Monday, June 7, 2010

Emma, Chapters 1-13

Emma, Jane Austen’s fourth published novel (1815), seems to mark a bit of a shift from her previous books. At least so far, with the emphasis on games and wordplay, Emma comes across as lighter and more playful than Austen’s other works. From the riddles that Emma and Harriet compile to the name of the Woodhouses’ estate (Hartfield), it seems that Austen is having a bit of fun. We’ll see where she takes it from here.

The first chapters kick off with an introduction to Emma Woodhouse, clever, pretty, and our first wealthy Austen heroine. She lives with her father, the frequently hilarious Mr. Woodhouse. As the novel opens her governess, Mrs. Weston, has just gotten married and left Hartfield. Emma’s sister Isabella is married to John Knightley, and the couple and their five children live in London, so Emma’s feeling a little lonely at the start.

George Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law, pays them a visit just after the wedding, and Emma tells him that she matched up her governess and Mr. Weston. Emma tells him that she next plans to match up Mr. Elton, a rector, and George suggests she stay out of it.

Austen gives us Mr. Weston’s back story - he has a son, Frank, from his first marriage to Miss Churchill, and since he was unable to care for his son after his wife’s death, Frank was raised by his mother’s relatives. Word arrives that he’s coming to visit the Weston’s soon.

Country life in High bury is just as charming as it is in other Austen novels — the regular social group of the Emma, her father, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Elton, Mrs. Goddard, and Mrs. and Miss Bates get together often for parties. Mrs. Goddard, who runs a boarding school, brings one of her old students, Harriet Smith to visit one night, and Emma decides to make her a project.

Emma and Harriet begin to spend lots of time together, and Emma learns that she’s a friend of the Martins and their son Robert. Emma assumes correctly that Robert is interested in Harriet, but Emma isn’t impressed by him, which she tells Harriet. Emma tries to interest Harriet in Mr. Elton, and one night she draws a picture of Harriet, which Mr. Elton fawns over, though others point out mistakes. Mr. Elton takes the picture to London to be framed, and Emma is convinced that he’s in love with Harriet. Then Robert Martin proposes to Harriet and she shows Emma the letter. Emma tells her that it’s well-written, but convinces her that marrying him would be a mistake.

Mr. Knightley goes to visit Emma and tells her that Robert Martin will be proposing to her soon and he thinks it will be a good match. When Emma tells him he already has, and that Harriet has refused him, Mr. Knightley is upset with her and tells her that her plot to fix up Harriet and Mr. Elton won’t work.

Emma and Harriet start collecting riddles in a book, and they ask Mr. Elton to write one. He does, and the answer is “courtship,” which Emma takes as a positive sign. The girls go to visit a sick family, and on their way home, run into Mr. Elton. Emma breaks her shoelace so she can fall back and get the others talking.

Isabella and her family arrive for Christmas and when Mr. Knightley comes for dinner, Emma makes up with him. They plan to go dine with the Westons, but Harriet falls ill and Emma tries to convince Mr. Elton that he shouldn’t come either. John Knightley tells Emma that Mr. Elton likes her, but Emma denies it. She wonders at how little interest Mr. Elton has in Harriet’s illness.

We meet a lot of characters right off the bat, and I had a bit of trouble keeping track of everyone and their relationships at first. But one character we don’t meet is Mrs. Woodhouse, because she died when Emma was very young. This is the fourth novel in a row that features absent or lapsed parents — Mr. Dashwood dies in the opening pages of Sense and Sensibility, the Bennet parents are such poor role models that the Bennet girls either get themselves in trouble or treat their aunt and uncle as surrogate parents in Pride and Prejudice; in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is sent away from her troubled parents and into a home with an uncle who disappears for a very long stretch and an aunt unable to offer any guidance, and in Emma, her best role model, Mrs. Weston moves out, leaving her with a father overly concerned about everyone’s health and too indulgent.

Before I go into this further, I want to see if/how the idea of absent parents plays out in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Austen is working with something interesting here. Are parentless women more apt to get into trouble? Are they influenced by society and social relationships than they would otherwise be? Are we having a nature vs. nurture debate?

We’ve seen busybody characters in each of the other Austen novels, but this is the first one in which the busybody is the heroine. Emma tells Harriet (and has seemingly told everyone else too) that she never intends to marry. Interesting, since the other busybodies are all old maids or widowers, and Emma plans to join their ranks — though she insists she won’t be a lame old maid. Most busybodies really have good intentions, but like Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility, usually end up hurting the very same people they’re trying to help. We know that Emma will be no exception.

Next week’s assignment is Chapters 14-28.

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