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.