Friday, December 20, 2019

Neptune's seashore, Emma, and A Midsummer Night's Dream

Part of the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream involves the quarrel between Titania, Queen of the fairies, and Oberon, King of the Fairies, over a changeling child. The little boy is the son of Titania's close friend. Titania has promised the mother, a mortal woman, that should anything happen to her, she would adopt her son. The woman dies, and Titania duly adopts the little boy.

Fairies tend to Titania's changeling

However, Oberon wants the boy for his own entourage. Thus, he and Titania quarrel bitterly, upsetting the weather for humans. Oberon likes to have his own way, and it is clear he is a powerful figure who is not used to being thwarted. Therefore, Titania goes to some effort to try to describe why it is so important to her to keep the child. This includes a lovely description of the two friends laughing and bathing on a seashore of Neptune, watching the sails of the ships swell out like pregnant women, an allusion to the friend's pregnancy:

Full often hath she gossiped by my side,And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,Marking th' embark├Ęd traders on the flood,When we have laughed to see the sails conceiveAnd grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;Which she, with pretty and with swimming gaitFollowing—her womb then rich with my young squire—Would imitate, and sail upon the landTo fetch me trifles and return again
We must imagine the sea off scene in this imaginative  image of Neptune

I love to think about this scene, and the two women enjoying the pleasures of a seashore together. But only recently did I connect this vignette to Austen's Emma.

It's no mystery that A Midsummer Night's Dream is a source for Emma. For example, Emma quotes directly from the play when she says the path of true love never did run smooth. In fact, looking back at that passage in the play, as Emma's quoting it might direct us to do, we can see that the rest of what Lysander says does speak to the novel's plot, such as one “too high” connected with one “too low” (Frank and Jane/ Elton and Harriet) as well as the problem of age differences (Emma and Mr. Knightley)—and if we go on, a melancholic possible framing for the novel in the proposal that love is momentary and “swift as a shadow.” (For more on A Midsummer Night's Dream as a source for Emma, one need only go to Jocelyn Harris' Jane Austen's Art of Memory.)

What struck me in thinking about the two women on Neptune in Midsummer in the context of Emma is Harriet's guessing Neptune as an answer to the charade: In response to the line:
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.

Harriet asks: "Can it be Neptune?"

Emma turns directly and imperiously to what she knows is the conventional answer to the charade: courtship. She quickly pooh-poohs Harriet's answer. However, Austen is not one to put idle chitchat in her novels, and as other critics, such as Colleen Sheehan, have shown, the charade is open to multiple interpretations.

Further, Emma in this very scene quotes "the path of true love" line from Midsummer, a strong hint that the play provides the frame for the scene: a play in which a lovely woman (Titania) reigns alone on Neptune, far from Oberon.

It's difficult to compact a decade or more of thinking and rereading and discussing this novel with others into a blog, but it is evident to me, first, that Austen was experimenting with form in ways that have yet to be fully understood. Second, I find ample evidence for the pregnancy subtext that Arnie Perlstein first proposed. Jane's sudden arrival to her impoverished aunt's home after years away living with wealthy friends, the length of her visit, allusions to her being ill, the illness that leads to her becoming suddenly bedridden and requiring a doctor near the end of the novel, and the surprise revelation of Mrs. Weston's pregnancy utterly out of the blue, ending with the birth of a healthy baby, coincidentally at exactly the same time Jane is bedridden and ill, all support the pregnancy theory. At the same time, all of these events can be plausibly explained by the overt story: Jane is in Highbury as a convenient place to carry on her clandestine romance, she really is sickly and becomes dangerously ill with stress from the situation with Frank, and it makes perfect sense that the newlywed Mrs. Weston would have a child nine to ten months after her wedding.

Yet A Midsummer Night's Dream as an allusive source brings us back to the concept of two realities as central to the novel: the play presents two worlds: the world of Athens, of law, patriarchy, and rationality, and the world of the fairies: natural, fanciful, and enchanted, ruled coequally by a queen and a king, a world of love and delight. Shakespeare even points overtly to the deniability of this fairy world, having Puck state:

If we shadows have offended,Think but this, and all is mended,That you have but slumbered hereWhile these visions did appear.And this weak and idle theme,No more yielding but a dream

Austen, I would argue, offers us an equally deniable fairy world, a far more submerged but not entirely hidden world that we, the reader can only glimpse, because Emma is blind to it.  Austen, in repeatedly referencing Midsummer, points us to her own fairies dancing next to and beneath the overt story.

The word midsummer repeats four times in the novel, and each time it introduces the fairy world of Jane (Fair(y)facts?) and Frank. In all of the other five Austen novels, the word midsummer only appears once, in Sense and Sensibility, though summer is often mentioned throughout the novels.  Three of the four references to midsummer in Emma relate directly to Jane Fairfax. All four point to the "fairy story" shimmering beneath and beside the overt story as told through Emma's eyes. In the first instance, we are pointed to Jane  as central to the fairy story as we learn that she is coming to Highbury. Miss Bates is, significantly,  the central storyteller: 

now the Campbells had promised their daughter to stay at least till Midsummer, and fresh invitations had arrived for her to join them there. According to Miss Bates—it all came from her—Mrs. Dixon had written most pressingly. Would Jane but go, means were to be found, servants sent, friends contrived—no travelling difficulty allowed to exist; but still she had declined it!

In the same chapter as the second mention of midsummer, we learn that Frank Churchill is coming to Highbury. The fairy cast (which includes Mrs. Elton)  is assembled. In the third midsummer reference, the dream aspects of the text start to shimmer very close to the surface. Right after this midsummer reference, Mr. Knightley has his dreamy musing in front of the fireplace in which he recalls Cowper's "Myself creating what I saw" in wondering what is going on between Jane and Frank. This is followed by the meeting in which Frank covers a blunder by pretending it is a dream, with the word dream repeated multiple times, and finally, the mysterious scene with the alphabet letters and the word "blunder," a bookend to the charade. Finally, as the fourth use of midsummer occurs, the liminal, dreamlike strawberry party at Donwell Abbey is beginning.

For a long time, I have pondered references to the sea in Emma. We learn that Emma has never been to the sea, though Jane and Frank have--we learn they were at Weymouth together--as have the John Knightleys.  The sea repeatedly enters the story from afar. Knowing that Austen never met a pun she didn't like, I believed Emma's  lack of travel to the sea was a pun on her clueless inability to see what was going on around her. Now I believe that references to the sea also refers to the fairy world dancing beneath Emma's consciousness, Titania's world of Neptune.

Returning to Neptune in both the charade and Midsummer, the charade may point us centrally to both the fairy world of Jane and Frank and the fairy world of Midsummer and hence to pregnancy. In both cases, a baby  becomes a changeling, dropped on the doorstep by fairies to someone other than his parents. And yet in both cases, we can, as Puck suggest, dismiss all of this as fantasy. 


  1. An excellent, cogent, readily readable summary, Diane, and thanks for the shoutout! I of course go further still, as I have claimed since early 2005, when I first saw Jane F's concealed pregnancy hiding in plain sight, that all six of Austen's novels have what you aptly called "fairy worlds" and I dubbed "shadow stories"!