Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jane Austen: Emma (1816)

Jane Austen, pencil-and-watercolour sketch by Cassandra Austen, currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery

[Image source: . This is the only fully authenticated portrait of Jane Austen that shows her face; there is a painting by Cassandra that shows Jane, but from the back.]

Emma is an epic of class distinction, or what might be better named class definition. The class being defined is the upper-middle class gentry, not quite titled. The same class that Scott in Ivanhoe five years later would call the Franklins of Merry England.

Knightley, the novel's most skilful operator, is relaxed in his nuances. He behaves well to the lower orders, he does not imagine what is not the case. When he discusses class distinction he is talking about classes or sub-classes that are lower than his own: we don't hear Knightley on the nobility. He uses the terms "line" and "set", apparently interchangeably, to talk about the place that Harriet Smith inhabits: Mrs Goddard's. But his definitions are also nuanced by "situation" - Miss Bates is in a situation which is economically straitened. Though her "line" is comparatively high, she ought not to be made the butt of Emma's thoughtless wit. Knightley praises Robert Martin, though he does not pretend that the friendship is an equal one. The exact wording is: "He knows I have a thorough regard for him and all his family, and, I believe, considers me as one of his best friends." It is not this: "I have a thorough regard for him, and he is one of my best friends." The phrase "and all his family" qualifies the thorough regard: what he registers is not quite a personal affection, it is a regard for retainers. And the second half of the sentence is like an ethologist talking about a chimp. Emma is an imaginer, that is the source of her errors, but Knightley speaks up for sense. Yet he is not (his term for Harriet) artless, except that comically both he and Emma turn out to have their humanly artless sides too, when it comes to making love. 


Harriet is a little embarrassing: I mean, for Jane Austen. In a book that so relishes its expansive accounts of discussions, there's a significance to its suppressions, to the things that are not given to us. They include (in I, XVII) the painful interview between Emma and Harriet at Mrs Goddard's, in which the error over Mr Elton is revealed; this is reported to us, not word by word, but summarized into Harriet's tears and good behaviour. 

When the same situation recurs with regard to Mr Knightley, another supposed admirer of Harriet who is to be revealed as an admirer of Emma, this time it's decided to operate by letter.

You remember how, after Emma's crashing remark and Miss Bates' painful response, the Box Hill scene carries on as if it was blithely unaware of how our faces altered, of the shock and awkward silence that only we, apparently, have been conscious of. True, the scene gutters and fizzles, as if others beside ourselves might be feeling this tension, this awareness of some debt that remains unpaid, but not a word is said about it. When Knightley berates Emma, it comes upon us as a relief. 

We are not permitted to read Emma's letter (III, 14). And now, though this time we are really uncertain of the author's sanction, the tension of the Box Hill scene reappears. It persists throughout the following chapter, in which Emma and Knightley hugely enjoy reading Frank Churchill's letter and indulging in discussing the finer discriminations of someone else's behaviour. This comfortable scene is also courtship between the pair, a foretaste of married bliss. Yet all the time we a little distracted by waiting for, what will also be presented only in summary, Harriet's reply (III, 16). Of the latter, we are told:

Harriet expressed herself very much, as might be supposed, without reproaches, or apparent sense of ill usage; and yet Emma fancied there was a something of resentment, a something bordering on it in her style...

The "very much" has an odd effect, as if we feel it leading up to "very much injured" or "very much gratified", but instead it's left hanging in the air. We can uneasily attach it to "without reproaches", though since this is an absolute position the effect of "very much" is actually to weaken it, to convert it into  "mainly (but not altogether) without reproaches". Austen is, it seems, unwilling to put us through witnessing Emma's awkward delivery of difficult news; perhaps also, unwilling to contemplate Harriet's reaction in detail.

But in the crisis that led up to all this, she did allow us to hear a Harriet we might not have expected:

"I never should have presumed to think of it at first," said she, "but for you. You told me to observe him carefully, and let his behaviour be the rule of mine - and so I have. But now I seem to feel I may deserve him; and that if he does choose me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful."

Harriet commands this scene, and three times the word "she" (as in "said she") emphasizes that for a moment Harriet is stage-centre, no longer an appendage to Emma but the principal interlocutor. Surely it is hard to read this without being aware that in some way Harriet understands that Mr Knightley belongs to Emma, and takes a little revenge for the earlier episode with Mr Elton. Just for a moment she asserts herself against being "placed", however variously, by her social superiors.


The first scene of Emma is a wonder. The visitor, Mr Knightley, "a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty" appears, and at first this unassuming entry leaves us uncertain what kind of dramatic status the visitor has. Arriving as a messenger from London, the possibility is briefly present that he is precisely one of those utility characters who, rather than being important to the story in their own right, perform the miscellaneous dramatic duties of e.g. delivering messages. For a short time afterwards, we enjoy the always-fresh - because never long-lasting - pleasure of being allowed to observe someone who is a perfectly new character to us, though he is not at all a new acquaintance to the other persons present - though just how old and significant a friend he is to Emma and her father we are not yet fully aware. Mr Knightley takes, in fact, quite a modest line, is nothing like so dominant a force as we will come to know him.

"Not at all, sir. It is a beautiful, moonlight night; and so mild that I must draw back from your great fire."

These are his first quoted words. Weather, in Emma, is not a frequent topic, but it is always significant and superbly evoked: light snow in December, a July rainstorm. It's as if Austen already sees the whole book before her. Thus that light anticipation of Miss Bates on Box Hill, when Mr Woodhouse misconstrues Emma's teasing and says:

"I believe it is very true, my dear, indeed.. I am afraid I am sometimes very fanciful and troublesome."

Emma is quite innocent of this implication, yet that she can be so misconstrued subtly reveals a potential in her for sharpness which, hundreds of pages later, springs into actuality.

And how naturally this conversation leads up to Emma's "innocent" pleasure in match-making, to which her father adds fuel:

"Ah! my dear, I wish you would not make matches and foretel things, for whatever you say always comes to pass."


The second volume of Emma verges on idling. Frank Churchill, we too easily understand, is of no particular importance to Emma. The other main introduction of this second volume is Mrs Elton, whom we are very glad to know, but a little of Mrs Elton goes a long way. No-one would wish this volume away, but it's remarkable how (thinking of those appraisals of Emma as "flawless" and  the "Parthenon of fiction") it's structured around an empty quarter.




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