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The Master Manipulator: Jane Austen’s Use of Portrait Drawing in Emma

“‘Ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all.’” (Austen 26). In just a few words, Mr. Knightley perfectly articulates the position of Emma’s family and friends, who are mere puppets in her manipulative hands. Emma Woodhouse believes that, with a simple gesture, she can orchestrate the lives of those around her to match up with her storybook ideals. In response to this belief, the people around her play the roles she prepares for them, whether intentionally or not. Nearly everyone, from her indulgent father Mr. Woodhouse to her idolizing protégée Harriet, uniquely experiences the force of Emma’s command. Not only does Emma manipulate the actions of her friends and family, she also insists on manipulating the portraits she paints of them. As she “corrects” her subjects’ appearances with a sweep of the brush, so she tries to reproduce that change in the real world. To fully illustrate the power that Emma possesses, Austen draws a parallel between her heroine’s manipulation of individuals and her portraits of those individuals.

Mr. Woodhouse’s portraits symbolize the father’s resistance to his daughter’s attempts to manipulate him. He is evidently uncomfortable with the idea of being painted, for “‘the idea of sitting for his picture made him so nervous, that I [Emma] could only take him by stealth; neither of them very like therefore’” (44). This “nervousness” strongly illustrates Mr. Woodhouse’s lack of comfort, both at being painted and being manipulated. Perhaps he plays such a high-maintenance role to resist Emma’s charms. But he must fail, for Emma only appears to be led by her father’s wishes; in reality, she encourages them only to remind him of his dependence on her. Such phrases as “Mr. Woodhouse was to be talked into an acquiescence” (195), “‘you [Mr. Woodhouse] must promise me not to sit up’” (197), and “[Mr. Woodhouse] began to think it was to be, and that he could not prevent it—a very promising step of the mind on its way to resignation” (452) strongly indicate the power of the daughter over her father. Mr. Woodhouse might think that he is getting his own way with his hypochondriac complaints, but Emma knows better. She admits the power of her position to Harriet: “‘I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield’” (82). Despite his resistance to her manipulation, Emma forces Mr. Woodhouse to act in a way that plays to her role as mistress of Hartfield. Just as she approaches him “by stealth” to draw his portrait, she brilliantly wheedles him into a position where she has control. Emma overpowers her father in such a way that he no more knows that he is being manipulated than he knows that she attempts his portrait.

Emma’s portraits of Mrs. Weston are also linked to her manipulative powers, but they indicate a wholly different kind of manipulation than that experienced by Mr. Woodhouse. Emma describes her governess’s attitude towards posing for her portrait: “‘Mrs. Weston again, and again, and again, you see. Dear Mrs. Weston! always my kindest friend on every occasion. She would sit whenever I asked her’” (44). This willingness to “sit” is evidence of Mrs. Weston’s complete submission to Emma’s will. Instead of properly using her position of authority as governess to guide her pupil’s actions, she always bows to Emma’s every wish. Once again, Mr. Knightley is the voice of reason on this subject: “‘You [Mrs. Weston] might not give Emma such a complete education as your powers would seem to promise; but you were receiving a very good education from her, on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid’” (37; emphasis original). Despite the many years Mrs. Weston spent living at Hartfield, the only notable good she did Emma was providing her with a sensible companion, without which Emma feels rather lost—prior to the advent of Harriet Smith, at least. The narrator comments that Emma grew up “highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgement, but directed chiefly by her own” (7). It would seem Mrs. Weston has learned to accept Emma’s confidence in her own opinions and rejection of external advice. She plunges wholeheartedly into the sea of manipulation, symbolized by her willingness to be the subject of Emma’s portraits. She is constantly placing herself in subjection to Emma, letting her ostensible pupil depict and manipulate her however and whenever she fancies.

Another unique type of manipulation that Emma employs is applied to Mr. John Knightley. Emma describes the portrait of her brother-in-law as “‘a very good likeness,’” but “‘only too handsome—too flattering—but that was a fault on the right side’” (44). Emma seems to have a habit of depicting people not as they are, but as she would like them to be. The artist delights in misrepresenting her subjects, justifying herself with the thought of a more appealing portrait. In other words, Emma sacrifices realism in favor of idealism—and yet the finished product does not always evoke pleasure. Despite Emma’s attempts to please, Isabella criticizes her sister’s creation, saying “‘Yes, it was a little like—but to be sure, it did not do him justice’” (44). By relating the negative—if rather erroneous—reception of Mr. John Knightley’s portrait, Austen emphasizes the point that, at least in art, idealism will not produce honest praise. Emma’s attempts fail because she has sought to please by appealing to the taste for perfection rather than the taste for a responsible portrayal.

Not only does Mr. John Knightley’s portrait illustrate Emma’s desire to improve appearances, it also tells the reader that Emma does not hold power over his actions. The brother-in-law was apparently very unwilling to pose, as the family “‘had had a great deal of trouble in persuading [Mr. John Knightley] to sit at all’” (44). This statement indicates that Emma’s powers of manipulation are somewhat limited when it comes to Mr. John Knightley. When Emma tries to exercise power over his image on the canvas which she does not possess over his being, the result does not yield honest pleasure.

Harriet Smith’s portrait provides the best evidence for a connection between Emma’s artistic and manipulative powers. Hoping to produce a more appealing work of art, Emma consciously decides “to throw in a little improvement to the figure, to give a little more height, and considerably more elegance” (46). This type of artistic license coincides with that applied to Mr. John Knightley; Emma distorts reality to create her idealized version of the truth. One difference between these two deviations from reality, however, is that Emma is intent on reproducing her own image on Harriet, while she only hopes to make Mr. John Knightley better-looking than he really is. One scholar discusses Emma’s goal for Harriet’s portrait:

The portrait-painting scene in Emma reveals this refocusing of aesthetic interest from art product to artistic producer, from material artifact to living artist. Jameson argues that portraitists “stamp” their own likeness upon the portraits they paint, and Austen captures this aesthetic mood in the portrait-painting scene. Everything in the scene points back to Emma, the artist, rather than toward Harriet, the art object (Losano n.p.).

Emma’s decision to make Harriet resemble herself is rather odd, considering she is very pleased with her young friend’s looks at their first meeting. The reader is told that Harriet “‘was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness’” (23-24). The reader must wonder why, if Emma truly admires Harriet’s natural beauty, she feels the need to perfect it. There may be two reasons. Firstly, Emma probably feels that the majority of people would find a tall, elegant version of Harriet more attractive. Secondly, Emma seems unable to resist the desire of duplicating herself, however and through whomever she can. Thus, Harriet has been made the unhappy victim of an artist who—even if unconsciously— thinks more of herself than of her subject.

Unfortunately, Emma does not limit her creativity to the canvas but employs it in the transformation of Harriet: not only in her opinions, conversation, and expectations, but also in how she is represented in the public eye. Harriet, as “the natural daughter of somebody” (23), has very dim prospects of ever taking the giant step across social barriers, which would be absolutely necessary if she were to marry well. In drawing Harriet into good society, Emma hopes to close the gap between these barriers by forcing society to treat her young friend as a gentleman’s daughter. To accomplish this, she must prepare Harriet for upper-class society, so as to render her worthy of the title she would claim. Harriet’s pliable nature makes it very easy for Emma to form her as she wishes. Other characters in the novel also possess Harriet’s weak spirit, though they are subject to other masters. Austen scholar Susan J. Morgan brilliantly compares the personalities of Mr. Woodhouse, Isabella, and Harriet:

Emma generously grants tenderness to Isabella and Mr. Woodhouse as well as Harriet. These three are alike in their sweetness and their fluttering concern for others. Yet Mr. Woodhouse and Isabella are enslaved to their health and their doctors while Harriet is enslaved to her romantic fancies and to Emma. All three of them are simple, dependent, manipulable, unwittingly self-centered, and weak (Morgan 36).

This analysis explains why these three characters—particularly Harriet—are so easily manipulated. Emma immediately recognizes Harriet’s weakness and realizes that she can make what she likes of her young friend. Emma mentally outlines her goals at their first meeting: “She [Emma] would notice [Harriet]; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners” (24). Emma tells herself that Harriet has great potential, and assumes the role of guardian of Harriet’s character and prospects, neglecting her friend’s true feelings for the farmer Mr. Martin.

But Emma has overestimated the accepting attitude of society. Highbury cannot forget Harriet’s obscurity. In this case, Mr. Elton is representative of Highbury as a whole and their ultimate rejection of Harriet. He vehemently declares, “‘Every body has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!’” (125). The vicar says aloud—though perhaps in a ruder manner—what everyone else is thinking: that Harriet is not a gentleman’s daughter and even the patronage of Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield cannot make her one. Emma continues, however, in her resolve to cast aside Harriet’s true feelings, and manipulate her into something society will accept and recognize as being created by Emma.

Thus far, this discussion has focused on Emma’s portraits of her father, her governess, her brother-in-law, and her protégée Harriet, and the effects of Emma’s characteristic manipulation which they share. Emma has taken it upon herself to paint all of her close friends and family members—all but one, that is. Amidst all of these examples, there is one conspicuously absent portrait: that of Mr. Knightley. Emma has painted all of the other Knightleys known to her (despite their distance from her), but she has not chosen to paint her close friend and neighbor. Perhaps this is because she knows all too well that he would be displeased with any discrepancy (no matter how positive) between the portrait and the original. Mr. Knightley’s criticism of Emma’s portrait of Harriet enlightens the reader as to what his feelings would have been had Emma painted him erroneously: “‘You have made [Miss Smith] too tall, Emma’” (46). Compare this to Mrs. Weston’s more encouraging remark: “‘Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted’” (46). The sharp contrast between these two responses shows that Mr. Knightley, more than Mrs. Weston, values truth and accuracy in art. He would have been pleased had Harriet been properly duplicated, no matter what the consequences to her beauty. The Mr. Knightley portrait is nonexistent because Emma does not dare risk his censure by manipulating his appearance, and will not paint where she cannot improve. By leaving out this portrait, Austen gives expression to Emma’s opinion that art is not worth her time if it does not exhibit her idealistic tendencies.

The absence of Mr. Knightley’s portrait in Emma also represents Emma’s inability to manipulate his actions. Throughout the entire novel, his character is one of steadfast strength. Donwell Abbey, the home of Mr. Knightley, “was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was—and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility” (336). The first phrase in particular is a perfect characterization of Mr. Knightley: it honors his respect for realism and straightforwardness. Even Emma, the master manipulator, has no power over him. This is why his presence has a humbling impact on her, not creating inhibition (their heated arguments show that), but instead making her conscious of the consequences of her actions. One scholar noted: “Emma’s relationship to Mr. Knightley is always connected to the progress of her growth in self-knowledge; her reactions to his opinions of her actions help us gauge where she is in the process” (Morton n.p.). In other words, Mr. Knightley’s opinion is always foremost in Emma’s mind, but the level to which she is affected by it tells the reader how much she has matured. Despite his disgust of Emma’s manipulation (made obvious by his statement “You have been no friend to Harriet Smith, Emma” (61)), Mr. Knightley has more power over Emma than she has over her friends and family, and perhaps more power than even he realizes. Austen is making a comparison between two types of power: Emma’s, the manipulative, consciously active power against which one must either struggle or submit; and Mr. Knightley’s, the power which creates in one a desire to constantly improve one’s self. Austen is slowly revealing, over the course of the novel, that the latter type will always come out the victor. The words “influence” and “regard” (386) which Emma uses in relation to Mr. Knightley during her climactic self-reflection are characteristic of the type of power he possesses. His presence causes Emma to reevaluate herself due to her desire to stand in his good opinion.

In her novel, Austen emphasizes that the willingness, goals, and reception of Emma’s portraits symbolize the way she manipulates in the real world. Her manipulation is different based on the individual and is reflected in the manner that she depicts them in a portrait. She controls her father by persuading him to rely on her implicitly, and so must paint him without his knowledge. Mrs. Weston, however, is completely open to Emma’s control, and willingly allows Emma to depict and manipulate her. Mr. John Knightley’s portrait illustrates the artist’s desire to improve the appearance of her subjects, as well as the negative reception that results from her idealistic tendencies. Harriet, the ultimate symbol of Emma’s thoughtless power, is skewed both on the canvas and as a person. But the absence of Mr. Knightley’s portrait proves that his power of subtle influence is greater than all of Emma’s manipulation. The master has become the novice; the perfectionist realizes her imperfections; the artist sees the flaws in her work—and all because she longs to deserve Mr. Knightley’s respect. It is this very longing that begins to endear Emma to the reader, as she becomes more conscious of how her actions can hurt others. She begins to realize that she must step away from other people’s business and attend to her own. In this way, she symbolically paints her own portrait—but this time, she resolves to portray herself accurately, with no enhancements. The portrait is forming slowly, but the reader eventually recognizes upon the canvas the heroine whom the novel—and the characters in it—deserves.

Works Cited
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