Sunday, 28 February 2016
Jane Austen's Robert Martin and Harriet Smith
In Harriet Smith, Emma the heroine is given a friend, a young protégée who is sweet but dim, and who throws Emma's talents by contrast into greater relief. Always flattering, Harriet tells Emma: Whatever you say is always right. Harriet's respect for Emma is touching and amusing but bad for Emma.
From the moment when Harriet is honoured in actually shaking hands with the great lady, she feeds Emma's sense of superiority. Harriet's nature is so sweet that the flattery is sincerely meant, even for example when she assures Emma that she is at least as good a musician as Jane Fairfax.
Harriet's delight in the Martins strikes Emma as amusingly naive. The Martins have 'eight cows' and a very handsome summer-house, large enough to hold a dozen people. Harriet would do well to marry Robert Martin, but Emma is so snobbish that she considers a man socially beneath herself to be equally unsuitable for her friend.
A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. Emma assumes, wrongly, that Robert is illiterate.
And Harriet loves Robert. Even while Emma feeds her imagination with the possibility of marriage to Elton, Harriet worries about the pain she may have given Robert. Eventually, after the misunderstanding over Knightley's affections, Harriet is packed off to Brunswick Square where Knightley contrives for Robert to propose again. He is, of course, accepted.
Incidentally, although Mr. Knightley disapproves of Emma’s attempts at match-making, it is ironic that he himself has something to do with the successful match-making of Robert Martin and Harriet. Whether deliberately or not, he assists in ensuring that they spend time together in London.
Harriet's marriage to Robert combines true love and good sense. Her wedding fits in with the happy pattern of marriages (Harriet's in September, Emma's in October and Jane's in November) which round off the novel with the feeling that, in keeping with the season, everything has been brought to ripeness and fulfilment.