Friday, 22 July 2011
The Jane Austen Book Club Week Five: Emma
This picture was done at the most recent book club by the lovely Lauren! Isn't she super talented? If we're lucky, she may post you all a link to her deviantart portfolio in the comments. Come on Lauren! Pretty please? :)
With all the recent hooplah about women in writing, I think it's kind of great to be re-reading Emma.
Oh, don't get me wrong. Emma's not exactly out there saying men are the root of all evil or anything. In fact, she's kind of doing the opposite. While she vows never to get married herself, it is only to take care of her elderly, miserable father. And her one joy in life is marrying her women friends off. She's got a Noah's Ark view of the world. It must go two by two.
We all have that friend, don't we? I fear, in my group, it may occassionally be me.
But the book is named after her. She is the only Austen heroine who has that after final publication. And the story is her coming of age.
The Emma plotline, that of the "humbling of a pretty, know-it-all girl" (Jocelyn, the Jane Austen Book Club film) is supposed to be one of the most popular of all time. Published in Decemeber 1815, it was reviewed favourably by Sir Walter Scott, and was dedicated at his own request to the Prince Regent. Pretty cool, hey? But there is another plotline to the story as well, and that is the story of Jane Fairfax. Someone at my book club on Wednesday night actually said that it could be argued that it is the parallel story of Jane which is actually the more interesting one.
Jane Fairfax (and here the author does what any confident writer would do in naming an accomplished character after herself! ha!) is an orphan who has been taken in by a family friend and has grown up to be an accomplished young lady. She occassionally visits Highbury to visit her grandmother and aunt, Mrs. and Miss Bates. She 'belongs' to Highbury. And being Emma's exact age and everything, she is also unwittingly Emma's rival. I see some structural symmetry here between the stories of the two girls, or at least some sort of authorial device. Being the only two women of about 21 in Highbury who warrant a mention aside from Harriet who I think must be younger, I see Jane and Emma as akin to Bertha Mason and Jane Eyre- arguably two sides of the same coin. I see Jane as a lesson to Emma, foreshadowing the kind of person she will become over the course of the book. Perhaps Jane is Emma's rival but she is also not attempting to be and by the end of the book, Emma feels sad that she never tried to be better friends with this girl.
This novel is the first time we have encountered the high end of middle class British society. Well. I think thats where they would be. The Woodhouses are landed gentry and most importantly, they still have their money and their house. The Dashwoods WERE landed gentry. The Eliots still are to a degree but they're strapped for cash. The Morlands certainly aren't and Fanny Price is not but her cousins' family is. But Emma is still very much assured of her station. And rank is of utmost importance to her. Now listen carefully because I am going to tell you the best kept secret of the novel.
Emma is a snob.
Ha, you say. I already knew that. So how is it that Emma is a snob and we still love her? I think the answer there lies in the fact that we see the world through her eyes. We see the absurd little world of Highbury in Emma's very judgemental black and white way and we laugh at it, but we also laugh at her somewhat. We find her lovable in her oh-so-very-wrong-about-everything way. Because she's mostly harmless in it. Mr. Knightley on the other hand is pretty much right about everything, as is his brother. They see when people are lying before anyone else. George Knightley (Emma's Knightley) is the first to suspect Frank Churchill of carrying on with Miss Fairfax. And it is he that guides Emma. When she is wrong about things he is the only one who tells her she is wrong and then she corrects her ways, such as when she is cruel to Miss Bates at Box Hill and he scolds her. She then goes to make amends. I think because Emma Regards Donwell Abbey, Randalls and Hartfield as the height of society, it is really only the Westons and Knightley who could have this effect. She doesn't listen to anyone else. When the Coles presume to have a party, she wants to say no outright just on principle because they think they are high society. But then she is not invited and its a huge slight. And she hates that Mrs. Elton presumes herself to be the first lady in every room even when Emma is there too. But then again she hates Mrs. Elton and so do I.
If you've ever seen the version with Juliette Stevenson playing Mrs. Elton in it, you'll know what I mean. Ugh, horrid woman. There are no words.
We see in some of the male characters a few archetypes that Jane Austen goes to again and again. First of all, there is Mr. Elton. He is a clergyman, but for the first time he is not the love interest. He is not Edward Ferrars or Edmund Bertram. At first, he is seen to be a potential love interest by Emma for Harriet, and she convinces her protegee as such, but then it turns out he loves Emma. And suddenly she is no longer seeing him so favourably. Because it turns out that Elton is a worse snob than Emma. He believes, possibly, that to attract a snob, one must be one. And this is true when it comes to Augusta, his disgusting bride. But Emma's snobbery is a facet of her youth and in a way this story is her coming of age. Snobbery in others eventually teaches her to abhor it in herself.
Then there is Mr. Frank Churchill. Another example of Jane Austen never trusting men who are too charming. Like Willoughby and Henry Crawford except it is not the heroine who rejects Frank but Frank who cannot attach himself to Emma. And Emma is impervious to his charms because she really loves Knightley and can't realise it until she is in danger of losing him to a Mrs. Knightley who is not herself. Yet Frank does not end up hated, and therefore he is more like Willoughby than Crawford. He writes a letter and explains himself, and Emma finds that she cannot stay mad at him, just like Jane has been magnanimous in not blaming Emma for her flirting with Frank. Which is really very big of her when you consider how cruel Frank is to Jane.
I haven't said much about Harriet yet, and really there isn't much to say. Emma likes Harriet because (as the Josh character says of Cher in Clueless) she never had a mother and needs a human doll to play with. It is very much like that. Emma needs to be adored and Harriet hangs on her every word. In the end, however, Emma could not truly dispell the true feelings between Robert Martin (a non character in that the letters he writes are only ever paraphrased by others and he only occurs as an off the page character) and Harriet. Which is excellent because by the time his second proposal occurs, Emma has changed and wants her friend to accept. Also, it is convenient because Emma has accepted marriage from the man Harriet loves, i.e. Knightley.
When one really takes into account the lying, backstabbing and manipulation, it's no wonder the story was so easily adapted for a teenage drama like Clueless.
What do you think?
Next week we read Pride and Prejudice. Finally! Mr. Darcy!!!