Part IV: Emma, cont’d.
I can’t figure why it took me so long to finish reading Emma. Part of it may be that I listened to the book instead of reading it, but who knows. As I said in my previous post on Emma, I like the character of Emma less than I have in the past. I find her meddling to be even more egregious than I have during previous re-reads. But, on the other hand, I am more impressed with the novel itself than ever before.
Emma has been called a “mystery novel without a murder,” and that is the aspect of the novel that I tried to focus on during this re-read. I paid careful attention to all of the clues Austen gives us about what is really going on in Highbury, as opposed to what Emma thinks is going on. I noticed that, while Emma really is “clueless,” the Knightley brothers are most decidedly not. George Knightley understands fully that Harriet Smith is not someone whom Mr. Elton would ever marry. He also figures out pretty quickly that the Westons want Frank to marry Emma, and is also the only person in the story who sees that Frank and Jane have “formed an attachment.” John Knightley is the one who sees that Mr. Elton is interested in Emma herself.
I was 12 or 13 years old when I first read the book and, while I don’t remember my reaction to the news that Frank and Jane were secretly engaged, I do know that I never noticed any of the clues that Austen gives us. This time, however, I noticed so many of them. Jane’s solo trips to the post office and the way she tells Mrs. Elton that she plans to continue these trips; Frank’s prolonged visits to the Bates household; Jane’s pianoforte arriving from London just after Frank goes there for his “haircut”; when Frank is leaving Randalls and tells Emma “I think you can hardly be quite without suspicion…”; Frank’s use of the alphabet game to tease and then apologize to Jane; Frank’s surliness upon his arrival at Donwell for the strawberry picking; etc., etc., etc. There are so many clues sprinkled throughout the book that I’m almost sorry I read it when I was so young because there is no way I could put them all together at that age.
Emma does get her comeuppance, and is a far better person at the end of the novel than she is at the beginning. When we first meet her, she is very pleased with herself and, starting with her insult of Miss Bates at Box Hill, is forced to see herself as others do and it’s not always pretty. Mr. Knightley is the catalyst for Emma’s metamorphosis. He is the only person in the area who does not praise her constantly; he scolds her when necessary and lets her know when her behavior is not appropriate. She lets him talk, but puts very little stock in what he tells her…until the picnic at Box Hill when she insults Miss Bates. At that point, Knightley really loses his temper and tells her exactly what he thinks of her behavior. And this time, she listens and understands exactly what she did and why it was wrong. For the first time, she feels truly contrite about something and tries to make amends. There are other instances when she has some regrets about things she’s said and done but she always manages to rationalize her actions and generally has a very selective memory when it comes to her own behavior. But after Box Hill, she makes an effort to make amends to Miss Bates and Jane without making any excuses.
Mrs. Elton has a lot in common with Emma (more than Emma would like), but Emma at least sees where she’s been wrong and is ashamed of her actions. The Fair Augusta, on the other hand, will likely never see how awful she’s capable of being. Just as Emma and Mr. Knightley are perfect for each other, so are Augusta and Philip Elton.
I am always impressed at the genius that is Jane Austen, and Emma is yet another example of why.