Jane Austen: Emma
Edited by James Kinsley and David Lodge
World’s Classics 1980 (1971)
How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight! — Emma, Volume III Chapter 3
Emma thoroughly deserves its plaudits as an epitome of the author’s skills. Its status as Austen’s longest novel and the main product of her mature years ensures that any assessment I give is bound to be brief and inconsequential; but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my own two-penn’orth of praise to the general applause.
Its chief protagonist is Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield, Highbury in Surrey. She lives alone with her aged widowed father — alone, that is, apart from the usual complement of servants — since her elder married sister now lives in London 16 or more miles away. As Highbury and parts of neighbouring parish Donwell constitute a sizeable village, almost a town, she is familiar with most of the inhabitants, their comings and goings, their status and their prospects.
This allows her a substantial amount of time to imagine unattached individuals being paired with other such souls, and at first she is pleased to picture herself as a matchmaker. This has already happened with her former governess, Anne Taylor, with Emma fancying she had a hand in uniting Miss Taylor with Mr Weston: ‘there was some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying, generous friendship she had always wished and promoted the match.’ She soon devotes herself to pairing her protégée Harriet Smith with the new vicar Mr Elton. But disaster is just around the corner and Emma realises she has committed a monumental misjudgement.
Just as she resolves to learn her lesson a new person enters Highbury society: Frank Weston Churchill is the son of Mr Weston by a former wife, adopted by his relatives the Churchill family from Yorkshire. By all appearances he appears to be making a play for Emma herself, though despite being flattered she lacks any conviction that she owns any reciprocal attraction. Again, all is not as it seems.
If Jane Austen was ever tempted to follow the alliterative leads of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice she might well have entitled this something like Dissembling and Deception. On one level Emma is all about deceit, whether done by those attempting to deceive others by overt behaviours or practised by those who unknowingly deceive themselves. But to merely characterise Emma this way would be to do it a great disservice.
Austen’s novels are often referred to as comedies of manners. There is certainly humour aplenty. The garrulous Miss Bates, whose monologues in company often amount to a page or more of text, is one figure of fun; another is the thoroughly unpleasant Mrs Elton who — an imaginist in her own way — unfavourably compares and contrasts Highbury society with that of Maple Grove near Bristol, and who disparages anybody she feels below her station. But the author can just as easily turn on a sixpence and in the midst of a comic situation deliver despair and mortification.
Embedded in this realist novel though are nuggets of Austenian metafiction. First is Emma’s self-definition as an ‘imaginist’: when Miss Woodhouse foretells the narratives of future relationships (whether or not they turn out as she predicts) Jane is surely slyly acknowledging her own role as a fiction writer — and ours as readers — in imagining where people’s paths through life will take them. We are, in a sense, all imaginists if we play the game.
Secondly, the author doesn’t do what she had done in a couple of earlier novels, inserting her authorial voice in a concluding chapter. Instead she indicates her hidden presence by numerous references to game-playing. Early on Emma tries to ‘improve’ Harriet by encouraging her to collect riddles, puzzles, enigmas, charades or conundrums to put in a special notebook at Hartfield. Later on, at Donwell Abbey (the home of the upstanding Mr Knightley, a dear friend of the Woodhouse family and significant player in the action such as it is) letter tiles designed to educate Emma’s nephews and nieces are purloined; they’re put to new use for some of the assembled company to play a Scrabble-like word game for their amusement. Later still, a group excursion to Box Hill occasions an ill-judged injunction for people to state frankly what they are thinking.
The fact that all three episodes of game-playing result in undesirable outcomes may well be Jane’s subtle way of intruding herself anonymously: if not for these notionally innocent games that she has inserted, the author seems to be saying, the plot would not be driven onwards to achieve ultimately desirable outcomes, and Emma would just be a succession of scenes and vignettes from village life. Which, emphatically, it is not.
To mention more characters would amount to a bald catalogue; better by far would be for new readers to acquaint themselves with Highbury folk as they appear in the pages of the novel; there’s no doubt they repay the effort many times over.
This World’s Classics edition from Oxford Paperbacks includes a not too out-of-date bibliography and a short chronology of Jane’s life, plus notes and an enlightening introduction (best examined subsequent to a first reading) by David Lodge.
I can’t resist adding more remarks on this remarkable novel, but I’ll leave that for at least one other post, with an early warning that there will be spoilers!