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.