Dolce Belezza has organized a readalong of Emma to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its publication on December 23, 1815.
I’m a notorious bailer on readalongs: they always sound so exciting, especially as they often legitimate my buying yet another book. Then the demands of life and my seemingly constitutive inability to follow a reading plan—which is pretty rich coming from someone who designs syllabi for a living—get in the way. But this one coincides with the end of the semester, so I’m crossing my fingers I’ll actually keep up with it.
Emma is divided into three volumes. Here are a few thoughts on the first.
I’ve read Emma before, quite a while ago now, thirteen years ago in fact. I know exactly because I read it in the weeks before I married my wife in August 2002. I don’t ever remember thinking it directly at the time, but now I fancy I must have made some unconscious connection between the weddings in Austen’s novels and my own. At any rate, I remember spending several pleasurable lazy days—of the kind available only to grad students, when you have almost nothing to do for years except of course for one big thing, a thing so terrifying it makes almost anything else seem a much better idea that must be pursued immediately—I remember several hot sticky air-conditioner-less days reading this novel on an old couch in the apartment that was about to become our apartment.
My memory of reading Emma is vivid. But my memory of Emma itself is not.
Maybe that’s because, as is clear to me now, Emma is a story about the failure of interpretation. It’s about missed clues and mistaken impressions. Which means it is made to be re-read even more than it is to be read.
It’s possible, of course, to see already on a first reading how closely the novel hews to its heroine’s point of view and that this point of view is dangerously misguided. It’s possible, in other words, already on a first go round to read against Emma rather than with her. But it’s impossible not to do so on a second.
That might seem a weird thing to say, since it’s not as though Austen is shy about Emma’s faults. Already on the first page, we read:
The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.
Here the narrative voice is unusually distinct from Emma’s. It practically promises a comeuppance. We feel the full force of that famous Austen wit, gentle and forbearing but with a sting to it. “Real evils” isn’t just the pleasant exaggeration it might first seem. Emma has the power to do real harm, as we see takes on as a kind of protégé the young and naïve Harriet Smith and urges her to turn down a proposal from one Robert Martin, a man Emma deems beneath Harriet. For someone like Harriet, an illegitimate child of unknown parents, the loss of such a match, not least to someone as seemingly good-natured and besotted with her as Martin, is a serious loss. I say “seemingly’ not because I suspect he is in fact a bad guy but because I can’t remember the novel well enough to know if our opinion of him is going to change—and I’m always wary with Austen because our opinions of her characters are often forced to change. First impressions are usually wrong in Austen.
Emma has someone else in mind for Harriet, Mr. Elton, the unctuous and prepossessing local vicar. Emma is emboldened in her matchmaking by what she takes to have been her success at marrying her former governess, Miss Taylor, to a kindly, middle-aged widower, Mr. Weston. (Their marriage, and her leaving the Woodhouse establishment, much to Emma’s father’s mournful chagrin, is the book’s precipitating event.) It’s unclear whether Emma really had much to do with the success of the match, and so we should be suspicious of her efforts this time around. She’s easily able to get Harriet to fall for Elton, but it doesn’t take too long for us to realize—at least it didn’t take me long, this time around—that Elton cares for Emma herself, not Harriet. She devises all sorts of ploys to get the two of them together and never realizes they aren’t working.
For example, she allows herself to be persuaded to take up drawing again, in order to make a portrait of Harriet while Elton watches. She’d given up drawing, she says, when her attempt to draw her brother-in-law failed, before adding: “But for Harriet’s sake, or rather for my own, and as there are no husbands and wives in the case at present, I will break my resolution now.”
What follows is a classic instance of Austen’s irony:
Mr. Elton seemed very properly struck and delighted by the idea, and was repeating, “No husbands and wives in the case at present indeed, as you observe. Exactly so. No husbands and wives,” with so interesting a consciousness, that Emma began to consider whether she had not better leave them together at once. But as she wanted to be drawing, the declaration must wait a little longer.
I can’t decide whether the last line makes me like Emma more, or less. On the one hand, her selfishness—she wants to be drawing—is such that it gets in the way even of her plan. But on the other, her interest in the match isn’t purely mercenary, hasn’t consumed her entirely. What begins as mere stratagem becomes something she loses herself in. Here as elsewhere we see that figuring out how to understand Emma is our main task as readers.
If we don’t see these critiques of Emma the first time around—and maybe we do, they seem so obvious to me now, but I fear I missed them the first time—we are eventually helped by the novel to see that Emma is, in fact, misled about Elton. Her brother-in-law, the one who fussed about having his portrait done, tells her that Elton is behaving as though he is love with her. Emma brushes off the suggestion:
she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment [her brother-in-law is a lawyer] are for ever falling into; and not very well pleased with her brother[-in-law] for imagining her blind and ignorant, and in want of counsel.
The joke of course is on Emma and Volume I ends with a lovely set piece at Christmastime, when the characters spend the evening with the Westons. It begins to snow and in all the haste of a hurried departure—everyone wanting to get home before the weather gets bad—Emma and Elton find themselves alone in a carriage. He wastes no time in proposing and each is equally amazed and hurt to find how the other has understood matters.
Austen is not always so overt in her narrative irony—and part of me wonders whether the passage about “the blunders which arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances” won’t later be subjected to further revision. That is, will we be led to read this passage in yet another way, in light of events yet to come? Will Emma prove to be a better interpreter of the world than this initial interpretation suggests? How subtly Austen’s works open up to reveal a vertiginous landscape of dizzying epistemological uncertainty!
I’ll offer just one more example of how destabilizing her prose can be. In the early scene in which Emma talks Harriet out of accepting Martin’s proposal, we read this heartbreaking response to the scorn Emma heaps on the young farmer (“I had no idea he could be so very clownish”):
“To be sure,” said Harriet, in a mortified voice, “he is not so genteel as a real gentleman.”
It’s that “mortified” that gets me. Mostly this is the so-called omniscient narrator, gently but devastatingly pointing out how terribly Emma is behaving. (Famously, Austen said of the book, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”) But it’s also possible that we’re still getting Emma’s perspective here: that Emma recognizes—and, presumably, approves of—Harriet’s mortification. It might be nice to take our distance from a character who is behaving badly. But are we allowed to?
I’m looking forward to seeing how the novel answers this question.
Next time I’ll say more about some of the other characters, especially Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, who is one of the most delightful characters in English fiction and, I increasingly suspect, central to making this novel work. Tom wrote some wonderful stuff about him here.
Mr. Woodhouse is a hypochondriac, a fussbudget, a man so thoroughly convinced of the rightness of his way of living that he could be a monster if he weren’t so gentle, or so gently portrayed. His constitution is so delicate that he’s frightened to eat almost everything, and he fears for the constitutions of others. Here he is advising an old acquaintance what she should take for tea:
Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle [their cook] understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else—but you need not be afraid—they are very small, you see—one of our small eggs will not hurt you.
I’ll have more to say about how the novel portrays Woodhouse. But for now the important thing to note is his relationship to Emma. She dotes on him—but also disparages him a little, makes a little fun of him, all while humouring him or seeming to. She quietly makes sure her guests get proper-sized portions of grown-up food. This is important because it makes us see Emma as shrewd and, more importantly, kind. Emma’s kindness opens up the possibility that we might follow Austen in liking her.