Towards the end of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), the heroine Emma Woodhouse has a moment of blinding clarity. Throughout the novel she has been treating her old friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley, as little more than a familiar sparring partner. But as she learns that her friend Harriet is harbouring dreams of marriage with him, the scales fall from her eyes. ‘It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!’
Recently I too was the recipient of an arrow of revelation, not in relation to romance but to Emma itself. I spent last summer rereading Austen’s novels in preparation for a term of Austen-related university teaching. Austen has been my constant companion since I was in my teens, and, in common with most Janeites, I’ve long had a settled view about my favourite novel (Persuasion, most of the time; Pride and Prejudice for sunny weekends; Sense and Sensibility for the Christmas holidays). Emma did not feature on my list. But when I finished this most recent rereading I was forced to take myself to task, just as Emma herself does when she realizes she has made a terrible romantic mistake:
What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world.
Harsh words indeed: for Emma as well as for me. Nevertheless, they seemed a fitting response to the reality that struck me. For years the perfect novel had sat under my nose, and I had failed to notice it. Chastened, I opened my eyes to the glory of Emma, and was dazzled.
It is unden
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Towards the end of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), the heroine Emma Woodhouse has a moment of blinding clarity. Throughout the novel she has been treating her old friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley, as little more than a familiar sparring partner. But as she learns that her friend Harriet is harbouring dreams of marriage with him, the scales fall from her eyes. ‘It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!’Recently I too was the recipient of an arrow of revelation, not in relation to romance but to Emma itself. I spent last summer rereading Austen’s novels in preparation for a term of Austen-related university teaching. Austen has been my constant companion since I was in my teens, and, in common with most Janeites, I’ve long had a settled view about my favourite novel (Persuasion, most of the time; Pride and Prejudice for sunny weekends; Sense and Sensibility for the Christmas holidays). Emma did not feature on my list. But when I finished this most recent rereading I was forced to take myself to task, just as Emma herself does when she realizes she has made a terrible romantic mistake:
What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world.Harsh words indeed: for Emma as well as for me. Nevertheless, they seemed a fitting response to the reality that struck me. For years the perfect novel had sat under my nose, and I had failed to notice it. Chastened, I opened my eyes to the glory of Emma, and was dazzled. It is undeniably a large claim to pronounce a novel ‘perfect’ and it is a label with which those who unaccountably prefer Dickens, Brontë, Proust or James might disagree. They’d all be wrong though. Emma’s perfection lies in the way it combines technical experimentation with classical constraints of place as well as, to a lesser extent, time and action. It was the first third-person novel in the English language to express its plot and perspective through the eyes of one character while revealing, with stylistic genius, the fallibility of that perspective. Many subsequent novelists have tried to emulate this trick, to the extent that it has almost become a commonplace of literary fiction, but Austen was the writer who invented it and did it best.
D. James famously characterized Emma as a ‘detective story’ and it is not possible to write properly about its genius without revealing the truth of the mystery at its centre. So: spoilers ahead. If by any infinitesimally small chance anyone who is reading this hasn’t yet read the novel please put down your copy of Slightly Foxed (or, at a pinch, skip this piece) and return to it once you’ve finished Emma itself.Emma Woodhouse is the ‘handsome, clever and rich’ young chatelaine of Hartfield, a small estate on the outskirts of the village of Highbury. When the novel opens her governess, Miss Taylor, has just married Mr Weston, owner of a neighbouring property, and Emma has been left at Hartfield with her hypochondriac father and time on her hands. She occupies herself by forming a friendship with Harriet Smith, a character so sweet and dim as to be powerless to resist Emma’s schemes, and, initially, by a failed attempt at matchmaking that ends up disappointing Harriet and wounding the pride of Highbury’s pompous young vicar, Mr Elton. Emma’s industriousness is watched critically by Mr Knightley, Highbury’s largest landowner, and by a Greek chorus of Highbury residents led by the indomitable Miss Bates, one of Austen’s greatest creations. In the novel’s second phase the romantic travails of Mr Elton ebb away with the arrival in Highbury of two visitors: Miss Bates’s niece, Jane Fairfax, and Mr Weston’s son Frank Churchill, who embarks on a theatrical courtship of Emma, aligning himself with her at the expense of Jane Fairfax to whom, we and Emma learn towards the end of the novel, he is secretly engaged. Ultimately romance wins the day as Frank and Jane are reunited following the fortunate death of his wealthy but capricious aunt; as Harriet is returned to her rightful station through marriage to the farmer Robert Martin; and as Emma is finally allowed a happy ending with Mr Knightley. Such a satisfactory conclusion pleases almost all of Highbury, with the exception of the insufferable Mrs Elton, whose arrival in the village on the arm of her new husband brings with it much additional comedy. On the surface Emma is the novel that conforms most closely to the model for fiction that Austen sketched out for her niece Anna, herself an aspirant novelist: ‘3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on’. This piece of advice has been leapt upon by the Austen-blind over the decades as proof that her fiction is only concerned with narrow, parochial things. What the Austen-blind are unable to see, however, is that in those ‘3 or 4 Families’, in her hands, lie the stories and dramas of the whole world. Emma is a comedy of errors set in a Surrey village, but it is also a novel about the human condition: about love and friendship, community and gossip, responsibility and morality, and about the reality that to be in the world is to be imperfect and misguided and true. The small dramas of Highbury are the dramas of humanity, with no incidental diversions into war or action or event as a narrative escape clause. Instead, Austen sets herself a further constraint, in which every plot development must evolve from the consequences of ordinary human desire. Like Vermeer she fills her canvas with light and revealing shadow to create an artefact that speaks of the essential qualities of human experience. Like Vermeer, but not like Vermeer: it’s rare that a great painting can make you laugh. Emma, though, will make you laugh over and over again. Sometimes it will catch you through its sparkling representation of absurdity as personified by the figures of Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates, or in the linguistic duels that take place between Emma and a very unequally matched Mrs Elton. At other points it will take your breath away through the virtuosity with which Austen reduces dialogue to its essentials. Take, for example, the scene where the inhabitants of Highbury go strawberry-picking in Mr Knightley’s grounds at Donwell Abbey. There Austen does away with the distractions of narrative structure to give Mrs Elton’s voice free rein across the page, in a passage of dazzling characterization and story-telling that works without a single prop to hold it up:
Strawberries, and only strawberries, could not be thought or spoken of. – ‘The best fruit in England – every body’s favourite – always wholesome – These the finest beds and finest sorts. – Delightful to gather for one’s self, – the only way of really enjoying them. – Morning decidedly the best time – never tired – every sort good – hautboy infinitely superior – no comparison – the others hardly eatable . . . Cultivation – beds when to be renewed – gardeners thinking exactly different – no general rule – gardeners never to be put out of their way – delicious fruit – only too rich to be eaten much of – inferior to cherries – cur- rents more refreshing – only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping – glaring sun – tired to death – could bear it no longer – must go and sit in the shade.’As Mrs Elton retires with her beribboned bonnet and strawberry basket, exhausted by her labours (and, we presume, by the effort of non-stop talking), the novel’s plot moves irresistibly forward. At the margins of the strawberry-picking excursion Austen shows us that Jane Fairfax is out of sorts, Frank Churchill is unaccountably late, and Mr Knightley appears to be in earnest conversation with Harriet Smith. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet freely concedes a change in her feelings towards Darcy the first time she sees Pemberley. Emma has less self-awareness than Elizabeth, so as we see Donwell Abbey through her eyes we notice before she does that her feelings towards its owner have imperceptibly shifted. This is something of which we are allowed knowledge even though it is through impervious Emma that we witness the Donwell excursion, in an evolution of the narrative style that Austen here makes uniquely her own. This is entirely characteristic of Austen’s method in Emma. She tells us everything but distracts both us and Emma with detail. I have read Emma multiple times, but it was only on my latest rereading that I noticed that during a ball at the Crown Inn, Frank Churchill is standing silently behind Jane Fairfax, tenderly slipping her shawl round her shoulders in plain sight of an oblivious crowd. We learn of this through the commentary of the garrulous Miss Bates, who we have long since been taught to ignore:
‘Jane, Jane, my dear Jane, where are you? – Here is your tippet. Mrs Weston begs you to put on your tippet. She says she is afraid there will be draughts in the passage, though every thing has been done – One door nailed up – Quantities of matting – My dear Jane indeed you must. Mr Churchill, oh! you are too obliging! How well you put it on! – so gratified! Excellent dancing indeed!’There are so many moments like this in Emma, where Austen shows us exactly what is happening and simultaneously arranges her cast so that we do not see what is unfolding among them. In making Miss Bates the source of much valuable information she also warns us that we dismiss the invisible and inconsequential women at the margins of a community like Highbury at our peril. If we do so, here and elsewhere, like Emma we become blind, all the while thinking that because we are allied with a third-person narrator, we have possession of the facts. To read Emma, then, is to be reminded of the vagaries of the human condition not just by witnessing the follies of its characters, but because it shows us ourselves anew as babes-in-the- wood in relation to both narrative not-knowing and the mysteries of the human heart. Both Emma and we are made into willing targets for that darting arrow of revelation that finds us only when we stop looking for what we think we see and appreciate instead the reality that Austen has built for us. This is what I mean by Emma’s perfection. It is a work of art that gives us the world and shows what it is to be alive in it. It is also a truly joyous novel, in which those classical unities set the stage not for tragedy but for happiness. It is not the most romantic of Austen’s novels: Emma and Knightley are no Elizabeth and Darcy or Anne and Wentworth. This may be why I failed for so long to see its brilliance. Blinded by the realist romance at its centre I failed to see how capacious is its account of love. It may end with romantic unions but this tying up of knots is itself something of a diversion. It is really about the love that persists between old friends, and father and daughter, and aunt and niece, and brothers, and between a father and his errant son. All is forgiven as the characters emerge from a season of midsummer confusion and life in Highbury settles down around its reconfigured families. Emma is an act of generosity from writer to reader, in which the writer plays entirely fair with the facts and the reader nevertheless falls hopelessly for a brilliant sleight-of-hand. Rereading it again, I’ve been reminded of the words of William Godwin about his wife Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden: ‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.’
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 80 © Daisy Hay 2023
About the contributor
Daisy Hay’s most recent book is Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age. She loves Austen almost as much as Miss Bates loves talking.