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.
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.
"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."