Friday, December 11, 2015

Emma's resources - she was not unwilling to have others deceived

How does Austen restore goodwill towards her heroine after mocking her for snobbery, callowness, and junky reading?  And her painting, I forgot about Emma’s portraits.

She was not much deceived as to her own skill either as an artist or a musician, but she was not unwilling to have others deceived…  (Ch. 6)

That’s Austen rubbing it in, although Emma delivers her own kind of self-mockery when, examining one of her portraits she declares, honestly enough, “’ The corner of the sofa is very good.’”  Not the highest priority in a portrait.

I mean, Dolce Bellezza was afraid she “would throw the book down in disgust at [Emma’s] interfering, meddlesome ways.”  Austen has some work to do.

Emma acquires some self-knowledge as the novel moves along, which is a big help.  A better musician moves to town, good enough the sentiment in the above quotation is no longer true.  And then Mrs. Elton moves to town – so many characters suddenly move to this little town – and provides a contrast so severe that the acquisition of self-knowledge is greatly furthered.

Meaning, it would be too embarrassing to sound like Mrs. Elton.  In Chapter 10, it is Emma who brags about her “active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources” (music, reading, and so on).  Later, it is the vain, aggressive, vulgar newlywed who cannot stop talking about her “resources”:

“Blessed with so many resources within myself, the world was not necessary to me.  I could do very well without it. To those who had no resources it was a different thing; but my resources made me quite independent.”  (Ch. 32)

At the same time she practically boasts of not practicing the piano, of not doing anything except visiting.  “’Insufferable woman!’ was [Emma’s] immediate exclamation” – immediately once in private, that is.  Meeting a living self-parody can be a great aid to reform.

The problem of “resources” is real, especially for the women in Emma.  Not just women – Emma’s father made insufficient “mental provision” for “the evening of life,” and as a result he is an enormous pain for everyone else.  It is the women, though, especially those of a higher class, who have great trouble simply finding enough to do within the narrow constraints they are allowed.  The mental provision – skill at the piano or the discipline to read a difficult book – is to allow them to sit alone in a quiet room, as Pascal wrote.

Otherwise, much of the remaining activity is gossip.  In Giovanni Verga’s Sicilian novels of small town life, The House by the Medlar Tree and Mastro Don-Gesualdo, the main entertainment, the true entertainment for most people, is gossip, the more poisonous the better.  The town in Emma is a friendlier, healthier place than Verga’s Sicily (understatement), more truly social, but much of the story is about the dangers of too much gossip.

Thank goodness for the invention of television, which allowed people at all levels to direct their gossip at imaginary people. 


  1. Then I consider the "resources" of The Author of Pride and Prejudice &c. &c. who rarely seems to have been allowed fifteen minutes alone in a quiet room.

  2. How do you think she "restores good will" towards Emma?

  3. By contrasting Emma with characters who share her traits, but are worse.

  4. I never thought about the impact of television in that way. A very good point.

  5. I was only half joking about television. I have long thought that the great social function of celebrities was to be gossip lightning rods. Better to snicker at their divorces than those of people you know.

  6. "Thank goodness for the invention of television, which allowed people at all levels to direct their gossip at imaginary people." That really made me laugh. Now I understand why I can't find interest in TV, I'm the least gossipy person I know.

    I think she improves our opinion of Emma through her acceptance of Mr Knightley's lectures. Even he recognizes that she put up with his lectures when others would have rebelled.

    Sure, other characters show that she's not that bad in comparison. But in the end, her willingness to improve softens us towards her and I can't help wondering what she would have become with better parents.

  7. You're right, Emma's tolerance for Knightley's lectures is a sign of strength of character.

    The effect you describe in that last paragraph is the great defense of the novel. We have to see character as events unfold to really understand it. If we only knew Emma from the first third of the novel, we would not really know her.