Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Augusta in August: An Interview with Mrs. Elton

"Mrs. Elton was neither handsome, clever, nor rich" - from In Defense of Mrs. Elton by Diana Birchall, illustrations by Juliet McMaster

Mrs. Birchall (notebook in hand): Hello, Mrs. Elton. Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice. I have come to Highbury to solicit your opinion.

Mrs. Elton: My opinion? Well! Only fancy. Few people, I think, can be less forward in giving their opinion than me. You will not find me eager to say what I think; far from it. If there is any thing I cannot endure it is a woman who gives her opinion too decidedly.

Mrs. Birchall: Well, if you are reluctant, I can go away and interview Miss Bates. I'm sure she'll have plenty to say.

Mrs. Elton: Stay. If I really must give my opinion, of course I will do so. I would not disappoint a visitor for the world. That would be extremely rude.

Mrs. Birchall: Very well, then. Here goes. My readers are interested in finding out how things are getting
along in Highbury. You seem to be just the person to tell us.

Mr. and Mrs. Elton, played by Alan Cummings and Juliet Stevenson in the 1996 Emma

Mrs. Elton (flattered):  Do I? I do not pretend to be the patroness of the place. It would not be proper for a vicar's wife to take a leading part in society, and I do not at all aspire to such a state.

Mrs. Birchall: Certainly not. And we all know, don’t we, that Mrs. Knightley is the great lady of Highbury.

Mrs. Elton (bridling): Mrs. Knightley! Well, that is - Yes, she gives herself such airs, that any stranger to the place might be taken in, and believe she is the fine lady of title and quality she fancies herself to be! But I assure you, that is not the case. The truly genteel people of Highbury, the most select, consider her quite an upstart, I can assure you. We are not taken in by her presuming ways.

Mrs. Birchall: Oh! But I thought that she was from a very ancient family. Doesn't it say so, right there in Emma? Yes, I thought is what Jane Austen says herself:

"He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family -- and that the Eltons were nobody."

(Mrs. Elton ruffles like a partridge and starts to puff.)

The first sight of Mrs. Elton at church

Mrs. Elton: Nobody! Well, I like that! Miss Austen has an editorial way that is positively - That woman will say anything! She knew nothing of my husband's antecedents when she wrote that scurrilous book, not to mention my own connections. Emma, indeed! I do assure you that we are related to some very fine folks and move in quite another sphere. Why, my brother, Mr. Suckling, owns a great deal of property, and drives a barouche-landau, which Mrs. Knightley, who seldom stirs beyond her own park-paling, never does.

Mrs. Birchall: (Tactfully) Perhaps we ought to change this subject. I only meant to inquire about the various townspeople. We were speaking of Miss Bates. I always did like her. How is she?

Mrs. Elton: Upon my word! You are commencing at the bottom, are you not? Why, she is scarcely genteel. If she were not a vicar's daughter, she never would have been received in polite company. A sad, poor old maid, and with such manners!

Mrs. Birchall: I believe she is very kind hearted, and very well liked in general.

Mrs. Elton (disdainfully): Oh! Well, if you care for that sort of thing. Any way, since her old mother died, she has done very well for herself. You must know, she cast herself quite upon the charity of the Churchills, and you will hardly credit it, but Jane and Mr. Frank Churchill have actually taken her into their home, at Enscombe, in Yorkshire. When she was practically a beggar, too. Quite shameless.

Mrs. Birchall: Well, but that is very nice of them, and very nice for Miss Bates, too. I am glad to hear it. And Harriet - how is she, and all the good Martins?

Mrs. Elton:  (swivels around to stare at her interviewer incredulously) I thought that you were to ask me about the ladies and gentlemen of Highbury.

The Eltons with Harriet
(illustration by Juliet McMaster)

Mrs. Birchall: Why, yes.

Mrs. Elton (pityingly): If you cannot tell gentry from common farmers…

Mrs. Birchall: (gently) I only want to know how they are.

Mrs. Elton: Oh, very well I suppose. Mrs. Martin has got another child, I’ve lately heard. Six or seven of them now. Quite shocking the way they breed, but I will say that at least they are not upon the parish.

Mrs. Birchall: My readers will be glad to hear it. And of course we know that the Knightleys are all doing well, since the sad passing of Mr. Woodhouse, and the Westons are prospering…

Mrs. Elton: Oh, certainly; good creatures they are, though hardly people of elegance or fashion. The Westons are well enough to associate with in a little country place such as Highbury. They would be nobody in Bath.

Mrs. Birchall: Now I come to a more modern question. What do you think of all the sequels to Miss Austen’s stories, that have lately appeared?

Mrs. Elton: Why, to say the truth, I am sadly affronted.

Mrs. Birchall: And why is that? Do you disapprove of them?

Mrs. Elton: To be sure I do. Most of them are finishings of Pride and Prejudice, which I consider quite unfitting. Such a coarse novel, with that young girl running off before her marriage. Dreadful. We do not have such happenings in Highbury. And there are worse things, I know (nodding wisely) in Sense and Sensibility.

Mrs. Birchall: Do you think that is why there are so few sequels to Emma?

Mrs. Elton: Perhaps. You know how the vulgar mind doats upon scandal.

Mrs. Elton and her housekeeper

Mrs. Birchall: Then you would like to see more sequels to Emma?

Mrs. Elton:  I? I should say not. Why should that arrogant upstart of a woman receive even more fame and attention than has already fallen to her lot, quite undeservedly? She always gets more than her due, and has from a girl.

Mrs. Birchall: Do you mean Jane Austen?

Mrs. Elton: No! I mean Emma! Why should I want to see her get more glory than ever, films and all that sort of thing, when sterling characters are passed by?

Very few pearls like Mrs. Elton's.

Mrs. Birchall: (slyly) Such as yourself?                                          

Mrs. Elton: If you must speak of me, why, yes, as a matter of fact.

Mrs. Birchall: But don’t you know that I have written a sequel, a novel, that is all about you?

Mrs. Elton: No, I didn’t know. (Tosses head disdainfully) It cannot be much of a best-seller. Mr. E. and I read all the reviews in the London Times, and we have never heard of it.

Mrs. Birchall: Yes, well you see, I am an American.

Mrs. Elton: Exactly so! Then how could you presume to take it upon yourself to write about an English person – especially one of good breeding?

Mrs. Birchall: Perhaps I have as much fortitude as you have yourself. Be that as it may, my first “Mrs. Elton” story, In Defense of Mrs. Elton, was published by the Jane Austen Society of North America, as well as in Australia, and sold in your own England as well. It is now collected into a volume with other stories, called Mrs. Elton in America. Sourcebooks publishes it. Would you like to read a copy? I believe you would like it. Here.

Mrs. Elton: A book? All about me? Is that so?

(she grabs the volume and starts devouring it greedily)

Mrs. Birchall: Well, it looks like I have made one sale, at least. 

I had to bring Mrs. Elton in America to its eponymous heroine via imagination only; but you can order the book on Amazon.  Which is almost as miraculous!

From an advice column Mrs. Elton wrote for the Jane Austen Today blog a couple of years (or centuries) ago!

If you wish to ask Mrs. Elton a question yourself, you may send it to, and I will certainly see that she gets it.


Rebecca (RivkaBelle) said...

You've perfectly captured her sound - that's almost scary ;o) hehe

Unknown said...

Oh my, the woman is an amazing bit of work! I don't suppose there is anyone in Highbury she is not prepared to savage. Well, she does know her place as an Austen character we love to hate.

Great job, Diana.

Blodeuedd said...

Lol, great interview ;) And yes indeed, so many scandals in PP

Literary Chanteuse said...

Oh Mrs Elton..tsk ..tsk....just drink your tea! lol! Loved the post!

araminta18 said...

LOL! That's awesome...poor Mr. Elton... :)

BeckyC said...

Great interview! Just like Mrs. Elton! lol

Chelsea B. said...

Good gracious! This is especially hilarious to me because I just-- and I mean JUST-- finished watching the BBC mini- series Emma! :-)

Diana Birchall said...

Tee hee, thanks for comments! Don't feel sorry for Mr. Elton, Araminta, he made his bed!

Bonnie Carlson said...

Nice job!

Vera Nazarian said...

Oh, how I love this interview, Diana! Mrs. Elton is in such true impeccable character, and all such a wonderful meta-fiction! LOVE IT!!! :-)

Amanda Mauldin said...

Wow! I don't know how anyone could more fully capture Mrs. Elton's snobbish self-importance any better. Great work! Mrs. Elton in America is on my reading list like so many others, and I am definitely looking forward to it.

Infuse said...

well done!! absolutely enjoyable post") thanks for your part in austenesque!

Joanna said...


Valerie said...

This was wonderful! I'm another who loves to hate Mrs. Elton! LOL I think you did a great job portraying her as I remember her from the BBC show ;)

Lúthien84 said...

I enjoyed the interview. She is truly a vulgar lady and greedy for fame. Nice post, Diana

Kelli H. said...

Great post! I just love to hate Mrs. Elton. I am really excited to read Mrs. Elton in America!

Diana Birchall said...

Sent by Elissa Schiff:

< The estimable Mrs. Elton must forgive my impertinence (I am, after all, but an ill-bred American, and we Americans do love a juicy bedroom story so), but on the romantic front, how goes it with Mrs E's "caro sposo." Is he as attentive and gentlemanly in every way now that the honeymoon period is over?? We Americans are quite literally hanging on every syllable - especially now that l'affair DSK has wound down, with Anne and Dominique Strauss-Kahn putting past crises behind them and happy as billing and cooing lovebirds once again, we pine for other great romantic stories, and so we ask how are les affaires chez Vicarage Elton. And, as a follow-up question, may we be so impertinent as to ask when we may expect the bliss of arrival of little Eltons to complete your blissful bower??

Respectfully submitted,

Mrs. Joel D. Schiff,
Vice-President - Publicity,
Yentas at Large

My dear Mrs. Schiff,

Thank you for your interest in the Affairs of Augusta. I have conveyed your inquiries to the lady, and she was most effusive in her expressions of gratitude for your interest in her. I really think she lives for such; and your asking so many questions, which I had to patiently transmit, in the intervals of her complaints about one or the other of the good people of Highbury, was of the greatest satisfaction to her. I will transcribe her answers one at a time.

< how goes it with Mrs E's "caro sposo." Is he as attentive and gentlemanly in every way now that the honeymoon period is over??

My dear Mr. E is what he always was; the leading gentleman of Highbury, though I have occasionally been vexed by certain upstarts who at times fail to pay him due respect. Knightley is good nature itself, to be sure, but he is careless, and eccentric, and I have known him fail to consult Mr. E on matters of some moment in the parish. It is a great deal too bad, and I am sorry that other gentlemen of the place, such as Mr. Weston and Mr. Cole, too often follow his lead. In spite of such affronts, my caro sposo has the temper of an angel, and bears all slights with infinite patience. No one could ask for a better husband, and I hope I know my happiness; though to be sure, our vicarage is but small, and unfortunately situated in a very dusty lane, and Mrs. Knightley insists upon paying her servants double so as to make mine altogether very dissatisfied.

< now that l'affair DSK has wound down, with Anne and Dominique Strauss-Kahn putting past crises behind them and happy as billing and cooing lovebirds once again, we pine for other great romantic stories, and so we ask how are les affaires chez Vicarage Elton.

I own myself puzzled as to why you mention members of the French nation, who are our enemies; it is very shocking. Only think, Jane Austen's own cousin had a husband who fell a victim of the guillotine. I assure you it is true. Madame de Stael - Madame de Genlis - they are none of them any better than they should be, and I hope you do not take me for a Frenchwoman. Lovebirds, indeed! sure, Mr. E and I enjoy as much matrimonial happiness as is proper, but I hope we are not vulgar in our displays, as we must behave in a way befitting a man of the cloth and his wife. Our duties, you know, take in all of Highbury. People in general are unaware of the pains I take to help others, and the little credit I receive. But that is the way of the world.

< when we may expect the bliss of arrival of little Eltons to complete your blissful bower??

Had you read your friend Mrs. Birchall's book, Mrs. Elton in America, which is all about me, you would not need to ask about my fine sons and daughters. We have as handsome a family as can be seen anywhere in the kingdom, and Mrs. Knightley's bears no comparison to mine.

Very truly yours,
Diana Birchall (for Mrs. Elton)

Anonymous said...

Mrs. J.D. Schiff replies:

My Dear Mrs. Elton,

How very fascinating it is actually to engage in conversation with - if I may take the liberty - one of the premiere ladies of Highbury itself. I do assure you we in America hang on every syllable - especially as you so astutely note - there are *Some* whose accounts of matters are often less than accurate. And so, to be perhaps shockingly blunt, may I ask you, my dear friend, whether, in light of the obvious affronts to Mr. E. by *Some*, have you, too, been treated with slightly less respect than is warranted by the wife of the eccentric Knightley, she who was once Miss Emma Woodhouse? (And I do assure you my dear Mrs. E. your confidence is quite safe with me - anything you might confide - no matter *how shocking* will never be repeated; you may rely entirely on my discretion.) And finally, my dear Mrs. E., what news can you tell us of your illustrious relatives, the Sucklings? How goes it with all of that estimable family and their renowned abode, that seat of Ultimate Refinement, the Maple Grove - for I do assure you - talk of the wonders of that establishment have reached us here in the States and been much on our minds. It is rumored that our Mrs. Obama has even considered redecorating our President's rather boring "Oval Office" to resemble the splendours of the large front parlor of Maple Grove - not quite so lavishly, of course, for we are a democracy, but then, there are those infrequent times when we do have to entertain the French, and so pray do not think we are not above putting on "a good show" with some sateen pillows and crystal sconces - if only to impress those tiresome French who seem to think they can impress us ("us" My dear Mrs. E. who know the TRUE meaning of the word culture) with their showy ways!

And speaking of the French - I would be quite careful of whom I associate with, my dear Mrs. E. - for the name "Cole" sounds somewhat suspect to me. Are you quite certain that family is not of French origins? I seem to recall the name of a scandalous "Colette" and do hope you are not associating with any relatives of *hers.*

And finally, my dear Mrs. E., what of your renowned Music Society - for I do assure you we in America look to you for guidance on such matters. Has Mrs. Knightley been helpful to you or obstructive in the Society's formation and progress. For we in America do know how tedious obstructive people can be in preventing natural leaders from bringing much needed progress - why we see this situation in our very own Congress. I do hope so that as leader of the "Cultural Contingent" of Highbury - and especially with all your contacts at Bath and Maple Grove - your plans to elevate the tone of Highbury and environs (please do pardon that French vulgarism - it just slipped out) and to finally bring *Refinement* to the area will be successful!!!!

Yours in Great Admiration, etc., etc.,

Mrs. J.D. Schiff,
Lady Elissa of Essex (Road)

Unknown said...

Mrs. Elton is so delightfully awful. :) Thank you for the wonderful interview!

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