I love reading Jane Austen and have read all her novels, but I wouldn't want to be the subject of her satire! I think I'd be scared to death, if I had ever met her, which thankfully is not possible in this life. I first read Pride and Prejudice when, unaccountably, I checked a book out of the school library. I say unaccountably, because I didn't read very many books until I was in my twenties and those I did read were mostly for school. Until then, Pride and Prejudice had been just a name to me, but I'm glad I read it.
I didn't do anything more about reading the lovely Jane Austen until after I watched the BBC's (Firth/Ehle) Pride and Prejudice in the mid-nineties. I had forgotten almost the whole story by then, but the production was every bit as enjoyable as my first reading had been. The children and I still like to watch it. Within a few years, I had read Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. The last three are not my favourites and Persuasion least of all, I think, but I'm not yet sure why. I think the characters of the first three I named were more appealing to me and perhaps the story-lines too.
I'm not surprised that there are men who don't like reading Austen. It is after all, mostly ladies sitting around in parlours talking, or taking walks in the country-side, talking. Sometimes the ladies “murmur gently” at one another and sometimes they are confiding in each other and at other times they are ridiculing the hero, as yet unknown to them as the hero. When put like this, it's terribly dull stuff, but if I let the author and characters speak for themselves it might create more interest.
Before I do, it came to my attention recently that someone I know of had given up trying to read Austen after trying P&P for the third time and not being able to get into it. If I ever have the chance, I will probably suggest to him that he try Emma and to give the story a good three chapters or so before giving up on it. I once made a couple of attempts at Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, but the third time I skipped to the second chapter and never looked back. Today I make it a rule to read at least a few chapters before giving up on a novel which does not appeal at first.
The introduction to Northanger Abbey is pretty amusing.
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard — and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings — and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on — lived to have six children more — to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any... she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.
Such was Catherine Morland at ten. At fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls; ...“Catherine grows quite a good–looking girl — she is almost pretty today,” were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.
...But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.
This is probably my favourite opening chapter of Austen's. I really wish I could quote the whole chapter, but you can find it here.
Here are some quotes from Emma:
“Better be without sense than misapply it as you do. ” - Mr. Knightley to Emma.
“Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.” - Mr. Knightley to Emma.
“The ladies here probably exchanged looks which meant, 'Men never know when things are dirty or not;' and the gentlemen perhaps thought each to himself, 'Women will have their little nonsense and needless cares.”
“Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton's beginning to talk to him.”
“Miss Bates…had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal goodwill and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness and quick-sighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself.”
“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.” - Emma to Mr. Knightley
The following section (about 1100 words) was written by my daughter, Eilidh, for one of her English assignments. She was required to write a Marxist-Feminist analysis of Emma. I included it because I found it enjoyable, and I am a proud mother and also the concept of a Marxist-Feminist reading of Austen is a hoot! But perhaps don't read on if you haven't yet read Emma, as there might be a bit too much information in it. I'm not sure it really includes spoilers as such. My contribution now over, I do hope someone is inspired to give Jane Austen a try!
Equality and Inequality between Emma’s Romantic Leads: A Marxist-Feminist Analysis
The relationship between Emma and Mr Knightley, in Jane Austen’s Emma, is as endearing to the Marxist-feminist reader as it is to the Austen-loving romantic. The two characters, perhaps unusually for their time, are equal in many respects, such as verbal intelligence and social power. The chief inequality between them is one of morality, and this stems not from gender or material circumstance, but age.
Emma and Mr Knightley's relationship, in general, is one of mutual respect and affection. Knightley is “a very old and intimate friend of the family...the elder brother of Isabella's husband” (Austen, Emma 8). This suggests that he and Emma have a warm, sibling-like relationship. And since he has a “cheerful manner” (9) and she a “happy disposition” (5), it comes as no surprise that they like to tease each other: “Mr Knightley loves to find fault with me you know—in joke—it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another” (9). It is significant that, in a story where conversation is so important, Emma and Knightley have a comfortable, bantering relationship—as is demonstrated, for example, during their first scene together (9-12), the Coles' party (167-8), and when discussing Emma's childhood (362-3). Emma can also hold her own in an argument against Knightley; when they disagree about Harriet (48-53), it is Knightley who gives up (albeit out of anger), and although “she [does] not always feel...entirely convinced that her opinions [are] right” (53), Emma makes a reasonable case for her actions. In verbal intelligence, therefore, Emma and Knightley are equal, and this is emphasised by their sibling-like relationship.
A primary theme in Emma is marriage. Significantly, Emma, unlike the novel’s other female characters, “does not need to marry” (Pinch, Introduction ix). In her own words: “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature” (68). When Emma does marry, it is because her mind has changed, not her circumstances; she marries purely because she wants to. The same can be said of Knightley, who “sacrifice[es] a great deal of independence” (353) in giving up his home for her. Regarding courtship and marriage, then, the power dynamic between the two is, on the whole, equal.
Another important theme is Emma's moral development, which is strongly influenced by her relationship with Mr Knightley. As part of “the town's traditional elite” (Pinch, Introduction xiv), Emma and Knightley have fairly equal material and social power. Knightley is not dependent on his father, but then, Emma's “privileged social position” allows her to view “[t]he hard facts of economic life...with complaisance” (Pinch, Introduction viii). However, unlike Knightley, “Emma uses her wealth and position, her charm and her attractiveness—her real power—to coerce others” (Juhasz, Reading Austen Writing Emma), and “[she] blunders through the novel, misjudging the motives and best interests of one character after another.” (Craig, “The Value of a Good Income”: Money in Emma).
Emma is essentially a spoiled brat, “having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (Austen, Emma 5). Conversely, Knightley is “a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty” (8), so he “has the advantage of age, and thus perspective, a perspective both critical and rational, but also empathetic” (Jackson, The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values). This, in addition to their sibling-like relationship, gives Knightley the “privilege” (Austen, Emma 294) to hold Emma accountable for her actions. Knightley is “one of the few people who [can] see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever [tells] her of them” (9-10). While this “privilege” may be “endured rather than allowed” (294), “[Emma has] a sort of habitual respect for [Knightley's] judgement” (52). This is shown when Knightley challenges her behaviour towards Miss Bates (294-5), “which finally forces Emma to acknowledge her own folly and to grow as a human being” (Craig, “The Value of a Good Income”: Money in Emma): Emma deeply regrets having “exposed herself to such ill opinion in [someone] she value[s]” (Austen, Emma 296).
Knightley shows Emma respect by confronting her about her behaviour instead of condemning her behind her back. He “loves the person who is both beautiful and not” (Juhasz, Reading Austen Writing Emma). As he says: “This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,— I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by faithful counsel” (295). And Emma admits that she “was very often influenced rightly by [him]” (363). However, she usually feels free to question his judgement or ignore his advice—regarding Harriet, for example (54)—and although this never turns out well, it shows that she considers him a trusted advisor, but does not permit him to have absolute power over her.
The theme of moral development is linked to that of marriage, as many of Emma’s mistakes revolve around love, marriage, and motivation. Juhasz (Reading Austen Writing Emma) writes:
If Emma began her novel self-absorbed to a fault...thereby abusing [her social power], she needs to be able to use that power responsibly. To do that she needs to be able to feel as well as think, and to let the actuality of others’...subjectivity, affect her, rather than...inventing them as creatures who can do her bidding. Falling in love, for the Emma who says she never will, is precisely an experience of vulnerability to another which will allow for this kind of maturation. It is of course her very own true love who says, “‘I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good’” (41).
So, although Emma and Knightley are equal in many things, they are unequal in moral development—an inequality caused not by gender, or lack of social power on either side, but by age and differing levels of experience. But since it is alleviated by mutual respect, lessened by the end of the novel, and will likely continue to diminish as Emma ages, it is an inequality that is not intrinsic to the relationship, but eradicated by it.
Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Craig, Sheryl. “‘The Value of a Good Income’: Money in Emma.” Persuasions On-Line 22.1 (2001): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.
Jackson, Karin. “The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values.” Persuasions On- Line 21.2 (2000): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.
Juhasz, Suzanne. “Reading Austen Writing Emma.” Persuasions On-Line 21.1 (2000): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.
Pinch, Adela. Introduction. Emma. By Jane Austen. Ed. James Kinsley. Oxford UP, 2008. vii-xxix. Print. Oxford World’s Classics.
—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas.