Friday, 19 October 2012
EMMA, JANE AUSTEN AND THE EROTIC ALLURE OF RESERVE
I have been wanting to put together a post about Jane Austen, for some time, but somehow I felt kind of daunted. She is an incredible writer, so precise and delicate; she was using subtext long before the idea had been discovered. I want to do justice to her work; but it isn’t her insight, nor precision nor delicacy that worry me, I think it is rather that whatever I say about her incredible work, there will always be something that I miss.
And this is a blog that draws on erotica. Are Jane Austen’s novels erotic? There has been a flurry of anticipation regarding classic novels recently. There has been talk of spicing things up; reworking them for the Fifty Shades reader. Making them more enticing; inserting erotica into the paragraphs, even rewriting whole books.
Here is what Alison Flood, writing in The Guardian newspaper, in July of this year says.
Jumping on the Fifty Shades of Grey bandwagon, along with the rest of UK publishing, the small press (Total Ebound) is about to launch erotic rewrites of classic titles including Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre and A Study in Scarlet. "There is no doubting the fact that the classics remain an inspiration to writers, even today, with many complex and thought-provoking storylines. But if we are honest to ourselves, haven't we heard the same reserved tale told time and time again?" says the publisher. "We'll show you the scenes that you always wanted to see but were never allowed ... The old fashioned pleasantries and timidity have all been stripped away, quite literally. You didn't really think that these much loved characters only held hands and pecked cheeks did you?"
By the age of fifteen I had read most of Jane Austen’s novels and I never had any problem at all in finding the erotica in them. Okay, I didn’t know then that it was called erotica; that flush of anticipation when fingertips brush. That dark, compelling gaze across a crowded room. When the arch of an eyebrow makes the heroine tremble and when the blush of a white cheek conveys a damp warmth between the thighs. Without being told explicitly, you know that both parties concerned are aroused; so is the reader.
Yes, there is erotica in Jane Austen’s books; it is the erotic allure of reserve.
Jane Austen published her novel, “Emma” in the December of 1815, and it is “Emma” that I am going to be talking about, for no other reason than that it is the novel that I like best of all.
It is a novel about youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance.
As in her other novels, Jane Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian-Regency England; she also creates a lively comedy of manners among her characters.
Emma Woodhouse is twenty years old. She is a beautiful, witty and privileged woman in Regency England. She lives on the fictional estate of Hartfield in Surrey in the village of Highbury with her elderly widowed father, a hypochondriac who is excessively concerned for the health and safety of his loved ones. Emma's friend is the gentlemanly George Knightley, her neighbour from the adjacent estate of Donwell, and the brother of her elder sister Isabella's husband, John. As the novel opens, Emma has just attended the wedding of Miss Taylor, her best friend and former governess. Having introduced Miss Taylor to her future husband, Mr. Weston, Emma takes credit for their marriage, and decides that she rather likes matchmaking.
In this part of the story, the main players in this drama of erotic reserve are Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s tale. She is a highly-spirited, intelligent, and slightly spoiled young woman of the age of twenty. Her mother died when she was very young, and she has been mistress of the house ever since, certainly since her older sister got married. Although intelligent, she lacks the necessary discipline to practice or study anything in depth. She is portrayed as very compassionate to the poor, but at the same time has a strong sense of class. Her affection for, and patience towards her hypochondriac father are also noteworthy. While she is in many ways mature for her age, Emma makes some serious mistakes, mainly due to her conviction that she is always right and her lack of real world experience. Although she has vowed she will never ever marry, she delights in making matches for others. She seems unable to fall in love, until jealousy makes her realise that she has loved Mr. Knightley all along.
Mr Knightley is about thirty-seven years old, and a close friend of Emma. He is her only critic, although he cares deeply for her. Mr. Knightley is the owner of the estate of Donwell Abbey, which includes extensive grounds and a farm. He is the elder brother of Mr. John Knightley, the husband of Emma's elder sister Isabella.
Harriet Smith, a young friend of Emma's, is a very pretty but unsophisticated girl who is too easily led by others, especially Emma; she has been educated at a nearby school. The illegitimate daughter of initially unknown parents, she is revealed in the last chapter to be the daughter of a fairly rich and decent tradesman, although not a "gentleman".
Mr Elton is a good-looking, seemingly well mannered, ambitious young vicar. Emma wants him to marry Harriet; Mr Elton, however is a social climber; he aspires to secure Emma's hand in marriage in order to gain her dowry.
In the opening chapter, Emma has expressed a desire to see Mr Elton, the vicar married.
Mr Knightley warns her not to meddle but she ignores his reservations.
“Elton is a very good sort of man, and a very respectable vicar of Highbury, but not at all likely to make an imprudent match. He knows the value of a good income as well as anybody.”
Harriet suggests to Emma, that Emma herself should be married.
"I do so wonder, Miss Woodhouse, that you should not be married, or going to be married! so charming as you are!"
Emma laughs, and replies;
"My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming -- one other person at least. And I am not only, not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of every marrying at all."
So, it seems that marriage, one way or the other, is on the mind of the all of the main characters.
“Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody.” Jane Austen tells her reader. “Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs Goddard’s school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour boarder. This was all that was generally known of her history.”
Jane Austen goes on to describe Harriet.
“She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness.”
Harriet has spent two very happy months with a family called the Martins, at Abbey Mill Farm, in the company of her school friends. Nothing gives away erotic attraction more, than the constant need to talk about the beloved. It’s a dead give away. There is a Mr Martin, whom at first Emma thinks must be the husband of Mrs Martin. Not so! Mr Martin, who “was very good natured”, is the eldest son of Mrs Martin. Mr Martin is a man of “four and twenty.”
“…she particularly led Harriet to talk more of Mr Martin, and there was evidently no dislike to it. Harriet was very ready to speak of the share he had in their moonlight walks and merry evening games; and dwelt a good deal upon his being so very good-humourd and obliging. He had gone three miles round in one day in order to bring her some walnuts, because she had said how fond she was of them and in everything else he was so very obliging. He had his shepherd’s son into the parlour one night on purpose to sing to her. She was very fond of singing. He could sing a little himself. She believed he was very clever, and understood everything. He had a very fine flock, and, while she was with them, he had been bid more for his wool than anybody in the country. She believed everybody spoke well of him. His mother and sisters were very fond of him. Mrs Martin had told her one day (and there was a blush as she said it) that it was impossible for anybody to be a better son, and therefore she was sure, whenever he married, he would make a good husband.”
“What sort of looking man is Mr Martin?” is Emma’s thoughtful question.
“Oh! Not handsome - not at all handsome. I thought him very plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now.”
And the final give away. Harriet has compared their birth dates and found it significant that their birthdays are only two weeks and a day apart. Just as young lovers today will compare astrological signs and see that they share the same sign of the zodiac; they compare seemingly random street addresses, examination results. To young lovers these are signs. It is not a simple coincidence, it is a mystical affirmation of their love.
But Emma is astute, and understands the signs of erotic attachment. When Mr Martin sends Harriet a letter proposing marriage, Emma persuades Harriet, who is no match for Emma’s quick intellect, that Harriet can, and will do better in the marriage stakes. Emma draws up a plan to match Harriet with Mr Elton.
Mr Elton expresses his admiration of Harriet, and Emma sets about to paint Harriet’s portrait. Mr Elton attends the sittings and reads aloud to the two young women. Emma hears him sigh often and knows that his sighs are for Harriet.
Emma and Harriet have been collecting riddles (also called “charades”) into a scrapbook, and when Mr. Elton returns from London with the framed portrait of Harriet, he contributes one. Emma immediately decodes the riddle and sees that the answer is the word “courtship.” She translates the riddle for Harriet, who could not solve it herself, but Harriet is nonetheless flattered by its meaning. Emma convinces Harriet that the riddle is meant for her; it foretells a proposal, and she copies the riddle into Harriet’s book. After some discussion among the family anticipating the upcoming Christmas visit of Isabella, Mr. John Knightley, and their children, Emma tells Mr. Elton that she has solved his charade. Elton is clearly moved, and Emma guesses that his emotion comes from seeing his riddle in Harriet’s book.
Sharing riddles was a common genteel pastime in the early nineteenth century, and the riddle serves as an important metaphor for the social interactions that define the novel as a whole. Emma warns Harriet to be reserved and not to give her feelings away.
"My dear Harriet, you must not refine too much upon this charade.—You will betray your feelings improperly, if you are too conscious and too quick, and appear to affix more meaning, or even quite all the meaning which may be affixed to it. Do not be overpowered by such a little tribute of admiration. If he had been anxious for secrecy, he would not have left the paper while I was by; but he rather pushed it towards me than towards you. Do not let us be too solemn on the business. He has encouragement enough to proceed, without our sighing out our souls over this charade."
But it turns out that Emma has completely misread the signs. It is not Harriet that Mr Elton’s gaze is fixed on, but Emma herself.
The Woodhouses and Knightleys are invited to the Westons’ for Christmas Eve dinner. Harriet and Mr. Elton are also included, but Harriet comes down with a sore throat and is forced to miss the gathering. Emma’s visit to Harriet, coincides with Mr. Elton’s visit. Emma is pleased by his attentions to her friend, but she remains puzzled that he refuses her suggestion to skip the party since Harriet will not be there. Mr. John Knightley witnesses the exchange and suggests to Emma that Mr. Elton has feelings for her. Amused, Emma dismisses the suggestion. When she and Mr. Elton travel to the gathering in the same carriage, she is surprised that Mr. Elton’s concern for Harriet gives way to cheerful anticipation of the evening ahead.
It begins to snow and the party decide to head home, they don’t want to risk getting snowed in.
In the confusion created by the party breaking up, Emma finds herself alone in one of the carriages with Mr. Elton. He immediately declares his love for her and proposes. Hoping that he is merely drunk, Emma attempts to remind him that Harriet is the true object of his affections. Astonished, Elton assures Emma that he has never been interested in Harriet. Moreover, he is convinced that Emma has known of and encouraged his sentiments. Emma sharply rebukes him and refuses his proposal, and the two travel the remainder of the journey in angry silence.
"I am very much astonished, Mr. Elton. This to me! you forget yourself-- you take me for my friend--any message to Miss Smith I shall be happy to deliver; but no more of this to me, if you please. "
"Miss Smith!--message to Miss Smith!--What could she possibly mean!"-- And he repeated her words with such assurance of accent, such boastful pretence of amazement, that she could not help replying with quickness,
"Mr. Elton, this is the most extraordinary conduct! and I can account for it only in one way; you are not yourself, or you could not speak either to me, or of Harriet, in such a manner. Command yourself enough to say no more, and I will endeavour to forget it.”
Life settles around the snowy landscape of Highbury; Jane Austen adds a new character to her drama. We have heard about Jane Fairfax, but know little about her.
Jane Fairfax is an orphan whose only family consists of an aunt, Miss Bates, and a grandmother, Mrs. Bates. Jane is regarded as a very beautiful, clever and elegant woman, with the best of manners. She is also very well-educated and exceptionally talented at singing and playing the piano. In fact, she is the sole person whom Emma envies. She has little fortune however, and seems destined to become a governess – a prospect she dislikes. Jane is described as “reserved” many times over the next few chapters.
Jane Fairfax arrives to stay with her grandmother, Mrs Bates and her aunt, Miss Bates. Emma greets the girl’s return after two years’ absence with mixed feelings. She has never liked Jane, for reasons she cannot fully explain (Mr. Knightley suggests to her that she is jealous), but Jane’s beauty and elegance impress her, and she feels compassion for her impending fate. Soon the dullness of Jane’s companions, along with Jane’s reserve, confirms Emma’s dislike. Emma discovers that Jane has known Frank Churchill in Weymouth, but Jane divulges little information about him.
And what of Mr Frank Churchill? We have heard just a little about him, and know that he is Mr. Weston's son by his previous marriage.
He is described as an amiable young man, who manages to be liked by everyone except Mr. Knightley, who considers him quite immature, although this partially results from his jealously of Frank's supposed 'pursuit' of Emma. After his mother's death, he was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle, whose last name he took. Frank enjoys dancing and music and living life to the fullest.
Emma exhibits a healthy detachment during her first meeting with Frank. Where another young woman might manifest admiration for Frank, knowing that others think he may be a proper suitor for her, Emma expresses reserve: “She must see more of him to understand his ways; at present she only felt they were agreeable.” Whether Emma has affectionate interest for Frank at this point is irrelevant—it would be inappropriate for a reputable woman of her position to display too much interest in a man this early.
Meanwhile, an invitation from the Coles, successful trades people who live in Highbury, creates a conundrum for Emma. She had originally decided that she would not accept an invitation from the nouveau-riche family, but when everyone except the Woodhouses receives an invitation to a dinner party at the Coles’ home, Emma feels left out. When an invitation arrives, she decides to accept it.
At dinner, at the Coles’ house, it is revealed that Jane Fairfax has received the mysterious gift of a pianoforte. People assume the piano is from Colonel Campbell, but Emma tells Frank she suspects that it is a gift from Mr. Dixon. When Jane arrives later, she blushes when questioned about the pianoforte.
The pianoforte is a tangible symbol of refinement, secrecy, mystery, hope and memory. Does Jane know the identity of the giver of the piano? Perhaps she does; though she has said not. There is much speculation among the dinner guests as to whom Jane’s benefactor could be.
Miss Bates has told Mrs Coles that;
“…Jane was at quite a loss, quite bewildered to think who could possibly have ordered it…”
A few days later, there is a gathering at the home of Mrs Bates and Jane is persuaded to play the pianoforte for the company. Jane’s mood is strange, Emma wonders at the state of her nerves. Could it be that Jane knows the identity of her benefactor?
“That she was not immediately ready, Emma did suspect to arise from the state of her nerves; she had not yet possessed the instrument long enough to touch it without emotion; she must reason herself into the power of performance;”
“At last Jane began, and though the first bars were feebly given, the powers of the instrument were gradually done full justice to. Mrs. Weston had been delighted before, and was delighted again; Emma joined her in all her praise; and the pianoforte, with every proper discrimination, was pronounced to be altogether of the highest promise.”
When questioned again about the gift, Jane replies that she does not; “in a voice of forced calmness;”
Frank is in a mood to tease;
“…he went to the pianoforte, and begged Miss Fairfax, who was still sitting at it, to play something more.”
"If you are very kind, " said he, "it will be one of the waltzes we danced last night;--let me live them over again. You did not enjoy them as I did; you appeared tired the whole time. I believe you were glad we danced no longer; but I would have given worlds-- all the worlds one ever has to give--for another half-hour. "
"What felicity it is to hear a tune again which has made one happy!-- If I mistake not that was danced at Weymouth. "
“She looked up at him for a moment, coloured deeply, and played something else.…”
The reader can sense Jane’s agitation.
Frank speaks to Emma;
"Here is something quite new to me. Do you know it?--Cramer. -- And here are a new set of Irish melodies. That, from such a quarter, one might expect. This was all sent with the instrument. Very thoughtful of Colonel Campbell, was not it?--He knew Miss Fairfax could have no music here. I honour that part of the attention particularly; it shews it to have been so thoroughly from the heart. Nothing hastily done; nothing incomplete. True affection only could have prompted it.”
“Emma wished he would be less pointed, yet could not help being amused; and when on glancing her eye towards Jane Fairfax she caught the remains of a smile, when she saw that with all the deep blush of consciousness, there had been a smile of secret delight, she had less scruple in the amusement, and much less compunction with respect to her. --This amiable, upright, perfect Jane Fairfax was apparently cherishing very reprehensible feelings.”
No-one is any the wiser about the origins of the pianoforte, but there is no doubt that Jane’s contained composure has slipped. She smiles, she blushes, “she colours deeply; she speaks in a voice of “forced calmness.”
It’s an enduring image steeped in erotica. A beautiful woman seated at her piano; she holds her audience transfixed. A breath of a breeze from an open door to a garden stirs her diaphanous, white muslin gown. A handsome man stands behind her and above her; he leans into her to turn the pages of her music. They sing. Their voices harmonising, blending together.
But that is really as much as we know about Jane Fairfax at this point. She is an important character, but from now, until later in the novel we view her as from a distance.
Frank Churchill and Emma have grown close. Perhaps this was bound to happen; Emma has heard so much about Frank from Mr and Mrs Weston, that she feels that she knows him, before she has even met him. And Frank is such an engaging man, as well as being good looking, he is witty, maybe even a little charismatic. The two are complicit and enthusiastic in their conversation.
But now I am going to rewind, to the dinner evening at the Coles’
Frank confides to Emma that despite Jane’s accomplishments and elegance he does not find her attractive.
"Ill, very ill--that is, if a young lady can ever be allowed to look ill. But the expression is hardly admissible, Mrs. Weston, is it? Ladies can never look ill. And, seriously, Miss Fairfax is naturally so pale, as almost always to give the appearance of ill health. -- A most deplorable want of complexion. "
He is disparaging about Jane’s appearance; but Emma catches him staring oddly at Jane.
“When Mr. Cole had moved away, and her attention could be restored as before, she saw Frank Churchill looking intently across the room at Miss Fairfax, who was sitting exactly opposite.
But it seems that Frank is incredulous about the manner in which Jane has styled her hair.
“He started. "Thank you for rousing me, " he replied. "I believe I have been very rude; but really Miss Fairfax has done her hair in so odd a way--so very odd a way--that I cannot keep my eyes from her. I never saw any thing so outré!--Those curls!--This must be a fancy of her own. I see nobody else looking like her!-- I must go and ask her whether it is an Irish fashion. Shall I?-- Yes, I will--I declare I will--and you shall see how she takes it;-- whether she colours.”
We fast forward again to the gathering at Mrs Bates’ home. During the visit, Emma, Frank, and Jane are all aware that the dialogue taking place has a subtext, but Jane Austen crafts Frank’s words so that the subtexts Emma and Jane read differ from one another. At this point in the novel, our misperceptions are likely to closely match Emma’s, and we follow her in believing that Frank’s teasing of Jane about the origins of her piano cruelly refers to Mr. Dixon.
A dance is planned! But where to hold it? Mrs Weston reckons that there will be at least ten couples. After considering a few venues, Frank suggests the Crown Inn and after allaying Mr Woodhouse’ fears that they will all catch cold, the Crown Inn is agreed upon.
But before any further plans can be made, Frank is called home to his aunt’s home at Enscombe. Nothing brings about ideas of love more than the absence of the object of affection and Emma plays with the idea of being in love with Frank. She imagines the course that her and Frank’s love affair will run. In her mind, her fantasy always ends with her refusing Frank. She believes she loves him, but not so much that her happiness depends upon him. She believes that Frank loves her and although Emma has resolved to give up matchmaking, she toys with the idea of Harriet being a perfect match for Frank.
Mr. Elton returns to the community. In his absence he has married and he brings with him his bride. Emma decides that she and Harriet should visit the newlyweds early on in order to re-establish normal social relations. In this first meeting and shortly thereafter Emma reserves judgment on Mrs. Elton, and attributes Mr. Elton’s lack of ease to the awkwardness of the situation. When the couple return the visit and come to Hartfield, Emma is able to observe Mrs. Elton at greater length, and Emma is horrified by the over-familiarity of her manners. Mrs. Elton is attached to superficial tokens of wealth, such as her sister and brother-in-law’s “barouche-landau” (carriage); she presumes to take Emma under her social wing; and she prides herself on the inner “resources” of self-worth and foresight that she clearly lacks.
Emma continues to dislike Mrs. Elton, who, noting Emma’s reserve, begins to return the sentiment. Emma assumes that Mr. Elton has told his wife something of the unfortunate episode with her and Harriet, to whom the Eltons are especially rude. Mrs. Elton takes on Jane Fairfax as her project, attempting to bring her out socially. Emma is puzzled that Jane accepts Mrs. Elton’s attentions, and she discusses Jane’s actions with Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley.
Fulfilling a social obligation, Emma plans a dinner party for Mrs. Elton. Harriet asks to be excused from attending, which gives Emma the opportunity to ease her conscience regarding Jane Fairfax, who, at Harriet’s announced absence, is promptly invited to fill the empty eighth seat. Mr. John Knightley is also included because he will be in Highbury, accompanying his two eldest sons on a visit to their aunt and grandfather.
At the party, Mr. John Knightley gently reproaches Jane for fetching letters from the post office that morning in the rain. Jane acts as if the situation is not a big deal but ends up blushing and watery-eyed, and soon the rest of the party begins discussing the matter. Mrs. Elton insists that her servant should be given the task of retrieving Jane’s letters, and Jane firmly resists. The conversation moves to handwriting. Mr. Knightley praises Emma’s penmanship but dissents when she praises the penmanship of Frank Churchill. Jane’s eagerness to fetch her own letters rouses Emma’s suspicions, but she decides not to trouble Jane by questioning her.
The women gather in the drawing room after dinner, and Mrs. Elton pursues the subject of letter-retrieval with Jane.
“Oh! she shall not_ do such a thing again, " eagerly rejoined Mrs. Elton. "We will not allow her to do such a thing again:"-- and nodding significantly--"there must be some arrangement made, there must indeed. I shall speak to Mr. E. The man who fetches our letters every morning (one of our men, I forget his name) shall inquire for yours too and bring them to you. That will obviate all difficulties you know; and from us I really think, my dear Jane, you can have no scruple to accept such an accommodation. "
Jane asserts herself.
"You are extremely kind, " said Jane; "but I cannot give up my early walk. I am advised to be out of doors as much as I can, I must walk somewhere, and the post-office is an object; and upon my word, I have scarcely ever had a bad morning before. "
"My dear Jane, say no more about it. The thing is determined, that is (laughing affectedly) as far as I can presume to determine any thing without the concurrence of my lord and master. You know, Mrs. Weston, you and I must be cautious how we express ourselves. But I do flatter myself, my dear Jane, that my influence is not entirely worn out. If I meet with no insuperable difficulties therefore, consider that point as settled. "
"Excuse me, " said Jane earnestly, "I cannot by any means consent to such an arrangement, so needlessly troublesome to your servant. If the errand were not a pleasure to me, it could be done, as it always is when I am not here, by my grandmama's. "
Jane neatly evades the topic of letters in the rain by changing the subject. She is seen now as a character of strength; she refuses, quite gently, to be dominated by Mrs Elton.
“Jane looked as if she did not mean to be conquered; but instead of answering, she began speaking again to Mr. John Knightley.
"The post-office is a wonderful establishment!" said she. -- "The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!"
"It is certainly very well regulated. "
"So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong--and not one in a million, I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder. "
"The clerks grow expert from habit. --They must begin with some quickness of sight and hand, and exercise improves them. If you want any farther explanation, " continued he, smiling, "they are paid for it. That is the key to a great deal of capacity. The public pays and must be served well. "
The varieties of handwriting were further talked of, and the usual observations made.
The matter of fetching letters in the rain is dropped.
Jane Austen’s use of three chapters to narrate a single dinner party marks an interesting narrative development for English literature. In novels by previous writers, the description of the events of a dinner party would have taken up at most a page or two, but Jane Austen turns the dinner party into an opportunity to trace extensively the ins and outs of human personality and interaction. In doing so, she provides a model for later writers as disparate as Henry James and Virginia Woolf.
During the dinner party, we are given our first extended view of Jane Fairfax, who begins to come out of her reserved shell and speak more. Her well-crafted comments exemplify an ideal balance between openness and propriety.
For example, when Mr. John Knightley observes;
“When you have lived to my age, you will begin to think letters are never worth going through the rain for,” Jane answers;
“I must not hope to be ever situated as you are, in the midst of every dearest connection, and therefore I cannot expect that simply growing older should make me indifferent about letters.”
This answer is politely vague but also expresses real emotion. It engages our pity, but it tactfully avoids any suggestion of self-pity on Jane’s part. Furthermore, when she firmly resists Mrs. Elton’s aggressive offers of assistance, we realize that Jane’s quietness and reserve do not indicate that she is dull or passive—she clearly has a mind of her own. In fact, Jane is the character who voices the novel’s most explicit social protest, which seems to come directly from Austen herself. Jane speaks against the “governess-trade,” which involves “the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.” She admits that offices that advertise for governess positions are less morally deplorable than slave traders, but she adds, “But as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”
It is time for Emma to think about her agitation upon hearing of Frank’s impending arrival and decides that she feels such apprehension more on his behalf than her own—her attachment to him is not very strong. When she sees him again, he is friendly and spirited but visits for only fifteen minutes. Frank’s short visit convinces Emma that his feelings as well must have weakened.
“A very little quiet reflection was enough to satisfy Emma as to the nature of her agitation on hearing this news of Frank Churchill. She was soon convinced that it was not for herself she was feeling at all apprehensive or embarrassed; it was for him. Her own attachment had really subsided into a mere nothing; it was not worth thinking of;-- but if he, who had undoubtedly been always so much the most in love of the two, were to be returning with the same warmth of sentiment which he had taken away, it would be very distressing. If a separation of two months should not have cooled him, there were dangers and evils before her:--caution for him and for herself would be necessary. She did not mean to have her own affections entangled again, and it would be incumbent on her to avoid any encouragement of his.”
But when Frank does put in an appearance at Emma’s home, his emotions seem to have cooled.
“It was not very long, though rather longer than Mr. Weston had foreseen, before she had the power of forming some opinion of Frank Churchill's feelings. The Enscombe family were not in town quite so soon as had been imagined, but he was at Highbury very soon afterwards. He rode down for a couple of hours; he could not yet do more; but as he came from Randalls immediately to Hartfield, she could then exercise all her quick observation, and speedily determine how he was influenced, and how she must act. They met with the utmost friendliness. There could be no doubt of his great pleasure in seeing her. But she had an almost instant doubt of his caring for her as he had done, of his feeling the same tenderness in the same degree. She watched him well. It was a clear thing he was less in love than he had been. Absence, with the conviction probably of her indifference, had produced this very natural and very desirable effect.
He was in high spirits; as ready to talk and laugh as ever, and seemed delighted to speak of his former visit, and recur to old stories: and he was not without agitation. It was not in his calmness that she read his comparative difference. He was not calm; his spirits were evidently fluttered; there was restlessness about him. Lively as he was, it seemed a liveliness that did not satisfy himself; but what decided her belief on the subject, was his staying only a quarter of an hour, and hurrying away to make other calls in Highbury. "He had seen a group of old acquaintance in the street as he passed-- he had not stopped, he would not stop for more than a word--but he had the vanity to think they would be disappointed if he did not call, and much as he wished to stay longer at Hartfield, he must hurry off. She had no doubt as to his being less in love--but neither his agitated spirits, nor his hurrying away, seemed like a perfect cure; and she was rather inclined to think it implied a dread of her returning power, and a discreet resolution of not trusting himself with her long.”
But with the ailing aunt choosing to move her household from London to Richmond the longed for ball can go ahead.
“It had not been forgotten before, but it had been soon acknowledged vain to attempt to fix a day. Now, however, it was absolutely to be; every preparation was resumed, and very soon after the Churchills had removed to Richmond, a few lines from Frank, to say that his aunt felt already much better for the change, and that he had no doubt of being able to join them for twenty-four hours at any given time, induced them to name as early a day as possible.
Mr. Weston's ball was to be a real thing. A very few to-morrows stood between the young people of Highbury and happiness.”
“No misfortune occurred, again to prevent the ball. The day approached, the day arrived; and after a morning of some anxious watching, Frank Churchill, in all the certainty of his own self, reached Randalls before dinner, and every thing was safe.”
The party gather and the ball commences.
Mr. and Mrs. Weston suddenly realize that Mrs. Elton expects to be asked to lead the dance and that they cannot give Emma that honour, as they had hoped. Despite this slight disappointment, Emma enjoys the beginning of the festivities, though she is disturbed that Mr. Knightley will not dance. She admires the figure he cuts among the other men, and she notices that he is watching her. This is an important moment and it is steeped in erotica.
“She was more disturbed by Mr. Knightley's not dancing than by any thing else. --There he was, among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; he ought to be dancing, --not classing himself with the husbands, and fathers, and whist-players, who were pretending to feel an interest in the dance till their rubbers were made up, --so young as he looked!-- He could not have appeared to greater advantage perhaps anywhere, than where he had placed himself. His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body's eyes; and, excepting her own partner, there was not one among the whole row of young men who could be compared with him. --He moved a few steps nearer, and those few steps were enough to prove in how gentlemanlike a manner, with what natural grace, he must have danced, would he but take the trouble. --Whenever she caught his eye, she forced him to smile; but in general he was looking grave.”
Up until this point it seems that Jane Austen has used Mr Knightley as a vehicle to temper Emma’s headstrong convictions. He has done this through verbal wit and though Emma does not seem inclined to heed Mr Knightley, it is obvious to the reader that she has great respect for him. But in this passage the figure of Mr Knightley steps out of the shadows and he is all male. His dark gaze is commanding, compelling. The reader thinks of a Rochester, or a Heathcliff. Jane Austen smiles and tosses out a clue to the reader who catches it and laughs along with the writer. We are complicit with Jane Austen; she has made her reader aware of something that Emma, the protagonist has yet to discover.
The ball is a success, and only one episode mars Emma’s enjoyment. During one dance, Harriet is left without a partner, and Mr. Elton, the one dancer who is disengaged, pointedly refuses to ask her. Mr. Knightley soothes Harriet’s embarrassment by asking her to dance, and Emma is very pleased with him. Later, she expresses her gratitude, and he asks her why the Eltons are her enemies. She admits that she wanted Mr. Elton to marry Harriet and acknowledges that Knightley was right about his character. Knightley in return admits that Harriet has more admirable qualities than he originally thought. Emma and Knightley cement their new mutual understanding with a dance.
He holds her close.
Emma looks back at the night of the ball with pleasure, and she rejoices that the Eltons’ rudeness has cured Harriet of her infatuation with Mr. Elton. Suddenly, Frank appears with Harriet, fainting, on his arm. When revived, Harriet tells the story of how she was walking with a friend, Miss Bickerton, when a Gypsy child approached to beg from them. Miss Bickerton, frightened, ran away, but Harriet was unable to follow because of a cramp brought on by dancing at the ball. Just as she started to panic, a group of Gypsies surrounded her and demanded money. Frank happened to be walking along and frightened the Gypsies away. Emma cannot help but wonder whether this romantic circumstance might make Harriet and Frank interesting to each other.
The Gypsies that Harriet describes encountering seem a strange intrusion into the domestic realism of the story. It is almost as if they have wandered in from a different novel entirely. In the episode, Austen plays with the conventions of romantic melodrama, one of which was the rescue of a “damsel in distress” as the beginning to a romantic relationship. Yet, in the calculating context established by the novel, the encounter seems to predict a lack of destiny rather than a fated match. The improbability of Harriet’s encounter with Frank alerts us to the improbability of their ending up together. We can see that the extraordinary circumstances that have thrown Harriet and Frank together owe nothing to their shared values or qualities—a chance meeting and rescue present no evidence that the two belong together. And while Harriet’s passivity is in keeping with the conventions of a romance, it is not something that we would expect Jane Austen’s novel to reward. The happiest women in the novel are not weak and passive, but both mentally and physically vigorous.
But Harriet’s frightening encounter is indeed the stuff of romance novels. It could have been carefully crafted by a Mills and Boon writer for today’s market.
“In the few minutes' conversation which she had yet had with him, while Harriet had been partially insensible, he had spoken of her terror, her naiveté, her fervour as she seized and clung to his arm, with a sensibility amused and delighted; and just at last, after Harriet's own account had been given, he had expressed his indignation at the abominable folly of Miss Bickerton in the warmest terms.”
Another day passes. Harriet comes to tell Emma that her infatuation with Mr. Elton has passed and to relinquish the trinkets she has kept to remember him by. First, she shows Emma a bit of court-plaster (used at the time as a bandage) that she had lent to Mr. Elton when he cut himself. He had used what he needed but discarded the rest, which Harriet then kept. Emma feels guilty in recalling that she had lied and said that she did not have any court-plaster, so that Harriet would have the opportunity to be Elton’s healer. Harriet’s second trinket is a useless bit of pencil Elton had discarded. She throws both items into the fire, and Emma hopes that Frank might take Elton’s place. Her hopes seem to be rewarded when, during another conversation, Harriet says she will never marry, inciting Emma’s suspicion that Harriet does not think that she will marry because she is interested in someone of a higher class. After some hesitation, Emma asks if Harriet has feelings for someone of higher rank. Harriet says yes, and Emma comments that she is not surprised, given the service that this person rendered Harriet. Emma says that they must not discuss it anymore, and she advises Harriet to be cautious but not to give up all hope.
"Harriet, I will not affect to be in doubt of your meaning. Your resolution, or rather your expectation of never marrying, results from an idea that the person whom you might prefer, would be too greatly your superior in situation to think of you. Is not it so?"
"Oh! Miss Woodhouse, believe me I have not the presumption to suppose-- Indeed I am not so mad. --But it is a pleasure to me to admire him at a distance--and to think of his infinite superiority to all the rest of the world, with the gratitude, wonder, and veneration, which are so proper, in me especially. "
"I am not at all surprised at you, Harriet. The service he rendered you was enough to warm your heart. "
"Service! oh! it was such an inexpressible obligation!-- The very recollection of it, and all that I felt at the time-- when I saw him coming--his noble look--and my wretchedness before. Such a change! In one moment such a change! From perfect misery to perfect happiness!"
Of course Emma believes that Harriet has fallen in love with Frank.
Mr. Knightley begins to suspect that there is some secret understanding between Frank and Jane. During a walk with Emma, Harriet, Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Frank, Jane, and Miss Bates, Mr Knightley witnesses a strange exchange. Frank asks Mrs. Weston if anything has come of Mr. Perry’s plan to buy a carriage. She has no idea what he is talking about, and he swears that she wrote of it in a letter to him some months ago. She denies it, and Frank decides he must have dreamed it. Miss Bates remembers that there was talk of the Perrys getting a carriage at her house (with Jane present) but that it was a secret. Mr. Knightley observes Frank trying to catch Jane’s eye after this.
“They were entering the hall. Mr. Knightley's eyes had preceded Miss Bates' in a glance at Jane. From Frank Churchill's face, where he thought he saw confusion suppressed or laughed away, he had involuntarily turned to hers; but she was indeed behind, and too busy with her shawl. Mr. Weston had walked in. The two other gentlemen waited at the door to let her pass. Mr. Knightley suspected in Frank Churchill the determination of catching her eye-- he seemed watching her intently--in vain, however, if it were so-- Jane passed between them into the hall, and looked at neither.”
The party reaches Hartfield, and Emma persuades everyone to come in for tea. A word game ensues, which Mr. Knightley watches. Frank constructs the word “blunder” using alphabet tiles, which he shows to Jane. Then he constructs the word “Dixon,” shows it to Emma, who laughs, and then shows it to Jane, who pushes the puzzle away in anger.
“Frank Churchill placed a word before Miss Fairfax. She gave a slight glance round the table, and applied herself to it. Frank was next to Emma, Jane opposite to them--and Mr. Knightley so placed as to see them all; and it was his object to see as much as he could, with as little apparent observation. The word was discovered, and with a faint smile pushed away. If meant to be immediately mixed with the others, and buried from sight, she should have looked on the table instead of looking just across, for it was not mixed; and Harriet, eager after every fresh word, and finding out none, directly took it up, and fell to work. She was sitting by Mr. Knightley, and turned to him for help. The word was blunder; and as Harriet exultingly proclaimed it, there was a blush on Jane's cheek which gave it a meaning not otherwise ostensible.”
When the party breaks up, Mr Knightley stays behind to speak to Emma—he knows that everyone considers her the object of Frank’s affection, and he wishes to warn her. Knightley asks Emma about the “Dixon” joke, and, embarrassed, she refuses to explain. He tells her his suspicion about Jane and Frank, and she laughs at him, stating unequivocally that she can answer for Frank’s indifference to Jane. Mr Knightley is silenced and irritated by Emma’s implication that she is in Frank’s confidence.
“"Pray, Emma, " said he, "may I ask in what lay the great amusement, the poignant sting of the last word given to you and Miss Fairfax? I saw the word, and am curious to know how it could be so very entertaining to the one, and so very distressing to the other. "
Emma was extremely confused. She could not endure to give him the true explanation; for though her suspicions were by no means removed, she was really ashamed of having ever imparted them.
"Oh!" she cried in evident embarrassment, "it all meant nothing; a mere joke among ourselves. "
"The joke, " he replied gravely, "seemed confined to you and Mr. Churchill.” ”
An outing to Box Hill is planned, but it has to be postponed because of a lame horse. Mr. Knightley half-jokingly suggests that the party come to his estate instead. Mrs. Elton seizes upon the idea, and Mr Knightley has to be firm to prevent her from planning all the details. Meanwhile, the lame horse heals, and it is decided that the Box Hill party will follow the one at Donwell Abbey, Knightley’s estate. At Donwell Abbey, Emma enjoys examining Mr Knightley’s house and grounds. She overhears Jane resisting a governess “situation” that Mrs. Elton has found for her. Walking through the garden, Emma finds Harriet and Mr Knightley looking out over the Martin family home and thinks the two an odd grouping, but is nevertheless convinced that Harriet is in good hands. Mrs. Weston is worried by the fact that Frank is late coming from Richmond. At the house, Emma encounters an agitated Jane, who asks her to tell everyone else that she has walked home.
Emma offers to call for her carriage.
“"Thank you, thank you--but on no account. --I would rather walk. -- And for me to be afraid of walking alone!--I, who may so soon have to guard others!"
She spoke with great agitation; and Emma very feelingly replied, "That can be no reason for your being exposed to danger now. I must order the carriage. The heat even would be danger. --You are fatigued already. "
"I am, "--she answered--"I am fatigued; but it is not the sort of fatigue--quick walking will refresh me. --Miss Woodhouse, we all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits. Mine, I confess, are exhausted. The greatest kindness you can shew me, will be to let me have my own way, and only say that I am gone when it is necessary. "
Emma had not another word to oppose. She saw it all; and entering into her feelings, promoted her quitting the house immediately, and watched her safely off with the zeal of a friend. Her parting look was grateful--and her parting words, "Oh! Miss Woodhouse, the comfort of being sometimes alone!"--seemed to burst from an overcharged heart, and to describe somewhat of the continual endurance to be practised by her, even towards some of those who loved her best.”
A further mystery. What ever can be wrong with the normally cool, reserved Jane Fairfax?
Even though Emma has resolved to use more discretion in promoting a match between Harriet and Frank than she used when encouraging Harriet’s affection for Mr. Elton, she manages to cause a misunderstanding precisely because she shies away from explicit statements. When Emma says of Harriet’s new object of affection, “The service he rendered you was enough to warm your heart,” she is referring to Frank, who saved Harriet from the Gypsies. Harriet, however, thinks of Mr. Knightley, who saved her from humiliation by asking her to dance.
In the way it keeps us in the dark about the truth of various characters’ feelings, Emma reads like a detective novel. The picnic presents subtle mysteries: Jane’s agitation is not explained, nor is Frank’s sudden ill temper. We suspect that Jane’s and Frank’s bad moods must be linked, but Austen keeps us in suspense as to what exactly has transpired. Even straightforward Mr. Knightley is drawn into the atmosphere of speculation when he suggests that Jane and Frank have been corresponding throughout Frank’s absence. Also, Mr Knightley wrongly takes Emma’s statement that Frank has no feelings for Jane as a suggestion that Frank and Emma have some sort of romantic association. In truth, Emma’s confidence is purely the result of the unflattering things Frank has said to her about Jane.
The word game the party plays serves as a metaphor for all the games of private concealment and revelation that characterize Highbury society. Emma and Mr. Knightley are both able to decode the words that Frank makes, but because they possess different kinds of information, they interpret these words differently. Mr Knightley understands that the word “blunder” must refer to Frank’s misplaced question to Mrs. Weston about Mr. Perry’s carriage, a message that Emma is unable to decode. Emma interprets “Dixon” as a cruel joke on Jane, but Knightley rightly understands that Frank’s presentation of the word to Jane is a mark of some intimacy between them. When Mr Knightley observes to himself, “These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick. It was a child’s play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill’s part,” he makes explicit the novel’s suggestion that social intercourse is a game with particular rules. Like a game, social interaction requires skill and sometimes produces winners and losers.
Although the narrator typically describes all events from Emma’s point of view, this chapter is unique in that it is narrated entirely from Mr. Knightley’s point of view, depending on what he can see of the word games transpiring in the parlour. By shifting to Mr. Knightley’s point of view, we get a new perspective on the mixture of knowledge and bewilderment that each character experiences. This new emphasis on Mr. Knightley’s character and point of view subtly alerts the reader that he is becoming a central character.
The Box Hill trip is not a success. Mr. and Mrs. Elton keep to themselves; Mr. Knightley, Miss Bates, and Jane form a second exclusive party; and Emma stays with Harriet and Frank. Emma is disappointed by Harriet’s and Frank’s dullness. Later, Frank becomes excessively lively and gallant. Emma is confident that there is nothing behind his flirtations, but she is aware that others can pick up on their flirtation.
“At first it was downright dullness to Emma. She had never seen Frank Churchill so silent and stupid. He said nothing worth hearing-- looked without seeing--admired without intelligence--listened without knowing what she said. While he was so dull, it was no wonder that Harriet should be dull likewise; and they were both insufferable.
When they all sat down it was better; to her taste a great deal better, for Frank Churchill grew talkative and gay, making her his first object. Every distinguishing attention that could be paid, was paid to her. To amuse her, and be agreeable in her eyes, seemed all that he cared for--and Emma, glad to be enlivened, not sorry to be flattered, was gay and easy too, and gave him all the friendly encouragement, the admission to be gallant, which she had ever given in the first and most animating period of their acquaintance; but which now, in her own estimation, meant nothing, though in the judgment of most people looking on it must have had such an appearance as no English word but flirtation could very well describe. "Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Woodhouse flirted together excessively. " They were laying themselves open to that very phrase--and to having it sent off in a letter to Maple Grove by one lady, to Ireland by another. Not that Emma was gay and thoughtless from any real felicity; it was rather because she felt less happy than she had expected. She laughed because she was disappointed; and though she liked him for his attentions, and thought them all, whether in friendship, admiration, or playfulness, extremely judicious, they were not winning back her heart. She still intended him for her friend.”
Emma behaves badly and is drawn into one of Frank’s spiteful games. Afterwards, Mr Knightley reprimands her.
I think that this is the most important scene in the novel.
Though cleverness is depicted favourably in general in Emma, the Box Hill scene presents cleverness as a hurtful force. Frank Churchill’s ability to deceive everyone into believing he is infatuated with Emma is powered by his restless frustration. Fortunately, Emma is sensible enough not to be taken in by his flirtations, but a less perceptive woman might have been hurt when she discovered they were not serious. Moreover, Frank’s attentions, and Emma’s acceptance of them, cause pain to Mr. Knightley, and we later realize that Frank’s flirting with Emma is also hurtful to Jane.
Emma’s hurtful response to Miss Bates is the most blatant example of cleverness as a harmful quality and a clear sign that Frank’s lack of seriousness has had a bad effect on Emma. In tone and substance, Emma’s sarcastic remark to Miss Bates squarely hits its target, but it displays a casual cruelty that we have never seen in Emma before. Mr. Knightley’s reprimand and Emma’s subsequent chagrin may qualify as the greatest emotional crisis in the novel—it is certainly the crisis that is described with the most directness and at the greatest length. Unlike Emma’s unpleasant surprise regarding Mr. Elton and the emotional fluctuations that have accompanied her experiences with Frank, Knightley’s disapproval drives Emma to tears.
When Mr. Knightley reminds Emma that Miss Bates “is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age must probably sink more,” he reveals the harsh realities faced by single women in Austen’s time. Genteel women who were not able to marry and who did not inherit enough wealth to support themselves were threatened not only with a loss of social privilege, but also with a fall in material comforts. Or, as in Jane Fairfax’s case, they were forced into a kind of work that amounts to an almost complete loss of freedom. Emma is protected from this threat by her father’s wealth, but we and Emma become increasingly aware that other women in Emma’s society are not so lucky.
Later, Emma reflects on her behaviour and is mortified.
“Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of this representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!
Time did not compose her. As she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more. She never had been so depressed. Happily it was not necessary to speak. There was only Harriet, who seemed not in spirits herself, fagged, and very willing to be silent; and Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.”
Some days later, Mr. Weston arrives to escort Emma to see Mrs. Weston—clearly something is amiss. Assured that Mrs. Weston is well, Emma’s first concern is for Isabella’s family and for Mr. Knightley in London, but Mr. Weston assures her that the news does not involve them. At Randalls, Emma is greeted by Mrs. Weston, who explains that Frank has just revealed that he and Jane have been secretly engaged. Emma is shocked, embarrassed by the things she has said to Frank about Jane, and concerned for Harriet’s feelings.
"Have you indeed no idea?" said Mrs. Weston in a trembling voice. "Cannot you, my dear Emma--cannot you form a guess as to what you are to hear?"
"So far as that it relates to Mr. Frank Churchill, I do guess. "
"You are right. It does relate to him, and I will tell you directly;" (resuming her work, and seeming resolved against looking up. ) "He has been here this very morning, on a most extraordinary errand. It is impossible to express our surprise. He came to speak to his father on a subject, --to announce an attachment--"
She stopped to breathe. Emma thought first of herself, and then of Harriet.
"More than an attachment, indeed, " resumed Mrs. Weston; "an engagement-- a positive engagement. --What will you say, Emma--what will any body say, when it is known that Frank Churchill and Miss Fairfax are engaged;--nay, that they have been long engaged!"
Emma even jumped with surprise;--and, horror-struck, exclaimed,
"Jane Fairfax!--Good God! You are not serious? You do not mean it?"
Emma quickly relieves Mrs. Weston by assuring her that she has no feelings for Frank. She is angry, however, about his behaviour toward her and Jane. Mrs. Weston defends her stepson, telling Emma that there were misunderstandings between him and Jane and that he will be writing her a letter detailing the extenuating circumstances. Mr. Churchill has given his consent to the match, though he has requested that it remain secret until more time has passed after his wife’s death. Mr. Weston enters the room, and Emma assures him that the news of Frank’s engagement has not caused her any pain. But Emma cannot help expressing her disgust at Frank’s behaviour.
"Impropriety! Oh! Mrs. Weston--it is too calm a censure. Much, much beyond impropriety!--It has sunk him, I cannot say how it has sunk him in my opinion. So unlike what a man should be!-- None of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life. "
Emma realises that once again she has manipulated Harriet into placing her affections onto the wrong man. Emma had intended Frank for Harriet. It seems that Harriet’s heat is to be broken once again.
"Harriet, poor Harriet!"--Those were the words; in them lay the tormenting ideas which Emma could not get rid of, and which constituted the real misery of the business to her. Frank Churchill had behaved very ill by herself--very ill in many ways, --but it was not so much _his_ behaviour as her _own_, which made her so angry with him. It was the scrape which he had drawn her into on Harriet's account, that gave the deepest hue to his offence. --Poor Harriet! to be a second time the dupe of her misconceptions and flattery.”
But once again, Emma has been mistaken. Harriet was never in love with Frank Churchill. Ever since the ball, Harriet has been in love with Mr Knightley.
"Oh, dear, " cried Harriet, "now I recollect what you mean; but I was thinking of something very different at the time. It was not the gipsies--it was not Mr. Frank Churchill that I meant. No! (with some elevation) I was thinking of a much more precious circumstance-- of Mr. Knightley's coming and asking me to dance, when Mr. Elton would not stand up with me; and when there was no other partner in the room. That was the kind action; that was the noble benevolence and generosity; that was the service which made me begin to feel how superior he was to every other being upon earth. "
The novel’s narrative pace speeds up in these chapters, as instead of facing a slow accumulation of details that require interpretation, we begin to be given the key detail for interpreting all that has transpired thus far—the answer to the question of who is in love with whom.
“Emma's eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched-- she admitted--she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet's having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”
Emma’s development is described explicitly, rather than implicitly. At the same time, Harriet finally realizes Emma’s limitations. Harriet begins her conversation with Emma about her feelings for Mr Knightley with an assertion that Emma can “see into everybody’s heart,” but she soon understands that she has been wrong. Rather than waiting for Emma’s approval of a match between herself and Mr Knightley, Harriet proceeds to explain in a self-confident manner why she believes their disparity in rank need not be a hindrance. She goes so far as to express hope that Emma will not present obstacles to the match, demonstrating that her attachment to Mr Knightley is stronger than her loyalty to her friend.
"I never should have presumed to think of it at first, " said she, "but for you. You told me to observe him carefully, and let his behaviour be the rule of mine--and so I have. But now I seem to feel that I may deserve him; and that if he does chuse me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful.”
Not for the first time, Emma has got things horribly wrong.
“With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body's destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing--for she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley. --Were this most unequal of all connexions to take place, on her must rest all the reproach of having given it a beginning; for his attachment, she must believe to be produced only by a consciousness of Harriet's;--and even were this not the case, he would never have known Harriet at all but for her folly.”
Emma goes for a walk in the garden. To her surprise, Mr. Knightley joins her. He has just returned from London. She worries that Mr Knightley will confess his feelings for Harriet, and she offers her news about Frank and Jane’s secret engagement. Mr Knightley already knows about it and offers his consolation, but Emma assures him she has never had feelings for Frank. She explains and expresses regret for her behaviour, and Mr Knightley is strangely silent. Finally, he admits he may have underrated Frank and expresses envy at his circumstances. Worried that Mr Knightley is about to discuss Harriet, Emma quickly silences him. He is mortified, and seeing his pain Emma invites him to speak after all, saying she will be glad to hear him as a friend. He says he does not wish her friendship and declares his love. She is surprised, thrilled, and by the time they reach the house they are engaged to marry. Mr Knightley is surprised as well—he was convinced that Emma was in love with Frank; he departed for London to cool his feelings for her, and he has returned thinking she would need comfort. He has moved from resigned despair to perfect happiness in half an hour.
Nearly every sentence that passes between Emma and Knightley in these final chapters is misinterpreted, reinforcing the picture the novel has given us of the difficulty of correctly interpreting social exchanges. Emma is reserved because she fears that Mr Knightley will confide his attachment to Harriet, but Knightley mistakes Emma’s reserve for grief at the loss of Frank. He also mistakes Emma’s flush, when he says that he knows already about Frank and Jane, for suppressed unhappiness, when in truth Emma is worried that Mr Knightley’s knowledge of the situation comes from Harriet. When Emma congratulates Mr Knightley on his insight into their relationship and sighs, “I seem to have been doomed to blindness,” Mr Knightley believes Emma is expressing her regret for having been attached to Frank, while Emma actually refers to her blindness with regard to Knightley himself.
So there is resolution in these final chapters. Although Emma ends in the traditional manner of a comedy, with a series of weddings to secure everyone’s happiness and reaffirm social ties, the question of whether or not the novel’s ending is truly happy is often posed. Some critics suggest that Emma regresses, rather than develops, at the end of the novel because she exchanges her independence, energy, and wit for a wish;
“to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgments had been ever so superior to her own . . . that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in future.”
Instead of marrying a man who is her equal, Emma marries a father figure, and, not only will she not be travelling beyond Highbury, she will not even leave her own father’s home. Emma’s and Mr. Knightley’s reminiscences about her childhood remind us that his main role in her life has been as an authority figure and underline the fact that a large portion of her love for him is as someone who can be depended upon to guide her. She is so used to calling him “Mr. Knightley” that she says she will only call him “George” on their wedding day. Emma’s position at the end of the novel is strikingly similar to the position she was in at the beginning.
It is all very well for critics to make assertions about Jane Austen’s novel. Jane Austen is writing about a period and a society that she knows. It’s almost two hundred years since “Emma” was published and I sometimes wonder what she would think about how we live our lives today? What would Jane Austen think of reality television, talk shows, Youtube, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, exposés of the indiscretions of sports stars in the glossy magazines and the national press? The yearning that kids have to be famous?
Jane Austen didn’t have Sigmund Freud to tell her about psychoanalysis, but she didn’t need him. She knew it all by herself. It would be another eighty five years before Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams”. I wonder if Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung knew about Jane Austen’s “Emma”? The book would make an excellent study for the “Electra” complex.”
I think that Jane Austin’s laser insight would tell her that human beings have changed little since the days of Regency England. We play psychological games, manipulate, gossip, spread rumours, lie, love and cheat. Just as they did in Jane Austen’s day.
We just do it bigger and louder and on a global scale.