Jane Austen January – Emma – some early thoughts

I decided to do something a little different this year and start out my annual Jane Austen re-read with Emma, which is never in the running for my favorite Austen novel and sometimes finds itself in the position of least favored.  It’s been several years since I last read it, and I don’t think I have ever done it justice, as a reader.

Let me see if I can explain.  I read Pride and Prejudice first, and then I spent so much time watching the 1995 BBC adaptation that it supplanted the original; when I read the book, I was most often struck by its deviation from the adaptation.  Sometimes I took the trouble to read the book carefully and critically, to consider new (to me) ideas and challenge my assumptions about the book.  Sometimes I read it for the comfort of a familiar and amusing story.  But no matter what I sought from the reading of it, I have always approached P&P with respect.  I know it’s brilliant, and I know that after 20 or so readings (and God knows how many viewings of the various adaptations) that I have just scratched the surface of all the truth and wisdom Austen crammed into it.

Emma, on the other hand, I have never — ’till now — bothered to read carefully and critically, nor have I ever found it particularly comfortable (or comforting).  When I read it, I did because I thought I should, not because I particularly wanted to or anticipated any benefit from it.  I was first introduced to its story through the movie adaptation Clueless, and I very incorrectly assumed that the original was a bit frivolous.  Emma is such a difficult character to like, and there are so many troubling aspects to the story (Mr. Knightley’s being vaguely creepy, perhaps, or Emma’s and Harriet’s friendship being so unequal — and frankly awful — or the entire Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill comedy of errors story seeming like such an interruption to the main story line), that I honestly could not be bothered to take it seriously.  Emma is a fun, light, and entertaining comedy of manners and nothing more, I thought.

I was wrong.

Now about halfway through the book, I am not finding anything particularly fun and light about it.  In fact, the whole thing seems overshadowed by impending doom.  The action opens with loss — the loss of Miss Taylor — and with Emma seeing her future stretching out before her, bleak and lonely.  Emma, in desperation, seeks an unequal friendship with young, naive Harriet Smith, whom Emma pretty much captures and isolates like a pet, removing her from the company of good people among whom Harriet could have a happy and prosperous life and setting her on a path that cannot end well.

Later in the story, when Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax are introduced, the story grows darker still.  Miss Bates is a natural foil for Emma, except that Miss Bates is poor where Emma is rich, and Miss Bates loves and approves of everybody (while viewing herself in a somewhat self-deprecating sort of way) where Emma is contemptuous and critical of everyone, including herself, at times (moreover, most of Emma’s criticisms of others apply directly to her, so I read her criticism of the neighborhood as an extension of her dislike of herself.).  Take away Emma’s wealth and shift her twenty years into the future and she’s actually in a much worse position than Miss Bates, who is at least harmless and well liked…

And then there’s Jane Fairfax, whom Emma avoids and abuses simply because Jane, out of everybody in the neighborhood, best demonstrates the sort of young woman Emma knows she ought to be but isn’t.  When Jane Fairfax is around, Emma cannot escape from her self-disgust (though she does try to take Jane Fairfax down a peg or two by inventing the notion that Jane, a much prettier woman than Miss Campbell, the girl with whom she was brought up, either supplanted Miss Campbell in the affections of her husband or nursed an unrequited affection for him; Emma then shares this invented notion with Frank Churchill, which action is one of the most ridiculous and dangerous things Emma does in the entire book.).  Moreover, Emma fears not only that Jane Fairfax acknowledges Emma’s deficiencies of character and application but also that other worthy people (Mr. Knightley and Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston) do as well.  Honestly, none of that is fun and light.

Jane Austen does not have to be sparkling and enjoyable in order to be interesting, however, and I am finding in this reading of Emma that it might be the most interesting (read: thought-provoking) of all of Austen’s novels.  Here is a story about a woman who is allowed to be perfectly awful, whose sterling qualities are difficult to find amid all the jealousies and pettiness of her youth and pride.  But I honestly don’t believe that Emma is in any way more awful than I was at 20.  Emma isn’t nice, kind, or pleasant; she doesn’t inspire pity (she is, after all, “handsome, clever, and rich.”); and she doesn’t actually suffer all that much on her road to love.  Given all of this, it seems typical for readers to dislike Emma just as much as she dislikes herself; however, I find myself, on this read-through, at least, giving Emma (and, through her, myself) the permission to be unpleasant.  We’ll see how that continues as I progress to the novel’s second half.

Let’s discuss!  From the conversations I’ve had with some of you on Twitter, I don’t think I’m alone in my habitual approach to Emma.  What do you think Austen was about with this book?

(I’m planning another post on some of the perviness to be found in Emma, by the way.)


10 thoughts on “Jane Austen January – Emma – some early thoughts

  1. What’s interesting Emma is the only Austen novel with the main heroine’s name as a title. I don’t think it is a coincidence. It is also the only Austen heroine who is so privileged – rich, young, pretty and as independent as it was only possible at those times. A nice analysis!

    • Thanks! And I think it’s interesting that “as independent as possible” for those times is still not independent at all. Emma has a tendency to think herself free (because free of inclination to marry anybody), but she really isn’t. She’s completely stuck in Highbury, unable to go anywhere because her father is such a hypochondriac (possibly an agoraphobic?) that he can’t travel. It’s telling that even at the end after she and Mr. Knightley realize and confess their mutual affection that she can’t leave her father. Maybe Austen sought to demonstrate that even women with the privileges of wealth, youth, and beauty were still captives in some way, whether to convention or affection.

      I wonder also if Austen meant to introduce the evils of protectionism with this book… that dinner scene where everyone (except Emma) is commenting on Jane Fairfax’s walking in the rain to collect the letters from the post office is interesting. Mrs. Elton’s attempts to protect Miss Fairfax from herself would completely remove Miss Fairfax’s one source of independence: her correspondence. And it is equally interesting (to me) that just as many female characters as male see fit to openly discuss Miss Fairfax’s conduct in walking to the post and to discuss the evils of putting herself at risk. And what risk?

  2. When I was younger it seemed like Emma was universally considered the greatest Austen novel. I kind of figured that was just because it was the boringest, but maybe it’s also because it’s the depressingest.

    • I think it’s interesting that the title page gives the author’s designation as “the author of Pride and Prejudice.” If you put these two books on a continuum, they are at opposite ends. P&P is bright and, although it does occasionally shine a light on the darkness of human existence (Hello Lydia and Wickham), it does so with an optimistic humor, and everything pretty much turns out well. It also has a much more present narrator who is obviously guiding the whole reading experience. The narrator (and thus the reader) knows something of Mr. Darcy’s feelings, so the experience of reading P&P is not unlike the experience of reading a modern romance novel. You just KNOW that a happy ending is around the corner. Finally, P&P takes the reader all over the country, and all that action contributes to an exciting reading experience.

      Emma is completely different. What humor it has is not optimistic. There are frequent references to misunderstandings, and the narration is extremely neutral, so the readers don’t know the truth any better than the characters. Since the reader doesn’t know what’s going on, there is not that comfort of being told (reassured) that everything will work out right as rain. I actually think that lack of knowledge makes for a more interesting reading experience, but it’s certainly not as comfortable. Finally, the action in Emma never moves from the immediate neighborhood of Highbury, itself a retiring place; without a “change of scene and society” to help naturally make the story more interesting, it must rely on its characters (and their shenanigans) to keep the reader engaged. (If I were here comparing two romance novels by the same author, I would conclude that the first, while enjoyable, betrayed some of the writer’s lazy habits and that the second, while slightly less easy to enjoy, was the better story for being better told. But… it feels very wrong to accuse Austen of writerly laziness in connection to one of my favorite books.)

      Maybe Emma is considered so great because it is so serious. (Though I never heard it described that way… but then again, I have never read Jane Austen in any academic setting. Most of the people that I considered arbiters of taste, when I was younger and cared about such things, tended to reject all of Austen as frivolous and the root of the evil romance novel tree. I assumed they were selling her short because they (men) couldn’t respect something so obviously written from a woman’s perspective.) Who knows? Anyway, I didn’t find it boring at all, but it is a little depressing. 🙂 Are you going to read it?

  3. I think you’re spot on. I think this is Austen at her most acerbic and vitriolic, and all the more effective because it comes in such a very pretty wrapping. I’ve never seen an adaptation that got close to the dark side of the novel, and I agree, it’s often taken far too lightly. Emma is a very unhappy person, she’s a very modern heroine too, compared to all of Austen’s others, and intensely critical of her role in life – she’s a paradox, knowing that she has everything and feeling that she’s not undeserving or deserves better, but that she deserves different. But she can’t define different, and she can’t have it because she’s not a man, is what I think it comes down to. And that leads me to the big problem I have with book, which is Mr Knightly and the ending. How does this make Emma happy? Either Jane Austen was playing with us and is giving us an ironic twist in the Happy Ever After that she knows we want but she knows is slightly unbelievable or – I don’t know what the or is, because I refuse to believe Austen got it wrong. I have never been able to imagine that marriage made Emma happy – and I’ve always thought of Knightly as a prig. Am I the only one?

    • I wonder if we would like Mr. Knightley better if we were in any way privy to his thoughts (like we are Mr. Darcy’s, at times). I agree that he’s a difficult character to like because he’s so focused on doing the right thing all the time that there’s no expression of passion or anything else that really makes a hero agreeable to a reader. Judging by his behavior and how he’s described, his idea of a good time is hanging out with Mr. and Miss Woodhouse — patiently dealing with the former and endlessly correcting the latter — or chatting with William Larkins about business.

      It might all come down to Emma, though. The narrative follows her, so of all the characters she’s the one we should know best, but she is such a paradox that it’s nearly impossible to make her out. When, in the entire book, does Emma actually have a purely enjoyable evening in company? At the Weston’s Christmas dinner, she is unhappy with Mr. Elton and Mr. John Knightley. At the Coles’ dinner, she is jealous of Jane Fairfax, dissatisfied with herself, and worried that Mr. Knightley might not belong exclusively to her. Emma is also dissatisfied at turns with Mr. Weston and both Eltons at the Weston’s ball at the Crown, with Frank Churchill and her own father at the strawberry party at Donwell Abbey, and with absolutely everybody (and herself most of all) at Box Hill. In contrast, she seems happiest during her quiet moments of tête-à-tête with Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. I really can almost believe that she is truly happy to secure Mr. Knightley’s affections… Emma readily discerns the flaws of Mr. Weston, Mr. Frank Churchill, Mr. John Knightley, and Mr. Elton, but the only fault she can ever ascribe to Mr. Knightley is that he is sometimes able to find a fault with her.

      Emma’s understanding of love, actually, seems to be a state wherein the one who loves is unable to find those faults (or purposely ignores them) in the loved one. That’s how she is towards her father and Isabella, certainly, and even towards Harriet (a bit); Emma indulges and accepts them, and sometimes considers them superior to herself because they are simpler or kinder. When Emma considers whether it is possible for Mr. Knightley to love Harriet, a point that carries weight with her is that Mr. Knightley praised Harriet, seemingly ignoring her faults of ignorance; by contrast, Mr. Knightley did not ignore Emma’s faults and even pointed them out after the Box Hill debacle. I wonder if Emma’s view of love, after finding herself well within Mr. Knightley’s affections, might have matured a little bit?

      I don’t know whether Austen was ironic or serious with the ending of this book, but I agree with you that I can’t fathom that she got it wrong.

  4. A few of half-formed thoughts:

    1) It’s interesting that Emma the character is in many ways worse than (which is to say more destructive than) Fanny Price, yet among Austen fans Mansfield Park is more reviled than Emma. I wonder if the ways in which Emma is awful do cultural work in a contemporary context that Fanny’s smug self-righteousness does not. Clueless and the even the Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation (which I quite liked) do a beautiful job of translating the character from the page into a pretty, vapid, narcissistic heroine who we all know in real life.

    2) As we talked about on Twitter, thinking about Emma as a book about female mourning and depression made me like it much more. Clearly the loss of Miss Taylor at the opening rehearses (or something; can’t think of the word I want) the loss of Emma’s mother. Everything Emma does (including the captivity of Harriet) makes sense if you think about Emma as displacing/repressing her grief and becoming a fun-house mirror version of her (dead) mother.

    3) I do think the plotting of Emma the novel is genius. The Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax reveal surprises me every time. Many critics have written about as if were plotted like an early detective story and there does seem to be some truth to that.

    • Thank you for these unformed thoughts! (That’s my favorite kind of thought, actually, because it’s most closely connected to imagination/creativity.)

      1 – I wonder if it’s because Emma, while awful, at least acts, whereas Fanny endures but ultimately has no agency. The one thing she does is refuse to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal, and the result is that her uncle sends her away to do penance in her poverty at home. Eventually he brings her back… Anyway, I guess my point is that Fanny really has no agency at all, possibly just because she’s poor, but Emma is able to do all kinds of things, even though her schemes are all bad ones. I don’t know…?

      2 – I absolutely adore that image of Emma as a fun-house mirror image, distorted and disturbing. I really need to read that book!

      3 – YES! And, like any good mystery, there are all these little clues dropped all over the place. It shouldn’t come as a surprise — especially since Mr. Knightley points it out — but it does. I wonder how much of that surprise arises from shock that Jane Fairfax, that perfect lady, could love such an apparent douchebag…

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