Thursday, January 7, 2016

Emma Leads

A View of Box Hill, Surrey, 1733. George Lambert - Tate Britain

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." Emma chapter 1

Emma is two hundred years old this year. It was actually published on December 23, 1815, but the publisher put 1816 on the title page, thus giving us an entire year to celebrate what many consider to be Jane Austen’s finest novel.

JASNA CWNY will kick off this celebration year with a discussion of Emma led by our own Celia Easton.  How shall we begin to approach Emma? “With one thing very clever, … or two things moderately clever--or three things very dull indeed…” ? Well, there certainly will not be anything dull about our discussion. We can expect many things very clever.

First of all there is Emma herself. Jane Austen is said to have created a character that only she could love. Emma is a difficult character. She is a snob. She desires an invitation from the Coles so that she can turn it down. She is manipulative in trying to arrange Harriet’s life. She is conceited, and always looking for a compliment.

But Emma has a conscience and does sometimes see her own shortcomings.

“Since her last conversation with Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, she was more conscience-stricken about Jane Fairfax than she had often been.--Mr. Knightley's words dwelt with her. He had said that Jane Fairfax received attentions from Mrs. Elton which nobody else paid her.

"This is very true," said she, "at least as far as relates to me, which was all that was meant--and it is very shameful.--Of the same age--and always knowing her--I ought to have been more her friend.--She will never like me now. I have neglected her too long. But I will shew her greater attention than I have done."” Emma chapter 34.

It’s interesting that the other snobbish, manipulative, and conceited person in the novel is Mrs. Elton. Perhaps Mrs. E can be seen as a more vulgar version of Emma. Emma has many reasons to dislike Mrs. Elton, but perhaps the real reason is that she can see a more raw version of herself. The difference, of course, is that Emma has her revelation on Box Hill. With the help of Mr. Knightley, she learns to recognize herself. If Pride and Prejudice is story of how Elizabeth and Darcy learn to understand each other’s character, Emma is a story about learning to recognize one’s own character.

There is a great deal of contrast between the turmoil Emma experiences on Box Hill and the tranquility of the view.

"Boxhill, Surrey through trees" by Flickr user lostajy - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons 

Having mentioned Mrs. Elton, I can't help including one of my favorite Jane Austen zingers. At the end of Volume II Mr. Knightley and Emma are discussing who is busiest. Mr. Knightley is enjoying the conversation and trying not to show it.

"Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton's beginning to talk to him." Emma chapter 36.

We could spend the entire hour discussing our favorite quotes. However, there is so much more. What should we understand of Mr. Woodhouse? He is one of the most respected but most difficult characters in Highbury. The populace of Highbury would starve if he had his way. (see here for an interesting post about diet in Jane Austen's time) And what about Frank Churchill? Is he hero or villain, or something in between? With Jane Austen it is often not clear.

We could easily spend winter, spring and summer reading and discussing Emma, but we shall at least be assured of a lively and engaging hour of discussion at our next meeting.

See you there.

Event: JASNA CWNY January Meeting
When: Saturday, January 16, 2016 at 1 pm
Where: Barnes and Noble, Community Room, Pittsford, NY

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