Since 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma*, JASACT decided to do one of its slow reads. This means reading the novel a volume at a time over three monthly meetings, as we’ve done for Mansfield Park (in 2010), Sense and sensibility (in 2011), and Pride and prejudice (in 2012). We enjoy the additional insights we achieve, from both the slow reading and the meeting discussions that focus on the volume just read.
What an artist you are!
We commenced by talking about the novel’s structure. A member commented that volume 1 was complete in itself, building up to the climax of Mr Elton’s proposal. We noted that by the end of this volume it was clear to us, if not to Emma, that Mr Knightley’s criticism of the yet unmet Frank Churchill might spring from reasons besides those rational ones he gives.
The volume starts with Austen systematically introducing Highbury’s characters, chapter by chapter, first Emma, her father and Mr Knightley, then Mr and Mrs Weston (Emma’s recently married governess/companion), followed in chapter 3 by some neighbourhood women, Mrs and Miss Bates and Mrs Goddard, and so on. Volume 1, we realised, focuses on Highbury insiders, that is, the people who live in/come from the town.
A member quoted Sir Walter Scott’s praise of Austen’s “knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize …”. We agreed that Austen is wonderfully true to human nature, and that we still recognise her characters today.
Emma, an MA in people management?
Of course, we spent quite a bit of time discussing Austen’s characterisation of Emma. She is a complex character, one whom Austen herself described as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. However, a member quoted critic Lionel Trilling‘s statement that Jane Austen’s achievement is that we do like Emma despite her faults.
And this is because Emma has many good qualities. She has managed her father’s home since she was 12, having lost her mother when she was 5. Her father is a querulous “valetudinarian” to whom Emma panders with love and care, attending to his every comfort. She is, we decided, an amazing daughter. She defuses potential family conflicts, such as in the humorous scene involving her father and sister arguing over the merits of their respective apothecaries. She frequently holds her tongue when provoked by her kind but unsociable brother-in-law. She faces her mistakes, owning up to Harriet, for example, that she had been wrong about Mr Elton.
Emma also visits and provides help to the sick and poor in their community.
But, she is a snob. She tells Harriet that, had Harriet accepted Robert Martin:
it would have grieved me to lose your acquaintance, which must have been the consequence of your marrying Mr. Martin … I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm.
On Mr Elton’s proposal to her, she thinks
but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family,—and that the Eltons were nobody.
Attitudes like this have resulted in Emma not being liked by many readers. We talked about whether Jane Austen accepted Emma’s views or felt Emma needed to change – but, we decided we were getting ahead of ourselves!
Messrs Woodhouse, Elton and co
Of course, we discussed other characters too, and touched on all sorts of ideas. Does, a member asked, Mr Woodhouse knowingly/purposefully manipulate others through his fussy, spoilt-child like behaviour? Can we see a touch of Mr Collins in Mr Elton? Was Miss Taylor a good role model for Emma? Why do critics and readers readily fuss over Colonel Brandon’s age when, at 35 years old, he’s younger than Mr Knightley’s 37 or 38?
We enjoyed Austen’s statement that Mr Weston’s second marriage
must have give him the pleasantest proof of its being a great deal better to chuse than to be chosen, to excite gratitude than to feel it.
And we commented that Mr John Knightley was wrong not to accompany Emma on the carriage ride back from the Westons, thereby exposing her to Mr Elton’s attentions. We noted that, although Mr Elton had partaken of alcohol, “he had only drunk enough wine to elevate his spirits, not at all to confuse his intellect”. We loved that Austen made this distinction.
Is bigger better?
We enjoyed Austen’s sly little dig at the length of the letter Mr Elton wrote advising of his departure for some weeks to Bath. The letter is described as “long, civil, ceremonious”. This directly contrasts Robert Martin’s proposal letter to Harriet which “was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling”. We note the point about length because Emma overlooks Harriet’s poor taste in suggesting that Robert Martin’s letter may be deficient because it is “short”.
It’s all about friendship
We discussed how each time we reread an Austen, we find something new. One member said that for this reading of Emma, she noticed the focus on friendship. The novel starts with Emma losing her ex-governess-cum-companion Miss Taylor to marriage. They’ll remain friends but … so Emma develops a friendship with Harriet. The words “friend” and “friendship” appear multiple times in volume 1. Mr John Knightley advises Emma “as a friend”, but Emma believes that she and Mr Elton “are very good friends, and nothing more”. Emma and Mr Knightley decide to “be friends again” after one of their quarrels. Meanwhile, we, like Mr Knightley, wonder whether Emma’s friendship is helpful to Harriet or not.
One member asked why Emma didn’t go mad, living all those years with her father and just (the albeit much-loved) Miss Taylor. She had no friends of her own age, and had never been to the sea, to London 16 miles away, or even to Box Hill just 7 miles away.
What Jane Austen’s contemporaries would have known
One member said she particularly focused on the things that readers in Jane Austen’s time would have known. For example, why did Emma immediately assume that the illegitimate Harriet’s father was a gentleman? Her research unearthed the fact that Harriet’s father would have had three options available to him: marry the baby’s mother, go to prison, or support the child for 7 years. However, Harriet was still being supported at Mrs Goddard’s school at the age of 17, having been raised from “scholar to … parlour-boarder.” Austen’s readers would have understood the implications of this information.
It was a time when new money was on the rise, resulting in new ideas of entitlement and conflict with old money. This could explain Mr Elton’s presumption to aspire to Emma’s hand!
We discussed the possible origins of some of the names, and what was meant by Emma arranging “the glasses” in the carriage. A member found Janine Balchas’ Matters of fact in Jane Austen useful for her research into the times. Balchas, this member told us, argues that Austen was influenced by Fanny Burney’s novels, and suggests, in fact, that the carriage proposal in Evelina may have inspired Austen.
One member enjoyed the amount of wordplay, anagrams and puns in the novel, but several admitted to not being able to work them all out. We hoped that was because Jane Austen’s contemporaries were more practised at such games than we are in our times! It was suggested that the novel has the feel at times of those lively 18th century literary salons.
We ended the meeting with quotes, another challenging quiz, and an agreement that we all looked forward to reading Volume 2 over the coming month.
* Published in late 1815, with imprint date of 1816