hinkley (they had been married two years before). They brought carriages to take us home in, so the next morning we started for a twenty-mile ride. The day was pleasant and everything lovely.

[i] According to Wikipedia (August 2014), incumbent president Franklin Pierce was defeated in his effort to be re-nominated by the Democratic Party. James Buchanan, an experienced politician who was serving as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom and won the nomination instead.
   The Whig Party, which had since the 1830s been one of the two major parties in the U.S., had disintegrated and new parties, including the Republican Party and the American or “Know-Nothing” Party (which ignored slavery and instead emphasized anti-immigration policies), competed to replace it as the principal opposition to the Democratic Party. The Republican Party nominated John C. Frémont of California as its first presidential candidate. The Know-Nothing Party nominated former President Millard Fillmore, of New York.
   Frémont condemned the Kansas–Nebraska Act, and decried the expansion of slavery. Buchanan warned that the Republicans were extremists whose victory would lead to civil war. The Democrats endorsed popular sovereignty as the method to determine slavery’s legality for newly admitted states.

[ii] A bone felon is an infection of the fatty tissue that can lead to an abcess with infection attacking the underlying bone.

[iii] Mirinda’s father married Elizabeth K. Landis soon after his wife Delia Deborah died.

Other Posts about Mirinda:

One-Room Schools, a Romance, an Earthquake

Mirinda and Slavery

The Further Adventures of Mirinda Piper (first part)

The Further Adventures of Mirinda Piper (second part)

Memoirs of Mirinda Piper Andrews: Married Life 1858 - 1872

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why "Frozen" Leaves Me Cold

I have been busy this summer and have been neglecting my blog. It is time to start writing again!

Disney has a history of taking old fairy tales and adapting them to movie formats with happy endings. Frozen partly fits the pattern, but where it breaks the pattern, it ruins the point of both the old story and the new.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Snow Queen,” reminds me a little of part of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, in that it has a boy abducted by a Snow Queen, and he is ultimately rescued by a girl who loves him (in the case of the Narnian tale it is by his sister, but in the original fairy story the little girl is his neighbor). At the beginning of the fairy tale are trolls who make a mirror that distorts reality so that one can see only the ugly and the evil, and when the mirror shatters, splinters of it get into people’s eyes and hearts. The Snow Queen controls snowflakes and has a palace in the land of permafrost, and she seems to have little else to do than to make mischief by kidnapping the boy who takes her fancy. The Queen’s abduction of this boy is nothing but a whim, and she is not the main character, despite the title of the tale. The point of the story is that the protagonist, the boy’s friend, Gerda, loves him and searches tirelessly for him, obtaining help along her journey from magic in a river, in roses, in tears, in a reindeer and doves, and from a princess, a robber band, and a couple of old women. Gerda’s love eventually saves her friend, and when they return home, it is summer, they are grown up, and the Snow Queen has been left behind in her kingdom of snowflakes, probably still buzzing around rather aimlessly.

In Frozen, which is said to be very loosely inspired by the fairy tale, there is a snow queen, there are trolls, ice that can freeze a person’s heart, a girl who searches for one she loves, and in the end there is summer. But the story is much different, and the point is—well, we’ll see.

The kingdom of Arendelle is ruled by a king and queen who have two daughters, Elsa and Anna. Elsa has cryokinetic powers and entertains Anna with them, but one night she accidentally hits Anna in the head with her icicles. The result is separation of the sisters, supposedly so that Elsa can learn to control her powers. However, there is nothing that suggests that Elsa undergoes any sort of training, or any sort of program to help her gain control of these powers. Apparently she is the only one of the family, and indeed, the only person anyone knows of who has any special powers. It’s something like the Harry Potter world in which a Hermione can be born to Muggle parents who prove unequipped to prepare her for adulthood. Unfortunately for Elsa, in the kingdom of Arendelle there is no hidden wizarding world, no Hogwarts schooling. She is simply isolated, and as suggested in the lyrics to “Let It Go” she is expected to be obedient, kind, even-tempered, good-natured: perfect.

The scenes that transition the girls from young childhood to young adulthood provide ambiguity in their relationship—at first it seems that Elsa and Anna are separated by order of their parents, but the succeeding scenes suggest it is Elsa herself who keeps herself away, and her only reason seems to be fear. Since these scenes deal only with Anna asking Elsa to help her build a snowman, we get no idea of the rest of these girls’ lives—all we know is that they each have nobody else for companionship. Even the servants are missing from this castle, and then their parents die offstage, and their isolation is complete.

How, one wonders, is this kingdom run? With the parents dead and Elsa unable to be crowned until she comes of age (an unspecified time), where are the government ministers, the lawmakers or anyone wielding any sort of power to prepare Elsa for governing? Instead, it seems that she is simply continuing in her isolation until she can be crowned.

Suddenly it is time for the coronation. Without any obvious support, the young women appear to be properly gowned, to know proper etiquette, to know the social graces they are supposed to use. Anna is gauche and something of a tomboy, which makes one wonder again, where were the servants? Why didn’t she have a governess or some suitable training in being a princess? She appears to know the rules, then she seems not to know the rules. The focus has shifted onto Anna, who takes over the lead role in the romance of this particular tale. She and the visiting secretly-a-snake-in-the-grass, Prince Hans, fall in love.

Meanwhile, Elsa becomes the queen, mostly successful in hiding her power to make ice out of everything around her when she becomes agitated. However, almost the sole ruling role she has is in her denial of permission for her sister to marry Prince Hans. One wonders again, what is her role in this kingdom, that she can be so apparently untrained and yet be a queen? When important things are left to the assumption that they happened behind-the-scenes, one can imagine as well that nothing happened at all.

Thwarting Anna leads to a major quarrel and to the revelation of the secret—Elsa cannot control her powers. It seems that all those years of isolation were for nothing. But instead of doing anything responsible, the unfit queen runs away. This is the crux of why “Let It Go” is not on my list of inspirational songs—it’s a celebration of all the wrong things. She sings about the “swirling storm inside” in terms of the expectations of her girlhood—that she be good and hide her feelings and her powers. She says now that everyone knows about her, she can “turn away and slam the door”—so isolation is her answer to how she should live, and the implication is that she no longer has to be good: “that perfect girl is gone.” She says there’s “no right, no wrong, no rules for me”—the classic existentialist in absolute selfish existence. She says she’ll never cry, but “let the storm rage on,” so apparently she’s thinking she’ll live in perpetual anger, and she further claims, “I’m never going back, the past is in the past!” Living solely in the present with no accountability for the past is further proof of her childishness—she refuses to see that she is to blame for the loss of her temper, for the loss of “control” of these magical powers she has.

To alienate me further from this film, while she is singing this anthem of selfishness, she is using those powers to build a magnificently beautiful ice palace. It is as though the film wants us to believe that only when we cut ourselves off completely from self-control that we become who we are supposed to be and can accomplish what we were created to accomplish. This is the most purely antithetical message to all that I believe is true.

Finally, she sings a refrain, “The cold never bothered me anyway!” and it is a fitting refrain for a woman giving herself over to cold-heartedness.

But her sister searches for her to cure the perpetual winter Elsa has left behind. Anna gets help from an animated snowman, an iceman, Kristoff, and his reindeer sidekick, Sven. (Sven is one of a long line of Disney animal sidekicks, all with the same sassy manners for humor.) When they find Elsa, they find an angry woman who blasts ice into her sister’s heart to kill her. Only an act of true love will cure Anna, and after some straightening out the plot points telling which man is the hero and which the villain, the act of true love after all is that of Anna for her sister, when she saves Elsa’s life.

Disney films usually end happily ever after. This one doesn’t. Yes, Anna gets her man and they marry. But Elsa? Anna’s sacrifice fails to completely heal Elsa. There’s no romance for her. There doesn’t seem to be any role for her despite that she goes back to Arendelle to be their queen. Aside from one ruling on a matter of trade, her role seems limited to providing ice sculptures and skating rinks and things like that. It’s hardly the ending that such powers deserve, but after all it may be fitting for a woman who never was trained to be a ruler, who spent most of her life in solitary confinement, and who seems to have been born to do nothing more than make cold things, or to make things cold.