lørdag den 18. marts 2023

Emma - Jane Austen (1816)



The third Jane Austen novel in this marathon of mine is “Emma” (never mind I accidentally switched the order of this and Mansfield Park) and while there is a lot of familiar Austen here, it does feel like a departure from the previous two novels.

First off, the heroine of the novel is as usual a young woman, but not the lower genteel, almost impoverished girl I am used to from Austen. Neither is she the cynical observer to portrait gentility from the outside, the Austen alter ego. Instead, Emma is all that Austen is usually skeptical about:  Rich, unfocused, arrogant and busy running other people’s life. The only concession Austen gives Emma Woodhouse is that she is intelligent and at heart a good person. Austen famously mentioned that she had created a heroine that nobody would like.

Young Emma lives with the hypochondriac, but friendly, father at the Hartfield Estate in the fictional village of Highbury, south-east of London. This is a local community with a limited amount of people qualifying to be of interest to Emma. Regular farmers and tradesmen are simply below her interest. What she is interested in is matchmaking. She takes credit for the marriage of her former governess and friend with Mr. Weston and she spends a good third of the book trying to setup her friend Harriet with the vicar, Mr. Elton, rather than, God forbid, the successful, but not genteel, farmer, Robert Martin. It is no spoiler to say that this blows up spectacularly in Emma’s face, which indeed most of her schemes do.

When first the quiet Jane Fairfax arrives in the village to stay with her aunt and shortly after the dashing Frank Weston Churchill to visit his father (Mr. Weston from an earlier marriage), Emma gets more fuel for her imagination. Only the old family friend, George Knightly seems able to rein Emma in.

There is a development of several characters in “Emma”, as there usually is in Austen’s novels, and good for that. The Emma of the opening of the story is really not that sympathetic. Far too conceited and busy arranging the lives of others. We all know the type who is trying to arrange your life, convinced they know better, and I frankly have very little patience for that sort. Maybe a gender thing. Emma, however, grows out of it. Not through an epiphany, but as a process, partly guided by the disasters her interfering causes and partly by the horrendous example of Mrs. Elton, when she is introduced. She possesses all the poor qualities of Emma, but a notch or two worse. For me, reading the novel, I believe the development of Emma into a more understanding and respectful character was what I took most pleasure in. Austen has a wonderful way of making the process natural and believable and the Emma of the end is truly likable.

Austen is also as usual an expert on drawing very distinct characters. Almost, but not quite caricatures. Sometimes amusing, sometimes to serve a point, but always types we recognize. The host of characters in Emma are very much alive and real to the reader and not two characters blend together. If there is a miss here, then it is the strong focus on a particular strata of people, while those below, especially the domestic, are largely ignored. Part of that may be due to Emma’s viewpoint, but it is common for all the Austen books I have read.

If there is a weakness to “Emma” then it is the lack of a progressive narrative. Both “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” had a story that went from A to B, but although “Emma” also ends in a wedding orgy, it feels through the most part as if it is not getting anywhere. Part of that can be explained by the storyline being the character development, but this happens so slowly that you only really notice it in the end (or I did). I lacked something to drive the story and that made it a slower read for me than the previous novels. Or maybe it is just that active matchmaking is does not serve as an interesting plot for me. A gender thing again, perhaps.

Still, it was a lovely read and I am actually sorry that I am now done with the life of Emma Woodhouse. It would have been interesting to follow her further adventures. Highly recommended.