JANE AUSTEN'S EMMA WOODHOUSE by William Dean Howells 1901
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IN primitive fiction plot is more important than character; as the art advances character becomes the chief interest, and the action is such as springs from it. In the old tales and romances there is no such thing as character in the modern sense; their readers were satisfied with what the heroes and heroines did and suffered.
When the desire for character arose, the novelists loaded their types with attributes; but still there was no character, which is rooted in personality. The novelist of to-day who has not conceived of this is as archaic as any romancer of the Middle Ages in his ideal of art. Most of the novels printed in the last year, in fact, are as crudely devised as those which have amused people of childish imagination at any time in the last thousand years; and it will always be so with most novels, because most people are of childish imagination. The masterpieces in fiction are those which delight the mind with the traits of personality, with human nature recognizable by the reader through its truth to himself.
The wonder of Jane Austen is that at a time when even the best fiction was overloaded with incident, and its types went staggering about under the attributes heaped upon them, she imagined getting on with only so much incident as would suffice to let her characters express their natures movingly or amusingly. She seems to have reached this really unsurpassable degree of perfection without a formulated philosophy, and merely by her clear vision of the true relation of art to life; but however she came to be what she was, she was so unquestionably great, so unmistakably the norm and prophecy of most that is excellent in Anglo-Saxon fiction since her time, that I shall make no excuse for what may seem a disproportionate study of her heroines.
Emma Woodhouse, in the story named after her, is one of the most boldly imagined of Jane Austen's heroines. Perhaps she is the very most so, for it took supreme courage to portray a girl, meant to win and keep the reader's fancy, with the characteristics frankly ascribed to Emma Woodhouse. We are indeed allowed to know that she is pretty; not formally, but casually, from the words of a partial friend: "Such an eye!— the true hazel eye—and so brilliant!—regular features, open countenance, with a complexion—ah, what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure." But, before we are allowed to see her personal beauty we are made to see in her some of the qualities which are the destined source of trouble for herself and her friends. In her wish to be useful she is patronizing and a little presumptuous; her self-sufficiency early appears, and there are hints of her willingness to shape the future of others without having past enough of her own to enable her to do it judiciously. The man who afterwards marries her says of her: "'She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. . . . Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured . . . and ever since she was twelve Emma has been mistress of the house and you all.'"
An officious and self-confident girl, even if pretty, is not usually one to take the fancy, and yet Emma takes the fancy. She manages the delightful and whimsical old invalid her father, but she is devotedly and unselfishly good to him. She takes the destiny of Harriet Smith unwarrantably into her charge, but she breaks off the girl's love-affair only in the interest of a better match. She decides that Frank Churchill, the stepson of her former governess, will be in love with her, but she never dreams that Mr. Elton, whom she means for Harriet Smith, can be so. She is not above a little manoeuvring for the advantage of those she wishes to serve, but the tacit insincerity of Churchill is intolerable to her. She is unfeelingly neglectful of Jane Fairfax and cruelly suspicious of her, but she generously does what she can to repair the wrong, and she takes her punishment for it meekly and contritely. She makes thoughtless and heartless fun of poor, babbling Miss Bates, but when Knightley calls her to account for it, she repents her unkindness with bitter tears. She will not be advised against her pragmatical schemes by Knightley, but she is humbly anxious for his good opinion. She is charming in the very degree of her feminine complexity, which is finally an endearing single-heartedness. Her character is shown in an action so slight that the novel of "Emma" may be said to be hardly more than an exemplification of Emma. In the placid circumstance of English country life where she is the principal social figure the story makes its round with a few events so unexciting as to leave the reader in doubt whether anything at all has happened. Mr. Elton, a clerical snob as odious as Mr. Collins in "Pride and Prejudice" is amusing, indignantly resents Emma's plan for supplying him with a wife in Harriet Smith, and marries a woman who has Emma's defects without their qualities. Frank Churchill keeps his engagement with Jane Fairfax a secret till all the possible mischief can come from it, and then acknowledges it just when the fact must be most mortifying and humiliating to Emma. After she has been put to shame before Knightley in every way, she finds herself beloved and honored by him and in the way to be happily married. There are, meantime, a few dances and picnics, dinners and teas; Harriet Smith is frightened by gypsies, and some hen-roosts are robbed. There is not an accident, even of the mild and beneficent type of Louisa Musgrove's in "Persuasion"; there is not an elopement, even of the bouffe nature of Lydia's in "Pride and Prejudice"; there is nothing at all so tragic as Catharine Morland's expulsion by General Tilney in "Northanger Abbey." Duels and abductions, of course, there are none; for Jane Austen had put from her all the machinery of the great and little novelists of the eighteenth century, and openly mocked at it. This has not prevented its being frequently used since, and she shows herself more modern than all her predecessors and contemporaries and most of her successors, in the rejection of the major means and the employment of the minor means to produce the enduring effects of "Emma." Among her quiet books it is almost the quietest, and so far as the novel can suggest that repose which is the ideal of art "Emma" suggests it, in an action of unsurpassed unity, consequence, and simplicity.
It is difficult to detach from the drama any scene which shall present Emma in a moment more characteristic than other moments; but that in which Knightley takes her to task for her behavior to Miss Bates can be chosen, because it illustrates the courageous naturalness with which she is studied throughout. "While waiting for the carriage, she found Mr. Knightley at her side. He looked around, as if to see that no one were near, and then said,'Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do. ... I cannot see you acting wrong without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible!' Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off. 'Nay, how could I have helped saying what I did? Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.' 'I assure you she did. She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it—with what candor and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honoring your forbearance . . . when her society must be so irksome.' 'Oh,' cried Emma, 'I know there is not a better creature in the world; but you must allow that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.' 'They are blended, I acknowledge,'he said, 'and were . . . she a woman of fortune, I would leave her every harmless absurdity to take its chance. . . . Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case! She is poor; she is sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she should live to old age must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honor—to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her — and before her niece, too — and before many others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. This is not pleasant to you, Emma, and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will—I will tell you truths while I can . . . trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.' While they talked, they were advancing towards the carriage; it was ready, and before she could speak again he had handed her in. He had misinterpreted the feelings which had kept her face averted and her tongue motionless. They were combined only of anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern. She had not been able to speak, and on entering the carriage, sunk back for a moment overcome; then reproaching herself for having taken no leave, making no acknowledgment, parting in apparent sullenness, she looked out with voice and hand eager to show a difference; but it was too late. He had turned away, and the horses were in motion. . . . Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were."
It is not on such grounds, in such terms, that a heroine is often talked to in a novel, and it is not so that she commonly takes a talking-to. But it is to be remembered that Knightley is not only Emma's tacit lover; he is the brother of her sister's husband, and much her own elder, and as a family friend has some right to scold her. It is to be considered also that she is herself a singular type among heroines: a type which Jane Austen perfected if she did not invent, and in that varied sisterhood she has the distinction, if not the advantage, of being an entirely natural girl, and a nice girl, in spite of her faults.