Friday, September 19, 2014


Somehow it just seemed like time to re-read all the Jane Austen novels. (We also tried watching the more recent Pride and Prejudice, but mercifully couldn't finish it before it had to go back to the library. That was a painful experience.)

I saw a quote where Austen described Emma as a character nobody but herself would much like. I have to concur--I *don't* like Emma much. She's an insufferable snobbish busybody. In consequence I haven't read Emma nearly as many times as some of the others.

However, reading with more attention this time, I found much to enjoy in the novel, and although I still don't much like Emma, I think she might (after the book is over) grow into a person I could like. Most of Austen's novels turn on some disparity between perception and reality, but Emma's misperceptions are so willful that the novel broadly hints to the attentive reader exactly what is going on the whole time. So instead of reading it *with* Emma, you can instead read it to laugh at her.

I have come to the conclusion that Emma's mother must have found her health overtaxed by pregnancy and childbirth and gone into a gradual decline that began almost with her marriage (she died when Emma was four). Mr. Woodhouse, too self-centered to fully notice or comprehend what was going on, still felt vaguely responsible. That seems the only reasonable explanation for the intensity of his aversion to marriage as an institution.

When I was single it seemed to be assumed among my family and acquaintance that I would need to marry someone much older and wiser to counterbalance my apparent flightiness. (I am very glad I did not; it would not have suited me at all. I hate to feel at a disadvantage in information or experience, and I never respond well to being told what to do.) One friend suggested that I should marry a Mr. Knightley. After rereading Emma and paying more attention to the character of her brother-in-law, an attorney, devoted to his family but with a certain degree of moodiness and mild aversion to unnecessary social gatherings, I have concluded that she was simply mistaken about which Mr. Knightley would suit.

Emma offers a unique opportunity in Austen's novels to contemplate swapping the main romances. Nobody could seriously imagine Lizzie with Bingley or Darcy with Jane, but most of the middle part of Emma has us contemplating a Fairfax/Knightley and Woodhouse/Churchill pairing. It is plain that the first would be far too stodgy and the latter far too frivolous. Clearly this is a case where opposites attracting is a good thing.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Great insight on Emma (and the Mr. Knightleys!). I should go back and give it another look: the last time I found her too irritating to laugh at!

Most of my memories are now from the movie, and the part with the strawberries was too painful to make me think of reading it again!