Emma (Woodhouse)

December 13, 2020

I’ve read “Emma” now, and it was a bit hard going. 

I’ve seen virtually all of the movies — so many that there was almost nothing about the story that I didn’t already now. 

“Emma” turns out in large part to be a novel of, and about, small talk.  Emma herself delights in this kind of talk.

To her it was real enjoyment to be with the Westons. Mr. Weston was a great favourite, and there was not a creature in the world to whom she spoke with such unreserve, as to his wife; not any one, to whom she related with such conviction of being listened to and understood, of being always interesting and always intelligible, the little affairs, arrangements, perplexities, and pleasures of her father and herself. She could tell nothing of Hartfield, in which Mrs. Weston had not a lively concern; and half an hour’s uninterrupted communication of all those little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends, was one of the first gratifications of each.

This is the kind of talk that Mr. Darcy abhors; and which drenches this novel.  Mr. Weston, Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Weston, of course Miss Bates, and even Frank Churchill, all are masters of small-talk in one form or another, some of it charming or intelligent, much of it anything but.  Austen lays out in a couple of outstanding paragraphs – using indirect discourse – the drone of banalities that make up the conversation at typical dinner parties.

John Knightley’s rant about this sort of thing is brilliant: 

“here are we setting forward to spend five dull hours in another man’s house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said and heard yesterday, and may not be said and heard again to-morrow.”

For much of my life I found “small talk” painful, and to some degree I am still not comfortable with it; and I’m sure this was some of the reason that the novel was a slog for me at times. 

Even so, after working through a few pages, I’d still often find myself tearing through them; and Jane Austen still makes you think and reflect, analyze, and consider, even in a story that is ostensibly about nothing more than a clueless matchmaker and a series of misunderstandings that end more-or-less happily.  But there’s far more here.

Emma, Harriet and Mr. Elton (illustration by Niroot Puttapipat)

And to summarize it is impossible, but if I had to start somewhere, I’d say that the novel returns again and again to two basic questions:  how good or bad is Emma Woodhouse? and how bad or good is Frank Churchill?

Of all of Emma’s debates with her elder non-brother, my favorite is their first one about Frank Churchill, wondering when and if he will appear, arguing about the duties of men as opposed to mere boys.  Knightley here is injecting some “big-talk” about meaty issues, and Emma gives him unyielding debate as always.  At the end of the novel they take up the man again, this time reading over Frank’s long letter; that’s a nice turn by Austen, letting us take in a letter from two points of view.

Emma is not my favorite heroine in these six novels; but I am very far from disliking her the way that some do.  She is obviously intelligent; and she knows many of her faults, even if she’s slow to realize them.  She describes herself as something of a cold fish, and in some ways she’s right.  She says that spinsters like Miss Bates are “proper sport” for her snark (a matchmaker really has little use for such a person, after all); she controls Harriet like a pet, no more so than when she makes sure to restrict Harriet’s visit to the Martins to 15 minutes; more examples abound.  But she feels it keenly when she’s caused pain to someone and can be made to see her own role in bringing it about.

Emma may be a “mean girl”; she may be “clueless”; but she listens to reproof and feels it.  She has a character arc.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Mr. C, is a different story, I feel.  Yes, he’s the “least bad” of Austen’s rakes.  Fair enough.  And the novel left me with an impression I had not gotten from any movie, namely that Frank – though there is no justification for the way he torments Jane by flirting with Emma – may have really thought that Jane had flirted openly in front of him with Mr. Dixon.  And Frank seems, in some of his conversations with Emma, to be fishing for information about Jane’s feelings toward Mr. Dixon, and toward himself.

So in the middle of the novel, I had almost begun to think that Frank’s story was more complex than I’d assumed.

But I assumed also that if Frank had such a motive, his jealousy of Jane and Mr. Dixon might be baseless.  And that assumption seems correct.  There seems to have been very little in the Jane/Dixon “affair” apart from misunderstanding, combined with Emma’s later fantasies about it.

At the very end of the novel you see Frank – and Emma sees him – returning to the same verbal games that he had played since we met him; and this, not long after expending much sweat and many, many words asking for forgiveness.

In the 2020 “Emma” movie, he’s played by Callum Turner, who had portrayed a far worse rake in the Andrew Davies version of “War and Peace” from 2016.  He played Anatole Kuragin, who, again, is such a nasty piece of work that it’s jarring to see him in this Austen role.  Frank Churchill at least has some idea that he’s done wrong, and can acknowledge it.  But Tolstoy says something about Anatole that may sound familiar.  Near the end of “Emma,” Knightley protests that Frank has “used every body ill–and they are all delighted to forgive him.”  Tolstoy, talking about Kuragin, says that rakes have a confidence in their own innocence, no matter what they do, and that their confidence is based on a “hope of forgiveness.”

Frank’s fine-sounding letter is all about seeking forgiveness; and the letter would actually be a good start, if at the end it didn’t seem to us that he just can’t help returning to the same games that have been hurting Jane all along.  By then, there is no need for secrecy, or for any kind of games; but he’s still making light of these events as if they were merely funny blunders.

That’s why I think that, even though Knightley is more-or-less right about Frank, it’s Emma who really has the goods on him, when at their last meeting she suggests that Frank had really enjoyed the whole deception as a kind of sport.

“I do suspect that in the midst of your perplexities at that time, you had very great amusement in tricking us all.—I am sure you had.—I am sure it was a consolation to you.”

“Oh! no, no, no—how can you suspect me of such a thing? I was the most miserable wretch!”

“Not quite so miserable as to be insensible to mirth. I am sure it was a source of high entertainment to you, to feel that you were taking us all in.—Perhaps I am the readier to suspect, because, to tell you the truth, I think it might have been some amusement to myself in the same situation. I think there is a little likeness between us.”

He bowed.

At least on this point, no one understands Frank better than Emma.

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