I’ve now finished my re-read of Emma, and found that the theme of friendship, which I discussed in my Volumes 1 and 2 posts, did continue to play out in the last volume. In those previous posts, I suggested that Austen was presenting friendship as having both personal and social value, and I gave examples of different acts of friendship, some generous, others more questionable if not down-right self-serving.
Now, having finished the novel, I’d like to identify the different sorts of friendships which Austen presents to her readers:
- neighbourly/kind friendship
- “general” friendship
- self-serving friendship
- “true” friendship
Since I touched on some of these in previous posts, I will just expand a little more here. Neighbourly or kind friendship encompasses giving mostly practical support to others. In Emma this includes, for example, providing transport or food to poorer women in the neighbourhood. Many characters offer this sort of friendship, including, even, the unpopular Mrs Elton.
General friendship, on the other hand, is the sort of hail-fellow-well-met tolerance/acceptance of other people, with little regard to substance. Mr Weston is a perfect example of this. He’s “straight-forward, open-hearted”. He doesn’t discriminate against people on the basis of, say, class, but neither does he discern between sincerity and superficiality. And he’s inclined to gossip rather than hold his counsel. Here’s Emma on Mr Weston at the Crown where he is hosting a dance. He’d invited her to arrive early to pronounce on whether everything is in order, but she finds that he had similarly invited many other “friends”:
Emma perceived that her taste was not the only taste on which Mr. Weston depended, and felt, that to be the favourite and intimate of a man who had so many intimates and confidants, was not the very first distinction in the scale of vanity. She liked his open manners, but a little less of open-heartedness would have made him a higher character.—General benevolence, but not general friendship, made a man what he ought to be.—She could fancy such a man.
Such a man is, of course, Mr Knightley. Emma is, admittedly, a bit of a snob and likes to be recognised for her “place” in Highbury, but nonetheless, Mr Weston is presented to us as someone who “takes things as he finds them, and makes enjoyment of them somehow or other” rather than one who can be relied upon, for example, to make good judgement about character. He’s an appealing character, but not the ideal man.
Self-serving (or self-aggrandising) friendship is epitomised by the execrable Mrs Elton whose protestations of friendship, particularly towards Jane Fairfax, belie her real motivations, which are to look good and to spite Emma. She chooses her friendships on the basis of what they do for her.
And then there’s “true” friendship, the sort of friendship which is not swayed by superficial concerns, which is not scared to speak the truth, and which quietly works for the benefit of others without looking for praise or recognition. This is the sort of friendship offered by Mr Knightley, who tells Emma when he feels she’s behaved rudely or improperly, who consistently judges people correctly, and who is prepared to make sacrifices for the benefit of others.
There are readers who find the relationship between 21-year-old Emma and 38-year-old Mr Knightley a little paternalistic, if not creepy, but I’d argue these were different times with different expectations and mores. Emma is not a push-over and it’s clear that Austen sees their relationship as one built on love and “true” friendship. The last lines of the novel are:
The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! Selina* would stare when she heard of it.” But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.
Before I leave this topic of friendship, I want to mention a somewhat related topic – that of civil falsehoods. Austen introduces the term through Frank Churchill who, on being encouraged by Emma to go hear Jane Fairfax play the pianoforte, expresses an inability to pretend to like it if the instrument’s tone is poor. He says “I am the wretchedest being in the world at a civil falsehood”. The irony, of course, is that he is being false to Emma. Emma, though, blithely unaware, tells him that “I am persuaded that you can be as insincere, as your neighbours, when it is necessary”.
Emma, more than any of Austen’s novels, deals with a whole community. Austen teases out the idea that communities survive on the basis of “civil falsehoods”, that these falsehoods are at times “necessary”. On another occasion, when Mr Weston invites Mrs Elton to the Box Hill picnic, stating that “she is a good-natured woman”, a disappointed
Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private.
Emma, in other words, does the polite thing and holds her tongue. But Austen knows there are costs, and that there is a place for “civil falsehoods” and a place for honesty. Falsehoods, even civil ones, Austen argues need to be handled with care. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that she, like Emma, would always prefer “openness” to concealment. I wonder if this is why she, known for her sharp tongue, felt Emma would be a heroine that only she would like!
Noticing this friendship theme is just one of the delights I’ve had in this re-reading of Emma. Each time I read it, I notice more – both in terms of Austen’s concerns and her technique.
One feature that interested me this read is the way she shows characters’ real love interests by whom they are watching (out for). It’s subtle and can be missed on early reads but it’s there. For example, while everyone thinks Frank Churchill is interested in Emma, Frank is watching out for Jane Fairfax. When Jane arrives at the Crown with her aunt, Miss Bates, it looks as though it’s Miss Bates whom Frank tends – “Miss Bates must not be forgotten” he says to his father as he rushes out to make sure they don’t get wet. But Miss Bates, in her chatter, lets drop his real interest:
My dear Jane, are you sure you did not wet your feet? It was but a drop or two, but I am so afraid: but Mr. Frank Churchill was so extremely—and there was a mat to step upon. I shall never forget his extreme politeness.
Similarly, when Emma and Harriet discuss a past occasion when they were with Mr Knightley and Mr Elton, Emma remembers where Mr Knightley had been standing, while Harriet only remembers Mr Elton:
“Stop; Mr. Knightley was standing just here, was not he? I have an idea he was standing just here.”
“Ah! I do not know. I cannot recollect. It is very odd, but I cannot recollect. Mr. Elton was sitting here, I remember, much about where I am now.”
Absolutely delicious. By the time this occurs, Harriet is over Mr Elton, and Emma is still unaware of her love for Mr Knightley, all of which adds to our delight in reading this scene.
Another technique which struck me was how often characters mis-read clues, how often they assume the wrong reason for an occurrence. Near the end, Mr Knightley holds Emma’s hand and is “on the point of carrying it to his lips—when, from some fancy or other, he suddenly let it go”. Emma doesn’t read this as love but as a sign of “perfect amity”. And when Frank, on his return to Highbury, visits Emma but doesn’t stay long, she assumes “it implied a dread of her returning power, and a discreet resolution of not trusting himself with her long”. However, the real truth, we realise on subsequent readings if not our first, is that he wants to visit Jane.
I could, in fact write three times this and more, on Emma, but I’d rather not. I’d much prefer it if these little tidbits encouraged you to read it (again!). At 200 years old, and despite its dated snobbery, this is a book that still has much to offer about human nature – and about skilful writing. I’m sure to read it again.
* Selina is Mrs Elton’s sister whom she sees as the arbiter of all things impressive.