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."