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JANE AUSTEN (1775-1817) - EMMA (1816)


Plot: Emma hasn’t got a mother. She lives with her father in the little village of Highbury 16 miles away from London, so she lives in the countryside, but her village is not too far from the city. The village is fictional and it’s in the county of Surry. At the beginning of the novel we get a presentation of Emma: we understand that Emma has successfully managed a wedding (her governess with a local gentleman). Given this success, she thinks she has a career as a marriage maker. Emma has very high ideas about herself and her intelligence. Therefore she begins to suggest to her friend Harriet Smith that she is the object of interest of the local priest Mr Elton but she’s wrong because the priest is interested in Emma herself. When this becomes clear, Emma changes her tactic and begins to direct Harriet’s attentions towards other men and she becomes interested in Franck Churchill. He’s lively, ironic, good-looking, and independent. The entire village is infatuated with Frank, he’s like a local hero. The only one who is suspicious about Frank is George Knightly, an old friend of Emma and her father. He thinks that Franck is not open. Emma and Frank become closer and closer; she develops a real interest in him and he makes her believe that he is interested in her too. In reality, Frank is having some secrets affairs with another girl, Jane Fairfox, who’s the niece of Mrs Bates, impoverished people and old fried of Emma. Emma understands that Frank has been lying to her and that Harriet has been developing an interest in Mr Knightly. She finally opens her eyes and realizes that the man she really loves is Mr Knightly himself. In the conclusion, after explanations, Harriet understands that Mr Knightly is not the man for her and she directs her attentions toward another man. Emma and Mr Knightly open their hearts to one another. Mr Churchill is free to continue his relationship with Jane, but his reputation is no longer what it was (no happy ending). The conclusion is peculiar because it looks like a happy ending but JA in the final page of the novel says something like “this may be seen as the perfect conclusion, everybody has obtained what they wanted but seldom there’s openness to one another”. People are never completely open among themselves; there’s always an element that remains unexpressed. This is not like a fairytale; it’s a sentence that complicates any interpretation of this work or any other work by JA as sentimental fiction that tends to the constitution of perfect couples.
! Be careful: very often in her novels we find clues that she wanted to say something else. JA asks us to read her carefully.
Jane Austen belongs to the Romantic period; her novels appeared between 1811 and 1818. In her writings she mixes together elements of RATIONALISM and NEOCLASSICISM of the 18th century and elements of the ne ROMANTIC ATTITUDE that were becoming popular in the early 19th century.
She was a reader and she trained herself to become a novelist by reading intensely. We know from her letters that her father had a library with 300 books. 2 of her brothers went to Oxford University so she had access to knowledge that went beyond what she could access to in the family home. She read everything, from the Bible to periodical essays. Jane Austen fought about writing, she had ideas about literature and had plans about writing it. She thought of herself as a professional writer. She also took publishing seriously and later in life she wrote directly to publisher in order to negotiate the terms of publication. She knew that she belonged to the female tradition of the novel and that it was the woman who dominated the novel and no longer the man (ex Richardson). In the 5th chapter of Northanger Abbey (1818) she expresses a strong defence of the novel as a genre. She claims that the best novels around contain the most accurate analysis of human nature written in the best possible language. The examples she gives are female writers.
Jane Austen adopted the novel of SENTIMENT AND MANNERS but she was an innovator: she experimented with it. How?
She kept the sentimental plot (the love story) and she made it central but if we analyses the lexis, we’ll realize that the word “love” and all the other words related to it “feelings, affection...” appear very rarely. She reduced the sentimental impact of love. The lexis which is predominant is that related to CONGNITION, EPISTEMIOLOGY such as “knowledge, understanding, thinking, reason, discovering, analysing...” -> they relate to the process by which we understand reality. Jane Austen understood her fiction as epistemiological instruments of cognition. A fundamental process is that of understanding reality. The characters, especially the women, have to comprehend what is going on inside and around them. The men too have to understand. But at the same time this is what happens to the reader who’s not in a position of superiority: we are invited to participate in the process of discovering. This is also why in her novels READING is an important theme: characters read books, discuss books, but also newspapers. Her novels are tool to read reality.
By placing men and women at the same level. Both have to grow and develop from immaturity to maturity through a process of understanding and learning. Traditionally, in the novels on manners the heroin was a weak figure that had to find the man who gave her strength and security, while the hero was already perfect from beginning to end. She created equality between the male and female characters in the learning process (ex. Elizabeth and Darcy).
Jane Austen creates a very simple narrative based on everyday life. This is her REALISM.
She focalises on details. In her novels there are small but significant details which are full of meaning for the message of her work: objects, gestures (a smile, a glance, a touch), words.
Her attention to one specific social group, her own: the GENTRY. In her novels there are a very few middle class characters (lawyers and merchants) and a few aristocrats (ex. Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice). Gentry is a social class between the professional middle classes of lawyers and merchants and the aristocracy. The gentry is formed by gentlemen and gentlewomen who do not work for living, they own lands and they have farmers who work for them. The gentry may be even richer than the aristocracy -> money is not a discriminating factor. Nowadays social historians talk about a subdivision of the gentry: the PSEUDO-GENTRY, whose members have an income from financial investments in the stock-exchange. This was the situation of Jane Austen and Emma too. This is significant from the literary point of view because Jane Austen only wrote about what she knew (realism), but also from a political and ideological point of view because she thought that this class was the pillar of the nation. It’s the glue, the connecting element between the lower and the upper classes. They created harmony and cohesion in the nation.
Jane Austen was an Anglican woman and her family believed in the Church of England in the crown. She never questioned the structure of the state. She also believed in stability and continuity, the values of tradition. She wasn’t a revolutionary writer, but she was a TRANSFORMATIVE writer: she believed that continuity needed transformation.
In Emma, George Knightly represents continuity. He’s a landowner and lives in an Abbey in which his family has been since the Middle Ages. The building is ancient -> tradition and stability. He’s also the local magistrate, so he represents the law, he’s the king of Highbury. The Woodhouses instead are pseudo-gentry. By linking Emma with Knightly, JA has connected the ANTIQUITY with the new world of FINANCE -> continuity and transformation.
HIGHBURY: it’s a coral character because it has a voice made up of all the voices of its people = COLLECTIVE VOICE. It’s carefully described. It’s a microcosm in great details. It has a diversified social panorama: farmers, vagrants, a poor orphan (Harriet), the gentry and the pseudo-gentry. It’s the microcosm of English society. NB: English and England appear 18 times.
Mrs an Ms Bates: used to be rich and became impoverished. The widow and her unmarried daughter are pseudo-gentry and subsist on the charity of their neighbours. But they are still considered part of the community of gentry because they belong to the same group.
Manners: entire code of conduct, rules that regulated proper VIRTOUS BEHAVIOURS. They have something to do with how someone speaks and moves but more importantly what the body expresses must be a reflection of the internal values (rectitude, honesty, frankness, being considerate). The name Frank is ironic!
Manners are important because Jane Austen’s novels are about society and individuals inside a society. Manners are the linking element that harmonises society.

1st passage:  page 1
Emma looks perfect, but soon we understand she’s not: she’s unguided and she has too high ideas of herself. Keyword: SITUATION, which literally mean “where you are placed”, as a person, geographically, economically, socially; but it also means EMOTIONAL situation. At the beginning her situation is placid, but she will have to overcome obstacles. Some situations may be worse than hers: ex. Mrs and Ms Bates’ because sometimes they don’t have food to eat or Jane because she’s an orphan and she has no choice: either she will be married (difficult) or she will become a governess (servant).

2nd passage: page 9
Presentation of Frank. He’s the villain but at the beginning he seems the hero. We also understand that Highbury is a coral character. Frank is an ironic name because he’s a liar. George instead in the name of the King and of the patron of England -> patriotism

3rdpassage: page 95
Churchill didn’t visit his father: he didn’t do his duty. His masculinity is questioned.

4th passage: page 97
Emma thinks that Frank is amiable. But according to Mr Knightly he’s aimable in French, in a superficial way. Amiable in English means being considerate. Knightly considers him French (national stereotype). NB: Linda Colley, national identity is constructed by demonising the other.

5th passage: page 132
Frank goes to London just to get his hair cut. Emma finds it irrational, extravagant and selfish.

6th passage: page 144
Frank criticizes Jane to Emma focusing on her hairstyle which he describes as “outrée”. Frank uses too much French to be a true Englishman. He’s not a gentleman because he criticizes a woman to another woman; he focuses on appearance and gossips in a feminine feminized way.

7rd passage: page 234
The small group has been invited by Knightly for an excursion. Emma reacts to the house and the estate. She appreciates its beauty, but she also reacts from an ideological point of view because she attaches value to the place: solidity and respectability. The description a microcosmic description of Englishness and England because somewhere in the novel the narrator describes Mr Knightly as a gentleman in the true English style. All the values associated with the house, are also by transposition associated with the values that Jane Austen associates with Englishness and England.

Then the style changes: we have a kind of FREE INDIRECT SPEECH, it’s experimental. Jane Austen reproduces the cacophony of collective dialogues -> idea of community. The sense of national attachment emerges even in the most superficial conversation about strawberries. The characters walk around in a scattered way -> fragmentation, but then they become a group again -> re-composition (-> Woolf).
Another important element is trees, symbolic of the antiquity and of the nation (oak). Then in 3 lines JA realizes the most economical and striking compression of the idea of English countryside: peaceful, harmonious, sunny and beautiful because it is a combination of the natural and the artificial. So she identifies Englishness in a house and its owner, a fruit (strawberry) and the landscape, which is quintessentially English. We have the words belonging to the category of the picturesque which is a combination of opposites: elements of the beautiful and of the sublime.

MALE CHARACTERS: Knightly versus Churchill
There is a contention about fitting in. It means that Franck has to establish his own situation in Highbury while Mr Knightly has already a situation and an identity. Frank is exotic and attractive because he’s an outsider, but at the same time he seems to be truly interested in becoming a true citizen of Highbury. For these reasons Emma finds him attractive. But little by little the narrative begins to give clues about his falsity and unreliability.

8th passage: page 242
The group goes out for an excursion to Boxhill where they play a social game: everyone going around the circle must say either 1 clever thing or 3 silly ones. When it comes to Ms Bates, Emma is rude to her because she says that her problem is the number: she will say more than 3 stupid things. Mr Knightly lectures Emma: she hasn’t been acting like a gentlewoman. This is a moment when she grows up. She abandons the superficiality of Frank and becomes a woman worthy of Knightly because she has interiorized all the proper values.

By the end of the novel, the danger represented by the outsider has been neutralized and the proper English community reinforced thanks to the marriage of Emma and Mr Knightly. Harriet Smith marries Robert Martin, a farmer working the land for Knightly. All the social classes are redistributed.
In her novels the focus on the individual is never separated from the idea of community. All her novels are about microcosms of England made up of individuals, but the individual is inside a community.
Her novels tend to be limited: they concentrate on a small group of characters in restricted geographical area on the one hand; on the other hand this limited point of view foreshadows a much broader spectrum. The tales relate to the nation.
Conventionality: conventions are important because they are shared principles, but in her novels, they are promoted, conformed and transformed at the same time.
Countryside: the place where the true Englishness resides and JA has a double attitude: the countryside means community and tradition of England and Englishness, but there is room for transformation, improvement. Jane Austen wasn’t nostalgic. She wanted the continuation of the past with the transformation of those elements that need to be modified. NB: JA didn’t have any experience of the places in England where modernity was transforming the aspects of towns, cities and the countryside.
di Valentina Ligabue
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