The imaginist

Edmund Blair Leighton: The Piano Lesson

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!

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10 thoughts on “The imaginist

  1. I have read the other Jane Austen novels a couple of times each but not this one. It must be a mark of the quality of her writing that Emma irritated me so much as to make me hesitate to re-read for so long. Perhaps it is time I should.

    1. I could have rambled on for a great deal on Emma’s character, Alastair, but it would have not only made a long post longer but also given away too many spoilers. I too initially felt irritated by her — precisely as Austen intended, to introduce a heroine whom nobody would like. But Austen does not just give her a few sterling qualities as well to start with but shows us a person who, while remaining an imaginist, grows in self-perception.

      And, dammit, she remains a person I do want to know and like! It’s a measure of my firm intention to reread it in the near future that I’ve already bought a new replacement copy as the charity shop edition I had is rapidly falling apart!

        1. Yay! Will it help or hinder to know I’m planning a follow-up post or two to this review?! Seriously, a critical consensus seems to be that Emma repays several rereads much more than the same number of, say, Pride and Prejudice rereads. I may possibly try and test the proof of that in due course …

  2. earthbalm

    Have only read ‘Mansfield Park’ by JA but loved it almost as much as Jane Eyre. I’ll add ‘Emma’ to my ever growing list of ‘must read’. Currently though, I’m on my Ursula K LeGuin re-read-fest. Great post (as always) Chris.

    1. I’m conflicted about completing all JA’s novels before embarking on the Brontes’, but as Dido’s next adventure owes a debt to Bronte juvenilia I feel I need to read some of that first before Persuasion! Decisions, decisions …

      And UKLG, I feel sad not to have got going with my rereads of her novels already, as you’ve done. Can’t do everything I suppose. Anyway, chuffed as always that you enjoy these reviews!

  3. Pingback: Emma – Lovegrove – Earth Balm Music

  4. Christine

    I never thought much of the game-playing in that way! Although they cause a lot of trouble, they do eventually lead to good things–but it’s such a risk! Emma is a bit of a born gambler, I suppose, only with a lot of confidence in her ability to win. She’s endearing in her irritating nature. After this review, I feel like Emma is due for a second read! (Anything would be fine after Zola, though I have Black Hearts in Battersea up next.)

    1. Emma as a gambler? I suppose that’s true, though she has no real idea of the stakes involved when she starts. As for endearing, I did feel more for her towards the end though irritating she certainly was at the beginning.

      I noticed afterwards that David Lodge (in the introduction to this edition) had pointed up the significance of the games and riddles in the novel, but I was already alert to this from the Dido Twite series! After all, Simon in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase paints the inn sign of the Snakes & Ladders pub at the end of the novel, a symbol of the ups and downs of the action. In The Stolen Lake messages from the captured Ellen are couched in a series of word games using pages from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. And in Limbo Lodge Joan makes great play of board games of all kinds, as I’ll discuss after I’ve posted a review (several weeks in the future, I’m afraid).

      As Joan Aiken was such a fan of Austen, I suspect that she drew inspiration from Emma for her Wolves Chronicles. Hope you enjoy Black Hearts now! By the way, Christine, I discuss a bit more about game-playing in my final post on Emma scheduled for the 18th April.

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