Ophelia Benson is the editor of Butterflies and Wheels and deputy editor of The Philosophers' Magazine. She is co-author (with Jeremy Stangroom) of The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense and Why Truth Matters. Their next book (Continuum 2008) is Does God Hate Women?. Here Ophelia discusses Jane Austen's Emma.
Ophelia Benson on Emma by Jane Austen
In a way, Emma is all about intelligence - or talents, or quickness, or wit, or understanding, or cleverness. The theme is present in the first sentence.
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence...One of the consequences of this situation, one of its evils, is 'a disposition to think a little too well of herself'. Another is her isolation after Miss Taylor marries - her isolation, boredom, restless energy.
... with all her advantages, natural and domestic, she was now in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude. She dearly loved her father, but he was no companion for her. He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful... though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time.Mr Woodhouse immediately demonstrates as much.
... from his habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself, he was very much disposed to think Miss Taylor had done as sad a thing for herself as for them.Emma's dire situation is established in all its boredom and claustrophobia in a few paragraphs: she is marooned with a father who fusses like a baby and can't even grasp that other people could feel differently from himself. That is in fact a quite interesting example of his lack of 'talents': Mr Woodhouse lacks the understanding of other minds, which is a stage of child development that psychologists have pinpointed to a very early age. Mr Woodhouse thinks like a toddler.
He is also dependent and needy like a toddler, which means that Emma is pinned and trapped; she can't travel, she can't (apparently) even go to London to visit Isabella for a few weeks, as Cassandra and Jane Austen, separately and together, often travelled to visit a brother for a few weeks. This, of course, sets up the 'little bit of ivory' for Austen to paint on, but it also provides the compost for the ripe distortions and illusions of the plot. The action is confined to this tiny stage, and for most of the characters, escape is impossible. This is useful in a mechanical or practical way for plot and structure; it provides a ruthless simplification and hence intensification; but it also reflects real life confinement and narrowness, and what results from that. Emma, despite (and because of) her cleverness, does one silly thing after another, one of which is appallingly reckless and harmful and another of which is carelessly cruel; she does all of them because she has nothing better to do.
Emma quickly finds a solution to her problem of intellectual isolation, a solution which is full of irony, since escape from intellectual isolation is exactly what it isn't. Austen, as always, sets this up carefully. She has a way, perhaps more visible in Emma than in any of her other novels, of setting up tiny explosive devices of this kind. A sentence in one paragraph sets off a little bomb a few pages or chapters later. So here: from 'she was now in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude' to...
Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.Emma is suffering from intellectual solitude, so she makes a great friend of Harriet Smith, who is not remarkably (or unremarkably either) clever, but who is 'not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk - and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield'. Oh dear. She's blown it. The first move she makes after Miss Taylor leaves the house, and she blows it. She answers the problem of intellectual isolation by adopting someone deferential and grateful and not clever, whom she will be able to push around like a dolly on wheels. Emma's clever, but not clever enough to avoid making that mistake. She doesn't realize the mistake until much later - another little bomb going off.
She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith's conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging.
Mr Knightley does, though; of course. He realizes the mistake and tells Mrs Weston (Miss Taylor that was) so - but she disagrees with him entirely. 'You surprize me! Emma must do Harriet good: and by supplying her with a new object of interest, Harriet may be said to do Emma good.'
A pretty thought, but he sees Emma with a more critical eye.
'Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old, she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured: Isabella slow and diffident.'She has found herself another Isabella rather than another Miss Taylor; she has replicated the situation that has spoiled her; she has chosen another childish companion. From that one highly significant (and, we are enabled to think, highly characteristic) mistake, much of the plot flows. Emma is clever but disposed to think a little too well of herself; she dearly loves her father but he is no companion for her, indeed he is almost a baby; Miss Taylor has left the house and there is no one in Highbury who can replace her; Emma wants a companion, and as there is no Miss Taylor-equivalent, someone who is not remarkably clever but who looks up to her and is properly and becomingly deferential is the next best thing.
Highbury is a dull place. There is that dreadful moment when Emma goes to the door of Ford's 'for amusement' while waiting for Harriet to make up her mind over a purchase.
Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; - Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door.And that is what she can never leave. Emma is the richest of Austen's heroines, the only financially independent one, yet she is also the most immobile. She has never seen the sea; she lives near Box Hill but has never been there; she is stuck with the elderly baby who can hardly bear to go a mile from his own house. Out of such deprivations and confinements come the Emma Bovarys, the Dorothea Brookes, the Hedda Gablers, and the Emma Woodhouses.
Emma is in a way the most interesting of all, because she is not neurotic, she is not unhappy, she is not full of rage; she is cheerful, healthy, energetic, clever - yet she nearly ruins Harriet's life. She is a version of Iago; Iago with teacups, and without malice aforethought.