June 2015 meeting: Secondary sources on Emma

Emma coversHaving spent our last three meetings discussing Emma, volume by volume, we devoted our June meeting to discussing secondary sources on Emma, with each member, where possible, choosing one source and discussing its main points. We love seeing the different themes different critics or academics explored and, even more so, the very different opinions expressed on some of the characters

Christopher Brooke, Jane Austen: Illusion and reality (1999)
Brooke, our member said, was generally positive about characters that the critics have tended not to be. He sees Mr Knightley as fallible, Mr Woodhouse as fine, and Frank Churchill the hero of the subplot. He argues for example that Mr Knightley’s jealousy of Frank Churchill exposes Mr Knightley’s feet of clay, while Frank Churchill’s sanguinity, easy charm, together with the fact that he had a vision for his future (with Jane) are positive things that can endear the reader to him. He also sees Emma as the perfect daughter.

Brooke’s focus, though, is the two levels of Austen’s novels, the surface and what lies beneath. Our first reading of Emma tends to be superficial as we follow the clues, the way we might in detective fiction. He argues that the deepest bonds in the novel are between Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, and Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley, but that these couples aren’t focused on during the book.

The book succeeds, he argues, because we see it through Emma’s mistaken vision, through her fixations.

Susannah Fullerton, A dance with Jane Austen (2012)
Fullerton provides general background on ballroom dancing, clothing, etiquette, which helps us understand the role of balls and dances in the novel. Deirdre Le Faye’s introduction tells us that people would sometimes travel up to 20 miles, involving around four hours travelling, to go to a ball.

It is in the two main dances/balls in Emma that we (even if not Emma herself!) become aware of her true feelings. On the first occasion, she reacts with horror when Mrs Weston suggests that Mr Knightley might be interested in Jane Fairfax, and on the second Emma becomes acutely aware of Mr Knightley’s charms (“his tall, firm, upright figure”) when he dances with Harriet Smith to save her from Mr Elton’s insulting refusal to dance with her.

Richard Jenkyns, A fine brush on Ivory: An appreciation of Jane Austen (2004)
Jenkyns presents a very different point of view of Mr Woodhouse from Brooke’s benign one. He sees Mr Woodhouse as a vampire spinning a web to keep Emma close. He, in fact, likens Mr Woodhouse to Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park! Mr Woodhouse has no zest for life, no vitality (he argues, for example, that the shorter the party the better). He is the most successful villain in Austen’s books in terms of getting what he wants. He’s stealthy, adept at “false solicitude”. For example, he uses concern about tiring his servant James as an excuse to keep Emma from going out, but is more than happy to use James to bring his friends to him. His disdain for matrimony is an insult to the memory of his wife. He’s a bloodsucker, and the equivalent of what we’d call today “passive aggressive”. It’s telling that kind, sweet Mrs Weston says no-one but Mr Knightley could put up with him.

Has Emma learnt manipulation from him? We discussed at some length whether we thought Emma manipulative, including how we defined “manipulation”.

Maggie Lane, Growing older with Jane Austen (2014)
Maggie Lane looks at Mr Woodhouse from another point of view, his health. He is described as a ‘valetudinarian’, that is, one who has a concern for health (as against a ‘hypochondriac’ who imagines himself/herself sick.) Lane is more positive about him than Jenkyns, arguing that he doesn’t try to elicit sympathy as Mary Musgrove does in Persuasion.  Perhaps he doesn’t because everyone runs after him!

He restricts his daughter’s freedom by his feebleness, but then again his helplessness augments her power. Being a dutiful daughter is good for her public credit. Lane posed an intriguing idea: does Emma’s failure to rebel in any way against her father make her more timid than Fanny Price?

(Another article suggests that Mr Woodhouse might have suffered from hypothyroidism, but we agreed that, even if he did, no-one would have known.)

Bruce Stovel, “Emma’s search for a true friend” in Persuasions, #13, 1991
Stovel argues that the novel is about Emma’s search for a true friend. In the novel’s opening we realise the Miss Taylor had not been Emma’s friend in the real meaning of the word. It had been an employer-employee relationship in which Emma listened to her governess but did “exactly what she liked” (a view Mr Knightlely reiterates later to Miss Taylor/Mrs Weston).  And Emma’s choice, Harriet, is not going to be a true friend either. Harriet idolises her, and Emma behaves more as mentor. Emma realises later in the novel that she should have befriended Jane Fairfax, but for all Jane’s qualities, she doesn’t have the openness desired of a real friend. Emma’s true friend all along is of course Mr Knightley.

Stovel defines friendship as involving mutual support among equals. He also discusses the relationship between marriage and friendship, and quotes two writers admired by Jane Austen: a character in Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison says that “marriage is the highest state of friendship that mortals can know”; Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler that “marriage is the strictest tie of perpetual friendship”.

Austen plays with the idea of friendship throughout the novel. In the proposal scene, Emma realises that she should listen to Mr Knightley “as a friend” even though she expects what he’s going to tell her will be distressing. Stovel says that at this moment she has finally achieved the “self-denying, generous friendship” she ascribes to herself in the novel’s beginning. The novel ends with the new couple sharing their lives with “a small band of true friends”.

Joseph Wiesenfarth, “The civility of Emma” in Sensibilities, Dec 1995 
(also in Persuasions, #18, 1996)
Wiesenfarth explores Emma as a book about civility, about how to behave like a citizen. He writes:

The task of civility was to create a code of conduct for civilization, which implied the harmonizing of peoples from all walks of life. The code of civility, therefore, had to address both sameness and difference in human nature. Sameness inheres in our instinctual life; difference in our birth, class, rank, and wealth as well as in those individual oddities that we used to call humors.

Stupidity and ignorance are the enemy of civility, which is defined by elegance (“the refinement of civility in our appearance, thinking, feeling, and acting”) and amiability (“sensitivity to the needs of others”). Mrs Elton and Harriet are ignorant and/or stupid in their behaviour but many characters do not evince perfect civility, including Mr John Dashwood, Mrs Churchill. Miss Bates, by contrast, is finely attuned to civility, but Frank shows “no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people”. Emma is ashamed of sharing her conjectures, though is not ashamed of thinking them!

Wiesenfarth explores Emma’s sexuality, suggesting that Emma believes that she has it under control, when in fact she doesn’t. He argues that “civility” must recognise and encompass physical needs like food and sex, and must recognise and balance the “sameness” and “difference” between people.

He says that Emma presents readers, who are not “dull elves”, riddles to solve. We enjoyed discussing the novel’s various “riddles” and the ways in which the characters got so many of them wrong.

Other discussion
Other books read:

  • Cambridge companion to Jane Austen which has a chapter on Emma by John Wiltshire, which the member did not find particularly useful
  • William Dersiewicz’s A Jane Austen education. 

One member said that she noticed on this reading what a clever narrative tool Miss Bates is. Miss Bates gives a lot away, such as how often Frank is around her place! She tells us much, in her patter, about who is where, who is seeing whom.

A member noted that Frank assumed his engagement must be secret. Austen doesn’t explicitly tell us, she felt.

We discussed the tensions regarding status throughout the novel: Harriet, the Coles, Mrs Elton, for example. One member suggested that “class” becomes an issue when it starts to change. Emma was happy to raise Harriet up, until Harriet sees herself capable of moving up! Mr Elton thinks he can move up. People will mix across classes, eg at dinner, but will be offended if people don’t know their place (e.g. Mrs Elton calling Mr Knightley, “Knightley”.) One member was interested in Robert Martin’s visit to London when Harriet was staying there with the John Dashwoods. On what (social) basis did they all go out together she wondered.


We discussed next year’s JAFA, and the theme for the day symposium. Member Sally will continue working on this and keep us informed.

The meeting concluded with a fun quiz on dancing and balls in Austen, and the usual sharing of quotes.

There will be no meeting in July, in lieu of the biennial JASA Conference to be held in Canberra.


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