Jane Austen’s fifth novel, Emma, was published in London at the start of 1816, and later that year a French translation was published in Paris with the intriguing title of La Nouvelle Emma—The New Emma. The anonymous translator’s title seems to me to capture the essence of Austen’s novel: Emma changes and becomes a new person. This is the only one of Austen’s novels to be named after its heroine, and that fact suggests that the action of the novel takes place within the heroine herself. Emma is the only Jane Austen novel in which the heroine does not move at the end with her mate to a new place, since the primary change, at the end of this novel, is internal. Emma, in fact, ends the novel exactly where she began, at Hartfield; this lack of physical change underlines the mental and emotional change that has taken place within Emma. In this essay, I would like to suggest the nature of Emma’s complex and yet fairy-tale-like transformation.
I can do so by outlining six key ideas, six perspectives on the unfolding action that define Emma’s change and help us to understand it. My subtitle might well be “Six Perspectives in Search of a Character.” The six key ideas are:
1) Emma Woodhouse is a split character, with two very different sides;
2) Emma often does not attend to, or become conscious of, thoughts and feelings that are in her mind;
3) The change in Emma’s character is gradual and not instantaneous or total;
4) Mrs. Elton arrives providentially during the second half of the novel, so that she can embody in external form, and so exorcise, Emma’s own worst qualities;
5) The changes within Emma during the novel are mirrored by great changes within Harriet and Mr. Knightley, the two characters Emma is most dependent upon;
6) Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, whose love story is counterpointed with Emma’s own, triumph by good luck; Frank, however, remains inwardly unchanged, unlike Emma.
As for my first point, Emma’s split self: to speak precisely, the change within Emma does not create a wholly new person. The new Emma has been present from the start, but dominated by the arrogant, self-absorbed, self-sufficient side of herself. The Emma of the novel’s opening sentence—“handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” (5)—seems to be perfect and so in no need of change. That is, in fact, precisely Emma’s own view of her situation: she tells Harriet Smith early in the novel that she will never marry because “‘I cannot really change for the better.’” As Emma explains to Harriet, she is surrounded by those who love and admire her, and she has complete control of her own daily life: “‘never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s’” (84). Note that Emma here equates being first—as she is, socially—with being right, and being important with being beloved. There is, however, another, more reasonable and less complacent Emma present from the outset. In fact, one sign of this split within Emma is her paradoxical fascination with love and courtship: though believing she herself has no need of them, Emma nevertheless finds her greatest satisfaction in trying to arrange, and in speculating about, other people’s love affairs. It is interesting to note that Emma is remarkably conceited, stubborn, and obtuse whenever she deals with the subject that fascinates her, her idée fixe, love, but remarkably sensible and competent when she confronts other issues, such as, for instance, whether the snow falling outside will prevent her father from getting home from the Westons’ Christmas-Eve party.
The novel’s first chapter dramatizes this split within Emma. In the novel’s first conversation, she attempts to make her egocentric father see the rational benefits to all, now that her former governess, Miss Taylor, has left their home and married their neighbor, Mr. Weston. When Mr. Knightley arrives, however, Emma falls into her father’s “gentle selfishness” (8), and Mr. Knightley responds to her self-pitying tears by declaring, in an echo of Emma’s earlier words to her father, “‘Every friend of Miss Taylor must be glad to have her so happily married’” (11). The first chapter, then, suggests that Emma is torn between a Woodhouse side and a Knightley side; she takes the Knightley point of view speaking to her father, and the Woodhouse point of view speaking to Mr. Knightley. The same split within Emma is evident in her two disputes with Mrs. Weston and with Mr. Knightley about Frank Churchill’s delay in visiting his father and new stepmother: in Chapter 14 of Volume One, Emma takes a stern tone in discussing Frank with Mrs. Weston; but, in Chapter 18, she finds herself embroiled in a heated debate with Mr. Knightley “and, to her great amusement, perceived that she was taking the other side of the question from her real opinion, and making use of Mrs. Weston’s arguments against herself” (145).
At the Crown Inn ball, Mr. Knightley tells Emma that she has two selves. In a dumb-show reprise of the action of Volume One, Mr. Elton has openly refused to dance with Harriet in an attempt to punish both Harriet and Emma for Emma’s attempt to unite him with Harriet. Mr. Knightley, however, dances with Harriet and thus saves her and Emma from humiliation by the Eltons. When Emma confesses to him her scheme to unite Mr. Elton and Harriet, and adds, “‘they cannot forgive me,’” the conversation continues:
“I shall not scold you. I leave you to your own reflections.”
“Can you trust me with such flatterers?—Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?”
“Not your vain spirit, but your serious spirit.—If one leads you wrong, I am sure the other tells you of it.” (330)
Both this scene and Mr. Knightley’s role in the first chapter suggest that Mr. Knightley is the hidden and “serious” side of Emma, and thus that she has a deep need for his love and esteem from the start. Emma has two selves, and Mr. Knightley embodies her “real” self. Emma thus vacillates between two poles in her personality, just as most of us do, or think we do. She frequently acts foolishly or unkindly, but she is always to some degree aware that she is misbehaving, even while she is doing so. Her most cruel action in the novel is her public insult to Miss Bates at Box Hill, an insult that is all the more cruel since it is cloaked in civility: “‘Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once’” (370). Yet the narrator’s words introducing this remark—“Emma could not resist”—suggest that Emma realizes even as she is speaking that she is giving in to an impulse that she should repress.
My second point is that, throughout the novel, Emma has thoughts and feelings in her mind that she is not conscious of—in fact, that she does not want to be conscious of. Most important, Emma is, unknown to herself, in love with Mr. Knightley from long before the novel starts. This is exactly what she discovers in the novel’s climactic pages. In a rapid series of shocks, Emma finds that Frank and Jane are engaged, that Harriet does not love Frank but Mr. Knightley, and that Harriet’s love for Mr. Knightley is a calamity—because Emma loves Mr. Knightley herself. The language describing Emma’s discovery of her love suggests a process of approaching, confronting, absorbing, and finally accepting a pre-existing fact: “A mind like her’s, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched—she admitted—she acknowledged the whole truth” (408). Emma’s awareness is new, but her love for him has been in her mind and heart all along, she realizes:
How long had Mr. Knightley been so dear to her, as every feeling declared him now to be? When had his influence, such influence begun?—When had he succeeded to that place in her affection, which Frank Churchill had once, for a short period, occupied?—She looked back; she compared the two—compared them, as they had always stood in her estimation, from the time of the latter’s becoming known to her—and as they must at any time have been compared by her, had it—oh! had it, by any blessed felicity, occurred to her, to institute the comparison.—She saw that there never had been a time when she did not consider Mr. Knightley as infinitely the superior, or when his regard for her had not been infinitely the most dear. She saw, that in persuading herself, in fancying, in acting to the contrary, she had been entirely under a delusion, totally ignorant of her own heart—and, in short, that she had never really cared for Frank Churchill at all! (412)
Amusingly, then, Emma’s immunity to Frank Churchill’s appeal has been the result of her unadmitted love for Mr. Knightley, and not because, as she tells Harriet in Volume One, “‘I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature’” (84).
Why has Emma been unwilling to admit her love for Mr. Knightley, and instead indulged those other aspects of her personality that she now finds “disgusting” (412)? The answer seems to be that she finds love threatens her sovereignty, her independence, her self-control: she tells Harriet, while explaining to her that she has no need for love, that her affection for her nephews and nieces “‘suits my ideas of comfort better than what is warmer and blinder’” (86). Emma’s complacent self-love is why, in her phrase, it never occurred to her, by any blessed felicity, to institute the comparison of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley. One thing that makes Emma, the novel, so true to experience and so enjoyable to read is that we, the readers, can’t help seeing Emma’s deepest impulses much more clearly than she can herself. One unmistakable instance is at the Crown Inn ball, when Emma is “more disturbed by Mr. Knightley’s not dancing, than by any thing else” (325); his “tall, firm, upright figure” ought not to be among the elderly men, she thinks (326). There is also her extreme concern at the suggestion of Mr. Knightley marrying Jane Fairfax and disinheriting little Henry: “‘every feeling revolts,’” Emma exclaims (225). Another sign of her secret love is her unhappiness whenever she falls out of favor with Mr. Knightley; she is so unhappy following his rebuke of her at Box Hill for mistreating Miss Bates that she cries all the way home (376). Emma’s tears are, she realizes, “extraordinary,” and so is the suggestion that Emma makes to Mr. Knightley early in the novel, in their debate about Harriet Smith and Mr. Martin: “‘I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in— . . . Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you’” (44).
Emma’s unacknowledged love for Mr. Knightley provides the novel with its comic plot, much as Elizabeth Bennet’s unconscious love for Mr. Darcy does in Pride and Prejudice and as Captain Wentworth’s unacknowledged love for Anne Elliot does in Persuasion. One of Austen’s rare literary allusions underlines this point. Emma, delighted at Mr. Elton’s charade of a courtship, tells Harriet,
“There does seem to be a something in the air of Hartfield which gives 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.” (75)
As Jocelyn Harris has pointed out in her chapter on Emma in Jane Austen’s Art of Memory, Emma, sublimely confident that she knows better than Shakespeare, finds herself unwittingly performing in a Hartfield version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: several pairs of lovers mistake and misunderstand each other, but, in the end, are reunited and married.
Emma, then, has many thoughts in her mind that she cannot or will not attend to, thoughts that remain unconscious. To give one example, she knows very well, but at the same time cannot admit to herself, that Harriet Smith is in love with Robert Martin. She keeps herself from acknowledging this obvious fact by thinking that Harriet must be kept “safe” from the designs of the Martins, kept away from the “danger” of contamination—in fact, kept under Emma’s own control. Emma preoccupies herself with protecting Harriet to avoid raising the question of what Harriet herself wants. In the same way, Emma insists that Harriet is her special friend, her chosen companion: “‘my intimate friend’” is the phrase she uses to Mr. Knightley in their debate over Robert Martin’s proposal (62). Yet, in fact, Emma finds Harriet tiresome and feebleminded. Her contempt for Harriet appears again and again in the novel, but Emma remains unaware of it because she clothes it in admiration for Harriet’s simplicity and humility. Emma, for instance, tries to convince herself at the end of Volume One that “Harriet was the superior creature of the two,” but then thinks, “It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant; but she left [Harriet] with every previous resolution confirmed of being humble and discreet, and repressing imagination all the rest of her life” (142).
On almost every page of the novel, we see Emma’s ingenuity at work: she manages to absorb unpleasant facts without actually admitting their obvious meaning. For instance, John Knightley, her brother-in-law, warns Emma, in Chapter 13 of Volume One, that Mr. Elton is wooing her and that she is encouraging him. In the very next chapter, Mr. Elton’s attentions grow increasingly particular, and Emma finally has to ask herself, “‘Can it really be as my brother imagined? can it be possible for this man to be beginning to transfer his affections from Harriet to me?’” (118). Of course, the two questions are very different; Emma is, in the precise sense of the phrase, begging the question (in the Oxford English Dictionary, “beg the question” is defined as “assume truth of thing to be proved”).
Here we reach my third idea. The change that brings into being a new Emma is not instantaneous or total. The very words in which Emma first acknowledges “the whole truth” about her love for Mr. Knightley suggest that the new Emma is still enmeshed in the old: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” (408). Jocelyn Harris aptly remarks, “That arrow must be the arrow of the blind boy Cupid”(181). We might expect Emma’s all-important realization to be “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that she loved Mr. Knightley!”—and, indeed, in all three film versions of Emma produced in 1995-96 (the Gwyneth Paltrow Hollywood film, the BBC/A&E film starring Kate Beckinsale, and the Beverly-Hills-High film adaptation Clueless), the heroine exclaims at this moment, “I love him!” (in Clueless, the heroine Cher tells herself, “I love Josh”). Emma’s self-discovery arrives in her consciousness as a decree about Mr. Knightley’s future—and we may recall that “must” has been a favorite verb of the God-like Emma, who has been arranging others’ destinies. Harriet “must have good sense and deserve encouragement,” while the Martins “must be coarse and unpolished” and “must be doing her harm” (23). Again, “Mr. Knightley must never marry. Little Henry must remain the heir of Donwell” (228), while Frank Churchill “must learn to do without her” (266).
From the moment that Emma realizes, in less than straightforward terms, that she loves Mr. Knightley to the end of the novel occupies almost eighty pages in the R. W. Chapman edition, about one-sixth of the whole; one reason that the ending does not come quickly after this realization is that Austen has to trace the changes within Emma. During the twenty-four hours following her initial discovery, she makes a whole series of subsequent realizations (about Harriet, her treatment of Harriet, her feelings for Frank Churchill, her treatment of Jane Fairfax and her motives in maligning Jane, her deprivation if she is to lose Mr. Knightley to Harriet, and more): “She was bewildered amidst the confusion of all that had rushed upon her within the last few hours. Every moment brought a fresh surprise; and every surprise must be matter of humiliation to her” (411). Even after the romantic éclaircissement, there are still changes and adjustments, as the new Emma disentangles herself more and more completely from the old. Emma accepts Mr. Knightley’s love and proposal of marriage, but she assumes they must remain engaged as long as her father lives: “‘any change of condition must be impossible for her’” (448), a pronouncement that she happily withdraws one page later when Mr. Knightley convinces her that such a change is very possible.
Here we can move to my fourth idea: the entrance into the novel of a caricature-Emma, Mrs. Elton. Mrs. Elton arrives in Highbury well past the halfway point of the novel; in a sense, Emma has summoned Augusta Elton from the depths of Bristol by sending away Mr. Elton wounded and determined to marry to spite Emma. Mrs. Elton embodies all of Emma’s worst qualities, Emma’s “vain spirit,” but with none of the counterbalancing good qualities—including self-doubt—of Emma’s “serious spirit.” Mrs. Elton, like one side of Emma, is conceited; she patronizes her social inferiors; she considers every social occasion as an event held in her honor; she thinks in clichés, unable to realize her own limited awareness—the resemblances between Emma and the woman who says, “‘I am Lady Patroness, you know,’” are too striking to be missed (354).
However, Mrs. Elton’s belated appearance in the novel helps to raise Emma in the reader’s eyes, to make her more worthy of the novel’s happy ending, in three quite separate ways. One is that Emma detests Mrs. Elton from the time of their first conversation and is determined to be as unlike her as possible. Another is simply a matter of contrast: Mrs. Elton is so unmitigatedly awful, so lacking in self-awareness, humility, and consideration, that she makes Emma appear sensitive and intelligent. A third, and quite different, benefit to Emma from Mrs. Elton’s arrival is that Emma’s worst qualities, undiluted and concentrated, now are embodied in someone external to her. By repudiating Mrs. Elton and all that she stands for, Emma seems to cast out, to purge and exorcise, the vain side of her own character. Emma’s exorcism of the Mrs. Elton side of herself seems to me suggested by the novel’s final paragraph:
The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.—“Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it.”—But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union. (484)
This passage tells us that Emma’s wedding ceremony is as un-Augustalike as possible: all the things that make the ceremony perfect, the absence of finery and parade and white satin, are seen by Mrs. Elton as deficiencies. The passage also tells us, slyly, in the words “from the particulars detailed by her husband,” that Mrs. Elton was not at the wedding; she has been excluded; she does not belong in the small band of true friends who gather to celebrate Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightley.
My fifth idea is concerned with change among the other characters in the novel. Obviously, most of the characters in this comic novel do not and can not change. In fact, Emma and Mr. Knightley reach the altar on the novel’s final page because Mr. Woodhouse remains un-changed: “In this state of suspense they were befriended, not by any sudden illumination of Mr. Woodhouse’s mind, or any wonderful change of his nervous system, but by the operation of the same system in another way.—Mrs. Weston’s poultry-house was robbed one night of all her turkies” (483). The two characters that Emma is most dependent upon, however, Harriet Smith and Mr. Knightley, do change dramatically in the course of the novel, and these changes on their part reflect and amplify the change Emma herself is undergoing. Harriet, for instance, begins the novel as guileless, unassuming, and completely humble. When Emma tells her that Mr. Elton is clearly in love with her, she responds, “‘Whatever you say is always right, . . . and therefore I suppose, and believe, and hope it must be so; but otherwise I could not have imagined it. It is so much beyond any thing I deserve. Mr. Elton, who might marry any body!’” (74). But Harriet changes under Emma’s ministrations; we hear quite a different person halfway through the novel, when Harriet disputes Emma’s praise of Jane Fairfax’s piano-playing, pointing out, “if she does play so very well, you know, it is no more than she is obliged to do, because she will have to teach” (232). Harriet, in other words, is becoming uppity, and this change in her climaxes when she believes it likely that Mr. Knightley has fallen in love with her and wishes to marry her: she says to Emma, “‘I seem to feel that I may deserve him; and that if he does choose me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful.’” Emma is now confronted by a new Harriet, a monster that she has created, and she feels sincere and total revulsion: “the moment [Harriet] was gone, this was the spontaneous burst of Emma’s feelings: ‘Oh God! that I had never seen her!’” (411).
Just as the change in Harriet’s character underlines the change within Emma herself, so we can see a change within Mr. Knightley that anticipates the change within Emma at the novel’s climax. He has clearly been in love with Emma from well before the novel’s opening: he tells her in the novel’s final pages, “‘I could not think about you so much without doating on you, faults and all; and by dint of fancying so many errors, have been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least’” (462). But, like Emma, he has remained unaware of his love: in the novel’s proposal scene, the narrator comments that “jealousy of Frank Churchill . . . probably enlightened him as to [his love]” (432). The change in Mr. Knightley’s awareness of his love for Emma is evident in the contrast between “‘Isabella does not seem more my sister’” (40), his assertion to Mrs. Weston in the novel’s fifth chapter, and “‘Brother and sister! no, indeed’” (331), the final words of the chapter devoted to the Crown Inn ball. Like Emma, but much earlier in the sequence of events, Mr. Knightley has become aware of his love, and, in a fine symmetry, the cause of his awareness is Frank Churchill.
This brings me to my sixth idea. Emma’s character change is highlighted by the absence of any inner change on the part of Frank Churchill. In a conversation commenting on the novel’s outcome in its second-last chapter, Emma and Frank agree that they have similar dispositions (in fact, Emma admits that, in his situation, she would have found amusement in deceiving all in Highbury as he has done); she adds, “‘there is a likeness in our destiny; the destiny which bids fair to connect us with two characters so much superior to our own’” (478). The love plot of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is thus presented in counterpoint to the Knightley-Emma plot. Both stories present a secret love affair, though the secrecy in Jane and Frank’s case is intentional, while the love that connects Emma and Mr. Knightley is unconscious. One pair of lovers deceives those around them; the other pair deceive themselves. Both stories reach a climax in the outing to Box Hill, where both pairs of lovers quarrel. Jane, in an intense speech of veiled contempt, breaks off her secret engagement to Frank (373); Emma returns home from Box Hill believing she has lost forever Mr. Knightley’s good opinion by her brutality to Miss Bates. One love-plot is resolved by fortunate circumstances; Mrs. Churchill, who rules Frank Churchill’s life, suddenly and unexpectedly dies, allowing Jane and Frank to marry. The other two lovers are united by inner change on Emma’s part; in general terms, she has become aware of her love for Mr. Knightley, and, because of it, she now repudiates her previous self as “disgusting”; more specifically, Emma actually invites Mr. Knightley to propose to her. Believing he is about to relate his love for Harriet, she “could not bear to give him pain. He was wishing to confide in her—perhaps to consult her;—cost her what it would, she would listen” (429). Emma now can feel for another, can empathize with another person and be governed by that empathy, and she is rewarded for it.
Frank Churchill’s letter of explanation, which fills the chapter that follows the Emma-and-Knightley proposal scene, underlines the contrast between Frank’s inability to change and the new Emma. The letter explains, diffusely, that he and Jane have been lucky that Mrs. Churchill died when she did. He ends with the words, “‘If you think me in a way to be happier than I deserve, I am quite of your opinion.—Miss W. calls me the child of good fortune’” (443). Emma has been presented from the novel’s first sentence as another “child of good fortune”—but the difference between the two is that circumstances allow Frank to remain a child, while Emma, by inner exertions, has grown up.
These six perspectives that I have outlined are, of course, interconnected, and together they suggest the nature of the new Emma who prevails at the novel’s end. The change within Emma is reflected in Jane Austen’s unobtrusive use of symbolism from nature. One main vehicle for this symbolism is the natural sequence of the seasons, the passage from life to death to renewed life. The novel begins in late September with Emma facing a long winter, the winter of her discontent, that follows from Miss Taylor’s removal from Hartfield to become Mrs. Weston: Emma reflects, in the first chapter, “many a long October and November evening must be struggled through at Hartfield, before Christmas brought the next visit from Isabella and her husband and their little children” (7). In midwinter, when the year is at its low point, and Emma is at her most unreasonable, Mr. Elton, “spruce, black, and smiling” (114), proposes to Emma in a carriage on a snowy Christmas Eve. However, the year turns, spring comes, Emma’s life becomes richer, and the climactic outing to Box Hill occurs on a hot day in late June. Emma’s scenes of self-discovery occur in July, but in gloomy weather; Emma resolves that, “however inferior in spirit and gaiety might be the following and every future winter of her life to the past, it would yet find her more rational, more acquainted with herself, and leave her less to regret when it were gone” (423). The rain clears at the start of the next chapter, and Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma in the garden at Hartfield on a sunny July afternoon, “tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a storm” (424). The two marry in October, the time of harvest and natural fulfillment. Jane Austen uses a similar unobtrusive but powerful symbolism of seasonal change in her other novels, most notably Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice.
The human equivalent of the seasonal procession to fulfillment is the arrival of little Anna Weston, the baby produced by Mr. and Mrs. Weston, in the final pages of the novel. In Volume One, the rift between Emma and Mr. Knightley caused by their quarrel over Harriet Smith is almost magically healed when they take turns dandling Isabella’s eight-month-old daughter: “Mr. Knightley . . . was soon led on . . . to take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity” (98). This scene of reconciliation is similar to the moment in Persuasion when Captain Wentworth lifts troublesome young Walter Musgrove from the back of Anne Elliot (80). Both scenes come early in the novel, before the hero and heroine are aware of their feelings for one another; we sense in both scenes that the man and woman are potential parents and perhaps meant to be parents together. By the novel’s end, Anna Weston, the natural outcome of the Westons’ marriage one year earlier, represents the new life that has been the natural outcome of the sequence of events in Emma’s life that began with Miss Taylor’s transformation into Mrs. Weston. And if Anna Weston is likely to be spoiled by her indulgent parents, her story will be in the end a happy one. When Emma asks, “‘Poor child! . . . at that rate, what will become of her?’” Mr. Knightley replies, “‘Nothing very bad.—The fate of thousands. She will be disagreeable in infancy, and correct herself as she grows older’” (461).
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1969.
Clueless. Dir. Amy Heckerling. Perf. Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd. Paramount, 1995.
Emma. Dir. Douglas McGrath. Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam. Miramax, 1996.
Emma. Dir. Diarmuid Lawrence. Perf. Kate Beckinsale, Mark Strong. Meridian-ITV/A&E, 1996.
Harris, Jocelyn. Jane Austen’s Art of Memory. Cambridge: CUP, 1989.