Happy New Year, and thank you for celebrating “The Year of Emma” with us!
Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa have been researching and writing about female literary friendship for their blog SomethingRhymed.com, so when I decided to invite them to participate in my Emma in the Snow celebration, I thought I’d ask if they’d co-write a guest post about friendship in Emma. I was very happy that they accepted and it’s a pleasure to share their contribution with you today. This is their first guest post for my blog, though I talked a little bit about them and their research on L.M. Montgomery last spring when I introduced Sue Lange’s guest post on “The Secret Diary of L.M. Montgomery and Nora Lefurgey.” Here’s to friendship and good conversations about books online and in person, throughout 2016 and beyond.
Emma and Emily write literary features both together and separately for several publications, including the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, and The Times. Emily is the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and Emma’s debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn, will be published this year. Their guest post is written from Emma’s point of view.
My friend Emily and I have very different memories of our first encounters with Emma. Emily remembers reading the novel when she was in her late teens, during the Austen craze that swept the nation following the hit BBC series of Pride and Prejudice. This was a book she fondly recollects chatting about with other girls at school.
My experience, on the other hand, was far more solitary. I read it during a family holiday and recall myself at thirteen, curled up on the sofa, studiously ignoring the sounds of my friends cycling across the campsite towards our caravan. I willed the girls to ride past, hoping they’d forget to call for me. I liked them well enough but I couldn’t bear the idea of tearing myself away from my book: a £1 classic paperback version of Emma, which my parents had bought for my birthday—no doubt selected more for the coincidence of the name I share with the novel’s heroine than in expectation that it would appeal to me more than any of Austen’s other books.
When the inevitable knock sounded on the caravan door, I kept my nose deeply buried in my novel and left Mum to speak to my friends. My mother expected me to feel pleased that the girls were inviting me out to play, but I just wanted to continue reading. Although Mum acquiesced to my antisocial choice, I couldn’t help but pick up on her disappointment.
It’s taken me until now to discern the irony of my decision to eschew spending time with those girls for remaining alone with my fictional namesake—a young woman very much in need of a friend.
When Emma Woodhouse’s lifelong confidante and erstwhile governess leaves Hartfield, the estate of her employer, to set up home with a local gentleman Emma attempts to fill the gap by seeking out a replacement friend. But she makes a poor choice in Harriet—a young woman who “knows nothing herself, and looks upon Emma as knowing every thing” (Volume 1, Chapter 5). Indeed, Emma is drawn to her because she shows “so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield” (Volume 1, Chapter 3). On first glance, we might worry that there’s snobbery at play here: are we being asked to criticise a friendship because it transgresses class lines?
Harriet’s lower social status is an issue, as is her lack of intellect. But these factors primarily pose problems because Emma exploits the power difference. She meddles in Harriet’s love life, for example, convincing her new friend to reject the proposal of the loving farmer Robert Martin by persuading Harriet that he is too lowly. Without a firm friend to challenge her, Emma’s worst excesses of vanity and snobbery are allowed to hold sway.
It is hardly surprising that Emma chose for herself such an unchallenging companion, since the early relationship with her doting governess offered just such a template. Emma’s formative bond with Mrs. Weston can, in part, be held to blame for the growth of her most negative character traits. The governess submitted her own will to that of her charge, and “the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint” (Volume 1, Chapter 1).
Mrs. Weston’s fault is entirely forgivable and yet nonetheless damaging: the magnitude of her love for the motherless Emma has blinded her to her charge’s flaws. And here too, class plays its part. The governess and later companion is assigned an almost impossible task. She must teach Emma to better herself and yet she lacks the equity that could help her to do so with authority and ease.
During her years as a governess, Mrs. Weston failed to convince Emma to stick with skills for long enough to hone them. When we meet the novel’s heroine as an adult she has begun many books but finished few, and her piano playing is adept but hardly accomplished. And yet Austen has dared to present us with a complex character. Emma is not simply over-indulged and self-entitled, she is also, at times, generous-spirited and selfless. She shows herself at her best when it comes to Mrs. Weston. Emma’s father continually bemoans the absence of the household’s former governess, yet Emma rises above her feelings of loss to celebrate her companion’s choice to marry and set up a life of her own. So, while Mrs. Weston’s love may have allowed Emma’s flaws to thrive, it also helped her strengths to flourish.
Emma could perhaps have exploited her strengths and minimised her flaws had she chosen Jane Fairfax to fill the space left in her life by Mrs. Weston’s marriage. Emma’s nearest and dearest consider this niece of their neighbour “so very accomplished and superior” (Volume 1, Chapter 12) that they cannot understand why Emma has not befriended her. Jane is a talented pianist and a well-educated young woman, who has learnt the joys that come from endurance; a motherless woman, who, unlike Emma, has grown up knowing that one day she must fend for herself as a governess. But Emma cannot open herself up to such a friendship, which would expose her own laziness and sense of entitlement, challenging her to better herself.
From the research my friend Emily and I have done for our website, SomethingRhymed.com, we’ve discovered that Austen herself was brave enough to make just such a choice. In her own life, Austen befriended Anne Sharp—her niece’s governess, who penned plays in between teaching lessons. The pair forged a relationship founded on intellectual parity. Even once Austen’s writing began gaining admirers as grand as the Prince Regent, Sharp never shied away from critiquing her friend’s work. Austen recorded in her notebook that Anne found Jane Fairfax insufficiently well characterised—a telling criticism from a working governess. Austen clearly valued her friend’s capacity to challenge her: she singled out the governess as her only friend to receive one of her precious presentation copies of Emma, and, just two years later, knowing that she was dying, Austen wrote one of her last letters to her “dearest Anne.”
When Sarah challenged me to write about female friendship in Emma as part of her online celebrations to mark the bicentenary of its publication, she didn’t just single me out. Rather, she asked me to reflect on this theme with my friend and co-writer Emily, and our post would set up in conversation with those written by lots of Jane Austen experts and fans.
And so, over twenty years since I turned away my friends in favour of befriending Emma on the page, it’s been female collaboration and camaraderie that have now drawn me back into the novel, transforming the solitary act of reading it into a communal celebration of friendship.
Quotations are from the Oxford edition of Emma, edited by R.W. Chapman (1933).
In conjunction with this guest post for my blog series, Emily interviewed Emma about romantic love and platonic friendship in Austen’s Emma, and the podcast is available beginning today at SomethingRhymed.com. Here’s the link to their conversation.
Fourth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Dan Macey, Catherine Morley, and Maggie Arnold.