Monday, November 21, 2011

Emma by Jane Austen

I had read all of Jane Austen's major works by the age of seventeen. Pride and Prejudice I had first read by twelve, and that one was obvious enough to be enjoyed, repeatedly, from that age. Though Emma came some years later, when I was fifteen or sixteen, its subtle plot, humour and characterisation flew right over my head. I remembered it as a long and not very engrossing book which it had taken effort to get through.
Two weeks ago I was able to watch the 2009 BBC miniseries production of Emma and found it fresh, funny, and engaging—enough to make me wonder whether it might not be worthwhile to read the book again. Meanwhile I had read Peter Leithart on Emma in his book Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen. This had got me thinking about the larger themes of charity and community in the novel, themes which came through loud and clear in the miniseries. I was now able to appreciate how the little ins and outs of social life in Highbury contributed to an intricate yet understated plot.
When a discussion began on Facebook about whether the miniseries was true to the book, I decided I had to take the plunge for a re-read. And I'm so glad I did. Emma is a wonderful story.
Miss Emma Woodhouse is twenty-one, independently wealthy, pretty, charming, and an inveterate matchmaker. Having decided that her former governess's happy marriage was all her doing, Emma looks around for some other pair to render happy for life. She settles on the local vicar, Mr Elton, and soon decides that Miss Harriet Smith—a beautiful girl of mysterious (that is to say, not very respectable) parentage is the perfect match for him. Old family friend Mr Knightley, the only person in Highbury who does not think Emma is perfect, rebukes her for meddling when she persuades Harriet to decline an offer of marriage from a young farmer who is in love with her. Meanwhile the little village of Highbury is buzzing with the return of Miss Jane Fairfax, accomplished niece of the garrulous Miss Bates and Frank Churchill, the long-lost son of Mr Weston. Frank's attentions to Emma almost cause her to reconsider her resolution never to marry, while the suggestion that Mr Knightley might be Jane Fairfax's secret admirer causes her some concern as the adoring aunt of the small heir of Mr Knightley's estate. Through a tangle of gossip, secrets, sundered hearts, and mystery, Emma grows in understanding and finds true love of her own.
Emma is a delicious, frothy confection with a chewy centre. Jane Austen chose as her setting a small community where everyone knows everyone else—and where, if someone offends someone else, there can be no escape from awkwardness. In such a setting, Emma's gossip and thoughtlessness become a twin spectre of destruction. Indeed, gossip and drawing-room chatter drive the whole plot. Careless remarks have shattering consequences.
In this subtle, understated masterpiece, what Jane Austen doesn't say is almost as important as what she does say. There's a wonderful scene where Emma's former governess, Mrs Weston, suggests that Mr Knightley may be Jane Fairfax's admirer. Emma reacts in shock, protesting that Mr Knightley must never marry and giving shallow reasons. If the reader looks far enough under the surface to realise that Emma is in love with Mr Knightley and doesn't realise it yet, this scene becomes exquisitely funny. Then there's the scene near the end where Mrs Elton brags about how Mr Elton is Mr Knightley's right hand man—nobody can do anything without Mr Elton—Mr Elton has gone to see Mr Knightley on a matter of great importance. Enter, on cue, Mr Elton complaining that Mr Knightley was not at home (though he promised to be there) and none of the servants know where he is. Surely he left you a message, says Mrs Elton, trying to save face. Not a word, says Mr Elton. Oh, to be sure he did, Mrs Elton says—the servants must have forgotten it. And in the middle of this scene, Emma—who Mrs Elton is trying to simultaneously impress and snub—excuses herself and leaves because she knows where Mr Knightley is, and knows that he wants to see her, Emma. The whole book, like this scene, drips with delicate, ironic comedy.
Meanwhile, some have suggested that Emma, revolving as it does around a central mystery, is the first English mystery story. Indeed one of the chapters could aptly be titled Mr Knightley: Gentleman Detective. This is part of why a second reading of Emma is so rewarding: if you know what happens at the end, you can read more carefully between the lines, picking up more clues—even in Miss Bates's endless chatter. Indeed, careful reading of all the dialogue is a must—even if the characters aren't dropping hints to solve the mystery, they are dropping hints as to their own true characters and motivations.
And Jane Austen is merciless to her characters, foolish or duplicitous. Mrs Elton's conversation is one long name-dropping exercise (how fitting that her friends should have names like Suckling and Bragge!). Of Harriet Smith, the remark is made that “Harriet was one of those, who, having once begun, would always be in love.” And even nicer characters like Miss Bates or Mr Knightley are not passed over without remark on their faults, while even the heroine is not allowed to rejoice over the birth of Mrs Weston's baby girl without some thought of arranging a match between the child and one of Emma's nephews. More than once I felt myself squirming upon seeing myself reflected in the characters.
Underneath the fun and wit, Jane Austen provides in Emma a wonderful discussion of charity—of love in public and private forms. Peter Leithart says,
Perhaps the most Christian novel Jane Austen wrote, Emma is concerned with the relation of charity and truth; it is about “speaking the truth in love,” or more precisely, about truth-speaking as the path to love. --Miniatures and Morals

Love in Emma has much more to do with community than with romance. Throughout the book, she must face the consequences of not loving Harriet enough to refrain from exciting false hopes, of not loving Jane enough to refrain from starting rumours, of not loving Miss Bates enough in her reduced circumstances. Truth and deception are a big part of this love: truth is almost embodied in the person of Mr Knightley, who alone dares to tell Emma the harsh truth of herself and others:
There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty, not by manoevering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.”

Love in a small community is nothing easy or glamorous. The same people's faults rub up on you the same way, day after day. In Leithart's words, Austen “knew all about the pettiness, the gossip, the boredom, and the inanity of life in a small community.” People are always “as tiresome as ever.” And yet God tells us to love our neighbours. Emma is about the unique challenges that come with trying to love the person next door, with the one little idiosyncracy that nearly makes you want to scream.
Essentially, the answer of the novel is that the neighbours can only remain a “band of true friends” by a continual exercise of charity and by a continual devotion to truth. --Miniatures and Morals

In Emma, the characters must navigate deception and their own uncharitable impulses in order to make community life bearable. It's a high-stakes plot, in which the enemies are whispers and veiled insults. It's a profound and thoroughly enjoyable book—highly recommended.
I have seen two film adaptations of Emma. The 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow film cuts a great deal of material out of the book, but remains an enjoyable and faithful treatment of what's left. The 2009 BBC miniseries with Romola Garai in the title role takes much more time over the material but updates the dialogue somewhat, as well as making the humour and emotional beats a touch more obvious. Both are worth seeing. As usual, neither can substitute for the book, but the 2009 miniseries may convince others, like me, to try the book.


Christina Baehr said...

Thanks, Suzannah - this was what I needed this after a week in which community has tended to feel more like trouble than blessing. ;)

By the way, you must try and get your hands on Robert Liddell's (out of print) book on Austen's oeuvre. So very rich and satisfying, and often pointing fruitfully to the robust theology of the novels.

Liddell was an English Catholic novelist who moved in exalted literary circles but whose novels have fallen out of favour. One of these days I must find out if they are any good.

Suzannah said...

If you haven't already, I think you would deeply appreciate Leithart's book.

The first chapter is entitled, "Real Men Read Austen."

What a shame, none of Liddell's books will be out of copyright for a good while. The one on Austen sounds intriguing.

Tim Nelson said...

Strangely, I'm actually in the middle of reading this for the second time myself at the moment. I'm laughing more the second time through :). I haven't squirmed yet -- either I'm not perceptive enough :), or I reject Austen's criticisms (or I haven't gotten to those parts yet).


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