Monday, 25 July 2016

Jane Austen's 'Emma': The Transformation of Emma Woodhouse

In Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen created a heroine whom, she said, 'No one but myself will much like'. Emma is to some extent likeable, even at the beginning of the story; but, spoiled and domineering, she has to overcome her weaknesses. She is, as Mr. Knightley acknowledges, free from personal vanity. If she were not, she might guess that Mr. Elton would be attracted to her rather than to Harriet. Another admirable quality is that she is attentive to the poor. And she has a conscience: witness her feelings when she allows Harriet only fourteen minutes with the Martins.

Imagining Frank Churchill to be in love with her (this episode to some extent mirrors Elizabeth Bennet's interest in Wickham), Emma flirts with him - unbecoming behaviour in the circumstances.

When Elton proposes, Emma learns a first lesson from her mistakes. However, it does not result in more responsible behaviour. In a few moments, she is thinking about finding a successor to Mr. Elton in her plans for Harriet. Although her self-confidence has been shaken, she has not yet acknowledged herself capable of a moral error. Experiences of repentance and expiation are yet to come.

She is transformed by the awakening of her conscience at Box Hill. When Mr. Knightley rebukes her for her cruel remark to Miss Bates, she knows he is right: She felt it at her heart. ... Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks all the way home. She has at last reached maturity of judgement.

Even so, this maturity is yet to be further demonstrated when she learns that Harriet is hoping to marry Mr. Knightley.

Chapter 50 is almost entirely about letters - letters that deliver truths both pleasant and unpleasant for their writers and their readers. It might seem a cowardly thing for Emma to tell Harriet by letter the bad news about her mistaken assumptions regarding Mr. Knightley. Surely Emma should tell her face to face, we might think. But such a humiliation at the hands of the 'winner' in the competition of love would probably heighten Harriet's pain. Emma remembers her past dealings with Harriet and relives all the humiliations she suffered for her presumptions.

Contrast this with Frank's letter. Like Emma, Frank knows he has to explain and apologize for something that his reader will find unpleasant. Unlike Emma, Frank has a very optimistic temperament that does not allow him to dwell on a disagreeable task. As he puts it, he has the advantage of inheriting a disposition to hope for good. He is convinced that Mrs. Weston will forgive him; and what stepmother dedicated to smoothing the way for the men in her life would not be charmed by his avowals of devotion and love? He is on thinner ice with regard to Emma but while he says all the right things about remorse, he immediately follows it by declaring that Emma knew what he was about. Of course she must have known! Emma is too quick, he declares, not to have at least sensed what he was about and where his interest lay. There is no need to feel too guilty over his treatment of her.

Emma writes her letter to Harriet as soon as she gets up in the morning. Frank takes his time to write his and comments that he has heard from Jane while he is still composing his own. As unpleasant as she feels her duty to be, Emma gets down to it as soon as she can. Frank puts it off for some time and it is easy to imagine him undertaking it reluctantly. At least three times he stops writing before he can continue.

Despite the heroine’s less pleasing characteristics, including snobbery, Emma has the redeeming feature that she will ultimately accept a truer understanding of events than her own, even when it is personally uncomfortable. When Mr. Knightley rebukes her for her behaviour towards Miss Bates, she does not take refuge in self-delusion; she does not protect her ego by reinventing the whole incident as a little drama in which she somehow comes out as the misunderstood heroine, as Mrs. Elton might have done. She accepts his picture of reality at once: not just because she defers to him but, crucially, because 'The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart'. So though in some ways Emma behaves like an overgrown kid, playing with Harriet like a doll, play-acting with Frank Churchill at being lovers, she also has an internal truth-monitor. She often tries to ignore it; but once it pulls her up sharp, she listens.