These past few months I have found myself strangely relating to Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen’s Emma, which I just finished teaching. In my case, the occasion has been a secret wedding.
Frank must keep his engagement secret from his wealthy and tyrannical aunt, who has adopted him and who would oppose his marriage to the impoverished Jane, an orphan. The secret, however, messes with the chemistry of Highbury society. Emma senses that something is off but cannot figure what it is. Eventually the secret comes out, Frank and Jane get married, and Emma’s own relationship difficulties are resolved as a consequence.
The secret in my case was my son Toby, who married Candice Wilson, a Trinidadian who is working on her PhD in Film Studies. Candice and Toby were visiting us last summer and suddenly decided that it made a lot of sense to get married right away rather than wait for a year or two, as they had been planning.
However, they felt that a wedding without the extended families present wouldn’t feel like a real wedding. They therefore decided to keep their marriage secret and act as though a later family wedding would be the actual event. We therefore had a courthouse marriage, with Julia, me, and Candice’s sister in attendance. It was a lovely affair and very emotional: Toby and Candice were obviously very much in love, with Candice crying and Toby beaming. We took lots of pictures. Which we then couldn’t show anyone.
As with Frank and Jane, complications started to arise. In Emma, Frank uses Emma as cover so that she thinks he’s courting her. Deciding that she doesn’t want to marry him, she tries to steer him towards her friend Harriet, who misunderstands her hints and thinks that she’s being encouraged to aspire towards Knightley, who Emma is in love with (although she hasn’t admitted this to herself). Jane, meanwhile, is suspected of having an affair, or something, with the fiancé of a good friend (the daughter of the family who took Jane in). She receives a piano as a gift, which sets Highbury tongues wagging, and becomes more and more depressed about the secrecy. By contrast, Frank decides that the whole thing is a game and gets a thrill from deceiving everyone.
In our case, I felt I had to be untruthful, or at least elusive, in my conversations with family. At one point a sister-in-law asked me pointblank why the two of them didn’t just have a courthouse marriage right away, and I, while secretly being impressed that she had gone right to the heart of the matter, simply nodded and said it was an idea worth considering. Toby, a little like Frank, thought it was fun to have a secret, although he didn’t plague people with it. After all, he is a graduate student and grad students barely have time to breathe, much less ride their horses to London to get fancy haircuts. (Actually, Frank just pretends that’s why he’s going to London—he’s actually buying a piano.)
But secrets have a way of coming out. In Emma, Jane finally becomes so upset at the secrecy that she breaks off the engagement and decides to become a governess, even though governessing is demeaning and arduous work. (Austen makes it clear what a sacrifice Jane is making.) Fortunately Frank’s aunt conveniently dies at that moment, and he is able to persuade his more amenable uncle to agree to the marriage.
In our case, the secret could no longer be kept once Candice learned that she was pregnant (!!!), pregnancies being harder to hide than secret weddings. Suddenly I was in the interesting position of breaking two momentous pieces of news at once.
Of course, I’m over-the-top thrilled, but telling family and friends hasn’t had quite the dramatic impact of the denouement in Austen’s novel. Emma’s discovery that she is in love with Knightley hits with seismic force, and Knightley’s unexpected marriage proposal is one of the most romantic in literature. (A student in my Jane Austen class said she went around smiling the entire day after reading that paragraph.) In our case, people found the story of the secrecy amusing and were happy for the couple.
So Candice and Toby are married and expecting and I’ll be a grandfather for a second time since Darien and Betsy will be having a child earlier in the year. There’s also a possibility of history repeating itself in a way that sounds almost novelistic. On the day I was born, June 12, 1951, my father took his PhD qualifying exams. As he tells it, he handed in a cigar along with the written work. The expected due date for Candice and Toby’s child is June 13 (my father’s birthday), and Toby will be taking his PhD qualifying exams some time that month. But if a significant coincidence were to occur, I probably shouldn’t stay with Austen since coincidences don’t figure prominently in her work. An author who loves coincidences is Dickens, and he would be appropriate as Toby’s dissertation will probably be, in part, about Dickens.
One other digression while I’m rambling. When all the births have occurred, we will have an extended family in which all five major continents are represented. Betsy is a South Korean adoptee, Candice is a mixture of Carib and African, Julia and I are both of European ancestry, and all of us but Candice are American. O brave new world, that has such people in it!
Emma’s wedding is sneered at by the tacky and tasteless Mrs. Elton as “all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.—‘Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!’” Like Emma’s wedding, Toby’s and Candice’s was small and classy, and it now appears that it will be the only one. Instead there will be a series of family receptions—one in Iowa with Julia’s family, one in Maine with mine, one in Trinidad, and maybe one in St. Mary’s City for the community that Toby grew up in. Since weddings are all about incorporating the couple into family and community, we will be like the “small band of true friends” that Austen mentions in her concluding sentence. Answering Mrs. Elton’s criticisms, the author writes,
“But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”
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