I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. Emma was supposed to be one of my Austen in August reads last year, given that it was published at the end of 1815. Sadly, thanks to university deadlines and the tiny inconvenience of moving halfway across the world, I wasn’t able to complete it. But after more time than I’m prepared to admit, I finally come to you with my thoughts on my re-read of Emma. If it seems incomplete, ill-informed, or just plain wrong, I’m going to go ahead and blame that on the fact that it took me about six months to finish. If I hadn’t caught the flu a few weeks ago – Austen being one of my go-to illness cures – I might still be ‘reading’ this book (by which I mean it would have been sitting by my bedside silently judging me, as only the best books can). I hope you find it interesting. I hope you don’t come away from this silently thinking I really should give up studying literature. I know I found myself wondering.
Some Things I Thought About Emma
All of Austen’s novels are about possession and belonging. It’s hardly surprising, considering the kind of world she was born into – a world where one’s worth was most often determined by how much one was worth. As such, her novels often explore the relationship between power and possession, and the tension between possessor and possessed. More often than not, these issues are explored through a satirisation of the contemporary marriage-market, but Austen also explores the larger reality (and irony) that even the wealthiest aristocrats ultimately belong to society. Emma‘s concern with life in a community – the characters of Highbury are central to the story – begs the question: to what extent do we ‘belong’ to one another? A country village is the perfect setting in which to explore the ways in which people are interconnected, as well as the inequalities that inevitably arise as a consequence of this.
A case in point: Miss Bates. Miss Bates is reliant on the kindness of her neighbours in order to live in moderate comfort. She is appropriated by various characters throughout the story, used and abused for their own ends. She bears it all with patience and good humour. Yet she and her mother in many ways seem to belong to Highbury; they are the entire community’s responsibility. But what function does Miss Bates serve for her wealthier neighbours? Mothers can point to Miss Bates as an example of the consequences of spinsterhood (cautionary tale); Mr Knightley can use her as a way of highlighting Emma’s own bad behaviour (a lesson in morality); and various characters can use her to prove their own charitable natures (status symbol).
Of course, Miss Bates is clearly the loser in this scenario, that’s unquestionable. And yet, in some ways, the wealthier characters in the novel need Miss Bates, if only for the above reasons, if only as a way of cementing their own social status. Ultimately, all the characters in the novel are feeding the same beast: the early nineteenth-century class system to which they all belong.
Perhaps because of the influence of that class system, proprietary thinking runs rampant in this novel. Mrs Elton is one of the worst offenders in this respect. Mrs Elton tries to claim ownership of Knightley by calling him, much to Emma’s amusement, ‘Knightley’, and trying to organise the outing to Donwell Abbey. She is decidedly rebuffed in this attempt. Trying to take over the duties of the as-yet non-existent Mrs Knightley will not provide Mrs Elton with power over Knightley, so she turns her attention back to a (for a woman) more manageable goal: lording it over Jane, Miss Bates’ niece. Meanwhile, on the same visit to Donwell, Emma spends some time observing the house and grounds at Donwell. For a moment, she indulges in the fantasy of possession, reflecting with pleasure on the fact that her close connection with the family means that she is, in some way, entitled to this fantasy:
She felt all the honest pride and complacency which her alliance with the present and future proprietor could fairly warrant, as she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered—its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight—and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up.—The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable, and one or two handsome rooms […].
(Volume III, Chapter VI)
Emma creates a kind of mental catalogue of the house and grounds in an attempt to ‘possess’ them, if only in her mind. In fact, it reads a little like an advertisement at an estate agent’s. ‘Ample gardens’ – ‘abundance of timber’, ‘comfortable rooms’… if I didn’t know any better, I’d think Emma was only a few seconds away from measuring the living room for new drapes and figuring out where she’d put her dressing table. Given the unreliability of Austen’s narrators, we could ask ourselves whether Emma isn’t already fantasising about becoming mistress of Donwell, although her revelation about her feelings for Mr Knightley supposedly comes later in the story.
Fantasies of possession and power aside, there is also the issue of social obligation in the novel: on the one hand, Mr Knightley’s brother delivers a cutting diatribe against the social obligation of accepting invitations, particularly when it forces one to go out in unpleasant weather:
If we were obliged to go out such an evening as this, by any call of duty or business, what a hardship we should deem it;—and here are we, probably with rather thinner clothing than usual, setting forward voluntarily, without excuse, in defiance of the voice of nature, which tells man, in every thing given to his view or his feelings, to stay at home himself, and keep all under shelter that he can;—here are we setting forward to spend five dull hours in another man’s house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said and heard yesterday, and may not be said and heard again to-morrow. Going in dismal weather, to return probably in worse;—four horses and four servants taken out for nothing but to convey five idle, shivering creatures into colder rooms and worse company than they might have had at home.
(Volume I, Chapter XIII)
This could be read as quite a just critique of the habits of the upper classes in Regency England (although Austen was undoubtedly poking fun at the ill-tempered John Knightley, too). And yet it also highlights the various obligations that we have as members of society: we must treat our neighbours with respect, visit our family (as Frank eventually does, his delaying tactics much criticised by Mr Knightley), share resources with those that don’t have them (Emma’s visits to the poor of the parish, and Mr Knightley’s gifts to the Bates family), come to the aid of those in trouble (Frank saving Harriet from the gipsies). These obligations bind us together, however much they may seem like burdens.
In fact, both Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are described as ‘belonging to Highbury’ (additionally, Emma again indulges in fantasies of possession with Frank, for “He seemed by this connexion between the families [Woodhouses and Westons], quite to belong to her” (Volume I, Chapter XIV). The possessiveness with which the residents of Highbury regard Frank and Jane hints at the way that we ‘belong’ to one another in communities, although whether this is always such a good thing (the gossips of Highbury appear to be nosy but not malicious, but nevertheless) is not exactly clear. Still, what Emma does highlight is the extent to which we must fulfil our social obligations; the lesson Emma learns through her friendship with Harriet, however, is to learn to judge the extent of those obligations, and not overstep their bounds, as she does when she meddles in her friend’s love life.
But if Emma is a story about our responsibilities as members of a community, it also explores the consequences of failing in those duties. This culminates in Emma’s shame at her treatment of Miss Bates at the picnic: Emma realises that her treatment of Miss Bates has consequences not just for her reputation, her relationship with her friends and family (particularly Mr Knightley), but also for her own sense of right and wrong. She seeks Miss Bates’ forgiveness not just so that she can make amends with Miss Bates and Mr Knightley, but also so that she can make amends with herself. Communities teach us about living with ourselves as much as they teach us about living with other people.
Moreover, the novel hints at those outside of this social order: the presence of the gipsies in the novel, Harriet Smith’s precarious position as an illegitimate child. She may not be entirely outside this community, but her position is by no means a stable one. Living in a community requires compromise, duties, and hard work: being excluded from it can be incredibly difficult, but sometimes the criteria by which ‘outsiders’ are judged can also be unsettlingly arbitrary. Austen’s picture of community life is not always a rosy one, but her comic portrayal of Highbury is also a fascinating exploration of why people choose to rely on and support one another.
Rating: (Although do you really need to ask, at this point? XD) 5 Stars