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Jane Austen, Emma Vol 2 (continuing thoughts)

March 22, 2015

EmmaCoversThe friendship plot – that theme I discussed in my post on Volume 1 of Emma – thickens in Volume 2. Several “new” friendships are presented, as Austen continues to deepen our understanding of what constitutes community via the little village of Highbury. For Jane Austen, I think we are going to realise, friendship is both a deeply personal thing as well as something that underpins society.

In Volume 2, three people are introduced to Highbury – Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, about whom we’d heard heard in Volume 1, and Mrs Elton, the new bride of Highbury’s minister, Mr Elton. Through them, and the previously introduced characters, we are introduced to several facets of “friendship”. Positive examples include:

  • Colonel Campbell’s generous act of friendship to Jane Fairfax’s late father by taking Jane into his household and educating her along with his daughter;
  • Mr Knightley’s neighbourly style of friendship in providing food from his estate to the Bates and transport for them to a wintry evening dinner-dance;
  • Emma’s similarly neighbourly friendship in providing food to the Bates;
  • Miss Campbell’s open-hearted, trusting acceptance of her fiancé’s preference for her friend Jane Fairfax’s piano playing over her own; and even
  • Mr Woodhouse’s entertaining some of the older women in the town.

More questionable ones include:

  • Mrs Elton’s profusions of friendship to Jane Fairfax but in fact interfering with Jane’s wishes; and
  • Emma’s inability to befriend Jane Fairfax.

In Volume 1, Austen explored the role (and value) of friends in providing advice and emotional support to each other, what we could call perhaps the more “personal” side of friendship. In Volume 2, there is I think a slight shift of emphasis to more practical, or societal, aspects such as the provision of material comforts and company. Through all these manifestations of “friendship”, Austen seems to be building a rich picture of human relationships, of what we need from, and can do for, each other.

There is also in this volume a discussion of what Emma doesn’t like in a friendship: it’s the “coldness and reserve” that she sees in Jane Fairfax, with whom everyone, including Mr Knightley, expected and still expects her to be intimate. She says of not looking to Jane for friendship:

But I must be more in want of a friend, or an agreeable companion, than I have yet been, to take the trouble of conquering any body’s reserve to procure one.

An additional impediment to Emma’s willingness to befriend Jane Fairfax is fact that Jane is lauded for skills in areas in which Emma is less accomplished (through, it seems, lack of application!) Interestingly, late in the volume, Mr Knightley, responding to suggestions that he might be thinking of marrying Jane Fairfax, says he is not interested:

She is reserved; more reserved, I think, than she used to be: and I love an open temper.

It will be interesting to see whether the issue of love and its relationship to friendship is teased out in Volume 3.

Jane Austen – protofeminist?

Just how “feminist” you see Jane Austen depends somewhat on your definition of feminism, but for me she demonstrates a clear recognition of the (economic) inequalities that affect women’s lives and of the (societal) factors that hold them back. She demonstrates this in Emma by presenting a heroine who is independently wealthy and who therefore has no economic need to marry. Emma recognises this and says early in the novel, in volume 1 in fact, that she won’t marry:

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry …  without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”

Part of the trajectory in Emma is for her to learn that there are other reasons to marry besides those of money and consequence. By contrast, her foil/double, Jane Fairfax has no independent wealth. The most likely course of life for her is to be a governess, but it’s not a cheery thought:

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies…”

For Jane Fairfax, a good marriage would save her from what she sees as a pretty devastating fate.

Contrasting these two quite different situations is Mrs Elton. In Austen, as in most authors, you need to be aware of who is speaking when assessing what they say. Mrs Elton is a figure of ridicule in Emma, rather like Mr Collins in Pride and prejudice. She’s the upstart who “has a horror of upstarts”. Her idea of standing up for women involves counteracting Mr Weston’s statement that “delicate ladies have very extraordinary constitutions”. She says:

I always take the part of my own sex; I do indeed. I give you notice, you will find me a formidable antagonist on that point. I always stand up for women; and I assure you, if you knew how Selina feels with respect to sleeping at an inn, you would not wonder at Mrs. Churchill’s making incredible exertions to avoid it. Selina says it is quite horror to her; and I believe I have caught a little of her nicety. She always travels with her own sheets; an excellent precaution.

The satire here is multi-layered, but includes ridiculing Mrs Elton’s notion of standing up for women by asserting their focus on niceties!

More …

There’s a lot more I could discuss about this volume, such as its perfect plotting in which very little happens, or is said, that doesn’t move the plot forward, but that does it in such sly ways that we are barely aware it’s happening. However, I think I’ve made the main points here that particularly caught my attention during this re-read … so, onto volume 3 in April.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Glen Hunting permalink
    March 23, 2015 12:14 am

    Your last post on ‘Emma’ caused me to acquire a copy for the first time. I expect I will start it when I’ve finished re-reading ‘Pride & Prejudice’ for the first time in over twenty years! I’m noticing so many things I either missed last time or have since forgotten. But I expect I’m probably missing a few things this time, too.

    • March 23, 2015 8:23 am

      Fantastic Glen … The joy of Austen is that every time you reread her something new seems to pop up.

  2. March 24, 2015 2:50 am

    So much fun to read your thoughts! Emma is such a big fish in a small pond that when Jane shows up and threatens her dominance just by being there Emma can hardly stand it. I love how it’s all Jane’s fault they aren’t friends.

    • March 24, 2015 8:03 am

      Haha … True, though EMMA, to her credit, does have moments of self-reflection and guilt about it, particularly of course when Mr Knightley tells her she should be more friendly!

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