Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Three quarters of the way through Emma, I wonder if four Austen novels in two months is not too much of a good thing. I have developed a slight case of Austen-itis. I have been putting aside the novel to dip into Ruth Suckow’s The Bonney Family (a regional novel which has been compared to Little Women). Would I stray from this classic if it didn’t disappoint me? Emma, previously my favorite satire, has for the first time failed to enthrall me.

Since I last read Emma, I’ve become aware that many readers are annoyed by her. I feel a bit defensive. I'm looking for clues as to the cause of irritation. As a young woman I identified with Emma, having been handsome and clever (though not quite rich). Knightley was my ideal, and Emma, though a bit wild in her schemes, certainly matured and corrected her mistakes.

Margaret Drabble begins her introduction to the Signet edition by saying she dislikes Emma. (Drabble is one of my favorite writers, but what a first sentence.) So I turn to the Penguin introduction by Ronald Blythe: “Emma is the climax of Jane Austen’s genius and the Parthenon of fiction.”

That's more like it.

I’m not one of those readers who have illusions of superior moral standards. Like Emma, I’ve talked behind people’s backs, misunderstood people, and overcome social faux pas. Like Emma, I made some crashing mistakes and learned I couldn't control people. I enjoy her wit, high spirits, honesty, snobbish asides, lazy brilliance, and disastrous match-making. I’m amused by her willful misinterpretation of everyone and everything, her fantasy that Mr. Elton will marry Harriet, her imitation of Miss Bates, and her irrational dislike of the brilliant Jane Fairfax (who is a dull conversationalist; I sympathize with Emma’s boredom).

The comedy is brilliant. My nerves vibrate with irritation as Mrs. Elton appraises Knightley’s character.

“Knightley is quite the gentleman. I like him very much. Decidedly, I think, a very gentleman-like man.”

And Emma’s reaction as soon as the Eltons leave:

“Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! - never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! - and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being...”

It’s a masterpiece. So, so different from S&S, P&P, and Mansfield Park. Austen had a wide range - much clearer to me after rereading them.

But I can’t do Jane Austen all the time.


Vintage Reading said...

I think the wonderful thing about Austen is that you relate to the novels at many different stages of your life. In my twenties the charms of Mr Knightley were lost on me. Now I think very differently! I think Austen herself said of Emma 'I will take a heroine which nobody but myself will like.' I've always identified closely with Eleanor Dashwood.

That is a striking cover. Love the red and black.

Mad Housewife said...

You're right about the different stages of life. And you're right about Austen's quote (which I'd forgotten). Emma softens during the book and od quite likable by the end, but some of her behavior is very cruel (to Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates. (Frank Churchill spurs her on.)

Ellen said...

Yes but. I've no disagreement with your comments on Emma herself (though do read someday read the essay by Avrom Fleischman where tongue-in-cheek, but only half-ironically he reads the book as about a egoistic neurotic), but the last couple of times I've read Emma I feel it goes on too long. I feel she is being rewarded when she shouldn't. I know we are in her mind and she hasn't changed, but unless she's lying (and that would be cheating) I don't believe how Jane Fairfax is suddenly all loving kindness and openness. In reality such a young woman would be rightly bitter. At last Harriet backs off, having been as she sees used and then dropped.

I feel there's a softness in the long ending, an eliding and not looking hard enough as there was for about 2/3s of the book.

I'm not getting to the other Austen books. I almost wish I could fail at my book quicker so I could spend my days reading more.

One way or another I will do eventually.



Emma used to be my favorite novel. I do prefer Mansfield Park now (heresy).

"An egoistic neurotic." That's one way of looking at it. I'm kinder than Avrom Fleischman. I look on her as spreading her wings and trying to replace Mrs. Weston. An Emma without Mrs. Weston simply goes wild. Fortunately, she learns from her mistakes.

It's very different from Austen's other novels.

And you're right about Jane Fairfax. She becomes so open so suddenly that it's devastating to all of us. And then for the Westons not to think it an ideal match! Good lord - that's ironic.