The Least-Liked Austen: Thoughts on Emma

I don't know if this is still the case, but when I was growing up it was customary to give books as Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah presents. These were usually of the 'serious' variety--handsome coffee table books and hefty reference volumes. I got my share of each, and leafed through the former and used the latter for schoolwork, but the gift that has proven the most enduring, and from which I've gotten the most use and the most pleasure, was a set of six unassuming paperbacks--two Wordsworth Classics and four Bantams--of Jane Austen's novels. I think every voracious reader can name several books the gift of which opened their eyes to a new literary vista and shaped them as a reader, and for me this was one of those occasions. I made my way through the six Austens over the next five or six years. Some of them--Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion--have become staples of my reading diet, books that I return to periodically to discover new aspects or take pleasure in the ones I already know. Others are ticks on my ever-lengthening to-be-read list. 2007, however, seems to be the year in which I return to my less-beloved Austens. A few months ago, I reread Mansfield Park, and found it to be sharper and funnier than I had remembered, though by no means without flaws. Now it's time for Emma (which, I suppose, means that Northanger Abbey is next).

I first read Emma while on holiday in Sweden when I was fifteen, and found it a hard slog. At the time, I had trouble explaining my resistance to the novel, and ultimately settled, somewhat reluctantly, on the title character, whom Austen herself famously described as "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Arrogant and self-important, Emma is a sort of feminine Mr. Darcy. Like him, she has been "given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit" (although, unlike Mr. Darcy, Emma's attempts at ordering the world according to her own notions of what is right and proper are rarely successful, and in fact often have the opposite result of the one she intended). Emma is supposed to be the narrative of its heroine's moral and emotional growth, but I found her--and therefore the novel--unsatisfying. Ten years later, I expected to have more sympathy for Emma Woodhouse, and a greater appreciation of the novel which bears her name, but instead I found myself nearly overwhelmed by Austen's treatment of a secondary theme which I had, almost inexplicably, managed to overlook in my first reading--the theme of class.

Class is central to Emma in a way that far outstrips its importance in Austen's other novels. The most obvious example is the sub-plot involving Harriet Smith, a young woman of no family and very little education whom Emma takes under her wing, and Robert Martin, a farmer who is in love with her. In spite of his many qualities--he is described as intelligent, serious-minded, and conscientious, and Mr. Knightley, Emma's mentor and the novel's moral center, holds him in very high esteem--Emma is brutally dismissive of Robert Martin because of his class.
"The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it."
Emma's animosity towards Martin is motivated in part by her belief that Harriet can do better. Partly out of blind affection, and partly out of a desire to gratify her sense of her own importance, Emma schemes to attach Harriet first to the local vicar, Mr. Elton (who has set his sights on Emma instead), and later to her neighbor's son, Frank Churchill (who is secretly engaged to another young lady, Jane Fairfax), in spite of Mr. Knightley's assertions that Harriet has nothing more than good looks and a pleasant nature to recommend her.

Emma's coming to accept Harriet and Robert's marriage at the end of the novel is motivated not by her learning to look past his class and to value him for his character and abilities, but by a clear-headed evaluation of Harriet, and the realization that she possesses very little of either. This reevaluation comes about when Harriet, encouraged by Emma's bolstering of her self-esteem, sets her sights on Mr. Knightley. An oblivious Emma has, of course, been in love with Mr. Knightley all the time, but beyond this personal reason to object to a match between the two, we are also told that "It was horrible to Emma to think how it must sink him in the general opinion, to foresee the smiles, the sneers, the merriment, it would prompt at his expense". At the end of the novel Emma, now happily married to Mr. Knightley, is drifting away from Harriet, and the novel treats this cooling of their friendship as something inevitable and desirable.

Emma's inability to accurately gauge Harriet's value, both in terms of her class and of her abilities, is part of a larger theme of social and personal blindness within the novel. Emma, obviously, suffers most egregiously from this failing--she doesn't realize that Mr. Elton is interested in her, and unwittingly encourages him while believing him to be in love with Harriet; she falls for Frank Churchill's pretense of infatuation, which in reality is a blind meant to conceal his attachment to Jane Fairfax; she is fooled by Jane and Mr. Knightley's reserve, and fails to realize where either of their affections truly lie. But Emma is far from being the only blind person in the novel--the entire cast blunders about, groping helplessly before them and constantly coming to the wrong conclusions about their friends and neighbors. Mr. Elton believes that Emma reciprocates his affections. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are certain that the entire neighborhood is on the verge of discovering their secret, and that Emma has already worked it out and given them her tacit approval to use her as a beard. Harriet thinks that Emma is encouraging her to pursue Mr. Knightley, whereas Emma is actually talking about Frank Churchill. Even Mr. Knightley initially fails to recognize even those modest qualities Harriet possesses, and he also shares in the common misconception that Emma is so in love with Frank Churchill that the revelation of his engagement to Jane Fairfax must break her heart. As the narrative tells us just at the moment in which Emma and Mr. Knightley realize that the object of their affection returns it, "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".

Were Harriet and Robert Martin's sub-plot the only reference to class in the novel, it might be easier to conclude that it is introduced in service of this greater theme of blindness, but there are other references to class in Emma that are not so easily disposed of:
  • Emma is scandalized by Mr. Elton's presumption in proposing to her--"Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior in talent and all the elegancies of mind. ... but he must surely know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family, and that the Eltons were nobody."

  • When Frank Churchill proposes holding a ball in the local inn, Emma tries to persuade him that there aren't enough families of sufficient rank in the neighborhood to make up a sizable crowd--"The want of proper families in the place and the conviction that none beyond the place and its immediate environs could be tempted to attend were mentioned; but he was not satisfied. ... Of pride, indeed, there was, perhaps, scarcely enough; his indifference to a confusion of rank bordered too much on inelegance of mind. He could be no judge, however, of the evil he was holding cheap. It was but an effusion of lively spirits."

  • "The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury and were very good sort of people, friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. ... The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them."

  • When Mr. Elton does marry, the woman he chooses is wealthy but unrefined, and the narrative lambasts her for her belief that her nouveau-riche relatives are the equals, and perhaps the superiors, of the old, landed families in Highbury. Mrs. Elton figures quite prominently in the latter half of the novel, and in most of her appearances she is consumed with elevating herself to a position which, we are told, neither her rank as a vicar's wife nor her family connections entitle her to.

  • In the only instance in any of Austen's novels of a physical assault against a character, Harriet is accosted by gypsies violently demanding charity, and has to be rescued by Frank Churchill.
Emma's personal growth over the course of the novel doesn't extend to rejecting her snobbery. Although it is somewhat tempered by a sense of obligation to her social inferiors--one might argue that the infamous scene in which she callously mocks a silly, impoverished neighbor and is later rebuked by Mr. Knightley is the beginning of a realization on Emma's part that her class prejudices often spill over into cruelty--at the end of the novel Emma is, if anything, even more firmly ensconced in her belief in her inherent superiority than she was at its beginning, and ready to fill the role of civic leader. Her failure, we must conclude, was not in assuming that she is superior to her neighbors, and therefore capable of and entitled to order their affairs, but in failing to do so wisely and respectfully, and in being motivated by a desire to feel important rather than to be genuinely useful.

Obviously, it should come as no surprise that Jane Austen, an author who hewed so closely to a conservative worldview in other respects, was nothing like a radical when it came to class. Her main characters are all gentlemen and ladies, and although they don't always marry within their exact level their chosen mates are usually gentlemen and ladies as well. Nevertheless, in her other novels there is at least a sense that, although she frowns on social climbing in general, Austen has a grudging respect, even an admiration, for those who practice it. In Persuasion, Anne Eliot is warned that her sister's friend Mrs. Cole, the daughter of Sir Walter's lawyer, is trying to win Sir Walter's affections and make herself the new Lady Eliot. The narrative rewards Mrs. Cole for her troubles, however. Sir Walter's heir, recognizing a formidable opponent, essentially makes her his ally by marrying her--she can no longer threaten his claim to Sir Walter's estate by producing a nearer heir, and he will one day make her a baronet's wife. Sense and Sensibility's Lucy Steele is one of Austen's most fascinating creations--an intelligent, calculating young woman, more chaotic neutral than villain, whom Elinor Dashwood herself calls "better than half her sex."

Mrs. Elton is very much in the vein of these characters. In spite of her coarseness and presumption, she is clearly intelligent and accomplished, and yet, with the exception of Mansfield Park's ghoulish Mrs. Norris, she is Austen's most objectionable creation, whose attempts to place herself in a position of authority within Highbury society--taking on, unasked, the roles of hostess and patroness in communal functions--are viewed with disdain by the narrative and the novel's right-thinking characters. One of the positive results of Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley at the end of the novel is that it gives Emma the crucial advantages--she is now a married woman, and mistress of the largest estate in Highbury--which allow her to regain the position from which Mrs. Elton ousted her, as Highbury's social leader.

Emma's emphasis on class distinction is also unusual because unequal marriages are so common in her other novels. In Austen's world, husbands and wives can be unequal in their character, class, or wealth, and in her other novels an equality in the first sense, and not the latter two, is held as crucial to the success of a marriage. Anne Eliot, the daughter of a baronet, can marry Fredrick Wentworth, a sea-captain and the son of no one at all, because he is her intellectual and moral equal. Elizabeth Bennet makes a much better wife for Mr. Darcy than Caroline Bingley, in spite of the fact that Caroline has tons of money and Elizabeth is poor and not very well connected, because she is Caroline's superior and Darcy's equal in terms of character.

In Emma, the situation is reversed. The three marriages agreed upon at the end of the story are equal in terms of class and wealth--the gentleman farmer marries the illegitimate daughter of a merchant; the poor young people raised by wealthy relatives marry one another; the landed gentry marry each other--but unequal when it comes to character--Mr. Knightley, Jane Fairfax, and Robert Martin are superior to their chosen mates. In another Austen novel, we'd expect Knightley to marry Jane, Emma to marry Frank Churchill, and Harriet to... well, not to exist. Though Austen is a deft hand at writing persuasive romantic relationships, it's hard for a reader versed in her novels to forget all those instances in which a person marries their moral or intellectual inferior hoping to teach and better them, and ends up being dragged down to their level. Are we really supposed to believe that the same won't happen to Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax?

The difference, presumably, is that at the end of this novel, Emma and Frank Churchill know what they've got and how little they deserve it. Emma resolves to adhere more closely to Mr. Knightley's guidance and advice, and has even begun to do so at the novel's close. As I wrote in my essay about Mansfield Park, however, Austen doesn't usually go in for redemption by proxy. Guided by those good principles I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Emma tries to reform several times over the course of the novel and fails. At its end, she is just at the beginning of a more comprehensive attempt, but I find it difficult to believe that her success, if it even happens, will be complete or long-lasting unless she sublimates herself completely to Knightley's guidance. I can't help but believe that Emma will always be driven, at least in part, by pride and conceit (and that Frank Churchill's impulsive nature will always drive him). More importantly, I don't get the sense that for Austen, the question of whether or not Emma has truly reformed is as important as the question of whether or not she marries Mr. Knightley.

Jane Austen's fans are always moaning about her works being mistaken for romantic fiction when, in reality, the romance is nothing but a delivery system for her moral ideas--the old-fashioned and objectionable ones as well as the universal ones. Rereading Emma, I can't help but feel that the main character's romantic triumph is given precedence over her moral growth. As opposed to Mr. Darcy, who has to prove that he's a better person through actions, at the end of the novel Emma gets Knightley without having done anything to earn him beyond realizing that she is in love with him. She's wiser, but not yet wise, and yet the narrative leaves her with what is, for Austen, the ultimate reward--marriage to a good man. I had hoped to come away from this reevaluation of Emma with a greater appreciation for it, but instead I like it less--it may be my least-favorite of Austen's novels, for the simple reason that I think it may actually deserve that ignominious moniker, the romance novel.


Mike Taylor said…
Well! Emma has always been my second favourite Jane Austen novel (yes, after P&P), some way ahead of S&S and Persuasion, and streets ahead of Mansfield park and Northanger Abbey. (Rule of thumb: don't name a novel after a house.) When I started to read what you'd written I was astonished that you could think otherwise: and yet now I've finished I can see your point, and wonder why I never saw it myself. Thank you for this very thought-provoking essay -- it's a shock to me to see how much I can have missed, over and over again, in a book I've read so many times and enjoyed so much.
I was primed to look for class issues in this reread of the novel when I caught the second half of the BBC's adaptation from about ten years ago (with Kate Beckinsale in the lead). It prioritizes class by, for example, recasting the excursion to Box Hill or strawberry picking on Mr. Knightley's estate as very formal occasions, in which servants in full livery stand at attention while the characters compliment themselves on living simply and naturally.

Extreme as this interpretation is, it did make me go 'oh, of course,' and then when I went back to the novel the class stuff just screamed out at me.
Foxessa said…
For a very long time Emma was my favorite Austen novel.

But in the last decade my regard for this one has sunk very far down. Emma now appears insufferable, whereas previously I found her amusing and eminently forgiveable. The Gwyneth Paltrow film version of the character further sunk Emma in my esteem.

Mansfield Park continues to rise in my estimation. The 1983 BBC version has aided this more positive reevaluation as well.

I fear, however, that nothing will put me in sympathy with the silly chit of Northanger Abbey.
I was actually less bothered by Emma's personality this time around. I found her refreshingly human. She keeps resolving to do better and then falling back into her old habits, as so many of us (and so few of Austen's heroes and heroines) do.

In certain respects, she's also one of the most mature characters in the novel. At a very young age, she's been placed in the position of being the responsible adult in her home - not just mistress, but her father's nursemaid, the person who makes it possible for him to deal with the world and for the world to survive encounters with him. You can sort of understand how she'd get an exaggerated idea of her own importance and capabilities. My problem is that the novel never shows us that Emma is capable of taking on the more substantial leadership role to which she is ultimately elevated. She remains a silly, flawed person, which is fine in itself, but not enough to earn the rewards Austen has in store for her.
Anonymous said…
You described Emma as “a sort of feminine Mr. Darcy”, which I think is an interesting comparison.

I think that Austen was harder on Darcy than on Emma because he was older, and had a much wider experience of the world (e.g. he spends some time combing through London for Wickham and Lydia, which is hardly something Emma could have done). He therefore has less excuse for his flaws.

And Darcy will be the head of his family after his marriage, whereas Emma will not be the head of hers, so his flaws may have more serious implications.

Emma desires to be a better person, and she will have a lot more help after her marriage than she did before and that, Austen must have felt, is enough. Perhaps only just enough, but enough.
I first encountered the comparison between Emma and Mr. Darcy in Karen Joy Fowler's novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, which has a lot of fun overlaying the various novels' plots and making characters from one book play roles from another to which they are well-suited - Marianne Dashwood, for instance, is also Louisa Musgrove.

Darcy will be the head of his family after his marriage, whereas Emma will not be the head of hers, so his flaws may have more serious implications

In terms of parents' affect on their children Austen doesn't prioritize the father over the mother - either one's flaws can reflect in their children. In a wider sense, Emma's marriage puts her in a position of power and authority - as the mistress of the neighborhood's largest estate and its leading social figure - that is no less significant, albeit in different ways, than Darcy or Knightley's roles as landowners.

Emma desires to be a better person, and she will have a lot more help after her marriage than she did before

As I've said before, in most of Austen's novels there is a profound skepticism towards the notion that one can be bettered by one's spouse. The best result, in her other novels, of a marriage whose members aren't well matched in terms of character is that the better half isn't tainted by their inferior mate, and that their children resemble their more worthy parent. Most often, though, we see unhappy marriages in which one partner is dragged down to their mate's level - Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, to name but one example.
Anonymous said…
Sorry, I expressed myself badly. I do not mean that Mr Knightley will make Emma a better person. I don't think that is possible.

But it may be easier for Emma to succeed in her attempts to make herself a better person with him around. Her chances must depend in part on her situation, after all.

I'm inclined to try looking at this from the opposite angle. What are Mr Knightley's flaws, and how could Emma help with them? I trust no one will argue that Austen saw any character as flawless...
it may be easier for Emma to succeed in her attempts to make herself a better person with him around.

Maybe, maybe not - I'm reminded of Fanny Price telling Henry Crawford that "We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be." The point is, though, that at the end of the novel Emma's process of growth is just beginning, and yet her story ends with her reward. This strikes me as a decidedly un-Austenish development.

What are Mr Knightley's flaws, and how could Emma help with them? I trust no one will argue that Austen saw any character as flawless

In general, no, but once again Emma is an atypical novel. Knightley is perhaps a little too serious, and Emma makes him happier and more carefree than he usually is, but that's hardly bad enough to constitute a flaw. Beyond this, he is generally the character who can be relied on to be clear-eyed and morally upright, Emma's guide and mentor.
Anonymous said…
It does seem that way doesn't it?

I'm sure I'm missing something, though.

I suppose it is another book for the reading list...
Anonymous said…
If it's a romance novel, then the heart of the book must be the relationship between Emma and Mr Knightley, and the ending should be satisfying, because the reader should feel emotional justice has been served.
Emma feels less like a romance than P&P - if you had to stick Emma with a genre label, would it not be chick-lit?
Anonymous said…
Just wondering if perhaps the point of Emma not being fully deserving of Knightley, and unlikely to mature much, matches the class theme. I think Austen is consistent with her themes, but in Emma is showing her readings a different angle. We are not expected to like Emma so we might not be expected to be satisfied with the marriages that the class structure would deem appropriate.
Bethany Grenald said…
Hi. I love your Emma comments! It really encapsulates why it's the only Austen I've read just once, and I love how you described the commonalities in the three marriages in the novel. I disagree with one of the things you said, though—I don’t think Austen respects or admires social climbers (and people who marry for money in general). I think Austen tends to give social climbers overtly what they want, but less obviously, they’re given what they deserve. So Lucy Steele gets a man, and great wealth, but her husband is no prize and I don’t think any but the severely venal could envy her. A similar fate befalls Maria in Mansfield Park, with attendant scandal and divorce. I think Mrs. Clay’s [not Cole] depiction in Persuasion is anything but admirable, and I think your interpretation of her fate is mistaken. Austen implies that Mr. Eliot and she were engaged in an affair even while he was courting Anne, and ends the issue of the Clay/Mr. Eliot relationship with: “But, though discomfited and disappointed [with Anne’s rejection], he could still do something for his own interest and his own enjoyment. He soon quitted Bath; and on Mrs. Clay's quitting it soon afterwards, and being next heard of as established under his protection in London, it was evident how double a game he had been playing, and how determined he was to save himself from being cut out by one artful woman, at least.” By “under his protection,” Austen means that Mrs. Clay was living with Mr. Eliot as his mistress, not that they married. That makes her irrevocably a fallen woman, and her fate will likely be to prosper for a few years with Eliot, then end up impoverished and maybe a prostitute when he casts her off. As for Lucy Steele, Austen says: “The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience….[Lucy and her husband] settled in town… and setting aside the jealousies and ill-will continually subsisting between Fanny and Lucy, in which their husbands of course took a part, as well as the frequent domestic disagreements between Robert and Lucy themselves, nothing could exceed the harmony in which they all lived together.” So basically, I think any seeming admiration for such women on Austen’s part is actually just sarcasm and irony.
You're right about Mrs. Clay - I had misremembered the ending of her story, and now that I think about it I seem to remember some skeevy class-related comments in Persuasion as well, though less prominent than the ones in Emma, and somewhat counteracted by the difference in class between Anne and Captain Wentworth.

Maria Bertram is a baronet's daughter who marries a landed gentleman. Their marriage isn't unequal - they are each other's match in wealth as well as character...

As for Lucy Steele, one of these days I'm going to get back to Sense and Sensibility and write a longer essay about her, because I think she's an absolutely fascinating character and one of Austen's best creations. You're right that her situation at the end of the book isn't ideal, but given her personality, her almost complete lack of morals, it's probably as good as she was going to get - marriage to a wealthy and foolish man. I guess I'd have to go back to the novel to see whether I'm truly supposed to believe that she ends up regretting her choice, or whether she's happy with what she gets because she doesn't know well enough to want more.

Though you're obviously right to say that Austen doesn't like Lucy and goes out of her way to point out her 'punishment', I do believe that there's also a certain degree of admiration towards her. She is never defeated. She lets Edward go because she's hooked a bigger fish, and the letter in which she lets him off the hook is a tiny masterpiece - one of the most honest and straightforward interactions between men and women in Austen's novels, in which she acknowledges (though never in so many words) that she doesn't love him any more than he loves her, that she's been using him, and that she's going to make him very happy by setting him free.
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Oh. I see. "EMMA" is not the least favorite Austen novel. It's just your least favorite Austen novel. Why didn't you just say so in your title?

I also disagree that Emma didn't develop much in the novel. Frankly, she developed a hell of a lot more than all of the characters in "MANSFIELD PARK". I don't recall any of them - including Fanny and Edmund - of ever recognizing their personal flaws and trying to do something about it.

I'm not saying that once a person recognizes his or her flaws, they're going to automatically change for the better. To expect Emma or Knightley (who also has his flaws) to automatically improve strikes me as unrealistic. But at least I believe they have acknowledged their flaws. It's a start. Nor do I see that Emma has to go through YEARS of self-improvement before she can marry Knightley. Why? She can do this as a married woman. And Knightley can do the same as a married man. They don't have to go through some self-improvement cycle before marriage.
The Rush Blog said…
Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are of the same class. Mr. Darcy is a landowner and gentleman. Elizabeth is the daughter of Mr. Bennet, a landowner and gentleman.

Caroline Bingley, on the other hand, comes from the middle-class, due to her father and brother being tradesmen.

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