“I never in my life saw a man more intent on being agreeable than Mr. Elton. It is downright labour to him where ladies are concerned. With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please every feature works.”
And so Mr. Elton is summed up well by Mr. John Knightley to Emma Woodhouse. She makes an attempt to defend him, but only because she believes that to be Mr. Elton’s way and that he is in love with her sweet little friend Harriet Smith. Mr. Elton’s incessant sighing is almost reminiscent of another simpering vicar we have met before in another Jane Austen novel, Mr. Collins.
Like Mr. Collins, Mr. Elton is looking to be well situated in life, however, Mr. Elton has a degree of ambition that Mr. Collins never demonstrated. In fact, had he been more like Mr. Collins he would have had his sights set on Harriet Smith who most assuredly would have made him a very accommodating wife. I’ll venture to say that Charlotte Lucas might have liked Mr. Elton better had there been a choice between Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, but that bed has been made.
When Mr. Elton declares himself to Emma “declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hopping–fearing–adoring–ready to die if she refused him” she is anything but flattered. In fact, after the possibility of his being inebriated and confused is made clearly not the case, she becomes angry, and that anger carries on into the next day.
Emma is angry on several counts: 1) She was completely wrong about Mr. Elton’s attraction to Harriet. 2) She falsely convinced Harriet of the attraction. 3) All her polite civilities had been taken for encouragement by Mr. Elton, which leads to the most grievous 4) She was completely blind to Mr. Elton’s true character. As she goes through her mental discourse of the whole situation, trying to make sense of it these last two points reveal as much about Emma’s character as Mr. Elton’s.
But, that he should talk of encouragement, should consider her as aware of his views, accepting his intentions, meaning, in short, to marry him!–should suppose himself her equal in connection or mind!–look down upon her friend, so well understanding the gradations of rank below him, and be so blind to what rose above, as to fancy himself showing no presumption in addressing her!–it was most provoking.
This seems to be the apex of Emma’s anger because after that she then begins to think more forgivingly of Mr. Elton for obviously not fully understanding the disparity between himself and Emma even though he seemed well enough aware of it between himself and Harriet. She allows that perhaps the fact that he honestly believed that she loved him gave him the courage (that might be too strong a word) to aspire to propose. She eventually gets to the point where she admits that, “If she had so misinterpreted his feelings, she had little right to wonder that he, with self-interest to blind him, should have mistaken hers.”
Marrying well was a concern for many of Jane Austen’s characters, but it was not looked on well if one were to be perceived as mercenary in their endeavor. Was Mr. Elton being mercenary or did he harbor true feelings for Emma? Would Emma have thought differently had she fancied Mr. Elton? Do you see any similarities between Mr. Elton and Mr. Collins?
*Photo: Consider the lilies of the field by Robert S. Donovan, obtained through Flickr.