Wednesday, January 25, 2012

4. Emma

By Jane Austen

Another ongoing reading project of mine is to work my way through Jane Austen's oeuvre. So far, Emma is only my third, having already read Pride and Prejudice (twice) and Sense and Sensibility. I had meant to read in order of publication, since I had a copy of Mansfield Park, but mistakenly picked up Emma instead. No matter. Now that I've finally read Emma, I can now say that Amy Heckerling's 1995 film, Clueless, did a great job updating the 1815 novel!

Emma, the youngest daughter of the hypochondriacal Mr Woodhouse, is a bright, attractive twenty-year-old woman burdened with a bit of idleness and boredom, being somewhat isolated in the country estate of Hartfield. She decides to befriend a younger woman of lesser status named Harriet Smith and takes it upon herself to play matchmaker for her new pet friend. When a farmer of solid character proposes to Harriet, Emma intervenes, with the heartfelt belief that Harriet, though illegitimate, is still a "gentleman's daughter" and therefore, "superior to Mr Robert Martin."

... It was a bad business. She would have given a great deal, or endured a great deal, to have had the Martins in a higher rank of life. They were so deserving, that a little higher should have been enough: but as it was, how could she have done otherwise? - Impossible! - She could not repent. They must be separated...

Emma's meddling in Harriet's affairs naturally results in unexpected consequences later on in the narrative. It is also obvious that Emma is a terribly flawed character; her well-meaning efforts to improve friend's lot in life being rife with hubris. Worse, she refuses to listen to the sagacious advice of her dear friend and neighbor, Mr Knightley. Despite all these flaws, Emma Woodhouse is probably one of the more charismatic Austen heroines I've read so far. Emma may be overbearingly conceited and unwise, but she is also admirable for her independence, self-containment and unconventionality, which is evident in her conversation with Harriet:

   '... If I were to marry, I must expect to repent it.'
   'Dear me! - it is so odd to hear a woman talk so!' -
   'I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! But I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to chance such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of the husband's house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eye's as I am in my father's.'
   'But then, to be an old maid at least, like Miss Bates!'
   ...'If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty...'

There are many character foils in relation to the titular character, which is part of what makes the novel so enjoyable. Emma seems fairly confident that she won't end up a silly old maid as Miss Bates, and she is more surely financially secure than Jane Fairfax, who is her equal in age, yet faced with a less certain future. Nevertheless, for various reasons that she confesses to Frank Churchill, Emma has always consciously avoided being friends with Jane Fairfax.

'I have known her from a child, undoubtedly, we have been children and women together; and it is natural to suppose that we should be intimate, - that we should have taken to each other whenever she visited her friends. But we never did. I hardly know how it has happened; a little, perhaps, from that wickedness on my side which was prone to take disgust towards a girl so idolized and so cried up as she always was, by her aunt and grandmother, and all their set. And then, her reserve - I never could attach myself to anyone so completely reserved.'

But it's not until she meets the vicar's new wife where Emma meets her true nemesis. It is not because Mrs Elton is the daughter of a wealthy trader (and therefore not gentry) that repulses Emma, but her utter lack of refinement and character, which induces Emma to rant:

'Insufferable woman!' was her immediate exclamation. 'Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! - never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! - and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery...

Since Mrs Elton is also a social butterfly, her ubiquitous presense in the village of Highbury sets the stage for a few awkward situations which tests Emma's sense of social obligation, and force her "to be always doing more than she wished, and less than she ought! ". A good example is when Mr Weston invited Mrs Elton to join their touring party that Emma herself very much wanted to go:

Now, as her objection was nothing but her very great dislike of Mrs Elton, of which Mr Weston must already be perfectly aware, it was not worth bringing forward again: - it could not be done without a reproof of him, which would be giving pain to his wife; and she found herself therefore obliged to consent to an arrangement which she would have done a great deal to avoid; an arrangement which she would probably expose her even to the degradation of being said to be of Mrs Elton's party!

Naurally, one has found themselves in similar predicaments as our dear Emma! Fortunately (or unfortunately), the novel has a conventionally happy ending where eventually Emma learns the error of her ways and even winds up marrying a man of high character who is suitable to her status and temperament. Ah, but what else can I say that has not been said before about Emma? The novel was immensely enjoyable, but it also lacked a narrative arc that P&P and S&S had. Not only was it denser, but it also felt longer, because it got rather bogged down in the middle. Despite its flaws, Emma was still a book that I'm so glad to finally read. And I'm beginning to understand how Austen's books can inspire such a devoted, near universal following. The charming romances and comedy of manners are definitely a factor in a kind of surface appeal. But when it comes down to it, Austen was, at heart, a keen observer of every day human foibles.

Last year, the Indo-British author V.S. Naipaul caused a minor stir when he proclaimed that there was no woman in the history of literature who was his equal - not even Jane Austen. Perhaps his chauvinistic ego had ample time to inflate since 2001 when he won the Nobel prize, but he also failed to recognize (had he bothered to read any of her books) that Austen had no equal in characterizing pompous asses like himself.

Although Naipaul's declaration was nothing short of embarrassing, it did inspire a wealth of spirited responses from the literary world. One excellent article I found was this book review:
"Like it or not, the reality on the ground is that Jane Austen benefits and suffers from being associated with women, and her status as a major writer has been complicated by gender issues since her earliest readers".

Bilger's insightful review also allowed me to discover William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor who, twenty years ago, might have wholeheartedly shared Naipaul's attitude... until he started reading Jane Austen and came to the realization that she was - surprise! - a great writer. Looking back on the writers "whose heroes he had wanted to emulate", he found them "wanting by comparison". According to Deresiewicz, "[S]he didn't need to play the same game as the big boys. Her small, feminine game was every bit as good." He then became inspired to write a book about his experiences, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter.

Great. Another book to put on my ever growing list of books to read. But not before I finish Austen's entire oeuvre!

1 comment:

OlmanFeelyus said...

I didn't realize you were trying to read all her works. A virtuous undertaking.