Thursday, 4 May 2017

#5 A book published 100 years ago

Emma – Jane Austen

The thing about Jane Austen is that you will probably love her writing or you will hate it – no middle ground do I foresee. Lots of writers don’t seem to like her. As John Mullan writing for the Guardian points out: “From Charlotte Brontë, who found only “neat borders” and elegant confinement in her fiction, to DH Lawrence, who called her “English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word”, many thought her limited to the small world and small concerns of her characters. Some of the great modernists were perplexed. “What is all this about Jane Austen?” Joseph Conrad asked HG Wells.“What is there in her? What is it all about?” “I dislike Jane … Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice,” Vladimir Nabokov told the critic Edmund Wilson."

Happily, I belong to the former camp.

Emma was the last book published (1815) by Jane Austen before her death. Emma was preceded by the other popular Austen novels – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mansfield Park (1814).That means, she wrote four books in the span of five years, and all have stood the test of time, wow! Two were published posthumously – Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (in 1817).

But, do note – the only one of her novels with a name in the title is – of course, Emma! Because in Emma, our titular protagonist we have an unusual heroine – one who is deeply flawed, yet so immensely likeable.

“Emma Woodhouse, clever, and rich with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence…” , opens Jane Austen’s personal favourite. Emma is the younger daughter of a very affectionate and indulgent Mr. Woodhouse who is very particular that Emma never leaves him, he is very anxious about everyone’s health(especially his), forbids travel as much as it can be helped and as a consequence, after Emma’s elder sister, Isabella,  gets married to Mr. John Knightley and moves to London, she is left solely responsible for her father’s well-being. 

The story is set in a fictional village of Highbury, where the intrusion of the world outside is scarcely felt. Since Emma’s mother had died when she was very little, Miss Styles was the one who looked after both the sisters, more a friend than a governess. However, Miss Styles gets married to Mr. Weston (his second marriage) and leaves Emma in-charge of the Woodhouse estate – Hartfield. Her departure is deeply missed by Emma and Mr. Woodhouse.

Across Hartfield, lives Mr. Knightley , at Donwell Abbey, “a sensible man”, who was not only an intimate friend of the family but was also the elder brother of Isabella’s husband. He is a frequent visitor at Hartfield and seems to be the only one who is able to see through Emma’s foolish decisions. This was so because, Emma after correctly predicting that Miss Taylor would in fact end up marrying Mr. Weston, gets it into her head that she has some sort of ability to get others married off as well! And she starts her schemes which lead to a lot of confusion and meddling in the lives of others.

Well, as Mr. Knightley clearly observes, “the real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way”. He is only one who warns her that her interference will in getting others married will only land her in trouble, but obviously she doesn’t heed that piece of advice.

Her first scheme is to marry Miss Harriet Smith, a naïve, sweet and witless young boarder of a Girls’ School nearby. She takes it upon herself to improve her – especially her taste in men. She gets a proposal of marriage from a well-meaning and amiably suited Mr. Robert Martin, a farmer. But since Emma believes Harriet is capable of much more than a farmer, influences her decision in turning down that offer – this irritates Mr. Knightley since he believes Emma’s involvement in this only made Harriet’s situation worse. Instead Emma thinks Mr. Elton, the local clergyman a better suitor for Harriet. The flirtations and courtship rituals go back and forth with Emma playing the middleman, Harriet falling in love with Mr. Elton, and the vain Mr. Elton desperately hoping that he can win Emma’s hand (as well as her wealth) in marriage. Again Mr. Knightley had already cautioned her, “Mr. Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally.”  

What is interesting to note is that, Emma has certainly no clue that Mr. Elton is wooing her instead of Harriet, and because of the sincerity behind her desire to get Harriet well-settled, we will forgive her foolishness in the end – when Harriet is heartbroken and Mr. Elton turns arrogant after being decidedly turned down by Emma.

Emma, herself doesn’t have any plans on marrying and voices things that no Victorian woman should probably say – in such ways you can see how Austen was a true revolutionary. Emma herself explains, “ My being charming, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming – one other person at least.” Besides she doesn’t want to change her situation – she isn’t in need of employment, no need of fortune or wealth and has the complete custody of Hartfield – why should she change that? So, as she tells a curious Harriet at the start – she will never get married. But, Emma forgets – she is in an Austen novel – everyone does get married! (But she doesn’t know it yet.) Illustration on the right - proves it.

Soon after the Elton fiasco – enter two new young characters into the picture – one is the accomplished Miss Jane Fairfax and the young Mr. Frank Churchill (son of Mr. Weston from his first marriage). Now, all three young people – Emma, Jane and Frank have a strange connection. They had all lost their mothers when they were young. Emma was fortunate enough to stay with her father but Frank is sent to live with his uncle and aunt, whereas the young orphan Jane is taken in by an old friend of her late father. 

Turns out that Mr. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are secretly engaged, and since he cannot risk disclosing this without hurting his ailing aunt’s sentiments, he masks their true relation by openly flirting with Emma. She enjoys it, Mr. Knightley doesn’t. And Emma knows she doesn’t love Frank Churchill but loves the attention she gets. Instead she is hoping his favourable eye lands on Harriet. What a shock when she finds out that Frank and Jane are engaged! She had once again committed a blunder.

But, the most shocking of all would be Harriet (who falls in love three times in the novel), informing her that she is completely in love with none other than Mr. Knightley himself!

Emma finds at that moment that while busy interfering in other peoples’ affairs of the heart she had completely neglected her own, she finds that she has been in love with Mr. Knightley all this while. (See, we told you this would happen, didn’t we?)

To her credit though, she doesn’t intend to stand in the way of Harriet, but Mr. Knightley confesses his love for her and in one of the most eloquent literary proposals (“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me”), asks her to
marry him, she agrees.

In the end, the sweet Harriet ends up marrying her first love Robert Martin, Frank gets to marry his sweetheart Jane, and Emma and Mr. Knightley join in happy matrimony – the end.

I can’t do enough justice to the book in such a short review, but it is one of the most charming of all Austen’s works (currently it has overtaken Sense and Sensibility to be my favourite). It has its flaws no doubt, the snobbishness of upper class life and its never ending dialogues on very frivolous things might dampen reading spirits. But through it all, we see a character who is kind-hearted though tactless, and we realize we have met a real-life heroine at last – she isn’t necessarily right all the time, but she has her heart in the right place.  


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