Three Emmas

2020 seems to be the year of Emma. Early in the spring, we saw the release of a new film adaptation of the novel, the first since the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring one from 1996 (though there have been a few TV versions in the interim). Not long after, the world of pop culture conversation joined in a celebration of Amy Heckerling's Clueless, arguably the definitive screen adaptation of the novel, on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary. And now in the fall, I've finally gotten around to reading Mahesh Rao's Polite Society, which like Clueless, retells the story of Emma in a modern setting, this time the enclaves of the super-rich, old money families of New Delhi. 

OK, so I'm cheating a bit with that last one. Rao's novel was actually published last year (and a year earlier than that in India). But the confluence of the three adaptations in my own personal cultural landscape has been an opportunity to revisit my feelings towards the original novel, which stands apart in Jane Austen's bibliography in several interesting ways. I wrote about Emma on this blog in 2007, but the world of 2020—and the ideas about class, wealth, and inequality that the last decade has spurred us all to examine—may make me more capable of discussing my difficulties with it than I was then.

Emma hovers near the bottom of my personal ranking of Austen's novels, mainly because of the outsized role that class plays in its story. This might seem like a curious complaint. Class underlies all of Austen's storytelling, which is, after all, restricted to the homes, drawing rooms, and gatherings of the landed gentry, people who may seem familiar to us with their middle class concerns over inheritances and good marriages for their children, but were actually among the richest and most privileged members of their society. One of the reasons I enjoyed Jo Baker's 2013 novel Longbourn was that it opened up the story of Pride and Prejudice to reveal all the stratums of society that the original novel omits—servants, tradesmen, soldiers, itinerant workers—and in so doing, reminded us that the rules that seemed immutable and ironclad to Austen's characters were merely suggestions, or even complete irrelevancies, to people outside their class. In recent years, modern storytelling focused on this era—HBO's Gentleman Jack, or ITV's abortive attempt to expand Austen's novel fragment Sanditon—has similarly tried to draw a world in which the gentry exist side by side with the other classes, in a way that Austen herself never wrote about.

In most of Austen's novels, however, the engine of her story is the imperfect overlap between class and wealth, and the difficulties it places before its characters as they strive to make a good marriage. Elizabeth Bennet may insist that she is "a gentleman's daughter" and thus the equal of Mr. Darcy, but the fact that she has no inheritance while he is a wealthy landowner places obstacles in their path. When Frederick Wentworth returns to Anne Eliot's circle in the beginning of Persuasion, he may be rich enough to marry her, but the fact that he earned his wealth still makes him an unacceptable match to many of Anne's relatives and friends. 

Emma is unique in collapsing the Venn diagram into a circle. The destabilizing event that kickstarts its story is its heroine's ill-judged decision to breach class boundaries, adopting the penniless bastard Harriet Smith and scheming to elevate her into social strata where, as the novel's voice of reason Mr. Knightley insists, she has no business being. This causes a chain reaction of unwanted cross-class romantic aspirations—Emma's attempts to match Harriet with the local vicar, Mr. Elton, instead convince Elton that Emma is interested in him, a proposition that Emma receives with the same disgust with which Elton considers the possibility of marrying Harriet. And when Emma encourages Harriet to set her sights on Frank Churchill, a gentleman's son with no inheritance who has been adopted into a wealthy family, Harriet instead falls in love with Mr. Knightley. The novel's happy ending comes when everyone in it finds their own level—Emma and Mr. Knightley, the wealthy landowners; Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, who are both genteel but with limited prospects; and Harriet and Robert Martin, a local farmer. In some adaptations I've seen, the point is brought further home by having Emma embrace the role of chatelaine, showing the proper respect (which is to say, noblesse oblige) towards tenants like Robert Martin, while allowing her improper friendship with Harriet to wither away.

Another way of putting it is that Emma places center stage the assumptions and values that, in other Austen novels, we have just enough plausible deniability to be able to ignore. This makes it an uncomfortable read, but it may also be the reason why the novel has worked so well in modern-day retellings. It is always possible to carry over into different time periods the interpersonal crises that drive Austen's novels—a man behaves uncharacteristically badly at a social gathering, prejudicing the woman who, unbeknownst to both of them, is actually his perfect match; a woman is talked out of a relationship by her friends, and when the man returns years later, she realizes that she still loves him and that it might be too late. But divorced from their problems of class and wealth, these stories just don't have the same stakes. With Emma, on the other hand, the role of wealth is so central to the story that it can't be retold without it. 

This is what Heckerling realized when she wrote Clueless, and she found the perfect modern-day analogue to the novel's settings in mid-90s Beverly Hills. Setting the film at a high school perfectly captures Austen's mingled emphasis on power and moral responsibility. The teenagers in Clueless drive sports cars, wear designer clothes, and treat their teachers like servants, but they are also still children, fundamentally ignorant about how the world really works, and capable of growth and change. Their SoCal slang, shared references to clothing brands and LA hotspots, and thoughtless assumption of the universality of their rich-and-famous lifestyles serve to make them into a cultural bubble, giving the movie the same sort of anthropological thrill that Austen's novels have for a modern audience.

It's a choice that, perhaps inadvertently, ends up replicating a lot of Austen's assumptions about the role of the wealthy and the meaning of goodness. Clueless does not adopt all of Emma's assumptions about class roles. Its heroine, Cher Horowitz, remains friends with her middle class, "tragically clueless" adoptee Tai even after the latter gets back together with the burnout boyfriend Cher had tried to steer her away from. But the film is still rooted in the assumption that goodness can be achieved through personal benevolence. When Cher, chastened after her matchmaking efforts backfire and reveal her own childishness to her, resolves to "makeover [her] soul", she does so by organizing charity drives for victims of a recent natural disaster, to which she contributes her cast-off sporting equipment. Cher is kind and, in her own way, principled, but much like Emma, the film takes it as a given that her own comfort should never be meaningfully challenged. Characters who are more trenchant in their class analysis, like Cher's ex-stepbrother and love interest Josh and his college friends, are either ignored or shown to be personally unappealing. Or, in the case of Josh, who plans to work for Cher's father, a prominent entertainment lawyer, have no intention of converting their ideas into action. Like the original Emma, Clueless has no real problem with the rich, so long as they behave like decent human beings, and it never stops to ask whether this might be a contradiction in terms.

*

Perhaps because he wasn't writing to the audience of a teen rom-com, perhaps because he was writing in the late teens rather than the mid-90s, but Mahesh Rao allows himself to be a great deal more ambivalent—and at points, openly condemnatory—towards the ultra-rich milieu of his own version of Emma, Polite Society. The novel's premise—a romance set among absurdly rich, old money families for whom the West is merely a place to go shopping (a private family wedding at the beginning of the novel is held in "that most unfashionable of places: London. Everyone knew that the Russians had ruined the place; it was unlikely that it would be overrun by friends and relatives")—may conjure up the specter of Crazy Rich Asians. But though Rao rarely fails to deliver sumptuous meals, fabulous social events, and drool-worthy houses, he has his pulse on the unique psychology of his setting in a way that Kevin Kwan's novel (and even the much-improved movie based on it) never quite did. In particular, he captures the gap between wealth and class, the way that the families at the novel's core have known one another, married into one another, and made up a society for generations, regardless of their country's upheavals. The new money that Indian society routinely throws up is viewed by the novel's characters with a disdain and distrust that Austen would have immediately recognized. See, for example, this passage from Emma:

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. On their first coming into the country, they had lived in proportion to their income, quietly, keeping little company, and that little unexpensively; but the last year or two had brought them a considerable increase of means— the house in town had yielded greater profits, and fortune in general had smiled on them. With their wealth, their views increased; their want of a larger house, their inclination for more company. ... The regular and best families Emma could hardly suppose they would presume to invite— neither Donwell, nor Hartfield, nor Randalls. Nothing should tempt her to go, if they did; and she regretted that her father's known habits would be giving her refusal less meaning than she could wish. 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.
And compare it this one from Polite Society:
The older rich had ways of perturbing the newer rich. A direct snub would be too foolhardy, given the unpredictable places where political influence now arose. So they shut them out with ambiguity, glances shot across the table, a stifled smile, all the signs of a beautifully preserved way of life. ... There was an artistry in disconcerting the newly rich and immense satisfaction in its correct execution. Invitations would be accepted but apologies would be sent at the last minute due to unavoidable circumstances; or events would be attended for a mere fifteen minutes; or a proxy from the extended family would be dispatched, a lisping second cousin. One dowager from Civil Lines would come to dinner but not eat, asking in the most charming way if her food could be sent over later; her doctor had told her not to consume anything after six in the evening and so she would have it for lunch the next day.
Our heroine (though only one of the novel's viewpoint characters) is Ania Khurana, the only child of the widowed owner of a company whose purpose we never actually find out (it certainly seems of very little interest to Ania). Ania begins the novel both elated and disconcerted by the recent departure of her aunt Renu, who has made a late marriage to a respectable colonel, a match for which Ania takes credit. Filling the void left by Renu's departure is Dimple, a PR manager whom Ania encountered at an event and has taken under her wing, intending to launch her into Delhi society. This involves detaching Dimple from her crush Ankit, a boutique owner whom Ania considers beneath her friend, and throwing her into the path of Fahim, an up-and-coming journalist.

So far, so familiar, but much like Heckerling in Clueless, Rao cleverly makes Ania a modern person, whose wealth and privilege are reflected in modern ways. She's hounded by paparazzi and has her outfits analyzed by fashion blogs. She has to suppress the urge to instagram an exclusive family event. On her way into an invitation-only fashion event in Paris, she is asked by a journalist how she thinks future collections will be affected by the rise of global populism ("I think fashion works very much as a reaction against the mainstream, so I believe designers will respond creatively and instinctively, finding new ways to make alternate conceptions come through"). Most notably, Ania has aspirations of her own. She dreams of being a writer, and has embarked on—though failed to complete—several book projects. For her latest one, she has decided that the key to its success is an exclusive writers' retreat in Italy, to which Ania can gain access, even lacking a suitable writing sample, by paying a fee and producing a letter of recommendation. Her attempts to convince her father that he should use his connections to get Ania a recommendation from a Nobel laureate are a feat of sophistry that would make Cher Horowitz proud:
"Papa, have you ever been asked to check your privilege?"

"Check my what?"

"Oh, never mind, it's this online thing. But that's sort of what I'm doing. Lots of writers can't get into this residency by calling on friends. But since I can, why should I take up one of their places? I think asking Clarence Lam to put in a good word would be the right thing to do. It's saving other people a lot of time and trouble."
But, as even this passage suggests, there's a darkness to Ania that Cher, and even Emma herself, lack. Polite Society's Jane Fairfax character, Kamya Singh-Kaul, is a member of Ania's set who has recently published a rapturously received novel about "exile and the despair of belonging everywhere and yet nowhere". She represents everything Ania wants to be and yet strongly suspects she could never become. Nor is this the only way in which Polite Society reminds us that there are things Ania will never be able to buy. At the writers' retreat, she distracts herself from her lack of progress with her novel by forming a friendship with a famous writer, who then makes several unwelcome, increasingly belligerent passes at her. When Ania complains, it's made clear that the retreat would rather she leave than her attacker, and the reader is left uncertain whether this is a familiar closing of ranks around a sexual predator, or because everyone knows that Ania is a dilettante who bought her way in. In other chapters, Renu and Ania's father muse darkly about the real cause of her mother's death, but around the novel's midpoint, Ania reveals that she has known for years that her mother died while on a getaway with her lover—and that it was a malicious gossip-monger in the Khuranas' social set who told her this.

This is not to say that Polite Society wants us to see Ania as a poor little rich girl. Rather, it constantly gestures at an emptiness to her that explains, at least in part, her frantic attempts to reinvent herself as a matchmaker. Unlike Emma and Cher, Ania lacks a core of goodness that might point her in the right direction, and stop her from seeing others—and especially her social "inferiors"—as toys to be played with. Another way of putting it is that Rao is being more realistic as to how a bored, shallow rich woman with few mental and emotional resources to draw on might choose to spend her time—as when Ania, determined to detach Dimple from Ankit, invites them to one of her parties, plies Ankit with alcohol, and then gets him to make a fool of himself in public. Austen may have said of Emma that she was "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like", but Rao feels freer to expose Ania at her most monstrous, and to leave us wondering whether we really want her to find a happy ending.

Other parts of the novel delve more deeply into the complicated relationships between Delhi's super-rich, their hangers-on, and those who wish to join their ranks. Dimple, who is smarter and more thoughtful than Harriet Smith, nevertheless goes along with Ania's plan to match her with Fahim because he represents to her the elusive goal of becoming a "modern" woman, the kind who pursues men rather than waiting for them to notice her. And because she thrills to the notion of shocking her mother, an ardent Hindu nationalist, with a Muslim boyfriend. When she visits her rural hometown, Dimple is careful not to put on airs, while still observing how her choice to leave home and get a city job has irreparably severed her from her former community. It also drives a wedge between her and her mother, whose nationalism, for all that it is abhorrent, is rooted in the undeniable observation that India's rich elites have sold the future of their country while lining their own pockets.

Fahim, meanwhile, is both more sympathetic than Emma's Mr. Elton, and a great deal less so. A former hard-hitting journalist, he grew tired of watching his career go nowhere, and of being the pet Muslim with whom his social set could commend themselves for their liberalism. His pursuit of Ania is part of a campaign of influence-peddling and name-dropping by which he hopes to vault into the upper reaches of society. After it fails, Fahim next involves himself with Mussoorie, a white historian writing a biography of one of the maharajah dynasties. Her elegance and casual access to palaces and the homes of the wealthy convince him that she's from an upper class background herself—"From the books he had read, it all seemed typical of a certain kind of Briton who gravitated toward the former colonies". But when Fahim meets Mussoorie's family after their wedding, they turn out to be thoroughly conventional middle class ex-hippies, her performance of gentility just that, and no less calculated than his. The couple are last seen locked in a mutual project of social climbing, scamming their way into the right parties and circles, with no love left between them except for this pursuit.

Polite Society is littered with these kinds of closely-observed set pieces that extend far beyond the shape of the novel it draws on for its core story. We visit with lonely gossip columnists whom fashion has left behind, counting their allowances and realizing they can no longer live in the manner to which they've become accustomed. Or glimpse the sadness of precisely those people who know they have no reason to be sad, leaving them prey to predatory faith healers and charlatans. In one scene, the Khuranas sit down to a meal of Kashmiri cuisine, to "allow [them] to feel that they were doing their bit for national unity, given the conflict in the troubled state"—a gesture so bizarrely, narcissistically opaque that it is impossible to know whether the Khuranas support Kashmiri annexation, or oppose it.

With all this richness to enjoy, it's no surprise that the romance gets moved to the back burner. You might have noticed that I've said nothing about Polite Society's analogue to Mr. Knightley, Ania's childhood friend Dev. An academic with vaguely progressive ideas, Dev is nevertheless just as ensconced in his social set as Ania (or as Clueless's Josh). It's notable, for example, that unlike Knightley, he is the youngest son in his family, as if to indicate that he's only free to pursue his high-minded ideas and academic interests because no one expected him to take over the family business. And though, like Knightley, he periodically lectures Ania about her selfishness and shallowness, it's rather thin gruel. We realize, long before either of them do, that Ania and Dev are in love with each other. But we also don't care that much, both because neither of them are likable enough for us to fervently wish for their happiness, and because everything going on around them is so much more interesting than they are.

*

The new film version of Emma (or, as the film title has it, Emma.—punctuation included) has an interesting pedigree. It is the feature debut of Autumn de Wilde, whose previous work was in music videos, and its script was written by Eleanor Catton, who won the Booker for her second novel, The Luminaries, in 2013, and also wrote the miniseries adaptation of that novel, which aired earlier this year. You would never guess from watching the film, however, that it is the work of two relative newcomers. Emma. is reassuring in its assuredness, feeling, from its first moment, like the work of people who love and understand the novel, and are confident in their ability to bring it to life. In the idiosyncratic touches they bring to the material—the traditional folk music on the soundtrack, a key scene interrupted by an inconvenient nosebleed—and in their adherence to their source, de Wilde and Catton give off an ease and confidence that encourage even the most battle-hardened Austen fan to relax, trusting that this isn't going to be yet another adaptation that mangles its source material beyond all recognition.

The only problem is that this is now the fourth screen version of Emma that I've seen (even excluding Clueless) and at this point, there really doesn't seem to be anything new for them to do with the novel. Everyone here is very good—Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma as both the implacable social leader, and the young girl who doesn't really know what she's doing on her first forays into adulthood; Johnny Flynn continues to cement his status as a slightly different sort of historical fiction heartthrob, injecting Mr. Knightley's staunch, principled landowner with just a little bit of modern-seeming vulnerability. The film looks and sounds beautiful without being overbearing, the composed, Wes Anderson-ian interiors giving way to natural scenery just when we most need to be reminded that these people are human beings like us, despite being absurdly rich. I wouldn't mind if this version of Emma became the definitive one for people ten or twenty years younger than me (in exactly the same way that I do mind that the same thing has happened to Joe Wright's execrable 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice—please, someone, make a new version that actually understands the novel it's based on). But for myself, Emma. can't help but feel inessential. There are no new notes that it finds in the story or its characters, no new approach it takes to the novel.

Or rather, there is one thing, which ties Emma. to Clueless and Polite Society and this conversation about the role of class in the original novel. Emma. is the first adaptation I've seen—not just of Emma, but of any Austen novel—that gives space to servants. In one of the film's earliest scenes, we watch Emma bid a fond farewell to her former governess and companion, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), on the morning of her wedding, delivering up a bridal bouquet she's made up herself from flowers in her greenhouse. This would be a touching, sweet gesture, a reminder that Emma is both generous and thoughtful. But our perception of it has been inflected by the scene just preceding it, the one that opens the film. In this scene, Emma, in the pre-dawn hours, is accompanied by two servants to the greenhouse, where she imperiously directs them to just the right blooms, and they cut them down. In its opening moments, the film takes care to remind us that everything that goes into Emma's presentation of herself is at least partly the work of other people, whom she—and we—take for granted. From that moment on, it's impossible not to notice the aspects of Emma's appearance that are clearly made—her starched collars, the frilly lace that adorns all her dresses, the corkscrew curls in her hair—and remember the people who made them.

The same approach is taken with Knightley. In our first introduction to him, he manfully rides up to his estate, strides into his rooms, and strips down to bare skin. One might take this moment as a promise that this is not your grandmother's Emma, a bare bottom to make the film seem sexy and irreverent. But what's actually important is what happens next, how Knightley is put back together by other people, who swathe him in layers of clothing as he stands passively and lets them shape him. By the time he leaves, once again the very picture of the dashing master of his domain, we can't forget that this guy is a construct, the product of the work of others.

In almost every scene of Emma., the servants are present—moving pieces of furniture, serving food, holding coats out to be helped into, adjusting clothing, seeing to babies who have inconveniently filled their diapers, or simply standing against the wall in case they're needed. They've always been there, of course. The lives of these people, the ones whose story we've read so many times, only work if there's an army of other people to make them work. But most adaptations leave those people out, or include them in a small number of scenes. In Emma., they are ubiquitous, which makes it impossible for us to ignore the heroes' habit of unpersoning them. When Emma and Knightley have their fight after she insults Miss Bates, the film places Emma in an open carriage, with Knightley standing next to it, both of them shouting at the top of their lungs. de Wilde frames the shot so that we can't see the front of the carriage, but the deliberation with which she does this makes it clear what she's not showing us. After Knightley leaves, Emma, her face streaked with tears, shouts "drive!", and the carriage immediately starts moving. The driver has been sitting there the entire time, hearing his betters have it out, expected to ignore everything they say except, when it comes, the one word of command.

It's different and exciting, but also more than this ultimately quite faithful adaptation can shoulder. Emma. isn't a revolutionary work, and though it points out the way that servants are both essential to its characters' lives and invisible in their story, it doesn't really know what to do with this point once it's been established. The film's ending instead veers towards the sentimental. When Harriet tells Emma that her unknown father is not, as Emma had previously insisted, a gentleman, Emma immediately offers to receive him at her home, something the character in the novel would never have done. And the film's final romantic scene, in which Emma and Knightley, hidden behind screens so as not to upset her father, kiss in full view of the very servants who have just placed those screens, feels like a direct counter to the argument scene. Here, the fact that the servants are privy to the heroes' most private moments is treated as a joke, with the two footmen discreetly turning their backs on the young couple and exchanging a bemused look. The almost dangerous reminder that the people we've been expected to root for have been taught since childhood to see other people as essentially furniture is defanged, with the servants themselves reassuring us that they like playing this limited, limiting part in the story.

*

There is no analogue to Miss Bates in Polite Society, and thus no moment in which Ania forgets herself and cruelly insults someone who is too kind and dim to withstand her barbed wit. Which means that there's no confrontation with Dev, no moment of soul-searching, no impetus for Ania to strive to become a better person. Her romantic union with Dev is thus "unearned"—or worse than that, since what Ania does to Ankit at the beginning of the novel is far crueler than Emma's momentary lapse of judgement with Miss Bates, and she experiences no consequences for it, from either Dimple or Dev.

This feels entirely deliberate. The core assumption of Austen's novels is that a good marriage—by which she means, a marriage to a good person who can bring out your best qualities and help you to live your best life—is the reward for becoming a better person. Mr. Darcy is confronted with the effects of his arrogant behavior and strives to correct it, and in so doing makes himself worthy of a marriage with Elizabeth that will encourage both of them towards good behavior and good companionship. Emma is chided by Mr. Knightley for forgetting her duties to her social inferiors and, by striving to take her proper place in society rather than involving herself unnecessarily in their lives, "earns" a marriage that will hopefully curb her more destructive impulses and shape her into a true leader in society. But as tempting as it is to believe that life works that way, not even Austen herself entirely buys into it—as Knightley points out, Frank Churchill treats Jane Fairfax appallingly but still ends up married to her. A good marriage is a complicated thing, but if only good people could make them, they would never exist. Polite Society, for all that it takes its shape from a classic novel, is nevertheless a modern one, and it recognizes that people can love each other, and be a good match for each other, even if they haven't worked to overcome their moral shortcomings.

I think, however, that there is something deeper and darker going on here. What does it mean, to become a better person, when you're as rich as Fitzwilliam Darcy or Ania Khurana? Does the fact that Mr. Darcy fixes Jane Bennett's broken attachment to Charles Bingley, or learns to behave politely to Elizabeth's relatives, outweigh what he is and what he represents? Does being kind to people in your day to day life matter when your wealth has come from colonization, the enclosure of the commons, and possibly slavery? Twenty-five years ago, Clueless argued that Cher could achieve enlightenment through acts of personal (and probably useless) charity, but that's a less convincing argument in 2020. Similarly, the values of stewardship and benevolent oversight that would have been associated with goodness for someone like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley don't really resonate for us anymore. 

In Polite Society, the Frank Churchill character, Nikhil, turns out to have been running an investment scam, cheating poor people out of their savings. For most of the novel's social set, this is an embarrassment, but for Nikhil's uncle, Renu's new husband, it is a blow from which he might never recover. Studying the stories of the people his nephew has ruined, he delivers what feels like the novel's thesis statement: "Somehow we have become monsters". Which is all the more powerful for our realization that most of the characters won't be able to hear it.

What Polite Society seems to be saying with its ending is that there is no way for Ania—or, for that matter, Dev—to become good people, not because of who they are, but because of what they are. The novel's ending feels deliberately bittersweet, a moment of bliss for the new lovers even as other people in their social set are circling ruin, either financial or spiritual. And it's deliberately unsatisfying for us, because unlike in an Austen novel, there is no comeuppance. The fact that she hasn't become a better person won't make much of a difference to Ania's happiness, nor is she ever likely to experience consequences for how she's lived her life, or how people like her have shaped society. More than any version of Emma I've ever read or watched, Polite Society manages to balance being a good story with recognizing that it is a story about the wrong people, and that nothing they do will ever change that.

Comments

steven johnson said…
A significant point in one Austen novel, Mansfield Park, I believe, is precisely about those who are so foolish as to forget the servants are people. Austen was very much aware I think that those in the middle class needed to watch the lower class people very closely, and watch out for, too. Also, then as now, the fond illusion that there are only three classes realizes neither the depths nor the heights in this world. The Austen set, even Darcy and Bertram, were not the equivalent of billionaires. And if they were, it still matters that Bertram is not lovable, even if you despise Fanny Price for her lack of agency.

There is no denying that Austen's novels, like Austen herself, fully endorsed the fundamental goodness of society, no matter the reservations about mere individuals. The social order can only be failed, it cannot fail. Yet, it's doubtful a novel of manners can say anything useful about class society: It is what the ruling class does at business that matters, not how it plays at home. The Austen novels, despite their fundamental conservatism, are still insightful, because even the gentry are people too. If anyone wants to tackle class, updating Mansfield Park is far more apt to produce worthwhile results.

Mae Travels said…
Your description of the novel "Polite Society" makes it sound much more like Dickens than like Austen, including the wider range of social class and wealth, and the ironic fate of people who fool each other before marriage and then are stuck with it (like the Venerings).

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