Thursday, December 10, 2015

And very good lists they were - Emma should read better books

The other clever structural device I noticed in Emma, aside from the inset detective novel, is that it made real use of the three-volume novel format forced on Jane Austen by her publisher.  The first volume is practically a standalone novella.

Smart, restless, bored Emma Woodhouse, having successfully played matchmaker for her best friend, decides to give it another go with a cute, dim-witted protégée, Harriet Smith.  Along the way she misinterprets every possible romantic signal from every possible direction, makes a (mild, comic) mess of things, and learns a (mild, comic) lesson about hubris.  Several key characters are mentioned but kept offstage; they will be brought on in Volume 2 as part of a more complex version of the story rehearsed in the first volume.  The first volume would have been a minor comic classic on its own.

Early on, Emma’s older friends spend the most tedious chapter in the novel (Ch. 5) criticizing her – what? her lack of wisdom and discipline – her youth, I am tempted to say.  This chapter more than any other reminds me that Austen is an 18th as well as a 19th century novelist. 

Is this Emma or Émile?  Is Harriet suitable as a friend of Emma?  She “’is not the superior young woman which Emma’s friend ought to be’” – meaning, Emma is bright and Harriet is dim.  But “’[t]hey will read together’” – “’it will be an inducement for [Emma] to read more herself.’”  Emma’s friends are saying she does not read enough.

“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old.  I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly – and very good lists they were – very well chosen, and very neatly arranged – sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule.   The list she drew up when only fourteen – I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time…”

Many book bloggers, including this one, will read this passage with some wincing and grimacing.  The lists would be of improving books – this is the 18th century idea.  In the previous chapter, Harriet and Emma dismiss Harriet’s farmer suitor because he does not read – well, he reads, “the Agricultural Reports and some other books,” and also The Vicar of Wakefield, a novel but one that would count as a wholesome, improving book, as 18th century novels go – but he does not read Gothic novels, in fact “’[h]e had never heard of such books before I mentioned them.’”

Here we have Austen attacking her own characters for their backwards snobbery, their dismissal of a man for not reading popular trash.  She does not even give them the excuse that he doesn’t read novels.  Austen can be so mean.  Several chapters later, Austen adds to the insult:

[Emma’s] views of improving her little friend’s mind, by a great deal of useful reading and conversation, had never yet led to more than a few first chapters, and the intention of going on to-morrow.  It was much easier to chat than study…  the only literary pursuit which engaged Harriet at present, the only mental provision she was making for the evening of life, was the collecting and transcribing all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with…  (Ch. 9)

The phrase in bold is the author openly mocking her characters.  The heck with free “indirect” style!

Note that the riddles are an early thematic reference to the idea of the detective novel which will be developed in the next volume.  Emma is a well-controlled novel.


  1. Austen does something similar in _Northanger Abbey_; the books included in their protagonist's reading are "interesting" choices, influencing her Gothic sensibilities; but, of course, in the instance of _NA_, Austen is being ironic. I think "irony" is the controlling word in _Emma_ as well.

  2. The heroine in Northanger Abbey is closer to Harriet Smith here. Emma is supposed to be a superior being. There is irony and there is open mockery.

    1. As I recall from my reading a number of years -- which might need to be corrected with a rereading -- Emma's problem is that she is convinced that she is a "superior being," but, of course, she is wrong.

    2. Oh, she is a superior being. She is just not superior in the exact ways she thinks she is. Emma is, for example, the smartest person in the novel. But not the wisest. Her "useful reading" is meant to guide her towards wisdom.

      There are some rigid status hierarchies assumed in this novel. It does not surprise me that some readers, even some sympathetic Austen readers, find the book to be a little unpleasant.

      I think that will be in today's post - something about how Austen saves Emma from for the reader even before she reforms or develops or achieves wisdom or whatever goes on at the end of the novel.

  3. I have to disagree here. Emma is not the smartest person in the book for both Knightly brothers are smarter and wiser than her. Her problem is that she is quick and therefore has become mentally lazy. She has never disciplined herself, as the commentary regarding the book lists show.

    She does not achieve wisdom or whatever at the end as her promise to think more carefully or something like that will go the way of her book lists and she will continue to meddle in the lives of her neighbors.

  4. I am taking discipline as as element of wisdom. She is less likely to become wise by reading useful books than she is to become wise and therefore read useful books.

    I like the idea that Emma does not really change much after the novel ends. I had not thought of that.

  5. How does one become disciplined?

    One way would be to create a book list and then actually read them. It is the act of keeping to one's planned course of action that fosters discipline and incidentally the content of the books.

  6. Little bit of a circle there.

    Fred Knightley likely had the help of tutors and crammers.

  7. Not really. Discipline is a habit and habits become habits by repeatedly performing the actions. Isn't that how habits are formed?

    As for tutors and crammers, I remember nothing being said about the Knightly brothers upbringing, so I can't comment.

  8. Sometimes we get a little - or a lot - of outside help with our habits.

    A reader could do some interesting speculating about how Emma's early loss of her mother affected her.

    Knightley is an attorney from a wealthy family, so I am guessing that he had the usual education that would make him an attorney circa 18XX.

  9. I'm finishing Volume 2 and still waiting for the mystery. Surely I will figure it out by the end of Volume 3, beyond Emma's naive, and yet strangely confident, ways.

  10. As I noted, the first time I read the novel, I could not see the mystery structure either, not until the very end at least. Second time - almost too obvious.

  11. How can Emma behave wisely and challenge herself by disciplined reading when she has such a father? One who chose for her governess, not someone who'd compensate his lack of parental skills but one who'd go along with him. Sometimes you think he chose Miss Taylor more as a companion to himself than as a teacher for his daughters.

    Mr Wodehouse is probably as silly as Mrs Bennett.

  12. Austen's fathers are always pretty poor specimens. The esteem in which Mr. Wodehouse is held suggests that he was at one point an admirable man, but it is unclear how long ago that might have been.