December 5, 2015


How Jane Austen's Emma changed the face of fiction (John Mullan, 5 December 2015, The Guardian)

Emma, published 200 years ago this month, was revolutionary not because of its subject matter: Austen's jesting description to Anna of the perfect subject for a novel - "Three or four families in a country village" - fits it well. It was certainly not revolutionary because of any intellectual or political content. But it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist's mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf. Woolf wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, "She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust". In Emma, she is.

To measure the audacity of the book, take a simple sentence that no novelist before her could have written. Our privileged heroine has befriended a sweet, open, deeply naive girl of 17 called Harriet Smith. It is a wholly unequal relationship: Emma is the richest and cleverest woman in Highbury; Harriet is the "natural daughter of someone", left as a permanent resident of the genteel girls' boarding school in the town. While cultivating their relationship, Emma knows very well that Harriet is her inferior. "But in every respect as she saw more of her, she was confirmed in all her kind designs."

The sentence is in the third person, yet we are not exactly being told something by the author. "Kind designs" is Emma's complacent judgment of herself. Even the rhyme in the phrase makes it sound better to herself. In fact, the kindness is all in the mind of the beholder. Emma has set out to mould Harriet. Emma's former companion, Miss Taylor, has got married and become Mrs Weston, leaving her solitary and at a loose end. Harriet will be her project. Her plans are kind, she tells herself, because she will improve this uninstructed and wide-eyed young woman. We should be able to hear, however, that her designs are utterly self-serving. Soon she is persuading Harriet to refuse a marriage proposal from a farmer who loves her, and beguiling her with the wholly illusory prospect of marriage to the smooth young vicar, Mr Elton.

Take another little sentence from much later in the novel. By now Emma is convinced that Harriet, scorned by Mr Elton, can be paired off with the highly eligible Frank Churchill. The only impediment seems to be the inflexible Mrs Churchill, Frank's adoptive mother, who expects him to find a much grander wife. Then news arrives of Mrs Churchill's sudden death. Emma meets Harriet, who has also heard. "Harriet behaved extremely well on the occasion, with great self-command." Obviously she is learning self-possession from her patron. "Emma was gratified to observe such a proof in her of strengthened character."

Except that this is all twaddle. Harriet does not give a fig for Frank and never has. Emma has elaborately deluded herself again. The narration follows the path of Emma's errors. Indeed, the first-time reader will sometimes follow this path too, and then share the heroine's surprise when the truth rushes upon her. Yet it is still a third-person narrative; Emma is not telling her own story. We both share her judgments and watch her making them.

The subject matter is, of course, far more revolutionary.  The novel is an extended argument against the use of "expertise" to determine the course of others' lives. It is the End of History in novel form.  

Posted by at December 5, 2015 9:39 AM