Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The sixth post is by Hope Coulter (@hopester99), who I’m lucky to work with. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

2020 stole a lot of things from us. One thing it didn’t steal—the Tiffany box sitting in plain sight on the dresser, which the burglar miraculously forgot to swipe into his pillowcase—was reading. When the pandemic struck and life was suddenly curtailed to the home front, a number of factors that normally compete with reading in my waking day, such as daily commutes and shopping, disappeared. The news was one competitor for my attention that remained, but if I wrenched myself away from updates on the latest case numbers and chaos I could turn, with more time and greater relief than usual, to books. And so the weeks went by and I read: through nights where an uncanny stillness muted my neighborhood, in corners of the house (and the day) that were newly open for visitation, on dog walks with earbuds jammed in my ears.

I discovered several fiction writers last year who were new to me. Dorian had tipped me off to Paulette Jiles, whose gritty historical fiction is a delight. Mostly set in the U.S. Midsouth and West, her novels feature authentic dialogue, grainy characters, galloping plots, and accurately rendered settings (at least as far as my own knowledge of horses and birds can confirm). Her News of the World has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks that just came out. I started with that book and followed up with Simon the Fiddler, Enemy Women, The Color of Lightning, and Stormy Weather.

Another new pleasure was Maggie O’Farrell. I ran into her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, which may be my favorite—especially with the twist that the final section puts upon the whole. While I was devouring her Instructions for a Heatwave, set in London in 1976, I happened to hear an NPR interview of O’Farrell discussing her new book, Hamnet, which came out last year to lots of accolades: it’s a fictionalization of Shakespeare’s family life. I dipped into more O’Farrell through online samples and wasn’t as taken by them as I was with these three books, but I’ll probably try again with other works of hers.

Curtis Sittenfeld is a fiction writer a friend had mentioned in the context of her novel Rodham, about Hillary Clinton. At the time I didn’t follow up. Then late one night, when I was prowling the spotty “available now” shelves of my Libby app, embarrassingly like an addict knocking on doors for a fix, I came across Sittenfeld’s Eligible. The title rang a bell, and I remembered that a favorite podcaster, Liz Craft, had also touted this author. I saw that the book was an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and inwardly rolled my eyes, because I’m often not a fan of Austen adaptations, either books or movies (why not just go back and reread the real thing?). But I was desperate for a hit, and as soon as I plunged into the sample I was hooked. Eligible was my best 2020 read for sheer fun. Set in contemporary Cincinnati, the book reimagines the Bennet family in ways that are both clever and true to our times, and its fidelity to the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy should please even the most stringent of Jane devotees. It’s funny, raunchy, and thoughtful—a romp with depth. I wish I could have made myself enjoy it more slowly, but I couldn’t help racing through.

After that I turned to Sittenfeld’s story collection you think it: i’ll say it, and was underwhelmed. Still hopeful of reexperiencing the Eligible high, I turned to Rodham. Again, I was suspicious: was this book going to be a polemical feminist rant? (Well, kind of.) Was it going to misrepresent Arkansas and Arkansans? (To my surprise, it didn’t.) And the big question: would it shed light on my own complicated opinions of Hillary and Bill; could it embody these two individuals persuasively and give me new insight into their relationship? (Resoundingly, no.) This book receives my Dorothy Parker “not a book to be tossed aside lightly—it should be thrown with great force” Award for 2020. The first part was curiously engrossing, if uncomfortably so, as it nailed Hillary’s voice with cringeworthy persuasiveness and dramatized details about Bill and Hillary’s dating and sex life that only they should know. (Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t read either of their enormous memoirs, and maybe Sittenfeld drew her torrid-romance imagery from their own words—but I doubt it.) The minute that fictional Hillary breaks off with fictional Bill and returns to the East Coast for a solo career, the novel becomes a huge yawn, and I couldn’t make myself finish it. The book could contribute, if tediously, to such eternal questions as the line between fiction and nonfiction, the obligations of the author, whether it’s ethical (or even a good idea aesthetically) to render first-person fiction about a still-living person… but, warning: if you want to use this novel to flog such issues, you may just end up feeling icky.

Other stand-out fiction that I read this year, on the positive side, includes Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside; Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (yes! more about truculent Olive!);and Gail Honeyman’s haunting Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I reread Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and—while waiting for the fifth in the series—re-listened to two of Robert Galbraith’s utterly satisfying Cormoran Strike books. Less happily, I buzzed through Carl Hiassen’s Squeeze Me, which is crummy even for a guilty-pleasure book, and finished off my last four books in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series with the absent-minded “why am I doing this” of someone swallowing stale potato chips. [Ed.–What?? Who could be unmoved by the last book in the series?]

At Hendrix, where Dorian and I are colleagues, I teach only one course a semester, because I also have administrative duties. As it happened, this year I taught the same course back-to-back in spring and fall: a tutorial on Irish short stories. The rereading I did for teaching was that wonderful kind of deep, slow reading that opens window after window into the text. My selection spanned from 1894 to 2017, from folk legends recast into stories by W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge to modern love fables by Lucy Caldwell and Sally Rooney. Along the way we read some dark jewels by James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, and Frank O’Connor; Roddy Doyle’s delicious “The Pram”; and Seumas O’Kelly’s one-hit wonder, “The Weaver’s Grave.” Discussing these works with the students was a rich experience, even in the online format that had so unexpectedly become a norm. I’ll be returning to these stories, and gladly, in future semesters.

In nonfiction, my reading year’s unexpected highlight was Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. As a 747 pilot for British Airways, Vanhoenacker wrote columns for a number of magazines and newspapers, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. In lyrical, exact prose he serves up a cockpit’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly these elegant machines around the globe. Much of the book is terrific description of cloud formations, land patterns, and celestial sights observed on his long flights; I plan to use it as a teaching model. There is also lots of information about the pilot life—what it’s like to cross vast time zones so routinely; how a long-distance crew prepares for flight; and how this long-distance flying affects pilots’ friendships and their outlook on the world. This book was especially good to read during a time when I longed for travel, and when its absence made me see it in a new light. In the long summer hours of 2020 as my husband and I sat on our deck, noticing the planes crossing the sky and speculating as to their destinations, Vanhoenacker’s perspective often came to mind.

Less ecstatically, 2020 prompted me to read on the troubling fronts of race and inequity. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterpiece, compellingly written and somber. It permanently shifted the way I view systemic racism in the United States. Natasha Trethewey’s memoir, Memorial Drive, is—true to her poet’s nature—much briefer, and evocative in its own way of the caste-based divide in this country. I also read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which gave me new understandings of the housing crisis and how deeply it’s enmeshed with other social problems. (I hope Biden and Harris have read it.)

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book has, as Rossini or somebody said about Wagner, wonderful moments and dreadful quarters of an hour. Orlean herself reads the audio version; when will authors learn that, no matter how skilled they are with the pen, they are not trained voice actors? It was only by turning the speed up to 1.5x that I managed to push through her slow, grating voice to the end. Still, the tome includes memorable anecdotes about the history of libraries and L.A. that make it worth the slog.

Early in the pandemic, The American Scholar published a list of recommended food writing from its archives. In our desperation to entertain ourselves my husband and I, like so many others, were lavishing new attention on cooking, so I thought it would be fun to try some of these cookery classics in my reading. Turned out I wasn’t in the mood for How To Cook a Wolf  by M.F.K. Fisher or The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. James and Kay Salter’s Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days had flashes of fun but, as can happen with food writing, the fussiness became downright shrill—This is how you make a martini! This and only this is what the cool people do with the chicken! By contrast, I absolutely loved Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: the story of how she became the New York Times food editor, complete with droll—and insightful—accounts of doing restaurant reviews in disguise.

Well, I’ll stop for now. Thanks, Dorian, for giving me the chance to share. It’s an honor to step into this venue: I’ve added so many recommendations to my to-read list from books mentioned here, both in the main blog and in the guest posts and comments. If any of y’all ever come to Little Rock, post-pandemic, let’s grab a drink and fill in the gaps. I want to hear more about what you think and what’s on your nightstand. The plague will be over and the question will still be germane: Read any good books lately?

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

One of Our Small Eggs Will Not Hurt You: Emma, Volume I

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.

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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.

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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.