Deborah Yaffe is the author of Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom (2013). She’s an award-winning newspaper journalist and author and she’s been a passionate Jane Austen fan since first reading Pride and Prejudice at age ten. She has a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Yale University and a master’s degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford University, which she attended on a Marshall Scholarship. She works as a freelance writer and lives in central New Jersey with her husband, her two children, and her Jane Austen action figure.
Deborah writes about Austen on her blog, and a couple of years ago I interviewed her about her blog series “The Watsons in Winter.” When I hosted a celebration in honour of Mansfield Park, she wrote a guest post called “The Fatal Mistake.”
For Emma in the Snow, she asked her daughter, Rachel Yaffe-Bellany, to take this photo of snow in New Jersey after last week’s snowfall. I’m delighted to introduce Deborah’s guest post on “Emma the Imaginist.”
Such an adventure as this,—a fine young man and a lovely young woman thrown together in such a way, could hardly fail of suggesting certain ideas to the coldest heart and the steadiest brain. So Emma thought, at least. Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together, and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other?—How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight!—especially with such a ground-work of anticipation as her mind had already made.
(Volume 3, Chapter 3, from the Norton Critical Edition of Emma, edited by George Justice )
From David Copperfield and Jo March to T.S. Garp and Harriet the Spy, fiction is filled with writer-characters, semi-autobiographical outgrowths of their creators’ self-perceptions. At first blush, however, Jane Austen doesn’t seem to fit this pattern: Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film of Mansfield Park may transform Fanny Price into a stand-in for the scribbling young Austen, exhorting her younger sister, “Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint!” but Austen herself created no writer-characters.
Except, perhaps, for Emma Woodhouse.
Emma is in love with narrative. In the novel’s very first scene, we find her telling her anxious father a comforting bedtime story about their future visits to Randalls—down to the stabling for the horses and the reactions of coachman James. Most of the stories Emma tells, however, are of a different, very specific kind: they are courtship stories, whether about the Westons’ marriage and her own (possibly exaggerated) role in furthering it, or about Jane Fairfax’s illicit Dixon romance, or, as in the passage above, about Frank and Harriet’s future together. Inside her own head, Emma is a would-be Jane Austen, obsessed with the marriage plot. So strong is her narrative impulse that she experiences people she doesn’t yet know as mental creations of her own—“according to my idea of Mrs. Churchill … ” (Volume 1, Chapter 14); “My idea of [Frank] is … ” (Volume 1, Chapter 18)—and flattens those she does know into recognizable dramatic types (“a fine young man and a lovely young woman”).
More dangerously, of course, Emma moves from narration to creation—from telling stories about others’ lives to attempting to mold reality into the narrative shape she has chosen. And the deeper she gets into this effort—re-forming the malleable Harriet into a more polished version of ladyhood, scotching Robert Martin’s proposal, promoting the match with Mr. Elton—the harder it becomes for her to experience these people as separate beings with their own inner lives, rather than as the characters she has created. “Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him,” Emma thinks in mortified vexation, as if her own beliefs and intentions about his personality should somehow have compelled his conformity. She reassures herself with the “great consolation … that Harriet’s nature should not be of that superior sort in which the feelings are most acute and retentive”—and then is startled to find that, in fact, it takes months for Harriet to recover from her heartbreak (Volume 1, Chapter 16). She is even surprised to discover that Harriet’s rejection has wounded the Martins—so surprised that she must quickly tell herself a new, self-exculpatory story about their motivations (“Ambition, as well as love, had probably been mortified” [Volume 2, Chapter 3]).
In fact, although Emma thinks of herself as “an imaginist,” her imaginative repertoire is fatally impoverished, for she is unable to imagine the feelings of other people. Like her father, who assumes that everyone must feel as he does, and therefore prefer gruel and quiet to cake and company, Emma makes herself the measure of all things. The humbling journey on which Jane Austen takes her is an education not only in her own feelings for Mr. Knightley but also in the irreducibly separate reality of other people’s experience, and the respect that this irreducible separateness demands. Essentially, this is what Mr. Knightley calls to her attention in the scolding he administers after the Box Hill picnic: Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, must think herself into the life of a woman who is none of those things, and behave accordingly. Only in the final chapters of the novel, when Emma schools herself to endure suffering out of “a strong sense of justice by Harriet” (Volume 3, Chapter 11) and an unselfish desire to help Mr. Knightley (“Emma could not bear to give him pain” [Volume 3, Chapter 13]) does she fully imagine the feelings of others and resolve to put them ahead of her own.
Along the way, Emma—and by extension, we, the readers—also get a quiet education in storytelling. For Emma, the drama of courtship grows, ideally, out of melodrama: she is captivated by Jane Fairfax’s rescue from near-drowning and Harriet’s disturbing encounter with the gypsies. Even for the Westons’ uneventful middle-aged romance, Emma proposes a semi-dramatic starting-point: the protagonists’ chance encounter during a convenient rainstorm. No wonder she assumes Harriet must have fallen for the man who rescued her from the gypsies. Such an adventure! So peculiarly interesting! It turns out, however, that for Harriet, the adventure lies somewhere else entirely—in the “much more precious circumstance” (Volume 3, Chapter 11) of dancing with Mr. Knightley after the Eltons’ snub. True drama, Emma learns from Harriet, lies not in the extraordinary but in the everyday. And, of course, this is the great truth that all Austen’s work teaches us, and that is lost on critics who berate her for leaving out the Corn Laws and the Napoleonic Wars: the small tragedies and accomplishments of private life matter as much as the great dramas of war and politics. Emma, the would-be courtship novelist, must learn to appreciate the dramatic substance of her own unremarkable life.
But if Emma is Austen’s only writer-character, she is a strange version of the type, for she never writes a line. Her stories remain locked inside her imaginist’s mind, or, at most, imperfectly realized in the world around her. She is less a writer than a writer manqué, her creative impulses left unexpressed, thwarted by her own limitations and by the messiness of real life. Will the adventure of marriage and child-rearing provide the creative outlet she needs—an outlet that, we Austen readers cannot help noticing, Emma’s creator found wholly inadequate for her own creative impulses? In the final line of the novel, Austen assures us of Emma’s future “perfect happiness” (Volume 3, Chapter 19), but it’s hard not to imagine a very different outcome.
Twenty-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 Kim Wilson and Paul Savidge.