Thursday, July 1, 2010

Emma, Chapters 41-55

We bid farewell to the Highbury world and head to Northanger Abbey today. Here’s a summary of the last chapters of Emma, along with some comments, and the reading schedule for Northanger Abbey.

Mr. Knightley figures out that there’s something brewing between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill — Frank announces something that he says is common knowledge, but was really only discussed at the Bates household — but when he brings it up to Emma, she tells him it can’t possibly be true.

The gang decides to plan a picnic to Box Hill, which gets pushed back thanks to a sick horse. Mr. Knightley invites them all to his house for a gathering, which comes together, and, the horse having healed, Box Hill is planned for the next day. At Mr. Knightley’s, Jane tries to tell Mrs. Elton that she doesn’t want the governess job Mrs. Elton wants her to take, and Jane leaves the party early. Shortly after she leaves, Frank arrives and seems upset.

The Box Hill picnic isn’t much fun either — everyone breaks into groups (the Eltons; Knightley, Miss Bates, and Jane; and Emma, Harriet and Frank). Frank flirts shamelessly with Emma, and Emma makes a rude comment to Miss Bates. Knightley later chastises her for it.

After the picnic, Emma visits Miss Bates to apologize and Jane decides to take the governess job. She’ll have to leave in two weeks, but the job will pay well. When she returns home, Emma runs into Harriet and Knightley, who’s happy that she went to see Miss Bates. Word arrives that Mrs. Churchill died, which Emma thinks might bode well for setting Harriet up with Frank. Jane seems to be ignoring Emma, who has been trying to do good deeds for her.

Things finally get set in motion with the death of Mrs. Churchill. Mrs. Weston calls Emma to come visit her, so that she can tell her that Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged. Everyone was worried that Emma had feelings for Frank, which Emma tells them she does not. Frank’s uncle agreed to the engagement, but asked that it stay secret for a while longer. Emma is only worried about how Harriet will take the news, but Mr. Weston has already relayed the news himself. Harriet tells her that she never liked Frank, but actually has feelings for Mr. Knightley and thinks that he reciprocates them. Emma is appalled, as she has just realized that she is in love with Knightley.

Looking back, she realizes that she has always loved him, but decides that she can’t marry him while her father is alive, since he won’t be able to live on his own. Emma heads out for a walk and runs into Knightley, who has something to tell her. He starts to say something, but Emma worries that it is about his feelings for Harriet, so she stops him. He goes ahead with it anyway, and declares his love.

Emma decides that Harriet should visit Isabella in London for a time. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston shows Emma a letter from Frank, in which he apologizes but says that he never thought Emma was attached to him and that she thought their flirtation was all in good fun. Jane had broken off their engagement after Frank flirted with Emma at Box Hill, and after his aunt died and he heard about how Jane was going to be a governess, he secured his uncle’s permission for marriage and won Jane back.

Emma and Knightley decides that he should move into Hartfield after they marry, but Emma has decided to wait to tell her father until after Mrs. Weston has her baby. When she does tell him, he’s surprised but comes around.

There’s one more engagement to come — Harriet and Robert Martin. Knightley arranged it, but sending Martin to London to see his brother and to spend time with the family. Emma is relieved. They marry first, followed by Emma and Knightley, and Frank and Jane a few months from the novel’s end.

Emma is the fourth Austen novel with absent/lapsed parents, and Emma grew up with guidance from Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley — making it somewhat odd that she marries him in the end. Knightley isn’t a friend who Emma suddenly realized she was in love with, but rather someone who held authority over her, and interceded when Mrs. Weston and Mr. Woodhouse spoiled her too much. It makes sense that Emma can’t call him by his Christian name, but insists on continuing to call him “Mr. Knightley.” What’s Austen doing with this — does a spirited, innocently meddlesome girl need to be paired with a father figure to balance their relationship? I do like Knightley, but still it seems kind of strange.

Emma is — like all of Austen’s works — about social status, and how marriage can elevate someone’s rank. The failed marriage from the beginning of the novel (Mr. Weston and Miss Churchill), fails because Mr. Weston is of a lower rank. He fares better with the working class Miss Taylor. The same is true with Harriet and Mr. Elton — she’s ranked much lower than him — but things work out for her with Robert Martin. Frank Churchill can’t tell his family about his engagement to Jane, since she’s both an orphan and headed for a working life, but once his aunt has died, he’s more willing to take a social risk when his family doesn’t have to hear about it. Since Sense and Sensibility, this is the most overt discussion of social rank through marriage. In that novel, Elinor and Marianne each married up socially, but here, social ranks seem more evenly matched in each pairing. Is Austen offering other ideas about what makes a good marriage? Or just acknowledging that there are all types of marriages in the world?

I didn’t even get into the wordplay aspects of Emma, but did anyone find that especially fun?

Here’s the posting schedule for Northanger Abbey, which you can look for on Thursdays this month. It’s a much shorter book this time — perfect for summer reading!

Thursday, July 8 - Chapters 1-8
Thursday, July 15 - Chapters 9-14
Thursday, July 22 - Chapters 15-20
Thursday, July 29 - Chapters 21-27
Saturday, July 31 - Chapters 28-31

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