books, Emma, Fiction, friendship, governesses, Jane Austen, literature, reading, Something Rhymed
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.
Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the celebrations! And/or follow along by connecting with me on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter (@Sarah_Emsley).
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A wonderful post reflecting on Austen’s presentation of the moral challenges of friendship in the novel. I would just add that sometimes, as both Emmas (Austen’s and Emma Sweeney) show, isolating the self from social contact leads to productive self-reflection and gathering and assessment of knowledge. Also, I think Jane Austen vindicates Emma’s withholding of herself from friendship with Jane: As Jane says to her, “You are very kind, but I know what my manners were to you. So cold and artificial! I had always a part to act. It was a life of deceit! I know that I must have disgusted you.” Emma picks a friend for herself who is deficient in what Austen calls the “lighter talents,” but who is honest and affectionate. This post really makes me think about Jane more, and especially about how she sees herself and her own potential for friendship. And having myself experienced the great friendships that arise from a common love of Austen, I really enjoy that aspect of your post as well! Thanks you!
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Thanks so much for your reflections. You are of course right about the importance of solitude and self-reflection. I have never once regretted holing myself away that day with EMMA!
I wonder if writers especially require creative friendships, such as the one I enjoy with Emily, precisely because we also prize and prioritise solitude. The time we do choose to emerge from our books must be spent especially wisely.
It’s so interesting what you say about Jane. Certainly, later in the novel, Emma does extend the hand of friendship and Jane’s ‘deceit’ prevents her from accepting it. But Emma doesn’t have this excuse earlier in life. Perhaps she could have attempted to forge a friendship with Jane long before the clandestine engagement. I wonder if Jane Austen also vindicates Emma of this?
Thanks so much for raising this: I really enjoyed thinking about this further still.
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I agree that earlier in the novel Austen indicates Emma’s reasons for not befriending Jane are flimsy, but Jane is never as open with her as she is in the end: ‘Why she did not like Jane Fairfax might be a difficult question to answer; Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her. But “she could never get acquainted with her; she did not know how it was, but there was such coldness and reserve; such apparent indifference whether she pleased or not; and then, her aunt was such an eternal talker! – and she was made such a fuss with by everybody! – and it had been always imagined that they were to be so intimate; because their ages were the same, everybody supposed they must be so fond of eachother.” These were her reasons, she had no better.’ The narrator lets Emma list several reasons that could inhibit the growth of friendship, even though her last comment as storyteller dismisses them. However, Austen lets other characters reinforce Emma’s estimation of Jane’s habitual reticence — Mr. Knightley most prominently, or maybe I’m only thinking of him — so I do think Emma is more right than she allows herself to think herself to be. And I always ask my students if they think Emma would enter into a secret engagement for the reasons Jane does. Clearly, Emma’s engagement is secret for a brief while AND she is so wealthy she does not have Jane’s reasons to cooperate with such a plan, but I always think Jane’s secret smiles at Frank’s undercover wooing are an indictment — they’re so similar to Anne De Bourgh’s smile in P+P.
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I’ve always wondered whether this is the reason why Anne Sharp found the characterisation of Jane problemtic. Jane’s reserve, good manners, and moral compass don’t seem to equate with her behaviour with Frank (the economic impetus notwithstanding).
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A very moving post indeed! I especially find interesting the part about Anne Sharp…
“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.”
I believe(my copy of the letters is currently among the missing) that of the three letters we have of Cassandra Austen(her Bday is Jan 9th) writing about Jane Austen’s passing…two are to Fanny Knight. It is perhaps telling that the other is to Anne Sharp
(I found this post just now…..https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/cassandras-2nd-letter-on-janes-death-to-anne-sharp-mon-28-july-1817/)
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Yes, I certainly think it is telling. Emily and I wrote a blog post about Jane’s friendship with Anne on our site: http://somethingrhymed.com/2014/03/01/jane-austen-and-anne-sharp/
I wonder if anyone will ever uncover the other letters that passed between Jane and Anne, or indeed Jane’s bodkin, clasps, and lock of hair that Cassandra sent to Anne.
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Sarah Emsley said:
It’s always so interesting to speculate about what might be found in the future. That would be fascinating, of course, to read the missing letters between JA and Anne Sharp.
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