Jane Austen’s fourth novel, Emma, is arguably as beloved as her second, Pride and Prejudice; in fact Austenites will often define themselves by which one they prefer, even a bit contentiously, which is sort of like taking sides over which champagne you like better, brut or demi-sec. For my part, I don’t care, just top off my glass, please.
In each of Austen’s novels we find her trying to achieve something new, and in Emma it’s to do with her heroine. Having just given us (to disastrous effect, I think) a protagonist so passive and repressed as to render her utterly inert, she swings to the opposite extreme here. Emma Woodhouse is everything Mansifeld Park’s Fanny Price is not: rich, beautiful, spoiled, self-confident. She has character flaws you could steer an oil tanker through, but her rank makes her virtually unassailable; as a result of which she’s a charming, beguiling, utterly relentless terror. The novel is about her metamorphosis into a human being. I’m reminded of the story of Greta Garbo at a screening of Beauty and the Beast, reacting to the hero’s climactic transformation into a prince by exclaiming, “Give me back my beast!” Readers of Emma may feel similarly when our pushy, tart-tongued heroine is finally brought down a peg or seven, and learns to play nice. But it’s only a small vexation, because the solution is obvious: just go back to page one read the whole damn thing over again.
Emma begins with the entrancing plangency of a folk tale by the brothers Grimm, as Austen lays out the particulars of our heroine’s biography: mistress of a large house from an early age, after the death of her mother and the marriage of her elder sister—both of whose places in her life have been filled by a governess, one Miss Taylor, whose “mildness of…temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint,” so that Emma has grown up “doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.” Austen doesn’t mince words:
The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much of 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.
But now things have changed, because Miss Taylor has become Mrs. Weston and left the Woodhouse establishment for one of her own. Emma consoles herself for the loss of her friend to “a man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune, suitable age and pleasant manners” by remembering that she’s the one who pretty much threw them in each other’s path in the first place, and blocked any avenue of escape until they looked around and noticed each other and thought, “Hubba hubba.” So she takes credit for the match; “but it was a black morning’s work for her”, because it’s now left her alone at home with her voraciously infirm father, and no one to follow her around all day and listen to her prattle and watch her kick up her heels and just generally reinforce her belief that God created Emma Woodhouse on Day One and then the rest of the cosmos on Two through Seven.
Austen’s narrative tone here is gentler, kindlier; but I think this is a deliberate dodge, an attempt at ironic dissonance. For instance, she says of Emma’s father that “having been a valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind or body, he was a much older man in ways than in years; and though every where beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time.” This has fooled many people into imagining Mr. Woodhouse to be an adorable old darling with a shawl over his knees and a twinkle in his eyes; but as the novel progresses it becomes ever clearer that he’s the sheerest horror. He represents a kind of tremulous nihilism, a nervous entropy; he’s like a bubbling tar pit, trying to entrap everyone in the vicinity and fossilize them before they can grow, change, breathe. He’s terribly funny, of course, but he’s a genuine danger; if he and Fanny Price ever came within a dozen yards of each other, their combined frigidity would snuff out the sun. When he sighs over how much he’ll miss “Poor Miss Taylor,” Emma reminds him that the Westons only live a half-mile off.
“…We shall be always meeting! We must begin; we must go and pay our wedding-visit very soon.”
“My dear, how am I to get so far? Randalls is such a distance. I could not walk half so far.”
“No, papa; nobody thought of your walking. We must go in the carriage, to be sure.”
“The carriage! But James will not like to put the horses to for such a little way;—and where are the poor horses to be while we are paying our visit?”
“They are to be put into Mr. Weston’s stable, papa. You know we have settled all that already. We talked it all over with Mr. Weston last night…”
You can bet she’ll have to “settle all that” about six hundred times more before anybody gets anywhere near a carriage. You get the sense that Mr. Woodhouse is a temporal anomaly; he can slow time, stop it, and on good days even set it creeping in reverse.
He and Emma live in a great house called Hartfield, whose palatial grounds abut a small village, Highbury, in which the most of the novel’s other characters live in the kind of rustic cheerfulness that makes them no match at all for Emma. She’s basically a queen on a chessboard where the only other players left are pawns. And as we’ll see, that’s pretty much how she treats them.
But she does long for someone who isn’t abject or overawed in her presence—someone with whom she can have an actual conversation. And here he comes now, dropping by to relieve the tedium in which Mr. Woodhouse has been so happily marinating: Mr Knightley, “a sensible man about seven or eight and thirty,” a longtime friend of the family and, since Emma’s sister’s marriage to his own brother, a member of the extended family himself.
Emma is delighted to see him, though Mr. Woodhouse is concerned that he’s come at so late an hour; “I am afraid you must have had a shocking walk” — as though a stroll through the chill night air were the equivalent of being beset by gypsies. Mr. Knightley assures him of having been assaulted by nothing more discomposing than beautiful moonlight.
“But you must have found it very damp and dirty. I wish you may not catch cold.”
“Dirty, sir! Look at my shoes. Not a speck on them.”
“Well! That is quite surprising, for we have had a vast deal of rain here. It rained dreadfully hard for half an hour, while we were at breakfast. I wanted them to put off the wedding.”
With just a little more youth and vigor, Mr. Woodhouse would be the kind of character you find in gothic horror fiction, burying children in the basement to save them from the cruel world. As if to reinforce this, he now hangs his head, for talk has turned—inevitably—to the day’s festivities. “Ah! Poor Miss Taylor! ’tis a sad business,” he says, lamenting that the lady in question has got away from him before he could have her walled up in the linen pantry. Mr. Knightley tries to make him see that the change is a happy one for the bride, it being “better to have only one to please than two.”
“Especially when one of those two is a fanciful, troublesome creature!” said Emma playfully. “That is what…you would certainly say if my father were not by.”
“I believe it is very true, my dear, indeed,” said Mr. Woodhouse with a sigh. “I am afraid I am sometimes very fanciful and troublesome.”
“My dearest papa! You do not think I could mean you…I meant only myself. Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me, you know—in a joke—it is all a joke. We always say what we like to each other.”
After three novels, we know instantly what Austen is setting up here. In the oeuvre of this supposedly proto-romantic writer, lovers are marked as predestined for each other not by deranging fits of attraction, or attacks of galloping passion, but by spiky, brittle, stinging bouts of conversation—in fact, by mockery and sarcasm. Emma and Knightley’s snarky verbal jousting is just Austen’s version of a full-throttle Puccini duet, with trills and crescendos and a chorus of sixty on the bridge.
And if you need any further proof, this early in the novel, that the romance quotient going forward will be hovering at just about zero, here’s Emma’s retelling (to Knightley, who wasn’t there) of the of the nuptial ceremony itself, in all its giddy, flowery, transcendent sentimentality:
“Well,” said Emma…“you want to hear about the wedding; and I shall be happy to tell you, for we all behaved charmingly. Every body was punctual, every body in their best looks: not a tear, and hardly a long face to be seen. Oh, no; we all felt that we were going to be only half a mile apart, and were sure of meeting every day.”
For Austen, who usually dashes out descriptions of weddings in a single line, with all the ardor of a Post-It note reminder to buy mouthwash, the fragment above really is an outpouring of detail.
Emma then adds that, much as she’ll miss her governess, she takes pride in the marriage being of her own devising. “I made the match, you know,” she brags, “four years ago; and to have it take place…when so many people said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may comfort me for any thing.” At which her father begs her never, ever to do any such thing again, “for whatever you say always comes to pass. Pray do not make any more matches.”
“I promise to make none for myself, papa; but I must, indeed, for other people. It is the greatest amusement in the world!”
And there it is, right there: the rest of the novel all laid out for us. Because we can see what Mr. Knightley sees: that despite Emma’s long (very long) account of her campaign to land Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston at the altar together, the resultant wedding can scarcely be claimed as her “success.”
“Success supposes endeavour. Your time has been properly and delicately spent, if you have been endeavouring for the last four years to bring about this marriage. A worthy employment for a young lady’s mind! but if, which I rather imagine, your making the match, as you call it, means only…your saying to yourself one idle day, ‘I think it would be a very good thing for Miss Taylor if Mr. Weston were to marry her,’ and saying it again to yourself every now and then afterwards,—why do you talk of success? where is your merit? What are you proud of? You made a lucky guess; and that is all that can be said.”
Emma shoots back that “a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it,” which Knightley waves away with, “A straight-forward, open-hearted man, like Weston, and a rational unaffected woman, like Miss Taylor, may be safely left to manage their own concerns. You are more likely to have done harm to yourself, than good to them, by interference”…
…and yes, I confess, I could happily sit and listen to them snipe at each other like this until my spine permanently curved. As I noted earlier (in my discussion of Lizzy and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice), Austen’s acerbic, sarcastic, unwitting lovers belong to a tradition that goes back at least to Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, and on through Tracy and Hepburn, right up to…well, choose your sitcom, basically. But nobody has ever done it better than our gal J.A. and her baaaad attitude.
Emma then brazenly flouts Knightley’s judgment of her by announcing that she’s already settled on the new clergyman, Mr. Elton, as the next beneficiary of her matchmaking skills. He’s been at Highbury a full year and it’s high time he was saddled with a wife, and besides, when he was officiating at the wedding earlier that day, “he looked so much as if he would like to have the same kind of office done for him! I think very well of Mr. Elton, and this is the only way I have of doing him a service.”
So right away, we know Mr. Elton is in trubbah. And so does Knightley, who says, “Invite him to dinner, Emma, and help him to the best of the fish and the chicken, but leave him to choose his own wife. Depend upon it, a man of six or seven and twenty can take care of himself.” But this bit of wisdom doesn’t quite reflect as handsomely on Knightley as it might, because if he were really wise he’d realize that saying it aloud will have precisely the opposite effect of the one intended. Unless he wants Emma to go rushing out into the larger world, grabbing people by their collars and making a first-class idiot of herself. Which, now that I think of it…hmm.
The succeeding chapter switches gears in order to give us the back-story of the bridegroom. Here’s where Austen’s juvenile years, penning three- and four-page epics in which people meet, love, and die amidst all manner of tumult and tragedy, show their bounty; because the story of Mr. Weston functions almost as a little novella all on its own.
The youngest of three brothers, he eschewed their “homely pursuits” in order to enter the militia; then, as Captain Weston, he met a certain Miss Churchill “of a great Yorkshire family,” and the two fell in love. Miss Churchill’s brother and his wife, “full of pride and importance, which the connection would offend,” opposed the match; but Miss Churchill defied them and married him anyway, and her relations threw her off. Alas, the resulting union was not a happy one.
[Miss Churchill] had resolution enough to pursue her own will in spite of her brother, but not enough to refrain from unreasonable regrets at that brother’s unreasoning anger, nor from missing the luxuries of her former home. They lived beyond their income, but still it was nothing in comparison to Enscombe; she did not cease to love her husband; but she wanted at once to be the wife of Captain Weston, and Miss Churchill of Enscombe.
If we must have modern writers undertaking Jane Austen sequels and “prequels,” you’d think one of them would at least be enterprising enough to tackle this intriguing creature, instead of yet more intensive scrutiny into the navel of Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Anyway, the former Miss Churchill bears a son and dies, leaving Captain Western a whole lot poorer and burdened with a baby. But the brother and sister-in-law step in to relieve him; having had their tempers softened by their sister’s illness, and “having no children of their own, nor any other young creature of equal kindred to care for, [they] offered to take the whole charge of little Frank soon after her decease.”
Suddenly liberated from all responsibility, Captain Weston left the militia, went into trade, prospered, moved to Highbury, and “the next eighteen or twenty years of his life passed cheerfully away”, apparently so very cheerfully that we can’t be sure which it was, eighteen or twenty, but what’s a couple of lost years between friends? Little Frank, in the meantime, so ingratiated himself in his uncle and aunt’s affections that they bestowed their name on him as well. He has grown up “a very fine young man,” as Mr. Weston is able to report to all his neighbors, for he sees his son every year in London, and they’re on very good terms. In a small provincial town with a limited pool of inhabitants and a higher-than-average ratio of middle-aged biddies, this kind of material proves tinder for a whole firestorm of gossip.
Mr. Frank Churchill was one of the boasts of Highbury, and a lively curiosity to see him prevailed, though the compliment was so little returned that he had never been there in his life. His coming to visit his father had been often talked of but never achieved.
Now, upon his father’s marriage, it was very generally proposed, as a most proper attention, that the visit should take place.
Then, as if to swell the excitement to full-on nuclear proportions, we find out that Frank Churchill has written to his new mother to congratulate her on the marriage.
For a few days every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received. “I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr. Frank Churchill had written to Mrs. Weston? I understood it was a very handsome letter, indeed. Mr. Woodhouse told me of it. Mr. Woodhouse saw the letter, and he says he never saw such a handsome letter in his life.”
Aside from being a wonderfully funny evocation of the head-banging monotony of what passes for interest in village life, it’s also our first indication that in fact Mr. Woodhouse is really one of the novel’s cast of clucking old hens; but after the first twinge of surprise, it does seem entirely right.
The handsome letter provides Mr. Woodhouse a distraction from his continuing distress over the loss of Miss Taylor to the rapacious world in which people insist on actually doing things. We hear of occasions on which he and Emma “left her at Randalls in the centre of every domestic comfort, or saw her go away in the evening attended by her pleasant husband to a carriage of her own”—and each time Mr. Woodhouse heaves a sigh and says, “Ah, poor Miss Taylor! She would be very glad to stay.” But soon enough the novelty of the wedding subsides, and Mr. Woodhouse enjoys some welcome relief.
The compliments of his neighbors were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all ate up.
That’s right—in addition to being a control-freak and a gossip, Mr. Woodhouse is also a crank. “His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself.” Austen riffs on this for a while, turning the wedding cake into the prop for a whole comic monologue, but while we’re laughing we’re wondering what new ghastly trait Mr. Woodhouse will exhibit next. Maybe he’s parsimonious, or flatulent, or beats the household dogs with a crop.
We have a chance to see him now in a new setting, as the scene shifts to an evening party at Hartfield—this being a regular occurrence at the great house, because “Mr. Woodhouse was fond of society in his own way. He liked very much to have his friends come and see him,” for which reason “there was scarcely an evening in the week in which Emma could not make up a card-table for him.”
Alas, not all is pleasure for the paterfamilias on these occasions.
He loved to have the cloth laid, because it had been the fashion of his youth; but his conviction of suppers being very unwholesome made him rather sorry to see anything put on it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his visiters to every thing, his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat.
Not that anyone can really tuck in anyway, with Mr. Woodhouse hovering over them and parceling out crumbs as though they might be radioactive:
“Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else,—but you not need be afraid, they are very small, you see,—one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart—a very little bit…Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you.”
I like to picture him attempting this kind of thing at one of my Italian family’s free-for-alls. Interpose yourself between a guest and the pasta platter there, and you risk having your arm devoured along with the pappardelle.
The Miss Bates to whom Mr. Woodhouse addresses himself here is one of several new characters we meet in this chapter, and the only one who can match him for sheer comic brio. She is the single daughter of an ancient mother—“the widow of a former vicar of Highbury…a very old lady, almost past every thing but tea and quadrille”—and the two live alone very humbly (or, since most of Highbury lives humbly, I should maybe say very very humbly).
Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favor; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her, into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will.
But beyond this, she is a talker; perhaps the most voluble and indefatigable of any talker Jane Austen ever invented. She doesn’t say much in this first chapter of our acquaintance with her—or rather, Austen doesn’t report much of what she says, because you can bet both your ass and your assets she’s off in the margins somewhere firing away like a gatling gun—but we’ll become exhaustively familiar with her epic chattering before too long.
The other new characters—who join Mrs. and Miss Bates, the Westons, and Mr. Knightley as the dinner guests this evening—include Mr. Elton, the young cleric Emma has chosen to play Cupid for (“a young man living alone without liking it,” for whom “the privilege of exchanging any vacant evening of his own blank solitude for the elegancies and society of Mr. Woodhouse’s drawing-room and the smiles of his lovely daughter” is just the ticket, thanks).
Then there’s Mrs. Goddard, the mistress of a school; she’s one of Austen’s blander creations, but provides the opportunity for one of her more spirited snarks:
Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a school,—not a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems,—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity,—but a real, honest, old fashioned boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.
And finally we have Harriet Smith, a pretty young girl who happens to be one of those aforementioned non-prodigies. She is “the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard’s school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour boarder. This was all that was generally known of her history.” Miss Smith has fallen into easy intimacy with some tenants of Mr. Knightley, named Martin, but Emma, impressed by Harriet’s looks and demeanor, thinks she deserves better, and needs only a little notice and encouragement to rise higher. Which is of course just the thing Emma loves better than a hound loves a hambone.
She would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming to her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers.
At this point you may actually find yourself thinking a little bit ahead; and if the train of your thought is along the lines of, “Aha! Emma wants to marry off Mr. Elton, and she wants to improve Miss Smith’s situation. Two birds, one stone, maybe?”—well, then, give yourself a big gold star and as many goddamned boiled eggs as you want, you great big genius, you.
And come on back here next time to see how it all starts going horribly awry.
For the remainder of my analysis of Emma, see Bitch In a Bonnet Volume 2, which you can purchase from Amazon and other fine sites.