22 November 2009
It’s been a long time since I first read this. 20 years? 30, more like – and what I remember could probably be summed up in a sentence. The first few chapters have reminded me why Emma is so complacent – mother dead too early, father too busy with his own hypochondriac self-centredness, older sister no brighter than she should be, governess-turned-confidante far too easy-going…. This takes about a chapter to establish before we’re off and away with the disaster which, at the end of Chapter 10, looks as if it’s about to happen at any moment.
Pretty, ordinary Harriet Smith is getting the Emma Woodhouse treatment. In all likelihood she’s the guilty secret of some rakish gent or other, being boarded out at the local school. Emma – despite the inveterate snobbishness we find out about as these chapters go on – is fond of this nobody from nowhere. Because… she’s flattered by her. When you’re bored and living with your tiresome old father it’s gratifying to be idolised by a pretty 17-year-old – and one who is very easy to manipulate.
Austen is absolutely frank about telling us that this is what’s going on – and in case we miss any of the nuances, she brings on Mr Knightley the brother-in-law to tell it how it is. In particular there’s one glorious chapter in which he tells Emma the good news about Mr Martin, the respectable farmer who wants to marry Harriet: it’s the best chance she’ll ever get and in his way he’s a peach. Oh dear. Emma’s practically dictated the refusal Harriet’s just sent him and, as he guesses exactly what’s gone on, and guesses that Emma is trying to line up the handsome and well set-up local vicar for her protégé, she squirms. Forget the vicar, he tells her, he’s got his eye on a family of girls with 20,000 apiece….
We know he’s right. We know Harriet has no chance, and Austen conspires to make it easy for us to see what Emma can’t: Elton, the vicar, is after Emma herself. She – Austen – engineers two misunderstandings: Elton makes a big thing of being highly interested in a drawing Emma does of Harriet; and he presents a ‘charade’ to Emma, a riddle about a fascinating woman. In case we haven’t got it, Austen has Emma remind us that he gave the paper with the riddle on it to her, not Harriet.
So it’s going to end in tears. As Emma carries on conjuring images of the wonderful life Harriet is about to start, we wonder how she’ll respond when it becomes clear what Elton’s real intentions are. Earlier on she didn’t enjoy squirming when Knightley was telling her how the world really works outside her little universe – so she pretended he was wrong. She won’t be able to do that this time, and… and how clever it is for an author to set up a conspiracy between herself and the reader like this. Austen doesn’t play the omniscient author card – in fact, she tells it more or less from Emma’s point of view – but we can see that all the secure foundations of Emma’s world, well, aren’t secure at all.
In fact, there’s more to it than that. Emma is coming up to 21 and Austen has made it clear that all those years of being told how clever she is have made her think she knows it all. Knightley, 38, really does know it all – knows how the world of the second decade of the 19th Century really works. It isn’t pretty. Elton‘s motives are pragmatic to the point of cynicism – he uses his good looks and charm to buy himself a comfortable bachelor existence, and is going to use them to set himself up for life – and, by contrast, Emma’s grooming of Harriet has done nothing but raise expectations which, in this world, are impossible.
Emma thinks she knows about the social hierarchy – she tells Harriet they couldn’t be friends if Harriet married a farmer – but her belief in the power of prettiness to transcend them proves she understands nothing. Emma’s, in fact, is the unreal world of romantic fiction, but Austen makes sure we don’t mistake it for girlish idealism: the way Emma’s dismisses Mr Martin – ‘clownish’ is a word she comes back to more than once, despite the evidence of the well composed letter of proposal to Harriet, and Knightley‘s good opinion of him – makes us see her as snobbish to the point of childishness.
Does this make Knightley a paragon by contrast, someone who lives up to his courtly name? Well, obviously not. We might know that this novel is going to be about the education of Emma – after the upcoming disaster there’s still three quarters of the book to go – but this author is bound to have something in mind for Knightley as well. After their uncomfortable conversation about her matchmaking efforts – which she denies, as though Austen wants to remind us of her limitations – he almost despises what Emma has done. But that can’t last: despite the age difference that has always made her regard him as a kind of uncle he would make a good husband for her, given another 300 pages or so of authorial manoeuvring. But his acceptance of the ways of the world is as problematic in its way as Emma’s naivety, and something‘s got to happen to make him look again at his own complacency.
Marriage is central in Austen’s previous novels and, so far, it is in this one as well. But I’m interested in the way she seems to be holding up for scrutiny the whole institution in Emma. I suppose she always does, to some extent, but Knightley’s calm acceptance of Elton’s motives and his easy dismissal of what Emma is trying to do for Harriet are too glib. He’s right, according to the accepted norms, but I’m not sure how happy Austen is with this. Meanwhile Emma pretends she’ll never marry, and this is routinely dismissed, as images of old maid-hood are paraded for her – and for us. But… the one biographical detail about Jane Austen that everybody knows is that she didn’t marry. This proves nothing, obviously, but it might make her want to have another look at universally acknowledged truths.
Bring it on.
Austen does bring it on. Slowly. It takes five chapters, and Emma is only just beginning to concede that she might be the one Elton’s after when Austen offers up the set piece scene that makes clear to her what we‘ve known almost from the start. Right up to this scene – him and her alone in a carriage at the end of Chapter 15 – she‘d been sticking to her earlier guns, making herself believe his interest in her was a new thing, mere fickleness on his part. During the evening she’s been endlessly shocked – in a way that the reader definitely isn’t – by his lack of concern for Harriet’s bad cold, by his flagrant enjoyment of the Christmas Eve dinner-party at her ex-governess’s house. She doesn’t concede for a minute that Knightley got it right until Elton sends her a message in foot-high letters.
The chapters leading up to this give Austen a bit of time to hold different characters up for scrutiny. Emma’s father is as tiresome as ever, and Austen spends so much time on him I’m beginning to wonder if we’re supposed to link his wrong-headed single-mindedness with Emma herself. Isn’t she just like him? Then along comes her sister Isabel, married to the younger Mr Knightley. They’re both tiresome as well: she’s as boring as their father, and as fixated as he is on one thing. In her case it’s her family, and it’s as though Austen is presenting her as an example of how not to do it. And as for ‘Mr John Knightley’ – Austen keeps the nomenclature scrupulously correct – he’s impatient and self-centred. I was about to say the men aren’t doing very well so far… but the women aren’t doing much better.
Anyway, plot. The ex-gov is married to Weston, a widower whose son was farmed out to a rich childless couple in infancy. Now grown up – and decidedly offstage at present – he’s taken on their name and is known as Frank Churchill. We first heard about him ages ago, and now we’re hearing that his not-mother is an awkward woman and might not let him visit the pater and the new step-mater in January. But what we hear about her is not necessarily reliable: the complacent talk about how hard it must be to live with a capricious parent takes place in the context of an evening assiduously designed around the whims of Emma’s own father. However. Frank is definitely not secure in this universe: will he actually inherit much from the adopted parents? And is he the next one that Emma will try to line up for Harriet? Or will Emma end up with him herself?
It’s part of the point that in the social world she’s satirising, Austen keeps us guessing. She flatters the reader by making it easy for us to see what Emma can’t, but we should beware of thinking that we know what this author is thinking. Elton has shown himself to be a gold-digger, as Knightley suggested. But the way he makes clear to Emma his shock that she should have got it so wrong about his social standing relative to Harriet’s might just make Austen’s early 19th Century middle class readers a little bit embarrassed about the social norms they live by. Emma’s mortification in the carriage is what she deserves – but because she’s been vain and unwilling to see what’s in front of her eyes, not because she‘s not as good as Mr Knightley at understanding society‘s expectations. I get the feeling that if we think we’re all in this together with Austen, well, we’re wrong. She’s got more to dissect in this complacent little society than just one spoilt young woman.
Austen makes sure nothing much happens – so that she can get us wondering and guessing. Two characters that we’ve never met are subject to the endless discussions (and gossip) you get in Austen-land: Frank Churchill, who is definitely not coming to visit, and Jane Fairfax, who definitely is. Emma and Knightley take a whole chapter to reach a fundamental disagreement about Frank. Emma can see – or thinks she can – what pressures he must be subject to, having to manage a difficult (adoptive) parent. Knightley is disgusted with him: he seems to be able to travel wherever he wants – except to visit his birth parent. This hurts his step-mother, the ex-governess. Austen scrupulously stays out of it: she offers no clues beyond the behaviour everybody knows about…
…which contrasts with her treatment of Jane Fairfax, the granddaughter/niece of Mrs and Miss Bates, a pair Emma finds endlessly tedious. Jane, by reputation, is a paragon: like Frank she has been brought up by proxy parents, but unlike him she knows for sure that she has no chance of any future income, and she has spent her time usefully so that she will be able to get work as a governess. Austen joins in with the praise: she seems to want us to see Jane as, well, a lot of the things Emma isn’t. Chapter 25 is comedy: Emma tries to like Jane when she arrives, but immediately feels in her shadow and soon, to quote the end of the chapter, ‘could not forgive her.’
Why am I telling you all this? Because it must be important. Frank and Jane seem bound to join the Eligibility Dance that Austen has started up. We’ve got Harriet, who has nearly disappeared from the narrative, as Emma’s interest in her has waned. (My guess is that she’ll end up with Mr Martin after all, but my guesses are usually wrong.) We’ve got Emma, whose assertion that she has no intention to marry is repeated just often enough to remind us of the preposterousness of such an idea in this universe. We’ve got Knightley, the uncle-figure who seems highly concerned to put Emma right when she gets things wrong: I’m still guessing they’ll end up together. Elton has temporarily left the scene for a fashionable sojourn in Bath, but he‘ll be back – and now that Jane’s on the scene maybe in her he‘ll learn to see the value of something beyond wealth. And where will Frank fit in?
It’s as schematic as a Shakespeare comedy. We know it will end happily for all concerned, so long as they prove themselves deserving enough, because it’s part of the contract that this is what happens in Jane Austen novels. What we don’t know is how Austen will get us there – or what the characters (and readers) will learn on the way. The chapter in which Emma and Knightley discuss Frank advances the plot not at all; but it holds up for our scrutiny a whole raft of issues to do with parenting and filial duty. Meaty stuff for a rom-com, if that’s all it is. Which it isn’t, obviously,
I don’t know how careful Austen is about formal concerns like half-way points. But all the middle chapters are full of Frank Churchill’s visit, especially the long set piece ball in Chapter 26. And by the time he leaves at the end of Chapter 30 he’s come very close to an open declaration of love to Emma. And then he’s buggered off, summoned by his demanding parent exactly as Emma expected he would be.
These chapters are full of the Eligibility Dance, made literal at the Coles’ soiree. Long before that, Elton’s shown how smooth an operator he is by landing a ten thousand-pounder in Bath. This gives Austen plenty of opportunities to be satirical about the speed at which everyone judges this Miss Hawkins, a daughter of Trade. And then along comes Jane Fairfax, full of accomplishment and, as we see her in various drawing rooms, rather cold-seeming, except when… but I’ll come to that. Of course, we see her mainly through Emma’s eyes. Austen does highly subtle things with point of view: if she gets inside anyone‘s head it‘s Emma’s, and we rarely go where Emma doesn’t – which is why our view of Jane seems partial, and why can’t simply accept the complacent view we’re offered. This doesn’t only go for her view of Jane, except it’s strong in her case because Jane doesn’t say a lot.
Unlike other characters in these middle chapters, Austen doesn’t give Jane enough rope to hang herself. She gives plenty of rope to Emma’s father and his endless hypochondriac mutterings, and to Miss Bates with her inability ever to shut up. These are two comedy archetypes – and I wondered why Austen lets them go on and on, for pages in the case of Miss Bates. If there’s a serious purpose – and it’s so heavy-handed I can’t believe Austen isn‘t after making some deeper point – they serve as warnings. Emma is tolerant of one of them and openly mocking of the other. Fine. But, as I was asking myself about Emma’s father early on in the novel, isn‘t she just like him? On one particular subject he won’t hear anybody’s opinions except his own…. And as for Miss Bates – she doesn’t stop talking long enough to think anything through, never mind listen to anyone else‘s ideas. Sound familiar?
The important character, of course, is Frank Churchill. We see him mainly through Emma’s eyes and, despite her determination at first to see him as merely having the ability to say the right thing, she’s soon as charmed as everybody else. However. Mr Knightley thinks he’s shallow… and Austen gives us just enough, independent of Emma’s viewpoint, for us to be a bit suspicious of him. Here he is, on a two-week holiday from any pressure, and here’s the inconsequential holiday romance to go with it. I’m reminded of Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, who turns out to be a fake, although Frank doesn’t strike me as either a conman, or a seducer. He’s charming and good-looking and he enjoys falling for Emma – it doesn’t have to be seen as a total pretence – and likes the idea of her falling for him. And if he really is serious about her, her fortune would be very welcome in the insecure situation he’s in.
I might be wrong… but his determination to say whatever will lead to the outcome that suits him, as in the discussions about the ball to be given by his father and stepmother, make it easy to feel almost as unconvinced as Knightley is. Then there’s the suddenness of his departure, which matches the suddenness of his arrival, and we never do find out why he decided to spend a whole day going to London. For a haircut? Maybe – but definitely not only that. At best, he does things on a whim, and for all we know he might have something to hide.
And how’s Emma doing? Badly. Austen has made her self-aware enough to question her own behaviour – but not aware enough to recognise her own limitations. So she knows she will need to watch out when a man like Frank Churchill is around – and lets herself be charmed like everybody else. She’s obviously learned nothing from the behaviour of Elton, the previous charmer to stalk the village. She patronises Harriet exactly as before, and her promise to herself (and Knightley) that her matchmaking days are over does not prevent her from leading Harriet into treating Mr Martin and his family – who have always shown her kindness – with something close to contempt.
The divide between her and Knightley is as wide as ever. He’s really only brought on to remind us of how he dislikes Frank – he is about to come up to join an accidental gathering at the Bateses’ until he realises Frank is there – but it’s enough to keep him in the frame as a measure of straightforwardness and honesty. Emma always falls short. When the Coles, arrivistes but now considered rich enough to begin entering society, decide to organise a ball, at first all she thinks about is how she ought to refuse. When she doesn‘t immediately get an invitation, her assumption that this is tact on their part – they must think her too many rungs above them on the social ladder – tells us all we need to know about her snobbishness. On the night she’s glad to see Knightley is using his carriage, as though to remind these upstarts what gentlemanliness is about; in fact he only uses it to give lift to the shabby genteel Bates women.
I’m making it sound like a Sunday school tract. In fact it reads like a romantic comedy. Maybe it’s a moral treatise pretending to be a rom-com, and Emma is really Everywoman. And Everyman for that matter. Of course, whenever I’m impressed a novel I always think it’s an ambitious moral allegory. But I might not be wrong here. Austen is letting her readers be lulled into complacency along with Emma, and we should look out. Ok, I think I’ve spotted what Austen is doing – but then I did read it some decades ago, and I’ve seen a movie version within the past ten years: I know the trajectory even if I can’t remember any details. And anyway, what makes it interesting isn’t Austen’s scheme, it’s her characters. Knightley gets it right more often than Emma does, but he’s not perfect either. Plenty of knights have their flaws….
Enough, nearly. Except… what’s with Jane Fairfax? There’s a history there somewhere – she didn’t go to Ireland with her adopted parents and their son, whom she didn’t marry. He married someone rich, but if Frank’s to be believed (and maybe he isn’t) the son was always more interested in Jane during her time at Weymouth, always asked her for a performance at the piano rather than his wife-to-be…. So who’s sent the new piano to brighten up her rather thin existence? Emma and Frank speculate shamelessly. The adopted parents? The son? Knightley? And why does Jane blush whenever events at Weymouth are mentioned? Don’t ask me: it’s Austen using the tropes of romantic fiction to keep us interested. And she’s made Jane completely opaque – apart from that tell-tale blush. But what tales does it tell? Reader – I think it’s time for Chapter 31.
Jane’s as opaque as ever. Anybody called Jane is as opaque as ever, including Jane Austen. It’s taken me this long to realise that her contract with the reader isn’t to keep us ahead of the game, it’s to keep us guessing. Ok, I’ve said this before, and I thought I could see exactly what she was doing. Sometimes we can: in Chapter 40 we’ve just had an example of how Austen sets up a misunderstanding. It’s to do with the Harriet subplot, and it’s to do with the man who rescued her from a miserable experience. Harriet has told Emma that although she has no illusions about ever being able to marry such a paragon of gentlemanliness, she can at least admire from afar and sigh. Fine. Frank Churchill has recently rescued her from some gipsies hastily convened by Austen for the purpose, and Emma has seen how impressed she was with him. But, of course – just as in the ‘charade’ dozens of chapters back – no names are mentioned: Emma has resolved not to interfere any more, and Harriet thinks Emma understands perfectly.
Nope. Harriet – we guess, but, well, surely? – is really talking about the rescue of the evening before. There are worse experiences than being threatened by gipsies, such as being cut dead by the Eltons – of whom, more later. Then, Harriet’s gallant rescuer was… Mr Knightley. More of him later as well. The point I’m making is about how Austen will feed us these examples of how Emma routinely misconstrues everything, and sometimes we can see what Emma can‘t. And sometimes we can’t either. This sit-com moment is the stuff of a chapter or two, but Austen is playing a much longer game with Frank Churchill. Absolutely everything that’s happened since he’s been able to start visiting again – and I’m getting more and more suspicious that in his family it’s not his adopted mother who’s the manipulative one – has shown he’s not particularly bothered about Emma. A ten-day stay at his (real) father’s house brings Emma a single visit of about 15 minutes. So what’s his game?
And what’s Jane Fairfax’s game? In a chapter whose other purpose is to confirm how appalling Elton’s new wife is, we find out how Jane absolutely will not be prevented from going to the post office to pick up any letters for her aunt and grandmother. So who’s writing to Jane? Later, there’s a different conversation about men’s handwriting, including (gulp) Frank Churchill’s…. Come to think of it, he was the one to put ideas into Emma’s head about why Jane didn’t go with the family to Ireland, about who could have sent the piano, about who thought Jane was the best player at Weymouth. Emma fell for it, and so did I. It’s taken me all this time to guess that the only reason Frank ever started to come to Highbury was to be near Jane. His embarrassed conversation with Emma before leaving after his first visit was therefore either a failed attempt to confess (highly unlikely) or an attempt to allow Emma – and unsuspecting readers like me – to persist in a misunderstanding. How better to persuade the reader what a conman he is than for Austen to have him take us in as he does everybody in Highbury?
We see much more of Knightley in this section than we had when I last wrote. As Emma examines herself for signs of being in love with Frank – she decides she isn’t, but she’s not convinced she’s right – the man whose approval really gratifies her is Knightley. The ball at which he saves Harriet from death by embarrassment also sees Emma basking in his approval. She isn’t ready for him yet, obviously – she’s still far too self-centred ever to notice what’s really going on – but even she doesn’t want to see him as merely a brother-in-law. Meanwhile… he bides his time, getting it, basically, right.
The people they really agree about are the Eltons. Mrs E is a monster: over-familiar, self-important, snobbish about money and the trappings of wealth, and constantly name-dropping. As with Miss Bates before, Austen gives her pages to show herself up, which she does all the time – and when it becomes clear that she and her husband had planned the humiliation of Harriet, Austen consigns her to the deepest pit of hell. Knightley hates them both as much as Emma does – and there’s nothing like shared dislike to bring people together.
The Eltons’ is the third marriage to be held up for occasional scrutiny in this novel, and it’s by far the worst. It’s unproductive in all senses of the word: there’s never a mention of any children who might come along and the mutual support the best marriages lead to has been replaced by a kind of conspiratorial one-upmanship. Sure, the production of children isn’t enough on its own – the marriage of Emma’s sister demonstrates that – but Emma’s nephew and niece are genuinely good things to have come out of that marriage. And then there are the Westons – Frank’s real father and the ex-gov. No children there, but real love and social benefits for everyone who knows them. Not like the Eltons, then, who leave a trail of dissatisfactions behind them wherever they go.
Anyway. Other marriages are just airy plans in people‘s minds at this point, as positions are being taken up in the Eligibility Dance. It will be easy to sort Harriet out: even though we’ve had no mention of Mr Martin in these chapters he won’t have gone far away. I don’t know how, or if, Frank will marry Jane, considering she has no fortune and he is completely dependent on a parent he alleges to be difficult. (There’s a precedent in this novel of how characters impute difficulties to other people: Emma’s father happily blames Dr Perry for a large number of his strictures about health and food.) And as for how the scales will fall from Emma’s eyes with regard to Knightley: maybe he’ll have to carry off another, more spectacular rescue, like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Maybe the one he’ll have to rescue will be Jane, when Frank doesn’t turn out as she expects…. But how would I know?
How would I know, indeed? But I think I got as many things right as I got wrong. Frank and Jane do turn out to be an item, as I’d thought – the thing with Emma was a smokescreen, as I’d (eventually) suspected – but he turns out all right in the end. It takes a letter from him filling almost the whole of Chapter 50 for Austen to establish him as a safe pair of hands for the commendable Jane. Something along the lines of: I realise that my behaviour over the past weeks must have seemed outrageous, but when you know the full story (including the letter I wrote but accidentally forgot to post)…. I’ll come back to the full story later.
But it was Chapter 49 that had me shouting at the audiobook as I drove along the Worksop bypass. Austen prolongs the agony as the two key lovers in the book fail, for page after frustrating page, to say what they dread will fall on deaf ears. Almost to the end of the chapter it looks as though we’ll have to wait until nearer the end of the book – six whole chapters away – before the looked-for release of a reciprocated declaration of lurve. But it comes earlier, thank god: even an old pro like Austen can only prolong it so far…. Which leaves the question of how she’s going to fill up the 30-odd pages that follow Frank‘s long letter. Don’t ask me.
Before these devoutly wished-for consummations there’s a lot of business, including two set-piece expeditions. The first, to Knightley’s place, further confirms Mrs Elton as the bride from hell: among other things there’s a wonderful pastiche of her cliché-ridden thought processes from when she enthusiastically sets out to pick the strawberries until she gives up shortly afterwards, exhausted. We also find out that Jane Fairfax is not happy. If I remember rightly, Frank’s outrageous flirtation with Emma has made her so too ill even to attend.
The second outing, to Box Hill, is an even less gay affair. (Sorry, sorry.) It brings both the main threads to a crisis as Frank playfully encourages Emma to behave like him at his worst. They begin to mock the others, gently at first, as part of a conversation that suggests to all onlookers that they are far more intimately linked than they really are. One of the onlookers is Knightley and when Emma’s mockery of Miss Bates’s conversational habits goes much too far he is disgusted. The telling-off he gives her at the end of the trip is so mortifying to her that the next chapter is full of genuine remorse on her part, and the most genuine resolve to do better that we’ve yet seen from her. Austen the moralist is definitely moving her on – but more of that in a minute….
…because there’s the Jane Fairfax thread to deal with. Frank’s smokescreen flirtation with Emma has fooled everybody, including Jane. From where she’s standing, his treatment of her suggests their engagement is effectively at an end and she leaves the Box Hill party even before he arrives. She doesn’t have to witness the intimacy of the mocking conversation – Austen is more concerned about Knightley at this point anyway – to reach the conclusion that he’s just not bothered any more. Gulp.
To get the Frank and Jane thread out of the way…. In the next few chapters plenty more happens, including the convenient death of Frank’s adopted mother and his adopted father’s willingness to let him do whatever he wants. Basically, Austen uses his long letter to get him to explain all the little mishaps, including that old trick of the unposted letter, and apologise for all the apparent weirdness of his own behaviour. Austen, still the moralist, makes him atone for it all before everything can be seen to have come right for him and Jane. By the time he’s done so, everybody who has read it is convinced enough to accept Frank’s explanation.
But that’s enough about him. What about Knightley? Somebody should do a sentence-count of how he pops up more and more often from the middle of the novel onwards. During the Frank Churchill chapters in the middle he’s almost disappeared; but Frank leaves (for the first time) at the end of Chapter 30, and Austen has Knightley appearing more often, and with an ever more important part to play. We’ve seen how gratified Emma is by his praise at (I think) the ball held by the Westons; now we get an even stronger feeling in Emma – of mortification – after his criticism of her behaviour towards Miss Bates at Box Hill. As so often, we realise something that Emma doesn’t about her feelings for him. But, as it turns out, she’ll understand soon enough.
It comes with a clever bit of plotting. Chapters and chapters back we got that little misunderstanding about the man who rescued Harriet from a humiliating experience. I assumed that it was a given that Harriet’s feelings about Knightley were hopeless, and thought Austen’s main point was that here was simply another example of Emma getting it wrong. Nope. During that mixed-up conversation Emma encourages Harriet to hope, that such matches are never impossible… and by the point we reach after Box Hill (but before his declaration to Emma, what seems like weeks later) Harriet truly believes she has a chance with Knightley.
Austen makes sure there’s enough circumstantial evidence for Emma to convince herself that Harriet is right. You know the sort of thing: his kindness to Harriet, his grateful surprise that she is developing into such a thoughtful young woman – in other words, how suitable she would be as somebody’s wife. We know this is impossible, that he’s almost certainly thinking about Mr Martin. But Emma is still so mortified by his rebuke she decides he means to marry Harriet himself. And this turns out to be the final trial in the journey that Austen is forcing Emma’s bruised soul to make. It was Emma’s own interference that allowed Harriet to hope, so Austen has designed an exquisite torture for her, which she has to undergo for about two solid days and nights. She’s lost the only man that she was too blind to realise she ever loved.
Curtain-up on the set-piece scene. Knightley has been away in London, not to rescue anybody a la Darcy, but because he’s as mortified as Emma is after Box Hill. He’s convinced Frank has somehow corrupted Emma to the point where she can come up with thoughtlessly cruel barbs. Frank is obviously a chancer, and he’s won Emma with nothing but surface charm. Knightley has left to get away from seeing all his good work go to ruin. Up to this point it’s possible to see his as a godlike figure, making judgments and putting Emma on the right track – in league with Austen the godlike author in her project of forging Emma‘s soul on the anvil of, er, romantic comedy. But, in this universe, nobody’s perfect. Knightley, it turns out, has his own very human motives, and his own equally human reasons for hating Frank: all this time he’s been jealous. Austen is happy to satirise the way his opinion of Frank improves as his understanding grows that he isn’t a rival after all.
So, after a few pages of teasing, Austen gets the declarations of love they’d both given up on. Half a book away we knew it was going to come, and the way Austen has made Emma turn out right – and, with a bit of authorial wrestling, made Frank Churchill turn out right – we’re almost there. Just the loose end of Harriet to sort out now – and, maybe, the come-uppance of the appalling Eltons – so bring on the last five chapters.
Hmm. More loose ends than I thought, and… and I find a lot of it a bit smug. Chapter 51, especially, is almost priggish: Emma has Knightley read Frank’s letter for himself, and lets him serve up a running critique of the morality he does (or doesn’t) detect in it. Frank’s fine, basically – but not nearly so fine as Knightley himself, Emma concludes. In a later chapter she meets Frank and they agree that they have both found partners who will be able to offer them the true path of moral rectitude. They don’t put it like that, but I still wanted to be sick.
The burning question turns out not to be Harriet: she’s sorted out with the tiniest of nudges from Knightley when he sends Mr Martin to deliver some businessy stuff to Emma’s sister and brother-in-law, where Emma has sent Harriet for a few weeks to give everybody a break from the recent embarrassments. The problem is Emma’s father. I didn’t mention that in Chapter 49 or 50 Emma sees him as a big obstacle to her happiness: she can’t possibly leave him. But that turns out to be easily solved, with some godlike serving up of convenient circumstances. First, Knightley turns out to be the only man in the world that Emma could possibly have married who would have no objections to moving in with her and her dad. Dad ums and ahs, obviously, but the second convenient arrival of criminal activity in the area – poultry-sheds broken into – makes Mr Woodhouse practically demand a capable man about the house.
What else? Jane Fairfax is blooming and beautiful, not a bit like the cold fish she forced herself into seeming as a result of her secret engagement. She’ll be good for Frank, and his vivacity will be good for her, so yippee. Er…. The Elton’s don’t get a come-uppance, just plenty of occasions to be shown up as small-minded or downright wrong. In case we’d ever been in doubt (we weren’t) we see them at their worst when Elton peevishly complains about a wild goose-chase walk in the August heat to Knightley’s, and his wife’s stupid insistence that surely, he’d been to the village for the meeting, the one Emma has been insisting is to take place next day. They hate what we’re meant to love: the long-engendered love and esteem that’s clear for all to see in Emma and Knightley’s relationship, the simplicity of their wedding – hardly any lace! – and… that sort of thing.
So all’s well, as we knew it would be. The three newest marriages are bound to be good, and the established ones are flourishing: even Frank’s father and the ex-gov have a new daughter, ripe for the sort of sentimental education that turned Emma, eventually, into the wonderful specimen she now is. Fine. But I could imagine a sequel in which Emma tells Knightley what she really thinks of his homilies and lectures and they end up throwing crockery at one another. I wish.