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.)

Jane Austen January – Austen’s men

OK, here’s the thing.  I love Persuasion, but Captain Wentworth is a bit of a douche-pony throughout much of the story.  Every time I re-read the book, I am astonished anew at how annoying he is in his anger and resentfulness.  It annoys me further that Anne interprets and excuses his behavior, that she castigates and blames herself for the decision she made at nineteen.  But then the novel redeems itself (to me) by giving Anne an opportunity to share her thoughts with Captain Harville, overheard by Wentworth, and allowing Wentworth to realize fully just how wrong he was and do a bit of groveling.

I absolutely love it when Austen allows her heroes to learn where they have been in the wrong and to amend their behavior where appropriate in order to earn the respect and affection of their chosen ladies.

  • Pride and Prejudice – Darcy’s fatal error in his first proposal to Elizabeth is his arrogant assumption that she will be gratified by his proposal, that he need not exert himself in any way to be pleasing.  Honestly — “Your family is pretty damn awful, and I know I’m going to spend the rest of my life wishing that they weren’t a part of it, but I just can’t help myself… Marry me.”  After the ensuing confrontation with Elizabeth, Darcy eventually realizes that her condemnation of his character is not wholly unjust, and he takes pains to improve himself.  When he approaches her a second time, he is hopeful but not certain that he has succeeded.
  • Persuasion – Wentworth’s error throughout the eight years of his estrangement with Anne is in holding too tightly to his belief of having been wronged by an inconstant Anne (rather than perceiving that the risk in marrying him was all on her side and asking her again once his ability to provide for her (and any children) was more a sure thing.  He compounds this error by being a real jerk muffin towards Anne once he is again in her company.  These are grievous errors, to be sure, but in his letter to Anne and subsequent conversation, Wentworth demonstrates that he appreciate’s Anne’s sufferings and fully comprehends that he was the cause of most of them.  And, oh, that letter…
  • Emma is perhaps a bit less approachable to a modern audience given the huge age gap between Emma and her Mr. Knightley and the rather odd occurrence of Emma sort of growing up under his tutelage (ew).  Yet even in this story, Mr. Knightley approaches Emma convinced that he, with his constant correcting and nitpicking, has driven away all chance of her affection.  The very instance of his seeing his behavior towards Emma as potentially officious rather than his natural right becomes, to me, the most attractive part of his character.
  • Northanger Abbey – Henry Tilney gets to apologize for his father’s atrocious behavior, but he’s mostly on this side of the list because I like the story and construction of Northanger Abbey so well.  Henry may not be exactly my favorite type of hero, but he is certainly the most charming and witty of all of Austen’s men (except, maybe, Frank Churchill–but Frank is also a bit silly and quite selfish and so does not qualify as a truly good man).

To my mind, nothing suits a man so well as a little uncertainty.  It is the quality that separates my favorites of the Austen men from my least favorite.

  • Mansfield Park – Edmund Bertram… ugh.  One day he happens to look over at Fanny and realizes that he might just be in love with her after all.  It’s true that he repents of trying to force her to marry Henry Crawford (and of being carried away by his appreciation of Mary Crawford’s fine features…), but I always wish for significantly more groveling than the reader receives.  Fanny, of course, is perfectly happy to have him, but she’s Fanny, so it hardly signifies.
  • Sense and Sensibility – Edward Ferrars gets another ugh from me.  I think he’s my least favorite of all the leading men.  After leading Elinor on and being super moody and a bit freaky about the hair ring (ew), he just shows up one day, declares that Lucy married Robert instead and asks Elinor to marry him, and she’s like “Hells yeah!!” And he’s like, “Good, ’cause Lucy had appalling diction, and her letters have been an embarrassment to me for a long time, but what can I say? Boobs!” And Elinor’s like “LOLZ.”  Ugh.

Who are your favorites among Austen’s men?  What are your qualifications for inclusion on your favorites list?