Margery Sharp was a sincere admirer of Jane Austen’s novels.
‘One of the great delights of Miss Austen’s works,’ she writes, ‘is that one can read and re-read them indefinitely, always making fresh discoveries.’
Emma was Sharp’s idea of a perfect novel. Yet one ‘fresh discovery’ Margery Sharp made, while re-reading Emma, surprised her a great deal.
Jane Austen had blundered.
As Margery Sharp puts it,
‘I am aware that I must take every precaution to document myself.’
As, quite possibly, no other body of literary work has been as exhaustively scrutinized as Jane Austen’s, this is no understatement.
The interview with Margery Sharp was printed in the magazine Books and Bookmen, in the October, 1964 issue. Sharp’s ‘discovery’ is the unlikely circumstance of Mrs. Weston walking possibly a mile and a half from Randalls to Donwell in the heat of the day, mid-summer, while eight months pregnant.
‘Now Donwell,’ she continues, ‘was a mile from Highbury: Hartfield, where Emma and Mr. Woodhouse lived, was almost in Highbury: and Mrs. Weston, at Randalls, lived half-a-mile from Hartfield. Thus her walk must have been half-a-mile at least, and possibly, if Donwell lay in the opposite direction, a mile-and-a-half.
‘It was also a very hot day—mid-day, at almost mid-summer….’
“The heat alone would be a danger,” says Emma, attempting to dissuade Jane Fairfax from walking home.
“Madness in such weather!” says Frank Churchill, (quite piqued for different reasons that Jane is walking home). “Absolute madness!”
And the not-to-be-forgotten running commentary of Mrs. Elton while gathering strawberries that ends with:
“only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping…glaring sun….tired to death….could bear it no longer…must go and sit in the shade…”
‘So it was a very hot day’, Sharp points out. ‘No wonder Mrs. Weston was tired. She had walked something between half-a-mile and a mile-and-a-half. And scarcely a month later ‘all her friends were made happy by her safety’ upon the birth of a baby girl.’
‘Surely Mrs. Weston, at least 36 and a pattern of prudence–entrusted with the wrapping up of Emma after measles–surely Mrs. Weston wouldn’t have undertaken such a walk at the end of her eighth month? Surely those friends wouldn’t have let her?’
‘Can it be,’ Sharp concludes, ‘that Miss Austen, in the natural high spirits engendered by describing the strawberry gathering, temporarily forgot Mrs. Weston’s interesting condition? I believe she did. Even Homer nods; Miss Austen forgot the baby.’
Curiously, the other ‘possible’ oversight on Austen’s part, is in Emma, as well. The mention of apple trees blossoming in June was an unusual slip-up for this tree-loving author. Even Austen’s brother Edward Knight remarked upon it. The new annotated version of Emma, by Harvard University Press, comments on this in the margin as ‘one of the most famous apparent “continuity errors” in Austen’s fiction’. It begs the question, was it intentional?
For more on the apple blossom conundrum…
Jane Austen, Her Life and Works
As well, there is an interesting discussion on this at austenprose.com.