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In Jane Austen's Persuasion, when Louisa has her accident, and her friends and family are figuring out who's going to stay with her, we have this quote from Anne:

She endeavoured to be composed, and to be just. Without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry, she would have attended on Louisa with a zeal above the common claims of regard, for his sake; and she hoped he would not long be so unjust as to suppose she would shrink unnecessarily from the office of a friend.
Persuasion, chapter 12

What does "...emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry" mean? When I first encountered this phrase, I thought it may be a reference to Emma - another novel by Jane Austen - but that doesn't make much sense, since there are no main characters in Emma named "Henry" (Mr. Knightley's first name is George).

Are these names a reference to something? What does this phrase about "an Emma towards her Henry" mean?

1 Answer 1

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It's a reference to the poem "Henry and Emma" by Matthew Prior.

Emily Auerbach, in Searching for Jane Austen, explains:

Austen achieves additional irony through brief but pointed allusions.
Although Captain Harville and Anne Elliot seem to know of no male writer who praises women's constancy ("all stories are against you, all stories, prose and verse”), Jane Austen obviously does. Earlier, Austen calls readers' attention to Matthew Prior's "Henry and Emma." The reference is fleeting and occurs after Louisa Musgrove's accident, when Anne Elliot comes forward to nurse her: "Without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry, [Anne Elliot] would have attended on Louisa with a zeal above the common claims of regard, for [Captain Wentworth's] sake" (116). What readers in search of Jane Austen might discover through this allusion is that Austen points our way directly to a long poem celebrating woman's superior faithfulness. Prior's invocation calls for an end to male disparagements of women:

No longer Man of Woman shall complain,
That He may love, and not be lov'd again:
That We in vain the fickle Sex pursue,
Who change the Constant Lover for the New.

Prior celebrates a woman who is unbelievably faithful to one man. In Prior's poem, Henry tests Emma by telling her she should not love him because he has been exiled to the woods, must fight in battle, will endure hardships, and has taken a mistress. Rather than be dissuaded, Emma responds that she will be partner to his woe, help him in battle, and even care tenderly for his mistress. Your mistress will be the "happy object" I will follow and serve, a groveling Emma tells Henry: "What she demands, incessant I'll prepare: / I'll weave Her Garlands; and I'll pleat Her Hair." Throughout the poem we hear Emma's refrain, "I, of all Mankind, have lov'd but Thee alone."

Austen's allusion to this poem shows that she could have countered Captain Harville's argument that all male poets depict fickle women. At the same time, I suspect Emma's doormat approach (uttering self-effacing comments while making garlands for Henry's mistress) offended Austen's sensibility. Austen makes sure to tell us that the loyal, loving Anne Elliot could tend to Louisa's injuries faithfully but "without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry."

I think most of her readers would have understood the allusion; a few decades before Austen wrote Persuasion, "Henry and Emma" was described as "the well-known Poem of Prior's" in Sheridan's and Henderson's Practical Method of Reading and Reciting English Poetry.

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  • I haven't read Persuasion, but does Louisa fit the role of the "other woman" in Anne and Captain Wentworth's relationship? That would make the allusion more pertinent: Anne is caring for her romantic rival, for the sake of the man she loves. If so, what exactly is the difference between Anne's feelings and those of Emma, since both of them are doing something similar?
    – DLosc
    Commented Apr 24 at 23:40
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    @DLosc yes, she does. Since OP has evidently read the novel, I don't believe the answer needs to explain this; the answer is complete in terms of the question.
    – verbose
    Commented Apr 25 at 7:10
  • Interesting that the poem was based on "the Nut-Brown Maid", and The literary scholar, Walter Skeat suggested the ballad was "almost certainly written by a woman"
    – scry
    Commented Apr 25 at 7:20
  • @verbose True, although I think answers ideally shouldn't just be for the OP's benefit, but for the benefit of anyone else who might run across the question. (Also, part of what I'm getting at with my comment is that I'm still not sure what it means that Anne is not emulating the feelings of an Emma, since she is acting like one. That seemed like part of explaining what "emulating the feelings of an Emma" means. But maybe that's a different question: this one simply asks what the reference is, and another could ask in what way the reference is apt.)
    – DLosc
    Commented Apr 25 at 7:45

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