Emma – 200 years of perfection: Report on JASA Weekend Conference 2015, Pt 2

For Part 2 of our report on this year’s JASA Weekend Conference, Marilyn and Sue summarised the 7 papers which followed Barbara Seeber’s Jane Austen and Animals (see Report Pt 1).

Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, Multimedia Emma

Greenfield and Troost, who specialise, among other things, in the study of Austen adaptations, discussed three recent adaptations of Emma – Emma (BBC miniseries, 2009), Aisha (Anil Kapoor Films, 2010), and Emma – Approved (Pemberley Digital VLOG, 2014). They demonstrated how each of these films focus on themes or ideas – materialism, the pursuit of fun, and the idea that life is about being true to oneself – that we don’t find in Emma itself. Cheeriness (often conveyed through bright colour) and fun seem to underpin many of the later Emma adaptations, but in Emma itself, they argued, happiness is seen to be a more tranquil thing.

Most of the recent adaptations of Emma have roots in Clueless, they suggested. And yet, despite identifying differences between Emma and these Clueless-inspired adaptations, Troost and Greenfield said they like Clueless. At question-time, Greenfield suggested that adaptations should not necessarily aim at “coming close to the novel”.

David Norton, Emma and Knightley as lovers: Keeping secrets and telling tales

The secret is out (Illus by CE Brock, 1909, via solitaryelegance.com, presumed public domain)

The secret is out (Illus by CE Brock, 1909, via solitaryelegance.com, presumed public domain)

Norton saw the novel, set in Hartfield (or HEARTfield), as being about what it means to be human and humane.

Emma is, Norton argued, a secretive novel. We must look past Emma’s perspective that beguiles the first time reader, and notice the clues that Austen includes in the text to present the changing relationship between Emma and Knightley. This relationship, and the one between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, are hidden from view, with Austen regularly wrong-footing her readers.

In Vol 1, we see Emma and Mr Knightley as old friends. Mr Knightley doesn’t propose to Emma until he’s sure that Emma is not in love with Frank (in Vol. 3). Norton suggested that Emma doesn’t recognise her love for Mr Knightley until Vol. 3. Perhaps, it is in Vol. 3 Ch. 11, when she states that “She saw that there never had been a time when she did not consider Mr. Knightley as infinitely the superior”. Or, it could be Vol. 2 Ch. 8. When Mrs Weston suggests that Mr Knightley is interested in Jane Fairfax, there are three dashes in the first edition (the only three dashes in the novel), “If he really loves Jane Fairfax —” before her denial. What did Austen intend, he asked, by those dashes? Does it indicate a sudden realisation on Emma’s part?

Mr Knightley later clarifies that Jane Fairfax has not the open temperament that he would want in a wife (and which he clearly sees in Emma).

All sorts of red herrings, such as the “blunder” episode, distract the reader but in Vol. 3, their love starts to become apparent – at the Crown Inn ball, and then in Mr Knightley’s gratification that Emma has repented her behaviour to Miss Bates.

The moral of the novel (Vol. 3 Ch. 15): “My Emma, does not everything serve to prove more and more, the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”

Susannah Fullerton, Location, location, location

Fullerton proposed that the novel, which is partly about establishing who is “queen” of Highbury, is set in places known for their relationships with royal places. Highbury, itself, is fictitious, but other places mentioned in the novel exist and are places with which Austen was familiar, such as Richmond, Kingston, Brunswick Square, and Brighton. Each of these has a royal association.

Fullerton also pointed to other places in the novel as having relevant associations. Box Hill, for example, was renowned for its scenery and as “a place of debauchery” and is thus a fitting place for the critical scene of the novel to take place. Characters behaved without bounds in this boundless place. Robert Martin meets Harriet in Brunswick Square, which is where the foundling hospital stood in Austen’s days.

The novel is set in changing social times and the restlessness is represented in Highbury, with the rising middle class represented by Mrs Elton , the Coles Mr Perry playing more forthright roles in society.

The setting in Emma is so precise, Fullerton said, that a map of Highbury has been constructed by Dr Penny Gay.

Sayre Greenfield, Words with Austen Pt 1: Emma’s speakers and Austen’s word games

Sayre Greenfield shared some of his research into works that are in the library at Chawton House, showing how they contribute to our understanding of Austen’s world view. For example, riddles and word games feature heavily in Emma. Greenfield pointed us to books and magazines, which show that these were a major form of entertainment for girls and young women of Austen’s time. He discussed the role of these word games in the plot, but also pointed to Mr Knightley’s criticism of Emma to Mrs Weston that:

But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.

For Mr Knightley, games are all well and good, but Emma could do with something more serious!

Another topic that Greenfield explored was that of old maids. He described a book by William Hayley, published in 1785, titled A philosophical, historical, and moral essay on old maids. By a friend to the sisterhood. In three volumes. This description of old maids in one of his chapters sounds very much like Miss Bates:

The curious Old Maid is a restless being, whose insatiate thirst for information is an incessant plague both to herself and her acquaintance; her soul seems to be continually flying, in a giddy circuit, to her eyes, ears, and tongue; she appears inflamed with a sort of frantic desire to see all that can be seen, to hear all that can be heard, and to ask more questions than any lips can utter …

Now, proposed Greenfield cheekily, Hayley defines old maids as women unmarried by their fortieth year, and it just so happens that the unmarried Jane Austen turned 40 the month Emma was published. What was she really wanting to say about “old maids” he asked?

Barbara Seeber, The pleasures (and challenges) of teaching Emma

Seeber commenced her talk by stating that “the politics of gender underpin divided opinions of Jane Austen”. She looked at some of the reasons why students say they don’t like Emma – Emma herself is unlikable, the book lacks a plot, and it’s mostly a romance. She teased them out one by one, particularly in terms of their gender implications.

She discussed the paradoxical value of adaptations in the classroom, noting that they can draw students in but can also derail them from thinking beyond their focus, which is usually “feelings”. This focus is often criticized, she said, as the “Harlequinisation of Austen novels” but denouncing adaptations as Hollywood romanticism, dismissing them as popular culture, buys into the devaluing of women, in that works enjoyed by women are often dismissed as trivial. This is ironic, she argued, because Austen satirizes those who claim themselves above the popular novels (eg Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey).

The obvious, and frequent, counter made to the argument that nothing happens in the novels, that they are merely domestic or romantic, is to point to references or allusions to wider issues like the Napoleonic Wars, the slave trade, and the governess trade in Austen’s novels. BUT, Seeber argued, to justify Austen in this way is to undermine the real story of, say, Emma, which is about the achievement of self-awareness and living in the every day. In other words, to justify the value of Austen by pointing to her references to the bigger picture is to undermine the importance of feminine (or more domestic) values.

Linda Troost, Words with Austen Pt 2

Troost focused her second paper on the question of whether Frank Churchill is good guy or “a jerk” and argued, convincingly, that he’s more good than bad. Drawing from both a close analysis of the text and an understanding of human psychology, she suggested that much of Frank’s negative behavior arrives out of his invidious situation than from any real “badness” in his character, and pointed out his positives. He is, after all she said, Mr Weston’s son.

She also, concomitantly, argued that much of Mr Knightley’s criticism of Frank stemmed from – or was at least aggravated by – his jealousy, his belief that Emma was interested in Frank.

David Norton, Miss Bates: A medley in three parts

Norton argued that Emma is the least grammatical of Austen’s novels which reflects the more irrational workings of its characters’ minds, unlike, say, the characters in Pride and Prejudice. He focused his argument on the incessant flow of Miss Bates who, he saw, as a prime revealer of plot and character in the novel. She is self-conscious and her self-questioning invites Emma’s insult at Box Hill. This is similar to the insults which we find amusing in P&P’s Mr Bennet, but Emma’s wit is insolent and unfeeling.

Norton discussed the use of dashes – which create the less grammatical style – in the novel. Sometimes they convey the dashing around of thoughts: Austen punctuates Miss Bates’ speeches with dashes to mark both the rhythm of her speech and frequent change of subject. But the “dash” can also represent “a pause or omission”. It also plays this role in Emma when characters pause before they say something they might regret, or have not fully realised themselves. Austen invites us to consider what could have been said.

Miss Bates, he said, provides a barometer for us of Jane’s feeling and, subliminally, Jane’s relationship with Frank. Miss Bates is poor, but very human, and we respond to her with loving amusement. Harking back to his first paper, Norton concluded that Miss Bates is a brilliant, comic creation who tells the untold story.


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