From my first JASNA AGM in 2005, when I heard Elaine Bander present a breakout session (about parallels among three 1814 novels: Austen’s Mansfield Park, Burney’s The Wanderer, and Edgeworth’s Patronage), I’ve been a major fan of Elaine. She and Juliet McMaster have long epitomized for me the very best of mainstream Austen scholarship. Elaine unfailingly writes with great insight, clarity, and tact about aspects of Jane Austen’s fiction and biography which go to the heart of what makes Austen great, helping to illuminate the unending delights of reading JA two centuries after her death. Best of all, never does even a hint of litcrit jargon creep into Elaine’s lucid, witty prose.
So, even though Elaine and I approach Austen from very different points of view (she invariably focuses on what I call Jane Austen’s “overt stories”, whereas I am almost always delving into JA’s “shadow stories”), I always learn a great deal from, and find my critical imagination sharply stimulated by, pretty much everything Elaine writes about JA. That is partly because Elaine has a nose for what matters most in the fictional worlds of the novels; but it’s also what I realized in 2005—i.e., that Jane Austen intended both Elaine’s and my (seemingly irreconcilable) interpretations to be valid! The remainder of this post will be my attempt to transcend that apparent paradox, by articulating how closely linked Elaine’s deep interpretation of the overt story of Emma is to my interpretation of its shadow story.
But I will keep Emma cooling its heels another moment at the “door” of this post, and first present the most notable example to date of how Elaine’s mainstream interpretations inform my shadowy ones. It was her talk at the 2012 JASNA AGM about the allusive presence of Burney’s Cecilia (Elaine is as much a Burney, as an Austen, expert) beneath the light, bright, and sparkling surface of Pride & Prejudice. Through her close reading of numerous significant parallels between Burney’s novel and Austen’s (as the latter is normatively read), Elaine enabled me to see a crucial new strand of the shadow story of P&P (that which involves Elizabeth Bennet as the unwitting heiress of Pemberley, and which I posted about here in 2013: http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2013/12/you-cannot-have-been-always-at.html) through that same Burney prism. Jane Austen is great (in both senses) enough to comfortably encompass both of our seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints, because Jane Austen never meant for them to be reconciled, only to be separately appreciated for their very different, yet related, beauties and insights.
And that finally brings me to my main subject today, which is Elaine’s latest Austenian scholarly production: her article entitled “ ‘Liking’ Emma Woodhouse” in the recently published 2016 print Persuasions (it fittingly takes pride of place as the first article in the volume). In it, Elaine takes on two main subjects, and the one I will respond to in this post is her extended explanation of “why Austen would deliberately create a disagreeable heroine” like Emma. My modus operandi will be to cherry pick three specific statements made by Elaine, and then respond to each from my alternative perspective, and to show how they each function as a funhouse mirror for the other. However, I urge you to read her article in full when you get a chance, because it is Elaine at the top of her game, and only a complete reading by itself will do her own thesis justice.
Elaine: “[Emma] treats most of the people around her (although never her father nor Mr. Knightley) as though they were characters in a novel that she is writing. Granted, it’s a bad novel, full of the very novel clichés that Austen set about to undermine, but, nevertheless, Emma’s creative temperament appears akin in many ways to Austen’s own.”
I’ve long argued that the supreme genius of JA’s dual construction of Emma is that, in the shadow story, Emma is not completely clueless in the sense of having no idea of what is really happening, most of all with respect to the shadow heroine, Jane Fairfax (as to whom the key questions which absorb Emma are about why Jane returns to Highbury in the first place, who is wooing Jane, to whom does Jane return her affections (in particular who might be the engaged man Emma is convinced Jane loves). Rather, Emma is often almost correct in her guesses. It’s as if the aim of Emma’s intuitive bow is initially perfect, and she identifies the key points that really do matter; but then, when her arrow of insight is only inches from the bulls-eye, suddenly a gust of fairy dust (sent by Puck aka Jane Austen) blows the arrow sideways at the last instant. And so, what seem like novel clichés to Elaine become, in the shadow story, poignant twists torn from the often tragically realistic life of a woman like Jane in the Regency Era – a gifted, good young woman, who endures an unwed pregnancy, genteel but desperate poverty in the home of her aunt, to the point of actual hunger, and the fickleness of John Knightley, the married man I say Jane was actually involved with in London (i.e., not Mr. Dixon). Jane suffers these and other ills at the hands of the hypocritical, patriarchal power structure, led by the Great Whale of Highbury, the Machiavellian Mr. George Knightley.
And so Elaine’s point that Emma’s creative temperament appears akin to Austen’s own is very much spot-on from my alternative point of view as well. I claim that JA deliberately hid the poignant, all-too-realistic, radically feminist shadow story of Jane Fairfax behind the smokescreen of Emma’s comically self absorbed “novel clichés”. But unlike her unlikable heroine Emma, the aim of Jane Austen’s storytelling archery never misses. I.e., creatively speaking, she has the sure hand of a literary Ulysses: just as he shot his arrow through 12 axe heads in a row, JA achieved the comparably miraculous feat of shooting two different arrows (stories), in two opposite directions, with a single pull of her bow (i.e., with the identical words contained in a single text)!
Elaine also wrote: “Early reviewer Walter Scott shrewdly observed that in Emma, despite the absence of romance elements associated with older novels, ’there are cross purposes enough for cutting half the men’s throats and breaking all the women’s hearts’. Janet Todd notes that both publisher John Murray and novelist Maria Edgeworth found the novel lacking in ‘incident’, even though, as Todd says, ‘The lack of story is in part the subject of Emma.”
Once again, I find that Elaine’s valid point from a mainstream perspective on Emma takes on a startling, opposite meaning when filtered through my own heretical lens. I.e., there is a great deal of incident (as I see it) in the shadow story of Emma, which is narrated, however, obliquely, by Miss Bates’s torrent of words, which Emma consistently zones out on, but which (I am not the first to point out) is a fertile source of clues to what is happening offstage, which Emma subconsciously absorbs, but then unwittingly misinterprets.
And, again, there is the metafictional parallel (as Adena Rosmarin wrote about in her pioneering 1986 article “Misreading Emma”) to the reader of Emma who, like Emma, tunes out the “nothing” that is recounted in the many words of JA’s longest novel, and thereby never correctly understands what happens in its shadow story. And just as Emma never fully understands, neither does the reader whose focus is only on the overt story, and who therefore, like Emma, accepts Frank Churchill’s lengthy explanation of his relationship with Jane as truth, rather than a carefully manufactured cover story dictated to Frank by George Knightley (the same way the latter dictated Robert Martin’s proposal letter to Harriet 45 chapters earlier) in order to provide a coherent, but false, explanation for all that transpired during the novel.
Elaine: “Unlike the other flawed Good Girls, [Emma] is deliberately endowed with unpleasant character traits like snobbery and smugness…she does not earn sympathy for being snubbed, oppressed, or neglected. Instead, her unattractive qualities are compounded by her affluence and social status…As Emma says of Robert Martin, she can need none of our help.”
In the overt story, Elaine’s above analysis is once again spot-on. But I read Emma in the shadow story as being perhaps the biggest unwitting victim of all, because she trusts the wrong people. How so? Because I see Knightley as setting his sights, from the very beginning of the novel, on Emma not as the object of a sincere love, but as a target to bail him out of his desperate financial straits, which he has meticulously concealed from Emma. And so, very much as I have frequently articulated how Darcy does the same to Elizabeth in the second half of P&P, I see Knightley as systematically destroying Emma’s complacent, comfortable life at Highbury with her father, in order to make her so desperate that Emma will, when Harriet shocks Emma by taking off her mask of pretended silliness and claims Knightley for herself, “suddenly discover” that she loved Knightley all along.
And that is a good place for me to stop, and to remind you to read Elaine’s article when you get a chance—and when you do, perhaps you will keep in the back of your mind what you read in this post, so that you will then be ready, in your next rereading of Emma, to hold Elaine’s and my opposing viewpoints in mind at the same time, as if we were each providing one lens to a very special pair of spectacles for understanding the doubleness of both Emma and Emma.
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