Who Wrote Robert Martin’s Proposal? (And Why It Matters!)
The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer.
It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling. She paused over it, while Harriet stood anxiously watching for her opinion, with a “Well, well,” and was at last forced to add, “Is it a good letter? or is it too short?”
“Yes, indeed, a very good letter,” replied Emma rather slowly — “so good a letter, Harriet, that every thing considered, I think one of his sisters must have helped him. I can hardly imagine the young man whom I saw talking with you the other day could express himself so well, if left quite to his own powers, and yet it is not the style of a woman; no, certainly, it is too strong and concise; not diffuse enough for a woman. No doubt he is a sensible man, and I suppose may have a natural talent for — thinks strongly and clearly — and when he takes a pen in hand, his thoughts naturally find proper words. It is so with some men.”
Everyone knows that Emma wrote Harriet’s response to Robert Martin’s proposal letter – but what if someone else wrote Robert’s letter, as well? A great deal of literary criticism has been written about Emma’s authoring of Harriet Smith’s response to Mr Martin’s proposal, but very little has been written about Robert’s letter itself, and the possibility that it also was written by another character.
Robert Martin is a sensible and literate man, but as a tenant farmer in the Regency era it is very unlikely that he would be the author of a letter impressive enough to surprise Emma, as his proposal does. Austen writes that he reads Almanacs and other practical publications important to the profession of farming, but it is unlikely as a member of the working class that he has much time or inclination to read much else, as is supported by his seeming disinclination to purchase the book that Harriet recommends.
The Case Against Robert as Author of the Letter
Emma’s reaction to the letter provides us our most important clues to who the real author of the letter is. She makes two claims — first that it is unlikely that Robert Martin wrote the letter on his own and secondly that the style is not that of a woman’s, making it unlikely that his sisters helped him. All of this tells the reader that if the letter was written by someone other than Robert Martin, it was a man and someone whose writing would surpass even Emma’s high standards. The solution to this mystery lies in one of two directions – the first being that the author is someone Jane Austen does not introduce to readers during the course of the novel. This is an unsatisfying but very possible conclusion – Jane Austen frequently writes endings that leave the reader unsatisfied in one sense or another.
The second, and much more interesting and satisfying solution to the mystery of Robert Martin’s letter is that Mr. Knightly wrote it. Knightly fulfils both qualifications created by Emma concerning the author’s identity– he is an educated man, and genteel enough to impress her. It is also clear from the text that Robert Martin consulted Knightly just as Harriet consulted Emma. Emma ended up writing Harriet’s response, so the possibility of Knightly having written the letter to begin with fits rather nicely into their dichotomy of attitudes about the marriage. Knightley’s interference in the match also help to make his character more imperfect and human, and a more suitable match for Emma.
Why Knightley’s Authorship of Robert Martin’s Proposal is Important
More than simply making the storyline more interesting, the possibility of Knightley’s authorship of Martin’s letter adds depth and a more critical slant to both the novel and the films. Jane Austen is famous, not just for writing love stories, but also for questioning and critiquing the society in which she lived.
Throughout the novel Austen presents Emma as someone who interferes in the affairs of others – bringing Knightley into that same critical light transports that shortcoming from a personal level to a class and societal level. If indeed Knightley wrote Martin’s letter, then we have two very wealthy upper-middle socialites not only interfering in the affairs of those who are socially beneath them, but indeed robbing these two working class individuals of their own voice. As we see later on, Robert Martin and Harriet Smith do well enough courting each other without the interference of their friends that they do eventually marry.
Jane Austen’s Critique of Society
Knowing Jane Austen, one cannot believe that the criticism she lays upon Knightley and Emma’s interference is directed only at two fictional characters. It is very likely that Austen’s criticism is really directed at the wealthy classes of England directly – those literate people who through wealth and influence control the way the very history and story of a nation, even its working class, is written and remembered. At the time Jane Austen wrote Emma, pastoral stories that presented a sugarcoated and romanticized version of country life were very common. Jane Austen’s satirical advice to another novelist at the time she was writing Emma – that “3 or 4 families in a Country Village [was] the very thing to work on]” shows an a rather critical awareness to this trend.
Austen, a writer very much concerned with themes of authorship and voice, as well as ideas of material inequality, very likely would want us to look on Knightley and Emma’s interference as indicative of a larger societal problem.
Michaela Spangenburg has always been a Janeite but didn’t fully appreciate Miss Austen’s brilliance until taking a course in literary criticism from Robert Coleman-Senghor. Michaela aspires to be a literary theorist, writer, artist and one day clinical psychologist and anthropologist. She will soon graduate with three B.A.s before moving onto graduate school.
Reprinted with permission from Suite 101: Authorship of Letters in Jane Austen’s Emma: An Exploration and Critical Analysis of Voice and Letter Writing
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