Will it be Emma or Mrs Elton who dances first at the ball at The Crown? Will it be pigeon-pie or cold lamb for picnic tea at Box Hill? Will the snow be too deep for the carriages to travel from Randalls to Hartfield on Christmas Eve? Why did Jane Fairfax walk to the post office in the rain? Will Mrs Elton invite Emma to dinner at the vicarage? Who sent the pianoforte for Jane Fairfax? Why did Frank Churchill take so long repairing old Mrs Bates’s wretched spectacles? In volume one Mr Elton is in love with Emma but she is incapable of seeing it. In volume two Emma thinks Frank Churchill is in love with her, but he isn’t. In volume three Emma thinks Harriet is in love with Frank Churchill, but she isn’t. Emma then discovers at the last that in fact she is in love with Mr Knightley, and marries him.
Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) is a trivial comedy about persons who devote themselves passionately to frothy superfluities. It also happens to be an experimental avant-garde work of such revolutionary narrative technique that it changed the novel forever.
The classic Austen plot goes something like this: an accomplished, intelligent, artistic, spirited, witty, passionate young woman, but disadvantaged in some way and in jeopardy in life and with passions held painfully in check, is in love with a dashing, eligible, handsome man and their eventual marriage is a triumph over adversity. See: Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice); Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility); Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion); Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey). There is such a couple in Emma but unusually they are embedded deep in the narrative. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill form a faint backdrop to the more prominent adventures. Frank spends much of the novel in Yorkshire. Neither appear at all in volume one, they make brief appearances in volumes two and three but speak barely two dozen lines. We are given no access to their thoughts and confidences; as lovers in jeopardy they are an invisible presence. Imagine Pride and Prejudice narrated through and concentrating on Caroline Bingley, with Elizabeth and Darcy denied everything except a brief word here and there and a walk down the aisle at the end. Instead the heroine of Emma is Emma. She may be delusional, interfering, spoiled, vain, possessive, snobbish, proud, conceited and misguided, but this is very much her novel. Other Austen heroines are the victims of snobbery, here snobbery is incorporated in the heroine.
Emma is a self-deluded young busybody with the time and authority to interfere in the lives of her neighbours. She has convinced herself that Mr Elton is in love with her young friend and protege Harriet, whereas in fact he is in love with Emma. Emma has a stratagem for love to flourish and manoeuvres the two into a room as she waits outside:
“For ten minutes she could hear nothing but herself. It could be protracted no longer. She was then obliged to be finished and make her appearance. The lovers were standing together at one of the windows. It had a most favourable aspect; and, for half a minute Emma felt the glory of having schemed successfully.”
The novel is written in the third-person, but who is speaking here? The use of the word lovers is not the third-person narrator’s choice, because it is utter twaddle. The word is Emma’s. We know Harriet and Elton are not in love. The third-person narrator knows they are not in love. Only Emma is deluded enough to have entertained it in her mind. What is going on here? Somehow Emma’s choice of word has infiltrated the narrative of the third-person. Here is Emma ruminating upon an upcoming party to be given by the nouveau riche Mr and Mrs Coles:
“The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them. This lesson, she very much feared, they would receive only from herself; she had little hope of Mr. Knightly, none of Mr. Weston. But she had made up her mind how to meet this presumption so many weeks before it happened, that when the insult came at last, it found her very differently affected.”
The word insult is all Emma. Only snobbish, conceited Emma could construe a civil invitation from good people to a party as an insult to her dignity. The third-person narration has become imbued with the habits of thought and expression of the protagonist and the narration is being bent through the distorting lens of her mind. Here is another example. Frank Churchill has gallantly saved Harriet from a terrifying and blood curdling incident (a small child in the street has solicited her for money) and has impressively escorted her back to Emma’s home where she can recover from her distress. This fans the flames of Emma’s imagination:
“Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together, and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other?….And knowing, as she did, that the favourable state of mind of each at this period, it struck her the more. He was wishing to get the better of his attachment to herself, she just recovering from her mania for Mr Elton. It seemed as if every thing united to promise the most interesting consequences.”
Emma thinks that Harriet is in love with Frank and secondly that Frank is attempting to extinguish his love for Emma. Both opinions are balderdash. In fact Frank loves and is secretly engaged to Jane and Harriet loves Mr Knightly (all screened from Emma). The third-person narrator in a conventional novel would know this and not participate in our deception. This passage is the world according to Emma. As is the following:
“Harriet behaved extremely well on the occasion, with great self command. Whatever she might feel of brighter hope, she betrayed nothing. Emma was gratified, to observe such a proof in her of strengthened character, and refrained from any allusion that might endanger its maintenance. They spoke therefore of Mrs Churchill’s death with mutual forbearance.”
The death of Mrs Churchill is the event that lifts any restrictions on Frank marrying. Emma, ludicrously, sees the event as hope for Harriet and evidence of her improving moral character, and the narrative connives in this error.
The traditional third-person narrative makes a claim to the authority of objectivity, and the first-person narrative is subjective. This novel is hybrid. Austen’s alchemy manages to combine the internal and the external. A conventional third-person narrator has a godlike and omniscient authority. But this new technique conceals itself and the narrator becomes so unobtrusive as to disappear allowing a fictional character to ventriloquise and blow the neutrality one expects. Austen’s other novels used the technique in part but none as fully as Emma. This narrative was radically experimental because it shared its heroine’s delusions. The narrative traps us inside Emma’s head and filters the world through her excess. Austen bravely abandons her protagonist to her snobbery and misconstructions. Emma’s train of thought is in the medium of the narrative and her fallibility becomes a leading subject of the novel. Emma cannot see things that are happening under her own nose and has a complacent judgement of herself at the same time as we judge her assessments as faulty and inventions preposterous. We both participate in her judgements and despair at her making them. The technique requires us to travel so close with Emma that we are with her for every misstep she takes, every wrong conclusion she makes. But because the novel is still in the third person we can make a judgement of her even as we share her thoughts. We are on Emma’s side when she mocks Mrs Elton and we are adverse to her when she takes against Robert Martin. The narrative mimics and distances Emma’s way of seeing. The prose chides and tolerates at the same time. The text modulates between Emma’s unreliability and the narrator’s ironic detachment of events and thereby brings the deficient heroine and reader together. Emma’s viewpoint is so dominant the irony allows us to comically explore her deep ignorance of her own feelings. Austen created a method of such narrative subtlety with an audacious fictional experiment that allows the reader to feel what Emma fails to feel.
Before Austen, novelists chose between first-person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character but limiting us to her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters but making them pieces in an authorial game)*. The technique pioneered by Austen has been used by other writers extensively since. See: Flaubert, James, Woolf, Kafka, Mansfield, Joyce, Lawrence, Proust, Gide, Mann, Nabokov, Marquez, Bellow. Literary scholars have attributed the use of the technique as a fully fledged form to Austen (and coined a predictably clunky term for it – free indirect discourse). Virginia Woolf saw her as “the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust”. George Henry Lewes said of Austen that she has “an indifferent story to tell, but her art of telling it is incomparable”. Samuel Beckett wrote to a friend “I have been reading the divine Jane. I think she has much to teach me.” Austen with her technical audacity belongs with the great experimental novelists and pioneer artists.
Mrs Elton breezes into the novel at the half way point. Elton having refused to marry Harriet and having his offer of marriage rebuffed by Emma disappears to Bristol only to triumphantly return back into Emma’s orbit with his bride.“The charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience.” This introduction of Mrs Elton should put us on the alert. The preposterous, boastful, conceited, forward, brash Mrs Elton immediately starts sparring with Emma whose status as Queen Bee is put in jeopardy. Mrs Elton boasts of her rich brother in law Mr. Suckling, and his large house at Maple Grove, and his barouche-landau and sets to work bossing people’s lives, and organising too lavish parties and picnics. The interactions and dialogue between her and Emma are among the best comic lines in all Austen. But what is this at the start of chapter six in volume three?
“After being long fed with hopes of a speedy visit from Mr and Mrs Suckling, the Highbury world were obliged to endure the mortification of hearing that they could not possibly come until the autumn.”
The word mortification is not the third-person narrator’s but nor is it Emma’s. Only Mrs Elton would be mortified at the delayed arrival of her sister and brother-in-law of whom she has so widely boasted. Mrs Elton seems to be attempting to appropriate the narrative voice. The narrator had abandoned the narrative to Emma, now both of them find themselves under siege from a new upstart. The authority for this narrative seems now to be in a three-way tussle. There is a sense that Emma (and later Mrs Elton) are rival novelists to Austen. Emma seeks to direct the love lives of members of her community by fashioning imaginary scenarios and concocting various narratives for her chosen characters. Mrs Elton is determined to dictate Jane Fairfax’s fate and won’t brook her refusal when Jane shows reluctance to become a governess to the family of Mrs Elton’s choice. Both Emma and Mrs Elton from the security of their social positions are whimsically manhandling others within their narrow social sphere. No wonder they both try to appropriate the narrative from the putative author.
Miss Bates has a lowly status in the novel. She speaks a garrulous gabble and is unable to formulate a sentence or bring one to a conclusion. Here are two examples of her free-association, continuous speech prolixity:
“I am a talker you know; I am rather a talker; and now and then I let a thing escape me which I should not. I am not like Jane; I wish I were. I will answer for it she never betrayed the least thing in the word. Where is she? – Oh! Just behind. Perfectly remember Mrs Perry coming. – Extraordinary dream indeed!”
“Jane, Jane, my dear, where are you? – Here is your tippet. Mrs Weston begs you to put on your tippet. She says she is afraid there will be draughts in the passage, though everything has been done – One door nailed up – Quantities of matting – My Dear Jane, indeed you must. Mr Churchill, oh! you are too obliging! How well put it on! – so gratified. Excellent dancing indeed – Yes indeed my dear I ran home to help as I said I should to help grandmama to bed, and got back again and nobody missed me – I set off without saying a word, just as I told you.”
They are so boring, and some go on for pages, that the reader is tempted to skip them. But that would be a mistake because embedded in her monologues are the clues that Jane and Frank are secretly involved with each other. Attention should be made to this nitwit because her stream of consciousness contains all that is hidden and important.
This is a novel then that is perturbed by language and its insufficiency of authority. Emma speaks in beautiful, measured, august sentences and is deluded, unreliable and wrong. Miss Bates’s prattling nonsense contains reliable information. The third-person narrator purports to be providing a reliable omniscient objectivity, but is being undercut by characters tussling for control of the story. Austenian irony engulfs the text. Irony is in opposition to fixed meaning (lovers and insult do not mean what they mean). When irony is deployed there is a simultaneous meaning according to the words and contrary to the words. This recognition that meaning is other than the word betrays a world in which things are starting to lose their apparent meaning. Words are becoming unattached from reality. What is reliable, what is not?
The opening words to the novel are: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
On a first reading this seems a single, solid sentence reassuring us that we are on conventional fictional ground. (Although seemed to and very little hint that all is not well.) On a second reading of the novel none of the other words are steady either. Who is mediating it? What is irony, what is not? Which words can we trust, which can we not? We suspect that this whole paragraph may have morphed from secure to ironic. Now we cannot trust anything the narrator says: as with all things ironical our bearings are lost. And what about even before the opening paragraph? The novel was dedicated to His Royal Highness, The Prince Regent by The Author. Given this novel was published anonymously (and Austen deplored the louche Regent) is the dedicator Austen or Emma?
The social order of this novel may be settled but it is put in jeopardy by the very language in which it is articulated. Austen’s novels, and Emma is no different, seem to value social order and stability. But for there to be linguistic stability each word should be securely in its place corresponding to a meaning and play its integral part in the order of things. And Austen denies us that.
In keeping with a trivial comedy by the end absurdity has been given full reign. When Emma and Mr Knightley mention their intention to marry to her fusspot, hypochondriac father who dotes on her, he point blank refuses to agree to the match. (Where Emma invents lovers’ liaisons , Mr Woodhouse invents illnesses.) He is only brought round when a local poultry house is robbed one night by turkey rustlers and Mr Woodhouse sees the benefit of having a son-in-law under his own roof that the strength of his resolution melts. The narrative has been given over to the full ludic. Knightley who has been annoyingly right throughout the novel (about Harriet, Elton, Frank, Jane, Miss Bates and Emma) dissolves Emma’s playful world forcing a return to recalcitrant reality. He is the reality principle upon which Emma’s inflated imagination is dashed and her authorial schemes foiled. Emma at least understands this: Knightley “I leave you to your own reflections” Emma “Can you trust me with such flatterers?” Knightley is both a reward and a comeuppance. So the novel ends full circle with Emma still at home with her father (with the somewhat negligible addition of a husband) and still very little to distress or vex her. This is an ironic return to origin. Mrs Elton’s parting shot is to only give the marriage three months.
Where Emma Woodhouse is more foolish than she understands, Catherine Morland is wiser than she knows.
In Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland has not just been reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Lewis’s The Monk, she has been over-reading them. Like Don Quixote before her Catherine has become so enchanted by reading books that she now cannot determine the difference between her overblown overheated imagination and recalcitrant prosaic reality. When she visits Northanger Abbey at the invitation of the Tilney family Catherine cannot see a wooden chest without a corpse, a corridor without a trap door, a ruin without a secret dungeon, a sheaf of paper that is not a precious manuscript nor a father without a soul as black as a judge in chancery and a murder weapon hard in his grip.
Catherine is a reader and a heroine and has yet to establish a clear dividing line between the real and the imagined. The house once she investigates it is disappointingly innocuous and her imagination morphs towards General Tilney instead and allows a gothic meaning to accrue to him. What happened when the mother died nine years ago? Why are the mother’s apartments out of bounds? Why can the General not bear to hang her portrait in his room? Catherine senses shady derring do. She is discovered in the midst of snooping by the handsome, eligible and intelligent son Henry Tilney and she discloses her suspicions of domestic violence to him.
“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English: that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies; and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?
They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.”
Henry has faith in the manners and code and common sense of the English. He is preoccupied with authoritative language and permits no transgressions. He chides Catherine during the novel over her definitions of words such as torment, nice, amazing, instruct. Henry is a pedant about language. He speaks highly of Hugh Blair’s Rhetoric and Belles Lettres and Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. His insistence on linguistic orderliness is linked to his faith that the tidy definitions of words make our lives orderly and intelligible. This is the sort of belief that gothic fiction categorically undermines, the cult of the gothic as the underside of Enlightenment reason. Northanger Abbey is a novel about reading and misreading and how it improves and distorts judgement, how it deforms and informs the mind. Catherine understands, where Henry does not, that language is fluid and unstable, and reality never all that it seems. Henry underestimates the doubleness and contradictions that fiction both promotes and critically examines. Language depends on shared definitions and common assumption at the same time as being unstable and insecure. Catherine’s brilliant line “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible” echoes the philosophy of a later aesthete, Oscar Wilde: ‘I live in terror of not being misunderstood’ (and Henry’s retort is to call her line a satire on modern language). Is Catherine to take her lessons from Henry Tilney or Ann Radcliffe?
There is gothic excess and transgression at play at Northanger Abbey. General Tilney may not have killed his wife, but he is cold, callus and overbearing. There is a violence lurking beneath the surface at the Abbey and it is the General who is lavishly acting with harmful imaginative excess. Having invited Catherine to Northanger Abbey believing her to be an heiress he viciously turns her out once he discovers she is impecunious. Henry’s faith in English manners and its benevolent effect is undermined by his father’s behaviour. There turns out to be a gothic aberration and violation at large and it was not Henry but Catherine who perceived it. It is Henry, rather than Catherine, who is undiscerning. He, with all his precision of speech, has been the gullible one.
Ian McEwan’s Atonement opens with the quote about Dear Miss Morland above as an epigraph. Briony Tallis is a writer and the over-imaginative daydreamer of Atonement. Unable to distinguish fiction from reality she wrongly imagines a crime has been committed and her false testimony about it has devastating consequences. Like Catherine, Briony lives in a perilous domain of fantasy. By the end of Atonement we learn for the first time that the author of the novel we are reading, now aged in her seventies, is Briony herself. She is writing both for atonement and to reassert some control over the world.
Austen understood the importance of fiction, and in particular comic fiction. There is a famous plea in chapter five of Northanger Abbey for the novel to be treated as a serious form of art. The first person narrator draws attention to the artificial nature of the enterprise at intervals throughout the novel. At the end of the book the narrator refers to the tell-tale compression of pages indicating we are nearing the finish “we are hastening together towards perfect felicity.” The stylised closure is as implausible as any gothic narrative as Henry marries Catherine after the General’s objection melts away: “the bells rang out and everybody smiled” and the comic plot rushes arbitrarily towards the necessary happiness.
Austen’s novels underline the notion that misperception and self-delusion are integral to existence, that the external world is fiendishly difficult to finesse and that one way of negotiating the hazardous terrain is to deploy irony and deeply serious play. Austen treats comically the incongruities between literature and life. Let us end with a passage from W.H. Auden’s poem Letter to Lord Byron:
I must remember, though, that you were dead
Before the four great Russians lived, who brought
The art of novel writing to a head;
The help of Boots had not been sought.
But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,
Under the right persuasion bravely warms
And is the most prodigious of the forms.
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
*John Mullan’s analysis has been relied on for these passages.