torsdag 5 april 2018

Emma is still the best around

It is time to speak of Emma - not Swan this time, but Woodhouse. I recently finished rereading Jane Austen's Emma, and found to my satisfaction that it's still my favourite Jane Austen novel. We'll see if the rest of my Jane Austen Rereading Project changes that - I suspect that Persuasion will be a strong contender - but what I can say so far is that in my view, Emma actually beats Pride and Prejudice in terms of readability.

It's hard to explain why, though. The novel is by no means action-packed: there are long stretches where nothing much happens. The start is slower than Pride and Prejudice's, as more back-story is fitted in. But once the story got going, it held my interest, even though I knew exactly how the various intrigues were going to end. There are two main attractions with Emma as a novel: the joy of reading a great author at the very top of her game, and the heroine herself.

Austen's prose style is crips and crackling throughout, and her characterisation subtler than in both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Yes, there's still a certain amount of caricature, but the characters remain believable. You not only think it possible that you could encounter people like this in real life, it's not beyond the reaches of possibility that you could share their weaknesses yourself. I for my part could easily relate to Mrs Elton's shameless sense of entitlement, John Knightley's anti-social tendencies and Harriet Smith's habit of drifting from one intense crush to another, while completely discarding her yearnings for someone who was the star in her sky and the light of her life mere weeks before (that is, until she has reason to be reminded of him again). The characters interact credibly too. For instance, in one dialogue between Mr Weston and Mrs Elton, the former only wants to speak about his son while the latter only wants to speak about herself and her sister and brother-in-law at Maple Grove. How they still manage to hold a longish conversation, negotiating various social niceties more or less adroitly along the way, is fascinating in itself, although what they say isn't vitally important to the plot. This isn't to say that the novel isn't tightly plotted, though. One of the members of The Jane Austen Book Club claims that Austen "could plot like a son of a bitch", and Emma is the prime example of that. Hints about the characters' true feelings and relationships to each other - often misinterpreted by Emma - are skilfully woven into the dialogue, and the reader is given clues in the same way as in a whodunnit.

However, Emma never looks dense for not managing to pick up these clues, or not putting the right construction on them. Her mistakes are understandable ones. Austen famously said about Emma that she was a heroine "whom no-one but myself will like". This was an overstatement: there are quite a few of us who like Emma very well indeed. Not everyone sees the point of her, though. Emma has been unlucky when it comes to film and TV adaptations: they tend to take a critical view. Emma as played by Gwyneth Paltrow was elegant, but on the cold side. Kate Beckinsale was livelier, but hampered by the adapter Andew Davies's dislike of the character. Romola Garai in the latest BBC adaptation is a brilliant dramatic actress, and her despair in such scenes as the aftermath of the Box Hill excursion was spot on, but the lighter, comical register didn't come off equally well. Actually, from the Emmas I've seen, Doran Goodwin in the ancient TV adaptation from the Seventies came closest to conveying some of Emma's warmth and wit, though she was somewhat over-arch and (to be ungallant) plainly not twenty-one.

Most of the adaptations above tend to focus on the least enjoyable aspect of the novel: the notion that Emma needs to be humbled and seek self-improvement in order to deserve happiness. I never like a cautionary tale element in any story, and the misfortunes leading to Emma bitterly blaming herself - as well as being blamed by her friend and future husband Mr (George) Knightley, as likely as not - are a sore trial. I do sometimes wonder whether readers and adapters should really let Emma's self-reproaches (powerfully written as they are) and Mr Knightley's opinions of Emma's behaviour guide them to quite so such an extent as they are apt to do. Mr Knightley, though like Mr Darcy he shapes up towards the end of the book, is a most unsatisfactory love interest. At the beginning of the novel, he says to Emma's dear friend and former governess Mrs Weston that he would like to see Emma "in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good". Does that sound even remotely like a man in love himself? Also, he likes to lecture her about the very things she feels most guilty about, such as not practising her music more and not becoming bosom friends with Jane Fairfax, whose qualities and accomplishments he is quick to praise to a perverse degree, which naturally does little to endear the girl to Emma. Mr Knightley's anger when he finds out that Emma has encouraged Harriet Smith to refuse the upright farmer Mr Martin's proposal is understandable: she does real mischief here, and could have cost two young, well-suited people their happiness. At other times, though, his lecturing is less self-interested. It's partly because he's jealous of Frank Churchill and resents Emma's flirtation with him that he comes down on her so severely at the end of the disastrous excursion to Box Hill.

The Box Hill incident - where Emma thoughtlessly insults the aimable chatterbox Miss Bates - is mostly made a meal of in adaptations. In fact, our perception of Emma's behaviour in this scene has a lot in common with our perception of Pip's behaviour towards Joe in Great Expectations. We mind it because the person behaving badly feels so wretched about it him/herself, because the person slighted is so thoroughly good-natured and because, in spite of their good nature, they do register and are hurt by the slight. When you look at what Emma and Pip actually do, though, it's not that horrible, and well within the scope of normal, selfish, somewhat gauche human behaviour. In Emma's case, I would say it's hardly unheard of to be tempted into a witticism at someone else's expense while imagining that they're unlikely to pick up on it anyway. Austen does a good job of making us care desperately that Emma should put things right with poor Miss Bates as soon as possible, but in terms of causing actual damage, her meddling in the Harriet-Martin affair is far worse. At any rate, there's no reason to tell her off at such length and with so much indignation as Mr Knightley does.           

At the same time, I suppose that Emma's flaws wouldn't seem so forgiveable if she were completely unaware of them herself. It's better that she should blame herself a little too much, and gain the reader's sympathy by doing so, than not blame herself at all when it is called for. We can trust Jane Austen to know what's best for her character. Mr Knightley, though - honestly.