May 2015 meeting: Emma, Vol 3

Emma coversPrepared by member Jenny K

At the conclusion of our slow-reread of Emma, the group generally agreed that Emma becomes a different book each time you read it. The more you read, the more you are rewarded by discoveries of her brilliant skills. Emma, likened by P.D. James to a detective novel with the same tight structure, analysis of motive and concealing of mysteries from the reader, yields up more clues and more character misapprehensions each time.

Emma, being an “imaginist”, “creates what she sees.” But even the normally astute Mr Knightley begins to wonder if he does too. All the characters, we decided, have their share of creating realities to suit themselves, while Frank enjoys leading many astray.

Volume 3 is packed with events, including:

  • The ball, at which Emma first notices how handsome Mr Knightley appears and is delighted when he dances with Harriet and herself, is the beginning of a chain of circumstances.
  • Harriet’s encounter with the gypsies is far more serious than modern readers realise as she could have been hanged for conversing with them. It was muscle cramp following the dancing that prevented her escape.
  • The strawberry party at Donwell Abbey gives Mrs Elton the opportunity to further demonstrate her gaucherie following the couple’s appalling treatment of Harriet at the ball. This led the group to wonder why the community put up with her behaviour. We decided that in a small community it is necessary to maintain form to safeguard cohesiveness, that practising “civil falsehoods” has a place!
  • In Chapter 5, Austen suddenly shifts the perspective from Emma to that of Mr Knightley when he becomes a detective observing subtle communications between Frank and Jane. However, he is still convinced of Emma’s attraction to Frank which is necessary as a plot driver. Austen contrives to strengthen his fear with Emma’s flat denial of his belief concerning Jane and Frank
  • Finally, the Box Hill picnic is at once revealed as a most remarkably deft piece of writing when one realises how Frank was trying to hide his desperate anguish following the argument with Jane Fairfax. It was this that caused him to so badly overplay his hand. Emma compounds the rudeness with her remark about Miss Bates – showing off in an immature fashion. Both characters are roundly told off by those who love them.

Emma’s contrition is profound especially following Jane’s disdain. However the group was undecided as to whether Frank’s letter was sufficient to exonerate his bad behaviour. Was it too full of self-justification? People wondered whether Jane’s marriage was somewhat pragmatic, once having discovered Frank’s essential selfishness.

Sir Charles Grandison’s advice (in Samuel Richardson’s novel of the same name) against women marrying profligate men seemed possibly relevant …”when she cannot be sure of keeping her own principles! – be not deceived : evil communication corrupts good manners: is a caution truly apostolical.” Jane, who had suffered severely during the entire secret engagement, was decidedly contrite following the denouement. We noted that Richardson’s novel is believed to be one of Austen’s favourite novels.

Physical separation from Mr Knightley combined with the discovery that Harriet believes that he has regard for her, plunge Emma into despair recognising all the mischief she had done. Her desperate realisation that she loves him is tempered by her concern for Harriet. Finally she gains emotional maturity enabling her to be an appropriate partner to Mr Knightley.

Our meeting concluded, as usual, with a testing quiz on Volume 3, and a sharing of quotes.


We briefly discussed the Jane Austen Festival Australia, and what role we might play in supporting the day-long Austen-focused symposium.

It was announced that we now have a gmail contact address which will make it easier for interested people and prospective members to contact us: jasacct2001[AT]gmail[DOT]com.

Our next meeting on 20 June will feature discussion of our research into secondary sources about Emma, with each member being asked to comment on one secondary source they choose to read.


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