"Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity..."
Miss Austen Makes a Refusal

Jane Austen: Emma

There's a remark somewhere in Swift's writings to the effect that there is no quality that is a virtue in men that is not also a virtue in women. I seem to recall that he specifically mentions courage. And I think I recall, though this may be my own addition, that he says that the virtues may manifest themselves differently. Women, for instance, through most of history have not as often been called upon to show straightforward physical courage as men have. (Though Swift's Stella, the woman to whom he was peculiarly attached in a way that seems to have been not exactly not romantic, once fired a pistol at a would-be housebreaker.) I can't remember whether she hit him or not. But courage in one form or another has been required of them. To tell the truth, I've often been surprised that women are generally eager to marry, considering that sex most likely will lead to pregnancy and childbirth--pretty fearful prospects to me. I don't know whether this is courage or just the triumph of instinct over caution. 

Anyway, I thought of Swift's remark when reading Emma, because among other things it traces the growth of self-knowledge on the part of Emma, and that requires a kind of courage. She's pretty much a spoiled brat, as the opening may be taken to imply:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She believes she has a gift for managing other people's love lives, and when the exercise of that gift results in harm to the people she intended to help, she is obliged either to confront what she has done, and therefore her own failure, or to deny it. She is not culpably malicious or self-deceptive, and so she does confront these errors. In that she is assisted, or perhaps rather directed, by the blunt and commanding Mr. Knightley, a friend of the family--who, confirming my expectation when he first enters the scene, is wealthy, unmarried, and not too old. Knightley cares enough about Emma to want to see her flaws corrected; Emma respects him enough to listen. The denouement is every bit as surprising as that of Pride and Prejudice.

It is a very small world that Austen writes about, and the plot consists of small actions. Yet the essential virtues, vices, and conflicts of human life are fully present. That said, though, while I did very much enjoy reading this novel, it's pretty clear that Austen is not going to be one of my favorite novelists. Her world is just a little too small, the drama too subtle, to grip me in the way that, for instance, The Mill on the Floss does. Many pages consist of elaborate conversations and the aftermath of conversations in which minute shifts in personal relationships transpire and assume great importance. The phrase "novel of manners" is really quite accurately applicable: elaborate manners are the means by which relationships progress, succeeding or failing. As I often did in reading George Eliot recently, I found myself wondering whether anyone ever really talked in such lengthy and carefully artificed sentences. 

Here's a passage I marked, not so much because it illustrates the importance of manners in the novel, though it does, but because the significance of it initially escaped me. I had to re-read it and consider for a minute before the realization came. If you've read the book, you'll remember that Mrs. Elton is the rich, tacky, and somewhat malicious wife of the vicar. Mrs. Elton is talking to a young woman named Jane Fairfax, observed and partly overheard by Emma and a young gentleman, Frank Churchill:

...the voices of the ladies were drowned for a while, till another suspension brought Mrs. Elton's tones again distinctly forward.—Mr. Elton had just joined them, and his wife was exclaiming,

“Oh! you have found us out at last, have you, in our seclusion?—I was this moment telling Jane, I thought you would begin to be impatient for tidings of us.”

“Jane!”—repeated Frank Churchill, with a look of surprize and displeasure.—“That is easy—but Miss Fairfax does not disapprove it, I suppose.”

“How do you like Mrs. Elton?” said Emma in a whisper.

“Not at all.”

You may have been quicker than I to realize that Mrs. Elton's offense here is that she has taken a very questionable liberty in  using "Jane" instead of "Miss Fairfax." 


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About whether "anyone ever really talked in such lengthy and carefully artificed sentences". I found a collection of Jane Austen's letters (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42078/42078-h/42078-h.htm ), and she surely wrote that way in those -- here's how she begins a letter to her sister Cassandra:

"I shall be extremely anxious to hear the event of your ball, and shall hope to receive so long and minute an account of every particular that I shall be tired of reading it. Let me know how many, besides their fourteen selves and Mr. and Mrs. Wright, Michael will contrive to place about their coach, and how many of the gentlemen, musicians, and waiters he will have persuaded to come in their shooting-jackets. I hope John Lovett's accident will not prevent his attending the ball, as you will otherwise be obliged to dance with Mr. Tincton the whole evening. Let me know how J. Harwood deports himself without the Miss Biggs, and which of the Marys will carry the day with my brother James."

Maybe it's not a stretch that actual conversation was at least pretty close to that.

That doesn't reach the level of complexity that much of the conversation in the novel does, and after all it's still Austen writing, but I think it's safe to assume that the conversation of the real people Austen models her characters on was more complex than anything modern society can show.

I often felt that I was hearing a distant but recognizable ancestor of the way my grandparents, born in the late 19th c of families probably or at least possibly similar to those in Austen's world, talked. In particular I kept being struck by the use of "obliged." My paternal grandfather (b 1878) almost always said "much obliged" where "thank you" would be usual. His grandfather was a rough contemporary of Austen...or maybe it was his great-grandfather. My father didn't use it nearly as much, and now one hardly ever hears it. Or at least I don't.

Here's Knightley's chiding of Emma, about the latter's mocking of Miss Bates:

“I assure you she did. She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it—with what candour and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honouring your forbearance, in being able to pay her such attentions, as she was for ever receiving from yourself and your father, when her society must be so irksome.”

“Oh!” cried Emma, “I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.”

“They are blended,” said he, “I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—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 very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.”

I think I have heard "much obliged" most often from older black people.


"as often" rather than "most often" for me, but definitely more than from anybody under 70 or so.

There's a Fred Neil song that describes someone having "a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much obliged." I've wondered where that came from. I don't remember the name of the song so don't know if he wrote it or not.

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