Sentimentalism and Secret Engagements

Secret engagements are a bad business in Austen’s universe. Emma calls Frank and Jane’s engagement “a very abominable sort of proceeding,” and despite her compassionate feelings for Jane at the novel’s end, believes Miss Fairfax allowed her affection to “overpower her judgment” (III.1, III.12). Mr. Knightley agrees, calling Jane’s consenting to the engagement her “one fault” (III.15). For their part, Frank and Jane admit in several instances that their actions are cause for guilt and repentance.

How should modern readers understand the condemnation so forcefully placed upon Frank and Jane’s secret agreement? Why do Austen’s characters — Mr. Knightley in particular — believe the couple to have acted improperly? Mrs. Churchill’s discovery of the relationship would have no doubt ended all communication between the lovers, and, while their actions are deceptive to a certain degree, they could have been painted in a more positively romantic light than Austen chooses to use.

Frank’s actions are perhaps more understandably reprehensible. In his flirtations with Emma, he needlessly exposed her to censure from the community and heartbreak for herself. As Emma states, he came among them with “professions of openness and simplicity” and led them to believe they were all on “an equal footing of truth and honour” (III.10). Emma’s feelings, of course, are colored by her embarrassment: Frank’s honesty would have saved her from unkind conjectures about Jane and Mr. Dixon. But Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley share Emma’s belief in Frank’s impropriety, and Frank himself admits he acted poorly in hiding his engagement and flirting with Emma.

But what of Jane? She feels the weight of her part in the scheme, as evidenced by her sickness, but her actions are less clearly worthy of blame. She never flirts with other men or acts, like Frank, with a deceptively “open temper” that serves to hide “trick and littleness” (II.7, III.10). And yet, Jane feels guilty. She tells Mrs. Weston that she “never can be blameless”: “I have been acting contrary to all my sense of right; …and the kindness I am now receiving, is what my conscience tells me ought not to be” (III.12). Jane’s decision to enter into a secret engagement is private and personal. But both she and her community seem to believe that she owes them a window into her most intimate secrets. How can we account for this?

I’m sure this question could be answered from a historical perspective to shed light on proper nineteenth century courtship practices. This would be an important and interesting analysis, but I wonder if the novel’s portrayal of Jane’s actions also reveals its indebtedness to eighteenth century sentimental fiction. Understanding Jane’s feeling of guilt, I think, may shed light on the larger role of sentimentality in Austen’s world.

Emma criticizes Jane throughout the novel for being too “reserved.” The narrator, channeling Emma, even says that Jane was “disgustingly… suspiciously reserved” (II.2). Readers understand (and Emma later admits) that the heroine’s dislike of Miss Fairfax stems primarily from jealousy. But Emma’s observation about Jane isn’t wrong. Mr. Knightley, in one of his most obvious signs of affection for Emma, says that “Jane Fairfax has feeling… but [her temper] wants openness. She is reserved, more reserved, I think, than she used to be—And I love an open temper” (III.15). In this passage Mr. Knightley, arguably (arguably!) the moral compass of the novel, echoes Emma’s desire for open and honest sensibility.

It is not enough to have feeling, according to Knightley. To be a good sentimental character, Jane must show that feeling as well. It is a social behavior, and Jane’s community has a right to know her emotions. Emma observes late in the novel that the more sensibility Jane “betrays” of the horrors of living with the Bates, “the more I shall like you” (III.6). Jane’s decision to keep her engagement a secret thus precludes her from displaying true sensibility. Her decision may be personal, but if she wants to interact properly with her community, it cannot be private. Jane’s lack of sensibility is her true crime, and, I think, one of the reasons the novel condemns her actions.

Understanding Emma as indebted to sentimental fiction sheds light on other characters as well. The narrator’s emphasis on both Emma and Knightley’s sensibility, for example, sets them apart as morally exemplary (despite their other flaws). Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse also fall into this category. While they both possess tiresome habits, they are entirely open and honest about their feelings. The novel thus presents them in a positive light and the other characters conceive of them as such.

With all this being said, there appears in Emma, alongside a valorization of sensibility, a desire to keep emotion in check. Despite her open temper, Emma constantly tries (and usually, unlike Camilla, succeeds) to hide her true feelings. When Mr. Knightley tells Emma of Harriet’s engagement, Emma cannot look at him for fear she will betray the true extent of her happiness. She frequently has to hide her feelings from Harriet and keep her dislike of Mrs. Elton in check. Fully explaining this tension would require a much longer analysis, but Austen seems to be advocating for a controlled show of sensibility. While public emotional responses are appropriate in certain settings, sometimes feelings need to be concealed. Beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of this tension or the precise balance between sentiment and restraint that Emma works to encourage.

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