Of blunders and pardons

The manor house at Steventon (where Jane’s father was rector) — perhaps a model for Hartfield.

Following a review I’ve discussed the who, when and where of Jane Austen’s Emma, and then intimated I’d get onto the what. In this post I plan to briefly discuss the novel’s structure before bringing out some themes, chiefly by means of what the characters say. Needless to add, this is not meant to be an exhaustive or detailed analysis, merely a sketch of what has struck me about this superbly crafted novel.

Austen famously wrote that “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Some readers have taken her at her word while others have strongly disagreed with this proposition. I believe that the author starts by introducing Emma as rich, spoiled and with too much time on her hands, but through its structure the novel moves us away from being peevishly irritated with her machinations to, first, feeling sorry for her, and then sympathising. Partly this is done by the three-part presentation of the story (it was first issued in three volumes, two of 18 chapters, the last with 19); and partly it’s achieved by a steady progression from dinner parties to balls to outings, each of which initiates reactions in Emma that point to a further development in her character.

Volume I focuses on Emma’s meddling, shifting ingénue Harriet’s affections from farmer Robert Martin to Mr Philip Elton, the vicar. When her wild imaginings prove falsely grounded she is mortified and resolves not to meddle any more. This doesn’t put a stop to her fancies though, as Volume II reveals that she assumes Frank Churchill’s flirting with her is serious. Meanwhile, she is irritated by Mr Elton’s new wife who does insist on meddling, this time with Jane Fairfax’s future. 

By Volume III her fancies are still leading her astray, but she finds herself sadly vexed by circumstances beyond her control. Her overtures to Jane Fairfax are rebuffed, and she is forced to play a silly game on Box Hill, resulting in her offending Miss Bates and earning the displeasure of Mr Knightley. 

Chapter 12 of the final volume represents the nadir of all her hopes. The foremost female of the parish has got as low as she can go; the only way up is to apologise to those she’s offended and to acknowledge that she has assessed everything and everybody wrongly.

Interestingly this is symbolised by the sequel to a faux pas Frank Churchill makes at Donwell Abbey, during the word game played by some of the assembled company. After an insensitive move in the game, Frank covertly offers the word BLUNDER to Jane Fairfax. Following this he shows her another word, not indicated in the novel; according to an Austen family tradition the word was PARDON.

Austen’s wit, inventiveness and incisiveness are everywhere evident in the text. To conclude I give a few quotes that seem to me to reveal how Emma grows in maturity of judgement.

Future partner
Mr Weston has set himself up with a wife he considers “a well-judging and truly amiable woman,” convincing him that it is “a great deal better to chuse [a marriage partner] than to be chosen, to excite gratitude than to feel it.” (I/2) Clearly this starts as being Emma’s mantra too, wanting to select a partner for Harriet, who would then feel grateful to Emma for arranging it.

Emma encourages Harriet to indulge in “the collecting and transcribing all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with, into a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper … ornamented with cypher and trophies.” (I/9) Game-playing is at the core of what Emma is about, though the outcomes in real life are seldom innocent or free from consequences.

Emma, after discovering that the vicar means to make her his wife, is flustered, then angry and critical about “Mr Elton proving himself … proud, assuming, conceited, very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.” (I/16) One could argue that this is the pot calling the kettle black.

Hetty Bates tries to picture a Mr Dixon, whom she has never met, but fails, admitting that “one never does form a just idea of any body beforehand. One takes up a notion, and runs away with it.” (II/3) Oh, the irony! This describes much of Emma’s thinking at this time. A notion that Emma herself takes up and runs away with is that “Mr. Knightley does not want to marry. I am sure he has not the least idea of it. Do not put it into his head. Why should he marry?” (II/8) Later on she suggests that Anna Weston, imagining a secret liaison, is guilty of just such notions: “You take up an idea, Mrs. Weston, and run away with it: as you have many a time reproached me with doing.” (II/8)

The pleasures of the ball
Mr Knightley, when questioned on the possible pleasures of watching dancing, declares that “fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward. Those who are standing by are usually thinking of something very different.” (II/12) Frank Churchill, on news of the ball being cancelled, just as Emma feared, exclaims “Oh! Miss Woodhouse, why are you always so right?” (II/12) More irony, of course, deliberately so on Frank’s part.

Change of heart
Emma confesses to Harriet, “Deceived myself, I did very miserably deceive you — and it will be a painful reflection to me for ever. Do not imagine me in danger of forgetting it.” (II/13) Emma, when referring to Harriet, believes “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart… Warmth and tenderness of heart, with an affectionate, open manner, will beat all the clearness of head in the world, for attraction.” (II/13) These and similar remarks reflect Emma’s maturing outlook, though she clearly fears she is becoming both a sadder and a wiser woman: 

How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under! — The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart! … With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny… If Harriet, from being humble, were grown vain, it was her doing too. (III/11)

Austen still manages to keep up some lightness of tone amidst all of Emma’s humiliation: 

When [Emma] considered how peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry, she must allow him to have the right to look … as little really easy as could be. (II/14)

Apart from one chapter where we are privy to Mr Knightley’s thoughts, virtually all the story is seen from Emma’s point of view or filtered through her activities. This gives us the opportunity to not only observe her blunders and mortifications in detail but also, in the final analysis, to offer her pardon for her missteps and mistakes. And in doing so we like her a lot better than at the start, enough to wish her the true happiness that she has at last deserved!

7 thoughts on “Of blunders and pardons

  1. A most insightful analysis. I agree that Jane failed in her attempt to create a heroine nobody but herself would like — too many of Emma’s foibles are shared for one to remain haughtily critical. Even when one sees her riding inevitably to a fall one feels some sympathy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Leslie, Jane may have begun by portraying Emma as rather high-handed and manipulative but by the end of even Volume I we’re not only feeling sorry for her but also — as you say — thinking ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ (or whatever the irreligious version of that would be).


  2. I struggled badly with Emma, so I’m always keen to read how others have received her. One day I shall re-read the book and hopefully, with the benefit of others’ insights, I’ll appreciate it more. For me Emma remains at the bottom of my personal Austen pile – but there has to be a book at the bottom of a pile of books! (I’m currently reading Persuasion too – and loving it!)


    1. It reminded me of the Eric Berne transactional analysis classic Games People Play, though it’s been decades since I visited that! I’m sure Emma (as well as many other novels) could be seen as games in which some win, some lose, and many cheat, and which we could attach titles to! Thanks for reading.


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