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.)