It wouldn’t be Austen in August if I didn’t actually read one of Jane Austen’s original novels. Emma has always been a bit of a strange one for me as it’s the first story I knew, thanks to the Gwyneth Paltrow film, but actually reading it has been a bit hazy. The fact that over the past few months I have found no fewer than three copies in both my home and that of my parents kind of illustrates this – I don’t deliberately keep buying it, it’s just that I’ve been a bit vague over whether or not I own a copy. Even reading it this time, although there were certain points where I knew the text off by heart, there were others where it felt very unfamiliar, so that I found myself wondering if I had actually made it all the way through before. The fact that one of my copies dates from university certainly implies that I studied it at some point but all the same, this is definitely the one of Austen’s novels with which I am least familiar, making it a real treat to discover again.
For the uninitiated, the eponymous Emma is twenty-one years old, heiress to thirty thousand pounds, beautiful, clever and indulged by all who know her – except of course for neighbour and brother-in-law Mr George Knightley. Emma’s older sister Isabella married John Knightley five years before the start of the book, producing an equal amount of offspring to the couple’s number of anniversaries, but they all live in London, leaving Emma to rule the roost over their hypochondriac and self-involved father Mr Woodhouse. As the novel opens, the neighbourhood of Highbury is rejoicing over the marriage of Emma’s erstwhile governess Miss Taylor to local gentleman Mr Weston. Emma is particularly delighted, believing the match to have been her own work and deciding that, since she has no inclination herself to wed, she should devote her energies to acting as Cupid to other people in the neighbourhood. Cue ominous music.
Emma is a fascinating character – Jane Austen herself commented wryly before publication that this heroine was someone surely only she herself could love. Within a few chapters, Emma befriends the profoundly dim Harriet Smith, a fortuneless girl with no family to speak of who is only known as the natural daughter of somebody or other. Harriet has been making friends with local farmers the Martin family but when Robert Martin proposes, it is Emma who dissuades Harriet from accepting, convincing her that they are too lowly to be considered and that there are better options available. For Mr Knightley, who has a very high value for Martin’s merits and a clearer perception about Harriet’s realistic prospects, this is an unforgivable act but Emma is unabashed, confident that local clergyman Mr Elton will make Miss Smith a far superior husband.
It is so easy to be frustrated, even infuriated by Emma. When I mentioned to a family friend that I was rereading, she remarked that the only way she could cope with her was by reminding herself that Emma was still only twenty-one and had plenty of growing up to do. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse is at that unrepeatable stage of life, in one’s late teens or early twenties, when one is utterly convinced of one’s own right thinking – so few of us can look back on that period of life without shame so it is important to hold out some grace for Emma who is proved variously wrong, very wrong and utterly and completely wrong. For someone who has never been challenged in her life, except of course by Mr Knightley, the shock of these repeated revelations is all the more traumatic but it never feels ill-deserved.
Emma is in many ways quite as foolish as her literary sister Catherine Moreland, if not more so. Having decided to pair off Mr Elton with Harriet Smith, she has no great idea of how to go about it other than repeatedly leaving them alone together. The reader perceives, as Emma does not, how Mr Elton’s compliments and attentions are directed in quite a different direction, and there is an agonising cringe humour as we sense his growing frustration at being continually palmed off on Miss Woodhouse’s stupid friend rather than being able to make his addresses to the lady herself. Emma tries lagging behind, stopping to tie a shoelace, walking out of the room to talk to the housekeeper and all to no avail. She looks in vain for ‘a declaration’, thinks she is witnessing one from afar but alas, it turns out that Mr Elton was simply describing a particularly fine dinner.
The absurdity of Emma’s misconceptions is further heightened when her brother-in-law warns her that she is in danger of leading Mr Elton on, which she laughs off as evidence of his own foolishness, something which she comes to regret when Mr Elton presses his addresses to her later that evening while the two of them are sharing a carriage ride home. Emma is Austen’s most cringe-inducing book and this is one of the worst moments of this within the novel, with the mutually affronted pair unable to escape the confined space of the carriage even after their misunderstanding has become horribly, humiliatingly clear. Part of the horror here is that Emma can take Mr Elton’s addresses as no personal compliment, since she can see that his affection are insincere and knows that he is motivated by her thirty thousand pounds. For Emma, who is snooty as only those who believe themselves not snooty can be, there is even the insult that he believes that his attractions are equal to her fortune.
Mr Elton with his urbane and unctuous elegance has believed himself capable of winning the heart of any woman, so it is doubly distressing to discover that not only is the heiress not interested, but she has even expected him to marry the penniless simpleton from who-knows-where. Yet, while the reader is moved to laugh at him, we are never prompted to pity him – he is not in love, he has been disappointed in income, not in affection. The sincere and good aspects of Robert Martin are never clearer than when contrasted with the superficial simpers of Mr Elton.
Emma’s view of what love should be, how it should look and how it should feel is mocked by the author throughout. Mr Weston’s son Frank Churchill, who has long been brought up by his mother’s relatives and thus has taken their name, arrives in the neighbourhood and despite being disinclined to marry, Emma is well-disposed to fall in love. Her placid self-diagnosis of her own feelings and cheery optimism about her expected recovery again give the feeling that we are being encouraged to laugh at our heroine, at her inexperience, but we are also being invited to wince in recognition. Who has not made idiotic mistakes while finding their footing with affairs of the heart? When Emma does finally find affection, the ‘declaration’ takes place almost without words, with her suitor telling her solemnly that had he loved her less, he might have talked about it more. Austen is always keen that her readers know that love which is true requires no grand speeches.
In the background to all of Emma’s skipping about and grand ideas there is another story though, something which on the reread becomes a subtle thread running beneath the surface. In the background to so many of Emma’s outings there is Jane Fairfax, equally fortuneless as Harriet and bound for the governess trade. She is visiting her grandmother and aunt, Mrs and Miss Bates, two of Austen’s more ludicrous characters, particularly Miss Bates with her incessant chatter and wittering. Mr Knightley has a high esteem for Jane’s accomplishments, her elegance and her decorum – none of which are qualities which Emma particularly possesses. Miss Woodhouse knows that, having known Jane all her life, she ought to do more to help her, to reach out to this young woman bound for a terrible fate (having been a teacher myself, I know quite how terrible it truly is), but yet we sense Emma’s distaste for Miss Fairfax’s reserve. She wants to like Jane Fairfax but somehow, she cannot. The two smile politely and exchange small talk but Emma is not to be invited into Miss Fairfax’s secrets.
Emma is the closest of all Jane Austen’s novels to being a detective story although Emma herself is no Miss Marple. The reader may catch glimpses of something very odd playing out in the background, but Emma herself is blithely unaware. As a feat of literary cunning, Emma is a true masterpiece. One of my favourite aspects of this is the character of Miss Bates, whose long-winded soliloquies send Emma (and us) into stupors of boredom so that we miss the vital clues that are contained within. Miss Bates is like one of those Shakespearean characters who only speak in prose, she rattles away, you tune out and the true content of her speech passes us by.
Whatever the faults of Miss Bates may be, Austen is warm in her sympathy for that lady’s situation and when Emma mocks her publicly, we feel Emma’s stinging shame at having behaved so poorly. Writing as a spinster lady herself, Austen must have been all too aware of how unmarried women were sitting targets for those young ladies minded to exercise their wit. The true hag of Emma is Mrs Elton, far more subtle in her viciousness than Mansfield Park’s Mrs Norris, cloying in her social climbing and dreary in her snobbery. Mrs Elton is one of those dreadful people who have ‘notions’, of musical societies and walking tours – we loathe her on sight.
Austen famously recommended to her niece that good novels should be set in a small town with four or so families and indeed Emma is the most classic example of this amongst Austen’s works. Meryton was never drawn very clearly and as a large city, Bath was something quite different. The town of Highbury is a close community who looks after their own – the Misses Bates will never have to walk home after a dinner, even those of its children who have wandered from the town boundaries such as Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax still retain its friendly interest. Highbury is more than just a place to live, it is a state of mind – Emma has barely ever ventured beyond its limits, imprisoned by her needy father’s requirements. The niceties and social graces of Highbury are felt keenly and the reader only realises quite how strongly they have been imbibed when we are confronted by Mrs Elton, breaking all of them as soon as she gets her foot in the door.
It is hard for a modern reader to understand the rules around social address – Mrs Elton displays her vulgarity by referring to her husband as ‘Mr E’, calling Mr Knightley ‘Knightley’ (this one sending Emma is paroxysms of fury) and bandying around Jane Fairfax’s name and even resorting to calling her ‘Jane’. This is too familiar. At this point Emma feels like an odd creation, surely closer kin to her mid-thirties creator rather than a true twenty-one year old. Yet, having spent so much time with those sensitive souls such as her father, perhaps we can understand it. A big part of Emma is about the importance of taste. We know that Harriet has none because she prefers Emma’s piano-playing to that of Jane Fairfax. Emma recognises that Jane Fairfax has it and resents the fact. Mrs Elton believes she has it and we can see that she has none, that her airy-fairy descriptions of her sister’s home of Maple Grove are empty, her attempts to court Jane Fairfax patronising and that her own displays of her own ‘simplicity’ such as carrying a basket with a pink ribbon on it are vapid and foolish.
Mr Woodhouse is another character who I could hardly bear. There is a comedy to the fact that his every appearance has to be stage-managed by Emma, with the general assistance of Mr Knightley, but yet the idea of living with such an individual is horrendous! Emma is only able to stir out of doors if there is someone available to babysit her father, or on one occasion Mr Knightley put together a kind of daycare service. We watch as hypochondria is milked for every penny by Mr Perry, who is gradually moving up the social scale on the profits. The reader is encouraged to laugh at Isabella who, wide-eyed, comments in sympathy at how difficult it must be to have to live with a disagreeable person, while in the background sits is her constantly grumbling husband John Knightley, but yet Emma spends the entire novel having to manage the fancies and caprices of her father and she never appears to see the burden for who he is – an indolent, foolish and profoundly selfish man.
Mr Woodhouse is the man who refers to Mrs Weston as ‘poor Miss Taylor’ for the entire novel, since he is sad that she has left her office as Emma’s governess in favour of marrying so he assumes that she must be too. Similarly, his elder daughter has become ‘poor Isabella’ for the same reason. He even hopes aloud when a suggested governess post becomes available for Jane Fairfax that she not marry and have to leave it any time soon, even though the general feeling about Miss Fairfax’s fate is that it is little worse than death – the lady herself compares it to going into the slave trade. We laugh at Mr Woodhouse but I feel that we do not rage enough. He more than equals to Mrs Norris in terms of selfishness, that he is lacks her malice cannot acquit him of demanding far too much from his daughter and neighbours.
Interestingly though, Mr Woodhouse does represent a contrast to the prevailing pattern of negative portrayals of mothers compared to fathers in Austen’s fiction. If Mrs Weston is the main maternal figure for Emma, she has far more sense than her erstwhile employer. Yet it is Mr Knightley who has taken on a quasi-parental role for Emma, he is the only one who finds fault in her, who comments to Mrs Weston that she ought to be challenged more. This all makes it rather uncomfortable that he is the one who proposes to Emma and that it is he who she loves. The sixteen year age gap is another odd aspect, as does the fact that Emma declares that she will never call him anything other than Mr Knightley. Yet with him that she seems happy. Certainly he is the only man who would ever consent to move in with her father upon marriage so we must believe her content.
By the end of the novel, we have cringed with Emma, been mortified by her, but we wish her all that can be good in the world. Yet I had forgotten the author’s parting words on Emma’s friendship with Harriet, how it faded to a general good will on both sides. While all friendships do go in phases, there was something here that again felt strange, that Emma had shrugged off Harriet’s affection as a childish thing to be rightfully set aside. While it was true that Harriet was not terribly bright, even Mr Knightley could admit that she was good-hearted and affectionate. Emma’s cold notes to tell Harriet to keep away, her jealousy of her, it all seemed to be a difficulty that could not be quite swept away. Harriet may be left to silently mourn the shame of those men she was encouraged to aspire towards – she certainly never discussed her renewed feelings towards Mr Martin with Emma. Perhaps Austen realised that this could not be convincingly resolved but the sense of Harriet’s victimhood lingers.
I have the feeling that Emma is the most clever of Jane Austen’s novels. It is subtle and lively and full of rich subplots, it has a fine supporting cast. Emma herself is certainly Austen’s most complicated heroine and her own self-assurance coupled with an utter cluelessness make her a true agent of chaos. There is something lovely though about the finale, centred around Emma’s wedding day, with Mr Elton at the altar trying hard to behave as if the whole episode is nothing to him, Mrs Elton making catty comments from the side and even Mr Woodhouse attempting to make the best of things. With the closing of the novel, Emma’s wider life begins, she will cast off the boundaries of Highbury and finally see the sea and, one hopes, with broadened horizons she will be better suited to lead her own life and steer clear of the lives of others.
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Published by Penguin Books on May 6th 2003
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