Saturday, June 8, 2002

Rereading / Jane Austen / Emma´s pride

Jane Austen

Emma's pride

AC Grayling on Jane Austen's pre-Freudian analysis of humanity and folly

Jane Austen
First published by John Murray, 1816

Saturday 8 June 2002 00.06 BST

Jane Austen painted a large universe on her "two square inches of ivory". In the narrow round of life as lived by country gentry in late Georgian times, in the interesting but even narrower margin of that epoch in young ladies' lives when they are looking about them for a husband, she found and anatomised fundamental features of human sense, pride, prejudice and sensibility.
With scalpel-sharp strokes of the pen and an unsurpassed delicacy of irony, she gives portraits of relationships, from subtly different perspectives in each novel, revealing insights which, despite first appearances, greatly transcend those about the tight social reticulations among which the mating game was played in her class and time.
In my impoverished student days I used to go to bed with Austen at the beginning of every Easter vacation, and stay there until I had reread all her novels. Each return was a delight, almost literally as if revisiting friends in the country. Her characters became intimates, their houses familiar retreats; memory's tricks now make it seem as if I had been present at each ball and picnic; and although in only one of the novels do we actually hear the hero propose to the heroine, I seem to have heard each declaration and every acceptance many times over.
There is scarcely any difference between Austen and Mills & Boon in the matter of plot. Man meets young woman; vicissitudes ensue, chiefly based on misunderstandings and the need for some character development; the latter duly occurs, so ending the former; whereupon happiness descends, in the form of an espousal. But although the novels of both Austen and Mills & Boon share the same plot, there is an infinity of difference otherwise. Austen is a profound psychologist and an unblinking sceptic. Her characterisation is penetrating, her insight vivid, her sense of balance perfect. What is tawdry and predictable in one manifestation is gem-like in hers, with too many facets shooting their beams to be seen all at once.
There can be, and is, dispute about which is Austen's "greatest" novel. But efforts at ranking are unnecessary. Her admirers know that there are different excellences alongside the unvarying excellences of her work, making each special. But the critics say that Emma is the peak of her achievement; and one can see why.
Emma is a novel that is new, and grows in content, on each rereading. On first encounter the reader is as duped by the ambiguously loveable heroine's misperceptions as she is herself. On the first rereading the brilliance of Austen's management bursts upon one, and with it the scintillation of her irony. On each subsequent rereading further new layers of irony and amusement unfold, as if inexhaustibly.
Emma Woodhouse is rich, handsome and spoiled. She tries to arrange other people's lives, but with such blithe misperception and - alas - snobbery, that she succeeds only in damaging them, and her own in the process. Or nearly: she learns her mistake and gets her reward for doing so, in the gentlemanly shape of Mr Knightley. Arranged on the magical glass chessboard around Emma is a set of exquisite figures: her father Mr Woodhouse, paradigm of the valetudinarian; the birdlike Miss Bates, whom Emma cruelly wounds with an acidulous remark about her chattering; and the vulgar Mrs Elton, who perfectly exemplifies the original meaning of "snob", viz. a person who aspiringly and odiously apes her betters. There is an unforgettable supporting cast besides, each one fully realised and doubtless drawn from life, so much reality is there in each depiction. It is astonishing that in the whole course of the book hardly anything happens - visits, a couple of outings, one minor country ball - and yet it seems to be, and indeed is, breathless with incident.
A striking feature of Emma as a novel is that its focus is the unconscious of its heroine - her complacent lack of insight into her own motives and desires equals her blindness to the true interests of those she blithely and insensitively manipulates, treating them like dolls to be arranged at whim. All of Austen's other main characters in her other novels know what they feel, even if they keep the fact hidden; not even Elizabeth Bennett is unaware of the two sides to her early feelings about Darcy. But Emma is truly on self-satisfied autopilot, and that is not just the source of the comedy but of the lessons it allows Austen to derive. How many other pre-Freudian novels have themes as anticipatory as this one? Austen said, when she began writing Emma, that only she would be able to love her heroine. She was wrong: everyone, like Mr Knightley, loves her despite her faults; and when readers surface after immersion in the vast miniature universe of Emma's Highbury, they soon find themselves eager to return.




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