Print Edition - 2015-12-26  |  On Saturday

How relevant is Austen’s Emma today?

  • The institution of marriage, like the novel itself, has changed greatly since Austen’s time; but as long as human beings long for this kind of mutual recognition and understanding, Emma will live
Austen plays Mr Woodhouse’s idiosyncrasy for laughs—like other comic characters in the novel, he is funny because he is soself-consistent, because he can always be counted on to think and say the same things

Dec 26, 2015-Emma is a comedy—a story in which the world finally gives everyone what he or she deserves. One way to come to grips with the foreignness of Emma—a foreignness that is too easily obscured by its fame and the overly cosy reputation of its author—is to think about all the things we expect from novels but will have a hard time finding in its pages. A short list would include: physical descriptions of people or places; any activity performed to earn money; current events, or almost any sense of a world beyond the village of Highbury; and anyone motivated by evil or cruelty. To readers uncharmed by Austen—and there have always been at least a few—all these absences add up to sterility. That was Emerson’s word in his notorious journal entry: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow.”

To the transcendentalist mind, Austen is mired in the empirical; and Emerson’s objection should not be too quickly dismissed. For it points the way to what is, after 200 years, the most striking thing about Emma: the way it accepts its world, rather than rebelling against it. Modern literature, after all, is a literature of dissatisfaction. Why are things the way they are? Why am I the way I am? Why are we here? These are the kinds of questions we find in, say, Tolstoy, and which make him the paradigmatic “serious” novelist. Emerson thought that Austen wasn’t serious because such questions didn’t interest her.

This is not to say that Austen believes that the world Emma Woodhouse lives in is perfect, or that the people in it are especially virtuous or even likable. Take Emma’s father, the hypochondriacal Mr Woodhouse, who can’t abide the thought of anyone going outdoors or eating without imagining dire consequences for their health. Austen plays Mr Woodhouse’s idiosyncrasy for laughs—like other comic characters in the novel, or in Shakespeare’s plays, he is funny because he is so self-consistent, because he can always be counted on to think and say the same things.

Yet it is easy to imagine that in the hands of a different writer, Mr Woodhouse would be a villain: the domestic tyrant whose egotism ruins the life of his daughter. To Samuel Butler, Mr Woodhouse would be an argument against the institution of the family. Dostoyevsky might gladly imagine someone putting a hatchet in his head. Such possibilities do not emerge in Emma because it is a comedy—which means, for Austen, a story in which the world finally gives everyone what he or she deserves. This is most obvious when it comes to marriage. There are several marriages in the novel, and each one is “right,” in both socioeconomic and personal terms. The richest people in the story, Emma and Mr Knightley, are also the most perceptive and have the best judgment; the poorest, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, are unpolished but virtuous and well intentioned.

The idea that social life is just— on the marriage market and elsewhere—is the greatest fiction in Jane Austen, and the one that makes her happy endings possible. Ideologically, this makes Emma a highly conservative novel. (It is not coincidental that the only really unlikable people in the book, Mr Elton and his snobbish bride, are the ones who threaten the class structure of Highbury with their upward mobility.) But it is also the key to her wonderfully intimate imagination of happiness. Few books make the reader as happy as Emma, because few depict so well the joy of being understood, the way Mr Knightley understands Emma Woodhouse. For all of Austen’s heroines, it is this sense of being truly seen, of marrying a man who loves them as they really are, that is the great reward. The institution of marriage, like the novel itself, has changed greatly since Austen’s time; but as long as human beings long for this kind of mutual recognition and understanding, Emma will live.

Adam Kirsch is a columnist for Tablet. He is the author of two collections of poetry and several other books, including, most recently, “Why Trilling Matters.” In 2010, he won the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism.

Adam Kirsch

Published: 26-12-2015 09:22

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