Monday, June 06, 2011

Jane Austen's Emma

Last week in an interview,  V.S. Naipaul slammed Jane Austen.  After admitting he considered no women writers his equals, he said of Jane Austen that he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental taste of the world."

And though mannerly Janeites  suggested we should ignore Naipaul, I've never been a mannerly person.  

I was inspired to reread Emma.

I wondered aloud to my husband if Naipaul had READ Jane Austen. It occurred to me that maybe he just PRETENDED.  My husband pretends he read Jane Austen for a course long ago, but he is certainly vague about whether it was P&P or S&S.  

"I wonder if he's read Emma," I said thoughtfully.  "Because if he'd read Emma, he would know Jane's not sentimental."

"Well, I've read Emma," my husband said.

This made me laugh, because I know he hasn't. 

I carry Emma on a bike trip.
I do think Naipaul should read Emma under the tutelage of Diana Athill, his editor, an award-winning writer whom he also trashed in the interview.  

Oh well, I don't care what he reads.

Rereading Emma seemed a proactive response to his very silly words.

Emma is a satiric novel about misunderstandings and misbehaving.  The heroine Emma's hilarious misinterpretations of relationships and manners are at the center of the novel.  But other characters behave badly, too: Frank Churchill, a charming young man who visits his father, Mr. Weston, after living for years with an uncle and sick aunt, has a secret and takes advantage of Emma and the Westons.  After he writes the word "blunder" in a Scrabble-like game to alert another character to a social mistake, Austen repeats the word "blunder"  frequently fast and furiously in regard to other characters, like Mrs. Elton, a vicar's wife and merchant's daughter with (of course) bad manners, who attempts to control the society in Highbury. 

The characters are humorous, if not likable, and this is one of the fastest-paced anti-romances in the English language.  (Okay, there is romance, but it's really about settling down in society.) 

Austen wrote of Emma that she was a heroine "which no one but myself would like."

I love Emma.  And Austen certainly describes her merrily.

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years with very little to distress or vex her."

Thus Austen begins her masterpiece.  

Emma, a brilliant young woman and underachiever, needs a friend after her intelligent, good-natured governess, Miss Taylor, marries Mr. Weston and moves a mile or so away.  Since she has no other equals in the small town of Highbury, she spends time with Harriet, the "natural" daughter of no one knows who at a local boarding school.  Emma means to improve Harriet, but it is so much easier to make love matches than read.  Emma thinks Mr. Elton, the young vicar, should fall in love with Harriet.  

Only Knightly, a 37-year-old bachelor, dares to take on Emma and suggests that she is doing Harriet harm by attempting to yank her above her class and give her unrealistic ideas. 

Yes, there is a lot about class.

And about Jane Fairfax, Emma's equal, who, like Frank Churchill, has been living away from Highbury for some years.  She lived with the Campbells, friends of her late father, and has returned to Highbury to stay with her grandmother and aunt.  

Jane IS Emma's equal.  Yet they don't like each other very much.  Jane is reserved and takes few chances.  Jane can do everything perfectly:  play the piano, sing, etc. 

And though everyone blames Emma for not socializing with Jane Fairfax, Jane does seem dull.

Readers disagree about Jane Fairfax.

I've written too much about plot and not at all about the style, but of course it has been written about by so many others and I also blogged about it in 2009 (here).  I read this again and again because Austen's writing is perfect.  Austen is more Emmaish than Jane Fairfaxish, sharp, witty, and merciless, but she also has perfect morals. 


Ellen said...

You know what I wanted to say: so what if she is sentimental. It's better to be sentimental than old-hearted, dense, obtuse, mean, selfish, any one of thousand traits. We react against the word because it's code for feminine and no one wants to be that.

In fact many women are hard as nails.

I've never finished anything by Naipaul I've ever started.


Frisbee said...

You're right: why should "sentimental" be a bad word? And yet he meant it as portraying a negative, false emotion. I was thinking today about how little emotion there is in John Sayles's new book, which is very good, but has a distinctly male point of view.

I love JA, and, like you, am not interested in Naipaul.

rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Emma by Jane Austen. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.

Frisbee said...

Hope you enjoy it!