Oh poor George Knightley. Well, not poor (almost all of the people we are dealing with here are some form affluent), but still. My mind kept wandering to him as I lean over my keyboard to deal with Jane Austen’s Emma. Certainly the titular heroine is as fully realized and sympathetic as any, and the entire book is told from her eyes and inside her head, and we’ll get to her soon enough. But even early on, there is George Knightley, providing counsel and truthful good sense to Emma, all the while never getting to the point. As someone who in his single days was often friendly to women while hoping they would divine my hopes, and saving me the inconvenience of actually putting the question out there. It is trite and crass to just tell a man to “just grow a pair and go for it”, but it applies as well to an 1815 English twit as it does to any stammering Hugh Grant lead.
Of course, there is more, and this is Emma’s tale after all. Jane Austen’s work is above all a droll comedy about the lives and loves of upper class twits, and the travails of female living in the nineteenth century. Certainly the fact that these were twits was not lost on Austen herself – she noted before writing the novel that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” (wiki citation). Emma, t is described early as a smart, beautiful woman who has never been (and has resolved to never get) married, and she certainly does profile as the sort who does not make much of a rooting story. She’s no underdog – she thinks more of her intelligence than the results seem to indicate, and she snuffs in on other people’s business.
But of course she sticks her nose in other people’s affairs. Given her wealth, she is not wanting for a whole lot, and given some apparent devotion to her infirm father (well, I am not sure how infirm vs simply obsessed with disease) and spinsterdom, there is a lot of time that needs to be filled. There is playing music, there is hosting neighbors and friends, there is doting on her nephews, and there is taking on a self-appointed Henry Higgins with a plain lady named Harriet Smith whom she takes under her wing.
Harriet seems nice enough, but in Georgian England upper-class twit standards she is no prize. Her lineage is hard to trace, she is not especially well educated, and she is not especially wealthy. She is not your first candidate to be set up, but of course this makes her more attractive to Emma. Seemingly, Harriet catches the eye of Mr. Elton, the local vicar. Emma of course, does all of the sort of intermediary things – scheduling sessions with her, Harriet and Mr. Elton, going walking, painting sessions and the like. Mr. Elton seems more smitten with each meeting – and Emma feels that the Mr Elton and Harriet union is obviously going to happen, right? It is certainly sufficient to steer her away from a farmer who has expressed great interest. (not worth her timber, no?) Now – describing this situation it doesn’t require Nostradamus to identify the outcome here, and the possible misunderstanding that precipitates this. I am not sure if Austen telegraphs this, or just that the story is so famous that I just knew it anyway (or that I saw Clueless).
Personally, this part of the novel sort of dragged – it takes a while for this misunderstanding to work itself out – more than the story needed, and personally it was a slog, even with the inevitable payoff. However, if this is the weak point – it is really the setup for a gallery of other characters and situations. This includes the arrival of Frank Churchill, the stepson of one of Emma’s old friends and her father’s old caretaker, and an affair or something which goes in another direction entirely. It also includes Mr. Elton getting married to a wholly odious woman (although she is not really much more nosey and into other people’s business as Emma when you think of it, although far more cloying about it), as well as chatty Mrs. Bates and her niece Jane Fairfax. Jane is alternately sickly, standoffish and rather sad – and some of this makes much more sense as a misunderstanding involving her gets cleared up.
All of this is fun stuff, not exactly an airport novel, but breezy once the story gets going. Emma, once the shock of the Harriet incident has worn off, is on her way busying herself. There is chemistry with Frank, perhaps, maybe, I don’t know. Certainly all of this marinades inside Emma’s brain while she is watching out for Jane Fairfax and Harriet’s respective businesses. This is where Austen’s method really starts to work. Emma is so smart in some ways, and yet misunderstands so much as well. But there is another layer, where maybe she doesn’t misunderstand, but sort of pushes the understanding into the place she wants to go. Could she have figured out what would happen with Mr. Elton if she were not so vested in Harriet’s outcome? It is hard not to get a sense of Emma running away from her own feelings – whether it be about Frank Churchill, George Knightley or anybody else – painting over them with layers and layers of busywork and concern on others’ affairs. It’s the sort of thinly veiled desperation that you see in especially happy Facebook posts, Sex and the City hijinks, or (at least for me) your average Martha Stewart instructional program.
This part of Emma is touching and rather funny. She has smarts, musical skills, looks – and whatnot, but such a holy fool about her own heart. Of course it is impossible not to empathize with this. Furthermore, when everybody can actually get their layers of emotional defenses pushed aside and get to the point, happiness is possible. And that has not changed in the last 200 years.