Reviews of Emma (1815) and related work

Emma (1815Text)

Jane Austen (writer).

Read in 2022.


At one point, a character in this novel of manners asks another, “And Mrs. Perry and the children, how are they? do the children grow?” This is not answered even its subtext of how the children grow. It is too thoroughly disinteresting even for Austen. Children do generally grow, and Austen writes at length, seemingly about little.

The author’s interest lies with a handful of idle adults, rendered credibly and in great detail. Chief among them, the protagonist is a talented “perfect beauty” with the kind of money called a “situation”, and unusually high domestic authority for a woman. The narrative is a fantasy of wish fulfillment with all those advantages, within the constraints of contemporary social norms in the English Regency’s caste system. Emma does have problems, but the big ones are an excess of self-confidence and a lack of introspection so complete that it seems to exist mainly to give the novel its happy end. In that resolution, Emma surrenders to propinquity, marrying her sister’s long-familiar brother-in-law, a man almost twice her age, immediately terminating the narrative.

Only details are amusing. One male character in the novel contrasts the interests of men and women in the following way, with respect to details:

She will give you all the minute particulars, which only woman’s language can make interesting.—In our communications we [two men] deal only in the great.

The detailed prose, skilfully composed but heavy on dialogue and not beautiful, is old enough and so prudish that even the phrase “actually making violent love to her” has nothing to do with violence or sex. Both subjects are taboo. Money is a bigger romantic driver than sex. Emma says at one point, of a trendy local shop:

You were very popular before you came, because you were Mr. Weston’s son—but lay out half a guinea at Ford’s, and your popularity will stand upon your own virtues.

Here she conflates the listener’s actual virtues with his money. She is not self-conscious or ironic about it. She is fully embedded in the caste system, where money is the primary form of social status and social status must be publicly identified with virtue, excepting only the nouveau riche (the Eltons). In another scene, Emma says:

A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.

Here, Emma looks at people in other castes in terms of their utility to her. She can raise her own social status by helping beggars to the level of tenant farmers, thereby displaying her money-virtue. She could also help farmers, but that would not raise her own social status among her peers, because her peers rely on their economic relationship with farmers. Emma’s money, and therefore her apparent virtue, is rent paid by tenant farmers to her father, Mr. Woodhouse, a local landowner. As a parasite upon working people, Emma observes the taboo against equality like she observes the taboos against violence and sex. She “can have nothing to do” with the tenants who keep her fed, clothed and comfortable. She also avoids yeomen, who are just outside her control and threaten her with equality.

This Marxian analysis must have been done ten thousand times by first-year students of literature. It is simple, and more fun than those other “minute particulars” that interested Austen. Many more readers have shut their eyes to it and enjoyed the novel in the way Austen meant for it to be enjoyed, but it is socio-economic disparities—exluded from real discussion in the novel—that indirectly determine its topic.

In another episode, the highly moral Emma shares in her social group’s hatred against a caricatured non-white race, the Romani. Being white and rich, and having no brothers or anyone who’ll marry her off, Emma has transcended the oppression both of such non-whites and of women. The oppression of women is visible in the life of Jane Fairfax, and more subtly in the detail that Emma marries Mr. Knightley because he breaks her inflated self-esteem, a detail that undercuts the feminism of the novel. Being so little victimized herself, the protagonist does not ponder anything important, not even the ill health that affects some of the other characters.

The words “heart” and “hearty” are used 89 times in total, 87 of them in dead metaphors for people’s feelings. These metaphorical hearts sometimes conceal, which is the main source of dramatic tension in the work, but Austen disavows even that drama. The protagonist finds “disguise, equivocation, mystery, so hateful to her to practise”. Perhaps they are too “great”, in the sense of being masculine, because they are dramatic. Austen’s characters tend to conceal for some greater good, but even with that moral excuse, Emma is still a reluctant participant in the 1000-page novel that bears her name.

The meagre plot of Emma, with its sequence of misunderstandings, secrets and faux pas on the way to stable matrimony, is what you have left when the author’s perspective on the world is so narrow that all major relationships, conflicts, events, processes and ideas—all that is “great”—are blocked from view by “minute particulars”. In the size of her microcosm, Austen inadvertently hints at greater things by deliberately excluding them.

References here: The Last Man (1826), The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), “Möwenlied” (1905), Emma (2005).

text fiction

Emma (1996Moving picture, 120 minutes)

Seen in 2014.

I did not anticipate an evil gypsy coward attack, but it’s true to the source material.

moving picture adaptation fiction