Jane Austen

by O.W. Firkins

Chapter V: Emma

The claim of Emma to the second place among Miss Austen's novels seems to me as incontestable as its failure to compete with Pride and Prejudice for the honor of the first. Emma, the novel, has a quality of its own, a good-natured, placid, slightly, dispersed and unoccupied quality, which is pleasantly reflected in the character of its heroine. The atmosphere is sunny; the people are in the main healthy, prosperous, and cheerful; nobody, with the doubtful exception of the two Knightleys, has much to do; and the story resigns itself with the other inhabitanta of Highbury to that poverty of incident and defect of bustle which is the price paid by small villagers for security and comfort.

The main bid for heart-throbs lies in a secret engagement, and though Miss Austen does her best to uphold its solemnity by speaking of it in the tone appropriate to a defalcation or a burglary, the reader declines to excite himself. Indeed, the opportunity to excite himself is not offered until three-fourths of the narrative is complete, for this is the point at which he is apprised of the occurrence. Meanwhile, he has contented himself with such amusement as he could pick up by the way. Of what does this Illnusement consist? There is a semblance of a love-affair between Frank Churchill and Emma Woodhouse, but as the affair is pure imagination on the woman's part and pure simulation on the man's, and as both parties are warmly agreed on the expediency of its prompt consignment to the dustheap, its contribution to the life of the story is not great.

What more does the narrative offer? There is a young girl who is induced by a benevolent but shortsighted patroness to transfer her affections from a young farmer, who is her social equal and mental superior, to a young clergyman who airs his want of sense in a politer circle. The young clergyman proving ungrateful, nourishing indeed a most unseasonable passion for the patroness, the heart of the young girl is transferred, this time by its own volition, to a county landowner. The landowner remaining obdurately unconscious, the heart, which has been passed around like a photograph in a drawing-room, is returned with the strictest probity to its original possessor, the young farmer. This kind of chain-work will obviously awaken no great suspense, especially when we allow for the fact that the young girl is subsidiary and insignificant. The young clergyman, having been refused by the patroness, proceeds with vindictive celerity to court and marry another woman. This second woman's contribution to the plot is minute; it consists in securing a place as governess for Jane Fairfax (the woman who is secretly engaged), which the said Jane, accepting one evening in an access of despair, cancels a few days later in a reflux of happiness. The clergyman's wife, irrelevant to the plot, is nevertheless invaluable to Jane Austen. The moment of her entrance is critical for the story. The first interest, that of the young clergyman's love affairs, is definitively ended; the secret engagement which is to vivify the close is undiscerned as yet by any except the Dupins among the readers; something is clearly needed to keep the public from dozing. Now this clergyman's wife is a woman with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes (I speak partly in metaphor), and with the jingle of these trinkets she is deputed to amuse the reader in the slumber or susspension of the other interests. The expedient is not artful; but in the act of drowning one clutches at Mrs. Eltons as at other straws.

Meanwhile, a love-affair of a calm, slow, and uneventful type, disguising itself as a friendship when it is not masquerading as a feud, has established itself between the heroine and the landowner, and mutual avowals close the book. The novel as a whole is a curious medley in which there is a great deal of what passes for heart interest, handled with scant suspense and broken continuity. The reader is often constrained to wonder where the story is. He thinks of a picnic in which desultory groups of persons dispose themselves at random, or pursue nominal objects with devious strolls and pointless arrangements. The simile is instructive and yet unfair, because in work so clean-cut as Miss Austen's, observation becomes an end in itself, and the addition of fact to fact is significant irrespective of its bearing on an issue. The story does not loaf even when it lingers; leafing implies languor of movement as well sis uncertainty of route, and Miss Austen's gait is never shufffing; even her route is rather various and devious than unsure.

It may be thought that Emma's blunders should supply a unifying principle for the book. But Emma's blunders are an odd lot; they are of all sorts and all sixes; they are sometimes rather undefined, and the degree of their harmfulness is sometimes difficult to measure. They have nothing like the symmetry and ordered neatness (nor, let us hasten to add, anything like the arrant artifice) of the blunders of Lélie in Molière's Etourdi or of Sir Martin Marall in Dryden's imitation of that comedy. Emma's capital error is her first--the fostering of Harriet's passion for Mr. Elton. By that step, if I may paraphrase the language of Macaulay on Marlborough's treachery, she put herself under the disadvantage which attends every great artist from the moment he has achieved a masterpiece; and, unlike Marlborough, Emma fails to cope successfully with this disadvantage. Her second blunder in the same kind is far less flagrant, and the recuperative powers of Harriet's heart do not strengthen our sense of the wickedness of Emma. With one exception, her other follies amount to little. Her flirtation with Frank Churchill is hardly more than an excusable imprudence, and her levities at Box Hill are a relatively innocent part of a complex general situation of which a rupture of the engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is the momentary outcome. On the other hand, her really unpardonable conduct in the Dixon matter is productive of no evil beyohd a passing embarrassment. It is quite true that Emma's experience is no more unequal or unsorted than the normal course of life, but life is not a novel and the entertainment of spectators is not the object of its march.

It is regrettable that the mistake of Elinor Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings as to the identity of the person of whom they talk is repeated with equal extravagance and rather less excuse in the conversation of Harriet and Emma in the fortieth chapter.

Emma Woodhouse is a finely drawn character. She is not lovable, she is not winning; but she is vastly likable. She is one of those persons whose vicinity is wholesome; her presence is more exciting than her conversation, which seems merely episodic to her presence. She does nothing but blunder, and the effect of this succession of blunders is the instilment of an unshakable trust. The truth is that Emma's consciousness at this stage of her life is the antipodes of her temperament; what she thinks and feels belies what she is. Her thinking and feeling is for the most part frivolous and silly; but the essential things in her are bottom and poise. She has that firm-based British nature, that rounded--I am almost moved to say that mounded--temperament which shows itself in such diverse forms and to such varied purpose in Scott's Jeanie Deans, in Hardy's Tess Durbeyfield, and in George Eliot's Mary Garth.

She is handsome, clever, and rich, and she suffers from the malaise of having nothing to do. She has too many servants to permit her to work, and too few dependents to exercise her charity. The care of an invalid father to whom she is devoted furnishes her with just that degree of occupation which makes the absence of voluntary tasks forgivable. She has no religion to speak of, no zeal in the pursuit of study, no serious intellectual interest. The social activity in the populous village of Highbury is meagre and casual. She has indefinite leisure and an untilled mind. A mind capable of seriousness, but not capable of finding its own occasions for seriousness, has drifted into levity through defect of schooling and excess of freedom. Only a fraction of her nature is in play; she is the owner of a chateau who lives in a marquee.

Emma's love for Mr. Knightley is the natural and salutary demand of her tentative nature for certainty and authority. She has no explicit principles; it has never occurred to her that a person of such admirable dispositions as herself could stand in need of principles. One doesn't muzzle a lamb. Unfortunately, the most admirable of dispositions, if unsecured by principles, are in themselves no security against acts the most contrary to their own tendencies. The good-natured and generous Emma confides to Frank Churchill her meddlesome and illbred conjectures on the relations of Jane Fairfax to Mr. Dixon. Conduct of this kind is a trial--not to say an ordeal--for the sympathetic reader, but our kindness for Emma has something of the stability and amplitude of Emma herself. I use amplitude here in a moral sense, though there is a quality including both mind and person, which tempts me to use, and yet will not quite permit me to use, the adjective buxom.

Mr. Woodhouse is drawn with hardly less ability though with less subtlety, than his daughter. The solicitudes of Mr. Woodhouse are undoubtedly caricatured--Miss Austen loves truth, but not truth at a vast expense of pungency--yet that is not tantamount to saying that Mr. Woodhouse himself is a caricature. There is much in him besides the self-coddler. He is grateful and affectionate and hospitable and courteous, and his anxieties are so widened by his altruism as to include the whole body of his deplorably reckless acquaintance. Mr. Woodhouse is the mildest of men, yet being a member of the Austen world, he is precise in his mildness. If in his softness and tremors he is jelly, he is jelly in a mold. The association of ceremony with flutter was an original thought, whether the originality was nature's or Jane Austen's. Nothing in Jane's work is more endearing than the deference that is paid on all hands to a type that is normally unlucky both in its companions and its painters. Mr. Woodhouse is an egotist and fool, an exacting and trying fool, yet he is the object of unrelaxing tenderness and esteem from people who, like the Knightleys, are possessed of every excuse for impatience which health of unfeeling robustness and the curtest of tempers can bestow.

The Westons will hardly detain us. Mr. Weston, while personally a little tedious, is highly interesting as a bit of craftsmanship. He is the best of men, with all the favorable indications and all the dubious implications of that amiably insidious phrase. To be specific, he is just, kind, cheerful, friendly, talkative, a little lavish in his talk, a little indiscriminate in his cheer and comity. A comic dramatist would have left the virtues unclouded, or would have given the foibles a free hand. But Miss Austen makes a mere abatement, a qualification, both a source of difference and guarantee of reality. The picture is instinct with that rare equity which in Miss Austen was the incongrous associate of so reckless and dashing a onesidedness. Her temper in the portayal is as perfect as her art; it is almost as hard to despise men a little with Miss Austen as to despise them tenderly with Anatole France.

Mrs. Weston, in whom all the virtues are neatly packed and plainly labelled, has only one drawback; she has always the air of a person who comes to us superlatively recommended. We feel that she is earning our indorsement; at the end of her stay we shall be powerless to refuse her a "character". We respect her for bearing a child; that is an act of refreshing solidity in a world in which the people are mostly idle observers of each other's idleness.

Mr. Knightley, Emma's dictatorial lover, is the kind of material which anybody who can draw chaacter at all can draw admirably. Incisiveness requires less art, or will make the same allowance of art go farther, than almost any other trait. Being the least expensive of material, it is also the most lucrative; the returns on the investment are very large in the Hotspur of Shakespeare, the Anthony Absolute of Sheridan, the Jaggers of Dickens, and the Lady Rockminster of Thackeray. Mr. Knightley is a middle-aged English landowner of redoubtable probity, great executive force, adamantine opinions, and a candor by which others profit and suffer. His speech has the velocity, regularity, and energy of a force-pump, yet manages to keep its human property for all that. He is almost cruel in his rebuke of cruelty; one feels that he is the sort of master who would damn a servant for a lapse into profanity. I cannot but feel that this world must be far better and far better-natured than it now is before a mere flick of satire at another person's obvious and obtrusive folly can deserve the avalanche of reprobation which Emma receives for her treatment of Miss Bates. Nothing is more curious, nothing is more revelatory of Miss Austen's self-inclosed and consequential world, than the subjects which occupy the mind of this thoughtful, powerful, and unimaginative man of affairs. They include snubs to old spinsters by thoughtless young women, but they mainly deal with love. His interest in the marriage of a young farmer with a village girl engrosses him to the point of quarrelling with the woman he loves in its behalf. It is the oddest of worlds in which a novelist, assuming the part of Omphale, can find no apter instrument for Hercules than the distaff.

Mr. John Knightley is the brother of the elder Knightley and the husband of Emma's sister. I spoke just now of Miss Austen's delicate fairness to the demonstrative and genial Mr. Weston. Mr. John Knightley is a fairly good illustration of the opposite habit--the habit of making a single trait the sum and substance of the portrayal to the exclusion or unfair subordination of more vital elements in the character. Mr. John Knightley is in most ways a very good man, but Miss Austen has no time to waste on such kickshaws as virtues. Mr. John Knightley is the possessor of an invaluable little temper of which a thrifty novelist must make the most. The point in visiting a geyser is always to arrive at or near the moment of eruption. That is exactly the point in the portrayal of Mr. John Knightley. His ill-temper is crisp enough, though in view of the smallness of its occasions and the entire innocence in many cases of the human receptacle into which its acerbities are poured, it might pass for mere peevishness, but for its assumption of logical form and its origin in a masculine chest. It is not merely in literature that the recourse to the big bow-wow strain is of service to the arrogant male.

Mr. Frank Churchill is Mr. Weston's handsome and aristocratic son. He enters the story at a advanced point--to be precise sit the one and fifty-first page in an edition of three and ninety-five pages; but in the interest which preludes and the sensation which accompanies this belated entrance he is comparable only to Chad in Mr. James's Ambassadors. Like Chad again, he is a little disappointing and not perfectly elucidated. To adopt the language of Elizabethan stage directions, after the opening flourish there are scattered alarms and excursions, which are clearly mere episodes and offshoots of some larger conflict off-stage, the purport and progress of which are inscrutable from our post of observation.

Mr. Churchill is a spasmodic young person, prolific in arrivals and departures, and with feelings almost as agile as his person. There are, roughly speaking, three stages in the portrayal: the splendor of his advent, the disillusion, and the partial rehabilitation. Miss Austen has hardly time enough for thoroughness in the report of all three processes, and the second in particular is hurried and muleted. Frank Churchill is variable; he is light; he can be momentarily unfeeling. So much we know, and we are by no means completely reassured by the condescensions and sumptuosities of his almost too bountiful repentance. We are not clear as to the extent to which we should commiserate or congratulate Jane Fairfax. In one point it seems to me that Miss Austen has committed an artistic error. After setting Frank Churchill on his feet, she is seised with a qualm of candor or a jet of spite, and gives us a last glimpse of the young man (in the final conversation with Emma at Mrs. Weston's) for no apparent purpose but that of convincing us that he is a mawkish fribble. This comes too late. I have enough of the New England housewife in me to be horrified at the spectacle of muddy foot-tracks on a floor that has been newly mopped.

I confess that I quite agree with Emma in her dislike of Jane Fairfax. I grant that her character is exemplary, but example may be quite as irksome as precept. The irreproachableness of Jane Fairfax is a reproach to all the onlookers. There are two main points about Jane, her reserve and her pathos. The one should command respect, and the other should engage sympathy. Neither fulfils its office. There is no disguise like the appearance of openness, and nothing invites curiosity like the appearance of reserve. Jane Fairfax's bearing has the indiscretion and the impropriety of a whisper in company. As for her sufferings, there are people who have a talent for endurance which is little short of an entreaty to destiny to unload its carload of misfortunes at their door. These comments are of course rather trivial but a reader's disposition to trifle is a matter of weight for the novelist and critic. I doubt if Jane Austen liked Jane Fairfax; at the close of the book Emma and Emma's creator seem to be doing penance together.

Miss Bates, like Mr. Woodhouse, is a humor in the old-fashioned sense. But, like Mr. Woodhouse she is much more than a caricature, though the picture is extreme, if not burlesque, in one of its phases. The elephant's nose is greatly elongated, but the general size of the animal is a justification of the magnitude of his proboscis. Miss Bates has character enough to bear up her peculiarity. There is something snug and buxom in this spinster, the like of which is not easily to be found in the novels of Miss Austen. We feel that she would get on with us. Mrs. Nubbles and Mrs. Lupin and Polly Richards and other worthies of a circle with which most of Jane's characters would be at a loss to fraternize. Her hand, if touched, would be warm--pudgy, if you insist, but warm; and there is hardly another specimen of the handiwork of her creator of whom the same thing could be securely said. She has an artless faith in the good-will of her fellow-creatures which illumines and adorns the world. Everybody is glad to survey that embellishment of himself which faces him in the trustful geniality of that simple mind, and the reader on whom she has never looked is indirectly flattered by the admiration she bestows on his inferiors.

The peculiarity which makes her the dread and wonder of her neighbors is her speech. Miss Bates is the rambling monologist, but she differs from her tribe in several interesting particulars. The Austen trade-mark is visible in the precision of her trim--her ahmost formal--volubility, The speech of her class tends to coagulate, to become a paste--a trait clearly observable in the much less cohesive, but much more glutinous, monologues of Mrs. Nickleby. Miss Bates always keeps her thread even when she lets it dangle, and the difference between her and the scatter-brained monologist is the difference between excursion and wandering. In the nineteenth chapter Miss Austen has some important circumstances to impart to the reader. She does not hesitate to intrust the conveyance of these facts to the progressive if dilatory conversation of Miss Bates. In the ballroom scene the speeches are sharply punctuated, cut into blocks with an evident concern for style underlying all the superficial inadvertence. In this respect they resemble the more obviously fabricated monologues of Blanche Evers--later Blanche Wright-in Mr. James's barely remembered Confidence.

Mrs. Elton's character has been warmly praised. In those interesting Opinions of Emma cited in the Life and Letters of Jane Austen, four persons are particular in their admiration of Mrs. Elton. A Miss Sharp, who has sense enough to dislike Jane Faifax, thinks Mrs. Elton beyond praise, and there is a Henry Sanford who thinks "Mrs. Elton the best-drawn character in the book." Here, again, I think of Scott's apt judgment, applied with such doubtful aptness to Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates--that the unpleasantness of a reality may overcharge the portrait. Mrs. Elton is clear, but disagreeable, and we, not having been inured to the regimen of Dotheboys Hall, grow tired of that particular mixture of brimstone and treacle, in other words of malice and smirking, which is served up to us without stint in her lavish conversation. The case would be less irksome if she had any real business in the story. But, as I have already observed, her offce is merely that of a screen or stop-gap, and her impertinence is emphasized by her inutility.

Again, Mrs. Elton is more foolish than comic, or, at all events, she does not amuse in the degree in wbich she repels. She has not quite the amount or kind of folly which contents a reader by the establishment of his own superiority. To insure that result, Mrs. Elton should be humbled. Nothing of the sort occurs; Mrs. Elton is secretly abominated, but, openly, she is tolerated and deferred to by everybody on the premises. Mr. Knightley is taciturn; Emma is acquiescent; Jane Fairfax is submissive; Miss Bates is idolatrous. The form of portrayal does not show Miss Austen at her very best. In Mrs. Elton's conversation, self-betrayal is abnormally, even incredibly, continuous; indeed, it goes on long after there is nothing left to betray. It is only fair to repeat after this train of objections that the character is drawn with much skill. Mrs. Elton is real to us, at least while she is in our company. In the memory I find that she undergoes a sort of disembodiment or dissolution to which Mr. Woodhouse, Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Miss Bates are by no means subject.

I find Mr. Elton a more satisfying figure--I would not say a cleverer piece of drawing--than his wife. In Mrs. Elton, the coloring is garish; in the husband the artist's own design has obliged her to stay her hand. Mr. Elton is Emma's choice for Harriet, and Emma is Harriet's sincere, if very condescending, friend. A bound must be set to his meanness. His profession clearly sets no bound to it in the eyes of the creator of the Reverend Mr. Collins. Mr. Elton's calling, like Mr. Collins's, appears to be removable like his surplice and with his surplice. He is not merely not religious; he is not even clerical. He is a handsome young fellow in whom the sentimental and the mercenary blend as amicably as politeness and rapacity in the behavior of a keeper. He is full of arch and winning ways, trappings and furbelows of manner, the forms of an effusiveness that is partly nature, partly convention, and partly strategy. In several of the early chapters through which Mr. Elton waltzes so briskly, his character no less than his attitude toward Harriet is left in a state of cunning ambiguity. "There are cats" said Violet Effingham to Phineas Firm, "who play with their mice and do not eat them, cats who eat their mice and do not play with them, and cats who play with their mice and eat them." Miss Austen may be trusted to eat her mouse in the Elton case, but she is feline in her willingness to postpone her meal to her sport. Mr. Elton, disappointed in Emma, retaliates by marrying fashion and folly in the person of Augusta Hawkins, and spends the rest of his time more quietly in the wake of his wife's train and the lee of her vocabulary. The insult to Harriet in the ball-room scene has the effect of a sudden descent of Miss Austen's fist at a moment when we expected nothing more than the play of the finger-tips.

In Harriet Smith, Miss Austen faces a difficulty. She draws character as it were in straight lines, and if there is anything willowy or sinuous in the contours of her subject, the need of adjustment is obvious. The need is especially insistent in a young girl like Harriet Smith. The problem is by no means hopeless. Trollope, with a similar though slighter propensity to the rectilinear, succeeded in drawing young girls of an ideal charm and an adequate suppleness. Miss Austen asks less of Harriet, but her success in getting what she asks is considerable. Miss Smith is a light-haired and blue-eyed young thing whom an accident of birth has placed in the neutral region between two social classes, without assured footing or firm poise in either. An American girl in Harriet's place would have more spring and lissomeness. Her mind might be stored to as little purpose as that of Harriet, but at worst it would be more littered; it would not have that effect of bare walls and whitewash which belongs to those unfurnished lodgings otherwise known as the mind of Harriet Smith. One might almost complete the figure by imagining a sign "To Let" suspended in the curtainless window of Harriet's mind or heart.

A character like Harriet's needs the embellishment of simplicity, and in the formal Austen world simplicity is hard to come by. Harriet uses the buskined diction of her associates; she affects judgement and discretion in conformity to the manners of a time when the semblance of judgment and discretion was mandatory even upon flighty little girls. But in spite of this dowager's harness which fashion has obliged her to put on, she remains a young girl, and Miss Austen, who has drawn her in a magnanimous mood, is scrupulously and studiously just to her good qualities. She bears her disappointmetns with unresentful patience, and omniscience in the person of Mr. Knightley is compelled in the course of time to retract a large part of its overbearing strictures. Harriet Smith is not vulgar; she is not flimsy; she is not missish. She is girlish, girlish--that is the worst that can be said. Miss Austen's power to combine attack and defense in the same portrayal is worthy of all praise. Nothing can be better than the manner in which Harriet's fluttered deference and bashful vanity are conveyed. She has less firmness perhaps than any other of Miss Austen's characters, who, take them as a class, are a tenacious and resolute set. But if the woman lacks individuality, the same cannot be said of the portrait. An artist of Miss Austen's power can impart individuality to the drawing by the which deny it to the sitter.

The value of the characterisation in Emma is great, and the novel is more individual, more in a class by itself, than any of the other books but Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, however, the individuality is that of the author; in Emma it is that of the village. The communal effect, while not explicitly sought, is strongly imparted. This explains, almost justifies, the negation of plot; we feel that plots, like circuses, would skip Highbury. We feel that the stories of such a region would copy the deliberation of its brooks, and that tbe intervals between events might be patterned on the spaces between houses. We are in a world with broad margins, a world in which everybody's dole of space and time is larger than in the compact and bustling metropolis. There is a reserved and leisurely but persevering social life, loose but secure ties, malice enough to temper the dulness, and good-will enough to temper the malice, a placidity which is patient of the usual, happily blent with a curiosity to which the mildest forms of the unusual are exciting. Is a society of this kind vacuous? Its neighborship to the earth and the processes by which earth is tilled and man is fed prevent it from becoming that. Bovine in a sense the life of "Emma" is, but "bovine" is a word Of various suggestiveness, and included creatures in the early Greek mythology who were thought worthy of Apollo's mastership and of the forays of the youthful Hermes. We are not surprised that a book to which such an epithet should be even loosely applicable should be the healthiest and sunniest of Miss Austen's works.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.