On rereading Jane Austen’s Emma

Few novels return as much pleasure on rereading, for me, as Jane Austen’s Emma. I read it first more than twenty years ago. At the time, I was reading through Austen’s oeuvre quickly and systematically. I read the Austen novels in order of publication. Emma was the last of her novels published in her own lifetime. She had already had some success with Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. But with Emma, I think, Austen pens her first fully mature novel. It seemed to me, even on that first reading, to be the one novel in which she is in total command of her craft, thoroughly realizing a vision of . . . of what? Of love, certainly. Of honour and propriety and family and class and taste, both poor and perfectible, and marriage and, well, life. It is also, as all great literary exemplars are, transformative; it reshapes the novel form itself. Austen reworks here what a novel is and can be. Such novels demand to be read and reread and then reread again.

I was fortunate on this rereading to have at hand the wonderful new annotated edition from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Edited by Bharat Tandon, this is a beautiful large format hardcover book. The oversize page width allows for the annotations to appear alongside the principal text. There are relevant drawings and reproductions of paintings and even stills from filmic adaptations. But the text is never burdened at any point. The annotations tend to be clarificatory or informational, but sometimes also helpfully interpretative, especially where critical opinions diverge on the importance of key scenes.

Bharat Tandons’ introduction is worthy of special note. It is accessible yet erudite. It points up some of the key tools Austen deploys in writing Emma, such as her liberal use of free indirect style. And it is rightly conscious of the fact that no one would purchase such a heavy, large and somewhat expensive edition unless they were coming back to Emma, coming back with love. This is an edition of Emma almost designed, as it were, for rereaders.

One of the special treats in returning to Emma with such a fine edition is that the reader has the perfect excuse to slow down his reading. There is no need to race along with the plot from one misguided intervention in the lives of others to the next. The reader can take his time. Time to savour Austen’s very precise observations. Time to revel in her withering, warts and all, presentation of grasping tastelessness (e.g. Mrs. Elton) and her superficially similar but in fact very different presentation of kind-hearted senselessness (e.g. Miss Bates). There is plenty of scope here also to take note of how intricately Austen has structured her plot. It is impossible not to imagine her, pen in hand, being delighted with the nuances she has placed on Emma’s self-deceptive insights, knowing full well that all will be revealed in the third volume. It is a delight that transfers naturally to the rereader.

I often claim Emma as my favourite novel. But that is a mere expression of subjective preference. Is it also a good novel?

I have, at times, declared Emma to be a perfect novel. By that, I mean simply that it fully realizes its own (re)vision of what a novel is. It’s in this sense that the novel is transformative. And naturally it admits that there are an indefinite number of perfect novels. As new authors take up the novel form and make it their own, different exemplars of perfection arise. (It’s not surprising that an author would only ever write one perfect novel in her lifetime.) But is a perfect novel also a good novel?

No, not necessarily. A good novel tends to be one in which the reader develops an emotional connection with the characters or events such that the insights and subtle reflections conveyed by the novel (either overtly or tacitly) enter into an ongoing dialogue with the reader. This dialogue is ongoing and open. In effect, the reader learns something, so to speak, through reading a good novel. (The ‘so to speak’ is not perfunctory; readers tend to learn less in this sense from didactic novels.) A sign (but not a foolproof sign) that readers have entered into such a positive relationship with a novel is their willingness to reread the novel again and again (or at least to reflect upon it often). On this ground, I feel confident in identifying Emma as a good novel.

One of the things that this rereading of Emma spurred me to think about is the clear-eyed blindness of love. Love in many forms is on display throughout the novel. It begins with the happy union of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. It ends with, “the perfect happiness of the union,” of Emma and Mr. Knightley. Between these points lie yearning, infatuation, admiration, obsession, and more. Harriet Smith is often the vehicle through which love takes its turns. But her love cannot be trusted, blinded as she is by misapprehension and false hope.

By contrast, Mr. Knightley’s love of Emma is clear-eyed. He can see her faults and willingly points them out. And yet despite these faults, he comes to find her faultless. He declares her, “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

That’s a curious state. And I don’t have any glib response to it. But it sounds like something I ought to hold on to and think about further.

In fact, it rather captures how I feel about the novel itself. There are many aspects of Emma that some readers dislike — the capricious and self-involved title character, the meddling in Harriet Smith’s life, the focus on one class in society, the lack of historical sweep (perhaps denoting a preference for a later transformer of the novel such as Tolstoi), or the distrust of unions of ‘so-called’ perfect happiness. To all of which, I can only nod and reply that I stand with Mr. Knightley: I think Emma is, “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

Which, I suppose, is love.

Posted in books, thinking.

One Comment

  1. Good review Randy. I have somehow missed Emma. Must correct that someday.

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