Once upon a time in a little English town, Jane Austen wrote a story about being lonely, never finding the perfect gentleman and how difficult it can be to swallow one’s pride and admit when one has made mistakes. She wrote about falling in love. If you are an avid lover of Jane Austen’s precise prose then you know that this story is universal. Since her story was first published in 1815 many young ladies have endured in her shadow, crafting their own stories of loss and love. I would hate to admit that Mills and Boon and Dame Barbara Cartland fall into this category, but there you go.
Ms Austen set her story in Regency England. She created Emma Woodhouse, a young, beautiful and privileged woman living on the fictionalised estate of Hartfield somewhere in Surrey in the village of Highbury. Her future paramour, George Knightley, lives on the large estate of Donwell close to her home. Mr Knightley, at the turn of the nineteenth century, exemplifies the modern, male lover, madly in love with Miss Emma, but never afraid to criticise her inept endeavours at matchmaking. Well, at least she had a passion for something and was not afraid to restrict herself as a woman in accordance with the times. Certainly, her father, a reclusive hypochondriac, is in no position to detain her.
Ms Austen follows the lead of the bard by creating a comedy of errors. What drew me closer to her protagonist was the vulnerable state of her heart, something which she stubbornly never admits to. Only Mr Knightley can rescue her from such a state. And thankfully Miss Emma Woodhouse never knows this until the novel’s closing pages. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a story, no? Emma is confidently described as a modern romance some one hundred years after the first book was bound. She certainly has the traits of a modern woman, because she is utterly bored in her role as lady of Hartfield Estate.
Famously, Jane Austen said;
“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”
Well, she was being modest, wasn’t she? While Emma irritated the innoble male reader from time to time, he grew to like her after all. He could relate to her fears of intimacy in a confined environment. He understood her desire to keep busy with schemes such as match-making to divert attention from the true state of her heart. Unlike her subjects, his attraction is not entirely related to the heart. Perhaps it was money? He learns from Ms Austen that Emma is;
“Handsome, clever and rich. A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.”
Well, at least she can do as she wishes, but I am no fan of aristocracies and wasn’t at all impressed with the way she kept herself aloof from the locals. Shame, poor lonely little rich girl. On the grounds of Highbury she only has Mr and Miss Bates and Mrs Goddard for company. At least she could lose herself in the lush grounds, thinking of her past, present and future. Her father, Mr Woodhouse, dare I say, is a right old pain in the arse, always nervous and depressed. The fact that he’s old is no excuse. After all, he’s loaded. Or is he? At least he enjoyed his daily walks.
Now, if you thought Emma was a snob, well, you hadn’t met Mrs Wilson yet. But, at least she had noticed that Mr Woodhouse’s moaning and groaning habits were hindering his poor daughter. And the weather, typical English weather you might say, was always gloomy. Here, Ms Austen has, however, created a marvellous metaphor for Emma’s own melancholia. I suspected at one point that the poor girl may even be lesbian, not that there’s anything the matter with it. But we learn that she merely has a homophillic affection for young Miss Harriet Smith. At one point I thought that Emma was smothering the poor child with her superior intellect and high morals, but it was nothing of the sort. I could also relate to Emma’s lack of self-esteem.
During the early twentieth century, the literary critic, Marvin Mudrick, has the audacity to say this about our beloved Emma Woodhouse; that she was an “unlikeable heroine and latent lesbian, incapable of committing herself in normal relationships.” I understand what he was trying to say, but how cruel, because then the literary pratt goes on to say that Emma is an “imaginist, moved to play God without tenderness or caution, making the worst of every situation, imagining evil where there is good and good where there is nothing but an extension of self. Emma, wanting in altruism and sympathy, must have admirers to confirm her position.” What a pretentious toff!
Perhaps Mudrick heard us. He concludes his analogy of Emma’s character;
“We sympathise with Emma because she must fall in love, and we know that she will.”
But then Richard Simpson had this to say about our heroine; she is a “young lady full of preconceived ideas not borrowed from the traditional romance of poets and novelists which are the product of our own reflections upon our mental powers”.
In the end, I may be as forthright as Mudrick and Emma’s future lover and hero, Knightley who did not mince his words when remarking on her;
“She is spoilt, the cleverest in her family, quick, assured and the mistress of her house. In her mother she has lost the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her.”
Knightley, who knew Emma’s family intimately, understands Emma’s behaviour which may explain her fear of commitment and her father’s self-centred opposition to marriage. But only in anguish does she support the high sacrament of marriage as she earnestly goes about her business of setting one with the other. While she shuns marriage for herself, she subconsciously yearns to be married, no different from genteel young women of her society with similar aspirations. So, she is not entirely a true libertarian, or latent feminist then.
If you must know, Mr Knightly is the oldest and wisest of Jane Austen’s male mentors. He is serious, strong and even good looking. He speaks with authority and is actually extremely kind. Gosh, could I not be like him. He is a credible and likeable character. He has a sense of humour and is also vulnerable. Another English literary critic, Wayne Booth, describes Knightley as the most morally reliable character in the whole (bloody) novel! That’s saying a lot for the rest of the cast. But, Mr Knightley does bring about Emma’s redemption and rescues her from loneliness within a confining and unstimulating environment. He has the most concern for her welfare;
“I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good. But there is nobody hereabouts to attach her; and she goes so seldom from home.”
Intellectually superior to the characters of Highbury, towering above all and sundry, he is not repressed and restricted as Emma is. He is acutely more observant. Knightly encourages forgiveness of Emma’s mistakes. He brings two lovers, Harriet Smith and the farmer, Robert Martin, together.
“In her carriage with the depressed and silent Harriet Smith Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.”
“Emma is confirmed and checked. Her turning point is reached. She is consciously carried some way toward self-knowledge.” She is redeemed. Hooray! Emma is in love. Lionel Trilling advised that sentimental sexuality is not part of her nature. She chooses her husband wisely, seriously and eagerly. A modern woman indeed. It is dancing that romantically brings Emma and Knightley together. Well, somethings don’t always change, although how do men and woman hitch up these days? Perhaps it is a peculiar coincidence, but I met all three of my last mates on the dance floor. And I can’t dance to save my own life!
Emma remains in love as she ponders Knightley’s proposal of marriage. On a first name basis, their union is sealed. R Simpson observes; “The platonic ideal is realised, not merely through heart, but through intelligence.” Complex in personality and nature, heralded above her peers, Emma willingly acknowledges her errors and graciously opens her heart to Knightley. The dreamed of union with a true, genteel country gentleman is formed. Knightley is above everyone throughout the novel, and Emma’s openness towards him brings his love for her to fruition.
Emma rises above her station and Knightley matches her in conversation, rational or playful. Her circumstances justify her unruly behaviour and she is deserving of her hero. She is deserving of her own status as a heroine. Only Jane Austin could have pulled off such a masterful transformation. We, as readers, are encouraged to revel in her complex creation, even though it is yet another caricature of her own self.
In the truest sense Jane Austen masterfully transforms her anti-heroine into a heroine, encouraging the reader to revel in her complex creation, yet another caricature of her own self. A past lecturer of mine, Michael Williams, asked us to take note of Austen’s version of the flexible medium. But, I don’t think I was alone in this, I was always drawn to Miss Woodhouse and Mr Knightley’s feelings, particularly for each other. Some years before I first read through a full anthology of Jane Austen’s novels, beginning that journey with Pride and Prejudice, I had a favourite song in mind. When I completed my first reading of Emma, George Harrison’s song, although entirely unrelated, reminded me of Emma Woodhouse.
As I closed the book, I rejoiced at this true meeting of minds. In heart, body and soul.