Persuasions #5, 1983 Pages 29-40
EMMA, EMMA AND THE QUESTION OF FEMINISM
Wayne C. Booth
Department of English, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637
My text for today is taken from Persuasion, Book II, Chapter XI, verses 26-27.
“I do not think,” says Captain Harville, “I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and Proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Perhaps I shall,” Anne Elliot replied. “Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.”
I’m sure that many share the uneasy sense of violation that I feel whenever people ask the kinds of questions of Jane Austen that I intend to ask here. We may not want to say with Anne that we will not allow books to prove any thing. But we will not want to allow anybody to probe these books looking for ideological points, whether about woman’s constancy or any other practical or moral matter.
And yet I must risk that kind of probing. I want to ask certain difficult questions about the ethical force of Emma (what many critics would these days call its “ideology”). I am driven to do so, partly by Jane Austen’s own invitations, which I’ll come to in a moment, but even more by my own interests, which happen to coincide with the new critical fashion of asking questions quite different from those that have come most naturally to most modern critics.
From the beginning many readers of Jane Austen have found a wonderful, peaceful contentment in simply dwelling with her novels as they are. We have all felt in our bones that it’s a good thing to dwell with such a mind and heart for many days and weeks and months of our lives. Are not these beautiful, funny, warm experiences more than enough in themselves to satisfy us? Are they not self-justifying? Is not this kind of experience precisely the kind that we should not soil with the moralizers’ and ideologues’ probings?
Until recently it was almost unthinkable for a serious critic to ask whether what Jane Austen does to and for those who love her is good or bad for them. My own Rhetoric of Fiction has been called moralistic by some critics. But my chapter on Emma persistently skirted the question of whether the values or norms that Jane Austen depends on and reinforces are good values. Instead it asked only how her technical mastery enables her to control our response to those values, in such a way as to allow for a splendidly intricate mixture of sympathy for Emma with a radical recognition and repudiation of her faults: “How is it,” I asked, “that we can be made to love as we criticise such a faulty woman, a young woman who in real life would threaten most of us unbearably, just as she threatens the happiness of many in the novel?”
When I asked that question, I took for granted the many values in accordance with which we judge Emma, values that are shared by Knightley, the implied author, and the implied reader. We real readers share those values too – the vivid broad spectrum of intellectual, moral, physical, and social norms that we savour as we observe the headstrong, meddling Emma moving from outside our exalted and exclusive circle to join us, the precious saving remnant whose minds are sound enough and hearts open enough to deserve Jane Austen’s company.
Most critics have been similarly uncritical about Jane Austen’s ideology, but if we look closely at the critical history of her works we find one grand exception: all those male critics who have condescended to Jane Austen because she is a woman writer, limited to a female vision – that is, a maimed vision. A thread of patronizing ideological talk can be found almost everywhere one looks in male critics. It is generally not openly avowed as ideological. On the contrary, it usually sounds like the voice of reason itself, an objective voice that knows what a novel should be and what a novelist should do. Here is the Olympian Lord David Cecil:
Her view of human nature was limited in the first place by her circumstances: she wrote about men and women as she herself had known them. Her view was further limited by her sex, by the fact that she only saw as much of humanity as was visible to a lady.
Surely in such comments we have an invitation from critical history to face ideological questions directly and seriously. If someone we love has been consistently denigrated, however lovingly, we surely have a duty to reconsider both our love and the denigrations, to decide whether our trust has been misplaced. And the invitation is reinforced by Jane Austen herself, who often shows that fiction can have powerful effects – for good or evil – on characters and societies. Like many another great novelist – Cervantes, Flaubert, Mark Twain – she insists that the fictions we imbibe help make us who we are.
You may remember the interesting passage in Sanditon, in which Charlotte meets Clara Brereton for the first time. Now Clara is a beautiful young woman in the service of Lady Denham, and Charlotte is at first tempted to see her as the kind of victimized, impoverished heroine she has been meeting in the novels of the circulating library.
Perhaps it might be partly owing to her having just issued from a Circulating Library – but she cd not separate the idea of a complete Heroine from Clara Brereton. Her situation with Lady Denham so very much in favour ot it! – She seemed placed with her on purpose to be ill-used. Such Poverty & Dependence joined to such Beauty & Merit, seemed to leave no choice in the business.
According, that is, to what some novels teach about life!
But the narrator does not leave it at that, as the narrator of Northanger Abbey years earlier would have been inclined to do. Instead she hammers the point home:
These feelings were not the result of any spirit of Romance in Charlotte herself. No, she was a very sober-minded young Lady, sufficiently well-read in Novels to supply her Imagination with amusement, but not at all unreasonably influenced by them; & while she pleased herself the first 5 minutes with fancying the Persecutions which ought to be the Lot of the interesting Clara, especially in the form of the most barbarous conduct on Lady Denham’s side, she found no reluctance to admit from subsequent observation, that they appeared to be on very comfortable Terms. (Chapman, pp. 391-92)
As if to underline the dangerous power of novels, Jane Austen soon moves to a portrait of Sir Edward, a man who in contrast with Charlotte betrays in every word the deep connections between a radically immoral kind of reading and a corrupt life. Sir Edward professes, as one would expect, literary principles of the highest kind:
I am no indiscriminate Novel-Reader. The mere Trash of the common Circulating Library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile Emanations which detail nothing but discordant Principles incapable of Amalgamation … You understand me I am sure? (p. 403)
But Charlotte, bless her, insists on some clear examples in support of these vague mouthings. Like many a modern reader encountering such fancy claims in such fancy language, she replies that she is not at all sure that she does understand him. “But if you will describe the sort of novels which you do approve, I dare say it will give me a clearer idea.”
Sir Edward responds with an unconscious parody of the mandarin talk of his day.
The Novels which I approve are such as … exhibit the progress of strong Passion from the first Germ of incipient Susceptibility to the utmost Energies of Reason half-dethroned, – where we see the strong spark of Woman’s Captivations elicit such Fire in the Soul of Man as leads him – (though at the risk of some Aberration from the strict line of Primitive Obligations) – to hazard all, dare all, achieve all, to obtain her …. These are the novels which enlarge the primitive Capabilities of the Heart, & which it cannot impugn the Sense or be any Dereliction of the character, of the most anti-puerile Man, to be conversant with. (pp. 403-04)
To which the perceptive Charlotte simply replies, “ ‘If I understand you aright … our taste in Novels is not at all the same,” ’ and the narrator then intrudes to explain the true relation of art and morality:
The truth was that Sir Edw whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot had read more sentimental Novels than agreed with him. His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, & most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s [novels]; … With a perversity of Judgment, which must be attributed to his not having by Nature a very strong head, the Graces, the Spirit, the Sagacity, & the Perseverance, of the Villain of the Story outweighed all his absurdities & all his Atrocities with Sir Edward. With him, such Conduct was Genius, Fire & Feeling. (p. 404)
Jane Austen goes on to describe, in language that would have shocked many a Victorian, just how Sir Edward pursues his chief goal with the lovely Clara:
… [I]t was Clara whom he meant to seduce. Her seduction was quite determined on … He had very early seen the necessity of the case, & had now been long trying with cautious assiduity to make an impression on her heart, and to undermine her Principles. (p. 405)
In other works Jane Austen underlines the dire effects of certain kinds of Romantic literature – most notoriously, perhaps, the works of Byron, but also popular novels. They are again and again accused, delicately but decisively accused, of contributing to the follies of certain characters. No doubt the most obvious victims of reading are Catherine in Northanger Abbey, as besotted by the stuff she has read as was Don Quixote, and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, that maiden who would dash into romantic alliances. But Benwick, in the mature Persuasion is somewhat more subtly portrayed.
Benwick may have been a flawed character even without reading Byron, but certainly his reading of Byron has contributed to his weakness of character. That he has read Byron uncritically, without employing a judicious ideological criticism on his reading, is clearly a flaw.
[H]aving talked of poetry, the richness of the present age, and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets [especially Scott and Byron] … [Benwick] repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she [Anne] ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.
His looks shewing him not pained, but [rather foolishly] pleased with this allusion to his situation, she was emboldened to go on; and feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind, she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances. (My italics, pp. 100-01)
I take such passages as an open invitation from our author to consider whether her own “prose” works are among those that are “calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts.” Suppose we accept the challenge, focus our attention on one kind of “fortifying” only: Is a loving, attentive reading of Emma, by those who “enjoy it completely,” “calculated to rouse and fortify the mind” in the particular matter of inculcating a just, accurate, sensitive, ultimately defensible view of the nature and lot of women, and their relations with men?
As we ask the question, we should constantly remind ourselves that whenever we attempt to judge any work as great as this one, we know in advance that we judge ourselves in every word we utter.
First, then, the indictment.
Most feminist critics have finally defended Jane Austen as by all odds the most perceptive portrayer of women’s fate of her time. They find indeed that her works contain a most biting critique of the male-dominated world, and they have seen her as a kind of founding mother of feminist criticism. I agree with their assessment. We simply do not find any overt signs of sexism. Not even the most hostile feminist critic will ever find here those blatant and ridiculous marks of misogyny that mar the works of a Norman Mailer and a Hemingway, and indeed of a surprising number of the world’s classics. Jane Austen never says that women are inferior to men, never in fact talks about “all women” or “all men,” and she makes fun of those who do.
No, if we are to consider the question seriously, we must look not at propositions spoken by this or that character or narrator, but at what we might call the educative power of the whole form of Emma, the shaping power that our experience of such a powerful work exerts upon our very souls. It is not, after all, in what characters or narrators say about ideas and the world that fictional works affect us most deeply. Rather, their lasting effects are found in the patterns of desire they draw us through – in what they make us experience as desirable. When I live with a beloved character for many hours or many days, longing for what that character longs for (or, as in the case of Emma, what the character should long for, if she knew all along what she learns only toward the end), I am learning how to long in that way for that special conception of happiness. I am taught both how to desire and what to desire. And in novels like Emma that end happily, I am taught how glorious it feels to have precisely those desires fulfilled. If I have enjoyed Emma as it asks to be enjoyed, I can never forget how marvelous it is to find “perfect happiness” in a “union” of true minds and hearts – and that means, in this work, how marvelous it is for a flawed woman to fall into the care and keeping of an unflawed male.
The most obvious objection that a feminist might raise to this work, taking it seriously as the educational force it cannot fail to be, is thus that Emma’s ultimate happiness is identified with learning to see the world as Knightley sees it; with acceding to his judgment on all important matters; and finally with bowing to that man in loving but inevitably submissive vows of matrimony. Salvation for Emma lies in proving that she is worthy of ultimate approval by – a man! We know, as Judith Wilt reminds us, that “Knightley will never forget that sixteen years advantage over Emma.”
Many critics have noticed that Mr. Knightley embodies in a quite marvelous and incredible way all of the virtues of an ideal father and an ideal lover. Infinitely caring and attentive to Emma’s every move, wise in her ways and the ways of the world, able to protect her (to some degree) from the consequences of her egotism, willing to instruct her patiently and to wait for her to profit, in her proud way, from his instruction, he is like the best of parents, or rather like our fantasies about that ideal parent, never found in real life – a godlike creature. Yet he also possesses, quite implausibly when you come to think about it, all or most of the virtues of the ideal lover. Still young, he is not only handsome, well turned out, and possessed of the impeccable manners of the perfect gentleman, but he is also witty and wise. The only quality he lacks is dash – the kind of flair and carefree charm that Frank Churchill can simulate so well or that the Crawfords show in Mansfield Park. And of course we shrewd readers know all along, or soon discover, that such dash can actually be a fault, not a virtue. Besides, it turns out that Knightley dances very well!
One of Emma’s chief faults is that she thinks she does not need marriage to such a man, or to any man. “I have none of the inducements of women to marry,” she says to Harriet early in chapter ten. “Fortune I do not want [that is, need]; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want.” She does not need them because she already has them. And she even adds that she does not need any sort of sexual love – that is to say, in her politer language:
… as for objects of interest, objects for the affections, which is in truth the great point of inferiority [in the celibate state], the want of which is really the great evil to be avoided in not marrying, I shall be very well off, with all the children of a sister I love so much, to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need.
While she thus runs on about her total independence, the perceptive reader is of course noting the one huge gap in her reasoning – the gap that we are reminded of constantly by the way Jane Austen constructs her work: she has forgotten the importance of love of a man, love of a Knightley in shining armour. We have already long since begun to infer that these two characters are destined for love, and as we move through Emma’s series of comic follies, we yearn more and more strongly for the moment when she will discover that all of her talk about independence is vain: what a good woman needs, for her happiness, is not just a good man but a man who is better than she is, a man who can make up for all her feminine follies, correct her, school her, care for her, love her in spite of her feminine weaknesses.
It could be argued, then, that no reader ever fails here to experience a reinforcement of those deepseated sexist beliefs that are taught by most western fiction until our century – that women are indeed the weaker sex, that unlike men they cannot be whole, cannot find maturity, without the protective instruction and care from the right kind of man. It is not just that a union with a Knightley is necessary to complete the happiness of this otherwise glorious creature; it is that full happiness is defined as achieved and in fact terminated with that kind of union. At the moment when the straying lamb finally comes home and accepts the love of a Knightley, heaven is attained – and the story stops; that is what life is for, that is the supreme goal of life, during the hours of our reading. There is one kind of full human happiness possible and one kind only – changing one’s character sufficiently to deserve love and marriage with a Knightley. If you doubt that the novel depends on something like this ideology, try reversing it by writing a novel in which an older woman educated and wins a young man who is flawed as Emma is flawed. You will find that your novel simply cannot and does not work as Emma works.
In short, as we hope for the various comic punishments that will correct Emma and make her eligible for “perfect happiness,” we are learning to practice that kind of longing for that kind of happiness, and the more effective the novel is, for a given reader, the more likely that reader is to infer that that’s what intelligent, sensitive people should long for. If I’m a woman, the real difference between the world I live in and that world will appear to be that I’m not lucky enough to find a Knightley. If I am a man, the temptation will be to see myself as a Knightley, needing only an Emma to complete my triumph in the world. What bliss, to educate and then possess an Emma.
What’s more, the picture of female dependence on superior males is to some degree reinforced by the other characters. Though Frank Churchill is no doubt morally more to blame than is Jane Fairfax for their secret affair, he is also clearly her superior in energy and will. Though Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Churchill are both silly and tyrannical, Mr. Woodhouse is presented as loveable in his tyranny, and finally entirely forgiveable, while Mrs. Churchill is a powerful, threatening, and detestable harridan. Farmer Martin is obviously and clearly the superior of Harriet; Harriet needs him to correct her nature as a silly dependent woman. And can we not say that if anyone could be sillier and more contemptible than Mr. Elton it is Mrs. Elton, whose bad taste in wedding finery is given almost the last word: “very little white satin, very few lace veils,” she complains about the wedding; “a most pitiful business!”
It would not be hard to conclude, then, that this wonderful novel, one of the greatest of novels, one that on its surface seems least guilty of anything that could be called sexism, is in fact a dangerous work to put into the hands of the young. It will miseducate its female readers, by confirming their sense of dependence on and inferiority to men; it will miseducate its male readers, by confirming their egotism and their cheerful willingness to assume the role of lord and master. In short, just as Anne Elliot thought that Benwick needed the antidotes of “prose in his daily study,” the “works of our best moralists,” to compensate for his reading of the dangerous Lord Byron, do we not need the antidote of a good strong feminist critique to compensate for our possible readings of this powerful work?
Of course you have predicted long since that I would turn about somewhere along the line and take all that back in some way. You have expected me to move to a resounding affirmation of a deeper reading that would finally acquit our beloved author of all charges. I do intend to do that, in a sense, but for now such a turn would be premature. The dangerous powers that I have described are real, and they are not merely theoretical. Many a reader, male and female, has inadvertently illustrated each of the deformations I have described. The reader is not only allowed but in a sense invited by Emma to embrace the distorted view of women that I have described. Like Sir Edward identifying with the seductive exploits of Lovelace, against Richardson’s expressed intentions, many a reader of Emma has been unable to resist the seductions of what we might call the “conventional form.” Indeed I think we must finally see the reader’s plight in this regard as similar to that of Jane Austen herself, as she worked to incorporate her vision into a successful realization of a conventional form.
What do I mean by “the seductions of the conventional form,” as distinct from what we might call the seductions of direct teaching?
I have little doubt but that Jane Austen in her everyday life saw women as at least the equals of men in every quality except physical strength. But to make a novel about an Emma Woodhouse, to make a novel that will work as a novel, required in her time some sort of resounding ending. Indeed, it still does, for most novelists and most readers. And there are just not a great many varieties of resounding endings available to a novelist or playwright. When we complicate the simple, direct genres like tragedy and comedy and historical celebration and produce Polonius-like hyphenations of history-comedy-tragedy, we create mixtures that are not the least resounding at the end or gripping in the middle. And so the writer of fictions is inevitably driven into conventional ways of heightening plot, ways that are radically reductive of life’s complexities. Most notably, novelists find themselves granting superlative virtues and vices to heroes and villains and creating impossible romantic fulfilments.
Consider Richardson’s Clarissa again as an example. No critic has ever questioned Richardson’s claim that he intended to make Lovelace repugnant and to celebrate Clarissa’s angelic character as she defends herself against him. But to make his novel work as an articulated, engaging form, Richardson was forced by his own novelistic genius to make Lovelace’s machinations, and the desire that prompts them, come alive on the page. In doing so, he created a vivid, engaging, understandable and hence to that degree sympathetic, character, and he thus invited certain ill-formed readers like Sir Edward to identify, against Richardson’s deepest moral convictions, with the charming and plausible seducer and rapist.
Richardson was shocked and offended by the many reports he received of misreading, but what could he do about it? The Sir Edwards of the world will read as they will read, and literary forms will require kinds of engagement that will, if left uncorrected by critical thought or by reading of other kinds, deform certain readers.
In somewhat the same way, Jane Austen was forced, by the inescapable need to make Emma into an effective novel, into conventional patterns of desire that she quite obviously did not herself embrace uncritically. The novel she wrote thus carries within it a strong likelihood that many readers will succumb morally to what was simply required formally. They will ignore the moral instruction implicit in everything the author does in other respects, accepting instead the moral instruction of the conventional form. And it is important to underline the uncomfortable fact that in doing so, they will not be misreading. We may want to say that they are underreading, or that they are themselves morally weak for not resisting what is offered, but the truth is that the novel itself asks for their response – and asks persistently over many hours.
It is in this borderland between conventional forms, asking as they do for conventional responses, and the other fictional devices for expressing value that the subtlest problems are presented to criticism, at least for those of us who want to do full justice to aesthetic merit and who are determined, at the same time, not to commit what we might call the “Sir Edward fallacy.” The reading task offered by most long fictions is in one essential respect radically different from all other reading, precisely because the scope of the epic or the longer novel provides the time and the resources for making us love heroes and heroines with an intensity and depth of acquaintance that cannot be matched by shorter forms. We identify with their notion of happiness, and we revel in that happiness when it arrives. Shorter works – lyric poems, short stories – are able to present this kind of engagement only in a form so weak as to constitute an entirely different aesthetic and moral problem. When I read only a few pages, I simply do not dwell with a given man or woman’s spirit for long enough to become thoroughly enamoured, thoroughly reconstituted by his or her patterns of hopes and fears. When I live with Emma for – let us say as a minimum the eighteen hours that one critic once objected to, as the time required to read the work; when I enter that world for the days and days that are required for a proper reading, I inevitably learn how to long for a certain kind of happiness; the conventions of the literary form thus do not teach me propositions about happiness but implant habits of desire that may very well be disastrous in my non-reading life.
The resulting “reading assignment” given by our teacher, Jane Austen, is complex indeed. Unless we want to be sitting ducks, we must learn to read as I am quite sure Jane Austen herself wrote: both remembering and forgetting what we know about real life. We all know, or should know, that no union can possibly produce perfect happiness, and that no man can possibly provide for Emma all that the novel in its conventional form suggests. We can be sure, once we think about it, that Jane Austen did not believe in the existence of such a paragon as Knightley, and she tells us in many ways that she does not see the whole of a woman’s life as the pursuit of a single moment of perfect happiness in a perfect union, all past and future qualifications ignored. At a thousand points in her works she makes absolutely clear that she could never swallow such nonsense. But her work asks us to swallow it, in some sense, if we are to savour it to the full. And unless we know how to read, and to criticize what we read, first thing we know we’ll be thinking about love and marriage and life itself with about as little sense as is shown by Sir Edward.
Now there are two tried and true escape routes from the dangers I have been describing. One is to repudiate the joys of conventional form, to resist emotional engagement with characters, to consider exciting love plots as a necessary evil, something to be put aside when we turn to so-called “literary appreciation.” We should read great fictions, we are told, with aesthetic detachment. “Tears and laughter,” Ortega y Gasset once said, are recognized by all truly modern authors as “aesthetic frauds.” If you never allow yourself to care about Emma and her fate, if you refuse to rejoice in her marriage to that paragon of wisdom and loving care, Knightley, you are obviously exempt from any possible danger to your character.
The other route, best represented by Plato’s arguments, is to repudiate all imaginative experience that is not under the control of reason or philosophy. Taken seriously, the platonic critique would either rule Emma out of court entirely, or administer her in carefully controlled doses, always in the company of some higher thinker, preferably a philosopher, who could set the reader straight.
I trust that none of us here will want to take either escape route. In spite of everything I have said, we all know that any theory that leaves us resisting or repudiating any experience as wonderful as Emma offers must have something wrong with it.
Perhaps you have already been far ahead of me in seeing what that something is. While it is true that the conventional form of Emma would be in itself harmful to both men and women, if it were accepted as Sir Edward accepts Lovelace’s charm, the saving truth is that Emma contains within itself the antidotes to its own potential poisons. While it does not in any sense repudiate the fun of pursuing the conventional form, it at the same time keeps the careful reader alert to the need for a double vision – a combination of joyful credulity about the events of the love plot, taken straight, and extreme sophistication about how men and women can hope to live together, in what we call life.
That sophistication consists in part in the imaginative resistance that the work provides to its own conventional or formal preoccupations. By the author’s tone on every page, she asks us to imagine a world that does not permit us to believe what the conventional marriage plot tries, as it were, to teach us. Our journey from page to page is not for the most part focussed on some future fulfilment in some convention of good fortune but rather on the way people behave here and now. To be a certain way in the world, to behave a certain way in the world, is its own justification or damnation. To be faulty in the way Emma is faulty is not simply an obstacle to union with Knightley, though it is that. It is an obstacle to being what Emma ought to be, whether she wins Knightley or not. To be absurd in the way most of the other characters are absurd is not merely to exhibit comic faults for our delectation, though it is that; it is also to illustrate a whole spectrum of human follies, and by implication the virtues that would be their opposites.
Perhaps the best way to dramatize how this antidote works would be to ask whether any character in this novel is perfect. You cannot answer that question without asking at the same time where your standard of perfection comes from. And obviously no character, not even Knightley, provides all of that standard. It is derived not from any male, after all, but from that great woman, the implied Jane Austen, the immensely mature human being who underwrites every act of imagination she takes us through. It is she who accompanies Emma’s almost detestable meddling with both understanding and love. And it is she who provides the subtle clues to Knightley’s own egotism. More subtly, it is she who creates for us the imaginative and witty vitality of Emma herself, as a kind of criticism of the one-sided wisdom and stately power of Knightley. It is she who teaches us that although Emma’s imagination is obviously dangerous, it is also an admirable loveable grace in a world dominated mostly by fools, knaves, and clods. And it is she who provides, at scores of points, the corrective of any naive over-identification we are tempted to commit.
Many readers have resisted that corrective, and we can be sure that many more will do so. Critics have often objected, for example, to the presence of a persistent voice that could allow itself, at what conventionally should have been the moment of supreme passion, to undermine the conventional effects with the famous (or infamous) narrative intrusion:
What did she say? – Just what she ought, of course. And a lady always does. – She said enough to show there need not be despair – and to invite him to say more himself.
And then, in a passage that is even more deflating, if what we are seeking is unalloyed, perfect happiness in an idealized union:
Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.
What kind of talk is that, coming just at the moment of romantic climax? And what must we think of the undercutting of the perfect man, the paragon, full of objective wisdom, the mentor who is above the human battle, when we read the final paragraph of this scene?
He had found her agitated and low. – Frank Churchill was a villain. – He heard her declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate. – She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.
Some readers have considered such passages to be dodges, signs of Jane Austen’s own sexual inhibitions or lack of novelistic skill – poor woman, she just did not know how to write a love scene! I suggest instead that they are signs of a novelist who knows her double task: how to make a conventional form work, while making it work for matters unconventional. The intrusions in no way diminish the portrait of the happy marriage to come, as we read in our roles as credulous participants in the conventional world of Hartfield and environs. But they provide us in our other roles, as readers who know we are reading a fiction, a climax to our friendship with a woman who lives very much in the world as we know it, who knows that we know that she has been presenting an idealized fiction, a woman whose gifts of imagination and wisdom far surpass Knightley’s – and indeed yours and mine. In short, the most lasting demonstration of this novel, concerning men and women in the world, is that most of us, male and female, are as little children compared with this one glorious human being, quite real on the page.
G. B. Stern once wrote that the marriage of Emma and George Knightley is not a happy ending. “Oh, Miss Austen, it was not a good solution; it was a bad solution, an unhappy ending, could we see beyond the last pages of the book.” Edmund Wilson predicted that Emma would find a new protegé like Harriet, since she has not been cured of her inclination to “infatuations with women.” Marvin Mudrick emphatically rejected Jane Austen’s final sentence, claiming that Emma is still a “confirmed exploiter.” For him, the ending must be read as ironic.
When I first reported views of this kind, more than two decades ago, I rejected them. Though I still see them as at best half of what should be said, I think my response was too simple. My point here is that unless we can somehow incorporate something like an ironic vision of the ending, even while pretending not to, even while enjoying the fairy tale to the full, we are indeed confirming its capacity to implant a harmful vision of the sexes. In other words the ending is indeed a happy ending, not the least ironic, given the world of the conventional plot, a world that we are to enter with absolute whole-heartedness. And yet, simultaneously, we are taught by this work the standards by which the ending must be experienced as we experience fairy-tales or fantasies; the implied author has been teaching us all along what it means to keep our wits about us, and how we must maintain a steady vision about the follies and meannesses in our world. Though all is well for Emma and George Knightley, in their fairy-tale world, we have been taught that all is far from well in the real world implied by the book, either for their kind (if any such exist) or for those less fortunate men and women who surround them. Every perceptive reader will have learned, by the end, that in that realer world portrayed so perceptively by Jane Austen, the lot of women is considerably more chancy, considerably more threatening, than the lot of men. Emma, with her rich fortune, could build some sort of decent life without a Knightley, just as she earlier claimed. But where would a Jane Fairfax be if Mrs. Churchill had not died to fulfil the needs of the conventional plot?
Still it would be folly itself to pretend that the
dangers I earlier described will simply go away for anyone who reads
with sufficient skill. We may tell ourselves that Jane Austen knows,
and assumes that we will know, that Knightley is a fantasy figure,
the wise magician who promises us from the beginning that all will be
well in this
created world, even though it can never be entirely or permanently so
in our own. But the power of Jane Austen’s realized
conventional form, the delicious happiness she makes us feel in the
“perfect union” of two almost perfect creatures, the
weaker one of whom almost
deserves the stronger – that power must surely be matched by a
kind of reading that is as powerful and courageous and sensitive as
Jane Austen’s reading of her predecessors. She knew better
than to pretend that fictions are not dangerously loaded weapons for
all who grasp them seriously. And she thus would welcome, I like to
think, the probing questions that feminist critics have been teaching
us to ask. Her kind of critical spirit, applied in 1983 to her kind
of works, will not leave those works unmodified. But to me it is
wonderful to discover that most of the modifications, most of what we
learn by asking the questions raised by feminist criticism, leave
Jane Austen looking perhaps even greater than she did before.
Note: The color image has replaced the original black and white image for the on-line edition of this essay. – C. Moss,