Among Emma’s many inventions is the scene wherein Mr. Elton introduces Harriet—or Emma’s image of Harriet—to his mother and sisters in London.
“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.”
“My picture!—But he has left my picture in Bond-street.”
“Has he so!—Then I know nothing of Mr. Elton. No, my dear little modest Harriet, depend upon it the picture will not be in Bond-street till just before he mounts his horse to-morrow. It is his companion all this evening, his solace, his delight. It opens his designs to his family, it introduces you among them, it diffuses through the party those pleasantest feelings of our nature, eager curiosity and warm prepossession. How cheerful, how animated, how suspicious, how busy their imaginations all are!”
As she does throughout the novel, Emma remakes the world. Mr. Elton’s mother and sisters come to life only to serve as the appreciative audience for Emma’s creative projects—her portrait of Harriet and the courtship narrative she imagines around it. Harriet’s unimaginative practicality—her assumption that Mr. Elton will have deposited the picture at its framers—is set against “‘those pleasantest feelings of our nature’”: the curiosity, the prepossession, the animating suspicion, the imagination belonging to Mr. Elton’s mother and sisters, beings whose minds, inevitably, become the image of Emma’s own.
One of the pleasures of reading—and rereading—Emma is following the comedy of misrecognition and the misapplication of her imaginative powers. But, if we’re honest, it’s a chastening pleasure. Who has not—as Emma does—imagined herself or himself as the center of life’s narrative? Who has not filled up minor and major roles with shadows of the self? As Emma shapes the world to the demands of her own narrative, the “‘discoveries’” she is so certain she would have made, had she been in Weymouth, for example, quickly harden into fact. It remains to Miss Bates, whose language overwhelms with its disorderly representation of detail and sympathy, to utter the counterclaim against what Emma defines as the pleasantest feelings of our nature: “‘I do not think I am particularly quick at those sort of discoveries. I do not pretend to it. What is before me, I see.’”
Discovery, Emma suggests, needs to be attempted with some caution. By the end of the novel, Emma’s discoveries are guided by an imagination that tries to understand other perspectives. Chastened by the experience of Box Hill, Emma “listened with the warmest concern . . . and looked around eager to discover some way of being useful” to Jane Fairfax. The “discovery” of the engagement between Jane and Frank “laid many smaller matters open.” This new kind of engagement—sympathetic, attentive to detail, but nonetheless curious and animated—leads Emma to clearer understanding of both other and self.
Discovering Emma in Vancouver, at JASNA’s Annual General Meeting coordinated by Keiko Parker and Pam Ottridge, brought just such imagination to bear on Jane Austen’s endlessly fascinating novel. The essays from that conference in this issue discover the workings of Austen’s novel and so lay many large and small matters open: about the complexities of Emma’s mental and emotional transformation, about the novel’s redefinition of fiction-worthy events, about Austen’s careful construction of the detective plot, about the governess trade and marriage market, about the ethics of speech and silence, about the habits of reading in Highbury, and about the relationship between the dance and proposal scenes in the novel and its film versions.
The Miscellany opens other discoveries. Essays range from Austen’s biography through her fiction and beyond, into her later textual life—to borrow Kathryn Sutherland’s phrase—on film. The relationship between the young Jane and Tom Lefroy (now a major motion picture) is contemplated, as are the filmic reinventions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Three very different essays consider Mansfield Park in terms of the concept of intimacy, its use of tragedy, and its didactic nature. Mr. Woodhouse is diagnosed as dyslexic; Anne Elliot walks toward physical and emotional health. And Barry Roth’s annual bibliography of works on Jane Austen suggests further discoveries for us to think about.
I want to thank the members of the Editorial Board (listed on POL’s title page) for their work of evaluation and advice over the last year. The willingness to engage with and enter into the arguments of others is also an act of the imagination; it’s a rare commodity but characteristic of these generous teacher-scholars. Laurie Kaplan again deserves much more than particular mention for her constant willingness to respond with help, advice, and encouragement. JASNA’s President Marsha Huff has been a champion of POL. Publications Secretary Lee Ridgeway has contributed much technical expertise. Our web manager Carol Moss has, as always, been a model of collegiality and careful technological wizardry. It’s a cheerful, an animated, a busy, an imaginative group—and that claim is no invention.