George Justice is the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Jane Austen’s Emma (2011). He specializes in eighteenth-century literature and has written and edited books and essays on the literary marketplace, authorship, and women’s writing. He’s Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate Vice President for Humanities and Arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University.
When I hosted a party for Mansfield Park a couple of years ago, George contributed a defense of Mrs. Norris. For Emma in the Snow, he’s written a guest post on Emma’s late mother, Mrs. Woodhouse. He’s also sent this beautiful photo of Phoenix, Arizona in winter.
I’m realizing I know quite a few Austen scholars who live in places where it’s warm all winter—or at least not as cold and snowy as it is in my corner of Canada. In case you missed the recent guest posts by Diana Birchall, Elisabeth Lenckos, and Cheryl Kinney, you can find their photos here: winter in Santa Monica, London, and Texas. Meanwhile, we’ve just had two snow days in a row here in Halifax….
I’m thinking of the contrast with Highbury, where “the snow was nowhere above half an inch deep—in many places hardly enough to whiten the ground.” Instead of taking pictures of the snowbanks in front of my house, however, I decided to show you my photo of the view from Point Pleasant Park yesterday afternoon, after the blizzard had ended.
Okay, now that I’ve finished my weather report, let’s move on to more important things. It’s a real pleasure to introduce George’s contribution to the Emma celebrations.
At what age would memories of a mother’s caresses be “indistinct”? For Emma, twenty years old, that must have been a long time ago. The narrator of Emma does not specify exactly when Emma’s mother had died, but from my own experience of losing a mother in childhood, and comparing my own memories with those of my brothers, Emma must have been seven or younger when her mother died.
It has always seemed strange to me that the narrator of Emma proclaims that little had vexed her heroine up until the time of the events of the novel. My own mother died when I was nine, and although I, like Emma, lived a relatively calm and peaceful childhood, with the “place” of my mother taken by a loving, Miss Taylor-like step-mother, I would have to say that my mother’s death from cancer was indeed highly vexing, not only to me but to my entire family.
And so I must project vexation onto Mr. Woodhouse, who never remarried and apparently made a rapid transition from husband to valetudinarian, depending on Miss Taylor and his two daughters for female guidance and upon Mr. Knightley, Miss Taylor, and Emma to keep the business side of Hartfield going.
Most marriages in Jane Austen’s novels are pretty bad, and it’s easy to project a severe level of dysfunction onto the marriage of Emma’s parents. Was Mrs. Woodhouse, like Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennet, the victim of a certain passion (in this case for money?) that led her into an intellectually unequal match? She seems to have had no connections in Highbury—at least there are no parents or siblings on display, or even mentioned, in the pages of Emma. Perhaps, like one Augusta Hawkins of Maple Grove, Mrs. Woodhouse married a narcissist husband to escape from an unfortunate situation?
Let’s look at the text to glean what we might about Emma’s mother. There is very little: evidence comes directly only from Mr. Knightley’s lament that a lack of her strong mother’s guidance has led Emma astray; instead of an accomplished, disciplined perfect woman of her day, he implies, we have a flawed, headstrong, occasionally self-involved young woman. (Would the novel’s readers want her any other way?)
The less direct evidence I want to consider comes from the case of Emma’s older sister Isabella, who was not presumably too young to forget her mother’s caresses. Most critics and readers look at Isabella as her father’s daughter, whereas Emma might take after her mother. And the comparisons with Mr. Woodhouse and Isabella are too strong to overlook. Obsessions with food, health, and a smothering sense of familial affection; perhaps the character most like Mrs. Woodhouse would be Mr. John Knightley!
In Volume 1, Chapter 5, Mr. Knightley says, “At ten years old, [Emma] had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured: Isabella slow and diffident. And ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all. In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her.” It’s unclear to me (at least) why inheriting her mother’s talents would have resulted in Emma being under subjection to her—except in the vacuum left by the vapidity of Isabella and Mr. Woodhouse. And, in any case, why should such strong talents require “subjection”?
Mr. Knightley here is wrong: it is no misfortune for Emma to be able, at ten, to answer questions that puzzled her seven-year-older sister. This is an example of the novel’s requiring Mr. Knightley to change as much as Emma must change. Especially since the words “mother” and “motherly” are often used in the novel in relation to gentleness and warmth—overwhelmingly both in direct reference and in qualitative judgment to old Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates’s oft-referred to mother.
Other characters lost their mothers at an early age, including Frank Churchill (for whom Mrs. Weston serves as a surrogate “mother,” just as she had for Emma) and Jane Fairfax, who does not seem to have suffered from want of a mother in the way that Mr. Knightley associates with Emma. And even Mrs. Elton had lost her mother (as well as her father) sometime before marrying her “cara sposo.”
Mrs. Woodhouse’s death was certainly a misfortune to herself, to Mr. Woodhouse, to Isabella, to Emma, and to others in Highbury. But if Mrs. Bates is the ideal of motherhood in the novel, perhaps the strength of character and independence attributed to Mrs. Woodhouse had even less space in her pre-Wollstonecraftian world than Emma will have in post-revolutionary Britain. The inanities of the various mothers in Emma therefore might serve as commentary on the world that threatens to hold Emma down.
There are two moments of hope for mothers at the end of the novel. First, Mrs. Weston, motherly in a positive sense, gives birth to a daughter. But more generally, Emma married to Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax to Frank Churchill provide a sense that future generations will be raised by relatively egalitarian parents in modern marriages. Death may or may not intervene (we wouldn’t wish it for Mrs. Weston, Emma, or Jane Fairfax), but all three women have had a profound and positive impact on their husbands, not to manage them (as Mrs. Woodhouse must have done) but to rationalize them. We don’t believe that little Henry will inherit Donwell Abbey, even if he seems to be the heartier of Isabella’s two boys. Instead, we can’t help but believe that the happy ending of Emma will be as much about what happens in the future to Highbury as what has happened in the past, including the death of Mrs. Woodhouse and others of the novel’s absent mothers.
Fifteenth 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 Gillian Dow, Margaret Horwitz, and Kate Scarth.