Of Highbury, in Surrey

I promised some musings on the subject of Jane Austen’s Emma, based on notes taken while reading it for the first time, and so here is my offering … while it is still fresh in my mind. As regular readers will be familiar from previous musings on novels that have caught my fancy, I’ve mainly based my thoughts on the four ‘W’s — who, what, when and where.

Here comes the customary warning of spoilers.

When is Emma set? I’m going to plump for the action being set over the course of a year, from late 1813 to late 1814. Jane began Emma on the 21st January 1814, only finally completing it on 29th March 1815, and I think would have consciously set her novel in contemporary times. Mr Elton is made to remark, as the first flurries appear on Christmas Eve:

“Ha! snows a little I see.”

“Yes,” said John Knightley, “and I think we shall have a good deal of it.”

“Christmas weather,” observed Mr. Elton. “Quite seasonable; and extremely fortunate we may think ourselves that it did not begin yesterday, and prevent this day’s party, which it might very possibly have done, for Mr. Woodhouse would hardly have ventured had there been much snow on the ground; but now it is of no consequence. This is quite the season indeed for friendly meetings. At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather. I was snowed up at a friend’s house once for a week. Nothing could be pleasanter. I went for only one night, and could not get away till that very day se’nnight.”

A couple of points here. First is Mr Elton’s remark on “Christmas weather. Quite seasonable.” Interestingly this appears to show that the concept of a White Christmas didn’t originate with, though probably was popularised by, Dickens. Secondly, the winter of 1813-14 was particularly severe, so severe that the Thames froze over for a week at the very end of January 1814, allowing a Frost Fair to be held on the ice. Mr Woodhouse’s constant worry that friends and relatives may suffer from being out in the cold weather (and even when the weather is balmier in summer!) now makes a little more sense, even if he still fusses inordinately.

The story therefore opens about five weeks before Christmas 1813 and continues (Jane mentions the passing months in a series of asides) through to autumn 1814. While not exactly observing the three unities of classical drama — unity of action, of place, and of time — Emma comes pretty close to it: the action is about marriages (the Westons, the Eltons, the Churchills, the Martins and the Knightleys), most of which take place in and around Highbury in Surrey within the course of one twelvemonth.

“View of the Thames off Three Cranes Wharf when frozen, Monday 31st January to Saturday 5th February 1814, on which a Fair was held attended by many Hundred Persons” (contemporary etching and aquatint dated 18th February 1814)

We now come to the question of where. In some respects, Jane is surprisingly precise about Highbury. It is in Surrey (or ‘Surry’, as the original has it), a county west southwest of London. It is located around 16 miles from London, nine miles from Richmond-on-Thames and seven miles from the popular viewpoint of Box Hill (on the Surrey Hills, part of the North Downs). There’s actually no such Highbury in this position, though both Cobham, Surrey and Alton, Hampshire — both known to Austen — have been suggested as models. It’s possible to draw a sketch map of Highbury and nearby Donwell but impossible to be entirely accurate about scale and positioning, despite the author’s circumstantial details. But remember, Austen is the supreme imaginist, just as Emma is.

Sketch map of Highbury (not to scale)

Time now for the question of who. I’m not going to list all the characters, let alone give a catalogue raisonné of who belongs to which family, or is a villager, below stairs or merely a voice off-stage. Instead I’m going to offer a sociogram of the pairings introduced in Emma, real or imagined. In this diagram solid arrows indicate characters who are attracted to another, while arrows with broken lines are for relationships that one character or another presupposes exists. For example, Mr Weston and Miss Taylor not only are attracted to each other but have tied the knot by the beginning of the novel. On the other hand, Emma imagines Mr Elton is attracted to Harriet, or that Harriet is attracted to Frank Churchill, or that Jane is in love with Mr Dixon (who is in fact married to Jane’s childhood companion Miss Campbell). The colour-coded numbers refer to the ‘attraction sequence’ of Mr Elton, Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse. 

You may now be expecting the what of my quartet of ‘W’s. But that’s for another post.

10 thoughts on “Of Highbury, in Surrey

  1. Pingback: More Austen from Calmgrove – Earth Balm Music

  2. Boy would I have loved to read this with the “Calmgrove Bookclub.” Or its online readalong 🙂

    This kind of background (which is more work than ‘musing’) is really helpful to me when I read a classic novel, because the four WWWW help me enjoy it when I can get a feel of its time and place.

    Nice research about the weather that winter, btw

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your appreciative comments, Laurie, though I had to laugh at the notion of a readalong with the Calmgrove Bookclub, virtual or otherwise!

      This whole thing on whether a book should stand on its own merits is interesting. Much contemporary fiction needs little contextualising, but classics, say, or historical fictions do need some background knowledge and understanding if the reader is to appreciate them more fully. That detail about severe winter weather, for example, makes a signifant difference in how we consider Mr Woodhouse or how the story moves from Emma’s coolness to warmheartedness.


  3. What a great deep dive into Emma! It’s not my favorite Jane Austen book (I adore Persuasion) but I enjoyed it.

    This makes me wish I had your skills in doing this for my own work in progress. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pleased you were impressed with my dive into Emma, Faith — it’s always a measure of how much I and many others enjoy a novel the degree to which we want to get under the skin of the narrative. I see you’re another devotee of Persuasion, so I’m keen to see what appeals to so many — particularly female — readers about Anne Elliott!

      I think many authors, whether budding or established, naturally consider the Four Double-U’s when writing — as I’m sure you do! I also look out for the other two, perhaps deeper, questions when reading fiction (and even non-fiction): How and especially Why — answers to these usually indicate their quintessential value.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that makes sense — I think the why behind the character is really important.

        I love Anne Elliott because I think she combines the sweet, sensible nature of Elinor and Fanny with the convictions and strength of Elizabeth Bennet.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Ok, you convinced me, I’ll have to re-read it. I read Emma long time ago as far as I can remember I didn’t enjoy this match making topic much (so alliterative🤔). However, I truly liked both posts on Emma. 🙋

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A couple of the commentaries I’ve read suggest that subsequent readings enrich the experience so much that the reader’s irritation at Emma’s inept match-making fades into the background, leaving the foreground free for us to enjoy the depth of characterisation and the more subtle nuances that Austen includes. Having already been forewarned that the superficial plot wasn’t all that Emma was about, I then relaxed more readily into admiring the details!

      Anyway, I’m pleased you liked these posts, Stefy, and there’s another, final, one scheduled for Tuesday. The Matchmaker Less Maligned!


  5. Pingback: Faultess Despite Many Faults | e-Tinkerbell

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