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[254] Emma – Jane Austen

“Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! . . . Had she not, with a folly which no tongue could express, prevented her marrying the unexceptionable young man who would have made her happy and respectable in the line of life to which she ought to belong—all would have been safe; none of this dreadful sequel would have been.” [387]

Devoting to guard the comfort of her father, beautiful, rich, and clever Emma Woodhouse is resolved not to marry. After self-acclaimed success at matchmaking between her governess (Miss Taylor) and Mr. Weston, a village widower, Emma, who thinks too highly of herself, as her friend Mr. George Knightley repeatedly admonishes, with insufferable vanity and arrogance, believes she beholds the secret of everyone’s feelings and superintends happiness. She takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new friend, Harriet Smit, who, in Knightley’s opinion, is “not a sensible girl, nor a girl of information, and has no experience and little wit.” [60] Knightley disfavors their association, believing that vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief. Indeed.

She desired nothing better herself. Till you choose to turn her into a friend, her mind had no distaste for her own set, nor any ambition beyond it. She was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer. She had no sense of superiority then. If she has it now, you have given it. [61]

As Emma advises her friend to reject a farmer (Robert Martin) who appears to be of a different social disposition, a comedy of errors ensues, causing zigzags of embarrassment and exposing a secret engagement on behalf of others. When her plans go awry, suspicion, misunderstanding, and intrigue arouse—all as a result of her stubbornness and vanity. While she is well-meant, she doesn’t possess the humility and common sense that are conducive to fully understand the nuances of relationships. After Harriet’s matchmaking flop, which is yet her worst mistake, she perpetrates more error of imagination, flirting and allowing herself to be tempted by someone she doesn’t care for. Most of all, rather than being committed to remaining single,

I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. [82]

she is in love with the one whom she willfully opposes and whose advice she slights, often intentionally. She never concedes because he would not acknowledge her false and insolent estimate of her own—and her pride needs to be tamed.

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken… [404]

As much the novel is about marriage and status, and the power given to woman on marriage, it offers critical illustrations of the ways in which personal biases, prejudice, or desires (such as a preference over social disposition) impede objective judgment. Even the most impartial, infallible person could not pass an unbiased judgment when romantic feeling is involved. Inventions of emotional engagement contribute to the comedy of errors that are revealed to readers by way of the ironic detachment of the narrator. Social propriety, which often discourages open expression and keeps public show of emotion at bay, also plays a role in furthering the misunderstandings. The dialogues, which often afford multiple subtexts, fuel the misunderstanding, but also play a role in the possibility of revealing too much at the wrong timing. Half the fun is trying to find out exactly what is going on behind the embarrassment, and the truth of everyone’s feelings.

453 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Reading Notes: Emma (2)

Emma possesses “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” [Ch.1 p.7] Emma’s stubbornness and vanity produce many of the novel’s conflicts, as Emma struggles to develop emotionally. her struggle aside, there appear passages that provide a sort of comic relief that distract me from the characters’ biased and blind judgment.

Constantly Mr. Knightley corrects and guides Emma Woodhouse who is not always on charity with him. On hearing the news of a ball thrown by the Westons in honor of their son Frank Churchill, about whose motive Knightley is skeptical, he noted:

Very well. If the Westons think it worth while to be at all this trouble for a few hours of noisy entertainment, I have nothing to say against it, but that they shall not choose pleasures for me.—Oh! yes, I must be there; I could not refuse; and I will keep as much awake as I can; but I would rather be at home, looking over William Larkins’s weel’s account; much rather, I confess.—Pleasure in seeing dancing!—not I, indeed—I never look at it—I do not know who does.—Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward. Those who are standing by are usually thinking of something very different. [Ch. 30 p.239]

Of course, Emma is upset at this gloating remark, which Knightley has very well been throwing at her all along. She retaliates:

This Emma felt was aimed at her; and it made her quite angry. It was not in compliment to Jane Fairfax however that he was so indifferent, or so indignant; he was not guided by her feelings in reprobating the ball, for she enjoyed the thought of it to an extraordinary degree. It made her animated—open hearted—she voluntarily said;— [Ch.30 p.240]

Another comic moment arrives when the new Mrs. Elton, wife of the man to whom Emma tried to match Harriet earlier, indulges in some tiredly long monologue about engaging Jane Fairfax to her society. To this Emma bears:

‘Poor Jane Fairfax!’—thought Emma.—‘You have not deserved this. You may have done wrong with regard to Mr. Dixon, but this is a punishment beyond what you can have merited!—The kindness and protection of Mrs. Elton!—‘Jane Fairfax and Jane Fairfax.’ Heavens! Let me not suppose that she dares go about, Emma Woodhouse-ing me!—But upon my honour, there seem no limits to the licentiousness of that woman’s tongue!’ [Ch.33 p.264]

Reading Notes: Emma

I’m looking forward to watching the PBS premiere (Sunday, Jan 24) of the new series based on Jane Austen’s Emma. Privileged, beautiful, and self-assured, Emma Woodhouse ignores warning of her friend and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith. What little feedback that I have read gives me the impression that critics are in consensus that Emma is Jane Austen’s most flawless work. The prose cannot be any more tickling:

I think, Harriet, since your acquaintance with us, you have been repeatedly in the company of some, such very real gentlemen, that you must yourself be struck with the difference in Mr. Martin. At Hartfield you have had very good specimens of well educated, well bred men. I should be surprized if, after seeing them, you could be in company with Mr. Martin again without perceiving him to be a very inferior creature—and rather wondering at yourself for having ever thought him at all agreeable before. Do not you begin to feel that now? Were not you struck? I am sure you must have been struck by his awkward look and abrupt manner—and the uncouthness of a voice, which I heard to be wholly unmodulated as I stood here. [32]

It would be an understatement to call Emma Woodhouse prejudiced, I’ve got an ominous, knot-in-the-stomach feeling that Harriet’s association with Emma would create more than a solecism.

Which makes his good manners the more valuable. The older a person grows, Harriet, the more important it is that their manners should not be bad—the more glaring and disgusting any loudness, or coarseness, or awkwardness becomes. What is passable in youth, is detestable in later age. Mr. Martin is now awkward and abrupt; what will he be at Mr. Weston’s time of life? [33]

Obviously Harriet knows nothing herself and she looks upon Emma (which I think is now a b*tch) as knowing everything. How she could judge Mr. Martin’s character personality without even knowing him in person is completely beyond me. Just because he makes a living out of farming doesn’t mean he “will be a completely gross, vulgar farmer—totally inattentive to appearances and thinking of nothing but profit and loss.” [33]

How I long to see how this match-making drama shall unfold. How I want her design would backfire and conclude with a twist that might befall herself! TThis book intrigues me, to begin with, because it is a great departure from Austen’s other novels, in which the quest for marriage and financial security are two of several themes in the stories.

Jane Austen Fever

Jolted to realize that I have yet to read any Jane Austen this year, I picked up Emma. Actually I receive a copy of Jane Austen: The Complete Novels for Christmas and I shall be reading Emma from this beautiful volume. It’s a comic novel about the perils of misconstrued romance. The title character, Emma Woodhouse, is quintessential of Austen’s characters: genteel woman who is rich, clever, and winsome. But she has a pitfall: her blindness to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives and is often mistaken about the meanings of others’ actions. Equally interesting are the numerous film and television adaptations, including the 1995 a loose modern adaptation Clueless and the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma. The comedy, starring Alicia Silverstone, who plays a superficial high-school girl in Beverly Hills, has spun off a television show (also named Clueless) and a series of books. By the way, does anyone know the novel about this girl who walks into the closet, travels in time and comes back out to Jane Austen’s time?