Mary C.M. Phillips’s guest post for Emma in the Snow explores connections between Emma and Persuasion, focusing on the dangers of pride. Mary writes about Jane Austen and Edith Wharton at CaffeineEpiphanies.com, and her stories and essays have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, Bad Austen: The Worst Stories Jane Never Wrote, and other anthologies.
She’s a member of JASNA’s New York Metropolitan Region, and as a musician she has toured nationally with Matthew Sweet, Rob Bartlett, and Barry Mitchell. For my Mansfield Park series last year, she contributed a guest post on Mary Crawford’s famous question about Fanny Price, “Pray, is she out, or is she not?” I hope you’ll enjoy reading what she has to say about pride in Emma.
The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee. — Obadiah 3 (KJV)
Pride refers to an inflated sense of self and it’s a major theme in Jane Austen’s novels. It can blind characters to the truth and make them less likeable. In Chapter 7 of Emma, Emma Woodhouse’s interpretation of Robert Martin’s letter to Harriet Smith and her poor judgement of character are strongly influenced by the blinding power of pride.
After Mr. Martin sends a fine, well-crafted proposal of marriage to Harriet, Emma’s “disposition to think a little too well of herself” (Chapter 1) takes over. She is suddenly unable to see clearly. She does see that the letter is one of quality, but she cannot see that the writer of the letter is a person of quality. She persuades Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin’s proposal.
This is the first time I truly dislike Emma. I cannot help but dislike her as she blatantly takes someone’s future into her own hands and handles it badly. She treats both Harriet and Mr. Martin as pawns, without the slightest concern as to the consequences of her misguided advice. Emma believes she cannot make a mistake, and in this belief she reminds me very much of Lady Russell in Persuasion, who persuades a young Anne Elliot to give up Frederick Wentworth. Like Emma, Lady Russell is a woman of good taste, but she is blinded by pride:
She was a benevolent, charitable, good woman, and capable of strong attachments; most correct in her conduct, strict in her notions of decorum, and with manners that were held a standard of good-breeding. She had a cultivated mind, and was, generally speaking, rational and consistent—but she had prejudices on the side of ancestry; she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them. (Chapter 2)
Emma, like Lady Russell, goes through life seeing (and judging) people as she chooses to see (and judge) them. The scene in which Emma attempts to draw a portrait of Harriet offers a good example of the difficulty she has in seeing and accepting things as they are. “You have made her too tall, Emma,” says Mr. Knightley (Chapter 6). Mr. Knightley, aptly named, is the only person who speaks truth without distorted perception.
Over and over again, we see examples of Emma’s blindness. She’s unable to see Mr. Martin’s good qualities or Harriet’s faults; she’s unable to see Mr. Elton’s infatuation with her and lack of infatuation with Harriet. She is also completely blind to the romance between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill—granted, so are most readers—and even blind to the fact that she is in love with Mr. Knightley. Shouldn’t a young woman who is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” be able to see things more clearly?
On the very first page of Emma, Austen finishes her initial description of Emma with a hint that—for Emma—things are never what they seem. “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (emphasis added).
Austen tells us right from the beginning that Emma is a heroine with faults that she is unaware of: “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself…. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her” (Chapter 1).
Mr. Knightley tries to reason with Emma. He sees people for who they are and is frustrated when Emma becomes delusional. When Emma announces that Harriet has refused his good friend Mr. Martin, he objects strongly.
“Not Harriet’s equal!” exclaimed Mr. Knightley loudly and warmly; and with calmer asperity, added, a few moments afterwards, “No, he is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation. Emma, your infatuation about that girl blinds you. What are Harriet Smith’s claims, either of birth, nature or education, to any connection higher than Robert Martin?” (Chapter 8)
I must add that I have wondered if it was actually Mr. Knightley who wrote the letter to Harriet for Mr. Martin (just as Emma dictates a response for Harriet). But then, I wonder if I am being a bit Emma-like in doubting Mr. Martin’s capabilities.
Thankfully, all turns out for the best. Harriet does not seek Emma’s advice when Mr. Martin proposes a second time (just as Anne Elliot does not seek Lady Russell’s advice the second time around). They have all learned from their mistakes. Emma, reluctant to admit her mistakes, finally realizes how dangerous pride can be:
Emma was quite relieved, and could presently say, with a little more composure, “You probably have been less surprized than any of us, for you have had your suspicions.—I have not forgotten that you once tried to give me a caution.—I wish I had attended to it—but—” (with a sinking voice and a heavy sigh) “I seem to have been doomed to blindness.” (Chapter 49)
Emma’s feelings are similar to Lady Russell’s at the end of Persuasion, in a passage where Captain Wentworth’s name could easily be replaced with that of Mr. Martin (and Mr. Elliot’s with that of Mr. Elton):
She must learn to feel that she had been mistaken with regard to both; that she had been unfairly influenced by appearances in each; that because Captain Wentworth’s manners had not suited her own ideas, she had been too quick in suspecting them to indicate a character of dangerous impetuosity; and that because Mr. Elliot’s manners had precisely pleased her in their propriety and correctness, their general politeness and suavity, she had been too quick in receiving them as the certain result of the most correct opinions and well-regulated mind. (Chapter 24)
The blinding power of pride is an essential ingredient in Austen’s novels. It causes characters in books—as in real life—to make poor decisions, many of which have severe consequences for others. In Austen’s novels I am grateful for second chances and the opportunity for characters to come to a greater understanding of their mistakes. I only wish that, in this regard, life could be more like an Austen novel.
Quotations are from the Everyman’s Library edition of Emma (1991) and the Dover edition of Persuasion (1997).
Eighth 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 Diana Birchall, Carol Chernega, and Janet Todd.