The Jane Austen Book Club continues with a double feature: Emma and Persuasion
Emma was the last book published during Jane Austen’s lifetime. Miss Emma Woodcock is a 21 years old second daughter of Mr Woodcock. She is handsome, clever, and rich – all the desirable qualities. And in Persuasion, Miss Anne Elliot is a 27 years old middle daughter of (baronet) Sir Walter Elliot. Like all other Jane Austen’s heroines Emma and Anne dwell in the countryside and lead most comfortable lives.
Where the two differ is not how they live but rather how they are viewed and treated. See, Miss Anne Elliot was nobody with either father or (eldest) sister; her word had no weight; here convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne. Her oldest sister Elizabeth has inherited his father’s bad traits: vanity, arrogance, pride, and a growing lack of reality. His father is a good-looking, vain man of 54; always checking on himself in the mirror; ready to comment on other people’s looks and clothes; bad with money; intellectually lazy, even a bit dim and thus, definitely not a reader, excepting his own entry in a Who’s who type of Aristo Calendar. Sir Walter and Miss Elizabeth Elliot will wither in future, the eldest daughter and father; wrinkles, gray hair, gravity; suddenly they have been left with nothing but bitter themselves.
In contrast, Miss Emma Woodcock was having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself. His father is a sickly 50-something who is wary of everything. Change of any kind is his prime nemesis. Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, has recently married – which is an tumultuous event Emma’s father never ceases to comment. It is like a recurring gag in The Fast Show, where a Regency era wealthy but sickly father, dressed in cap, slippers and whatever furry or woolly things as long as they are warm, is slowly turning to face the camera, mumbling ‘Why did she marry Mr Weston? Why? Whyyy?’ (You get the point: Let’s leave better catchphrases for professional sketch-writers; I’m doing these reviews merely for exposure.)
Sadly, it’s a sin of the worst kind that Emma – or roughly the middle 40% – drags and drags like we are waiting for Godot while repeating numb monotonous tasks at the assembly line 24/7 as if Sinclair Upton and Dante had collaborated in creating a fresh early 19th century Hell where the seven layers map into the fictional village of Highbury where she resides. I had trouble motivating myself through this arduous passage.
(I am ardently, violently reminded of rule 10 of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Pity he wasn’t around 1800.)
Sir Walter Elliot the daft Baron is persuaded to let his property and live instead in a (lofty) house on Camden Crescent in Bath. Sir Walter and Elizabeth view Bath to be slightly beneath them. For Anne, though, Bath is a whole new and exciting place!
Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.
There are balls, belles, boys, and a reunification with a certain Captain Wentworth, a naval officer, whose marriage proposal Anne was persuaded to decline seven years ago (after first having accepted it), as he was not deemed worthy then. No money, no foreseeable future. Nonetheless, thanks to Royal Navy’s compensation package with a lucrative bonus scheme, a wealthy man arrives to Bath.
But what is significant to me – a person with a working-class background – is that Persuasion is the first and only Jane Austen book to make servants actors with their own agenda and desires, and not merely to be waiting on the sidelines for the real people. What kind of socially more and more conscious books (with romance, surely) could Jane Austen have written had she not died at a relatively young age?
Then there is the letter.
The letter in Persuasion is perfection. It is exactly the kind of manifestation of true feelings we have grown accustomed to yearn. However, what could have been great is merely very good: we have also been conditioned to wait for a Confrontation and Resolution (the three-act structure). There was the Darcy’s rude characterization of Elizabeth as ‘tolerable’ (Setup), then the confession of love after Elizabeth found out (cannot be a spoiler anymore) that Mr Darcy persuaded Mr Bingley that Jane was not in love with him (Confrontation). That creates palpable tension that when released, gives us our daily fix. Wish fulfillment to the max. So, had there been some glitches, last-minute mixups, incorrect interpretations, hasty retreats, or even some rain and mud, Persuasion would be in the Jane Austen Pantheon. Nonetheless, Miss Anne Elliot will – and I have never been more sure of anything – have a perfect life.
Emma, briefly, thinks she is good at matchmaking after having a hand at introducing Miss Taylor to her current husband. Thus, she begins a new project with a friend of her, Harriet Smith, who fancies Robert Martin, a local farmer. And vice versa. Emma, however, manages to persuade Harriet to reject the marriage proposal for Mr Martin is beneath Miss Smith. Emma then attempts to match Miss Smith to other people with no success. A Mr Knightley, a neighbour and a friend of the family – and Emma, despite their 16-year age difference – is also her only critic. To him, Mr Martin is totally respectable young man, who is not beneath Miss Smith.
What makes Mr Knightley both interesting and aggravating as a character is that he is always right. He is the serious father figure in Emma’s life, the opposite of Mr Woodcock. Mr Knightley is an astute observer:
Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. Where Miss Taylor failed to stimulate, I may safely affirm that Harriet Smith will do nothing.—You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished.—You know you could not.
During the lengthy course of Emma, a static comedy of manners, errors, misunderstandings, there happens a barely observable character growth of our protagonist. We are hoping that after the end of the book – in which everybody finds their proper place, not too low, not too high, there is love, food is plenty, some conversations are enjoyable, although most are not – Emma (not a Miss anymore) will finally become an adult.