University of Massachusetts, Amherst
What Does A Lady Say?:
Exploring the Mystery That Is Emma’s Acceptance
Toward the end of Jane Austen’s Emma, Mr. Knightley makes his awkward, hesitant, deeply affecting plea for Emma’s love. In the space between his near-proposal and her reported reply, Emma’s mind runs wildly on, thinking of Harriet’s feelings for Mr. Knightley and her own disgrace in leading Harriet astray. As many times as I have read this novel, I am still on the edge of my seat: will Emma, now chastened after her embarrassing behavior toward Miss Bates at Box Hill, reveal her love for Mr. Knightley or sacrifice it for Harriet’s friendship? I fly through the sentences expectantly, and then she speaks. Or does she? Austen teases me, writing “What did she say? - Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” (391).
It is a small point, a minor moment of uncertainty and mystery soon resolved into assurances of happiness. I should perhaps just pass over it, but something will not let me. I have been plagued by the mystery of Emma’s acceptance since the first time I read the novel. Year on year, reading on reading, I search desperately, vainly for a roadmap to the appropriate Austenian reaction to having one’s deepest happiness assured. I cannot help but feel that Austen knows what I want but delicately holds back, giving me instead one of her sly smiles.
Most of the other mysteries of Emma are solved for us, or could be reasonably guessed at, within the text of the novel itself. Who sent the pianoforte to Jane Fairfax? Frank Churchill, of course, when he went for his extravagant London haircut. Who is the person by whose kindness Harriet is so touched? Not Frank, but Mr. Knightley, of course, when he saves her from embarrassment at the dance. Why does Mr. Elton leave Highbury and where does he go? To find his ideal bride, Mrs. Elton, we learn. Why does Mr. Knightley seem to show Miss Fairfax and the Bateses such kindness? Why, because that is the essence of Mr. Knightley’s character, or perhaps to offset the unkindness of Emma whom he already sees as his own in some way. But the matter Emma’s specific reply to Mr. Knightley is never resolved.
What does a lady say, especially a lady with as much wit and affection as Emma possesses, when she is faced with her own true love’s return of affection? Never without the proper turn of phrase, Emma is silent on this point. The mystery sends me scampering through my worn collection of Austen novels for an answer, a clue by analogy to what Emma might have said. I hunker down in the quiet of my own little room, dimly lit, and surround myself with a stack of novels. Fully ready to indulge myself in the delightful work of the literary detective, I flip to the last few chapters of each novel, knowing where I can find the proposal scenes and hoping to glean some specific phrasing.
Mansfield Park and Persuasion, however, provide no satisfaction at all; Austen takes heroine and reader from distress to happiness in the space of one paragraph each (Mansfield 428-9; Persuasion 226-7). Northanger Abbey gives as little information, almost eliding the entire proposal in favor of a report of how Henry Tilney’s affection grew from his knowledge of Catherine Morland’s feeling for him rather than from passionate attachment to her (198). But could one expect much more from heroines of such virtue and simple good-heartedness? I move on to what I imagine will be a more fruitful choice: Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility. Yet even this highly romantic heroine’s engagement to Colonel Brandon is reported as an accomplished fact and the result of a material change in Marianne’s character (S&S 333) while the “details” of her sister Elinor’s engagement to Edward Ferrars, indeed any moment of it, “need not be particularly told” (317). And finally, in Pride and Prejudice, we learn of Jane and Bingley’s engagement with Elizabeth as she blunders into their “earnest conversation” (P&P 307) from which each turns away when they are discovered and after which “not a syllable was uttered by either” of the lovers. Elizabeth herself has a Emma-like encounter with Mr. Darcy in which he confesses that his “affections and wishes are unchanged” and she “forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change...as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances” (325), a highly reasonable but none too specific reply. At no point in any of these romantic denouements do we hear the woman’s actual reply to the happy and desired proposal of marriage. Maddeningly, the romantic climax in Emma is perhaps the most revealing!
Thus I am left to imagine Emma’s perfect reply, and yet it has already been imagined for me in numerous film adaptations. For example, in the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, director / screenwriter Douglas McGrath has faced just this issue: what should Emma say in this moment? McGrath resolves it by giving Emma this line: “Mr. Knightley, if I have not spoken, it is because I am afraid I will awaken myself from this dream! It cannot be true!” (“Emma”) It pays homage to (and perhaps improves upon, at least in terms of romantic indulgence) Austen’s own line: “The dread of being awakened from the happiest dream, was perhaps the most prominent feeling” (Emma 390). Indeed, if I were to continue to imagine the many things Emma might have said, I would most assuredly come up with many lines of equal or lesser quality. The line is as tolerable as anything I could imagine, and yet I am still not satisfied.
Then, the truth of the matter begins to dawn on me; I have been asking the wrong question. It is not that I wonder what Emma, or any of Austen’s heroines for that matter, actually say in this moment. After all, I could never use the lines in my own romantic encounters (could I?). Thus my real question reforms itself into two: why do I want to know, and why does Austen keep it from me? Austen thinks little enough of mysteries in an of themselves to have Mr. Knightley, the voice of reason throughout Emma, condemn the surprise of Jane Fairfax’s pianoforte and even to have Emma say of him, “Mr. Knightley does nothing mysteriously” (203). If that is not condemnation enough of the mysterious, a few pages earlier the rather self-centered Frank Churchill notes that the pianoforte must have been sent by Mrs. Dixon since “the mystery, the surprize (sic), is more like a young woman’s scheme,” (194) something with which we know Austen cannot agree since Frank Churchill has said it and, in fact, has sent it himself. No, it seems unlikely that Austen keeps her heroine mum for the sheer fun of a tantalizing mystery.
Perhaps, then, this is simply another example of the ways in which silence is feminized. A verbal response from Emma could only seem unfeminine in this her most feminine moment, her progress into the rights and duties of womanhood, and perhaps Austen cannot get far enough outside of the conventions of her own day to consider another response. And yet, Mr. Knightley’s actual speech is not recorded either. Instead, as soon as he makes his proposal, Austen reverts to reported, indirect speech, a tactic used in her other novels as well. She shrouds both lovers in silence, not just Emma, and so it seems ungenerous to imagine Emma’s silence as evidence of Austen’s internalized sexism.
Perhaps, then. Austen simply had no point of reference for such proposals. It is a commonplace in Austen criticism to note that Austen is scrupulous to avoid writing about moments of which she could have no first-hand knowledge, and as evidence, it is noted that there are never conversations between men without a woman present, since Austen. as a woman, could have no knowledge of such interactions. It is true that sometimes men report their private conversations, as Mr. Knightley does when he warns Emma that Mr. Elton talks “rationally” about marriage when only men are present, leaving sentimental talk for the presence of women (59). Austen herself never married, although she was very briefly engaged. We may imagine, then, that she never had the experience of successful romantic love which she so generously gives all her heroines. Is she, then, incapable of writing the dialogue to a successful wooing scene?
Interestingly, Austen does give us a glimpse into the feminine response to the failed marriage proposal in Emma. Mr. Elton’s proposal in the carriage is an upsettingly close look into the discomfort of the unwanted marriage proposal. Even here, though, there is a moment of “interesting silence” from Emma which Mr. Elton interprets (incorrectly) in this way: “you have long understood me” (119) (perhaps another reason for rejecting the idea of a feminized silence in Emma since it would put me into company with Mr. Elton). Indeed, Emma cannot stay silent for long; she cannot permit such presumption and launches into several paragraphs of unequivocal rejection. Even in this unexpected and unwelcome situation, Emma is equal to the task of rejecting Mr. Elton in appropriate and articulate speech.
To suggest, however, that Austen could write of failed marriage proposal because of her own broken engagement is to suggest two things: first, that Austen’s break was acrimonious and second, that Austen has no imagination. Since we have no reason to suspect the former, we must assume the later to be untrue as well, for she is able to imagine and write the uncomfortable and unwarranted proposal deftly despite the fact that she seems not to have lived it. Austen is no mere describer of situations but rather a creator of them. Indeed, one might look to the most obvious subject of her novels to see evidence of her creativity. For, even though Austen herself never married, she created several matches of perfect felicity in her novels. She was able to imagine what kind of match her characters would need to be happy, not just in the present but into the future, and she created ways of getting those partners together in a convincing enough manner that her books are still widely read. Jane Austen having little imagination? No, no, every feeling revolts, as Emma might say.
Perhaps, then, Austen shrouds Emma’s reply because it is very simply none of my business. It is sometimes suggested that Austen wants to protect her characters’ privacy, that to divulge such intimate moments would be a betrayal of her creations and a complete lack of decorum (Hansen). I would suggest, however, that Austen is thinking more of her audience. Austen is protecting me from myself.
Emma is, in large measure, a novel about the evils of meddling in other people’s romantic choices. Emma endangers Harriet’s very real chances for happiness with Robert Martin by interfering with Harriet’s very real desire for him and the life he can offer her (57-60). Emma endangers her own reputation by making wild guesses at a clandestine romance between Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon (195). So caught up in voyeuristic imaginings of other people’s lives, Emma blinds herself to her own desires, and nearly to her own chance at life-long happiness with Mr. Knightley. Having extricated Emma from such a fate, Austen could never lead her readers down that same garden path.
By refusing to satisfy my desire for every detail of what passes between two souls destined for happiness, Austen does me a double service. First, she keeps me from indulging my voyeurism, a quality upon which modern filmmakers depend (hence, McGrath’s need to give Emma something to say in that moment) but which Austen would insist, I believe, could never lead to virtue and happiness but only to gossip or indulgent sensibility. Second, she refuses to give me a literary standard by which to compare my own romances, which could only be found wanting. Nothing can be gained by knowing the intimate details of another’s relationship, she tells me; tend your own garden. It is a danger to which Emma becomes sensitized only after causing and enduring much pain and confusion. By leaving the lovers’ conversation to themselves, Austen gives me one less opportunity to fall into the same trap.
And so I was correct; I did indeed sense one her sly smiles in the shrouded nature of Emma’s reply. She does indeed know what I want, and she does indeed refuse to indulge me. For a moment, perhaps, in the throes of reading, I would wish for more, more detail, more specifics, more “romance,” but Austen intuits (correctly, I believe) that such indulgences will leave me ultimately sickened and confused. Given that, I have no choice now but to offer her hearty thanks for preserving a little mystery.
Emma. Jane Austen. James Kinsley, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
“Emma.” Dir Douglas McGrath. Miramax, 1996.
Hansen, Serena. “Rhetorical Dynamics in Jane Austen’s Treatment of Marriage Proposals.” Persuasions On-line. Vol 21, No 2. 30 April 2007. < http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on- line/vol21no2/hansen.html>
Mansfield Park. Jane Austen. James Kinsley, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990
Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sandition. Jane Austen. John Davie, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Persuasion. Jane Austen. John Davie, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Pride and Prejudice (P&P). Jane Austen. James Kinsley, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Sense and Sensibility (S&S). Jane Austen. James Kinsley, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.