Every now and then my local Jane Austen group does a slow read of one of Austen’s novels. With 2015 being the 200th anniversary of the publication of Emma, we decided it was the logical choice for our next slow read. I love this activity because what happens when I re-read an Austen novel – particularly when I take part in a slow read – is that I “see” something new in the novel, something new to me that is, because it’s hard to think that anyone could come up with something totally new about Austen.
So, last time I re-read Emma, the thing that stood out for me was how beautifully plotted it is. There isn’t a word or action that doesn’t imply or lead to something telling, even if we don’t know it at the time. This read, with the plotting firmly in my brain, I’m finding that the aspect is flying a little under the radar. Instead, I’m noticing how often the word “friend” or notion of “friendship” is appearing. The novel, in fact, starts with Emma losing her ex-governess-then-companion Miss Taylor to marriage. They’ll remain friends but … so Emma, alone in a big house with her fussy, demanding, albeit gentle father, develops a friendship with Harriet, “the natural daughter of Somebody … [who] had no visible friends but what had been acquired at Highbury”.
This, though, is not the only friendship involving Emma to appear in Volume 1. Mr John Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law, advises Emma “as a friend” that Mr Elton’s attentions are more than friendly, but Emma believes that she and Mr Elton “are very good friends, and nothing more”. Emma and her long-standing friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley, decide to “be friends again” after one of their quarrels. Meanwhile, we, like Mr Knightley, wonder whether Emma’s friendship is helpful to Harriet or not.
In the third paragraph of the novel, Austen suggests what she sees friendship to entail:
Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse’s family, less as a governess than as a friend, very fond of both daughters, but particularly of Emma. Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters. Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend, very mutually attached, and Emma doing just what she liked; esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.
I’m talking about the words “and Emma doing just what she liked”. Miss Taylor/Mrs Weston, as Mr Knightley says to her later, had been a good companion to Emma but had also been better at submitting her will to Emma than in giving Emma the “complete education” he thinks she needed. Mr Knightley’s view of friendship encompasses providing honest, wise advice. He’s therefore severely angry with Emma when she encourages Harriet not to accept Robert Martin’s proposal:
You have been no friend to Harriet Smith, Emma.
There are other friendships in the novel that don’t directly involve Emma, some with and between neighbours, and some within families. Her father, Mr Woodhouse, may be “no companion” for Emma, but we learn in Chapter 3 that he “liked very much to have his friends come and see him”. One of those visiting friends is Miss Bates who feels fortunate to be “surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends”. And one of these “good neighbours and friends” is Mr Knightley who supplies the low-income Bates’ women with apples and other produce from his estate. Emma’s friend Harriet, herself, has friends who invite her to visit, the Martin family who manage a farm on Mr Knightley’s estate. See what’s happening? An intricate set-up of all sorts of friendships. Austen must be on about something.
Emma more than any of Austen’s six novels paints a fairly in-depth picture of a diverse community. There are the Westons, Mrs and Miss Bates, and their niece Jane Fairfax, Mr Knightley and his estate, Mr Elton the minister and his wife, Mrs Goddard and other members of her school, the new-money Coles, and various other members of the community who appear briefly, including the poor and gypsies. This is a more complete “Country Village” than we find in the other novels, even though her focus here is still her favourite, that is, “3 or 4 families” (Letter to her niece, Anna, 9 September 1814). It’s not surprising, then, that with such a wide and diverse group that friendship would feature more significantly. I look forward to watching and thinking about how she develops this concept over the next two volumes. Watch this space …