Positively Austen

Music: REM – Accelerate

This past week my electricity has been on and off. An army of emergency roadwork-men and their torture instruments have rendered my bedroom (at the front of the house with poorly-fitted windows) a place of misery and headaches. And I’ve lost so many documents halfway through the creation, between power surges, bah.

This afternoon the electricity has, however, steadied itself, so I’ve caught up on a few things.

So have I used my internet-deprived time wisely? Well, I read Emma (1815). And P&P has been supplanted from its post of L’s Favourite Austen.

Firstly, a quick summary.

Twenty-one-year-old Emma Woodhouse, rich, clever and beautiful, is Highbury’s most successful matchmaker…whose conspiracies accidentally ruin the prospects of all those round her, and eventually her own.

2009 BBC serial adaptation starring Romola Garai - "Oohoo, my evil matchmaking plot is going to plan!"

2009 BBC serial adaptation starring Romola Garai – “Oohoo, my evil matchmaking plot is going to plan!”

The long version:

  • Harriet Smith falls in love three times in a single year;
  • pompous vicar Mr Elton and his vulgar wife cannot find anything to say that could possibly entertain Miss Woodhouse;
  • old Mr Woodhouse remarks upon the wholesome nature of gruel;
  • Mr John Knightley disdains all that threatens his independence;
  • Mrs Isabella Knightley talks of Dr Wingfield, and her father Mr Woodhouse of Dr Perry;
  • Perry’s children steal the cake;
  • Mr Weston is too hospitable, and his wife too commending of Emma;
  • Emma flirts with Frank;
  • Frank gives Miss Fairfax five alphabet blocks spelling a name of some embarrassment;
  • Miss Fairfax remains ‘reserved’,
  • though her aunt Miss Bates expounds [at great, great length] upon her virtues every Wednesday;
  • Emma insults Miss Bates;
  • Mr Knightley scolds Emma;
  • and Emma finally realises that if anyone marries Mr Knightley, then it must be herself—Mr Knightley, her lifelong friend, confidante, the only one to point out her faults, whom she has taken for granted all her life, who has loved her eight years, but never kissed her hand.
2009 BBC serial adaptation starring Romola Garai - excursion to Box Hill

excursion to Box Hill, with all the main cast

Some are quick to note that Emma Woodhouse is an anomaly amongst Austen’s other heroines. Her financial circumstances are already advantageous, and she does not mean to marry. Though she promotes matches, and advocates the feelings of all her acquaintances, she does not know her own!

Emma and the exciting Frank Churchill

Emma and the exciting Frank Churchill

Nevertheless, in my opinion Emma is Austen at her most romantic. Not because Emma calls herself a matchmaker, but because the novel is her journey to discovering that she is in love, and he has been waiting for her all that time. In the ups and downs of their relationship, he is always right, and she wrong. His influence over her is the most beautiful thing—for he is the only one whose candid opinion Emma admits, however unpleasant. They know one another so well they’ll fit easily into conjugal routine—whereas even Lizzy and Darcy have only known one another a year.

C'mon, I couldn't leave this out.

C’mon, I couldn’t leave this out.

P&P is the ultimate happily-ever-after love story, and Darcy the ‘babe’ of ‘babes’ (due in some part, I confess, to Colin Firth in a wet shirt).

Personally I don’t feel that Elizabeth suffers enough. Her pride is wounded, eventually her love—but her interminable wit is her buoy in a roiling sea. Emma’s active presumption carves her misfortunes; she deals with guilt. Elizabeth is surrounded by people who have far more to regret than she! Emma is an anti-heroine (as, in effect, most of us are), but Knightley’s devotion is oddly more justified than any of Austen’s other heroes’–why, in the last pages of Northanger Abbey it’s admitted that Henry Tilney loves Catherine Morland out of gratitude! What if that were a universal rule?

"Abominable flirting! I want to dance with Emma!"

“Abominable flirting! I want to dance with Emma!”

P&P wouldn’t even rival Emma were it not more tightly written (80k as opposed to 120k), and lacking the incontestable Miss Bates and Mr Woodhouse (I feel like screaming every time he mentions his gruel. No censure of John Knightley for voicing his frustration).

Persuasion is another rival of the time-assured P&P. It is Austen’s latest, and her characters comparatively ‘aged’ (Catherine is fifteen, roughly half the age of Anne Elliot). When I said that Elizabeth has not suffered enough, she has not half the suffering of poor Anne. ANNE IS STILL IN LOVE WITH CAPTAIN WENTWORTH, eight years after she rejected him. But she is gracious enough to suppress it, for his sake. The world needs more books about rejection. (Plus it’s so cool to think rejection is the only power women of that era had. Hence tragic that Anne was manipulated into it, and the Captain won’t humble himself a second time.)

Sally Hawkins looking tragic as Anne Elliot in the 2007 adaptation

Sally Hawkins looking tragic as Anne Elliot in the 2007 adaptation

Both film adaptations of Persuasion I find excellent. Equally heart-wrenching are the looks between Anne and Wentworth—in love, in denial, each in ignorance of the other’s devotion. It reads like a dream, for that’s what it is.

Another awesome thing about Emma is that there’s no direct antagonist. Emma’s demon conceit wreaks havoc, but she’s so HUMAN…I, at least, recognise her desire to manipulate people’s lives for her own amusement and triumph, though she may disguise it as genuine philanthropy. You can excuse her for wanting something to do with her life: single, childless, with an old father and an empty house, besides the societal pressures of being a woman at that time, Emma frankly has nothing better to do.

Mrs Elton and her 'caro sposo, Mister E', bleurgh *throws slimeballs*

Mrs Elton and her ‘caro sposo, Mister E’, bleurgh *throws slimeballs*

Anyway, there aren’t any Willoughbys and Wickhams with questionable motives: just a small town of multi-dimensional people who make their own suffering, not usually out of spite (the Eltons’ motives could be debated, but I find them more droll than malicious).

Finally the word play. Austen is famous for her way of twisting words to mock human and societal folly. Many people read her books solely for that purpose-

I was going to cite a few examples and analyse them and extol their wit, but I wrote this post in September and can’t remember where on earth my thought-chain was going. Perhaps I’ll finish that paragraph when I next read Austen. Sorry for any inconvenience caused, and for the abrupt(!) manner of ending. Perhaps it will amuse you.

"Hey, I didn't even know Mr Knightley could dance!" - the best of the Austen dances, hands down

“Hey, I didn’t even know Mr Knightley could dance!” – the best of the Austen dances, hands down

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Positively Austen

  1. “Emma is Austen at her most romantic.” Agreed. For the same reasons you’ve given. 🙂 Knightley is a great deal nicer than Darcy as well – and, dare I say it? sensitive to those around his world.
    Personally, I’m rather taken with the 1996 film version, starring Mark Strong (let it never be said that he only plays bad guys!) and the wonderful Kate Beckinsale (you might recall that she played Alice in my much favoured Through the Looking Glass).

    • Yes! Knightley has ‘solicitude’, Austen would say 😉
      I didn’t know there was a film! I’ll put it on my birthday list (the more adaptations, the better). I knew there was a 1995 serial, which was so awful I couldn’t finish episode one.

  2. For a long time, Emma was my favorite Austen. With age, I’ve started to identify more with Anne, and so Persuasion is now my favorite. I thought Sally Hawkins was a great Anne, but the running scene at the end was a little too much for me. I prefer the earlier version with Amanda Root, not that the bizarre kiss was any better than all the running in the later version!

    • I’m sixteen, but to be honest I identify with Anne more than the younger ones. All the contradictions and drawn-out-ness of Anne’s thoughts (the introversion and emotional repression, I suppose) resonates with my experience rather better than parties and attention!
      I loved Amanda Root as well – thus far it’s the only Austen of which I really like more than one adaptation. They’re done very differently, too – the 2007 one has a lot of tragic diary-writing and staring-directly-into-camera. Accepting that they’re both equally good, the main swayer towards the 2007 one would be Rupert Penry-Jones’ beautiful eyes 😉

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