Free Download Able Emma By Jane Austen Essays

In January 1814, Jane Austen sat down to write a revolutionary novel. Emma, the book she composed over the next year, was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction. Perhaps it seems odd to call Austen “revolutionary” – certainly few of the other great pioneers in the history of the English novel have thought so. From Charlotte Brontë, who found only “neat borders” and elegant confinement in her fiction, to DH Lawrence, who called her “English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word”, many thought her limited to the small world and small concerns of her characters. Some of the great modernists were perplexed. “What is all this about Jane Austen?” Joseph Conrad asked HG Wells. “What is there in her? What is it all about?” “I dislike Jane … Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice,” Vladimir Nabokov told the critic Edmund Wilson.

Austen left behind no artistic manifesto, no account of her narrative methods beyond a few playful remarks in letters to her niece, Anna. This has made it easy for novelists and critics to follow Henry James’s idea of her as “instinctive and charming”. “For signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do, of how they intensify the life of a work of art, we have to go elsewhere.” She hardly knew what she was doing, so, implicitly, the innovative novelist like James has nothing to learn from her.

There have been scattered exceptions. The year after he published More Pricks Than Kicks, the young Samuel Beckett told his friend Thomas McGreevy, “Now I am reading the divine Jane. I think she has much to teach me.” (One looks forward to the scholarly tome on the influence of Jane Austen on Samuel Beckett.) Contemporary novelists have been readier to acknowledge her genius and influence. Janeites felt a frisson of satisfaction to see that the most formally ingenious British postmodern novel of recent years, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, opens with a lengthy epigraph from Northanger Abbey. McEwan alerts the reader to the fact that his own novel learns its tricks – about a character who turns fictional imaginings into disastrous fact – from the genteel and supposedly conservative Austen.

Emma, published 200 years ago this month, was revolutionary not because of its subject matter: Austen’s jesting description to Anna of the perfect subject for a novel – “Three or four families in a country village” – fits it well. It was certainly not revolutionary because of any intellectual or political content. But it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf. Woolf wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, “She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust”. In Emma, she is.

To measure the audacity of the book, take a simple sentence that no novelist before her could have written. Our privileged heroine has befriended a sweet, open, deeply naive girl of 17 called Harriet Smith. It is a wholly unequal relationship: Emma is the richest and cleverest woman in Highbury; Harriet is the “natural daughter of someone”, left as a permanent resident of the genteel girls’ boarding school in the town. While cultivating their relationship, Emma knows very well that Harriet is her inferior. “But in every respect as she saw more of her, she was confirmed in all her kind designs.”

The sentence is in the third person, yet we are not exactly being told something by the author. “Kind designs” is Emma’s complacent judgment of herself. Even the rhyme in the phrase makes it sound better to herself. In fact, the kindness is all in the mind of the beholder. Emma has set out to mould Harriet. Emma’s former companion, Miss Taylor, has got married and become Mrs Weston, leaving her solitary and at a loose end. Harriet will be her project. Her plans are kind, she tells herself, because she will improve this uninstructed and wide-eyed young woman. We should be able to hear, however, that her designs are utterly self-serving. Soon she is persuading Harriet to refuse a marriage proposal from a farmer who loves her, and beguiling her with the wholly illusory prospect of marriage to the smooth young vicar, Mr Elton.

Take another little sentence from much later in the novel. By now Emma is convinced that Harriet, scorned by Mr Elton, can be paired off with the highly eligible Frank Churchill. The only impediment seems to be the inflexible Mrs Churchill, Frank’s adoptive mother, who expects him to find a much grander wife. Then news arrives of Mrs Churchill’s sudden death. Emma meets Harriet, who has also heard. “Harriet behaved extremely well on the occasion, with great self-command.” Obviously she is learning self-possession from her patron. “Emma was gratified to observe such a proof in her of strengthened character.”

Except that this is all twaddle. Harriet does not give a fig for Frank and never has. Emma has elaborately deluded herself again. The narration follows the path of Emma’s errors. Indeed, the first-time reader will sometimes follow this path too, and then share the heroine’s surprise when the truth rushes upon her. Yet it is still a third-person narrative; Emma is not telling her own story. We both share her judgments and watch her making them.

Austen was the first novelist to manage this alchemy. She was perfecting a technique that she had begun developing in her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. It was only in the early 20th century that critics began agreeing on a name for it: free indirect style (a translation from the original French: style indirect libre). It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character. Before Austen, novelists chose between first-person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.

Scholars have raked through the fiction of predecessors and contemporaries such as Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth, and found a few flickerings of this technique, but nothing more. In our own time, novelists use it almost as second nature, without necessarily giving it a name or thinking that they have learned it from somewhere. Yet, though its pioneer, Austen used it with an assurance that has never been surpassed. David Lodge has observed how odd James’s condescension is, given that he came to specialise in the very technique Austen had pioneered: “Telling the story through the consciousness of characters whose understanding of events is partial, mistaken, deceived, or self-deceived.” It has been easy for sophisticated readers – especially rival novelists – to miss her sophistication.

By the time that she began writing Emma, Austen was no longer responding to other novelists, she was in new territory, in dialogue with her own earlier novels. She had been steeped in the fiction of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and in her earliest work she wrote against the novels of sensibility or the gothic fiction that she knew so well. But in the creative furore that saw her complete her last four novels in five years, she left the conventions of existing fiction behind. She began work on Emma before she had even received the proofs of Mansfield Park. That novel’s heroine, Fanny Price, was reticent, self-abnegating, powerless and often silent or absent. As if in response to her own experiment, she now created a heroine who is assertive, dominant, all too powerful. Emma Woodhouse thrusts herself forward in the novel’s title and its very first sentence.

Her viewpoint is so dominant that it takes several readings before you realise how subtly we are invited to imagine how Emma looks to some of the other characters. How Mr Elton imagines that she is egging him on to propose to her (“I think your manners to him encouraging”, warns Mr John Knightley, to no avail). How Jane Fairfax dreads her inquisitiveness and hates her monopolising of Frank Churchill. How the Martin family must regard her as the heartless snob who has torn Harriet away from the man who loves her. All this is intimated through Emma’s own glimmerings of insight – which she duly crushes. Austen’s narrative enacts her heroine’s victories over her own better self.

There is, however, one carefully calculated chapter in the whole novel narrated from another character’s viewpoint. Deep in the third volume, Austen jolts the reader with a chapter from Mr Knightley’s point of view. It comes at a crucial point, where Frank uncharacteristically blunders by mentioning an item of parochial gossip that he can only know from his secret correspondence with Jane: Mr Perry the apothecary is getting a carriage (because he is making so much money from the maladies imaginaries of Highbury). How could he know? “It must have been a dream,” laughs Frank. Emma is “out of hearing”, but Mr Knightley is observing. He watches as all the major characters sit down to play a word game (the novel is full of games and puzzles) and Frank selects the letters for the word “blunder”. Mr Knightley sees and suspects. “Disingenuousness and double-dealing seemed to meet him at every turn.” The spell of Emma’s consciousness has been so powerful that Austen has to wake us up for a moment. But the chapter ends with Mr Knightley suggesting to Emma that there might be some intimate “degree of acquaintance” between Frank and Jane – only to have his suspicions routed by her. “There is no admiration between them, I do assure you.” No one can say she was not given the chance to see the truth.

By the time she began Emma, Austen was in new territory. She had left existing fiction behind

Austen has several different ways of getting us to read throughEmma. At key moments, free indirect style becomes something closer to dramatised thought. Austen develops her own system of punctuation for this. Here is our heroine, back home after the Westons’ Christmas Eve dinner party, reflecting on Mr Elton’s marriage proposal (“actually making violent love to her”) in the carriage home. She had persuaded herself that he was amorously interested in Harriet; worse, she had persuaded Harriet of this too.

The hair was curled, and the maid sent away, and Emma sat down to think and be miserable.—It was a wretched business indeed!—Such an overthrow of every thing she had been wishing for!—Such a development of every thing most unwelcome!—Such a blow for Harriet!—that was the worst of all. Every part of it brought pain and humiliation, of some sort or other; but, compared with the evil to Harriet, all was light; and she would gladly have submitted to feel yet more mistaken—more in error—more disgraced by mis-judgment, than she actually was, could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself.

Austen’s idiosyncratic punctuation, that system of exclamation marks and dashes, allows for a kind of dramatised thought process. Yet because it is still in the third person, we can judge Emma even as we share her thoughts. She is a person worth our sympathy because she is capable of acknowledging and feeling sorry for her mistakes. But, by the unprecedented subtlety of Austen’s narrative technique, we sense that Emma regrets the scotching of her plans (“Such an overthrow of everything she had been wishing for!”) as much as (or more than?) the impending pain for Harriet. We can even hear her trying to persuade herself (“she would gladly have submitted … ”) of her unselfishness.

The novel’s stylistic innovations allow it to explore not just a character’s feelings, but, comically, her deep ignorance of her own feelings. Out of vanity, encouraged by the promptings of Mr and Mrs Weston, Emma has persuaded herself that Frank, whom she has never met, might be the perfect partner for her. When he finally turns up he proves handsome and humorous and intelligent. Understandably, she soon starts seeing the signs that he must be falling for her; better still, she also starts convincing herself that “she must be a little in love with him”. A few amusing confidences shared with smooth Frank Churchill, and she presumes it is the real thing. “Emma continued to entertain no doubt of her being in love.” Her capacity for self-congratulation deceives her about even the workings of her own heart. Austen does not tell us this, as George Eliot would eloquently tell us: she simply lets us inhabit Emma’s consciousness, simply lets us see the world according to Emma.

Even better is her self-deception about the man whom she does love. When Mrs Weston suggests that Mr Knightley’s evident admiration of Jane presages their likely marriage, the narrative tells us of Emma’s response, but also stages her self-deception.

She could see nothing but evil in it. It would be a great disappointment to Mr. John Knightley; consequently to Isabella. A real injury to the children—a most mortifying change, and material loss to them all;—a very great deduction from her father’s daily comfort—and, as to herself, she could not at all endure the idea of Jane Fairfax at Donwell Abbey. A Mrs. Knightley for them all to give way to!—No—Mr. Knightley must never marry. Little Henry must remain the heir of Donwell.

How natural, then, that when our heroine does realise what love is, it is as a nasty shock. Her erstwhile puppet – now her Frankenstein’s monster – Harriet reveals that she (no longer quite so modest) has her heart set on Mr Knightley and has good reason to think that he returns her affection. Why is the idea of Harriet marrying Mr Knightley so unacceptable? “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” What a brilliant sentence that is! With absolute daring, Austen shows us that love can be a discovery of what a person has unknowingly felt for many a long month or year. Now, suddenly and for the first time, Emma understands the plot of her own story. But even at this moment of self-knowledge Austen lets us hear or feel the character’s imperiousness, her overpowering sense that events “must” meet her desires.

Which is why those who condemn the novel by saying that its heroine is a snob miss the point. Of course she is. But Austen, with a refusal of moralism worthy of Flaubert, abandons her protagonist to her snobbery and confidently risks inciting foolish readers to think that the author must be a snob too. Emma’s snobbery pervades the novel, from that moment when we hear Mrs Goddard, the mistress of the little girls’ boarding school, and Mrs and Miss Bates described as “the most come-at-able” denizens of Highbury (meaning that they are at the beck and call of Emma and her hypochondriac father). Austen has the integrity to make Emma snobbish even when she is in the right. When Mr Elton proposes to her she recognises what the reader has always known: he is vain, cold-hearted and repulsive. But her enlightenment is also affronted dignity:

Those who condemn the novel by saying that its heroine is a snob miss the point. Of course she is

But—that he should talk of encouragement, should consider her as aware of his views, accepting his attentions, meaning (in short), to marry him!—should suppose himself her equal in connexion or mind!—look down upon her friend, so well understanding the gradations of rank below him, and be so blind to what rose above, as to fancy himself shewing no presumption in addressing her!—It was most provoking.

Similarly, her run-ins with Mrs Elton, some of the best comic dialogues in all fiction, show her to be perceptive and socially arrogant in equal measure. Mrs Elton, newly arrived in Highbury, visits Emma and talks of her introduction to Mr Knightley.

“I must do my caro sposo the justice to say that he need not be ashamed of his friend. Knightley is quite the gentleman. I like him very much. Decidedly, I think, a very gentleman-like man.”

Only when Mrs Elton leaves can Emma “breathe” her indignation.

“A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery. Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady. I could not have believed it! And to propose that she and I should unite to form a musical club!”

Emma is right – and yet Emma too is full of herself. She even, unconsciously, uses the same vocabulary as her foe, who assures her, “I have quite a horror of upstarts”.

The magnificently ghastly Mrs Elton makes herself known through her voice and, in Emma, Austen discovers new and unprecedented ways of making a human voice live in print. Some of her techniques foresee the ingenuities of modernism. When Mrs Elton picks strawberries at Mr Knightley’s party at Donwell Abbey, a paragraph of fractured monologue brilliantly dramatises what must be at least half an hour’s worth of bossy babble.

“The best fruit in England—everybody’s favourite—always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one’s self—the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.”

A ludicrous progress from know-all enthusiasm to sun-struck exhaustion. For garrulous Miss Bates, Highbury’s good-hearted resident bore, Austen invents a different kind of monologic outpouring that some have called Joycean. Here is just a little sample, as Miss Bates arrives for the ball at the Crown Inn.

“Thank you, my mother is remarkably well. Gone to Mr. Woodhouse’s. I made her take her shawl—for the evenings are not warm—her large new shawl— Mrs. Dixon’s wedding-present.—So kind of her to think of my mother! Bought at Weymouth, you know—Mr. Dixon’s choice. There were three others, Jane says, which they hesitated about some time. Colonel Campbell rather preferred an olive. My dear Jane, are you sure you did not wet your feet?—It was but a drop or two, but I am so afraid:—but Mr. Frank Churchill was so extremely—and there was a mat to step upon—I shall never forget his extreme politeness.”

And so on. There are other people here, not just listening but speaking, or trying to speak. And yet Miss Bates’s voice, self-generating and unstoppable, becomes for a while the only one you can hear.

Emma hardly listens to her “prosing”, and there have been readers who have likewise skipped the details of her speech. But one of Austen’s tricks is to embed many a clue as to the real ruses of other characters in the unsuspicious outpourings of this much-ignored old maid. “What is before me, I see,” she says, typically declaring herself incapable of perceiving what is indirect or implicit. But what she says is truer than what anyone hears: she is the reliable witness to what is really going on. Even that passage above offers clues as to what Frank is really up to. If this is a detective story, then Miss Bates is the foolish bit-part player offering the apparently trivial testimony that is dangerously ignored.

Emma Woodhouse, a rich, clever, and beautiful young woman, has just seen her friend, companion, and former governess, Miss Taylor, married to a neighboring widower, Mr. Weston. While the match is suitable in every way, Emma cannot help sighing over her loss, for now only she and her father are left at Hartfield. Mr. Woodhouse is too old and too fond of worrying about trivialities to be a sufficient companion for his daughter.

The Woodhouses are the great family in the village of Highbury. In their small circle of friends, there are enough middle-age ladies to make up card tables for Mr. Woodhouse, but there is no young lady to be a friend and confidant to Emma. Lonely for her beloved Miss Taylor, now Mrs. Weston, Emma takes under her wing Harriet Smith, the parlor boarder at a nearby boarding school. Although not in the least brilliant, Harriet is a pretty seventeen-year-old girl with pleasing, unassuming manners and a gratifying habit of looking up to Emma as a paragon.

Harriet is the natural daughter of some unknown person; Emma, believing that the girl might be of noble family, persuades her that the society in which she has moved is not good enough for her. She encourages Harriet to give up her acquaintance with the Martin family, respectable farmers of some substance though of no fashion. Instead of thinking of Robert Martin as a husband for Harriet, Emma influences the girl to aspire to the Reverend Philip Elton, the young rector.

Emma believes from Elton’s manner that he is beginning to fall in love with Harriet, and she flatters herself on her matchmaking schemes. Her landowner neighbor George Knightley, the brother of a London lawyer married to Emma’s older sister and one of the few people who can see Emma’s faults, is concerned about her intimacy with Harriet. He warns her that no good can come of it for either Harriet or herself, and he is particularly upset when he learns that Emma has influenced Harriet to turn down Martin’s proposal of marriage. Emma herself suffers from no such qualms, for she is certain that Elton is as much in love with Harriet as Harriet—through Emma’s encouragement—is with him. Emma suffers a rude awakening when Elton, finding her alone, asks her to marry him. She suddenly realizes that what she had taken for gallantries to Harriet had been meant for herself. Elton has taken what Emma had intended as encouragement to his pursuit of Harriet as encouragement to aspire for her own hand. His presumption is bad enough, but the task of breaking the news to Harriet is much worse.

Another disappointment occurs in Emma’s circle. Frank Churchill, who has promised for months to come to see his father and new stepmother, again puts off his visit. Frank, Mr. Weston’s son by a first marriage, has taken the name of his mother’s family. Knightley believes that the young man now feels superior to his father. Emma argues with Knightley, but she finds herself secretly agreeing with him. Although the Hartfield circle is denied Frank’s company, it does acquire an addition in the person of Jane Fairfax, a niece of the garrulous Miss Bates. Jane rivals Emma in beauty and accomplishment; this is one reason why, as Knightley hints, Emma has never been friendly with her. Emma blames Jane’s reserve for their somewhat cool relationship.

Soon after Jane’s arrival, the Westons receive a letter from Frank that sets another date for his visit. This time he actually appears, and Emma finds him a handsome, well-bred young man. He frequently calls on the Woodhouses and also on the Bates family, because of a prior acquaintance with Jane. Emma, rather than Jane, is the recipient of Frank’s gallantries, however, and Emma can see that the Westons are hoping that the romance will prosper.

About this time, Jane receives the handsome but anonymous gift of a pianoforte. It is presumed to have come from wealthy friends with whom Jane, who is an orphan, has lived, but Jane seems embarrassed at the present and refuses to discuss it. After Mrs. Weston points out to Emma that Knightley seems to show great preference and concern for Jane, Emma begins to wonder if the gift has come from him. Emma cannot bear to think of Knightley’s marrying Jane; after observing them together, she concludes to her own satisfaction that he is motivated by friendship, not love.

It is now time for Frank to end his visit, and he departs with seeming reluctance. During his last call at Hartfield, he appears desirous of telling Emma something of a serious nature; but she, believing him to be on the verge of a declaration of love, does not encourage him because in her daydreams she always sees herself refusing him and their love ending in quiet friendship.

Elton returns to the village with a hastily wooed and wedded bride, a lady of small fortune, extremely bad manners, and great pretensions to elegance. Harriet, who had been talked into love by Emma, cannot be so easily talked out of it. What Emma has failed to accomplish, however, Elton’s marriage does, and Harriet at last begins to recover. Her recovery is aided by Elton’s rudeness to her at a ball. When he refuses to dance with her, Knightley, who rarely dances, offers himself as a partner, and Harriet, without Emma’s knowledge, begins to think of him instead of Elton. Emma has actually begun to think of Frank as a husband for Harriet, but she resolves to do nothing to promote the match. Through a series of misinterpretations, Emma thinks Harriet was praising Frank when she was really referring to Knightley.

The romantic entanglement is further complicated because Mrs. Weston continues to believe that Knightley is becoming attached to Jane. In his turn, Knightley sees signs of some secret agreement between Jane and Frank. His suspicions are finally justified when Frank confesses to Mr. and Mrs. Weston that he and Jane have been secretly engaged since October. The Westons’ first thought is for Emma, for they fear that their stepson’s attentions to her might have had their effect. Emma assures Mrs. Weston that she had at one time felt some slight attachment to Frank, but that time is now safely past. Her chief concerns now are that she has said things about Jane to Frank that she would not have said had she known of their engagement, and also that she has, as she believes, encouraged Harriet in another fruitless attachment.

When she goes to break the news of Frank’s engagement gently to Harriet, however, Emma finds her quite unperturbed by it; after a few minutes of talking at cross-purposes, Emma learns that it is not Frank but Knightley upon whom Harriet has now bestowed her affections. When she tells Emma that she has reasons to believe that Knightley returns her sentiments, Emma suddenly realizes the state of her own heart; she herself loves Knightley. She now wishes she had never seen Harriet. Aside from wanting to marry Knightley herself, she knows a match between him and Harriet would be an unequal one, hardly likely to bring happiness to either.

Emma’s worry over this state of affairs ends when Knightley asks her to marry him. Her complete happiness is marred only by her knowing that the marriage will upset her father, who dislikes change of any kind; she is also aware that she has unknowingly prepared Harriet for another disappointment. The first problem is solved when Emma and Knightley decide to reside at Hartfield with Mr. Woodhouse as long as he lives. Harriet’s situation remains problematic; when Knightley was paying attention to her, he was really trying to determine the real state of her affections for his young farm tenant. Consequently, Knightley is able to announce one morning that Robert Martin has again offered himself to Harriet and has been accepted. Emma is overjoyed that Harriet’s future is now assured. She can reflect that all parties concerned have married according to their stations, a prerequisite for their true happiness.

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