(Reviewed as part of the Classics Club Challenge)
Claire, who writes the excellent Word by Word, described one of her recent reviews as “… more like a journal than a review”. I have never thought of myself as writing reviews. I write my responses to what I read – which seem to me much more like a journal than a review: a reading journal perhaps. I can’t take out the personal element because where I am in my own life and my own reading will impact on a response to a book and vice versa.
I mention this by way of preamble while I get around to saying that I did not enjoy Emma. I began reading or re-reading Jane Austen a couple of years back. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility were enjoyed as much as they were the time first time around. Northanger Abbey was a delight. Now there is Emma. So, what have I missed?
Jane herself had misgivings and concerns about how Emma might be received. She wrote:
“My greatest anxiety at present is that this 4th work should not disgrace what was good in the others. But at this point I will do myself the justice to declare that whatever may be my wishes for its’ success, I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those Readers who have preferred Pride & Prejudice, it will appear inferior in Wit, & to those who have preferred Mansfield Park, very inferior in good Sense.”
James Edward Austen Leigh, in his Memoir of his aunt, Jane Austen, published in 1870 some fifty years after her death wrote:
“She was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon her being a general favourite; for when commencing that work, she said, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’”
And for me at least, Jane succeeded. I did not like Emma.
I plodded through the book, the longest as it happens, of Jane’s novels. It certainly felt like that. The story seemed painfully slow. I found myself irritated by how little went on in the daily lives of the characters. And irritated by Emma herself. For all her confidence, all her deliberations with regards to the lives of others, she was so utterly blind to her own character and inclinations and she made mistake after mistake. Yes, I was painfully irritated by Emma the character and by Emma the book. It can be no surprise that having finally got to the end of it, this novel languished at the bottom of my Austen leaderboard.
But I was intrigued as to why this should be. I’ve read Mansfield Park since finishing Emma and enjoyed it immensely, as I have with Jane’s other books, so it’s not that I’d had a surfeit of her prose. I usually do know the plot beforehand with many of the classics, so that wasn’t the issue either. I tried reading using a variety of formats in case the medium was the problem, but to no avail. I finished Emma feeling as I had felt all the way through – irritated and wanting to shake her. And now I want to understand why – because clearly I am in the minority here. Our reactions to books are personal of course, and it’s fine if I didn’t enjoy Emma, but for me, reading is a learning experience. I hoped a little time given to appreciating what others can see in this book might be time well spent. It was.
In 1814, as I discovered from John Mullan, writing in the Guardian, Jane Austen sat down to write a revolutionary novel. Emma, Mullan tells me, was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction. He had my attention.
Thankfully, for my own self-esteem, I am not alone in failing to notice Jane’s achievement. From the same article I learned that Charlotte Brontë, no less, found only ‘neat borders’ and elegant confinement in Jane’s fiction. D H Lawrence called her ‘English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word’.
Some of the great modernists were equally perplexed. ‘What is all this about Jane Austen?’ Joseph Conrad asked HG Wells, ‘What is there in her? What is it all about?’. ‘I dislike Jane … Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice,’ Vladimir Nabokov told the critic Edmund Wilson.
Henry James viewed her work as ‘instinctive and charming’. He also said: ‘For signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do, of how they intensify the life of a work of art, we have to go elsewhere.’ In other words, Jane hardly knew what she was doing, so, implicitly, an innovative novelist like James had nothing to learn from her. I must confess that until I began reading about Jane’s work more widely in order to understand Emma, that’s more or less what I thought too.
Jane’s novels deal with small, commonplace concerns between a few genteel families within a small village. Marriage and match-making loom large. She creates memorable comic characters and often memorable comic dialogue. And that was about it.
Thankfully others saw and understood rather more than Henry James, Joseph Conrad and me. Virginia Woolf was an admirer. She wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, ‘She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust’.
By the time she came to write Emma, Jane was writing in unknown territory. Her earlier books were a response to the prevailing literature that pre-dated her own. When she set out to write Emma she was writing in a dialogue not with those earlier works, but with her own previous books. Mansfield Park, published as Jane was working on Emma, had at its heart a quiet, diffident, compliant and generally powerless heroine in Fanny Price. Emma as a heroine is Fanny’s antithesis: headstrong, assertive and dominant on every page of the book.
But it is the technique that Jane used in writing Emma which was revolutionary – a technique that was to be nameless until the twentieth century when it became known as the ‘free indirect style’. As John Mullan explains, before Emma, writers chose between first-person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen wrote Emma in the third person, yet we are privy to Emma’s thoughts and reasonings: Jane tells the story largely through these streams of consciousness as Emma dissects the actions of others, determines their fates as she sees them, and rationalizes her decisions and her judgements.
Jane effectively and seamlessly combined the internal and the external. Research has found no consistent use of this approach before Jane. Now it is commonplace. Although she was pioneering something new, Jane used this technique with such assurance that it’s scarcely noticeable. David Lodge (still in Mullan’s article) observed how odd James’s condescension is, given that he came to specialise in the very technique Austen had pioneered: “Telling the story through the consciousness of characters whose understanding of events is partial, mistaken, deceived, or self-deceived.” Mullan explains that it has been easy for sophisticated readers to miss her sophistication. At least I’ve been in good company!
John Mullan’s article in the Guardian has helped me to see what I would otherwise have missed in this book, and what I have been missing in my reading of Jane’s works in general. He makes a much longer and wider case for Emma than I have included here. (And has prompted me to order his own book on Austen: how much more have I missed?)
I’m not sure that Emma will ever become a favourite Austen for me, but can see myself reading it again – perhaps in a year or two – and when I do I shall proceed with my mind opened. I think I’ll find it a very different experience second time around. And I’m grateful to Emma and her infuriating conviction that she knows best. Had she not got under my skin I may never have embarked on a journey of all that there is to discover in the remarkable life and works of Jane Austen.