Anne Stott teaches for the Open University and Birkbeck College. She is the author of Hannah More: the First Victorian, which in 2004 won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for literary biography. Anne is currently researching for a book on the domestic life of William Wilberforce. Here she writes about Jane Austen's Emma.
Anne Stott on Emma by Jane Austen
Emma is the perfect novel, impossible to improve. Part of its perfection lies in its smallness of scale - the little piece of ivory which was Austen's famous metaphor for her novels. But small does not mean trivial. In Emma she places her flawed heroine in a grounded community whose nuances are described with a dazzling sureness of touch. At the same time she experiments with the novel as a literary form, and also invents the detective story. We are given all the clues to enable us to solve the puzzle at the heart of the novel and yet to many readers the denouement comes as a surprise. It is only on re-reading that we exclaim, 'But of course!'
The opening sentence sets the scene:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived for nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.The key word is 'seemed'. Emma has it all. As the heiress of £30,000 she is the wealthiest of Austen's heroines (compare with Elizabeth Bennet's meagre £1,000), but in her good fortune lies her undoing.
The real evils of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.We learn later that she has never put her intelligence to work. She makes elaborate lists of the books she is going to read but never gets round to reading them because she cannot submit to the mental discipline required, the 'dry, tough reading' the contemporary moralist Hannah More recommended for women. She neglects her piano playing and her performances are only praised by the undiscerning. She has been allowed too loose a rein. Her elderly father is a kindly hypochondriac who can see no fault in her. Her governess, Miss Taylor, has been the maternal figure the motherless Emma needs but she has allowed her charge to set the terms of the relationship. Emma's teenage years were spent 'highly esteeming Miss Taylor's judgement, but directed chiefly by her own'.
As a result the sublimely confident Emma commits a series of blunders, which leave her humiliated and miserable. The blunders are serious, potentially devastating for others. She takes as a protégée a young girl, Harriet Smith, 'the natural daughter of somebody' and tries to find her a husband. A Dickens or a Brontë would have focused on Harriet's illegitimacy, but Austen's attitude is robustly unsentimental. There is no great secret to be revealed. Emma's supposition that Harriet must be a gentleman's daughter is as unfounded as the rest of her conjectures. The plot focuses instead on Emma's exploitation of this pretty, pliant, stupid but good-natured girl. She parts her from the 'respectable, intelligent gentleman farmer' who loves her and settles on Mr Elton, the vicar. Mr Elton is one of Austen's enjoyable minor villains, who later finds the wife he deserves. Before the essential 'littleness' of his character is revealed, Emma sees him as 'a very pleasing young man whom any woman not fastidious might like'. Ouch! And this is the man she is foisting on her friend. It soon becomes clear to the reader that the socially ambitious Elton is aiming at Emma, and Mr Elton's self-regarding, alcohol-fuelled proposal when they are trapped in a carriage on Christmas Eve is one of the high spots of the novel.
Emma's second blunder is equally dreadful. She has always been jealous of Jane Fairfax, the enigmatic orphan who from time to time comes to stay with her grandmother and aunt. The dilettante Emma is jealous of Jane Fairfax because Jane has acquired the accomplishments that she can't be bothered to learn. And this is where Emma's over-confidence becomes spite as she confides in Frank Churchill, the charming but shallow young man with whom she flirts shamelessly, her totally unwarranted suspicion that Jane is secretly in love with a married man: a supposition which, in the society of the time, could shatter a woman's reputation.
The moral focus of the novel is provided by Emma's neighbour, Mr Knightley, the man clearly marked out to be her husband - though Emma does not recognize her love for him till very late in the novel. It is Mr Knightley who presciently points out, 'you have been no friend to Harriet Smith'. It is he who administers the most stinging rebuke in one of the key scenes. The characters have all been on a picnic to Box Hill, but the weather is hot and most of the participants are out of sorts. (Austen is wonderful at scenes where the characters are meant to be enjoying themselves but are in reality having a hellish time.) On the outing a key development in the plot takes place under Emma's nose but she does not perceive it. Jane Fairfax's aunt, Miss Bates, is one of the party. Miss Bates is an exemplar of the genteel poverty that Austen knew was the lot of so many single women. She is also an inveterate talker, though the reader would be ill-advised to skip her monologues because they turn out to be part of the plot. The most morally aware characters put up with the endless flow because they recognize her essential kindness and good nature. But on this hot, cross, disappointing day Emma loses control and snubs Miss Bates in front of the others. The moment passes, until Mr Knightley reproaches her later. Emma at first defends herself.
Oh... I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.Mr Knightley responds:
Were she a woman of good fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance... Were she your equal in situation - but Emma... she is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age, must probably sink more... It was badly done indeed.Emma knows he is right and when she is left alone, she breaks down.
Austen critics have been dismissive of this incident. Is this it? Is this the peak of human depravity? But her point is that for most of us most of the time wrong-doing lies not in some great existential evil, but in the small change of everyday life. Any of us might be tempted to snub a vulnerable and irritating person. If so, we can feel with Emma:
Never had she felt so agitated, grieved, at any circumstance in her life... How could she have been so brutal, so cruel!The following day, deeply remorseful, she calls on Miss Bates. She is forgiven rather too easily, but she has learned an uncomfortable truth about herself.
In no other Austen novel are we given such a sense of a rooted community. Emma lives in Highbury in Surrey, 'the large and populous village almost amounting to a town' where the Woodhouses are 'first in consequence'. Mr Knightley is the proprietor of Donwell Abbey in the next parish and is the most substantial landowner in the neighbourhood. His days are spent with his tenants and his steward, William Larkins, and in his kindly dealings with his neighbours he represents a benign Tory paternalism. A few deft sentences flesh in the background. Frank Churchill buys a pair of kid gloves from Mrs Ford's general store. The teachers and parlour boarders at Mrs Goddard's school rush to the window and peep through the blind to view the handsome Mr Elton. The parish provides relief for the bed-ridden ex-clerk, whose son is the chief ostler at the Crown inn. It is a harmonious Burkean universe of duties and obligations. But it is also a place of mobility and one reason for Emma's mistakes lies in her snobbish assumption that the social hierarchy is fixed and immutable. Yet Mr Perry the physician is acquiring a carriage. Mr Cole and Mr Weston have made money in trade and are rapidly turning themselves into country gentlemen. Robert Martin's sisters have acquired the 'superior education' that will enable them to marry up. The enjoyably dreadful Mrs Elton, who manages to out-snob Emma, boasts of her family's ostentatious barouche-landau, though she is only 'the youngest of two daughters of a Bristol – merchant, of course it must be called'. Not everyone is upwardly mobile. The dark side of this society is shown in the poor family that Emma visits and in Jane Fairfax's bitter attack on the 'governess trade'.
By the time she wrote Emma (1814) Austen felt comfortable enough in her powers to move unobtrusively from the omniscient authoritative author's voice to Emma's - equally confident but horribly fallible.
Those soft blue eyes and all those natural graces should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connections. The acquaintance she had already formed must be unworthy of her... She would notice her; she would improve her.We take this novelistic technique for granted but it was new in Austen's day. So too was Mrs Elton's stream of consciousness monologue as she gathers strawberries in hot weather:
The best fruit in England - every body's favourite... Morning decidedly the best time - never tired... delicious fruit - only too rich to be eaten much of - inferior to cherries -... glaring sun - tired to death - could bear it no longer.Emma is a comedy of recognition, a story of the heroine's growth in self-knowledge. What could have gone wrong is put right and the book ends with three appropriate marriages. It is very neat of course, and Emma is let off far too lightly. But this is as it should be. For much of the novel one wishes to strangle her for her snobbery and her wrong-headedness, but she is redeemed by her wit, energy and intelligence, and by her ability to learn from her blunders. I am glad she is rewarded with the best of Austen's heroes and am willing to believe that the marriage will be one of 'perfect happiness'. I'm just sorry that I can't visit Highbury.