Saturday, 11 January 2014

Re-evaluation of Emma Woodhouse, George Knightley and Elinor Dashwood

I've been rereading "Emma" (Jane Austen) since flying to Stockholm, and here are some new thoughts:
1/ Emma Woodhouse is often said to be delusional, snobbish and officious, which is true, but she has another side not often mentioned. Look again at the discussion between her and Mr Knightley on Harriet Smith rejecting Robert Martin- whilst she is not right in feeding some illusion into her friend Harriet and raising her expectations, and is quite snobbish in the way she looks down on Robert Martin, she is right to think that a woman doesn't need to accept a proposal only because she is asked, and that Harriet's too young to get married. There she directly calls it, "female right", and in another conversation, with Harriet, is content with her life and with being single, and expresses no need for a man.

2/ George Knightley, sharp, observational, frank and considerate as he is, has his faults. He doesn't like being wrong and may be self-righteous, even when making up. He can be serious, stiff and harsh, especially in judgment of Frank Churchill (due to some jealousy). The discussions with Emma show that, though he is right to think that Harriet can get no benefit from friendship with Emma and that Harriet would be happy with Robert Martin, he is wrong to forget about a woman's right to say no and that Harriet doesn't have to get married at such a young age; though he is right to criticise Emma for her snobbery and her looking down on Robert Martin, he is wrong to have a low opinion of Harriet because of her obscurity (unknown parents); though he is right to tell Emma not to continue matchmaking, he is wrong to think he must be right simply because he is 16 years older (this is called ageism).

"... "To be sure- our discordancies must always arise from me being in the wrong."
"Yes", said he, smiling- "and reason good. I was 16 years old when you were born."
"I have still the advantage of you by 16 years' experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child. Come, my dear Emma, let us be friends and say no more about it..."" 

In my 1st reading, I thought "Emma" was about a girl who was always wrong and a guy who was always right because he's 16 years her senior. That was a mistake. For now I realise that Jane Austen doesn't share the same view with George Knightley, and that the way he thinks the 16 years of experience give him advantage and better judgment, exposes a fault of his personality.

George Knightley can also be wrong as well. He mistakenly thinks Emma's in love with Frank Churchill.

3/ Jane Austen's writing, sometimes, requires some getting used to. The book I once hated, I am now reading with pleasure, and admiration. 1 of the great strengths here is, through the use of indirect speech, Jane Austen makes the readers get into Emma's frame of mind, think like her and look at things from her point of view (this was mentioned a few days ago when I compared Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert). 

I suppose there were 3 main reasons for my dislike of the novel in my 1st reading: 
a) The absence of plot and lack of action and what I saw as abundance of dialogue, which I didn't realise was a means of characterisation and a tool of mockery. 
b) I didn't see Jane Austen's humour and didn't laugh. 
c) I didn't get her irony, and didn't always know what she might mean. 1 of the examples is above, about the 16-year gap. 


Besides, I now see Elinor Dashwood in a different way. The fact that "Sense and sensibility" is seen from Elinor's point of view gives the impression that Jane Austen chooses sense over sensibility and that Marianne Dashwood is seen as no more than a foil to Elinor, an example of excess of sensibilities, a mockery of the view of women as emotional creatures, and that Elinor is perfect. In "Pride and prejudice" I see Jane Bennet's emotional restraint, which makes Charles Bingley unsure of her feelings, echo Elinor's manners towards Edward Ferras and this again makes me more firmly believe that Elinor's emotional restraint is also a foible, and that Marianne, whilst impulsive, immature, insensitive and careless, with the tendency to step over boundaries and inflict pain upon herself, is superior to her elder sister in that she's more strong-minded, independent, and has no fear of speaking her mind and doesn't simply conform to social conventions. 

The smallness of Jane Austen's world may be criticised. But are politics and war
and history and all the 'big' things necessarily more important and significant than self-understanding, self-improvement and human relations? 

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