Emma: 200 years of perfection: Pt 3, Gender and the study of Austen

Jane Austen and gender studies are made for each other, not only because the content of her novels inspire feminist critique (albeit sometimes conflicting, because, well, all her heroines get married, don’t they?), but also because reactions to her tend to be polarised along gender lines. (Remember my reporting in a recent post on VS Naipaul’s assessment?). It is this latter issue that Barbara Seeber addressed in her second paper of the conference, “The pleasures (and challenges) of teaching Emma“.

Seeber commenced her talk by stating that “the politics of gender underpin divided opinions of Jane Austen”. She looked at some of the reasons why students (readers, more widely too, I’d say) say they don’t like Emma – Emma herself is unlikable, the book lacks a plot, and it’s mostly a romance – and teased them out one by one, particularly in terms of their gender implications. I’m not going to summarise the paper, but will just share a few salient points that contribute to issues I’ve been thinking and writing about here.

Unlike VS Naipaul, Sir Walter Scott praised Jane Austen’s writing. Nonetheless, in his review of Emma, Sir Walter Scott distinguished between “cornfields and cottages and meadows” which he saw as typical of “the sentimental and romantic cast” and works dealing with “the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape”. Although Scott himself praises Austen’s “precision” and comic ability, this distinction that he makes does, Seeber argued, reflect a common feminine versus masculine divide.

So, how does the gender divide play out for readers of Emma?

Unlikeable Emma

Well, Seeber herself recognised that as a young woman she did not like Emma because she is bossy and controlling, but did not feel the same about Mr Knightley. She realised she had internalized the prevailing attitudes regarding femininity, the double standard that allows men to be authoritative and commanding but disallows the same in women.

(I must say that Emma’s bossiness wasn’t an issue for me when I first read the novel – perhaps because, as the oldest child, I had a bossy tendency myself!  It was her snobbery that made her less likeable to me, but I have come to a more complex understanding of that.)

Nothing happens, or what happens isn’t important

There’s a gender point too – of course – behind the idea that nothing happens. Seeber quoted Virginia Woolf from A room of one’s own:

Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

Related to this issue of “feelings”, Seeber said that the popular film/tv adaptations can work for and against appreciation of the novel in the classroom. The films, she said, tend to focus on feelings, and can result in students resisting to expand their thinking beyond feelings. Also, in terms of gender, the issue is further complicated by the fact that male students can be self-conscious about liking Austen because of these films.

Too romantic

My dearest, most beloved Emma, tell me at once (Illus. CE Brock, 1909, via solitaryelegance.com)

My dearest, most beloved Emma, tell me at once (Illus. CE Brock, 1909, via solitaryelegance.com)

The focus on feelings in the movies, has been described by some as the “Harlequinisation of Austen novels”. It can result in the shaming of boy Austen readers. Anxiety about normative masculinity, Seeber said, can be present in the classroom. On the other hand, male students can be surprised to find that Austen is actually interesting, and female students surprised to find the male students enjoying her! (Oh dear!)

But then Seeber’s argument became really interesting for me in terms of recent discussions on this blog regarding gendered reading and writing. Seeber argued that denouncing the films as Hollywood romanticism, that dismissing them as popular culture, is related to the devaluing of women, in that works enjoyed by women are often dismissed as trivial. This is ironic, she argued, because Austen satirizes those who claim themselves above the popular novels (eg Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey). Austen, she said, does not distinguish readers by what they read.

The obvious, and frequent, counter made to the argument that nothing happens in the novels, that they are merely domestic or romantic, is to point to references or allusions to wider issues like the Napoleonic Wars, the slave trade, and the governess trade in Austen’s novels. BUT, Seeber argued, to justify Austen in this way is to undermine the real story of, say, Emma, which is about the achievement of self-awareness and living in the every day, about being human or acting humanely, as Norton describes it, or, as I might describe it, about being civil.

In other words, to try to justify the value of Austen by pointing to her references to the bigger picture is to undermine the importance of the so-called feminine (or more domestic) values.

I liked this argument.

Emma: 200 years of perfection: Pt 2, The art of literary research

For my second post on JASA’s Emma: 200 years of perfection conference, I want to share (or, at least, summarise for my own edification) some of the ways the speakers had gone about researching Emma, at least as they became apparent to me via their papers. None of these are particularly mind-blowing – they are the bread-and-butter of literature academics – but I enjoyed seeing how they’d variously gone about it to present the papers and ideas that they did.

Contemporary reading

Sayre Greenfield, David Norton, Barbara Seeber and Susannah Fullerton all drew on works contemporary to Jane Austen’s time to explore their theories about the novel or to elucidate deeper meanings from them.

Sayre Greenfield shared some his research into works that are in the library at Chawton House*, showing how they contribute to our understanding of Austen’s world view and how that might have played out in the writing of Emma. For example, as is obvious to the reader and as many critics like to discuss, riddles and word games feature heavily in Emma. Greenfield pointed us to books and magazines which show that these were a major form of entertainment for girls and young women of Austen’s time. Not only did he remind us of extant riddles written by Austen when she was young, noting that hers tended to be more satirical than those by her brothers, but he also referred to The Ladies Magazine which, like magazines today, contained games and puzzles for its readers. He discussed the role of these word games in the novel’s plot, but also pointed to Mr Knightley’s criticism of Emma to Mrs Weston that:

But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.

For Mr Knightley, games are all well and good, but Emma could do with something more serious!

Another topic that Greenfield explored was that of old maids. He described a book by William Hayley, published in 1785, titled A philosophical, historical, and moral essay on old maids. By a friend to the sisterhood. In three volumes. This description of old maids in one of his chapters sounds very much like Miss Bates:

The curious Old Maid is a restless being, whose insatiate thirst for information is an incessant plague both to herself and her acquaintance; her soul seems to be continually flying, in a giddy circuit, to her eyes, ears, and tongue; she appears inflamed with a sort of frantic desire to see all that can be seen, to hear all that can be heard, and to ask more questions than any lips can utter …

Now, said Greenfield cheekily, Hayley defines old maids as women unmarried by their fortieth year, and it just so happens that the unmarried Jane Austen turned 40 the month Emma was published. What was she really wanting to say about “old maids” he asked.

Seeber drew on contemporary texts regarding animal rights to argue a relationship, that was made during Austen’s time, between the mistreatment of animals and the domination of social “other”, like women and slaves. I’m looking forward to reading her paper, so I can grasp her argument more fully. She had some interesting things to say about fussy Mr Woodhouse and vegetarianism too!

Fullerton explored the many royal connections to places in the novel, which she suggested is partly about “who will be queen of Highbury”, while Norton turned to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definitions to help us understand the contemporary meanings of words used by Austen. When Emma calls Mr Knightley “humane”, for example, she was likely meaning Johnson’s definition of “civil, benevolent, good-natured”. Remember my point about “civility” in my previous post?

Close textual analysis

Close analysis of the text is, of course, standard practice for academic critics, if not for more general reviewers. I’m mentioning it here, therefore, not because it was surprising but because for me close analysis – of word choice, imagery, structure, and so on – can inform meaning, and provide support for arguments, in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. And so it proved to be at this conference.

Fullerton and Norton, for example, talked about the wordplay in names – Highbury, where Emma is buried; Donwell, where Mr Knightley has done well, a farm that is doing well; and Hartfield, or the field of the “heart”, of  feelings. These are fun to think about, but what I found most fascinating was Norton’s discussion of punctuation and grammar.

Grammar and punctuation, he said, are straightjackets on how we think, they exert controls on the expression of our thoughts. Austen knew that, Norton argued, and exploited it. Pride and prejudice, he suggested is one of Austen’s most rational, logical novels. We know exactly what Elizabeth Bennet thinks, and her thoughts and feelings progress logically in the book. Emma, on the other hand, is her most secretive novel. Nothing is really as it seems, and what is happening on the surface – Emma’s matchmaking of Harriet, and the possible romance between Emma and Frank – is not the real story.

One way Austen conveys this irrationality and this secrecy is through dashes! Yes, you heard correctly, dashes. And here is where the analysis was particularly interesting because in Pride and prejudice, he said, there is only one dash per 192 words, but in Emma it is one per 52 words. Who’d have thought? The dashes play two roles. Sometimes they convey the dashing around of thoughts – irrational thinking as it were – as characters jump from topic to topic. Miss Bates does this a lot in breathless prose, but Emma is also guilty of it. Etymologically, Norton told us, the “dash” punctuation mark is related to the verb “to dash”, so a dash can give a sense of movement of the mind.

But, formally, according to Samuel Johnson, the “dash” represents “a pause or omission”. And it also plays this role in Emma when characters pause before they say something they might regret, or have not fully realised themselves. Here is Miss Bates trying not to give voice to rumours about Emma and Mr Elton:

A Miss Hawkins. Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever — Mrs. Cole once whispered to me — but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy young man — but’ [and so on]

What, Norton asked us, can happen in a pause?

And so, he argued, Pride and prejudice is written in coherent, grammatical prose, while Emma is significantly less grammatical – and that tells us something about the novels themselves and the minds of their respective characters. If you don’t believe me, go check them both out, and see what you think.


I’ve rambled on enough, and this third one is a little tangential, but Greenfield and Troost’s speciality is the study of Austen adaptations. They explore how analysing adaptations can throw light on both the adaptations themselves – duh – and on Austen’s originals. At this conference, they discussed three recent adaptations of EmmaEmma (BBC miniseries, 2009), Aisha (Anil Kapoor Films, 2010), and Emma – Appoved (Pemberley Digital VLOG, 2014). They demonstrated how these productions focus on themes or ideas that we don’t find in Emma itself, chief among these being materialism, the pursuit of fun, and the idea that life is about being true to yourself. Most recent adaptations of Emma, they argued, have roots in Clueless.

For Greenfield and Troost, adaptations are a worthy topic for Austen study. In my last post on the conference, I’ll tell you what Barbara Seeber thinks.

* Chawton is where Jane Austen spent the last years of her life, and from where all of her novels were published. Her house is now a museum.

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.