Emma: A World Apart

I have been thinking about Emma in comparison to other Austen novels and I find it intriguing that it is the only one to remain static in its setting. In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwoods move from their home county (Sussex I think?) to Devon, then Marianne and Elinor decamp to London for the major part of the novel. In Mansfield Park, Fanny goes back to Portsmouth for several months to visit her family. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane goes to London, Elizabeth goes to Kent and Derbyshire and Lydia goes to Brighton. In Persuasion, Anne goes to Uppercross, then Lyme Regis, then Bath. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine goes to Bath and then Northanger Abbey. All of Austen’s major novels – bar Emma – feature the heroines leaving their homes for pastures new, usually for a considerable period of time. As such, very little narrative attention is paid to their local area and we certainly don’t become acquainted with the goings on of their neighbours; they don’t feel rooted anywhere in particular. By contrast, Emma is solidly rooted in Highbury; she has never been anywhere else and she has no desire to travel. As such, the narrative viewpoint remains firmly fixed within the boundaries of this small Surrey village. Despite this narrow focus, however, it is arguably the most action packed and intriguing of all Austen’s works. By choosing to ground the action in a local community, Austen allows us to become a part of the lives of a wide and diverse cast. Highbury becomes a character in its own right, a lively harbinger of gossip and intrigue that feels rich and vital. It also offers a fascinating insight into turn of the 19th century village life across the social spectrum that Austen’s other novels cannot give.

So, how does this setting impact upon the novel? Well, for starters, it offers further insight into Emma’s personality. Emma frequently mentions that she has never travelled; not even to the local landmark of Box Hill, which is a few miles’ drive away. She has never seen the sea, or been to London. She has lived her entire life within the confines of Highbury and has had no opportunity to broaden her experience of the world through meeting people from other backgrounds to her own. In Highbury she is used to being first in consequence, deferred to, respected and adored by the villagers. No one has ever come along who has contended this position and Emma has never been placed in a situation where she must defer to a woman of greater social standing. As such she is the undisputed Queen of Society and she has the self confidence – bordering on arrogance – of someone who has always been in such an elevated position. As she has no equal nor rival, she has never been pushed to improve herself, woefully neglecting her studies and failing to become as accomplished as she should be. Her ignorance of the larger world gives her a naïveté that she is totally unaware of; her unthinking trust in Frank Churchill and her inability to see the advances of Mr Elton are classic examples of this. Emma is a big fish in a very small pond; she may think she knows it all, but deep down her reluctance to never leave Highbury is rooted in a fear of the unknown. It is only when she marries Mr Knightley that she dares to leave the village and go out into the world. Mr Knightley has always challenged Emma and tried to broaden her horizons; as such, it is very apt that he takes her to the seaside for their honeymoon trip, symbolising Emma’s change in status from sheltered innocent to married woman of the world.

Another key aspect of Emma is that instead of going in search of action and pleasure, like her fellow Austen heroines, Emma stays put and merely creates it out of the ingredients she is given. If she had a few months here and there in Bath or London to look forward to, she wouldn’t need to invent love affairs for her friends and relations and speculate about the lives of her neighbours. As she has no such pleasures to distract her, Emma sets about inventing her own, with Highbury as her inspiration. The hapless Harriet is less a friend and more a project; Emma doesn’t really want a confidante, she wants something to occupy her time. Along comes Harriet and instantly there is an unsuitable proposal to ward off, a new love interest to encourage and an endless source of gossip and conjecture to indulge in. Not to mention the fact that Harriet is also a bottomless pit  of praise and flattery. When Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill arrive in town, there is even more to keep Emma’s boredom at bay. Frank Churchill can be flirted with and dreamed about, and the mystery of Jane’s piano and her relationship with her friend’s husband provides plenty of food for speculation. Highbury might in reality be a very sleepy village with not a lot going on, but with the aid of Emma’s overactive and underused imagination, it becomes a hive of seething passions and illicit secrets that keeps the reader guessing throughout.

Keeping the action in one place also allows for a multitude of narratives, which are essential to the plot of the novel. Highbury is the stable centre from which everything else flows; it is the constant that provides a sense of order and context. Emma has a huge cast of active characters compared to the other Austen novels; usually Austen keeps things limited to a central family circle, a couple of external characters, usually love interests, and perhaps a friend or two or a couple of nasty sisters. As people are frequently moving around, this keeps things manageable and the plot moving forward without confusion. In Emma, there are a range of characters who are not related to one another and have no link save their shared geographical location. These characters provide a range of stories that intertwine, allowing for the intricate and misleading plotting that encourages the reader to wander off into a number of false conclusions and misunderstandings. They also serve the purpose of creating a community in which we can become involved and also in which we can see characters reflected in a surface that is not Emma’s biased eye.  Mr Knightley’s benevolence to Robert Martin, his respect of Mr Cole and his sensitivity to the situation of Miss Bates shows us that he is a good man, sensitive to and accepting of societal change, while still remaining conscious of his duty to those living on his land. Emma’s mixed attitude of both pity and exasperation towards Miss Bates shows that she has a good heart but she still has much to learn about her responsibilities. The deference and consideration shown to Emma, Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley by the villagers show how well liked they are and how their status as landowning gentry will always place them above everyone else of consequence. However, the begrudging attitude of the Eltons also shows that they can no longer take this position of authority for granted when a new class of rich merchants such as Mrs Elton’s family and the Coles are rising up to yap at their heels.

Despite being a novel where not a lot happens and nobody really does anything, Emma feels surprisingly action packed and densely plotted. I think this is because of its basis in a community setting. We are exhausted after Emma has spent a morning talking over one of Miss Fairfax’s letters with Miss Bates; Emma has done nothing but sit and listen, but the sheer weight of information imparted to the reader, the pages packed with dialogue wandering off into trains of thought totally unrelated to the subject matter, is enough to make us feel like weeks have passed. When an outing or ball is planned, we are given the opinions of the whole community, with everyone having a great deal to say. This gives the impression of a gravity that the occasion usually does not warrant; a mere wander around Mr Knightley’s garden to pick strawberries takes more organisation than Elizabeth Bennett’s life altering trip to Derbyshire! Placing the novel within the boundaries of a small community also allows Austen’s sharp eye for character detail to shine. No stranger to village life herself, she captures the village gossip, the local girl done good, the prodigal son, the querulous old landowner and the self satisfied society madam perfectly. Giving herself a broad canvas on which to work allowed Austen to create a very different novel – and perhaps a more socially aware novel – to the others she had already written, breaking away from her usual narrow field of upper class aristocrats and country house dwellers to give a more accurate picture of typical British life. Emma is a wonderfully entertaining and engrossing novel, with a cosiness that comes from the intimacy of its stable setting. It also has a heroine whose misguided nature can only be adequately explained away by her complete lack of exposure to the world, and for that reason, Austen had to stay in one place. I am glad of it; it makes Emma as standout novel amongst the rest, with a narrative complexity that surprises and rewards anew on every read.

13 comments

  1. I always enjoy reading your posts as much as reading the novel itself! Splendid, I say😉

    Ever since I read Anne of Green Gables I’ve been drawn to cozy stories about small town life. It’s fascinating to see how connected the inhabitants are, how much they support and inspire each other, and also how daily life creates the energy and livelihood of the town, rather than having people withdraw into their own isolated worlds.

    Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I prefer older books to modern ones. Human connections seemed more real and concrete in a way that rarely exists anymore (of course this has been discussed and analyzed and written about a LOT).

    There’s nothing I like more than sitting by a window (or even better – outside!) with a pot of tea to share with a friend, and just talking. I would love to visit Highbury, spend a week planning and anticipating a delightful outing with friends, go on said outing, and then spend a week talking about everything that happened. But I also love traveling to all the different corners of the world.

    Oops, sorry for going off on tangents! Thank you for the lovely post, Rachel🙂

    1. Oh thanks Lucy! What a lovely thing to say! I agree with you – there is a cosiness and an intimacy in older books and I enjoy that too. I am definitely a talker and love nothing better than tea, cake and chat – I think I’d get along well in Highbury!

      You didn’t go off on a tangent at all!🙂

  2. I’d never thought about the significance of the journey in Austen’s works before. I wonder whether in her other novels, the journey the central character takes in physical terms is also a metaphor for her journey towards understanding. Catherine Morland certainly has her eyes opened by her experience at N Abbey and Elizabeth Bennett has her perception of Darcy changed by the visit to his home and the encounter with his housekeeper. For Emma, the journey to enlightenment has to come within her own community. Now I’ll have to re-read the novel to see how that is worked through…

    1. Yes I think you’re exactly right about that. Austen uses travel as a way for her heroines to broaden their horizons and increase their understanding – both of themselves and those around them. They ‘journey to their enlightenment’ as you say. Something else that is interesting is that all the heroines of her other novels, when they marry, leave their homes for pastures new – apart from Emma, who stays put. So she needs to be enlightened from within her community and change the way she interacts with them, as she isn’t going anywhere!

  3. I was listening to a podcast yesterday about an actress from the Victorian era who, when she needed a rest, would leave the stage in London and drive through the night to Kent, arriving at dawn. It reminded me that travel wasn’t always something to be taken lightly or planned hastily!
    I love that your posts remind me to think about more than the plot when I am reading, Rachel. Although, how I will ever finish my book if I keep reading blog posts I will never know!
    p.s. – Sissinghurst, definitely! You have to plan one of your strolls and file a full report one of these days.

    1. I wonder if that was Ellen Terry, Darlene? The National Trust owns her house, Smallhythe Place, in Kent. It’s near Canterbury and supposed to be beautiful though I’ve never been.

      Thanks Darlene! I know – blogging does detract from reading time, doesn’t it?!

      I am already planning a trip to Sissinghurst! Thomas has put me to shame. I think it will me a mum and daughter trip when I move home!

  4. The story requires considerable exposition, and consequently the action is slow to gather; add to this the fact that Emma herself is so overbearing and self-assured that you frequently want to give her a slap. The result is a novel that many, including Austen fans, will find an uphill read. Even so, Austen is writing very close to the peak of her powers here, and her amazing talent for observation, subtle irony, and flashing wit endow EMMA with tremendous charm and interest. In many respects a remarkable novel, but one that I recommend more to determined Austen fans than to casual readers.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mercadeo. I’m not sure I’d entirely agree, as I don’t find it an uphill read and have always found Emma charming, but I can understand that to others she may be insufferable! I think I’d always recommend Pride and Prejudice to Jane Austen beginners, but Emma would come a close second. It is Austen at the height of her genius and it doesn’t have the flaws of Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park that could put off people approaching her for the first time.

  5. I absolutely love the cosy world of Highbury (much like Cranford and Avonlea) and would most love to live or visit there, out of all the Austen settings. Emma seems the most believable of Austen’s novels because of the setting and all the small town gossip resulting from that; it’s more of a complete, solid world than the other novels present. It’s never an uphill read for me but always a delight.

    I like that Mr. Knightley moves into Hartfield with Emma at the end of the story — unlike Elizabeth in P&P, Emma doesn’t want to escape her old life with her family. Mr. Woodhouse might be silly (his ‘benevolent nerves’ almost equal Mrs. Bennet’s ‘querulous serenity’!), but he’s still beloved and cared for; Emma doesn’t run away from being around him or Miss Bates. I always feel a small sadness at the end of P&P that Elizabeth doesn’t value her mother in some small way just a little bit more. Pride & Prejudice presents the fantasy that you can start a completely new and better life with marriage, while Emma shows the reality that your family is still very much a part of married life and that indeed, life keeps going on much as it has before. (Not that that’s a bad thing — who’d ever want to leave Highbury? Not me!)

    And there are a few of my rambling thoughts about my favourite Austen novel! You’ve flushed me out of book blog hiding with your insightful post.🙂

    1. Hi Carolyn, so lovely to see you! Thanks for your thoughts – you are quite right in the difference between Elizabeth and Emma and I too like the way Emma wants her life to stay the same even though she marries. However I do think Elizabeth needed a fresh start – her personality is so opposed to her mother’s that they would never see eye to eye, and the life she is expected to live as mistress of Pemberley would not exactly be conducive to having a mother like that come in and gossip with your guests. Unfortunately she would be an embarrassment in the social milieu Elizabeth had entered and I think Austen is quite realistic about that. Even so I do agree that Elizabeth should try and appreciate and understand her mother a little more – we can’t all be blessed with good sense, and Mrs Bennett does genuinely want the best for her daughters in her own way!

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