I would like to begin by saying unequivocally, yes: I believe Emma is Austen at her peakand spend the rest of my time explaining why. The why has to do with the experience that all of us share, no matter what else we do or who we are in the rest of our lives, when we arent being, as I know we here are, passionate readers. I am talking about reading Emma, and what happens during that process that makes it such a "peak" experience for so many of us. Of course I know that we are also different from one another, and that our panorama of differences influences what we see and understand as we readanything. Still, Id like to suggest this afternoon that the power of Austen herself, the author in the text of the book we are reading, guides even as it delights us so as to evoke some importantly similar reactions, responses, understandings. For we experience her in the book even as we encounter the characters and plots; and ultimately, it is this relationship with her, this figure or presence who I am calling “Austen writing,” an Austen who after all manifests herself by way of her words, who makes this particular novel of hers, Emma, so grand.
In an earlier book, Reading From the Heart: Women, Romance, and the Search for True Love, I presented an idea about the author-in-the-text functioning as a kind of maternal presence, an author-mother to both her main character, the heroine, and her reader. I imagined the reader as a desiring daughter, going to the book to find recognition, nurture, a sense of who she is and how she might be in the world: things that mothers hopefully but not always provide for us when we are little. I said that even as the author guides her heroine through a process in which she can attain, at the end, a sense of self and a mature identity, so the reader, too, can participate in such potential development. These ideas influence todays discussion of Emma.
In my book I used Pride and Prejudice as my example from Austenwho, after all, is the greatest romance writer of them all, a fact well known by Austen readers if not all Austen scholars. In its bright and sparkly way Pride and Prejudice is a superlative romance and an excellent example of how a heroine, initially “unrecognized” by either of her parents, busily projecting a false self to protect her from the hurt of authentic connection to another person, goes through a process that results in the achievement of both love and identity at the novels end. Elizabeth Bennett, because she is intelligent, witty, charming, good-hearted, and beautiful, may be Austens best-of-all romance heroine, but Pride and Prejudice is not Austens greatest novel. No, because Emma Woodhouse really is a heroine who, as Austen said, nobody but herself would much likefor what are really good reasons. Consequently, Austens writerly and motherly achievements with Emma and her readers are proportionately more difficult, and ultimately, more wonderfulboth as literary acts and, because they are significantly related, as emotional/psychological accomplishments. She helps Emma to recognize the distinct subjectivities of other people, and since they are not her own self, after all, to form genuine connections with them. She enables us finally to identify with Emma: not only for those qualities that are admirable, but for those failings that she, and we, possess and might overcome. As a consequence of our engagement with Austen and her book, we can change as well. She accomplishes these things by way of a writing style that, because it combines separateness and care, acts linguistically as a good mother might with her child.
Emmas condition, what makes her difficult to like, and to identify with, and her daughterly situation are in fact related to one another.1 Emmas condition is actually an exaggeration of Elizabeths: in place of an absent mother, she has a dead one; in place of an intellectual father, whose wit enables him to withdraw from the world and his responsibility in it, she has a parent so self-involved that he cannot imagine there is a world in which his desires and opinions are not the determining factor. Each girl is the chosen object of her father, which makes her feel at once special and complicit in his world-view. But there is no real nurture, no real recognition of her own self, to be had. A narcissistically-disturbed parent like these fathers requires a child who will give back what he wants to see, and both girls have done so, hiding the “true self” of feeling and need to perform the “false self” who can get love as this parent understands it.
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with very little to distress or vex her. Whats not to like? Yet on the very same page appear these words from Austen in describing her heroine: “evils”; “alloy”; “danger”(5). They are positioned against an equally important word, “power.” Austen, we know, is not careless with her language. Unlike Elizabeth Bennett, also handsome and clever, Emma Woodhouse is rich. She has as well high social position: she is “first in consequence”(7). She is in possession of real social power. But because she also possesses the power of having rather too much her own way coupled with a disposition to think a little too well of herself, she is in a position to do harm as well as goodto others as well as herself.
What is a smart girl to do with herself in an age where she cannot go to college, enter a profession? What is a girl who, unbeknownst to herself, is so in need of a caring love that will call into play her own resources of deep feeling, connection and responsibility, to do when she has forced this part of herself into deep hiding? Emmas answer to both issues (they are not that separate) is to find others who will both admire her (she needs to feel that she is there) and do her work of feeling in the world: “I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall” (84). Emmas answer as the novel opens, match-making, is not cute and not funny, despite this characterization of Gynneth Paltrow in the popular press. At the start of her novel, Emma uses her wealth and position, her charm and her attractivenessher real powerto coerce others into acting on her behalf, just like her father before her: and as her reader, I find her behavior both embarrassing and a little scary, especially as it concerns Harriet Smith. I find it very hard, indeed, to like her.
Emma, you remember, believes that it is she who has found a husband for her governess and number-one-fan, Miss Taylor, although as her old friend Mr. Knightley points out, “you made a lucky guess; and that is all that can be said.” Yet Emma, fired up with a sense of accomplishment (what else exactly has she accomplished of late?), along with her sadness at the loss of the now-Mrs. Weston, as well as with a certain competitiveness with Mr. Knightley, vows to try again, this time with the new clergyman, Mr. Elton. She chooses for his wife-to-be Harriet Smith, “the natural daughter of somebody”(22). Harriet helps fill in the gap left by the loss of Mrs. Weston, for Emma needs both company and admiration. Harriet is the perfect object for Emma; precisely because she is “not remarkably clever” but deferent and obliging: “She would notice her, she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would inform her opinion and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers”(23-24). No matter that Harriet is already in love, with a young farmer named Robert Martin: Emma sails in to, in effect, create Harriet, a Harriet who could be the wife of someone whose social standing is much higher than her own: a Harriet who could in fact serve as a stand-in for herself, in the matter of love and romance. That this happens literally is a bit more than she had bargained for!
In the course of the first episode of the novel, as Emma throws Harriet at Mr. Elton and Mr. Elton throws himself at Emma, Emma uses her vigorous imagination for seeing what she wants to see and redefining what she does see. Austen makes these scenes at once funny and unnerving, and it is the combination of these qualities that is our first experience of what she may be up to with the character, and with us, her readers. There is no way that we cannot laugh when Elton, wanting to flatter Emma, asks her to paint Harriets portrait, and Emma reads this gesture as his attempt to admire Harriet. Elton is foolish, Emma is oblivious, and Harriet is duped. Yet it is Mr. Knightley who says, “You have made her too tall, Emma.” “Emma knew that she had, but would not own it”(48). Indeed, it is Mr. Knightley who warns Emma, and the reader, of the real dangers in this charade. For Emma also uses her powers to convince Harriet to reject Robert Martins proposal, and to convince herself that she has done exactly the right thing. “You have been no friend to Harriet Smith,” Mr. Knightley tells Emma, making her feel “uncomfortable and wanting him very much to be gone”(63, 65).
I, too, am feeling extremely uncomfortable when Emma talks Harriet out of Robert and into Elton. Her tactics are so coercive that I find myself appalled. “Not for all the world, said Emma, smiling graciously, ‘would I advise you either way. You must be the best judge of your own happiness. If you prefer Mr. Martin to every other person; if you think him the most agreeable man you have ever been in company with, why should you hesitate? You blush, Harriet.Does anybody else occur to you at this moment under such a definition?”(53). And yet at the same time these scenes are so clever that I find myself admiringsomething, somebody. That somebody isnt Emma. And it certainly isnt Harriet. It must be Austen who is making this experience of power wrongly employed as fascinating as it is frightening. I take a certain pleasure in discovering, for example, that I begin to suspect, even if Emma doesnt, that Elton is wooing her, as he warmly adds, “Oh no! Certainly not too tall. Not in the least too tall”(48); and how account for those feelings when I have the heebie geebies at the same time? What is going on here?
Because I have read the book, I know that Emma gets better, so that now I can look at this opening sequence, culminating in Mr. Eltons drunken pawing at Emma in the carriagefrom the perspective of appreciating that Emma has to begin here in order to get thereto her happy ending. But what about me, the reader? Why do I have to experience this confusion of conflicting feelingspleasure and distress, interest and aversion?
For two reasons. The first is that Emmas own cleverness and charmno matter that they are deployed to such unfortunate endskeep me from deciding that I simply hate her and must close the book. The second is that the writing of Emma thinking bespeaks the presence of someone else in the text, someone who does understands what is happening, so that I am not really trapped in the solipsism of a mind at odds with externality. Here is an example:
Here Austens words contrast Emmas impression of Harriet“a very sweet mixture of youthful expression”with what Harriet is really thinking“afraid of not keeping her attitude and countenance,” even as Emmas giving Mr. Elton credit for “stationing himself where he might gaze and gaze again” is juxtaposed against her distaste at his fidgeting and watching her every touch. Austen is there, a presence who is writing Emma and a world outside her, even if Emma cannot quite see that world. Austen reassures me with her presence, as a mother would who comes into the night time bedroom and says, “there, there, darling: that witch you saw in the corner is really your bathrobe hanging on the back of the door.” Now, there is excitement and even delight in imaging the witch; we do admire Emma because she has the mind, the imagination, and yes, the skill to create others as she would have them be; but at the same time, an inner world without boundaries is destabilizing, frightening, and lonely. The mother is offering not so much the castor oil dose of common sense as she is saying to me, “I am here, too: I am both what is outside you and someone who can understand what is inside you: I love you and you are not alone.”
But you say, there is someone in the book who loves Emma in just that way: Mr. Knightley. Of course there is, because for all that Emma is made up of words and needs words from her author-mother to offer her, at the start of her novel, a facilitating environment, so she is a character in a novel which comprises a world its own. Stuart Tave once said about Mr. Knightley that his imagination caused him “not to build a private world of his own feelings but to turn himself outward to a delicate understanding of what lies beyond himself, in the feelings of others”(235). Some might call this process empathy, something at which good mothers are particularly good. Mr. Knightley can do this towards Emma, as well as others, so that he does indeed recognize her weaknesses and loves the person who is both beautiful and not. Mr. Knightley becomes a kind of mother-in-the-text for Emma, so that her relationship with him in fact replicates the process of development that she never had, the first time around. In the first stage of the novel it is Mr. Knightley who uses the word “harm” when talking to Mrs. Weston about Emmas intimacy with Harriet Smith, in the same scene where he so famously says, “There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma . . . . It would not be a bad thing for Emma to be in love with a proper object”(40-41).
If her conversations with Mr. Knightley make available to her the presence of a maternal figure who both stands outside her and yet sees within her, something that no other character in the novel will do for her, she herself is left with the consequences of her actions. Emmas “meditations”they occur at crucial moments in her developmentshow how her potential for introspectionthat is, the strong intelligence that is one of her best thingscan not only reflect on what she has learned but help her in the slow process of confronting externality, at least (for now) in her own mind. The proof of the puddingbut it will take her the whole book to get thereis to engage in an appreciative and responsible way with others in the outside world, as well. This would be power, indeed.
But what has her meditation to do with me? As I experience Austen writing Emma, changes happen to me, as well. When Emma “sit[s] down to think and be miserable”(134), she realizes immediately that her own pain and humiliation is little compared to the evil that her errors have brought to Harriet. So far, very good. And yet, as she attempts to figure out how it all came about, she finds as much “confusion” as clarity, for she defends herself with equal energy as she chastises herself. “She looked back as well as she could; but it was all confusion. She had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made everything bend to it. His manners, however, must have been unmarked, wavering, dubious, or she could not have been so misled“(134). She confronts the wrongness of her match-making role, understanding it as “adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple”(137). But whereas she can now see the foolishness of talking Harriet into Elton, she cannot comprehend the real evil, which was talking her out of Mr. Martin: “[t]hat was well done of me“(137).
By morning Emmas gloom has lifted. Her solution to the whole debacle is, finally, be more like Harriet: “It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple minded and ignorant,” she acknowledges: “but she left her with every previous resolution confirmed of being humble and discreet, and repressing imagination all the rest of her life“(142).
Austens brilliance in representing Emmas processes of introspection gives me a little faith in Emma and a lot more in Austen. If Emma had seen the error of her ways and gone out a new and perfect person, I would have been left high and dry from such an idealized characterization of the heroine. But to see how such a change, such a development, is indeed a very slow process and how Austens humor is not so much at Emmas expense as on her behalf, a kind of teasing, really, makes me think for the first time that I, too, might share some of these same problemsand that if I did, it wouldnt be so very bad. My earlier sense of distance from Emma is replaced by more sympathy now, even a little empathy, especially because I can see what Austen is doing for and with her. Emmas decision on behalf of humbleness, discretion, and the repression of imagination is, for example, lovingly tongue-in-cheek on Austens part. Of course Emma wont, and cant, and we wouldnt want her to do this; and of course she is simply hasty and misguided. But her knowledge that something must change is real, and thats enough, for now. Especially because she is clearly in the hands, as it were, of her author; and so, I am happy to report, am I.
I have devoted such close attention to the opening movement of the novel because the process that I wish to describe occurs by means of this kind of detail. When youre reading along, you arent analyzing this waynot at all; but what is happening to you does take place in the minute-to-minute dynamic of information and response. You are responding to the words, and how the words create not only character and scene but a relationship with the author. With the time left to me I will sketch out the rest of the processthe movement toward the happy ending, Emmas and mine. (Then you can go back and read it yet one more time, to see if any of this makes sense for you!)
What makes it a happy ending, anyway? Yes there is a wedding; yes, there is true love. The ending is not ironic to me, because I think that these social and emotional situations invoke a psychological, intellectual, and even moral development that is articulated by way of cultural activities. If Emma began her novel self-absorbed to a fault (what I am calling with a psychoanalytic vocabulary narcissistically disturbed), thereby abusing the power granted to her by way of class and social position, she needs to be able to use that power responsibly. To do that she needs to be able to feel as well as think, and to let the actuality of others reality, or subjectivity, affect her, rather than closing herself off from it by inventing them as creatures who can do her bidding. Falling in love, for the Emma who says she never will, is precisely an experience of vulnerability to another which will allow for this kind of maturation. It is of course her very own true love who says, “I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good”(41).
Consequently, the rest of the novel, in two more nearly simultaneous movements, which I will label 1) Frank Churchill and 2) Mr. Knightley, revolve around Emma being in love: falsely and truly. Frank Churchill is a greater narcissist than Emma: not only does he manipulate others to take part in his plot, but he is far less kind in doing so. Emma tries to write a plot for him. He will make a good lover, she thinks, precisely because, having imagined him, she will be safe, and in control (these are the same to her) in such a love affair: “My idea of him is, that he can adapt his conversation to the taste of every body, and has the power as well as the wish of being universally agreeable.” To which Mr. Knightley famously and “warmly” replies, “And mine is, that if he turn out anything like that, he will be the most insufferable fellow breathing!”(150). But Frank needs to use Emma on his own behalf: as a beard, a cover, to protect his secret romance with Jane Fairfax. The cover-ups and double-crosses that make Emma one of the worlds best mystery stories have to do with Emmas needand oursto see through all the subterfuge: to seepace postmodernismthat there is more to the world than an interlocking series of narcissistic plots, each determined by the perspective of the imaginist. Emma is the Nancy Drew of romance fiction, with the mystery story format serving as an objective correlative for her internal struggle towards self-development.
At the same time (Mr. Knightleys “warmly” is our clue) Emma and Mr. Knightley are moving into true love, which is to say, not that they were always in love all along but didnt know it, but that their own relationship is changing, in that Emma is coming to see him as a person existing outside of her imaginary sphere, and Mr. Knightley, who was always good at that, is responding, I think, to the changes in her, so that he sees her subjectivity differently. “Brother and sister! No, indeed”(328). The Emma-Mr. Knightley plot proceeds in counterpoint to the Emma-Frank Churchill plot. For Emma to get to the point where she can say, “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”(331), it takes a lot of sleuthing.
On our part, too. We, in tandem with Emma now, get to search for clues. Are you suspicious when Frank arrives back in Highbury? Emma is, a little, when Frank professes his interest in visiting his own country. “That he should never have been able to indulge so amiable a feeling before, passed suspiciously through Emmas brain: but still if it were a falsehood, it were a pleasant one, and pleasantly handled“(191). What do you think about Janes piano, Franks trip to London for a haircut, Janes visit to the post office? Highbury is rife with mysteries, and the degree to which you begin to guess that things are seldom what they seem has much to do with your own growing ability to detect guile, deceit, and more subtly yet, repressed feeling, whether deliberate or naive. The Mr. Elton charade was a warm-up. This is much harder, because Frank is a pro.
What helps is that I am now invested in Emma: now I do care for her, believe in her, and I can work with her as well as having to suss her out, too. Well, most of the time. The more I care for Emma, the more I take her mistakes as well as her successes to heart; the more I care for Mr. Knightley, the more I want them to, as we say to-day, get together. Sometimes I think that if I can figure out a clue, then I could help her along a little. “Emma, listen, when Frank, meeting you by chance on his way to the Bateses house, tells you hed forgotten how he promised Miss Bates the night before that he would come in the morning, you ought to wonder a little about his suddenly unreliable memory, as well as his showing up to visit Miss Bates rather than you at just this moment!”
Besides, Austen occasionally slips us information that she keeps from Emma. She writes an entire chapter from Mr. Knightleys point of view, in which we get to watch as Frank makes the mistake of telling Mr. Weston that he knows about Mr. Perrys setting up his carriage, when he couldnt have (unless someone in Highbury had told him so), and see Mr. Knightley observe Frank handing Jane the word sorry. Does Emma see the color that comes to Mr. Knightleys face as he is hard at work on the lower buttons of his thick leather gaiters, when she teases him about his own relationship to Jane Fairfax? In such ways the reader as well as the heroine participates in the slow but steady coming to awareness of the life out there, as interesting and valuable as anything that the imaginist has created inside her head.
(If youve read Emma more than once, which is probably the case for most of us in this room, then there is a different sort of pleasure, a different sort of learning to be had, because you have presumably been through the readerly process that Ive been describing, at least once. Now you can see on every page how the truth was there all the time. When Frank goes to London to have his hair cut, Emma feels that something is not quite right, but she pushes it away with one of her most preposterous pronouncements: “certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way”(212). But it is obvious to us that although he may indeed not be a sensible person, he went not for an haircut but a piano. When Jane makes such a fuss about getting her exercise by going to the post-office, we can tell that its not exercise but news from Frank that drives her out in foul weather. For now we are in cahoots with Austen herself and are given the opportunity to think along with her. We get to share her maternal point of viewtowards Emma and “The Mystery at Hartfield Hall”! In this way we can identify with her a little, and I would imagine that our identifications with Emma then slip into a different register. But that would be a topic for another paper!)
The real test, for the reader as well as for Emma, is not about Frank and Jane, nor is it about Emma and Mr. Knightley, though it leads directly to her being able to claim her love for him and get to the happy ending. I am referring to Box Hill and Emmas insult to Miss Bates. The act has been occasioned by the atmosphere of the whole event, where “there was . . . a principle of separation” at work, as opposed to a desired harmony(367). Emma now knows that she is behaving falsely, but to do so, after all, is still her familiar defense. And so, to Miss Batess “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shant I?,”, Emma responds, “Ah! Maam, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon mebut you will be limited to numberonly three at once”(370).
Whats the big deal here? Yes, she has insulted an old friend, but after all, its a momentary thing, and Miss Bates will forgive her. Mr. Knightley will not, however, and his words to her contrast the insolence of her wit with Miss Batess character, age, and situationall of which should rather secure Emmas compassion. Here the central issue of power is brought to the fore. Not to respect anothers subjectivity, to use another on ones own behalf, makes for “separation” rather than “harmony” or intimacy, but when one possesses social and economic power over that other, then the deed is as “brutal” and “cruel”to use Emmas own words of retrospectas she understands it to be. For Miss Bates has no recourse in the face of Emmas definition of her: she cannot assert her own reality. “Compassion,” on the other hand, means to care for another out of understanding: empathy, if you will.
You cannot oppress another if you truly understand that person as a subject and not an object. True, Emma is probably as upset about the event because she has angered Mr. Knightley as because she has hurt Miss Bates, but the two go together. Because she understands what she has done to Miss Bates, she can understand what she has done to Harriet; because she understands what she has done to Harriet, she can respond to Harriets own attempt to be an imaginist: to think of herself as a potential partner, not for Frank Churchill but for Mr. Knightley himselfwith her true feelings, no matter how entirely vulnerable, to hurt and abandonment, they leave her: “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”(408).
To be able to love is not simply about acknowledging that one loves; though for Emma, this is not simple at all, because to open herself to love demands an engagement with another that she has never really permitted herself. It is to recognize him as a person, someone with his own needs and desiressomeone put there on earth not only in order to help her. It is to engage in a relationship between two subjectivities. (Daughters need to do this with mothers, too.)
In their love scene there is a crucial moment when Mr. Knightley thinks that Emma is going to confide her love for Frank, which he does not want to hear, and Emma think that Mr. Knightley is going to confide his love for Harriet, which she does not want to hear. It is she, wishing to care for him and accept his confidences, who finally enables him to speak: “cost her what it would, she would listen”(429). Susan Morgan describes this moment as displaying “Emmas selfless and generous sympathy for Mr. Knightleys point of view at the very moment she is filled with misery for her own,” and she calls it “Emmas most imaginative act”(30). Here imagination achieves its true potential: not as the narcissistic fabricating that has caused Emma to invent lives for others, but as the force of empathy and recognition that permit her to interact with anothers reality. As the reader, I admit to finding this moment as difficult in its way as when she makes Harriet think that Robert Martin is not good enough, but for different reasons. Now I want to protect Emma and myself: I cringe from knowing that her manipulations may have so misfired that Harriet might actually be right in her believe that Mr. Knightley loves her back. “Dont ask,” I think; but also, “Well, how brave and good you are that you can!”
If when Emma insults Miss Bates I understand the evil, if when Emma asks Mr. Knightley to speak I understand the love, then I, too, have participated in a process towards self-development by way of empathy and recognition. I have identified with Emma enough to experience for myself her mistakes and her weaknesses along with her progress, for she never becomes a paradigm but only more of a person. I smile at the end when she says, “Oh, I always deserve the very best treatment, because I never put up with any other,” because she is still Emma, after all. And I applaud the conclusion to that sentence“and therefore, you must give me a plain, direct answer”because I see how the principle of sincerity and openness can guide people and communities towards maturity. For in the final pages of the novel Emma has worked to recognize others in the community as well: Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, Harriet, and even Frank, to whom she can say, “I think there is a little likeness between us”(478). Able to relate to others by way of their perceived similarities and differences, she begins at last to use power as a conduit rather than a cudgel.
Emma is Austen at her peak, for me, because the reading of it is so beneficially complex. I come to identify with Emmas process of finding a true self, achieved by way of her loving relationship with Mr. Knightley, as each becomes able to recognize and care for the distinct subjectivity of the other. A mutual recognition transpires between them, which I think is what happens as well between me and Austen, the author in the text. Even as she nurtures me throughout the reading process, with her words that offer both externality and concern, so I learn to recognize and appreciate her. From this way of relating, daughters and mothers of all kinds can experience both love and identity.
1 Wayne Booth thought that we must identify with Emma all along, but I disagreealthough I realized in writing this talk how much his work on "the dramatized author as friend and guide" has affected my readerly and critical consciousness for about thirty years now.