Tuesday, 25 May 2010

THOUGHTS ON EMMA - THIS MONTH'S HEROINE

4 days to go. Next Saturday afternoon , I will be discussing Emma at the reading club. The more I read it, the more I like it. I know most readers prefer Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but I also know  many critics generally regard Emma as Austen's most carefully crafted or skillfully written novel. So I do not feel lonely in my sympathy for Miss Woodhouse and her  story, though I'm not a scholar or  a critic.
Austen herself acknowledged that Emma might present a problem for readers, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." And much about Emma is indeed unlikable; she is snobbish, vain, manipulative, power-hungry, self-deluded, often indifferent to the feelings of others, and on at least one occasion terribly cruel ( at Box Hill , to Miss Bates).


But do these traits necessarily make her unlikable? Do her admirable traits redeem her, such as her love for her father, her wit,  her sense of social responsibility, and her gradual admission of error? Maybe. But, honestly, what I really love in her is the fact that she has flaws. She is really imperfect, so human.


Does the comedy of watching Emma the Egoist get her comeuppance through a series of errors and admit she deserved her comeuppance make her likable? Although Emma knows what the right thing to do is, she still behaves badly; does this all too common human trait make her sympathetic because readers can identify with her?
I can't identify with Emma, though I can sympathize with her,  but being more an Elinore or an Ann Elliot, I actually admire Emma , Marianne or Elizabeth Bennet. I even envy them!


The attitude of the narrator is another consideration in evaluating Emma. Though most of the novel presents Emma's point of view, an omniscient narrator tells the story. Do the narrator's choice of language, her tone, the details she adds, and her comments upon both Emma and the action affect the way we feel about Emma? The narrator clearly presents Emma's faults and her misguided behavior and unsparingly identifies them as such, but does the narrator also suggest a sympathy or even an affection for Emma that helps to moderate the reader's negative response to her? Or is even the narrator's attitude unable to overcome the negative effect of her faults and irresponsible behavior?
Clever  question... but I can't feel any hostility in the narrating voice, I do not think she is leading readers to dislike Emma. I'm sure the narrator likes Emma a lot when she smiles ( mind you, smiles not laughs) at her defects:

"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 in the world with very
little to distress or vex her.
She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister's marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection .
( ... ) The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.
Sorrow came--a gentle sorrow--but not at all in the shape of any disagreeable consciousness.--Miss Taylor married." (... )

Another question I would like to raise about the reader's response to Emma is this: even if Emma is unlikable or unsympathetic ( which I do not think) , is the novel automatically unlikable or flawed?
I find this novel so entertaining for many a good reason: The Eltons, Mr Woodhouse, Miss Bates, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Emma & Harriet's relationship... It is  pure fun!


Which of the other Austen heroines most shares with Emma?
Though I find her quite peculiar and unique in a brief overview of  fiction heroines, I think she shares much with Catherine Morland. Catherine doesn't have Emma's social background (Miss Woodhouse is  the wealthiest among Austen female protagonists, isn't she?) , not her intelligence nor beauty, the first is younger than the latter, but they have the same approach to reality. In which sense? They very often tend to  misinterpret reality or misjudge people, they have got a naive nature easily deceivable because they have very little experience of the world. They are rather impulsive and can't cope with their own sentiments. They try to "manufacture" events in their lives but often juxtapose what they think or reckon to what really happens. They finally understand and regret their mistakes helped by very intelligent, wise, sensitive and good-sensed partners they fall in love with and are loved by. They are very lucky indeed. Aren' t they?


But  Mr Knightley, this month's hero,  will be the subject of another blogpost in the next days. He deserves a post of his own.


So I'll leave you to the answers to some of the questions I posted few days ago.
The first 10. OK?


I / I The first sentence o/Emma—as of all Jane Austen's novels—is epigrammatic and memorable. The first epithet ascribed to Emma in it is 'handsome'. What is the overtone of the term?
That she is less than beautiful, that she is self-possessed, that she is more powerful than a mere 'Belle' (like her sister). The first description of Mr Elton is that he is 'a very pretty young man'. How different our initial impression of the heroine would be if the first sentence began: 'Emma Woodhouse, pretty, clever, and rich . . .'

1/2 How long has Isabella been married? Where does she live, and what do we deduce from these facts? She has been married seven years and is six years older than Emma. John Knightley, a younger son, could not inherit the Donwell estate so he married early and married rich—the elder Miss Woodhouse, with her thousands in the Consols. The John Knightleys live in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, in what is now central London, but which in their day was the northern limit of the capital.

1/3 What game do Mr Woodhouse and Emma play of an evening, at Hartfield?
Backgammon—a board game which nowadays has suggestions of the sinful casino. They apparently (from later references) play for 'sixpences' when visitors come. The point being made is that theirs is not an evangelical household.

1/4 How old is Mr Knightley?
He is 37 or 38. Why, one goes on to wonder, has he never married? Either because he is waiting for Emma, or he has had to get his estate in order. It is not excessively far-fetched (if rather un-Austenish) to suspect that Mr Knightley has a respectable lower-class mistress tucked away somewhere; not, obviously, in Donwell, to offend the neighbours; but maybe some innkeeper's wife/widow or similar, whom he visits when he goes to Richmond or Kingston markets.three years older than Frank, and twelve years younger than Mr Knightley. Mr Elton would have been ordained for three or four years, and done a first curacy before getting the living of Highbury. He has it, presumably, by virtue of his ingratiating manner, excellent character, and 'pretty' looks: he seems to have no family connections or 'interest' around Highbury.

1/6 How often does Frank see his father?
Once a year, in London. He did not attend his father's wedding.

1/7 Who was the widowed Mrs Bates's husband?
The Revd Mr Bates—a former vicar at Highbury. He was not, evidently, the vicar immediately before Mr Elton (who has just taken up the living). Talkative as the Bates household is, they never talk about him.

1/8 How old is Harriet, what distinguishes her from the other forty pupils at Mrs Goddard's, and who are her parents?
She is 17, a beauty, and 'the natural daughter of somebody' (a somebody in 'trade', as we eventually discover). She has, as the novel opens, been recently raised from 'the condition of scholar [that is, ordinary pupil] to that of parlour-boarder' (that is, she lives, as one of the family, with Mrs Goddard). Harriet evidently knows nothing of her father (nor her mother). Mrs Goddard may (but vouchsafes nothing to Emma). Harriet is, one presumes, not of local origin—otherwise gossip would supply the name of her parents.

1/9 What colour (precisely) are Emma's eyes? They are of 'the true hazle' and 'brilliant'.

1/10 How many children does Isabella have, and what are their names?
Five. In descending order: Henry, John, Bella, George, and baby Emma, aged eight months. She has been married seven years or so. Emma sketched them all two years ago, when there were just the four children. Emma is a fond aunt, we deduce.
  

2 comments:

Hannah Stoneham said...

Hi - I am not a scholar or a critic but Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel. I think that you are absolutely right - she is attractive because she has flaws and what is also true is that she is *fun* - I think that she is the most fun of all of Austen's heroines.
Lovely post - thank you indeed for sharing
Hannah

Luciana said...

I really like the book and its main character. I don't dislike Emma, for me she's a young girl who still has to learn a lot about the world and its ways. She's been used to get her ways, so it's hard to be different.

Waiting for Mr K review!