Austen in August: Thoughts on EMMA

george goodwin kilburne

This year I am joining the Austen in August event (#AusteninAugustRBR) for the first time, and my first Austen pick was the novel that I was disinclined to try on account of possibly disliking our eponymous protagonist (though Austen preferred her above all).

But I was wrong yet again (no surprise there!). Emma is a fresh, vibrant character and a keen, playful, but deeply feeling young woman. Emma the novel contains everything that we Readers love about Austen: her usual wit, social commentary, intrigues, misunderstandings, plenty of walking, and multiple marriages at the end. I loved being thrown back into the world of Regency England!

As in most of her novels, Austen is great at giving us a willful protagonist – Emma; a plainer and earthier sidekick – Harriet; a model of propriety – Jane Fairfax; a reckless player – Frank Churchill; a brooding level-headed gentleman – Mr Knightley; and a character we all love to hate – Mrs Elton of course (oh, how annoying she is!).

It may be noteworthy to mention that Emma is the only novel bearing the protagonist’s name for its title [out of Austen’s six most famous works & excepting Lady Susan]. In the future, I’d like to look into what made Emma worthy of that honour! It would be equally interesting to further investigate the way marriage (and Emma’s initial desire to abstain from it) is presented in the novel, considering that at the time of its publication Austen would have been 39 and single. Did her views on marriage change? Why did Emma eventually “give in” to Knightley? *See the paper linked below.

Without further delay, let’s jump into some of the things I noticed about Emma (there will be spoilers):

Charades, Politics of Interpretation, Secrecy & Deceit

This book has two charades! That’s new! 🙂 In fact, one of them is left unanswered for the readers (though contemporary readers would probably be very familiar with it). I had to google the answer because clearly I am not on par with our characters. The other one is decoded to be “courtship” – suitable, eh? But this peculiar inclusion of charades, and a rather detailed explanation of the solution by Emma made me think … could this novel possible be drawing attention to the way characters (and us) INTERPRET THINGS? Brilliant, I know *sarcasm*.

For example, Emma believes herself an excellent matchmaker but time and again she fails to correctly interpret people and their intentions. Mr Elton is not interested in Harriet, but in Emma. Frank Churchill is not in love with Emma but with Jane! Jane is not ignorant of her relatives’ flaws, but decorously tolerant. Mr Knightley does not return Harriet’s affections, he actually prefers Emma. And so on…

Secrecy and deceit play important roles in the novel as well, thwarting the characters’ ability to interpret events and people as they see them. However, the hidden and secret affairs of characters lead to much confusion and discomfort. Austen seems to acknowledge that human relations cannot always be without falsehood & rarely can we get at truth (whatever that is), but she is strongly suggesting that honesty and truth are better guides.

“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken…” (368)

“It was all right, all open, all equal.” (398)

Class Consciousness

All of Jane Austen’s novels respect the supremacy of the social structure at the time, even if some seek to criticize it. Yet I was surprised at how Emma seeks to reign in any radical sentiments & maintain a strong air of class consciousness. Emma herself believes that like should marry like, and that cross-marriage cannot be a desirable state of affairs. This not only refers to social class, but also strength of character – inherent gentility, if you will. It is especially strange, since the rest of Austen’s heroines (most notably Lizzy) marry waaay above their social and fiscal status.

Initially, Emma encourages Harriet to set her hopes and aspirations high. Although Harriet’s parentage is dubious, Emma is convinced that she must be a gentlewoman. When Mr Elton slips the hook, Emma thinks that Harriet is worthy of even Frank Churchill. However, it is when Harriet climbs too high and believes herself to be in love and loved by Mr Knightley – only then does Emma realize her blunder and regret her decisions. Her blunder being: letting Harriet Smith believe that she could marry above herself.

So Harriet (illegitimate daughter of a tradesman as it comes out) marries the farmer Robert Martin. And Emma (who could only be induced to marry a man of higher rank than she, and then only Mr Knightley) marries Mr Knightley.

Austen (or her narrator – a distinction I am learning to make) mocks marriages that are not built on this equality. For example, Mr Elton – a gentleman – ends up marrying the coarse and vulgar Mrs Elton, who coincidentally comes from a family of “new money”. Although she has money enough, Mrs Elton character makes me want to tear her out of this book. On the other hand, Frank Churchill marries Jane Fairfax who, though impoverished & reduced to being trained as a governess, is nonetheless a gentlewoman in rank and character.

*           *           *           *           *           *

Before I abandon you with my half-formed amateur analytical tid-bits, let me drop a link to a paper on the covert feminism of Emma; how Emma manifests her power through matchmaking and the disappointing dynamic of her marriage; and how teeth signify social class: here.

Finally, I have a question for other Janeites out there:

Mr Knightley agrees to live in his wife’s house, with her father. What do you make of that?! 😛



2 responses to “Austen in August: Thoughts on EMMA

  1. I recently read The Annotated Emma, which had a lot of extra information. It was a lot of fun. 🙂 I ‘m not a huge fan of the character Emma, but I do appreciate her development throughout the book.

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