Blunders: Emma, Volume II & III

More Emma. After stalling out for a few days in Book II—distracted mostly by Vivian Gornick: excellent, you should read her—I read the last 250 odd pages in two long sessions. Here are some thoughts on Volumes II & III, in unorganized sections since it’s late in the day, late in the year.


Something I noticed the first time I read Emma and which I’ve not seen elsewhere is the use of quotation marks around reported speech. I’m sure this simply betrays my lack of familiarity with 18th & early 19th Century literature. Here’s an example of what I mean:

“He [Frank Churchill] had seen a group of old acquaintance in the street as he passed—he had not stopped, he would not stop for more than a word—but he had the vanity to think they would be disappointed if he did not call, and much as he wished to stay longer at Hartfield, he must hurry off.”

I noted at least three instances of this quoted indirect speech, and I probably missed others. Is this technique specific to Austen (though I don’t remember it in any text except this one)? Or is it common to the period? If the latter, as I suspect, when did it go away? Does anyone know? Jenny? Rohan?


Frank Churchill is an interesting variant of a type we see elsewhere in Austen: the gallant charmer who turns out to be a cad. I’m thinking of Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice. He’s not as bad as those two, he has more redeeming qualities, but he likes to talk, he’s vain (he goes to London to get his hair cut), he’s frivolous. Worst of all, he puts Jane Fairfax in the position of having to remain silent about their engagement and it’s hard to see how that marriage can succeed, despite various characters’ claims that Jane’s deep (and fairly annoying) goodness will leaven his lack of seriousness.

Churchill is good to Mrs. Weston, and I think we’re meant to take that as a mark in his favour. But Mrs. Weston’s discrimination is shown at times to be wanting. In that sense, she’s a good match for her husband, who I find an intriguingly ambiguous character. He’s a gossip, though not in a mean-spirited way, he just can’t keep anything to himself. He’s a little hasty when it comes to considering the consequences of actions or outcomes. (His wish that Frank and Emma get together is unable to come to terms with what the lovers would do with Mr. Woodhouse—his airy dismissal that young love will find a way isn’t very helpful.) But he dotes on his wife, and he seems to have earned his position in the world through hard work.

What I most wonder about Mr. Weston is why he’s so willing to let the Churchills take his son, to the point of letting them give the boy their name. I’m sure I’m being anachronistic in being a little shocked by this—what was the young widower to do with the boy? Yet of course the novel offers us a direct contrast in the figure of Mr. Woodhouse. He didn’t farm his children out when his wife died, though of course there is no family as rich as the Churchills in the picture. I suppose what I wonder is whether we ought to judge Mr. Weston for his decision—to see it as intimating his fecklessness—or to praise him for his practicality.


Emma wants us to think a lot about visibility and legibility. The two seldom map on to each other. Everyone sees everything, but they can’t read or make sense of what they see. Or, more accurately perhaps, they think they see everything, and this self-assurance is the reason they are often so blind. “Misunderstood,” “duped,” “mistaken”: these words and their variants reappear regularly. As does the word “blunder,” which, in a line I cannot find just now, Emma explicitly links to blindness—indeed, these words are apparently etymologically related.


“Blunder” of course appears in the anagram scene, a private message Churchill sends Jane. But that isn’t it first appearance: we had already been introduced to it in a passage from Volume I I quoted last time, describing Emma’s dismissal of John Knightley’s suggestion that Elton is about to propose to her: “the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances.” By now we can see this phrase as something like the book’s motto.

I’m trying to get a handle on what blundering means for the novel. A blunder is a stupid mistake—and it’s the stupid part I’m wondering about. The coarseness or gaucherie that blunder connotes seems pretty judgmental. What sense of decorum, what ideal of grace and order is transgressed in a blunder? No doubt people have made something of the relationship between the highly structured dancing of the period and the social order or behavioural conventions that get trampled when someone makes a blunder. It’s probably important that a sure sign of Knightley’s decency is his willingness to dance with Harriet when Elton won’t.


I wondered last time whether our feelings about Emma would change as the book went on. And they do. We see Emma chastened. But do we see her subdued? She gets the man that long experience of reading novels, especially Jane Austen’s novels, will have prepared us to see is the right one for her. Our doubts about this May-December romance are in part alleviated when we see Knightley himself admitting to Emma that she could easily and rightly been put off by his lecturing her on how to behave. But only in part. There’s a disquieting sense, for me at least, no matter how much I like Knightley, and I like him a lot, we’re meant to after all, that he is there to school Emma. I think the novel manages to avoid this outcome, though only just.

As I said last time, Emma’s love for her father, whom it would have been so easy to dislike or leave behind, is always a clue to us that there is more to Emma than her self-regard and love of ordering others’ lives might suggest. I’m glad Emma isn’t totally redeemed, either. Austen handles the growing distance between her and Harriet brilliantly. Even when amends are made, wrongs redressed, there are some things that can’t be undone or made good. Whether Emma herself sees this is less clear. We’re left with a few suggestions that she doesn’t have full self-knowledge (though of course, she’s only 20): she manages to clear the air for her cruel behaviour to Miss Bates without ever directly apologizing. (We see the difference between Austen and Dickens in a character like Miss Bates: whereas Dickens would caricature her, Austen makes us sympathize with her even if we agree with Emma’s intemperate description of her on the ill-fated Box Hill excursion.) And she maintains a perhaps surprising degree of conservatism about class distinctions, though surprising perhaps only to us and not to Austen’s first readers. Here is Emma reflecting on what she calls Harriet’s “presumption” in thinking Knightley might be interested in her:

Who had been at pains to give Harriet notions of self-consequence but herself?—Who but herself had taught her, that she was to elevate herself if possible, and that her claims were great to a high worldly establishment?—If Harriet, from being humble, were grown vain, it was her doing too.

This criticism is supposedly directed at Emma herself but in actuality seems mostly directed at Harriet. (In a similar vein, I think Knightley gets off a little easy for not having to acknowledge that he might have encouraged Harriet, or, at least, that he might need to respond to or even acknowledge her misreading of his interactions with him. Harriet, in the end, simply doesn’t matter to Knightley, and the novel has no problem with that.) I don’t mean to suggest that Austen succeeded—if it ever was her aim—in giving us a heroine that nobody could like. But not liking Emma, or not liking her all the way, is one of the interesting results of the novel.


According to Juliette Wells in her uninspiring introduction—I really don’t think much of this edition, beyond the lovely cover—Austen advised her niece Anna on the latter’s own attempts at novel writing. Among other things, she encouraged Anna to restrict her focus: “3 or 4 families in a Country village is the very thing to work on.” On the face of it this seems a good description of Austen’s own work, Emma included. Highbury seems a closed society. Recall that isolation and insularity is what Emma fears at the beginning of the novel when her former governess leaves her. But it isn’t long before this self-contained community is breached by a number of outsiders: Jane, Frank, Mrs. Elton.

I want to end these overlong reflections with another breach, because it’s the hardest for me to get my head around. I refer to Harriet’s encounter with a group of gypsies as she and a friend walk home from the ball.


Emma’s not present: the first she knows anything about it is when Frank carries a nearly insensible Harriet into the grounds of Hartfield. We hear the story indirectly, how the girls came across the gypsies on an isolated stretch of roadway, how a child came out to beg, how the friend screamed and ran away but how Harriet could not because of a cramp in her leg from all the dancing, how Harriet was soon “assailed” by half a dozen children and how her decision to take out her purse and give them a shilling proved “too tempting”: soon “she was followed, or rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding more.” We hear too that just then Frank happened upon the scene; he terrorized the gypsies just as much as they had her. The outsiders run away and Frank brings her to safety.

Having only just appeared, and only indirectly at that, the gypsies disappear for good. Their only function is to provoke more of Emma’s misreadings: she is convinced that the encounter is a sign that Harriet ought to get together with Frank. But he is only on the scene because he is making his way to Miss Bates’s to return a pair of scissors he had borrowed the night before, a surprising suggestion even on a first reading, the full spuriousness of which we don’t realize until later, when we understand that he must have been trying to see that lady’s niece, his secret fiancée Jane Fairfax.

Noodling around online about this scene I came across this reading by Miriam Mandel, which emphasizes what Emma makes of the scene she didn’t experience. Emma announces that its meaning would be plain even to someone as imaginatively insensitive as a linguist, a grammarian, or a mathematician. And since she is herself a self-described “imaginist” she believes herself that much more likely to read the scene correctly, as foretelling a romance between Frank and Harriet:

It was a very extraordinary thing! Nothing of the sort had ever occurred before to any young ladies in the place, within her memory; no rencontre, no alarm of the kind;–and now it had happened to the very person, and at the very hour, when the other very person was chancing to pass by to rescue her!—It certainly was very extraordinary!

Mandel nicely points out the shifting referent of “it” in this passage. The first “it” is the encounter with the gypsies. The second is a more generalized “alarm.” The last exclamation might be the same as the first but the third “it,” Mandel plausibly suggests, refers to “the fortuitous conjunction of events and persons,” that is, to Emma’s own plotting.

But what, I wonder, does it mean for the story-teller, for the one who arranges events into an order that reveals a meaning imposed by the teller herself, to think so insistently about her own story? What does it mean that she arranges events so falsely? What does it mean for a story (Emma) to feature a story-teller (Emma) who keeps getting things wrong? And what does it mean for the audience to be complicit in these blunders? Everyone in the neighbourhood soon forgets about the gypsies—everyone except Emma and her little nephews: “Henry and John were still asking every day for the story of Harriet and the gipsies, and still tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital.”

The suggestion seems to be that as readers we are implicated in Emma’s failures. Does that mean we too mature by the novel’s end? And what, most importantly, about the gypsies themselves? They “did not wait for the operations of justice; they took themselves off in a hurry.” Just one of many instances in 19th Century British literature when gypsies are summarily dispatched after serving a narrative function—Maggie Tuller’s encounter in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss comes immediately to mind, but I bet there are plenty of others. I can’t help but feel, though, that the gypsies have been wronged in this story-telling. Unlike in other instances, the true story of the gypsies is never revealed. By which I mean, their side of the story goes untold. Here is another instance of a wrong that can’t be made right—but unlike Emma’s inability to apologize to Miss Bates or to Harriet, this time the book itself doesn’t see it as such, doesn’t even see it as a wrong at all.

A melancholy note on which to end. But fitting, maybe. Emma is delightful at times, and sprightly, and droll, and very smart. But it’s also melancholic and its happy ending feels quite muted to me.

Thanks to Dolce Bellazza for organizing this readalong.



9 thoughts on “Blunders: Emma, Volume II & III

  1. Oh good, you tackled the gypsies! It’s the worst scene in the book, but I was never quite sure why I was so sure of that. Now I have a better idea.

    I share your questions about Knightley, too, but those are good problems for a novel to have, productive problems. I would not mind if he were more wrong in some way than he turns out to be.

  2. Do you know of other gypsy scenes in 19th-century English lit? I bet you do?
    I like that phrase “productive problems.” Yes, good novels need good problems. I think I like Knightley better than Darcy.

  3. I like Knightley best, too, and you thought exactly as I did about Mr. Weston. Why did he let his son live away from him, take another name?! Bizarre to me, no matter what the era.

    You bring up so many marvelous points, giving us lots to think about. It’s hard to sort them all out as I try to leave a decent comment…another observation you made, I think, is how Emma is chastened. But, not subdued. True, she is loving to her father, perhaps her most redeeming quality when you really think about it, but what good daughter isn’t committed to caring for her elderly parent?

    I can’t help but wonder if her marriage will work out; she seems ill suited for Knightley’s grace and wisdom. Neither do I think Jane and Frank will be very happy together. Too bad Austen leaves us with our own ponderings, as she wrapped up everything neatly in a bow. As if life could be put in such a tidy box…

    Thank you for reading with me. I hope to share more books in 2016. I really enjoy your insight.

    • I rather like the way Austen leaves us with these doubts and uncertainties. Everyone thinks Austen is about marriages and happy endings, and I suppose that’s sort of true. But I’m always struck by how low-key the weddings are (at least in the three Austen novels I’ve read). Sometimes, reading Austen, I wonder why she is as beloved as she is. Not because she’s worse than people think she is, but because she’s a lot darker.
      More readalongs in 2016?

      • Interesting about her being darker than generally assumed…yes, I agree. At first it’s easy to think that it’s all neat and tidy on the surface, but once I go away and think about it, I suspect the characters are in for some nasty surprises once the last page is turned.

        I’m glad you’re in for Two Serious Ladies, a conpletely different era, of course, and a totally new to me author. First Jane Austen, next Jane Bowles. We ought to have fun together.

      • I wonder what it is about Austen that asks us to imagine her characters living beyond her pages? I’m not sure there’s another author who has inspired so many “sequels.” (Except maybe Conan Doyle.)
        Anyway, yes to Jane Bowles! I wonder what other Janes we can find?

  4. Austen is meaner than many of her readers admit, more of a satirist. How she thought of as a “nice” writer – anyway.

    Assuming Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster don’t count, Austen could well will that contest. Conan Doyle, Lovecraft, Austen – she has become a kind of pulp writer.

  5. Pingback: 2015 Year in Reading | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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