Wednesday, June 06, 2007

No Doormat

Emma, by Jane Austen, Read by Victoria Morgan, Recorded Books, LLC, 1987

The perfect Jane Austen female character seems to walk the not-so-fine line between doormat and busybody. When we seethe at them it is because they have traversed this line in one or the other direction. At times, you wish to prick Elinor Dashwood quite nastily, get her off her duff, while Mrs. Bennett we just want to slap the holy hell out of. While Anne Elliot can irk with her insufferable suffering in silence, Emma Woodhouse, in the book named for her, grates with her long long nose she insists on thrusting into everybody’s business.

Of course, for my money, busybodies make for far better comedy than doormats. There’s nothing too particularly enjoyable in the laughable situations that arise when one chucks one’s dignity rather than be unmannerly, but overriding one’s manners with blinkered self-approval is the stuff of which great farce is made.

The novel tells the pleasant story of a snooty young lady who devotes herself (in her eyes) to successful matchmaking. Having introduced her old governess Miss Taylor to Mr Weston and the two later marrying, Emma has convinced herself that other peoples’ happiness is her chief concern. She herself, she claims, will never marry, though one can easily spy out the soft spot in her heart for Mr George Knightley, her brother-in-law (and his for her).

Having lost one friend, Miss Taylor, to matrimony, Emma busies herself attempting to fix up every other available man and woman in the county and thrusting herself into the affairs of others. She is oblivious to this quality in herself, even if we the readers are not, and her dawning self-awareness is part of the novel’s particularly tasty humor. This choice bit of self-regard is given a delicious twist with the arrival of Augusta Elton, the monied new wife of one of Emma’s scorned suitors, Philip Elton. Augusta Elton too overrates her importance, but something on the scale of a thousand times more so than Emma, and the revulsion we feel for her gives our plucky heroine a jolt.

Of course, Emma soldiers on, for what are one’s doubts but mere negativity speaking, the province of lesser mortals? Believing early on her matchmaking to be infallible, Emma convinces her new acquaintance Harriet Smith, an illegitimate daughter of some well off tradesman, to spurn a suitor Emma believes is below her. Emma then goes about arranging and fixing and stage-managing any number of encounters and visitations with those eligible men she thinks will make the best match for Harriet, all the while ignoring the poor girl’s natural inclinations.

There is an element of Shakespeare’s comedies of errors in this novel, much as attends many, many single scenes in Austen’s work, as cross talk and dialogue misunderstood further muddy the waters of once navigable situations. Talk, specifically chatter, seems to make up more of the bulk of this novel than other Austen books I’ve read — the scatterbrained monologues of Miss Bates could nearly make up a novella within the novel. And again as in Shakespeare, it feels as though Austen’s characters truly learn about themselves, grow as fully formed characters through these speeches and dialogues.

She who grows the most, of course, is Emma herself, who is humbled from her perch of know-it-all, but not to such a degree that she flies to the other extreme. Emma is perhaps Austen’s most empowered character, most specifically in being financially well off enough that she lacks the sort of desperate necessity for marriage that twists the motivations of Austen’s other heroines. She also seems to stand alone like Elizabeth Bennett in never allowing herself to be talked down to or degraded by others around her.

What is interesting in the novel is the strength of Austen’s feminist argument (though one couched in terms of money and comfort to some degree). Consider Emma as she appears delivering this speech about spinsterhood:

Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross.

If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty. Woman’s usual occupations of eye and hand and mind will be as open to me then, as they are now; or with no important variation. If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music, I shall take to carpet-work. And as for objects of interest, objects for the affections, which is in truth the great point of inferiority, the want of which is really the great evil to be avoided in not marrying, I shall be very well off, with all the children of a sister I love so much, to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need. There will be enough for every hope and every fear; and though my attachment to none can equal that of a parent, it suits my ideas of comfort better than what is warmer and blinder. My nephews and nieces: I shall often have a niece with me.

One can easily imagine this speech striking rather closely toward the actual feelings of Jane Austen, herself never having married but keeping quite well occupied in novel writing (despite her novels always ending in marriage). One easily reads Emma’s comments here without irony especially in light of Austen’s noting prior to writing the book, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Perhaps true for the time, Austen’s critique hasn’t aged well. For all the pleasantries of Pride and Prejudice, I believe Emma just might have the claim on my heart for most spirited and enjoyable of Austen’s works.

Reader Victoria Morgan delightfully presents the text with just the slightest emendation of speech for differing characters. You couldn’t go so far as to call them differing voices per se, the effect is so subtle yet so distinct. Her characterizations are nowhere so much fun as the babbling brook that is Miss Bates, her paragraph long trains of thought/rambles, a chirrupy delight.

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