Monday, 20 February 2017
THOUGHTS ON JANE AUSTEN'S 'EMMA'
For much of the novel, the reader sees only what Emma sees. The reader is made aware of her response to whatever happens. Yet the author's handling of irony is so skilful that we can often recognize where Emma's judgement is at fault (just as in Love and Freindship we were able to see through the absurdities of Laura, the first-person narrator). On rare occasions - the minimum necessary - Jane Austen provides a brief linking narrative or lets us see events through the eyes of other characters.
Jane Austen interweaves details whose relevance is imperceptible at the time. Reading the novel again, we notice these – especially the hints concerning Jane and Frank. The lovers are interrupted while he is ostensibly repairing Mrs. Bates' spectacles. Emma - and the readers - fail to detect the reason for their confusion. The gossip of Miss Bates is brilliantly interwoven in the plot: her rambling chatter unwittingly contains allusions which later prove to be clues. Jane Austen even makes us accept the possibility of a marriage between Frank and Emma.
Incidental remarks prove prophetically ironic. Early in the novel, Knightley hopes Emma will one day know what it is to be in love, without being sure her affection is returned. Emma later has just such an experience when the man she loves is none other than Knightley himself.
Some of the suspense in Jane Austen's novels derives from the women's ignorance of what the men are thinking. Jane never in a major novel has a scene at which no woman is present. This is convenient in creating suspense but it is also typical of her principle of writing only about that with which she is familiar. For much of the time, male characters are revealed only in what the ladies observe of them. Emma does not know Knightley's deepest thoughts about her, though she is permitted to know what he thinks about Frank and Jane. His suspicion of their behaviour, we realise later, demonstrates his percipience, his love, and his concern for others, especially Emma.
Emma's final enlightenment comes when she is shocked by Harriet's disclosure that she hopes to marry Mr. Knightley. In this, the emotional climax of the novel, Emma discovers that she herself loves him:
It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr.Knightley must marry no one but herself!
She sees that 'blindness' and 'madness' have led her into delusions, blunders and ill-judged meddling. But there have been many clues to her previously unacknowledged attitude to Knightley. She always cared about what Knightley was thinking. (There are parallels between Emma's 'love' story and Elizabeth Bennet's: Elizabeth, ostensibly indifferent to Darcy, is always concerned about what he may be thinking.)