May 2017 meeting: Who advises Jane Austen’s heroines?

June 13, 2017

Prepared by member Mary.

Our topic for the May meeting was “who advises Jane Austen’s heroines?”  A wide-ranging topic with a difficulty in distinguishing between advice, persuasion and bullying.  We considered those who may be in a position to provide helpful advice, including parents, siblings, relatives, friends and suitors.  Often they tended to do more harm than good.

Several people quoted Fanny Price’s belief that “we all have a better guide in ourselves, if we wanted to attend to it, than any other person can be.”  Despite her many trials, Fanny always keeps true to her own “better guide”; and all of Jane Austen’s heroines eventually find strength and guidance from their own moral integrity.

Margaret Mary Benson’s paper discusses the relationship between Mothers, substitute mothers and daughters in the novels of Jane Austen (Persuasions No. 11, 1989).  A mother’s role is to take care of her daughter’s early education and endeavor to develop a personal sense of responsibility.  But in Austen’s novels mothers are either absent or totally inadequate.

Benson points out that even Mrs Morland fails as a source of morality as she has “too many children to concentrate on the guidance of any individual daughter or son.”  In Bath Catherine is left to the care of Mrs Allen, who is incapable of giving advice of any kind.  When asked, Mr Allen advises Catherine that it is not seemly to be driving about the country side in an open carriage with John Thorpe.  Although fond of her brother James, Catherine questions his wisdom in encouraging a friendship with John Thorpe.  The contrast between the behavior of Isabella and John Thorpe with that of Eleanor and Henry Tilney helps Catherine to distinguish between false and trusted friends.

Catherine is mortified when a shocked Henry realizes that she has imagined that General Tilney murdered his wife, but he finds a way of being her mentor and guiding her judgment.  By the end of the novel Catherine has matured and she “acts with real dignity when she is sent home from Northanger Abbey.  ….. but like Emma, her husband will always be her mentor and superior, theirs is not a marriage of equals.”  (Benson, ibid).

Emma coversEmma Woodhouse is motherless.  Clever, headstrong and self-reliant she has been managing her father’s household from an early age.  Her substitute mother is “poor Miss Taylor”, now Mrs Weston, who has been with the Woodhouse family for the past 16 years:

Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own. (Emma, Ch. 1)

Likewise Mr Woodhouse can find no fault with Emma.  He is a valetudinarian who uses emotional blackmail to keep Emma at home to care for him and entertain the limited society of Highbury.  But he is no companion for her.  “He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.” Frank Churchill deceives Emma. He uses his flirtation with her as a screen to hide his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax; although he claims he was not at fault: he “only supposed Emma as quick-witted as she believed herself to be”.

Mr Knightley has known Emma all her life and is in the habit of lecturing and judging her. He advises Emma not to interfere with Harriet’s relationship with Robert Martin, but she is determined to prove him wrong and plays matchmaker with disastrous results.  When all is resolved between them, Mr Knightley questions whether he had the right to judge and lecture Emma, who must have done well without him.  But Emma replies “I was often influenced rightly by you – oftener than I would own at the time.  I am sure you did me good.”

Anne Elliot is also motherless.  She has a very ‘conceited, silly father’ and an elder sister who both regard Anne and her younger sister as ‘of very inferior value’.  Anne’s substitute mother is Lady Russell, to whom she is “a most dear and highly valued god-daughter, favourite and friend.”  Lady Russell advises Anne to sever her relationship with Frederick Wentworth with whom she had fallen deeply in love with when she was 19.  Lady Russell, who valued social status, considered the relationship inappropriate for Anne with all her claims to birth, beauty and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen on a headstrong man who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chance of a most uncertain profession.  Lady Russell feared that such a marriage would sink her into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth killing dependence.  Not marrying Wentworth has done exactly that to Anne who has noticeably lost her bloom, and is faded and thin.  In one sense Anne does not regret having done her duty to Lady Russell in following her advice, but in another, later regrets being persuaded not to marry Wentworth – she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain good. (Persuasion, Vol 1. Ch.4).

Lady Russell encourages Anne, at 22, to accept a proposal from Charles Musgrove, but in this case Anne had nothing left for advice to do.  Later Lady Russell encourages Anne’s marriage to her cousin, William Elliot, the heir to Kellynch Hall.  But now at 27 Anne is no longer dependent on Lady Russell’s advice.  It was now some years since Anne had begun to learn that she and her excellent friend could sometimes think differently; and it did not surprise her, therefore, that Lady Russell could see nothing suspicious or inconsistent, nothing to require more motives than appeared in Mr Elliot’s great desire for reconciliation.  Benson notes that not only is Anne more perceptive than Lady Russell in terms of motives, but she also differs in what she truly values in her friends – such as the open-heartedness of the Musgrove family and especially of Frederick’s fellow sailors and their families – the Crofts and the Harvilles.  More than any of the heroines, at the end of Persuasion Anne totally separates herself from her family in favour of Fredrick’s open-hearted sailor friends. (Benson, ibid)

Marianne Dashwood resembles her mother who encourages Marianne’s excessive displays of romantic sensibility. Elinor, the eldest daughter “possessed a strength of understanding, and a coolness of judgement, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother…… Her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn.” (SS. 6).   John Dashwood, who promised his father that he would support the family, is persuaded by his wife that he need do nothing at all; but that does not prevent him from offering unwanted advice to Elinor that she should marry Colonel Brandon, and cultivate her friendship with Mrs Jennings in the hope that Elinor and Marianne would inherit some of her fortune.  While Mrs Jennings and Sir John Middleton are kind and hospitable, and Colonel Brandon offers practical help and the comfort of a good friend, they do not advise Elinor nor does she seek their advice.  When Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy is revealed, Marianne is astonished that Elinor has known for four months.  She exclaims “how have you been supported?”  Elinor replies “I have had all this on my mind without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature.” (p.228).  Mrs Dashwood belatedly realizes she had been inattentive to her eldest daughter.  “Marianne’s affliction, because more acknowledged, more immediately before her, had too much engrossed her tenderness, and led her away to forget that in Elinor she might have a daughter suffering almost as much, certainly with less self-provocation and greater fortitude.”  (SS p56).

Elizabeth Bennet has two unsatisfactory parents. Because of her intelligence and ‘quickness’, she is her father’s favourite.  She is her mother’s least favourite daughter, and to Lizzy her mother is a constant source of embarrassment and irritation.  Mrs Bennet has neglected her daughters’ education, and is also “equally indifferent to her daughters’ moral education – and, in fact probably is incapable of providing them with any moral example.” (Benson, ibid).  Lizzy falls further out of favour with her mother when she refuses a proposal from Mr Collins, but she will not be bullied into accepting him.  She also stands up to Lady Catherine, and will not be bullied by her.  Lizzy and her sister Jane are close companions, but Jane only sees good in everyone, and does not really advise Lizzy.  Fortunately there is Aunt Gardiner, her role model and friend: “Unlike Mrs Bennet she is capable of giving real advice.  She is the only one to advise Elizabeth against Wickham; later, she is the physical instrument of Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation at Pemberley.” (Benson, ibid).  Darcy seemingly remains aloof throughout, insulting Elizabeth at the ball and with his first proposal.  His letter changes her mind and her realization about herself: “How despicably have I acted! … I, who have prided myself on my discernment! … Till this moment I never knew myself.” (PP, 236).Mansfield Park

At age 9 Fanny Price’s mother farewells her from Portsmouth and greets her return from Mansfield Park 8 years later with equal indifference.  At Mansfield Park Lady Bertram, who should have been the substitute mother, pays no attention to the education of her daughters – ‘thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience.” (MP, p20). She delegates all the responsibility for the education of the Bertram girls and Fanny to Aunt Norris.  While Aunt Norris indulges Maria and Julia, she is cruel and vindictive towards Fanny.  She “… had no affection for Fanny, and no wish of procuring her pleasure at any time.” (MP, 79).  Fanny is gentle, sensitive and obliging: Tom calls her a “creep mouse” and the girls virtually ignore her.

It is only Edmund who kindly guides Fanny in the superficialities of life at Mansfield Park, advising her on books to read, and helping her to become more confident.  However, Edmund can be insensitive and not perceptive.  He doesn’t understand why Fanny is so appalled at the suggestion she should live with Aunt Norris.  Fanny is afraid of Sir Thomas, but stands her ground against his anger at her refusal to accept Henry’s proposal.  The only advice Lady Bertram ever gave Fanny, echoing her husband, is to tell her “It is every young woman’s duty to accept such an unexceptionable offer as this.” (MP, Ch.33). Edmund, also echoing his father, advises Fanny to accept the offer.  Fanny must be forever grateful to Henry for procuring her brother William’s promotion in the navy, but unlike the others, she recognizes his “corrupted mind” and will not marry him.  Fanny also resists Mary Crawford’s manipulation and emotional blackmail to influence her in Henry’s favour.  Fanny does not need advice.  Her moral integrity allows her to make better decisions for herself than any of her advisers.

Next Meeting:  17th June 17: Sharing and discussing biographies of Jane Austen.


October 2015 Meeting: Gossip in Jane Austen’s Emma

October 26, 2015

Posted by Marilyn.

In Austen’s novels, a reader can encounter gossip in the dialogues and correspondence of the characters, and the narrator’s commentary (free indirect speech).

Some critics see the novels made up largely of gossip, presented in a dramatic form. Scott based his criticism of Austen’s writing on her concern for the “foolish and vulgar” characters .

Various definitions of “gossip” were discussed agreeing on the Oxford words of “Idle talker “, especially if the topic of conversation were absent. In the enclosed world of Highbury, gossip kept the residents up to date. Gossip provided oral transmission of news in place of newspapers. Jane Austen used the term “prosings”. She wrote of Miss Bates, “So prosing”.

Newcomers were heralded by letters, the contents spread by gossip. A hundred pages occur before we meet Frank Churchill and yet gossip has made us familiar with him.

Gossip was associated with lower class behaviours and with women. It seems that Miss Bates and Mrs Cole are the source of much gossip that is eagerly received by others such as Emma and Mrs Weston. Miss Bates and Mrs Cole could be described as gossip mongers but the reader is endeared towards Miss Bates and we do not judge her. Miss Bates acts as a channel between the strata of society, allowing the free movement of gossip to and from Hartfield and Randalls.

Civil falsehoods prevail and protect in this society, and at Box Hill we see the consequences when Emma sets these conventions aside.

In the sense that gossip includes the intimate affairs of characters, some have suggested that superficial gossip is used to protect the characters from revealing deeper issues about themselves.

Although women were most associated with gossip, it is Frank Churchill’s loose statement about Mr Perry’s coach that almost thwarts his designs to hide to his relationship with Jane. Frank uses gossip for his personal advantage to mislead all of Highbury to keep them from knowledge of his engagement .This is apparent in the letter he writes to Mrs Weston. Mr Knightley distances himself and men from gossip, stating that “in our communication we deal only in the great.”

Since the dialogues are significantly more prolific than descriptions, gossip contributes to the portrayal of the characters. This is demonstrated in the four-dimensional theory, one of which presumes that a character is presented by the perspective of other characters.This includes gossip and brings into play the perception of the gossipers as reliable, as well as the character who is the topic of the gossip.

Even the narrative voice in Emma contains gossip, such as in vol 1ch 5: Mr Knightly and Mrs Weston discuss “Emma has been meaning to read since she was twelve”, contributing to the readers perception of Emma and establishing themselves as a reliable source of information. Emma gossips and speculates with herself in thoughts and, as ‘the imaginist’, she creates a comic notion of Mr Dixon as supplier of the piano. Frank encourages this process and Mr Knightley tries to reduce it.

Purposeful gossipers who make use of vicious gossip or gossip tinged with spite, as a strategy for their personal gain and social enhancement, like Mrs Elton, further discredit themselves .

Gossip has also proven to play a significant role in the plot dynamics. Not only that it makes characters act, but it also changes their attitudes and establishes relationships of friendship or rivalry. A gossip contributes to driving the course of events towards the climax of the narrative where openness prevails and a happy marriage between three couples occurs. Perhaps gossip is the glue of Highfield society. It logically follows that without gossip, rumours, and backbiting, Austen’s characters would be deprived of their liveliness and diversity, and her narratives would be deprived of the drama, the effect of suspense, and the narrator’s unique voice and irony.

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

July 15, 2015

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, presumed public domain)

The secret is out (Illus by CE Brock, 1909, via, 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.

Emma – 200 years of perfection: Report on JASA Weekend Conference 2015, Pt 1

July 13, 2015

JASACT decided not meet in July because – lucky us – JASA’s biennial weekend conference was being held in Canberra so, in lieu of our usual meeting report, we are now posting on the conference.

The conference’s first speaker was Barbara Seeber, Professor of English at Brock University, St Catherine’s, Canada. Her topic, Jane Austen and Animals, was drawn from her book of the same name. Today’s post is a brief report on that book because one of our members bought it and has read it over the last week! How good is that. Our second post will comprise brief summaries of the rest of the papers.

Prepared by member Sally.

Animals are everywhere

Barbara K Seeber
Jane Austen and Animals
Ashgate Publishing, Surrey and Vermont, 2013

Paws up who hasn’t thought at some point ‘But there are no animals in Jane Austen’s novels.’ Even my shih tsus complained to me about ‘the lack of dogs in those books you are always reading’ and were hardly mollified when I reminded them about pug and pug’s puppies in Mansfield Park. Fortunately, I am now able to lend them my copy of Barbara K Seeber’s Jane Austen and Animals which I bought after hearing her thought-provoking speech at JASA’s recent conference on Emma, and which reveals that:

Commodified animals are everywhere in Austen, whether as meat, prey, transportation, entertainment, or even decoration … (Preface: x).

Brock ills from Emma

He was very sure there must be a lady in the case (CE Brock, 1909 Dent ed., from solitary

Drawing on animal rights literature, feminist theory (including ecofeminism), arguments about vegetarianism, and other sources, both contemporary to Austen and recent (all helpfully summarized in the introduction), Seeber argues that:

Austen aligns her objectification of nature with the objectification of women and, more specifically, the hunting, shooting, and racing of animals with the domination of women. Austen draws parallels between the position of women and animals, and her uneasy marriage plots critique women’s subordination as part of nature. (p 11)

In separate chapters she then proceeds to examine: 18th and early 19th century animals rights discourses, particularly those linking the treatment of women and animals; Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park in the context of contemporary debates on hunting; the importance of nature through the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy; the significance of Fanny Price’s love of nature, and the ways in which she is treated variously as slave and animal; and the use of food (and agriculture) to comment on male dominance and social inequities, particularly in Emma. These are just a few examples from Austen’s novels (including the juvenilia) and her letters which Seeber draws on to illustrate her argument. In the final chapter she writes insightfully on the role of nature in the unfinished novel Sanditon and the poem that Austen wrote about the Winchester horse races just two days before she died. Seeber’s conclusion then shows how the representations of hunting in recent film and television adaptations have missed Austen’s point.

And Lady Bertram’s nameless pug(s) finally receives the attention that he or she and his or her puppies deserve, at least from us, if not from their owner.

On one reading, I don’t feel that I have done justice to Seeber’s argument and many insights, but I plan to keep her book within easy reach as I re-read Austen’s novels. So, back to Sense and Sensibility to re-consider tree-loving Marianne and predatory Willoughby and his horses and pointers.

June 2015 meeting: Secondary sources on Emma

June 20, 2015

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.

March 2015 Meeting: Emma, Vol 2

March 22, 2015

Emma covers

Prepared by member Jenny K.

Tantalising clues and false leads together with careful plotting mark Jane Austen’s Emma, Volume II

A carefully constructed persona and the imaginist character of the heroine serve to create entertainment in this section of the book.

Frank Churchill’s avowal of “being the wretchedest being in the world at a civil falsehood” followed by Emma’s assertion that she does not believe “any such thing. I am persuaded that you can be as insincere as your neighbours when it is necessary…” set the tone for the games of misinterpretation that are to follow. Apparently, the critic, D.W.Harding, suggested that society can only survive through civil falsehoods.

Mr Knightley serves as the central still point in the novel around which spin Emma’s dynamism and Frank Churchill’s resourcefulness. While some felt that Emma and Mr Knightley’s conversation was stilted compared to that of Mrs Elton, Harriet Smith and Miss Bates, it was also suggested that it may have been an indication of their deeper feelings.

Mr Woodhouse’s old fashioned good manners did not disguise his basically tyrannical approach to everyone regarding food and sickness. Emma’s skill at managing her father, lovingly, was praiseworthy.

This volume was likened to a musical fugue with the introduction of four new themes – three new characters – Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax and Mrs Elton with their back stories — and the Broadford square piano. Fugal threads of Harriet, “swayed by half a word”, Mr Elton with his smug self-satisfaction, the Martin family with their good manners, Emma’s dislike of Jane, Miss Bates’ stream of consciousness and Mr Woodhouse’s whimsies play out, interlacing the plot.

Mrs Elton with her opinion of having “quite a horror of upstarts” was seen as one of Austen’s “grand” comical creations by some. She certainly serves as a perfect foil for Emma.

Discussion involving the possible entrapment of Emma in an enclosed society was divided. Most felt she was “too cheerful” – happy to be a big fish in a small pond. Some felt that Emma’s extreme snobbishness became increasingly irritating. But the idea of gentlemen and “half-gentlemen” attending the whist parties was a source of considerable amusement.

Two interesting pieces of research were very telling. One revealed that the much vaunted “barouche-landau” revealed the carriage as being a strong indication of the nouveau riche status of Mrs Elton and her sister’s family. It was middle class hybrid version of the landau and the barouche even if it was expensive. The other research revealed Mr Knightley in his discussion with his brother John, as a most progressive agricultural innovator. He was following the latest ideas in crop rotation, enclosing fields and using drainage. But as a good neighbour, he planned to check with the village concerning the rerouting of a pathway through his property. Once again, he showed his generosity, even though he had “little spare money.”

Our meeting ended with our usual teasing quiz provided by our quiz master although she was unable to attend herself. True devotion to the cause.

Business matters:

  1. John Wiltshire will be speaking on the topic of “Emma: a heroine no-one will like” to the Southern Highlands branch of JASA (JASH) on Thursday, April 9, 2-4pm.
  2. Walking Jane Austen’s London by Louise Allen is a newly published book for those going overseas.
  3. Our resident Jane Austen quilt maker, Marilyn, will be presenting a session on how to recreate Jane Austen’s quilt at the Jane Austen Festival Australia on Friday, April 10, repeated on Saturday, April 11, at the Albert Hall.
  4. The next meeting on Saturday, April 20th will consider the final volume of Emma.

February 2015 Meeting: Emma, Vol 1

February 22, 2015

Emma covers


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