Of all the authors I have written about over the last three years, Jane Austen is arguably the one who generates the fiercest loyalties and the most ardent passions. This can’t all simply be down to Colin Firth’s impromptu dip in the television adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, surely? While her novels are admittedly eminently suitable for television serialisation, they are so much more than that – for me they stand out as some of the greatest works of the nineteenth century, and I am going to use this review of ‘Emma’ to try to explain why.
Austen is an unparalleled miniaturist – the scope of her novels is usually very tightly confined in
time and place, yet within these constraints the portrait of utterly convincing characters is what makes the novels so successful. Her characters find such a strong place in people’s affections. They are believable and recognisable, none more so than those in ‘Emma’.
‘Emma’ tells the story of a year or so in the life of Emma Woodhouse, a prosperous young women living with her father in Surrey. Her social circle is small, and she is clearly bored, her former governess Miss Taylor having just married a neighbour, Mr Weston, leaving her with time on her hands. She fills this time with matchmaking, first trying to match her friend Harriet Smith to Mr Elton, the local vicar. This and all subsequent efforts are disastrous, although ultimately have do long term damage. Into this settled and neatly circumscribed world come two new characters – Frank Churchill, Mr Weston’s son from his first much earlier marriage, and Jane Fairfax, the orphan niece of, Miss Bates, one of Emma’s neighbours. Their impact on the world of Highbury is to precipitate and resolve a number of romantic storylines. The plotting is as adept as a murder mystery, and it all plays against the comic backdrop of misunderstanding and romance.
On one level, the novel can be enjoyed simply as a light hearted romance, with a happy ending and marriages, the social order preserved with everyone marrying at the right level of social status. The status quo prevails and is passed down to the next generation. A political reading of ‘Emma’ is appealing, but has been done very well elsewhere, so in the interests of trying to find something new to say I am not going to rehash that interpretation here.
Another way of looking at ‘Emma’ is to consider Austen’s extraordinarily sophisticated control and use of point of view narration. The narrator views the events of the novel largely from Emma’s perspective – we see what she sees, and have access to her internal monologue, her thoughts and feelings. But this is not a first person narration – the point of view is one step distant from Emma herself, and allows the reader just enough separation from her perspective to spot when she is being self deluding or simply wrong. I have read that Austen was the first novelist to use this technique (which I am going to take on trust) – certainly she uses it masterfully, the subtlety of which only really emerges with a re-reading (which this was) when the reader knows the denouement and the varies twists in the plot, and can spot when Emma is being mistaken. There are no moments when the reader is hit over the head with “plot device happening here”warning signals – apart from, arguably, the “blunder” scene, when a secret romance is nearly revealed. The one point towards the end of the novel where the narrator strays from Emma’s perspective, when we are shown Mr Knightley’s thoughts, stand out starkly and prompt the reader to consider his ideas and comments all the more carefully, such a contrast as they are from Emma’s speculations and fancies, which by now the reader has come to mistrust.
Emma’s capacity for self-deception is extensive and shown most clearly in her response to the thought of Mr Knightley marrying Harriet Smith:
“She could see nothing but evil in it. It would be a great disappointment to Mr. John Knightley; consequently to Isabella. A real injury to the children—a most mortifying change, and material loss to them all;—a very great deduction from her father’s daily comfort—and, as to herself, she could not at all endure the idea of Jane Fairfax at Donwell Abbey. A Mrs. Knightley for them all to give way to!—No—Mr. Knightley must never marry. Little Henry must remain the heir of Donwell.”
The extent of her genuine concern for little Henry’s interests are shown at the end of the novel, when they occur to her as an afterthought which is quickly discarded.
The character portraits in ‘Emma’ are astonishingly acute, not least in the portrayal of two contrasting chatterboxes, Mrs Elton, the new wife of the vicar, and the adorable Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax’s aunt (“Unluckily, I had mentioned it before I was aware”). It is interesting to contrast these portraits, which Austen achieves using similar techniques. First, the narrator gives us this monologue as Mrs Elton picks strawberries at Mr Knightley’s party:
“The best fruit in England—everybody’s favourite—always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one’s self—the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.”
Note the progress from never tired to tired to death! Later, as Miss Bates arrives for the ball at the Crown Inn, her comments are similarly fractured, but there is not an ounce of malice or self aggrandizement in them:
“Thank you, my mother is remarkably well. Gone to Mr. Woodhouse’s. I made her take her shawl—for the evenings are not warm—her large new shawl— Mrs. Dixon’s wedding-present.—So kind of her to think of my mother! Bought at Weymouth, you know—Mr. Dixon’s choice. There were three others, Jane says, which they hesitated about some time. Colonel Campbell rather preferred an olive. My dear Jane, are you sure you did not wet your feet?—It was but a drop or two, but I am so afraid:—but Mr. Frank Churchill was so extremely—and there was a mat to step upon—I shall never forget his extreme politeness.”
This is stream of consciousness writing in its most sophisticated and economical, 100 years before Joyce and Woolf, and while mainly about the characterisation manages to progress the plot as well.
There are several characters in the novel who do not step fully into the light until late in the day. Mr Knightley, Emma’s brother in law (her older sister has married his younger brother, apparently some years earlier – the have five children) and neighbour is referred to as present in several scenes, but has very few lines to himself and remains enigmatic for much of the novel. (I confess, when I first read ‘Emma’ several years ago I did not understand the convention of naming the eldest son Mr Knightley and the younger son Mr John Knightley, which caused considerable confusion) until Emma’s schemes force him to intervene. Jane Fairfax is if anything even more undefined, having very lines of dialogue, and only being shown through Emma’s distorted perspective. Both characters emerge as central to the novel’s conclusion.
I can’t end without mentioning the comic masterpiece that is Mr Woodhouse, hypochondriac (and yes, I accept that getting a chill was something much more serious in this period than it is today) and control freak par excellence. Emma surely derives her capacity for self delusion – the world is as I wish it to be – from her father.
As a romance ‘Emma’ must take second place in Austen’s works behind ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but as a comic novel, and as a masterpiece of controlled story-telling, I think it comes out just ahead. Happily, we do not have to choose between the two!