Nothing much happens in Jane Austen’s Emma. This novel contains no seductions or elopements, no putrid fevers, no diverting journeys to Bath or Portsmouth—not so much as a sprained ankle or a fall from the Cobb. “Of very important, very recordable events” this novel, like the ball at the Crown (Emma 326), has few, yet from its first publication, readers have found it compelling. “It wants incident and romance, does it not,” worried publisher John Murray when he asked Scott to review it for the Quarterly Review in 1815 (Smiles 1.8), but Scott, who understood exactly what Austen was doing, disagreed. Emma, he claimed, was one of the new style of novels that managed to interest and amuse readers without resorting to “a wild variety of incident,” although, he conceded, “there are cross purposes enough (were the novel of a more romantic cast) for cutting half the men’s throats and breaking all the women’s hearts” (Southam 67). Contemporary Scottish novelist Susan Ferrier also felt that in the “excellent” Emma “there is no story whatsoever . . . ; but the characters are all so true to life, and the style so piquant, that it does not require the adventitious aids of mystery and adventure” (Southam 15). These readers recognized that Austen was redefining what a fictional “event” might be, and the first reader to learn that lesson is Emma herself, for Emma Woodhouse, the heroine malgré elle of her eponymous novel, cannot read her own story accurately until she learns to recognize the truly significant events of her life.
Emma experiences two kinds of events in Emma: the ordinary, everyday happenings in Highbury that make up the action of Austen’s novel, and those more novel-worthy events that exist only in her imagination. On the whole, Emma is a shrewd observer of Highbury life: she sees, understands, and appreciates most of what goes on, as her survey of village life from the doorway of Ford’s reveals:
Emma went to the door for amusement . . . ; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer. (233)
Like Austen herself, Emma does “not think it worth while to wait for enjoyment until there is some real opportunity for it” (21-23 January 1799); she is “amused enough” by this humble scene without transforming the butcher, the old woman, the children, and the dogs into characters in an improbable romance, or expecting them to “answer” her own fictions.
Similarly, as the narrator tells us in a passage that restores Emma to our affections after she has been particularly outrageous:
Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done so little; entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will. (86, my emphasis)
Clearly Emma does not expect the humble people of Highbury to act like characters in a sentimental novel, nor does she invent stories about them. As Moler notes, “In the manner of romance, the prosaic and the vulgar elements of Highbury are carefully excluded from Emma’s history” (176).
Sometimes, however, Emma fails to see “events” that careful readers, or enlightened re-readers, might infer.1 For example, when Miss Bates steps into Ford’s to solicit Emma’s approval of Jane’s new piano, careful readers may conclude from details embedded in her lengthy speech that Frank Churchill has stayed behind with Jane and the deaf, dozing Mrs. Bates not, as he claims, in order to fix the rivet in the old lady’s spectacles, but in order to speak to Jane in what amounts to privacy (236). A few minutes later, when Miss Bates ushers Emma into “the little sitting-room,” the “appearance . . . was tranquillity itself; Mrs. Bates, deprived of her usual employment, slumbering on one side of the fire, Frank Churchill, at a table near her, most deedily occupied about her spectacles, and Jane Fairfax, standing with her back to them, intent on her pianoforté” (240). While canny readers may imagine that an intensely emotional scene between Frank and Jane has just ended, Austen neither describes nor dramatizes such a scene. Emma, who notices that Jane is flustered, attributes her visible emotion to the new piano, not to Frank’s presence. In fact, Emma sees all the clues but misreads them because she has already created her fictional paradigm based on a more conventional idea of novel-worthy events than Austen’s.
Since Emma’s idea of what constitutes an “event” is colored by conventional sentimental fiction, critics have long associated her with Arabella, the heroine of Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), and Cherry Wilkinson (aka “Cherubina”), the heroine of Barrett’s The Heroine (1813). Yet despite superficial similarities—they are all attractive, intelligent, motherless girls devoted to their retired, elderly fathers, and courted by sensible gentlemen—Emma differs significantly from these quixotic heroines who, deluded by their naïve reading, fancy themselves romance heroines.2 Had Arabella or Cherry been standing in front of Ford’s, she would have assumed that the butcher was really a highborn suitor in disguise, or that the old woman was plotting an abduction. Cherry, moreover, deplores her possession of the very advantages that feed Emma’s complacency: “I am doomed to endure the security of a home, and the dullness of an unimpeached reputation. For me, is no hope whatever of being reduced to despair. I am condemned to waste my health, bloom, and youth, in a series of uninterrupted prosperity” (Barrett 1.2). Certainly these quixotic heroines view themselves as . . . , well, heroines: the central characters in whatever plot is on the boil. Emma, in contrast, would rather be an author, or authority, creating scenes and characters through her talent for invention and mimicry, than be a mere subject heroine.
Arabella “had a most happy Facility in accommodating every Incident to her Own Wishes and Conception . . .” (25), interpreting events according to the template of old-fashioned French romances, casting herself as heroine, and treating those romances as conduct-books. Emma, in contrast, incorporates everyday events into sentimental fictions of her own making, turning other characters into heroines. Based on their appearances and circumstances, she sees more romantic potential in Harriet Smith or Jane Fairfax than in herself. Even before meeting Harriet, Emma “had long felt an interest in [her], on account of her beauty” (22). Once they are introduced, Emma finds Harriet “a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness” (23). Emma concludes, “Encouragement should be given. . . . She would notice her; she would improve her . . .” (23). In a subsequent clause, Austen clarifies what Emma means by “improvement”: “she would form her opinions and her manners” (23-24, my emphasis). Harriet thus provides a blank canvas for Emma’s creative imagination.
Foremost on Emma’s agenda is to help Harriet discover her mysterious parentage, the plot engine of many a novel, but since Harriet knows nothing about her parents, “Emma was obliged to fancy what she liked” (27). We quickly learn what Emma fancies: “‘There can be no doubt of your being a gentleman’s daughter,’” she tells Harriet (30). Emma repeatedly reinforces her faulty inferences with variations on the phrase, “there can be no doubt,” as, for example, to Mr. Knightley about Harriet’s status: “‘There can scarcely be a doubt that her father is . . . a gentleman of fortune’” (62), and to Harriet, “‘There can be no doubt of [Mr. Elton’s charade] being written for you and to you’” (73). In this respect she does resemble Arabella in The Female Quixote, who repeatedly prefaces her fantastic interpretations of people’s behavior with the words “doubtless” and “questionless,” as in: “Doubtless . . . he laughed, because his Reason was disturbed at the sudden Shock he received” (15); or, “They will, questionless, soon force the Doors of my Apartment” (94).
Arabella and Cherry are clearly delusional. Austen, however, implicates readers in Emma’s more plausible, if doubtful, propositions: like Arabella’s, they are fictions, but they could—just possibly—be true. So could the fanciful, sentimental picture (even less accurate than her portrait of Harriet) that Emma sketches for Harriet: “‘At this moment, perhaps, Mr. Elton is shewing your picture to his mother and sisters, telling how much more beautiful is the original, and after being asked for it five or six times, allowing them to hear your name, your own dear name’” (56).
Similarly, in Jane Fairfax’s qualities and situation Emma perceives a potential heroine for the romance that she constructs. Before Jane’s visit, when Miss Bates tells Emma that Jane will not, after all, accompany the Dixons to Ireland, “an ingenious and animating suspicion enter[s] Emma’s brain with regard to Jane Fairfax, this charming Mr. Dixon, and the not going to Ireland” (160). Like Harriet’s beauty, Jane’s appearance feeds the fancy: “Jane Fairfax was very elegant, remarkably elegant; and she had herself the highest value for elegance. . . . It was a style of beauty, of which elegance was the reigning character, and as such, she must, in honour, by all her principles, admire it” (167). Jane’s elegance is intensified for Emma by the poignancy of her dependency, for
when she considered what all this elegance was destined to, what she was going to sink from, how she was going to live, it seemed impossible to feel any thing but compassion and respect; especially, if to every well-known particular entitling her to interest, were added the highly probable circumstance of an attachment to Mr. Dixon, which [Emma] had so naturally started to herself. (167-68, my emphasis)
The orphaned Jane, like the nameless Harriet, looks like a heroine and “interests” Emma by her social vulnerability, thus inspiring Emma to segue from the probability to the certainty of Jane’s forbidden love for Mr. Dixon. Emma’s inference is fortified by Jane’s reserve: “Her caution was thrown away. Emma saw its artifice. . . . Mr. Dixon, perhaps, had been very near changing one friend for the other, or been fixed only to Miss Campbell, for the sake of the future twelve thousand pounds” (169).
Characteristically, Emma recognizes Jane’s “artifice” but misreads the cause. The narrator conveys Emma’s thoughts through free indirect discourse that burlesques sentimental novel diction:
In that case [of Jane’s love for Mr. Dixon], nothing could be more pitiable or more honourable than the sacrifices she had resolved on. Emma was very willing now to acquit her of having seduced Mr. Dixon’s affections from his wife, or of any thing mischievous which her imagination had suggested at first. If it were love, it might be simple, single, successless love in her side alone. She might have been unconsciously sucking in the sad poison, while a sharer of his conversation with her friend; and from the best, the purest of motives, might now be denying herself this visit to Ireland. . . . (168, my emphasis)
First-time readers schooled in the diction and conventions of the contemporary novel might, like Harriet, be seduced here by Emma’s faulty inferences, for, unlike the narrators of Lennox and Barrett, whose readers are always kept at a critical distance from their delusional heroines, Austen’s narrative voice invites unwary readers to share Emma’s thought processes and judgments—in effect, to read Emma’s novel instead of Austen’s. The narrator’s parodic tone, however, should alert careful readers to question their assumptions about how this novel’s plot will unfold.
If Harriet—soft, blond, pliant, without acknowledged family—is a clichéd heroine from an eighteenth-century novel, then Jane—elegant, ardent, isolated and dependent—prefigures nineteenth-century heroines. In contrast to these detailed portraits so brightly colored by Emma’s imagination, readers learn about Emma’s appearance only through one of Mr. Knightley and Mrs.Weston’s quarrels about Emma. In the novel that Jane Austen writes, Mrs. Weston describes Emma’s most unheroine-like “‘bloom of full health’” and “‘firm and upright figure’” (39, my emphasis). This suggestion of tumescence notwithstanding, “‘firm and upright’” provides little scope for pliancy or romantic peril. Three hundred pages later, when Emma sees Mr. Knightley among the old men at the Crown, “His tall, firm, upright figure . . . was such as Emma felt must draw every body’s eyes” (326, my emphasis). Clearly these two firm, upright characters are destined for one another—but not until Emma learns how to read the novel that Austen wrote.
At the beginning of the novel, Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” and “very little to distress or vex her” (5), does not see herself as a heroine at all. Her situation is not “interesting,” for she is threatened neither by illegitimacy, poverty, nor undeserved disgrace. Her only problem is complacency, hardly the stuff of novels. Moreover, she eliminates herself from any possible courtship plot by declaring that she will not marry, assuring Harriet that her romance-less future will be prosaically occupied with housekeeping, reading, carpet-work, and visiting nieces and nephews (84-85).
Emma does, however, permit herself an imaginary courtship by Frank Churchill, since even before they meet, “there was something in the name, in the idea of Mr. Frank Churchill, which always interested her. . . . She could not but suppose it to be a match that every body who knew them must think of” (118-19). Tara Ghoshal Wallace, responding to Austen’s description of Emma’s “sort of pleasure in the idea of their being coupled in their friends’ imaginations” (119), points out that Emma takes performative pleasure “in being a text” to be read by her neighbors (Wallace 79), but I believe that Emma takes an even greater pleasure in the opportunity Frank provides for creating texts.
Emma invents Frank’s character before she meets him: “‘My idea of him, is that he can adapt his conversation to the taste of every body, and has the power as well as the wish of being universally agreeable’” (150). Even after their apparent courtship, she cannot quite persuade herself that she is seriously in love: “though thinking of him so much, and, as she sat drawing or working, forming a thousand amusing schemes for the progress and close of their attachment, fancying interesting dialogues, and inventing elegant letters; the conclusion of every imaginary declaration on his side was that she refused him” (264). Emma is still waiting for something significant to happen to her: “She felt as if the spring would not pass without bringing a crisis, an event, a something to alter her present composed and tranquil state” (315). Meanwhile, Frank’s visit offers an occasion for “fancying interesting dialogues” and “inventing elegant letters.”
Emma’s novelistic imagination is stimulated by incidents like Mr. Dixon’s heroic rescue of Jane Fairfax at Weymouth (160) or Frank’s rescue of Harriet from “gipsies” the day after the ball at the Crown (333)—incidents that Emma identifies as “events.” This last event Emma finds “very extraordinary”—the phrase is repeated twice—for it promises “the most interesting consequences” (335):
Such an adventure as this,—a fine young man and a lovely young woman thrown together in such a way, could hardly fail of suggesting certain ideas to the coldest heart and the steadiest brain. So Emma thought, at least. Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together, and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other?—How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight!—especially with such a ground-work of anticipation as her mind had already made. (334-35)
Unwary readers (even grammarians or mathematicians of cold heart and steady brain) who share Emma’s conventional sense of what makes an event “significant” might well find this “adventure” equally suggestive of romance.
Emma is still thinking of this “very extraordinary” event a few days later when she exclaims to Harriet, “‘The service he rendered you was enough to warm your heart’” (342). Harriet, with better taste than her patroness, associates the word “service” with Mr. Knightley’s asking her to dance after Mr. Elton’s snub at the Crown Inn: “‘Service! oh! it was such an inexpressible obligation!—The very recollection of it, and all that I felt at the time—when I saw him coming—his noble look—and my wretchedness before. Such a change! In one moment such a change! From perfect misery to perfect happiness’” (342).
Now, in the novel that Jane Austen writes, Mr. Knightley’s chivalrous gesture is an act of knightly heroism, and clearly Emma feels its worth:
Of very important, very recordable events, [the ball] was not more productive than such meetings usually are. There was one, however, which Emma thought something of. . . . Mr. Knightley leading Harriet to the set!—Never had she been more surprised, seldom more delighted, than at that instant. She was all pleasure and gratitude, both for Harriet and herself, and longed to be thanking him . . . . (326, 328, my emphasis)
While Emma finds this event intensely gratifying, however, it does not go into the novel that she is imagining. She does not label Mr. Knightley’s generous action as “very extraordinary,” nor does it suggest to her “certain ideas” about the man and woman involved, nor cause her to feel “that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other.” Thus it never occurs to her that Harriet is alluding to Mr. Knightley when they discuss that “service he rendered you.” As Juliet McMaster points out, this semantic confusion is typical of how speeches in Emma convey multiple meanings for readers to decode (119). Of course, even if Emma does not yet know it, she loves Mr. Knightley, which might account in part for her inability to imagine him as Harriet’s lover, but surely Emma’s semantic confusion over “service” here is also due to her vulgar notion of what makes an event novel-worthy. Mr. Knightley’s gesture deeply gratifies her, but only Frank’s “extraordinary” mock-heroic rescue of Harriet the next day qualifies as an event in her imagination.
Because she focuses on Mr. Dixon’s physical rescue of Jane and on Frank’s physical rescue of Harriet, Emma fails to recognize the truly important events of the novel she is living. When Mr. John Knightley, during his Christmas visit to Hartfield, comments on Emma’s increased “‘visiting-engagements’” that have “‘made a great difference’” in her way of life (311), Emma is astonished: “‘These amazing engagements of mine—what have they been? Dining once with the Coles—and having a ball talked of, which never took place’” (312). But of course, her brother-in-law is correct: much has been going on—enough for Austen to fill three hundred pages with significant events, most of them concerning Emma’s feelings, thoughts and words.
Those feelings, thoughts and words provide the major events of Austen’s novel. By the time Mr. Knightley proposes, Emma says, “Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” (431), but this lady has occasionally said things she ought not to say, prompted by her fictionalizing imagination and her talent for mimicry.3 She catches Mr. Elton’s “‘Exactly so’” (49) and Isabella’s “‘Very true, my love’” (113) and diverts good Mrs. Weston against her conscience by impersonating Miss Bates thanking Mr. Knightley
“for his great kindness in marrying Jane . . . ‘So very kind and obliging!—But he always had been such a very kind neighbour!’ And then fly off, through half a sentence, to her mother’s old petticoat. ‘Not that it was such a very old petticoat either—for still it would last a great while—and, indeed, she must thankfully say that their petticoats were all very strong.’” (225)
Like Austen herself, Emma has a gift for burlesque.
Jane Austen began her writing career by burlesquing the silliness of other people’s novels, and her early writing is filled with wildly improbable plot incidents that are not meant to be taken seriously; rather, they amplify the “extraordinary” plot incidents of contemporary novels and romances, as Scott, too, does in his review of Emma when he describes the hectic vicissitudes endured by a typical novel heroine even in the relatively realistic novels that immediately preceded Austen’s “new kind of novel”:
She was regularly exposed to being forcibly carried off like a Sabine virgin by some frantic admirer. And even if she escaped the terrors of masked ruffians, an insidious ravisher, a cloak wrapped forcibly around her head, and a coach with the blinds up driving she could not conjecture whither, she had still her share of wandering . . . , and of imprisonment, and was frequently extended upon a bed of sickness, and reduced to her last shilling before the author condescended to shield her from persecution. (Southam 60; see also Scott, Waverley 2)
In her novels, however, Austen inverts this amplifying strategy of the Juvenilia, instead scaling down conventionally melodramatic incidents into events that are not only possible but probable. Sexual seductions occur in her novels as they do in life, but offstage and not to the heroine. Instead of wicked abductors determined to carry off the heroine, she gives us John Thorpe carrying Catherine Morland off to Blaise Castle in an open carriage. Instead of forced seductions, her heroines face false suitors like Wickham and Henry Crawford who are weak rather than determinedly wicked, and the false suitor Frank Churchill has no sinister designs upon anyone’s virtue. In Emma, as Cronin and McMillan observe, “the perilous journey shrinks to the seven miles that must be travelled to Boxhill [sic], and . . . the chariot adventure too appears in a comically shrunken form, as the journey of two miles from Randalls to Highbury” (li).
The really significant events of Austen’s novels are always interior. After Box Hill, where “Emma could not resist” the temptation to be witty at Miss Bates’s expense (370), she learns that a careless remark, like an offer to dance, can be an event of major magnitude, and she begins to shift from creating clichéd romances for others to being the heroine of the novel Jane Austen is writing.4 She recognizes that those negligible “events” of the winter and spring have indeed been “very important, very recordable”—although recorded by a much better author than Emma. Her growth can be charted in her use of the word “ought.”
For most of the novel, Emma compares those around her to an implicit paradigm of her own creation, signaled by the word “ought.” Thus when Mr. Elton returns Harriet’s portrait to Emma, he “sighed out his half sentences of admiration just as he ought” (69), and Harriet, under Emma’s prompting, “saw, felt, anticipated, and remembered just as she ought” (74). Emma’s “ought” is very different from Fanny’s “ought” in Mansfield Park, which always implies a correct moral standard by which she judges her own and other people’s behavior, or Marianne’s at the end of Sense and Sensibility when she compares her self-indulgent behavior “‘with what it ought to have been’” (345). Emma does occasionally use “ought” to compare behavior to a moral absolute; for example, in her conversation with Mrs. Weston about Frank Churchill’s postponed visit: “‘He ought to come,’ said Emma. ‘If he could stay only a couple of days, he ought to come’” (122), even though she perversely argues the contrary with Mr. Knightley shortly afterward (145-48). Following Mr. Knightley’s rebuke on Box Hill, however, Emma consistently uses “ought” as a good Austen heroine ought to—as a measure of rectitude, not of conformity to her imagination.5
Significantly, Mr. Knightley’s opinions define Emma’s new “ought.” Thus, fearing that Mr. Knightley might indeed marry Harriet, she thinks: “Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! Had she left her where she ought, and where [Mr. Knightley] had told her she ought!” (413). For Emma, Donwell Abbey (and by implication its master) “was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was” (358). Unlike Mrs. Elton, Emma has no desire to cheapen Donwell with fanciful donkeys and beribboned baskets; she respects its quirky authenticity without needing to romanticize or augment it. On the contrary, Emma does not want Mr. Knightley subject to fictionalizing and matchmaking, and she is horrified when Mrs. Weston suggests that he might marry Jane Fairfax (224). His firm, upright figure does not belong to a conventional romance any more than Emma’s does.
In his review of Emma, Scott describes the typical novel reader as “familiar with the land of fiction, and adventures of which he assimilated not with those of real life, but with each other” (Southam 60). Just as Emma always “assimilates” Mr. Knightley to reality, so too early sympathetic readers of Austen’s novels evaluated their plots and characters against the template of ordinary lives. According to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir, “to the multitude her works appeared tame and commonplace, poor in colouring, and sadly deficient in incident and interest” (135-36), but discriminating readers appreciated Austen’s realism. Lady Gordon, for example, whose views Austen recorded in “Opinions of Mansfield Park,” felt that
[i]n most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A—s works . . . you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family; & the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that there is scarcely an Incident or conversation, or a person that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your life been a witness to, born a part in, & been acquainted with. (MW 434-35)
Eventually, just as we learn to read this new kind of novel, so does Emma. Her habitual respect for Mr. Knightley’s opinion, her untainted offer to him of that “‘true disinterested friendship’” that she had earlier imagined she would share with Frank Churchill as he transferred his affections from herself to her “‘beautiful little friend’” (267, 266), and, above all, her new appreciation of the significance of small gestures—these bring her, firm and upright, into her proper role as Jane Austen’s heroine, which is emphatically not “that heroism of sentiment” that would prompt her to reject Mr. Knightley because Harriet also loves him: of that sort of ridiculous heroism, Austen assures us, “Emma had it not” (431). Readers who have shared Emma’s blunders and imperfections will discover Emma to be the true heroine of Emma when she discovers her love for Mr. Knightley through a series of events so subtle that some readers could say, “Nothing much happens in Emma.” But they would be wrong.
1. Generalizations about “readers” of Emma are problematic because (1) not all readers read alike, and (2) given readers may react differently upon successive readings. Since “readers” is an ambiguous, unstable term—do we mean good readers, bad readers, or rereaders?—I use the modifier “careful” because I believe Austen constructed her novels to admit varied readings, only some of which she valorizes. See also Morefield’s interesting essay on readers’ free will and resistance.
2. Moler explored these similarities at length in his chapter on Emma (162-79); Cronin and McMillan (liii) and Waldron (115) also see resemblances.
3. On Box Hill, “Emma could not resist” (370), but throughout most of the novel Emma does resist the temptation to speak intemperately. See Bander (54-55).
4. Johnson finds this transformation disempowering (139) as does Wallace (96), but I vote with Juliet McMaster (130) for the perfect happiness of the union.
5. See George Justice for another view of how Emma’s use of “ought” changes as the novel progresses.
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