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Emma: What the Humor Hides

Emma is widely considered one of Jane Austen’s most humorous books. The latest film adaptation relies very heavily on this aspect for its entertainment value. However, I confess to be among those ardent readers of Austen who do not find the story as humorous as I do unsettling. From what I have come to understand of the author, she would not have wanted the humor to mask too thoroughly her more somber commentaries on society. Here then, are the distressing aspects of the book that lie beneath the veneer of Austen’s wit.

Firstly, there is Emma’s character. From the very beginning, Emma is revealed to be willful and self-ruling. We are told that “the real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” Her exercise of will prevents those who would care to guide her to better habits from doing so to any great degree. For example, while Emma has good taste in books, she seldom reads. Mr. Knightley comments that “she will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience, and a subject of the fancy to the understanding.” Moreover, we learn that “steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of.” Her lesser accomplishment at the piano, when compared to Jane Fairfax, is evidence of how her lack of effort has let her down. Emma has every opportunity at her disposal, yet could not be bothered to pursue anything to a level she could truly take pride in.

Another element of her character which shows poorly is her selfishness and lack of empathy. She resents having to spend time with Jane Fairfax, who is pleasant enough, and equally resents that her own selfishness makes her feel bad. “Emma was sorry; to have to pay civilities to a person she did not like through three long months! To be always doing more than she wished, and less than she ought!” After paying begrudging attention to a poor family, Emma leaves their home with this sparse nugget of wisdom: “I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?” The fact is: Emma is astonishingly superficial. It is really only through painful error and the unrelenting honesty of Mr. Knightley that she grows at all.

But Emma is not alone in being seriously flawed. Mr. Woodhouse, her father, is a depressed hypochondriac. His oppressive fears and neediness are so acute that Mr. Knightley is forced to move into their home to allow Emma to stay with her father, if he is going to marry her at all. And then there are the Eltons. One could write an entire essay on this couple and their incapacity for genuine caring. Possibly the worst example of this occurs at the Crown ball, when Mr. Elton purposefully humiliates Harriet, making sure his wife is watching, after which “smiles of high glee passed between him and his wife.” What makes such malicious joy all the more despicable, is that it is created and savored by the resident clergyman. The motive? A bruised ego. An ego so deeply wounded that it is never allowed to heal. The Eltons make an absolute sport of rejecting Emma and Harriet at every opportunity instead of allowing their matrimonial bliss to heal the past. It is disappointing that Austen does not comment more strongly on Mr. Elton’s negligence as vicar, but only on his shortcomings as husband and friend.

Mr. Elton, of course, is offended because he felt that Emma was within his reach as a bride and was mortified to be considered a good match for the illegitimate Harriet instead. This brings us to the topic of social class, which is a brutal theme in Emma. Class and its complications are constant threads in Austen’s books, largely because they were a very real backdrop to the author’s life. But we seldom see the heroine practise such arrogance of thought as we do in Emma. Emma is, in fact, an insufferable snob. When she thinks of visiting the Bates women, she imagines “all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury, who were calling on them forever.” She disapproves of Frank Churchill’s “indifference to a confusion of rank, [which] bordered too much on an inelegance of mind.”

Not only does Emma have a strong sense of people’s place in society, but she has no scruples to teach them their place if they will not show good sense. For example, when the Coles want to invite her to dinner, she fully intends to refuse them, despite considering them good, decent folk. She is shocked that they should feel the freedom to invite her when they are not of a class to take such liberties. When she does attend in the end, she feels her presence to have been a complete gift to them. She is convinced that she “must have delighted the Coles — worthy people, who deserved to be made happy!” Emma’s sense of self-importance is breathtaking.

But the worst of Emma’s snootiness is reserved for poor Mr. Martin. Despite his honorable family and gentle manners, Emma calls him “clownish.” Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, (whose views are more reliable) has “a thorough regard for him and all his family.” When Emma is forced to admit that Mr. Martin has good family and sound character, she says that she “would have given a great deal, or endured a great deal, to have had the Martins in a higher rank of life. They were so deserving that a little higher should have been enough.” In other words, despite acknowledging his worth as a human being, she persists in rejecting his whole family because they are beyond the reach of her upper circle. Emma threatens Harriet with the removal of her company if she marries Mr. Martin. “I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin of Abbey-Mill Farm.” She describes his family and their associates as “illiterate and vulgar”, even though his manners have been nothing but courteous, and she but moments before had commended him on writing a good letter. We also know Mr. Martin reads with interest, which is more than we can say of Miss Emma Woodhouse.

Social class was not the only issue within Regency nuptials. We are reminded that men ruled absolute within Regency marriages, even if they gave their wives free rein at times. A reminder of this is given by Mr. Knightley in his conversation with Mrs. Weston. “You were receiving a very good education from [Emma], on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your will, and doing as you were bid.” On another occasion, he asks the same lady, “What does Weston think of the weather, shall we have rain?” It is rather odd that, in conversation with the wife, one should ask of her husband’s opinion of the weather.

Then there is Emma’s interference in Harriet’s choice of husband, which is more dangerous than may, at first, be apparent to the modern reader. It is not at all certain that Harriet would receive another offer after refusing the lovely Mr. Martin. Being of illegitimate birth, her standing in society is questionable. And not marrying at all was a privilege afforded to the wealthy. Without the protection and financial support of a male figure, a woman’s fate was typically miserable, as we see with dear Miss Bates. Emma points to this when she speaks of never marrying: “A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls. But a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” Not only do Emma’s words reflect candidly on societal norms, but they reveal her own harsh opinions on women who are less fortunate.

There is one more comment on illegitimacy that is mentioned so fleetingly, one might miss it. But it is terrible indeed. Upon the death of Mrs. Churchill, the narrator refers to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith to explain why everyone now spoke well of the thoroughly disliked deceased: “When lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame.” The focus here is on how, in death, one is forgiven much. However, there is the almost trivial mention that a woman who has been shamed by giving herself away outside of marriage has no real recourse except in dying of a broken heart (or worse!). This is a very alarming attitude. Although the poem was not written by Austen, it has been quoted by her, and without any sense of shock value. It is mentioned almost complacently, in a way that is only possible if such views were the norm in society.

But the dangers for young ladies did not end there. Harriet is rescued by Frank Churchill when she is surrounded by gypsies who are begging persistently and harassing her. We are told it happened along “the Richmond road, which, though public enough for safety …” nevertheless had some gypsies loitering at its edge. Walking several miles was a regular daily exercise for both men and women of Regency society. That such dangers should lurk at the edges of their lives is reminiscent of women who jog alone along isolated tracks today. It is unusual to find such references to the uglier side of life within period romance, and yet it is a stern reminder that women must necessarily always be vigilant for their safety. Compare how easily Frank Churchill, who is also alone, but a man, disperses the troublesome gypsies because he has the freedom to behave roughly and enforce his strength.

There are two final issues that are touched on without being central themes. One is the mention of the slave trade. Much has been discussed about Austen’s personal opinion on this topic, with varying and contradicting conclusions. The subject is no less controversial or ambiguous in Emma. Jane Fairfax refers to the governess-trade (where women of substance, but not means, were obliged to hire themselves as not-quite servants to wealthier families) as “offices for the sale — not quite of human flesh — but of human intellect.” Mrs. Elton is shocked, calling her comments a “fling at the slave trade” and assuring Miss Fairfax that her brother-in-law “was always rather a friend to the abolition.” This seems a reasonable response, until Jane Fairfax replies that the governess-trade was “widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on, but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.” (My italics.) I cannot emphasize enough the lack of insight in such a statement. How can the misery of governesses and slaves possibly be confused? It would be some comfort to think this is merely Jane Fairfax’s misery and ignorance talking, and not the views of the author. However, there is insufficient time spent on the topic to make this clear. Austen includes a similar meaningless mention of the slave trade in Mansfield Park. It seems odd to introduce such a controversial topic without delving deeper into its facets. I cannot think what her purpose was. By her mentioning it so flippantly, one is forced to question whether Austen truly understands the gravity of the subject.

Lastly, a factor that is so normal for Austen as to be assumed rather than to be directly spoken of, is the carelessness of the rich towards their servants. When Emma is stuck at home due to bad weather, she communicates with Harriet via notes… which some poor servant must deliver! Come rain or snow, these invisible creatures make the path smooth for the will of the rich to be executed.

It is the presence of these many darker elements of Emma that rob me of much of its enjoyment. One of the chief reasons for my appreciation of Austen’s writing, is her conscious mockery of society, and her proto-feminism, all wrapped up in her sharp wit. But there are too many moments in this book where the author seems oblivious to the faults of her time and her characters. And that makes it harder to laugh at her humor. To me, Emma tries too hard to laugh at the foibles of people who are downright despicable. Perhaps this is a defense mechanism from an author who had to survive the unpleasant intricacies of such a society. But that is the subject for another blog.

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