Assortment

An assortment of random thoughts about Emma:

-Emma is an unmitigated snob. In fact, I think that’s her chief failing: unadulterated, unmitigated snobbery. Fortunately, her snobbery is not incurable, so that’s good.

-Which leads me to a second point: once again, I’m struck by the brilliance of Austen’s writing. Like Elizabeth, Emma has her “repentance chapter” (book 1, chapter XVI) – almost a full chapter where the reader is being walked through, step by step, as the heroine comes to realize just how wrong she was, and changes her mind. For Elizabeth, it’s after she reads Mr Darcy’s letter; for Emma, after Mr Elton’s proposal, when she sees that she’s totally messed up Harriet’s life and badly hurt her friend, and is desperately sorry for it. Her thought processes are so clearly laid out, so believable – and all of it in third-person viewpoint, too, which isn’t easy to do (it’s much easier to write things like that from a first-person viewpoint).

-Emma is hilarious in the way she manipulates her father – all to his own good, of course. They’ve slaughtered a pig, and sent some of the meat to the Bates’, a lovely piece of generosity right there (see next point). Mr Woodhouse fusses, because he’s worried that sending them the loin would lead them to cooking it in “unwholesome” ways such as roasting it – he’s terrified of any of his friends having an upset stomach from too much rich food; as far as he’s concerned, everybody should live on “basins of thin gruel” (smooth, runny oatmeal porridge, the “please, sir, I want some more” of Oliver Twist. Yummy.). “I think we had better send the leg – do not you think so, my dear?” he says. Emma most emphatically does not: “My dear papa, I sent the whole hind-quarter. I knew you would wish it. There will be the leg to be salted, you know…” (178, Broadview edition; Peterborough: 2004. Italics mine.). Well done, Emma. The truth is, papa doesn’t wish any such thing, but the Bates’ certainly do; and with Emma telling Mr Woodhouse that that is what he would wish, he actually does. In a sense, Emma’s had to be the parent in her house from the time she’s about thirteen, her father being the useless sort and needing to be babied, humoured and manipulated into doing what’s the right thing. But she loves him anyway – and you’ve got to love her for it. (And I want to know how they did the salting of the pork leg – Miss Bates says they were worried they “had not any salting-pan large enough”. What’s that mean? Recipe, please…)

-Miss Bates is incredibly good-humoured. And genuinely so. Unlike Mrs Bennet and Lydia, who are described as being, or having once been, good-humoured, but as soon as they don’t get their way becoming whiny and obnoxious, Miss Bates is unfailingly cheerful, even though her situation in life is far less than desirable. She and her mother live in a small apartment, on the “drawing-room floor” (first floor, or second floor in American language) above a business – so, there’s probably some kind of haberdasher’s shop on the ground floor – instead of the nice, roomy vicarage they used to inhabit (where Mr Elton now resides). One gets the impression they’re chronically broke, with absolutely no hope of a better income at any time. And then she says: “If ever there were people who, without having great wealth themselves, had every thing they could wish for, I am sure it is us” (179). Wow, talk about looking on the bright side. Miss Bates is silly, and talks hindlegs off mules (or porkers, as it were), but she’s a thoroughly good woman. Oh, and her first name is Hetty. Short for Henrietta, presumably?

-There’s almost as big an age gap between Mr Knightley and Emma as between Colonel Brandon and Marianne (37 and 21 vs. 36 and 17). But somehow with them it’s never an issue, really. I wonder why. Although the fact that Frank Churchill is 23 does make a difference; it makes Mr Knightley that much more jealous.

-Jane Fairfax is a Fanny Price. At nine years old taken from her home of poverty into a wealthy household, educated with the family’s children to become a “lady” – the same story for both. Jane is raised for “a career in education”; her becoming a governess is a foregone conclusion (her marriage with Frank Churchill is rather a knight-in-shining-armour ending to that story, extremely lucky for her). It makes me wonder what Sir Thomas thought would become of Fanny, when he first took her in; she’s not being raised to become a governess, or indeed anything else. It makes the whole thing of her rejecting Henry Crawford that much darker, more sinister – if Edmund hadn’t married her, she’d likely end up much worse than Miss Bates. No fortune, no skills – move back to Portsmouth, live with her noisy family, and die of consumption at age 20 or so. Scary. There’s dark undercurrents in Austen that the bright, lovely cheerfulness of her happy endings tend to obscure. She never dwells on it, but any reader with imagination (and “sensibility”) can figure it out for themselves. (And it’s one of the things I like about Austen that she does leave you to figure it out for yourself. I hate having painful stories shoved in my face.)

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4 thoughts on “Assortment

  1. I was thinking about Point #3 in relation to your dislike of Emma as a bully. Don’t you think that HAVING to manipulate her father from the time she was a little girl twisted her into the type of person who thinks that all others of lower mental quality than herself need to be “bossed” for their own good? So that, perhaps her treatment of poor stupid Harriet, cruel though it was (and as she realized it to be in the end), came about more from her relationship with her father than anything else. In some ways, you almost feel sorry for her, having to be the adult in the house (and the parent in that relationship) before she was ready or capable of such a task.

    Which could also lead to some interesting surmises on the nature of her attraction to the much older, almost-fatherly Mr Knightley …

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    • Excellent point. Yes, it goes with my “patriarchy” line of thought – I hadn’t considered that Mr Woodhouse being the poor pathetic father he is is what’s partially responsible for Emma being the way she is. Some *very* strong points in this book about fathers, lack of fathers, fatherly men…
      Also of interest is Harriet’s father – it’s like she hasn’t got a mother at all, you never hear a word of what happened to her, while the father is an anonymous money-giving figure in the background; while Emma’s faulty speculations of who he is lead her down the garden path. If it was known all along who or what Harriet’s father is, the story would be very different. And correspondingly, Robert Martin has lost his father, which materially changes who he is – if his father was still allive, Robert wouldn’t be Mr Martin of Abbey Mill Farm, gentleman farmer, but just an ordinary young man living with his parents, who couldn’t even think of marrying. Again, totally different story.
      It’s like the father-consideration is a really deep thread running through almost everything that happens in this book… Every last person is materially affected by their father, lack of father, incapable father, dead father, relationship with father…

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      • And don’t forget Frank Churchill! His relationship (or lack thereof) with his father is also crucial in how he grew up, and it’s his father’s desire for him to have everything his heart desires that so heavily influences the way he and Mrs Weston so not-subtly push him toward Emma.

        In some ways, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Emma. Neither father nor sister can even come close to matching her mind, will, and wit, (even Elizabeth had Jane and her father, and Anne had Lady Russell), and while Miss Taylor was clever, she also fell short in will and wits. Being female, Emma would have had less outlets for her abilities than even the stupidest gentleman (ahem, Mr Elton). No wonder she turned to manipulating others. It was one of the few ways she could keep from stagnating, especially being in such a small village. Being mistress of the house at thirteen might seem like a great deal, but it had to be so lonely.

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      • Most definitely let’s not forget Frank Churchill. He’s defined by being a son. His separation from his father, his lack of “doing his duty” by his father, are key to his character, but also, the fact that Mr Weston wasn’t really much of a father to begin with – he had very little to do with Frank, leaving him to be brought up by his uncle and aunt; and again, the uncle (substitute father figure) is spineless, while the aunt is domineering. Is there one single father in all of the Austen canon who is actually an unmitigated GOOD father?

        About Emma, though, I think you underestimate Miss Taylor. She has brains enough for Emma, and doesn’t really let her push her around – I don’t get the feeling that Emma had the upper hand, precisely; but for all that, she was the governess, not Emma’s mother, so by definition didn’t have as much authority as she could have. My guess is that she could match Emma in mind and wit, but it’s the will where the snag comes in.

        You’re right about Emma’s loneliness – but the thing is that she doesn’t seem to suffer for it. It’s one of the things that’s unique about this book that it’s totally confined to one small country village, beginning to end. Emma never goes anywhere (and never has, ever), and at the end of the story, barring the wedding trip to the seaside, she’s back in Highbury and looks to stay put. She’s got no desire to even go spend time in London or anywhere else, which for someone as vigorous as her is rather surprising. I wonder if she likes being the biggest fish in a tiny pond? Would she even know what to do with another woman who is her equal? (but that’s a post for another day :))

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