Persuasions #13, 1991                                                                                                                        Pages 100-103



Fiction and Fiction-Making: Emma



English Department, Tel Aviv University,

Ramat Aviv, Israel


In accordance with Conrad’s dictum that “a work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line,” Austen scholars have paid careful, even voluminous attention to the details in her novels.  In view of so much scholarly activity, it is surprising that we lack sustained analysis of an unusual, even violent episode: the gypsies’ attack on Harriet and her friend in Volume III, Chapter III of Emma.1

The event demands our attention in a number of ways.  It presents characters entirely foreign to the “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” Jane Austen customarily deals with, it is noisy and melodramatic, and it provokes some decidedly unladylike behavior, such as running, jumping, and grabbing of masculine arms.  The responses of all the participants are exaggerated: Miss Bickerton is “excessively frightened,” Harriet is “absolutely powerless,” the gypsies are “completely frightened” by Frank, and Harriet “immediately … fainted away.”  To underline the peculiarity of the episode, there is some authorial pointing: “It was a very extraordinary thing! …  It certainly was very extraordinary!”

Thus compelled to examine the chapter, we find it to be an illustration of and a comment on the novelist’s art.  It shows Austen at work, pacing her complicated plots: the gypsy attack interrupts the Emma-Knightley plot, recalling Emma to the temptations of the Harriet-Frank romance and thus preventing a premature happy ending.  It also circumvents the restrictions of the narrative point of view, allowing us one of our few unmediated glimpses of Harriet and, more importantly, of Emma: while she listens to Harriet’s and Frank’s account of what happened, she becomes, like us, audience.  By contrasting her responses to our own, we can judge her on our terms and not, as in most of the novel, on hers.  But most importantly, the chapter comments on the fiction-maker and her art.

These few pages clearly reveal that Emma is not really interested in Harriet (she doesn’t scold, blame or comfort her) or in the gypsies (she doesn’t ask anything about them).  The chapter shows her focusing on the one thing which really does interest her: the imaginative reconstruction of reality.  An instinctive artist, Emma selects from this scene only those factors which are relevant to her primary creative concern.  What impresses her is not the peculiar event itself, but its artistic usefulness to the plot she had been constructing.

Jane Austen captures the workings of Emma’s artistic consciousness in a beautifully balanced passage that shows Emma’s focus shifting from the event as fact to the event as material for her craft.  The shift occurs in the middle of the second sentence:


It was a very extraordinary thing!  Nothing of the sort had ever occurred before to any young ladies in the place, within her memory; no rencontre, no alarm of the kind; – and now it had happened to the very person, and at the very hour, when the other very person was chancing to pass by to rescue her!  – It certainly was very extraordinary!


Emma’s mind is transforming reality, creating an imaginative construct based loosely upon events in the real world.  The shifting referents of the pronoun “it” traces the progress of that transformation.  The first “it” (“It was a very extraordinary thing!”) refers unambiguously to the gypsy-attack itself.  The second “it” (“and now it had happened”) refers to any general “alarm of the kind.”  But the final “it” refers to the fortuitous conjunction of events and persons.  The referent of the pronoun has changed from the event itself (in the first sentence) to its timeliness and relevance to Emma’s plot (in the third sentence).

The chapter shows us the intensity of Emma’s imaginative bent: she recasts the event and explores its romantic possibilities even before Harriet and Frank finish telling about it.  Her creative impulse is deeply rooted: she is an instinctive, a natural artiste.2  She does not consciously set out to invent; she simply cannot help inventing.  She is so committed to imaginative transformation that she sees it as an unavoidable and universal activity: “Such an adventure as this … could hardly fail of suggesting certain ideas to the coldest heart and the steadiest brain.”  The narrative voice, holding itself aloof from Emma’s generalization, qualifies this (“So Emma thought, at least”) before allowing Emma to continue:


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!


Although Emma is impelled to fictionalize, she is not a creator of fictions.  Unlike Austen, Emma cannot create, cannot invent real characters who interact, out of their own motivations and personalities, with each other and with the events of their world.  Emma merely fictionalizes the events of the real world, and such imaginings are ephemeral.  They may seem real to Emma and, while we are under her spell, to us, but they are finally irrelevant to Harriet, to Frank, to Mr. Elton, and to all the other characters whose lives Emma attempts to manipulate.  In spite of her high opinion of her own powers, Emma cannot really imagine beyond reality; she can only fictionalize the real.  Emma-qua-artist defines her artistic persona (“imaginist”) as someone who selects what she needs from real life and imagines the rest.3  Austen, on the other hand, invents a whole world when she creates the people and places of her novel.  That’s the difference between Emma and Austen, between the imaginist who merely embroiders reality and the artist who creates it.

Just as she shows us Emma practicing her avocation as imaginist, so in this chapter Austen reveals her complete control of her own art.  First, Austen establishes the relationship between artist and artefact.  She invents a world, establishes its limits, and then, to establish the supremacy of the artist over the artefact, transgresses those limits: the world of Highbury as she has defined it is no place for noisy, aggressive gangs of gypsies.  Austen plays with the individual character just as she does with the larger social environment: in allowing Emma to reinvent for her purposes a scene which Jane Austen invented for other purposes, Jane Austen turns her own artistic creation, Emma Woodhouse, into a kind of metaphor for herself.  And through the word “imaginist,” she defines through negation and contrast what she herself is: Austen is a creative artist, not an imaginist like Emma.4

This hardworking chapter also offers a more straightforward comment on the art of fiction and fiction-making.  It remarks on the relationship between the original materials and the final product, the shaped art itself.  Having shown us the process by which fictional fact becomes raw material for fiction, the chapter draws attention to the supremacy of art by commenting on it.  The end of the chapter signals the disappearance of the gypsies from the life of Highbury.  But transformed into art, even into the second-rate art of which Emma is capable, the gypsies are constantly present: “Henry and John were still asking every day for the story of Harriet and the gypsies, and still tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital.” 


“Begged them not to want more, or to use her ill.” (E)


 Early in Volume III, then, Jane Austen comments on art, drawing attention to her own work with unwonted self-consciousness.5  She captures our attention with a startling fictional event, then draws our attention away from this fiction (the gypsy attack) to the process of creating fiction (Emma’s reaction), and finally to the fictional audience’s response (that of Henry and John) to the fiction.  Throughout, she implicitly points up the difference between Emma’s brand of fiction and her own, much superior, creation.  It is clear that the gypsies who startle us in this Chapter III are not important in themselves.  They are a tool by means of which the artist reveals, both from within the fiction and from without, how good and bad fictions are made.


The color image has replaced the original black and white image for the on-line edition of this essay. – C. Moss, JASNA Web Site Manager





1  I have used R.W. Chapman’s text.  The Novels of Jane Austen, Volume IV: Emma, 3rd edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1933).  I quote only from this one chapter, pp. 332-336.  I would like to thank my student, Merav Frank, who first drew my attention to the gypsies, and Gene Koppel, whose remarks helped me distinguish Emma Woodhouse’s art from that of Jane Austen.


2  Lionel Trilling writes, “Her requirement that life be vivid … is, in its essence, a poet’s demand” (“Introduction,” Emma [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957], xvi).


3  A number of critics have argued that Emma really did not need to invent so much: real life is sufficiently exciting.  Joseph Wiesenfarth writes, for example, that even if “The real Harriet is less vivid than the Harriet she created; the real Jane is superior to the one Emma invented” (The Errand of Form: An Assay of Jane Austen s Art [New York: Fordham UP, 1967], 138).  Susan J. Morgan agrees that “Things do happen in idyllic Highbury ….  One need not make up stories for life to be interesting” (“Emma Woodhouse and the Charms of the Imagination,” Studies in the Novel, 7 [1975], 45).  Even Emma could not have imagined that the aloof Mr. Knightley has been secretly in love with her since she was thirteen, or that Farmer Martin would turn out to be such a romantic lover, faithful in spite of many obstacles and rivals.  In the scene of the gypsies, life again shows itself to be stranger than fiction.


4  The OED classifies “imaginist” as a “nonce word,” found only in Chapter 39 of Emma.  Austen’s criticism of Emma’s activities as “imaginist” is suggested, very subtly, in Emma’s use of the word “extraordinary” – a word much favoured by Harriet.  Austen may denigrate Emma’s art, but she does not reject Emma: she stated clearly that, even if others did not, she liked Emma (her famous remark is quoted in James Edward Austen Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman [Oxford, 1926], 157).


5  Richard F. Patteson, however, finds this self-consciousness throughout Jane Austen (“Truth, Certitude, and Stability in Jane Austen’s Fiction,” Philological Quarterly 60 [1981]: 466).

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