Persuasions #5, 1983 Pages 6-7
THE TWO PICNICS IN EMMA
On a tour through Jane Austen country two years ago, I found myself climbing the path to the top of Box Hill, the scene of Emma Woodhouse’s famous insult to Miss Bates. The pathway is moderately steep, but the top of the hill gives a magnificent panorama of green, rolling fields dotted with sturdy farmhouses and oak, beech, and cedar trees. Looking out across the peaceful, prosperous countryside, I wondered what could possibly account for Emma’s abrupt hostility.
I came to realize later, however, that there are two picnics in Emma, and that the contrast between them gives the key to their meaning. The first outing takes place on Mr. Knightley’s property, where Emma and her friends enjoy surveying his idyllic, well-ordered, and above all feudal, estate: “at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; – and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm [belonging to Robert Martin, one of Mr. Knightley’s tenant-farmers], with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.”1 The estate is pictured approvingly “with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending.”
The second outing occurs on an equally beautiful day, and Emma and the others again enjoy looking across fields and hills from a considerable height. Yet on this occasion there is “a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union,” and Emma and her group “separated too much into parties,” as if acting on “a principle of separation.” This second picnic, the one to Box Hill, becomes “downright dulness to Emma.” When Miss Bates agrees to join a game which will require her to say “three things very dull indeed,” Emma suddenly interrupts with her gratuitous and shocking insult: “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me – but you will be limited as to number – only three at once.”
The two expeditions take place on consecutive days, and in consecutive chapters of almost equal length. Readers are being challenged to notice parallels between the two chapters, and to analyze their similarities and differences. We notice, for instance, that the first, successful, picnic occurs on a smoothly-functioning and productive estate, whereas the second, disastrous, picnic occurs at a public place.2 Furthermore, Mr. Knightley presides as host on the first outing, whereas in the Box Hill episode no one is in charge and Emma battles with Mrs. Elton for the upper hand. Social harmony seems possible, then, as long as it is supported by property interest and a hierarchical social structure; without that supporting class structure, on the other hand, there is “a want of union” and “a principle of separation,” and society becomes merely a battleground for competing egos. Another difference is that at Donwell Abbey the participants perform physical labour (by picking strawberries), while at Box Hill they do not have the responsibilities of work. The first picnic illustrates Jane Austen’s vision of a well-ordered society, in which both upper- and lower-class members work for the good of the whole; the second picnic shows the chaos that results when people like Emma Woodhouse forget their social responsibilities and act as self-centred individuals.
The device of the two picnics, then, invites us to perceive Jane Austen’s endorsement of a humane social hierarchy, in which even privileged members are engaged in meaningful work. Much of the novel as a whole is concerned with the folly of Emma’s snobbishness, but in these chapters the author tries to prevent misinterpretation by showing that class structure in itself is both good and necessary.
Many readers and critics have discussed the quality of balance in Jane Austen’s writing. Norman Sherry, for example, notes “the symmetry of her style,” which “rests on her habit of using a rhetorical balance which in turn establishes a sense of logic and order in her work.”3 The same principle of balance can be seen on the level of structure, in the parallel chapters presenting the two picnics: the two chapters are a microcosm of her careful, analytical art, and in their exquisite equilibrium they convey Jane Austen’s underlying respect for the values of reason, moderation, and harmony.
1 All quotations from Emma are from chapters VI and VII of Volume Three in the R. W. Chapman edition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933).
2 F. B. Pinion informs us that Box Hill “was a favourite place for picnic parties from London” (A Jane Austen Companion [London: Macmillan, 1973], p. 208.)
3 Jane Austen (New York: Arco, 1969), p. 152.
THE BOX TREES ON BOX HILL
Printed by permission of Drive Publications, Ltd. from the A. A.
Illustrated Guide to Britain
Box Hill on the North Downs was a popular picnic spot as long ago as the reign of Charles II, when John Evelyn the diarist praised its yews and box trees, ‘it seeming from these evergreens to be summer all the winter.’ Many of the trees were cut down in the 18th century when box wood was in demand for the blocks from which wood engravings were made. It is the densest English wood, and Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), famous engraver of birds and animals, claimed one of his blocks was sound after being used 900,000 times.