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Sunday, 6 November 2016

Jane Austen's 'Emma': Sundry Thoughts, Especially About The Passage of Seasons

Jane Austen started writing Emma on 21 January 1814 and finished on 29 March 1815. It was written partly at 23 Hans Place, Chelsea – the home of her brother Henry. Mansfield Park was published during this time.
The seasons are part of the fabric of Jane's novels: winter is anxious, summers move events towards a resolution and autumn brings maturity and fulfilment. In Sense and Sensibility the Dashwood ladies move from Sussex to their Devon cottage in September. Spring initiates the visit to London with its consequent events. Pride and Prejudice begins in the autumn, passes the winter at Longbourn (the time of anxiety for Jane Bennet) and the spring at Hunsford (with a change of scene and a first proposal from Darcy), leading to Elizabeth's visit to Derbyshire. The autumn shooting-season brings Bingley back to Hertfordshire and happiness to the Bennet family.

Mansfield Park has a long time sequence. Fanny is introduced as a young child. But the main events occur over two winters and a summer. It ends after Fanny's return to Mansfield in the spring. Northanger Abbey covers a shorter period: Catherine goes to Bath after Christmas and ten weeks later returns to Fullerton. In typical February weather, she is taken reluctantly for drives by John Thorpe.

In Emma, seasons conspicuously match moods. The story chronicles a one-year cycle in Highbury Village. The chill Christmas suits the episode in which Emma is mistaken over Harriet and Elton. Spring brings early blossoms: Emma's acquaintance with Frank Churchill progresses, her relationship with Knightley quietly deepens and Mrs. Elton enters the scene. Incidentally, Jane allows Mrs. Elton a good deal of monologue – a technique she frequently uses in preference to reported speech - condemning characters out of their own mouths. Jane Austen got the idea of having Mrs. Elton speak of her husband as her 'caro sposo' from the young, extravagant wife of the Revd. Charles Powlett, curate of Winslade, who addressed her husband in that way. Mrs. Elton's quotation about 'when a lady's in the case', is taken from Gay's Fables, The Hare and Many Friends. 'She next the stately bull implor'd;/  And thus reply'd the mighty lord/.. . . .  Love calls me hence; a fav'rite cow/ Expects me near yon barley mow:/ And when a lady's in the case,/ You know, all other things take place.'

The ball at The Crown and the incident with the gypsies are typical of this mood. In the warmth of summer, we have the strawberry-picking at Donwell and the Box Hill picnic on June 24th. Summer events bring matters towards fruition. In the ripeness of the Autumn, wisdom prevails: Harriet and Emma are happily married.

Within these seasons, Jane Austen skilfully devises incidents to lead Emma into her various misunderstandings. These incidents are the actions of Mr. Elton, Knightley's conduct at the ball, and Frank's rescue of Harriet from the gypsies.

Emma has the largest cast of all Jane's novels, though some characters who are important in making Highbury a real, bustling village do not appear in person, since there is no call for them to do so. William Larkins (a character probably based on the farm bailiff John Bond who worked for Jane's father) and Mr. Perry are often mentioned but never speak.

Highbury comes alive as all villages must have come alive for Jane: Emma observes it from the door of Ford's the draper. She 'was amused enough, quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.' The feel of the village is encapsulated in local reaction to a letter from Frank Churchill: '...every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received'.

Knightley, incidentally, may well have been inspired, partly at least, by Jane's brother Edward - whose name had become 'Knight'. Both men are hospitable, generous, and interested more in managing their estates than in scholarship or field sports. Emma herself may have been inspired by Jane's nieces Anna (Lefroy) and Fanny (Knight). She has much of Anna's looks, combined with Fanny's situation. Knightley managed his estates sensibly, without following Repton: note the neglect in the 'stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight'. Knightley does not follow the fashion for rooting up patrimonial timbers.