Emma by Jane Austen

Jane Austen 1815

Reviewer: Gary; May 2020

I'm not sure what to think of Emma. It deals movingly with moral themes quite close to my heart without the ghastly Victorian sentimentality one expects of anything written in the nineteenth century (it was published twenty years before Victoria's accession to the throne in 1837); it is written in polished prose that never seems dull or prolix; its characters are memorable and charming.

And yet, as much as you might luxuriate in Austen's topnotch diction, you can't help wishing they'd all just shut up, tell each other how they feel and get it over with. The sexual nature of the passion the characters feel for their opposite numbers is quite undisguised to twenty-first century readers, who have the benefit of Freud, so that all the silly guile comes across as being palpably awkward.

The other issue is the sheer number of characters; as someone with a shockingly poor memory and a not stupendous intelligence, it's torture trying to keep track of who's married to whom, who's enamored with whom and who is whose great step goddaughter umpteen times removed. This difficulty can be remedied, but don't make the mistake I made of dragging the reading process out. The book is best read within a week or not at all - it's just too easy to forget everybody, otherwise.

Anyway, without giving too much away, the central theme in the novel, forgetting the uninteresting nonsense about class, is female virtue. It is about BECOMING a whole woman. This process is presented to us masterfully in the dichotomy of the two principal female characters, Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith. Harriet is conventional, demure, shy, submissive and brainless, existing only to be a kind of adjunct to whatever man might eventually take her up. Emma, on the other hand, is wilful, worldly and ambitious; she must exist on her own terms and will not accept domestic servitude. Austen, with a wisdom and life experience seldom seen today, rightly espouses the Aristotelian Golden Mean, and the novel finds its resolution in the harmonisation of the above two opposites. Emma gradually and movingly realises she is not after all omnipotent and ought to be more humble before the ever-humble Harriet; Harriet herself realises that humans are fallen creatures, that she isn't the only born sinner and ought to demand her due from the world. Via negativa and via positiva.

Of course, the modern world hates the golden mean, because it isn't INTERESTING; the modern world wants extremity, it wants shock, it wants subversion. But it shouldn't, because those things are quite adolescent and quite contrary to people's long term interests.

This is what redeems the novel; it is a good-humoured, very British celebration of virtues once familiar to all but now quite absent.