Friday, October 23, 2020

Review: Emma by Jane Austen

 Rating: 4/5 stars

"Emma" is a dramatic romance about a girl named "Jane".

There's a somewhat traditional romantic story line in Emma, in which two young people fall in love and become engaged, and yet hide their engagement out of fear of familial censure due to their different in class status and wealth. However, the strain of keeping the relationship secret makes the two lovers miserable. In a dramatic series of events involving a lost break-up letter, a frantic horse ride across the countryside and a sudden death of a parent, the two young people re-unite and come forth about their relationship.

Nearly all of this story line occurs off-screen, however, and involves Jane, not the titular heroine.

I loved this sort of bait-and-switch. It was effective at demonstrating how our perceptions of people are influenced by our own personal goals or struggles or the partial information we receive about the world. Just as Frank Churchill was quite sure Emma had sussed out his secret engagement (given his own preoccupation with his forbidden love), the reader thinks the story will be a romance arch of some sort centered around Emma and including also Mr Churchill, Mr Knightly and/or Harriet. Instead, these relationship tensions dissipate easily, with the climax of the novel really peaking instead at the discovery that Emma, all of Highbury, and the reader themselves have been much mistaken about two major characters and the meaning of dozens of social interactions.

Austen does such a good job at portraying all the little nuances and the subtext of interpersonal relationships and conversation. Through the portrayal of a few people planning a party, for example, we get vivid character portraits and critique of social structure. There are some reviews of Emma on Goodreads that bemoan how many pages are spent discuss, for example, how to cook a particular cut of pig. And I want to moan back at them "but you see it's the way they talk about the cut of pig, through which we feel Emma's exasperation at suffering the overly chatty Miss Bates, and see Mr Woodhouse's arms-length paternalism and hypochondriac anxiety, and we feel the claustrophobic, limited set of acceptable activities available to Emma as a woman of her station and...."

One of the things I loved about Persuasion was Austen's bitingly sarcastic prose. I felt like this sort of authorial voice was de-emphasized in Emma, in favor of showing Emma's reactions to events instead. In consequence, dialogue played a much larger role in demonstrating the various follies of the rich. Perhaps because of this difference, I felt like the cast of Emma was somewhat more lovingly portrayed by Austen. Although Mrs Enton was delightfully insufferable in her condescending sense of superiority!

Another possible effect of this difference was that Emma is much more a character study and less a social critique. To some extent, this is in its favour. Emma is a fantastic portrayal of the difficulties in navigating social relationships as a young woman, when you feel you know enough to play as an adult, and yet you still haven't really grasped viewing things from other people's perspectives, nor have you mastered reflecting on your own emotions. (I enjoyed Emma reacting to something, thinking first of how Mr Knightly might react, and then thinking of how Mr Churchill might react, and then thinking how silly she is thinking always of Mr Churchill first - how crazy to be in love; during this part of the book, she of course thinks she is in love with Mr Churchill and not Mr Knightly).

To some extent, however, this makes Emma a little more limited. The "moral" of the story is that one shouldn't dream of marrying too far above one's social station. The book ends with us, and Emma, learning that Harriet is just a tradesman's bastard, and there for Emma was very wrong to have impeded her happily marrying a farmer. This "moral" translates somewhat poorly to today (or, if it doesn't, it ought to...). Charitably, one could think of Emma's meddling in Harriet's life (and the mirror, of Mrs Enton meddling in Jane's affairs) as a lesson in checking your privilege and not enforcing your standards of what "a good life" should be on people with different ways of lives. That is a lesson still relevant in 2020. Still, this ending leaves a bit of a sour taste, and was really my only reason I dropped my rating from 5 to 4.

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