A Miracle called Emma

by Bertil Falk

part 1 of 2


In 1928 Virginia Woolf made a famous speech at Girton College in Cambridge. It was later published as A Room of One’s Own. She said that Jane Austen (1775-1817) should have laid a wreath on the grave of Fanny Burney (1752-1840).

How on earth would this paradoxical somersault have been possible? It was simply a sheer impossibility for Jane Austen to put anything at all on the grave of Fanny Burney, for Fanny Burney survived Jane Austen by 23 years.

A dead and buried individual cannot make a knot of her completed life other than in the form of a ghost, and we have every reason to believe that Jane Austen did not believe in ghosts and subsequently not in haunting. Fanny Burney could have laid a wreath on Jane Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral, but she had no reason to do so.

What Virginia Woolf meant was, of course, that Jane Austen was indebted in a literary way to Fanny Burney, who wrote social romances before Jane Austen, novels that Jane Austen read and was influenced by. Fanny Burney made her literary debut in 1778. Jane Austen was three years old then.

Most novels should at the very best be read not more than once, but there are novels that could be read over and over again, and every time new things are discovered by the reader. Such a novel, and in many ways the novel that more than any other among two-hundred year-old classics can be said to be such a book, is Emma by Jane Austen. The story takes place in the rural village Highbury, in England. It was published in 1816.

But, you may say, there’s nothing special about Emma. It is one of six more or less — mostly more — brilliant novels that Jane Austen wrote. The action does not stand out from her other stories in any startling way, apart from the fact that she permits her novel’s main character, Emma, to devote herself wholeheartedly to disastrous matchmaking while the thought of getting married herself never occurs to her.

Moreover, the novels of Jane Austen, it may be argued, can be said to be part of a tradition, since the principal character of Emma is similar to Cecilia in the novel of the same name by Fanny Burney. Cecilia and Emma are in similar circumstances; they are both rich heiresses.

Very true. Jane Austen’s dependence on Fanny Burney is to a great extent even more manifest in the fact that she renamed First Impressions (since a Mrs Holford had published a text with that title in 1800) and called it Pride and Prejudice, a title she picked from Fanny Burney’s Cecilia. If we compare Cecilia with Pride and Prejudice, we will see that they are somewhat similar and that Jane Austen was very much influenced by Fanny Burney.

Thus, Emma cannot be special at all.

Well, do not say that!

To begin with, when reading Cecilia, said to be Fanny Burney’s best novel, and comparing it with Jane Austen’s novels, we find that Jane Austen in every respect surpasses her prototype. To that must be added, as many have observed, that Emma is much more complex than any of the other five novels by Jane Austen.

It stands by itself, but that is not easy to discover. In all her novels Jane Austen varies the complications in a most skillful way, but it is only in Emma that her plot, the story, the intrigue celebrates extraordinary triumphs transcending all her other stories.

Now, when it comes to Jane Austen, if the novel not exactly is born with her, at least the creation of the modern novel is completed by her. With her, the novel is perfected in every detail. It not only leaves the age of puberty behind, it comes of age. Or, as Virginia Woolf put it in the above mentioned lecture, where she stated that the novel two hundred years ago “was young enough to be soft in her hands.”

Jane Austen was granted the honor of concluding the novel form, and in spite of grandiose efforts and breakneck experiments that ever since have seen the darkness of the night, the narrative technique of the entertaining story has not really been developed in any decisive way during the more than two hundred years since Jane Austen began writing.

Louise West at Jane Austen’s House in Chavton, Hampshire has said something to the effect that there is no doubt that Jane Austen changed the novel because her characterization goes much deeper. The psychology of the characters was something missing in the literature preceding her novels. And Louise West states that Jane Austen wrote about real people and real situations that we still can identify with.

That is true; and furthermore, Jane Austen created her own plots, that not only were based on her clear-sighted, psychological and humorous observations of how the people around her behaved but also showed that she possessed a rare talent for dramatic structure.

That applies to all her six novels. They have been adapted for the screen many times, both as feature films and TV serials and the action has ever so often been successfully transplanted into the new media. Jane Austen, who was not at all a stranger to the theater, was simply a superb dramaturgist in no need of rewriting.

A noteworthy phenomenon is for example the fact that the intense Chapter LVI in Pride and Prejudice, where Lady Catherine de Bourgh attacks Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who determinedly hits back, contains a dialogue that has been used practically word for word when adapted for the screens, except for the exclusion of some cues.

Sparks literally fly when the two women meet. It is not bad for a dialogue that was written almost two centuries ago. As the author Michael Lloyd of Bewildering Stories said when I visited him in Cambridge in the spring of 2008: “That dialogue cannot be improved.” The question is whether that dialogue has ever been surpassed. It is not only perfect in itself, it is also perfectly mounted like a glowing emerald in its context.

Emma has also been successfully adapted a couple of times, but it is only the external action that can be transferred and visualized on the silver screen and the small screen. And that has been done in a very satisfactory way. But the recurrent subtle sides of Emma, which markedly separate the story from Jane Austen’s other novels, are next to impossible to transmit to films.

On the other hand, one peculiarity with Emma that can be translated and has been adapted to film is the piano that a mysterious donor sends to the poor, moderately retiring, well trained and intellectual Miss Jane Fairfax. That piano is a strange phenomenon in the authorship of Jane Austen. A lot has been written about it.

I cite Ronald Blythe: “A few days later Highbury learns that Jane Fairfax has received an anonymous and most extravagant present — a Broadwood piano. The hazards as to who could have sent it provide a nine days’ wonder. The piano occupies a position in “the intrigue” of like importance to the body in a murder mystery and Jane finds herself in the centre of some terrifying gossip. Only Mr Knightley recognizes that the gift is a thoughtless cruelty; everybody else praises the donor’s generosity.”

Robert Liddell in 1963 said that Emma is “among other things, a detective story.” And Blythe actually describes Emma as “the most fiendishly difficult of detective stories.”

Jane Austen a writer of detective stories as early as in the beginning of the 19th century? Long before the detetective story as we know it was invented and its very nucleus — the detective — was adopted for good by Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. Well, I never. Is that not going a little too far?

At a closer look, we find that Jane Austen long before her fellow countrywoman Agatha Christie in an at least as discreet, not to say even much more treacherous way sprinkles Emma with clues.

From Agatha Christie we expect that kind of manipulation. We do not expect it from Jane Austen. However, the piano in Emma is as obvious and startling as a corpse in a novel by Agatha Christie, but in the case of Jane Austen it is exceedingly more difficult to interpret.

Furthermore, that appalling woman Mrs Elton is introduced into the plot. She has married Rev. Elton, the man whom Emma has given the brush-off in a dramatic proposal sequence, where the two, who have totally misunderstood each other’s intentions, are shut up together in a horse-drawn carriage and cannot get separated.

In itself a brilliant move by Jane Austen!

Emma’s substitute in the life of Rev. Elton, the bitch Mrs Elton, has among other things been created by Jane Austen for the purpose of being a catalyst of the writer’s skilfully executed underground activities.

Ronald Blythe again: ”Mrs Elton settles on the vulnerable Jane Fairfax like a smart crow, digging away at the girl’s reticence with her unfeeling beak. She dominates five chapters in the centre of the novel, and under the cover of her impertinence Jane Austen distributes the clues of the intrigue. Few of them can be discovered at a first reading, so superbly are they integrated in the general action.”

Notice that Agatha Christie began writing detective stories more than one hundred years after Emma. Or in other words: without actually writing a detective story, Jane Austen used the same method in Emma that detective stories are based on: the mystery!

Jane Austen puts clues into the action, but she has no detective following up the clues. The closest we get to a detective in Emma is Mr Knightley, who possesses certain powers of observation, but he rather suspects than sees mischief. And his suspicions come from his jealousy.

When the pieces of the puzzle fall into their proper places, it is not in the form of detection, as in a detective story, but in the form of communication that was common two hundred years ago: letters, conversations and gossip. But it is not until a death does its part to abandon the mystery-making that the news can be spread through letters, conversations and gossip.

Here we have a novel, which beyond the visible activities has undercurrents that subliminally affect the reader, a subtle method that was not used until much later in the literature of the 20th century, though the successors seldom reach Jane Austen’s level, except for the mystery writers, who “have signed a contract” for using the method.

In Emma, Jane Austen quite consciously saw to it that her readers were unaware of what she was doing to their subconscious. The method is so exquisitely performed that there cannot be any doubt that the clever genius Jane Austen knew what she was doing.


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Copyright © 2008 by Bertil Falk

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