Jane Austen, Emma (1815)
Before the meeting:
I’m not much of a rereader, so reading Emma for the second time for the Book Group is a bit of an event. Please indulge me in some autobiographical reflection.
I first read Jane Austen novels, including Emma (but shamefully not Pride and Prejudice), as part of my exhilarating six years at Sydney University – 1967–1972 – when the Englit canon swept me away like a giant rip. Not just Englit: there was also Auslit and Amlit, as well as French, Italian and Latin lit. And movies. And even some visual art.
There was a problematic side to this exhilaration. The notion, which I think came from Thomas Arnold in the 19th century and received a big boost from F R Leavis in the twentieth, was that we should study ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’, but in practice that meant what had been thought and said by white people in Europe, mainly England, and, in some electives, the USA. A lot was said about universal human truths, but that was for values of universal that excluded people of colour, colonised peoples, and settler peoples, among others. Not a terribly satisfactory education by today’s standards.
As a white boy from tropical North Queensland I was enough outside the magic circle of people who were purportedly capable of ‘the best’ that I had it confirmed that my life experience, my actual social and physical environment, was not the kind of thing great art could be made of, that I could see myself in ‘the best’ writing only at several removes, and conversely that any art that did talk about people and places I recognised was ipso facto not among the best. (It was a thrilling exception to see Paul Morel’s miner father disrupt a ladies’ afternoon tea in Sons and Lovers in just the way my cane-farmer father disrupted at least one of my mother’s gatherings, though without my father’s sense of fun.)
Emma was part of that centre-to-periphery invalidation. Mind you, that didn’t stop me from loving it with a passion.
I read differently now. I’m more aware of what I believe is called my positionality as a white, middle-class member of settler society, beneficiary of colonialism. Among other things, I’ve read Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, which includes a chapter on Austen’s Mansfield Park, and does a stunning job of explicating how West Indian slavery figures in that book.
Coming back to Emma now, the main thing I have to say is that I love it again. It’s full of marvellous sentences, often wreathed in irony. There’s a constant sense that Austen is laughing her head off with a straight face, that she loves her characters, especially Emma herself, with an indulgent love, and at the same time has a clear-eyed sense of their failings and limitations.
My Said-influenced antennae were alert for any unobtrusive reference to the big political issues of Austen’s day. But the one explicit reference to politics is a moment when the men are talking about politics so Emma has to find something else to talk about. And as Emma turns away from ‘serious’ talk, so does Austen. Mr Knightley might be describing her when he says of Emma’s friend Harriet:
She will give you all the minute particulars, which only women’s language can make interesting. – In our communications we deal only in the great.
His ‘we’ is, of course, men. But you know, the book does give us the minute particulars of women’s lives, in language that makes them interesting – and in doing so challenges the assumption that women’s concerns are trivial. I confess that in my twenties I almost missed Emma’s big moment, when she insults Miss Bates. Now, that moment carries a huge emotional charge. Austen makes sure we know how irritating Miss Bates is, by giving us pages of her inane nattering, but she also makes us see her dreadful lot in life, unmarried, carer to her aged mother and almost completely dependent on other people’s kindness, yet completely without malice. When Emma, with all her privilege, insults her so rudely, it’s devastating. The other character who highlights the lot of women is Jane Fairfax – and there’s a breathtaking moment when Jane draws an analogy between her having to farm herself out as a governess and that of people who are enslaved: ‘the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect’.
Emma was a revelation to me. On first reading it was part of the Great Tradition, which I as a boy from the canefields was meant to be in awe of (and I was). Now I read it as an assault on the canon of its time: cunningly, ironically, genially (in both sense of the word) it makes a space for what at least some women think and say. And a lot of her barbs still strike home.
After the meeting: We had a vey animated discussion. There were many points of view, many different levels of engagement with the book. One man had done extra reading – A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen – and shared snippets. A number of us had rewatched Clueless – one said he needed it to find his bearings amid the 200-year-old wordiness. Another, actually one of our most astute readers – said he just couldn’t find a way into it – though he said the group’s conversation opened the book up for him. One just couldn’t stand the narrow class content. Another was surprised at how funny he found it, that he laughed out loud a number of times. And so on. We challenged each other, disagreed a little, and had a great time, spending most of the evening on the book.
Unusually, a number of us read out favourite sentences. I had counting on this, which is why I didn’t go hunting for examples in my Before the Meeting section. Here are some that got read out, for my readers’ pleasure.
From Chapter 9, when Emma has an idle moment:
Mr Perry walking hastily by, Mr William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr Cole’s carriage-horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.
From Chapter 7, one of the bits that some read as irritatingly snobbish, others as mocking the snobbery, but I think all agreed to be marvellously deft:
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.
From Chapter 14, something that he who read it to us said he had experienced many times:
Some change of countenance was necessary for each gentleman as they walked into Mrs Weston’s drawing-room; – Mr Elton must compose his joyous looks, and Mr John Knightley disperse his ill-humour. Mr Elton must smile less, and Mr John Knightley more, to fit them for the place.—Emma only might be as nature prompted, and shew herself just as happy as she was.
And this from Chapter 4, a single sentence:
The charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience: the story told well; he had not thrown himself away – he had gained a woman of 10,000 £ or thereabouts; and he had gained her with such delightful rapidity – the first hour of introduction had been so very soon followed by distinguishing notice; the history which he had to give Mrs Cole of the rise and progress of the affair was so glorious – the steps so quick, from the accidental rencontre, to the dinner at Mr Green’s, and the party at Mrs Brown’s – smiles and blushes rising in importance – with consciousness and agitation richly scattered – the lady had been so easily impressed – so sweetly disposed – had in short, to use a most intelligible phrase, been so very ready to have him, that vanity and prudence were equally contented.