Jane Austen, Emma Vol 3 (continuing thoughts)

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.

Illustration, Emma and Mrs Weston

“Jane Fairfax. Good God! You are not serious!” (Illus, by CE Brock)

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.

29 thoughts on “Jane Austen, Emma Vol 3 (continuing thoughts)

  1. I read Jane Austen over and over, and love that she shares secrets with us, or at least enables us to draw inferences, of which her heroines are oblivious. Thankyou for these three posts, I have enjoyed them immensely, where are you taking us next?

    • Oh, you are clearly a person of taste Bill! I too love her sly, sneaky way of telling us things that her characters don’t immediately know. No wonder she has lasted so long. Emma is a snob, and so many of the social values of that novel do not accord with us now, the the essence of human nature is Austen’s real value isn’t it – and that doesn’t change.

      I’m not sure where to next, in terms of Austen. Perhaps another juvenilia piece. Or … well, let’s see. In terms of next review, well, that may very well be Japan and a complete change of pace.

  2. Thank you for these lovely words on Emma and friendship. You remind me that there is very little that Austen has not observed about the way in which we interact with each other. I am hunting out my copy to read yet again…

  3. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading these posts – and learned much too! It’s been many years since I read Emma – sometimes your post brought back memories but more often made me think ‘hadn’t seen that before!’ My copy of Emma is old and tired but you’ve inspired me to re-read it once I get a copy that won’t fall apart in my hands!

      • I think what astonishes me is her writing has been doing this for so long! Mind you, it’s also great that there are people like you out there who read her, see it and then enlighten people like me!

        • It is astonishing I agree Col … there has been quite an industry built up around her, some of it superficial, but I think her work has the substance to survive. I love that people like you and Bill are there appreciating her too.

  4. I’ve really enjoyed these posts on Emma. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on modern adaptations of Austen, such as ‘Clueless’, if you’ve seen any? (Actually, this might be the only one…) As a teenager I was thrilled to see Austen’s themes and observations on society translated to the modern day. I can’t remember which I encountered first, but I know that repeated viewings/readings of both enhanced my appreciation of Austen growing up and to this day.

    • Thanks 36 views. I have read very few written adaptations, as I’m not really interested in them. The couple I’ve reviewed here I’ve read with my Jane Austen group. But I LOVE Clueless. I think it’s a very clever adaptation that captures the essence of Emma. I have also watched the Lizzie Bennett Diaries vlog. It had some misses, but overall I think it also did a good job of translating Austen to the present. I would be sorry if people saw these without engaging with the original, but I do think a good adaptation can help people “see” what Austen was getting at.

    • Thanks Bill. Pemberley.com is my go to place for things Austen. They have all the novel e-texts there so if you are looking for something she wrote, you can find it.

      I have read the Barbara Ker Wilson. Here it was published as Jane Austen in Australia. That must have been its U.S. title. I tend not to count it as a sequel because it’s fiction about her life rather than stemming from her books. It’s a fun read. There are gaps in Austen’s biography and this novel has a go at filling it – a fun go, ie she doesn’t seriously propose that Austen did come to Australia. It’s more a what if her relation who was tried for theft had been transported and Jane went with her. Pleasant historical fiction.

  5. I wish my beloved sister Jo were still alive to read you on Emma (or any Austen): she was a specialist, and really loved her works.
    Did I ever tell you how much I disliked the PD James …?

    • That’s a good question Judith. I nearly didn’t make that comment because I had planned to write more on it. However, the post was getting so long.

      I’d agree with what I think you are suggesting which is that snobbery is still around. It’s part of the reason why Clueless works so well I think. But my comment drew from a couple of things. One is that I’ve had too many readers say that they they don’t like Austen or can’t read her because of class and snobbery. Like you, I’m sure, I don’t think these are accurate readings of Austen as a whole, let alone being reasons for not reading a writer from a different period/time.

      But the other thing is that some of the values in Emma don’t sit well with our view of ourselves now, and I can understand that putting people off reading her. When Mr Knightley says that Robert Martin’s “situation is an evil; … His rank in society I would alter if I could” and when Emma feels of her relationship with Harriet after she marries Robert that “The intimacy between her and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of good-will”, these explicit values are I think dated for today’s readers. They are part of those times but they are, I think, more “upheld” or “accepted” in Emma than they are, say, in Pride and prejudice where, for example, Mr Darcy accepts/welcomes Elizabeth’s relations in “trade” because they are good people. This could bear much more talking and thinking but this is what was behind my statement re Emma. Does this make sense?

  6. Bravo! Marvelous observations. Mrs. Elton is a character I like to not like. She seems so obvious that I wonder if everyone else realizes it too? And the pickle it puts Jane in. The amount of misreading that goes on creates quite a lot of humorous moments. I love your note about who is watching who. I will have to try and remember to pay attention to that next time I read the book which could be years but I will try nonetheless 🙂

    • Thanks Stefanie. I reckon don’t try to remember what I notice fed but just read it again,McHenry you do, letting your mind see what it will. I hope most see Mrs Elton for who she isM

  7. In 1987 my 2-Unit English class (NSW) was studying Emma for their HSC. We invited editor/writer – the esteemed Barbara Ker Wilson – to come to our school far from “the city” – to speak to us from her perspective. She wrote a novel on the speculative notion that Jane Austen had accompanied her aunt as a “convict” to the colony of New South Wales – a rather delicious and almost true possibility – if you look to the history. BKW was just what my students needed to carry them forward into their exams! And was good for me. Too!

  8. Australians are not comfortable discussing class divisions, but they’re there nonetheless. A lot of the drama in Jane Austen comes from relationships across class divisions (or at least across finely defined strata within the middle and upper classes), which doesn’t make Austen a snob, just an accurate observer. I particularly like her treatment of Uncle Gardiner in P&P, but also, as you say, of Mr Knightley’s sticking up for the farmer, Martin in Emma. Admittedly Austen doesn’t venture into the servants’ hall and it’s a shame she didn’t live just a bit longer so we could compare her reaction to the Industrial Revolution to say, Elizabeth Gaskell’s.

    • Sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier Bill, but yes, you’re right quite a bit of the drama, and comedy, comes from these relationships. And, as you say, it doesn’t make Austen a snob. It is interesting though that Emma, her heroine is very clear about class divides and while Austen suggests they should be modified she accepts the reality re, for example, Emma and Harriet. This does, I think, affect those contemporary readers who find it hard to accept different days?

  9. I have reread my Austen’s so many times over the past 30 years, but Emma has only had a few. You have now helped me pick which Austen I will be reading for this year’s Austen in August.

    I’ve always enjoyed how the reread reveals more of Austen’s clever little clues. She flags so many future events… when you know what you’re looking for. The sense of community in Emma is one of its interesting features. I hadn’t noted the civil falsehoods given the much larger falsehoods at play in the book. I will look for them in August 🙂

    I’m currently rereading Gone With the Wind and I’m loving all the forewarning that Mitchell has subtly included.

    • A woman after my own heart Brona! Do come back when you do your reread and say what particularly struck you. We are all different I think, on each reread. Margaret Mitchell. You know I have only ever read that once. Perhaps it is worth a second read.

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