Reading Emma’s tweets would be like reading – well, lots of people’s tweets…
I’m finally back on the original 2013 reading list, finishing out the year with appropriate (to me, anyway) seasonal choices. As is my rule of the last few years, I’m reading my second Jane Austen novel of the year (for many years I read all six of the completed novels every year, as I’ve noted elsewhere, but recently I have moved to a three year cycle of only two books a year).
That novel is Emma – Jane Austen’s finest novel, I believe.
I know that most will argue for Pride and Prejudice, and some will claim that both Persuasion and Mansfield Park have a claim to that distinction. I’ve made abundantly clear my problems with the latter of those novels (great as it is). Persuasion is my personal favorite of Austen’s novels, and its importance as a harbinger of “modern” (i.e. realistic) novels is, I think, inarguable. And certainly its “proposal scene” is the most finely imagined in all Austen’s works and, indeed may be the best handled in all of English literature.
And, yes, Pride and Prejudice is perfect. I won’t argue about that.
But I will argue that perfection alone is not enough of a reason to confer the title of greatest work in Austen’s canon upon the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. One accepts (or should accept) that Austen writes to a formula – indeed, as I may argue in a future review (P&P and Sense and Sensibility are both on the 2014 reading list about which more come January), Austen has more in common with genre fictioneers (I am indebted to a fellow writer, the immensely talented Teresa Milbrodt, for that delightful epithet) like Stephenson and Gaiman and the late lamented Messrs. Vonnegut and Leonard than with the major 19th century novelists she is often associated with: Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, even those Brontë sisters. That latter group move from story to story, some purely imagined, some with roots in their biographies or in historical fact. Austen tells stories of one social group (the landed English gentry of the early 19th century) engaged in one social activity (finding suitable marriage partners). Her famous comment about working on her “…little bit (two inches wide) of ivory…” is her own wittily modest explanation of her “genre” – the romance novel.
So, as romance novels go, Pride and Prejudice is as perfect an example of the genre as one will ever discover. Boy and girl meet and don’t like each other, then boy likes girl but she doesn’t like him, then circumstances make her realize that she does like him, then a crisis occurs that allows him to show that he still likes her, so that at last she can tell him that she likes him too – and they get to happily every after. Both boy and girl learn a lesson – and as a result make each other’s perfect mates. But, as Austen herself noted, P&P is “…too light and bright and sparkling; it wants shade….” And that, dear reader, is why it comes second to Emma as an achievement in that list of remarkable achievements we know as the major works of Jane Austen.
Where Emma surpasses first and foremost is in its heroine. Emma Woodhouse, the main character of the novel who lends her name to its title, is a young woman of imperfect understanding. Of course, this is not unusual in Austen: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, and Fanny Price of Mansfield Park are also young women of imperfect understanding. What makes Emma’s lack of understanding less explicable (or excusable) is that, unlike those other Austen heroines, Emma has had every advantage: she is wealthy and has had the benefit (had she used it) of an excellent, well-educated, and thoughtful governess. But instead of having benefited from these advantages, Emma has abused her unusual position as a wealthy, independent female to absolve herself from the education and “sense” she could have gained from her advantageous background. Instead, she is easily distracted, flighty, overly self-confident – and occasionally too free with her thoughts for her or others’ good. Her incompetent “match making” is superseded only by her utter lack of skill in seeing into herself – and her friends’ and acquaintances’ – hearts and minds.
Austen shows us that all the advantages in the world aren’t worth much if one does not appreciate and avail oneself of them. Nowhere else in her canon does she do this so clearly. The balances in the novel – the advantaged but under-accomplished Emma vs. the disadvantaged but highly accomplished Jane Fairfax; the rational, upright, thoughtful George Knightley vs. the spoiled, duplicitous, inconsistent Frank Churchill; the arrogant, tasteless, supercilious Augusta Elton (the woman Elton marries after failing with Emma) vs. the artless, gentle, well meaning Harriet Smith – serve as counterpoints. They allow Austen to show us – both in character and theme – sense and sensibility, pride and prejudice, and the power of persuasion. Emma offers us all of Austen’s great themes in one package that has both sparkle and shadow. The other novels point toward better worlds; Emma shows us how they are achieved.
Too, Emma is the most contemporary of Austen’s heroines in at least one sense. If Emma Woodhouse lived in the 21st century, she’d likely be a compulsive user of Twitter. For instance, after the humiliation of mistaking the intentions of the Highbury vicar, Mr. Elton, whom she has thought to match to her poorly chosen (though sweet) companion, the socially questionable Harriet Smith and enduring his impassioned proposal on Christmas Eve, she might have tweeted:
So embarrassed! Elton proposed to ME – out of the blue. Harriet will be devastated. Quel presumption! #WorstChristmasEver
After her interview with Frank Churchill at the end of his first visit to Highbury – when he is about to share the information of his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax with her – which she mistook as a near declaration of love for her – she’d have posted this:
Handsome Frank almost declared for me, I believe. Makes me wonder if I dare break my vow never to leave Dad for a hubby. #ShouldIShouldn’tI?
During the Box Hill picnic, of course, the tweets might have come thick and fast – and reflected Emma’s changing sense of her wit and wisdom:
Nailed Miss Bates as the empty headed chatterbox she is. #BestZingerEver
But after George Knightley’s dressing down of her for mocking that poor soul, her zinger might have stung a different party:
I am the meanest, stupidest girl in the history of Highbury – just ask George Knightley. #FeelingPrettyCrappy
Knightley is Emma’s big brother/father figure/dream man. There’s a complexity in that relationship that Twitter would never allow. Though that might suit Emma just fine. Still, once she realizes that her friend Harriet has feelings for him, she realizes how her own arrogance in “teaching” Harriet to “look beyond her station” for a mate may backfire on her:
Arrow through my heart – I love George Knightley, too! #TerribleFriend
Through George Knightley’s good offices Harriet, though, is reunited with Robert Martin – the man she turned down (at Emma’s instigation) – and becomes happily engaged, leaving Mr. Knightley – and Emma – free. And once it is revealed that Frank Churchill has been in love with/engaged to Jane Fairfax all along, Emma has learned all her lessons – and is ready to listen to – and appreciate – that “man of sense” who has always loved her, George Knightley:
Back from garden walk with – dare I say – yes I do – my dearest George…. #WeddingBells
Emma Woodhouse – distracted, self-absorbed person – learns, literally, to stop and think.
There’s a 19th, 20th, or 21st century lesson for us all….