From Chapter 12, part of the hypochondria theme, where Emma’s father tries to bully everyone into eating gruel before bed.
“You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.”
Emma could not suppose any such thing…
There is a surprising amount of gruel in Emma, but also more appetizing food, almost all of it attached to her father and his attempts to deny the pleasure of others.
“An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else – but you need not be afraid – they are very small, you see – one of our small eggs will not hurt you.” (Ch. 3)
Ah, this is the passage where Mr. Woodhouse says “’I do not advise the custard’” – this is the custard served at his own house, at his own table.
Later discussions involve pork loins eaten with “’a boiled turnip, and a little carrot or parsnip,’” and sweetbreads with asparagus. Emma has the latter prepared for a guest who particularly savors it, even though she fears her father will ruin the pleasure in it (which he does).
Almost every previous fiction writer, and all too many subsequent ones, would not bother to specify the dish. “Emma had a special dish prepared for her” or something like that would be sufficient. Similarly with the level of detail about the gruel or pork or baked apples. Why include anything so ordinary and boring? Or the scene where Emma and Harriet are fabric shopping, how can that be interesting?
Samuel Richardson, Austen’s favorite novelist, would never have included any of this. In his hands, it would have been so tedious. In hers, the passages are full of jokes and insights into characters. It was Austen who taught me to pay attention to the kind of transportation under discussion, that chaise and barouche-landau are not just types of carriages but contain a lot of meaning, particularly about class and status.
Walter Scott was at the same time working through some of the same issues. He realized that the materiality of his fictional world made up a good deal of the difference between the past and the present, and between Scotland and England, so he began packing more stuff into his books. Austen was doing something trickier. What reader, even the Prince of Wales, needed to read about boiled eggs?
I do not want to argue that Austen and Scott represent progress, exactly. They had all read Robinson Crusoe (1719). Talk about a material novel.
Maybe next time I read Emma I will collect more of her jokes. Everyday comedy, aphorisms (“Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of,” Ch. 22), jokes of character:
Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton’s beginning to talk to him. (Ch. 36)
I know it is not everyone’s Austen, but mine is the one with a sting.
Thanks to Dolce Bellezza for getting a readalong moving.