Emma: 200 years of perfection: Pt 1, The capacious Emma

This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma, so it was natural that the Jane Austen Society of Australia’s (JASA) biennial weekend conference, held last weekend, would be devoted to the novel. It was a fascinating and inspiring conference, and one I felt well-prepared for having just re-read Emma earlier this year.

There were eight papers, presented by five speakers. I’m not going to summarise the papers in detail – they will be published in JASA’s peer-reviewed journal Sensibilities later this year – but I’d love to share, over a couple of posts, a few thoughts and ideas that came out of the weekend for me.

First, though, I will name the speakers:

  • Susannah Fullerton, President of JASA, author, lecturer, and literary tour leader
  • Sayre Greenfield, Professor of English, University of Pittsburgh (Greensburg), USA (and married to Troost)
  • David Norton, Emeritus Professor of English, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ
  • Barbara Seeber, Professor of English, Brock University, St Catharine’s, Canada
  • Linda Troost, Professor of English, Washington & Jefferson College, Pennsylvania, USA (see Greenfield!)

We all knew it, but just to make it perfectly clear, Seeber commented that Jane Austen’s novels are “capacious”, meaning that they accommodate multiple views which comprehend individual experiences and biases. This is why Austen aficionados can argue so passionately for particular readings of the novels and be right (or, more accurately, be able to justify their reading). Seeber, in fact, quoted Virginia Woolf’s argument that we do not have to provide a final reading of a work, but show how we have arrived at our particular reading. We bloggers know that – but it is nice having the likes of Virginia Woolf support us!

The capacious Emma

What is Emma about? Well this is where its capaciousness is particularly evident because it seems that almost every reader has a different opinion. In my last read I saw a major theme as being about Emma’s search for a “true friend”, and about the definition of what true friendship means and how it relates to marriage. Other themes include social status, social change, and the restricted lives of women. They are all valid.

Another theme was proposed at the conference. It came from David Norton who suggested that the book is about:

What it means to be human, and why it matters (or, how) to be humane

He argued, for example, that while the word “truth” appears many times in the novel, being humane is its cornerstone. When Emma makes her big blunder by insulting Miss Bates at Box Hill, Mr Knightley chastises her not on the grounds of “truth” because, after all, what she said was true, but for being “unfeeling”. He tells Emma that Miss Bates deserves her “compassion”.

Another way we could view this theme, I think, is that it’s about the importance of “civility” in our relationships with each other, that in fact, sometimes, to quote Frank Churchill, “civil falsehoods” are better than “a disagreeable truth”. As Sayre Greenfield commented, Highbury heals itself at the end, but is not a perfect place. There will still be Mrs Elton to cope with! And that will demand, I fear, all the civility that Emma can muster!

Miss Bates, I shall be sure to say three dully things (Illustration by CE Brock, 1909,  from solitary elegance.com)

I shall be sure to say three dull things (Miss Bates) (Illustration by CE Brock, 1909, from solitary elegance.com)

Another area where Emma is capacious is in our reactions to the characters. Jane Austen herself is famous for her statement that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Emma’s likability has engaged readers ever since – but she’s not the only character in the book to engender fierce discussions. Frank Churchill is another. Not all characters cause significant dissent, though. Most readers, for example, see Miss Bates as a silly old maid, and Mr Woodhouse as a fussy, selfish old woman of a man – see how both negatives involve gender terms! – but our speakers had some different views.

Here, however, I’m just going to share some ideas presented by by the speakers on two characters:

  • Miss Bates. Norton and Greenfield, in particular, spoke about Miss Bates and both viewed her in positive terms. Greenfield argued that although Miss Bates fits the popular contemporary image of old maids (more on that in another post), she is the most socially intelligent character in the novel. She knows what’s going on, and she understands the complexity of her community. Norton demonstrated how Miss Bates is “the great revealer” in the novel, and argued that if you listen to her (skip her speeches at your peril, in other words), you will know what is really going on.
  • Frank Churchill. If Emma has a villain, it is Frank Churchill, but over the years I’ve noticed that it is in our reactions to Austen’s main characters that we most demonstrate our personal prejudices and biases (particularly in relation to the so-called “bad boys”). I find it most fascinating, and illuminating! Linda Troost devoted a paper to the question of whether Frank is a good guy or “a jerk”, and argued convincingly (to me anyhow) that he’s more good than bad. Drawing from both a close analysis of the text and an understanding of human psychology, she suggested that much of Frank’s behaviour arrives out of his invidious situation than from any real “badness” in his character. (She also argued that much of Mr Knightley’s criticism of Frank stemmed from – or was at least aggravated by – his jealousy).

These are just a few of the ideas that inspired me from the conference, but I’ll leave it there. In the next post, I want to talk about something completely different – literary research.

18 thoughts on “Emma: 200 years of perfection: Pt 1, The capacious Emma

  1. What a fun conference! Do people dress up like they do at the North American conference? There is a fancy dress ball or something. And if so, do you have a gown? And if so, you must share a photo! 🙂

    • It’s a great conference Stefanie. A few do dress up for the dinner though I’ve noticed that fewer have done so in the last couple of years. And no, I don’t have a gown. I do love that era’s clothing but I’m not a big one for dressing up. And to do it you have to have the lot – the bag, the shoes, the hair, the accessories – otherwise it doesn’t quite work. (But, if I’d had a gown I surely would have shared a photo 😉 )

  2. Am perpetually amazed by what literary minds find in what they read. Just as well I never tried to finish my Arts Degree back in the ’60s – this kind of analysis would have been de rigueur, and that just for starters … Of course, my failure to think deeply enough about what I (used to) read (and now listen to) could be, I hope, merely senility …

    • Haha, MR, sometimes literary minds find things that may not be there, methinks, but sometimes they really pull out some wonderful ideas. And even those in the former category can get you thinking. I don’t think you fail to think deeply at all. Just because you/we think differently to others doesn’t mean a failure. I’m glad you are listening to books – that doesn’t sound like a reading slump to me.

  3. Thanks for sharing, it’s an interesting post.

    Personally, I think the jerk in Emma is Mr Elton. After all, he’s the only one really greedy and willing to marry someone only for money and social climbing. And he’s a clergyman. So it’s doubly unforgivable.

    I don’t see Frank Churchill as a villain because he knew he wasn’t toying with Emma’s feelings.

    Fascinating view of Miss Bates. Reading you, I wonder if Jane Austen put something of herself in Miss Bates. She must have been very observant of social matters too.

    Fathers are not great persons in Austen’s novels. Either they’re absent (Sense and Sensibility) or useless (Emma / Pride and Prejudice) I don’t remember well Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey. Is there a good father figure there?

    • Oh thanks Emma. I love that you’ve engaged with my post enough to comment on Austen’s characters.

      You make a very good point regarding Mr Elton. He sure is. Good question regarding Miss Bates. I’m not sure. She does satirise Miss Bates, but not in a cruel way, so maybe she was asking for kindness to “old maids” while at the same time wanting to use one for her purposes in this novel? Austen seemed happy enough with her unmarried state, as far as we can tell. She called various of her books things like “my darling child” and in her letters she frequently mentions the challenges women face as wives and mothers. She wasn’t stupid! Like her characters, she was clearly only prepared to marry where there was real love and respect.

      No there aren’t great father figures in MP or NA, either, though Catherine Moreland’s parents (NA, as you know I’m sure) come close. The problem is that we really don’t see much of them, and when we do it’s more her mother. Also, one could argue that they are a little too laissez-faire in their child-rearing to be great parents. It’s an interesting question about Austen because as far as we know she had a good relationship with her father (though not so good a one with her mother).

  4. Sounds like a wonderful conference! I’m happy to have found your blog — I was searching for Emma-related articles just now — and I’ll look forward to reading more of what you’ve written about Jane Austen.

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