George Justice, Editor

Another Emma

Emma; or, The Unfortunate Attachment: A Sentimental Novel

By Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
Edited by Jonathan David Gross.
State University of New York Press, 2004. xiv + 322 pages.
2 B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $65.50. Paperback. $21.95.

Reviewed by Patricia Meyer Spacks.

This Emma presents an eponymous heroine with a controlling father and no living mother, as well as a naval officer named Wentworth. Only such fragile links connect the 1773 work with Austen’s novels. The duchess’ version of Emma, issuing from a literary universe and a literary sensibility far different from Austen’s, in fact exemplifies one kind of fiction Austen reacted against.

Emma Egerton, lovely daughter of a reputedly rich man, charms everyone by her artlessness and her beauty. Although she attracts the highly eligible William Walpole, she loves Augustus Sidney, who has been reared with her after his father’s untimely death. Sidney depends financially on his pay as a military officer. For this reason alone, Emma’s father forbids the marriage and demands that she marry Walpole and avoid telling him of her previous attachment, although she begs permission to reveal it.

Any experienced reader of 18th-Century fiction can predict the rest, especially given the revealing subtitle, “A Sentimental Novel.” Walpole, obsessed with female “delicacy,” can’t tolerate the idea that any woman who interests him has ever felt attracted to another man. Emma, an exemplary daughter, turns into a conduct book wife, altogether compliant. When Sidney dies fighting in Russia, however, leaving what little money he has to Emma, her husband, scenting a previous attachment, abandons her and their infant daughter, involving himself in amorous scandal and ruining himself financially with drink and gambling. Emma, after making various sacrifices on his behalf, pines away until doctors declare her about to die. Her husband rushes to her side and orders her to live. Ever obedient, she complies. A huge unexpected inheritance rescues the couple from financial difficulties; Emma bears a son; everyone presumably lives happily ever after. Around the edges of this fairly preposterous plot, Emma’s friends pursue their own romantic careers, with all satisfactorily paired off by the end.

Emma Egerton does not resemble Emma Woodhouse. She is “handsome,” to be sure, but neither clever (although asserted to possess many “accomplishments”) nor, as it turns out, rich. She has much to vex her, and she seems to thrive on the vexation that enables her to demonstrate her goodness. Far exceeding Marianne Dashwood in sensibility, she, unlike Marianne, inhabits a society that consistently understands sensibility as praiseworthy. Emma’s father, rather perversely approving of the extreme grief she manifests when deprived by him of all hope of marrying Sidney, assures her that only feeling produces virtue, and her subsequent career supports the point. Even the most spirited young woman in the novel, Emma’s friend Kitty, clearly modeled on Anna Howe (from Clarissa), manifests extravagant sensibility when circumstance invites it.

From her juvenilia through Sanditon, Austen consistently mocked the tradition that glorified extreme emotional responsiveness. Her heroines may have emotional outbursts, but even Marianne, the most self-indulgent of them, declares herself finally committed to rationality. Austen, however, did not depend solely on her heroines’ viewpoints for critical perspective. No Austen novel after Lady Susan relied in its final form on the epistolary mode, and Emma; or, The Unfortunate Attachment hints why. When imaginary letters construct a fiction, only the voices of characters can speak to the reader. The best epistolary novels—for instance, Samuel Richardson’s three—represent characters whose complexities and vacillations make them capable of unexpected, complicated, illuminating responses. The 18th-Century Emma, imagining its characters in relatively crude terms, provides few surprises. Its letters offer simplistic moralistic judgments or sentimental reactions. The novel’s characters are as predictable as its plot.

Austen’s mature reliance on a judicious, witty, slightly acerbic narrator enables the moral clarity missing from the “sentimental novel” version of Emma. The serious achievements of sentimental fiction—celebration of the sympathetic ties among human beings, acknowledgment of the pleasures of emotional self-expression—seem thin in comparison to the subtle responses solicited by Austen’s novels, although mildly appealing. Emma may soothe us like a tepid bath—but leave us longing for a bracing shower.

Jonathan David Gross, the novel’s current editor, provides a long, careful introduction. He accepts the attribution of authorship to the Duchess of Devonshire, a glamorous society figure who would have been 16 at the novel’s publication. Such attribution adds interest to the text, suggesting, as Gross points out, that the novel’s portrayal of a troubled marriage reflects premarital anxieties of a girl who would, less than a year later, marry a duke. Gross claims Emma as an accomplished work of fiction and offers a detailed biographical account of its putative author. He records textual variants, provides copious explanatory notes, and supplies an appendix with examples of the duchess’s poetry.

Scholars of the period must applaud the re-publication of any 18th-Century novel. For lovers of Jane Austen, though, this “new” Emma will supply little direct information about Austen’s relation to her predecessors. It reminds us, rather, of how dramatically her fiction transformed the conventions established by novels written only a little earlier.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is completing a new history of the 18th-Century English novel. 

JASNA News v.21, no. 1, Spring 2005, p. 18

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