Jane Austen, Emma Vol 1 (Review, or perhaps just thoughts)

EmmaCoversEvery 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 …

12 thoughts on “Jane Austen, Emma Vol 1 (Review, or perhaps just thoughts)

  1. It’s amazing how some books hold up to re-reading and close re-reading! With some books I can never tell what’s going to pique my interest or what I’m going to find on a new reading. I just finished another chunk of Mason & Dixon for the 3rd time and am amazed by how incredibly full of historical material it is. I’m sure almost any of Austen’s books would be as fruitful in a different way.

    • It is isn’t it Bekah … it’s always hard balancing the value of re-reading against reading all those un-read books out there, but it’s worthwhile getting to know some books really well I think. It hones a different part of one’s reading skill.

  2. What fun! My last read of Emma made me notice the plot too; it really is marvelous. Friendship wasn’t high on my list of things I noticed but my reading is recent enough that your thoughts have made me nod and murmur, oh yes a number of times. I look forward to your further thoughts on the book!

    • Thanks Emma. Interestingly this was one of my least favourites but my last re-read in particular turned me around. And this reading hasn’t changed my new admiration and enjoyment.

  3. I admit Emma is a character I don’t quite like, as per Austen’s intention I suppose. Your analysis of friendship is insightful. Emma needs more than just a casual friend. She needs someone wise enough and loves her enough to save her from herself. Mr. Knightley is more than a faithful friend. He’s her deliverer. 😉

    • Haha, Arti, thanks for joining in. But, you know I’m coming to like Emma the more times I read this novel. When you think about her life to the point when the novel opens, it’s been pretty dull. Her mother died when she was 5, so she just had her hypochondriacal father, her sister who married a few years later, and her governess/friend for regular company. She’s never been to Box Hill (7 miles away I think it is), let along London (16 miles away). She’s never been to the sea. Even the poorer Lizzie Bennet had travelled away from her village. No wonder she’s a bit narrow-minded and not very wise in the ways of the world.If she hadn’t have had Mr Knightley, who knows what she would have been like!

      Anyhow, I’m looking forward to seeing whether Austen keeps talking about friendship in the next volume. How will she talk about Churchill for example? And of course there’s Jane Fairfax … but no, I’m not going to jump the gun

  4. Thanks for this analysis! Is your ‘slow read’ just that? Re-reading a classic? and reading it slowly, to allow new things to become apparent? Are there any other features of slow reading which you focus on?

    • Thanks Moira for an interesting question. I only do slow-reads with my local Jane Austen group. We meet monthly, and a few years ago decided to give slow reads a go. We haven’t done them every year but I this is our third or fourth. Most of Austen’s novels, as novels were in those days, published in three volumes, so we read a volume a month, discussing each volume at the next monthly meeting.

      Our main reason is really “to allow new things to become apparent” as you say. These new things can be anything – technique and style, thematic, historical, characterisation, etc. And each of us tends to bring different things. One member reading this volume decided to focus on aspects that she thought contemporary readers would have known automatically but that we may not know. (For example, why Emma jumped to the conclusion that Harriet’s father was a “gentleman”). This information can alter our “reading” of character. In my case, though, I don’t re-read with a plan like that but with an open mind to see what I notice THIS time around.

    • Thanks Bekah, no I hadn’t seen it. Great article. Christine Alaxander, one of the authors, is the general editor of Juvenilia Press, several of whose works I’ve reviewed here.

      I have always loved Austen’s juvenilia. I bought her Minor Works volume in my early 20s. The reviewer, Paula Byrne, is right … They are great fun, they are bold and broad, while showing the quality of the writer to come.

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