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.
Posted by Frisbee at 8:27 PM