Emma is the climax of Jane Austen's genius and the Parthenon of fiction. She wrote it in fifteen months, and with a dazzling poise and certainty which are transmitted to the reader at the very first sentence . . . [I]t was published by John Murray in 1816. A century and a half of spontaneous appreciation has accompanied this, the happiest of love stories, the most fiendishly difficult of detective stories, and a matchless repository of English wit, since it emerged from Albermarle Street on that winter morning. (Ronald Blythe, Introduction to the Penguin Classics Edition, 1966)I have always loved that introduction to my old Penguin Classics. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Pride and Prejudice was the first of Jane Austen's novels that I read, but I think it was Emma that made me a Janeite. I have the clearest memory, thirty years later, of the delight I felt in reading it for the first time, the absorption in the events at Hartfield and Randalls, and the shock when I realized how just how cleverly Austen, like Frank Churchill, had pulled the wool over my eyes. As with all detective stories, there is such fun in re-reading, to note how the author lays her traps, and to recognize where I, like Emma, was decoyed on to the false trails.
I think of Emma as a Christmas book. In part that is because the first volume of the story comes to its climax at Christmas, when John and Isabella Knightley are visiting Hartfield with their children. There is the Christmas Eve dinner at Randalls, which ends with Emma and Mr. Elton alone in a carriage. During the interminable drive back to Highbury, she is forced to listen to his presumptuous, alcohol-laced proposals, and he is forced to endure not just her emphatic refusal but the mortifying suggestion that he should marry Harriet Smith instead. Fortunately for Emma's conscience and her peace of mind, the snow falling that night is deep enough to keep her home from church on Christmas morning, so she doesn't have to face Mr. Elton again, and it also keeps Harriet with her streaming cold away from Hartfield.
I also think of Emma as a Christmas book because my mother gave me a copy for Christmas the year I first read it, one of the orange Penguins, and I stayed up all night re-reading it.
I won't say too much about the story itself, with its complicated plot, but I wanted to mention a couple of things that struck me, reading this again for the umpteenth time. Aside from the title character, when I think of this book I think of two others: Miss Bates and Mrs Elton. Miss Bates is introduced, by the narrator, in Chapter III of the first volume. I particularly noticed this time how the authorial voice first presents her in a very a positive light:
[She] enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married. Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; 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. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body's happiness, quick-sighted to every body's merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself. She was a great talker on little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip.Reading that made me realize how much my opinion of Miss Bates has been shaped by Emma's, who a few chapters later describes her, while good-natured, as "so silly - so satisfied - so smiling - so prosing - so undistinguishing and unfastidious...." (I have also probably been prejudiced by knowing real-life "great talkers on little matters," and by the fear of becoming one myself.) Other characters acknowledge that Miss Bates can be a bit overwhelming in the full flow of her conversation, but no one else says as much about it as Emma does (even before the Box Hill incident). I can't help thinking that here is another of Emma's errors in judgement, perhaps an immaturity in her, which sees only the irritating and the ridiculous. I feel like this reading was the first time I really noticed that Miss Bates doesn't even appear in the first volume - we only hear of her from the other characters. It is only in the second chapter of Volume II that we meet her in person, "active and talking."
Generally, Emma's actions are kinder than her words, with Miss Bates, at least up until the ill-fated expedition to Box Hill. Mrs. Weston, who is pregnant, stays home to keep Mr. Woodhouse company. I found myself wondering whether Emma would have behaved differently - better - if her oldest friend and former governess had been there. I can't help but think that both she and Frank Churchill would have restrained themselves a bit. It is such a difficult scene to read, not just for the distress that Emma's joke causes Miss Bates, but also for the strain that Jane Fairfax is clearly under, particularly once the reader knows how Emma is unconsciously making it worse for her. Reading this time, I was also struck by the impropriety of Emma telling Frank Churchill her suspicions about Jane and the Dixons. It is sheer speculation on her part, the kind of gossip that could damage a young woman's reputation, and she has no business telling it to anyone, particularly a gentleman that she has just met. I noted that she never breathes a word of it to Mr. Knightley or Mrs. Weston, who would not have approved.
A great deal of the comedy in this book comes from the dreadful Mrs. Elton, who arrives about half-way through the story, demanding all the attentions due a bride and constantly talking up the glories of "my brother Mr. Suckling," his carriages and his estate near Bristol. Emma finds her first uncongenial and then insufferable, and I think as readers we're meant to agree (her author certainly doesn't defend her). However, Emma herself commits some of the same sins. Just as Mrs. Elton is overly familiar, with her "Knightley" and "Jane," Emma is as well. She forms an immediate friendship not just with Harriet, whose status as a "natural child" places her far below Emma's level socially, but with Frank Churchill. She is also too friendly with Mr. Elton, welcoming him frequently to Hartfield and including him in social events like the dinner at Randalls. Granted, it's with the aim of encouraging him to fall in love with Harriet, but that isn't how it looks to him or to the gossips in Highbury. And where Mrs. Elton wants to take over Jane Fairfax, managing her life for her, Emma actually does that to Harriet, to the point of persuading her to reject (against her own inclinations) the marriage proposal from Robert Martin. Like Mrs. Elton, Emma can be fatuously self-satisfied, sure of her own judgement, as when she assures John Knightley that Mr. Elton is in no danger of falling in love with her; or when she tells his brother, "with a confidence which staggered, with a satisfaction which silenced, Mr. Knightley," that Frank Churchill is completely indifferent to Jane Fairfax. With all the self-knowledge that Emma gains in the course of this story, I'm not sure she ever sees how thin a line sometimes separates her from Mrs. Elton.
Emma includes some of my favorite lines from Jane Austen's books. Emma's companion on a drive to Randalls is her cranky brother-in-law John Knightley, grousing all the way. Emma "dreaded being quarrelsome; her heroism reached only to silence." She also takes refuge in silence when irritated with Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton over the proposed expedition to Box Hill: "Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private." And while many consider Captain Wentworth's letter in Persuasion as the most romantic scene Jane Austen ever wrote, I have to put in my vote for Mr. Knightley's declaration: "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more." I once wrote that on an anoymous card to a young man, on whom I had the kind of painful crush that left me completely tongue-tied in his presence. But since I properly attributed the quote to Emma, he probably went off searching for someone named Emma.
Jane Austen famously wrote of Emma that she was planning to write about a heroine "which no one but myself would like." Instead, she gave us a young woman who with all her faults does have a loving heart, good principles, a strong sense of duty, and the all-important sense of humor - someone who can also learn and grow. I like her in spite of her very human faults, and I love watching her story unfold in the little world of Highbury. This might be the best book that Jane Austen ever wrote; it is certainly one of my very favorite (as perhaps you might have guessed from the Batesian length of this post).