edmund Wilson remarked in 1950 that, despite several revolutions in taste during the preceding century and a quarter of English literature, perhaps only two reputations were never affected by shifts of fashion, Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s. We still agree with Walter Scott about Jane Austen just as we still agree with Ben Jonson about Shakespeare.”
Wilson ranked Austen—with Dickens—as the only English novelists who belong to the top rank with the great fiction writers of Russia and France. Yet Austen’s tone is clearly not that of Dickens. “God bless us everyone” is not her note. Although Wilson never really accounted for Austen’s enduring and intense popularity—he offered too many contradictory reasons for it—I want to take seriously his observation that in some sense she seems to offer us the satisfaction we find also in Shakespeare.
We have her own acknowledgment of influence, though characteristically offered by the unreliable, even morally shadowy, Henry Crawford: “Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It’s a part of an English constitution. His thought and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere. One is intimate with him by instinct.” Although the last phrase—“intimate with him by instinct”—from such a speaker arouses misgivings, the observation is just. Shakespeare is so deeply woven into the fabric of English culture that Austen could not but have been influenced by him. That this influence was instinctive one may doubt, given Austen’s sharpness. Wilson drew the parallel oddly: “Emma is to Jane Austen as Hamlet is to Shakespeare.” It is this perhaps that leads him to detect tragic notes in Emma.
I want to compare Austen’s sense of comic form with that of Shakespeare and so will content myself with comparing Emma and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s comic version of Romeo and Juliet, written just before or just after that tragedy of young love by that versatile genius, and quite his most complex examination of human love seen in comic form. I take my cue from Austen’s heroine herself who, early in the progress of her schemes, lectures Harriet on Shakespeare.
There does seem to be something in the air of Hartfield which give love exactly the right direction and sends it into the very channel where it ought to flow.
The course of true love never did run smooth.
A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage.
We find with some surprise that Emma has read Shakespeare (not all of the books on her list get read, many no more than the first chapter). The irony and comic foreshadowing in Emma is, in fact, a long note on that passage, confirming Shakespeare in his wisdom.
The model for the form of comedy comes from Northrop Frye. Using anthropological knowledge of the sources of comedy in rituals celebrating the death of the old year and the coming of spring and renewal, Frye analyzes comedy as the form closely associated with spring, poised between wintry irony and satire, and summer romance, just where we would locate Austen. She is closer perhaps to cooler irony than to warmer romance, but using elements of partying, feasting, dancing, and other celebrations—often in the green world of nature itself (Donwell Abbey and Box Hill) and ending in many marriages. Frye’s chief example of this central form is Shakespeare. Austen, like Shakespeare, takes her characters through an elaborate dance of mismatched couples, intricately interwoven, and finally unraveled into the form it should have taken from the beginning. Emma is finally correct: “There is something in the air of Hartfield which gives love exactly the right direction.”
One great difference between Shakespeare and Austen is of course that Austen is not a poet, but Emma has, in its heroine, an imaginist working on un-poetic materials. Another great difference between the two writers, closely related to the first, is that Shakespeare’s comedies are worlds of rich fantasy while Austen’s world is the commonplace and everyday—three or four families in a country village or, as she put it with characteristic irony, “human nature in the midland counties”—her acknowledged limitation of material that links her oddly enough to her great contemporary, the poet Wordsworth, who found sublimity in the simplest things
Her heroine’s world supplies little for the imagination to work on, so trifles loom large—Emma’s broken shoelace which insinuates herself and Harriet into Elton’s home, Harriet’s relics of a court plaster and old pencil stubs. Not precisely the world of romance but Emma does her best with such limited materials. Her magical powers, so feared by her father, brought Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston together in marriage. Elton’s charade was, she tells her father, “dropped, we suppose, by a fairy.” Emma’s portrait of Harriet is quite magical—it throws a veil of enchantment over its rather pallid subject and over some of its viewers at least (Mr. Woodhouse wishes that Harriet were dressed more warmly in the dangerous out-of-doors).
For Harriet, a girl of blank name and prospects, Emma conjures up an exciting, gothic mystery and an ideal future. The gypsies who threaten Harriet and allow Frank Churchill chivalrously to save her seem almost a product of Emma’s eager fancy. As Shakespeare’s Puck is to the denizens of his woods, Emma is also a kind of Puck, putting her magic potion in the wrong eyes Emma has darker fantasies too—the Dixon story she dreams up for Jane Fairfax. And Mr. Weston, her great admirer—after Frank has blundered into knowing too much Highbury gossip and waved it away as “a dream”—says, “Emma, you are a great dreamer, I think.” Like the wood of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the air of Highbury is full of voices—many of them Emma’s inventions—that produce the cross-purposes of the story and the complex course of love.
It is that complex view of love that Austen shares with Shakespeare. Her books do not follow an easy course from winter to spring looking to summer. In fact, the pattern of Emma slyly works against the traditional comic form. It begins in cold and rainy October—here I take Woodhouse’s view—as I think we should—of a marriage that mixes joy and sorrow. “Poor Miss Taylor” and poor Emma left alone, with only her father’s backgammon and the looming prospect of “intellectual solitude.” The dangers of the wedding cake are sharply present to Mr. Woodhouse—indigestible, not for children. He hopes there will be no more marriages (and indeed wedding cake is dangerous and indigestible). We are told of Weston’s first marriage and we will later be exposed to the horrors of the Elton marriage.
Christmas is far from a holiday season; it brings the tense visit of John and Isabella, the Westons’ Christmas party and threatening winter. Around a dangerous corner in the road, Weston’s good wine provokes the outrageous revelation of Elton’s purposes in the painful confines of a closed carriage, and Emma’s sharp remorse for the sickly Harriet. Mr. Woodhouse is right about dangers to health. The spring in the novel is a false spring—it brings Frank Churchill, an even more troublesome Puck with a deceitful manner and name (“Frank” indeed!) and a bride, Mrs. Elton, who arouses the gravest doubts about marriage as a happy ending.
Perhaps Mr. Woodhouse is right—weddings are funerals in a way. In summer we find the setting of romance—the teasingly promising Donwell Abbey, the natural restitution of a simple book into which Mr. Knightley would lead Emma, but also the disasters of Box Hill where all the promises seem defeated and Emma loses her magical powers. In fact, the summer season of unconsummated romance brings instead bad weather—unseemly storms and chill, and the breaking-up of all circles and alliances. Austen’s novel ends as it began, in a bleak season and October and November marriages. Austen does not follow any pattern slavishly but makes her own pattern.
As everyone knows, Emma as a novel tests its readers even more than its characters. Austen plays upon our conventional expectations only to disappoint them and then fulfill them in a richer way, as Shakespeare tests his audience with Pyramus and Thisbe. And Emma, both heroine and mischief maker, is, as Austen notes in a letter, “a heroine whom no one will like except (her)self.”
Even if her knightly hero is right about Frank Churchill, it is for the wrong reason, his jealousy. In his reasonableness he is as foolish as Emma. It is Knightley in the beginning of the book who described marriage—a rational, straight-forward, open hearted man and a rational unaffected woman. Reason is as great a maker of fools in Austen’s work as in Shakespeare’s. And this brings me to their closest likeness—the generosity and inclusiveness of their comic view of the world. Hard words for Austen’s lovers, good words for Austen’s fools—especially Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates, and Harriet.
Mr. Woodhouse is, as I have suggested, a voice to listen to—wedding cake is dangerous, weddings imply partings and change and he, being old, is the enemy of change. After all, it brings him closer to the end of things, a winter, which in human terms, is eternal. He is right in some of his fears too—people do fall ill, horses do go lame, weather does turn treacherous, all change is not for the better. Is the sea of any use to anyone? Certainly it has its dangers, too. Watering places are sinister. Bath and Maple Grove, the engagements of Elton, Frank and Jane. He is right about Frank Churchill. That young man will not do (opens windows and makes deadly drafts). He is the great test of Emma and of the reader in the face of the temptations of sweetbreads, oysters, etc.
Miss Bates is an easier fool to come to terms with. She represents Emma’s real testing at Box Hill, but she also represents the reader’s testing throughout the book. If we read through her monologues with impatience, we miss the true setting of the book’s poetry and also some wicked fun—mixing up the Elton nuptials and a dressed loin of pork. We are initially tempted to dismiss her as a comic caricature—to be appreciated intellectually as an object of wit—good and ridiculous mixed; a walking anticlimax, an empty rattle (Haven’t we, like Emma, seen her this way?). She subtly draws attention to her poverty—her losses—a poverty which can only grow worse—her narrowing circumstances.
Against this is her joy in little things, in commonplaces, in the flowering of a joyful spirit in a barren ground, in her openness and embrace of life, however little it gives her. Her genial transformation of so little into so much—think what she did with Knightley’s gift of apples in all forms: pies, dumplings, even Mr. Woodhouse’s favorite, simple and thoroughly baked. In her we have a spirit very close to that of Austen’s craft in the robust embrace of limited human condition.
Bottom, who really sees the truth that the Duke of Athens and the enchanted lovers miss, is loved by the Queen of the Fairies. Her Bottom-like wisdom is shared in Shakespeare. And that even more surprising comic reversal occurs when Emma, who has taught Harriet about love, is finally instructed by her pupil who asks, “How could anyone be preferred to Mr. Knightley?” revealing to Emma the truth of her own heart. Harriet’s greatest heroism occurs just because she is a fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread. So wisdom is revealed as foolish and folly is wise. And Austen’s comedy, like Shakespeare’s, is surprising and unconventional and inclusive.
After all the happy pairings of the conclusion—the best is the marriage of true friends, friends before lovers—as always in Austen—the scene is marred embarrassingly by Mrs. Elton with a last disapproving comment, “very little white satin, very few lace veils, a most pitiful business.”
As Miss Bates says: “Such a happiness when good people get together.” This is not all self-congratulatory—Miss Bates would not be. It is a just observation. All people are seen to be good when they get together—brought together by manners and human desire for festivity and community (a touch of “God bless us everyone”)—but also, as Miss Bates says, “they always do.” We make our life out of the circumstances life provides—some limited as Mrs. Weston and Miss Bates remind us—so we must meet and live with Mrs. Elton too, forever: with a hard-head as well as a genial spirit. Emma is a model of social inclusiveness and moral realism.