In Our Time: Series 18, Episode 8

Jane Austen

All the fun in a Jane Austen novel is in the working out of the characters’ problems and not in actually arriving at the conclusion itself.  Which might be how you feel if you are a whiz at the Rubik’s Cube; I wouldn’t know.

The inside cover of my copy of Emma by Jane Austen says I bought it in 1992.  I think this would have been at the end of 1992 so that I was ready for the Novel course I took in 1993.  I took the Novel course in my second and third year at university.  I sat next to a guy who didn’t read a single novel on the course but passed, earned a degree with a major in English Literature, and is now an English and Drama teacher at a secondary school.

I think it’s appropriate to begin in this way; a little sniffily.

As I came to the end of Emma this time I wondered how satisfied Jane Austen was with the conclusions of her novels.  Like a Shakespearean comedy everyone ends up in the right place, married to the right person.  The plot is essentially like observing grit being dropped into the workings of a mechanical clock and then waiting for the discombobulation to be slowly worked out of the system so everything is once again working as it should.  In the case of Jane Austen it is the people that are the grit, and the social system that is the mechanism.

Did Jane Austen, who saw so clearly, bridle at her social order or accept it as a matter of fact?  It’s hard to imagine that someone so sharp could be entirely happy with how her books had to end; like with like, at just the right level for each pair: Knightley with Emma, John with Harriet, Frank with Jane.  All the comedy comes with getting these people mixed up in the wrong pairings.

At the moment when Emma realises she loves Knightley, all the life drained out of Miss Woodhouse, and I noticed that my interest in the book faded.  Which is, in a way, quite a compliment to Jane Austen, because it means I found the disgustingly snobbish Emma far more attractive than the “good” Emma, and it is really hard not to suspect Austen of fellow feeling.

Am I presuming to be critical of Austen?  Not really.  I am just a little curious I suppose to know more about Jane herself, and her views on her society.

Frankly, if you were to seriously criticise Jane Austen then you would probably need your head examined.  It’s not that you need to be a fan, everyone can make their own mind up, it’s just that you should admire the writing.  Every time I read Jane Austen I am struck by how funny she is.  I always have the expectation that  Great-Novels-of-the-Past will be hard going and very serious.  This expectation is handy because it means I almost always enjoy GNotP more than I think I am going to.  Pride and Prejudice would be a perfect example.  Somehow at the age of 20 when I first read it I already came to that book thinking of fustiness, fussiness and tedium, only to discover in the first chapter a brilliant, sparkling wit.  Once I realised that, yes I was going to be in those fusty, fussy, tedious drawing rooms, but that Jane was going to be my arch, ironic companion, the world of Jane Austen unfolded to me.

One of the main joys of reading Austen for me is in her spinsters, snobs and fussy old women (which includes some men).  Some of the almost stream of consciousness passages of Miss Bates’ dialogue are extraordinary and capture all of the inanity, tedium and unintentional comedy of her voice brilliantly.  At one level there is no way that Mr Woodhouse, Miss Bates or Mrs Elton can be thought of as real; they must be caricatures, and as such you would think that they might mar the tone of the book.  Jane Austen, however, makes them enduring comic characters.  Everyone feels, even 200 years after these books were written, that they too have been in the company of a Mr Woodhouse, Miss Bates or Mrs Elton in their lives.  Each of the three is distinct, while capable of being grouped together.  They might, as a group, represent all the possible outcomes for Emma in her claustrophobic milieu.  She could become trapped by her duty to her father into a Miss Bates role, or she could – with very little encouragement – become a Mrs Elton, her antennae forever tingling to the importance of status.

Knightley saves Emma.  I like Emma and Knightley until they find each other; once they are established as in love, I lose interest in them both.  He goes from being the voice of reason, a squirt of lemon in her cream, to a faintly patronising, patriarchal figure.  It’s a bit like Emma is marrying her dad (Mr Woodhouse being more much like a grandfather).  Pride and Prejudice has more balance because the two principals have things to learn from each other.  In Emma it feels like it is only Emma who has something to learn from the perfect Mr Knightley.

Perfect Mr Knightley can see the value or lack of quality in people from all ranks in society.  He can see that John Martin is a terrific bloke, and that there’s something fishy about Frank.  This is admirable.  It means he’s not prejudiced.  Having said that, it is also true that while he sees people clearly he doesn’t appear to think at all about the ranks of society themselves being a bit arbitrary and limiting.  John Martin and Harriet are perfect for each other, because they are compatible both in personality and in status.

How much though is my criticism of the ending of Emma ill judged?

Firstly, what is the point of criticising someone for writing about the society they lived in and were powerless to change 200 years ago?  Secondly, everything may work out as it should in the end in an Austen book, but the end is not the point, and it’s hard not to notice that most of her books are sharp, witty and critical observations on Regency social mores.  Finally, who are we to throw the first stone?  For all our “freedom” how much to do we end up the same; like with like?

Isn’t it true, dear blogger, that you  – a white, middle class, Jane Austen reader – ended up happily paired with another white, middle class, Jane Austen reader?

Which is just the very thing Miss Austen would have loved to point out to me.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

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