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11 august 2020

Reading Emma this time was a sobering experience, almost a depressing one. I remembered the book as a catalogue of foolish behavior, with a central character who eventually gets what she wants without amending her foolishness all that much. Played for laughs, that would be Clueless, still one of the most accurate adaptations that Hollywood has ever made of a novel. But Emma itself is not played for laughs. It lacks both the cynicism and the innocence that make Pride and Prejudice (two years earlier) so cutting and so funny, too. Emma reads to me (maybe just this time through, who knows) as a book about the pride and the prejudices that we cannot let go, even though we are dragged into intimate realization of them.

Everything in Emma is driven by class prejudice. The problems the novel presents are generated by people of uncertain standing who have to be assessed and assimilated into the thin stratum of English gentry the novel is concerned with. Harriet Smith, in Austen's marvelous phrase "the natural daughter of somebody," may be related to dukes or dustmen, and it's unclear for much of the novel whether she should marry a farmer or the master of Donwell – I almost wrote Downton – Abbey: Mr. Knightley. Frank Churchill is the son of a respectable country gentleman, but he has great expectations from the proverbial rich uncle: shouldn't he marry the handsome, clever, and rich Emma Woodhouse? Jane Fairfax's family is headed the other way on the social scale: she is the niece of the much-decayed gentlewoman Miss Bates, whose position in life has been reduced to wondering if someone will send a carriage for her so that she won't get her feet wet, and then nattering about the carriage all night long when they do. Without resources or dowry, Jane looks like she's in for a spell of governessing, a profession she compares to chattel slavery. Who would marry Jane Fairfax? She is handsomer and more clever than Emma, but she is the opposite of rich.

Our focus throughout is on Emma. Whenever fiction focuses on a character, we like that character and want them to succeed, even if they're a serial killer: that's part of what makes serial killer novels so evilly fascinating. Well, Emma Woodhouse is no serial killer. But she lives almost exclusively for the small gradations of privilege that set her above her neighbors. She takes her superiority for granted, and we hear the long monologues that depict her inelegant inferiors – Miss Bates, the clergyman's bride Mrs. Elton, Harriet herself – as Emma hears them. They are inoffensive people, no worse than anyone that each of us has to put up with just to get through a day of pre-pandemic existence; but as they reverberate through Emma's consciousness and into ours, they come to seem the worst fate that could be inflicted on an individual of sense and spirit, or whatever other Austenian virtues that person might hold.

Of course Emma is supposed to represent Emma's maturing into a person of even more sense and spirit, a person who can now condescend to visit Miss Bates without sneering at her afterwards. Mr. Knightley, her mentor and eventual husband, directs Emma to internalize the pity appropriate to Miss Bates – if never the compassion that might be appropriate to Mrs. Elton or the sympathy that might be owed Frank Churchill, who have their own troubles fitting in and are quite decent people in any way that matters. But does Mr. Knightley really change Emma? And even if he did, what's so great about a mansplainer grooming the bride that (as he admits at one point) he's loved since she was thirteen?

I wonder if I'm just projecting some stray bitterness of my own onto what is admittedly an exquisite novel. I am in no mood to save Jane Austen from my own criticisms, certainly. But she is such a smart and perceptive writer that I can't help wondering if Emma is her claustrophobic cry from within the smothering experience of small-town superciliousness. Frank marries Jane, Harriet marries the respectable farmer Mr. Martin. Emma marries her Mr. Knightley, smugly counting on providing him with an heir to Donwell Abbey even though she'd bewailed the possibility of him marrying somebody else and cutting out their mutual nephew from the inheritance. Everybody ends up in exactly the rank that ironbound convention would have prescribed; even Harriet Smith is providentially revealed to be the daughter of a tradesman and thus a fitting mate for a prosperous farmer. All goes on just as destiny would have it, the same class superiorities replicating themselves generation after generation, echoing down into the 21st century – no small part of that replication being the sugar-coated rom-com aspects of Emma itself.

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. Kindle Edition.