On Emma

Counting from its actual publication date of December 1815, or from the date on the frontispeice of 1816, Emma is now 200 years old. Looking back through these pages I find I haven’t had much to say about it, but I’ve read it about as often as the others, and more than Northanger Abbey, which I never read at all. The book’s first line describes its heroine as ‘handsome, clever and rich.’ It’s not too much of a stretch to say that that description fits Emma as well as it does Emma. This novel is handsome: it shares with Persuasion the elegance and assurance of Austen’s mature style. It’s also very clever, in more ways than one, and richly sown with secrets: the more you look, the more you see. The use of games and charades is one kind of cleverness, but there’s another kind altogether in the way the storytelling works. It’s easy to miss how cleverly Austen uses Emma’s consciousness (which Emma herself fondly thinks penetrating) as a mask for the real machinations of the plot and the true motives of the other characters. Even after many readings, it’s Emma’s version of Frank and Jane that we see—Jane as cold and insipid, Frank as silly and trifling—though there are plentiful clues that she’s wrong about both. It’s Emma’s mind that not only unfolds but shapes the story, and cajoles the reader into missing exactly those clues that Emma herself misses too. And unlike a detective novelist, Austen is completely inconspicuous, almost impassive, in planting her clues. 

John Mullan in The Guardian points out how many clues are buried in Miss Bates’s long monologues (which many readers will probably skip). He goes as far as to say Austen here invented the free indirect style that came to characterise the modern novel. This novel does feel modern, because of Emma’s plainspoken inner monologue and because Emma herself is so flawed. Compared with Pamela or Evelina, the virtuous, one-dimensional heroines of eighteenth-century novels, she’s much more real and rounded, much more modern. As Austen said about her: “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Emma is likeable, though, in spite of her flaws, and she grows more likeable the less she is self-deceived. Like Pride and Prejudice, the plot of this novel hinges on the heroine’s self-knowledge. With Emma’s dawning self-awareness comes truer perception (for herself and us) of the others around her.

Mullan also points out how all but imperceptibly Austen uses a character like Mr Perry, who never speaks a word of his own, to reflect the other characters. Something similar happens with Miss Nash. Harriet looks up to Miss Nash, but the attentive reader, conditioned by Emma’s rigid class consciousness, will notice how pitiful Miss Nash’s claims are: a teacher in a boarding school, on the vertiginous edge of gentility, desperately in love with Mr Elton but with less chance even than Harriet of his ever reciprocating. She only ever appears in Harriet’s reports, never in person; her principal role is to make Harriet look pathetic. Harriet is another cleverly drawn character, whose abysmal vacuity is given in a few lines. Mr Wodehouse and Mrs Elton, even Mr Weston and Mr John Knightley, are comic creations, subtly but sharply drawn.

In a novel about perception or the failure to perceive, one of Austen's most incisive observations is the rarity of true discernment. Mr Weston’s main flaw—a frustrating one for Emma—is his lack of discrimination. He gives equal weight to the company and opinions of people so widely different as Miss Bates and Emma herself. Mrs Elton (nee Hawkins), properly despised by Emma, is liked and lauded by all the rest of the village. Here is her introduction: “A week had not passed since Miss Hawkins’s name was first mentioned in Highbury, before she was, by some means or other, discovered to have every recommendation of person and mind; to be handsome, elegant, highly accomplished, and perfectly amiable [and] in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten.” Common report so blurs true character, common chatter so elevates the commonplace, that it’s no wonder a deception like Frank and Jane’s can be practiced so easily. Emma’s is not the only blindness. 

Charlotte Brontë objected to Emma that it lacked passion, that it was only concerned with “delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people.” What Austen so cleverly achieves in the new narrative style of this novel is to show how deceptive those surfaces can be, how the interplay between surfaces and inner lives both constructs and conceals realities, and how appearances and perceptions are the charades we all play. 

The Snowy Day

Among other things out from the library at the moment, we have The Snowy Day: Ezra Jack Keats' Caldecott-winning picture book from 1962. It's a simple story. An African American child, Peter, enjoys the snow. He makes snowmen and snow angels, makes tracks and takes a stick to beat a snow-shower down from a tree. He takes a snowball home in his pocket, but it melts in his warm house, where his warm mother pulls off his cold, wet socks. He dreams of more melting snow, an end to the white world he's just discovered, but in the morning, the snow is there still. He takes a friend and sets out again into another snowy day. That's all. 

This book was groundbreaking at the time, which speaks to how desolately white the children's book landscape must then have been. But the sad thing is, it still feels groundbreaking. It still feels unusual to see a black child as the main character (not the offsider) in a story that's just about unalloyed joy. And that is what this story is about. It's about beauty, innocence, wonder, the romance of childhood freedoms and childhood feats. It's not about justice. It's not about diversity or equality.

And yet, it is about those things. It's about the world we'd have if they'd already arrived. In this world, they don't need to be named or won. They're the air a child like Peter breathes, the transfigured landscape on which he sweeps his angel arms, makes his tracks.

All the fragile blue flowers

I've been thinking about all the writers and poets I've outlived. The ones who didn't make it into their late 30s, or even their early. Christopher Marlowe, Anne Brontë, Percy Shelley all died at 29. Joseph Plunkett was 28. Keats died eight months shy of turning 26. There are others. The ones who left glory behind them having lived barely a third of their due time.  Enough and not nearly enough. 

Keats comes up in Mary Oliver's quartet "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac," about her experience of cancer. Being 80, what she calls "the fortunate platform of many years," Oliver knows about the brevity of life. In the first of the poem's four parts, she names cancer the hunter who entered the forest of her body without a sound. In the third, she urges the reader who hasn't begun to live to think of Keats, who thought he had a lifetime. The poem moves from the shadow of death to the brighter shadow of life. In the end, it's the tiniest things that speak loudest, hold hardest. It's not the silent hunter but the fragile blue flowers that catch the breath and set the heart beating.

Here are the second and fourth parts, which I find the most moving. Listen to Mary Oliver read the whole poem here.

2.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river—
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn't remember
the sun rising, if I couldn't
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn't
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

4.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and faded in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn't
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll or crawl back
to the shrubs and then back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
life?

The Open Door

When Poetry magazine reached its hundredth year in 2012, it had published more than 40,000 poems, including many of the century's most famous: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Eliot's first published poem; Pound's "In a Station of the Metro"; Wallace Stevens' "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon." Choosing 100 poems for a 100th year collection must have been agonising, but one of the best things about The Open Door is the rich, conversational introduction by editor Christian Wiman, in which he explains not only the choices he's made but his view of poetry. It's an inclusive, strident view, insisting both that poetry is a public good and that it requires no public defence. He concedes that poetry for many will remain remote and inaccessible, but wonders, reverently, "by what unconscious routes poetry is reaching into lives that seem to have nothing to do with it? Who knows what atomic energies are unleashed by a solitary man or woman quietly encountering some arrangement of language that gives their being - shunted aside by chores and fears and who knows what - back to them? This is why I regret adding to the clamor over poetry's 'relevance.' The reaction is defensive and misguided, not because there is no hope for elevating poetry's importance but because its power is already greater than any public attention can confer upon it." I respond instinctively to the vision of poetry as majestic, almost miraculous, certainly unquenchable whatever disrepute, in an unworthy age, it might fall into. The best poems require no more defence than a Monet or a sunset. They pull you up short, break open the world you think you're in and show it to you afresh, lit by myth and aglow with gods. They give you back what you didn't know you'd lost.

One of the poems that did that for me was Mary Karr's "Disgraceland," published in the magazine in 2004. The poem opens with her first communion, describes a parched and luckless wandering, and ends like this:

When my thirst got great enough to ask,
     a clear stream welled up inside,
          some jade wave bouyed me forward,

and I found myself upright
     in the instant, with a garden
          inside my own ribs aflourish.

There, the arbor leafs.
     The vines push out plump grapes.
          You are loved, someone said. Take that

          and eat it.

 

 

Magic words

Olivia loves books. Our tastes don't always coincide but there are several family favourites in her growing collection. We like Charlie and Lola. We're happy to read One Fish, Two Fish many times over, which is just as well. 

My reintroduction to the world of children's books after a thirty-year gap has been instructive. Some books are enduring, like Dr Seuss and other mid-century classics: Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, where the monkeys all have wild 60s sideburns, and the very sweet Are you my mother?, published in 1960, which I remember from my 80s childhood. I remember Each Peach Pear Plum, and still delight in its lovely woodland feel. Some newer books are already classics, like Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo. Not all her books are that good, but this and a few others are cleverly plotted and charmingly rhymed, and Axel Scheffler's illustrations conjure a vivid and inviting world. I also love Sarah Garland's books, with titles like Going Swimming and Doing the Washing. These are rich vignettes of ordinary life, in which the illustrations beautifully embody the quality of life the simple stories evoke: bright, fluid and warm, imperfect but deeply nourishing. The unnamed mother in these books is a role model for me.

I've also seen beautifully illustrated and touching stories that leave the toddler unmoved. They're clearly aimed at sentimental parents, not imaginative two-year-olds. Other failures come from successful authors who turn out sequels that don't measure up. At the library the other day I discovered several sequels to a book I remember fondly: There's a Hippopotamus on my roof eating cake - none of which are really justified. As a plot device, there are only so many things to which a hippopotamus on the roof eating cake can reasonably lend itself.

More troubling to me is that so many books still reflect a world where everybody's white and protagonists, especially animals, are male by default. Almost worse than this, though, are the opposite books, where diversity is the subject, not the fabric. 'Look, brown babies are just as good! Kids with glasses can have almost as much fun!' These books only reinforce the hierarchies they're trying to overturn. They're morals without stories.

Still more disturbing, though, are the children's books - and there are many of them - that are just badly written. Stories that go nowhere, storytelling that's clumsy, prose that's loose and bland, and, unforgiveably, verse that doesn't scan. Why should little children be subjected to bad writing? Why should these tender minds - so receptive, so retentive - be offered anything less than well-conceived stories told in elegant prose or flawless verse?

If the worst books comine bad writing with storyless morality, the best books bring together the magic of the imagination with the magic of words. They show little minds what words, as well as pictures, are capable of, giving them a taste of how delicious language can be. That's why, I think, Dr Seuss has endured the way he has. Even at 60 or 70 years old, his words still dazzle and tickle. They cast an unfailing spell.