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Emma – Jane Austen: Mystery Novel

Emma_CE_Brock_1909_Vol_I_Chapter_VIIf there was one book I wish I could go back and read as if for the first time, without any prior knowledge or expectations, without ever having seen or heard of the movies, it would be Jane Austen’s Emma.

Unfortunately, when I first read the book, I had seen the movies many times and knew exactly what to expect and I think it clouded my initial appreciation of what a well constructed novel it is.

I once read it described, and I wish I could remember where I read it, as a mystery. The book is almost exclusively told from Emma’s perspective, though not in a first-person narrative and it is fascinating to read her perception of what is going on, along with the clues that Austen gives about how things really are.

The book was published in 1816 and the mystery novel was not a genre at that time, so Jane Austen is once again at the forefront of literature. It’s not a mystery novel about crime and murder, but it is the way that Austen misleads her readers through her heroine, but at the same time invites them to perceive the truth, that makes it like a mystery…though without the readers necessarily knowing that there are mysteries to be discovered.

The heroine, Emma Woodhouse, knows that she is a very clever young woman and believes that she has a gift for perceiving the feelings of others and sets out to assist people in reaching their goals, usually romantic, as she perceives those goals to be. It’s not just that she believes that she has a gift of perception, it is also that she believes that she knows what is best for people and these beliefs conflict, most notably and most frustratingly, in her treatment of her friend Harriet Smith.

I must admit that for me the first half of Emma is a little slow. I like it, but I tend to meander through it pleasurably, like an afternoon walk in the sun, but the second half is really where the action is. That is when Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton all arrive in Highbury to shake up Emma’s placid and self-satisfied existence and where Emma begins to see that maybe her life is lacking a little something, somewhere.

That is also when much of the mystery begins (there is some during the first half, when Emma takes it for granted that Mr. Elton loves Harriet, while Austen hints that it is really Emma that Elton is interested in by his outlandish flattery of her). Emma believes Frank Churchill is distinguishing her with his attentions, she believes that Frank Churchill does not like Jane Fairfax, she believes that Harriet is in love with Frank Churchill and she believes that Jane Fairfax might possibly be in love with a man named Mr. Dixon. In the meantime, there is an undercurrent regarding Mr. Knightley, who does not like Frank Churchill, which is very unlike him since he usually likes most people.

All of this is taken for granted by Emma and Austen seems to assume that we the readers are taking Emma’s view of things, however, she is also inviting us to see where Emma has it wrong. Frank repeatedly finds excuses to go over and talk to Jane and her aunt, Miss Bates, and Frank only arrives in Highbury after Jane has come. Harriet is never seen talking to Frank, in fact, she seems to be talking to Mr. Knightley quite a bit (the man she currently loves). Frank seems to have knowledge about Dr. Perry that he only could have gotten from Jane Fairfax or Miss Bates.

And during the whole book, we are invited to wonder why Mr. Knightley is so jealous of Frank Churchill and everyone’s obvious desire that Frank marry Emma.

In most mystery novels, there is a scene at the end where everything becomes clear and every little mystery and inconsistency is explained. There’s no detective, obviously, in Emma, but there is one scene that serves to resolve nearly every mystery. It is when Emma has just heard that Frank Churchill is engaged to be married to Jane Fairfax, that they were engaged all along. It explains so much of Frank’s behavior and Emma is filled with shame and grief at how she has also behaved and how badly she has misjudged everyone.

Emma is also afraid that she has encouraged Harriet to indulge her love for Frank and that she has once again caused Harriet to be disappointed in love. She dreads telling her friend, but Harriet arrives perfectly unconcerned and it is revealed that Emma has once again been mistaken. Harriet never cared for Frank Churchill at all; the man she really loves is Mr. Knightley. In this revelation comes the final, unexpected and most important revelation of the whole book, that the book has been building to and that Emma has been completely unaware of: Emma discovers that she loves Mr. Knightley and she cannot bare the thought that he might marry Harriet.

It is a wonderful and touching scene. Emma spends the whole book thinking she understands everyone, but it turns out that the only person she really needs to understand is herself, which understanding she only comes to after her peaceful existence is threatened by the thought that Mr. Knightley might be taken away from her.

And it turns out that Mr. Knightley went through a similar episode of self-discovery. It was only when Frank Churchill came to Highbury and, as Mr. Knightley thought, threatened to take Emma away from him that he realized how much he loved Emma.

I’ve always wondered what it would have been like if I had read the book before seeing the movies. I wonder how much I would have seen and how much I would have just gone along with Emma’s view of things. It hasn’t dinted my appreciation of the book now, but I always wished I could have had the pleasure of reading it with a truly receptive attitude, without preconceptions of my own, and watched how the romance developed without any comfortable knowledge of how it would be. Would I have picked out Mr. Knightley as the one she would marry from the moment I first met him? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Fiction

 

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Reserve vs. Shyness in Jane Austen

JaneAustenCassandraWatercolourIn the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy proposes and is rejected (in the rain – my theory is that in this movie Elizabeth Bennett rejects him because he is so ungentlemanly as to propose instead of doing something constructive like getting the lady an umbrella or a carriage or even offering his coat), and among other things Elizabeth mentions his interference in the romance between Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett as a reason for not liking him. She then proceeds to explain why Jane did not appear to Mr. Darcy to be in love with Mr. Bingley: “That’s because she’s shy…my sister hardly shows her true feelings to me.”

Shy? Around Elizabeth? Does she mean that her own sister Jane is shy around her? That would be awkward since the two sisters share a bed in this movie.

Perhaps I’m being a little ticky-tack here in my objections, but what Elizabeth really means here, I assume, is that Jane is reserved. The difference being whether one is silent because one is uncomfortable and afraid or because one is generally disinclined to speak of one’s feelings and deep thoughts.

The two words can often be confused. I had the meaning of both conflated in my mind, but Jane Austen actually possess great clarity on this point in all her books, especially in Persuasion, where she draws a distinction between the two. A shy person might be perfectly open and flamboyant around those they know, though completely quiet in company. It is only the reserved who do not often share their feelings, even with those they know and love.

In Persuasion, Anne Elliott is attempting to draw out Captain Benwick, partially as a kindness for a man who is suffering from the loss of his fiancé and partially so that she does not have to speak to her own ex-fiancé, Captain Wentworth:

He [Captain Benwick] was shy, and disposed to abstraction; but the engaging mildness of her countenance, and gentleness of her manners, soon had their effect…For though shy, he did not seem reserved; it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints.

Pers-brock-13Anne Elliott later thinks Mr. Elliott, her cousin, is reserved. “Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others.” and later she observes that “he is not a man, I think, to be known intimately soon.”

Jane Austen often seems to use reserve in regard to people who hold something back; they are reserved because they must be or else their secret will be out. This is true with Mr. Elliott, but also true for Jane Fairfax in Emma. Emma frequently complains about Jane Fairfax’s reserve and uses it as an excuse for her own dislike of her. It seems that Jane was always a trifle reserved, as a natural part of her temperment, but when she returns during the time of the book she is more reserved than ever and even Mr. Knightly notes it. “She is reserved; more reserved, I think, that she used to be.

Jane Fairfax is, of course, hiding the fact of her engagement with Frank Churchill and it has made her more guarded than she was before. It is only when the secret is out that she is able to speak openly with Emma.

Reserve, however, does not have to be the result of having a secret. Many people are naturally reserved. This simply means, like Jane Bennett, that they are undemonstrative, even-tempered and less likely to share or discuss their intimate feelings. I think it could be argued that Jane Bennett, in the book, is reserved and it definitely could be argued that she is reserved in the 2005 movie. In fact, in the book, Elizabeth and Charlotte discuss how calm Jane appears, even though she’s in love and Charlotte is concerned that her calmness will not be sufficient encouragement for Mr. Bingley.

Fanny Price, on the other hand, in Mansfield Park, is timid and shy. She rarely has the courage to speak exactly what she thinks. It’s not because she wishes to hold something of herself back, but because she has been taught that she must hold herself back as a person of less importance. It makes her artificially reserved, and partially because she is hiding the fact that she loves Edmund Bertram from him and everyone else. I always felt great sympathy and understanding for Fanny. She is often considered one of Austen’s most mousy heroines, but I always had a strong feeling of protectiveness for her. I think it’s because I can see myself in her, the shyness and timidity, the tendency to make everything seem a bigger deal that it actually is and inclination towards reading and reverie.

Emma_CE_Brock_1909_Vol_I_chapter_IMy sister and I, when we go out, are both quiet. However, the cause is different. She is reserved; I am shy. Shyness has to do with fear or discomfort. It’s like stage-fright and like stage-fright for certain people, it never quite goes away. It’s something you manage. I quite simply blank out around people I don’t know or am not comfortable with and the moment I get into a group larger than three or four, I clam up. My sister, on the other hand, is just not going to express her feelings in certain contexts. There is absolutely no fear involved at all.

Reserved people, I might add, are absolutely the best listeners in the world. Reserve is also not synonymous with rudeness or an inability to interact socially. They might not expose their heart, but they can interact. It is the shy people who have more trouble with interaction.

My theory is that a reserved person feels that excessive sharing of emotions and thoughts is like exposing themselves in public. They are really and truly content to listen and hear. A shy person might like to participate, but doesn’t know how and can feel more awkward in their silence than a reserved person. However, if, like Anne Elliott, someone takes a little time to break through that shyness, shyness can be dispelled, in regards to that particular person, anyway. A reserved person, however, you have to catch in the act of sharing. It will come in a little confidence here, or a statement there. If you ask them a point blank question, they might not tell you; it has to come naturally in conversation.

I always defend shyness and reserve. I know such tendencies must often be overcome or overruled, but when extreme extroversion and frankness is often celebrated – even when frankness is supposedly being censured, it’s still half admired – and I read things about how not to be shy, as if there were something wrong with me, I can get a little defensive. After all, shyness and reserve can have its benefits – such people can be observant, tranquil, more likely to be comfortable with their own company, good listeners. And it’s hard for me to imagine myself not shy or even a little bit reserved. If I were the life of the party, I wouldn’t be me.

Shy and reserved people of the world, unite! Except we wouldn’t have much to say to each other once united…but that’s okay.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Literary Thoughts

 

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