My latest read is an old favourite, though I think I like Pride and Prejudice best of all the Austen books.
Emma is the story of Emma Woodhouse, who, in the opening lines, we are told is ‘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.’
Perhaps having very little to vex her is why she indulges in some cack-handed match-making with her friend Harriet Smith, who she first discourages from marrying a local farmer (which would be the sensible thing), then pushes her towards the awful local cleric Mr Elton and finally in the direction of Frank Churchill, the son of one of the residents of Highbury where they all live in a goldfish bowl where nothing much happens.
I reread Emma because I wanted to look at the relationship between Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley. Some say that Mr Knightley represents Jane Austen herself in his views and he acts as Emma’s conscience. I’m planning a similar character in my own novel so I wanted to see again how she handles it.
And it’s the characters that are the most wonderful thing about reading Jane Austen. From the odious Mrs Elton, who manages to condescend to virtually everyone she comes into contact with, even those above her on the social scale, to the chattering and vacuous ‘poor’ Miss Bates, the characters are so strong they always stay with you. Yet again though, rereading Emma has shown me that you need to keep on reinforcing character traits so they become real. It seems its not possible to overdo this.
This time around I also really appreciated Austen’s comedy, not something I’d focused on so much in the past but her biting put-downs are just wonderful.
I’d always thought of Austen as old-fashioned in the sense that there is a lot of narrative but this time I realised I was wrong about that – the scenes actually flow thick and fast and she weaves the background in as she goes. There’s none of the pages and pages of description that you find in other historical great works of literature. She is also wonderful with dialogue, using it so well to show character.
But to the point of the learning exercise – Mr Knightley is the insightful and savvy character in this story, forseeing the mess Emma will get into with Harriet Smith and also that Frank Churchill is not what he seems. Despite knowing that he’s right (because I know the plot), he still comes across as caring and thoughtful, rather than arrogant about his good judgement. I also like the way he is hard on Emma at times, pushing her to higher level of expectation, which of course in the end is because he loves her. ‘I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it,’ he tells her.
But I think this line, where he is talking about the absent Frank Churchill, sums up his character best: ‘There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by manouvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution. It is Frank Churchill’s duty to pay this attention to his father. He knows it to be so, by his promises and messages; but if he wished to do it, it might be done.’ In saying so, Mr Knightley makes no excuses for Frank Churchill as everyone else is doing and ultimately he’s right. The Box Hill picnic scene, where Emma delivers her cutting putdown to Miss Bates, and the dressing down Knightley gives her afterwards, would have to be one of my favourite scenes in literature.
One of the things I love about Jane Austen is the absolutely rigid class system she writes about – the rules so prescriptive, they provide their own comedy without even trying. The Coles, a Highbury couple are considered a ‘very good sort of people – friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel.’ Watching Emma tie herself in knots over an invitation to a dinner party they are to have is just genius. When you read a line like ‘The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them,’ it’s hard not to laugh. And yet, it was all so important to these people in England at that time.
But even the self-aware Mr Knightley manages to be oblivious to his love for Emma, though he never scales the heights of Emma’s own delusions about her muddled efforts. Seeing him dislike Frank Churchill more and more as he becomes jealous proves him to be just as human and flawed as the rest of them. And then his speech to Emma in the garden at the moment of revelation is perfect – ‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.’
I’ll never get tired of these stories and I think Jane Austen has plenty to teach contemporary writers about characterisation.