Emma Revisited

‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’

It has long been the opinion of at least some authorities on the English novel that Jane Austen’s work should be read twice. With that piece of advice swirling in my head, and twenty-four lectures on the author and her times under my belt, I have just completed my second reading of Emma, Austen’s fourth novel in order of writing.

Emma, the character, is somewhat spoiled, and she cannot desist from matchmaking, a skill in which she believes she excels, though she is poor judge of her own talent at it. The daughter of an elderly and hypochondriac father, she is much admired in the community and has a wide circle of friends.

A private dance, without sitting down to supper, was pronounced an infamous fraud upon the rights of men and women.’

Emma is full of biting irony and sparkling dialogue. I hesitate to call the story ‘funny’, but it is certainly comedy. Early in the novel, Emma makes the mistake of trying to pair her friend Harriet with Mr Elton, the new rector, a mistake which has repercussions not only for Harriet but for her own understanding of herself. Harriet turns down a proposal by Mr Martin, a respectable farmer while, preeoccupied with the romantic relationships of others, Emma is blind to the possible relationship in her own life. She is convinced Mr Elton is in love with Harriet, and Harriet believes her. It comes as a shock to Emma when Mr Elton proposes to her! Of course, she refuses him; Emma is determined never to marry (so she says!)

The arrival of two newcomers to the village, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill gives Emma new material on which to work her schemes, in her imagination at any rate. Jane comes to live with her super-loquacious aunt Miss Bates, while Frank is on a visit to his father, Mr Weston. Emma decides Jane is in love with Mr Dixon, the son-in-law of her guardian Colonel Campbell, considering a rumoured attachment with her friend Mr Knightley as most unlikely and unsuitable. For a time, she thinks even that Frank might be in love with her, and she with him, but rejects the idea.

Mr Knightley is worthy of special mention. His given name is George, though Austen never calls him that. Whether this is an author’s ploy to deceive the reader as to his importance is not absolutely clear. If so, it works, in what must be one of the few cases in romantic literature where a male protagonist is so underplayed. John Knightley, George’s a younger brother married to Emma’s elder sister Isabella, and an important but subordinate character in the story, is always referred to by name.

Mr Elton eventually marries the wealthy but snobbish Augusta Hawkins, who wants to organise everyone’s life in a patronising way, unlike Emma, whose interventions are well-meaning. Miss Bates is babbling but nice; Augusta is babbling and, I feel, just a tad short of malicious.

‘When [Emma] considered how peculiarly unlucky poor Mr Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman he had been expected to marry, she must allow him to have the right to look …. as little really easy as could be.

As expected in Jane Austen’s novels, there are many visits, made and returned, picnics, dinners and dances. Because the novel is so well known, none of the eventual marriage pairings is as unexpected as it should be, or as a first reading of the book suggests. The many dramatisations tend, I think, to emphasise the real love interests rather than masking them – which I feel the book does rather well. Nevertheless, the clues are sprinkled throughout for the careful second reading to find.

I find it fascinating to compare Emma with Lizzy Bennett, probably Jane Austen’s most popular heroine, and the novels in which they appear.

We like Lizzy from the start, prejudice and all. With Emma, we are unsure. Austen described her eponymous character as the heroine no one will like. But as we move through the pages of the novel we see her change from an impetuous and sometimes thoughtless girl to a more mature young woman. She begins to recognise her faults and limitations, and realise she is loved by her most unexpected admirer.

Emma – unlike Pride and Prejudice, which takes us on a mini tour of England – the whole plot develops and resolves within one country village and its outlying dwellings.

*****

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