My rating: 4 of 5 stars
She knew the limitations of her own powers too well to attempt more than she could perform with credit; she wanted neither taste nor spirit in the little things which are generally acceptable, and could accompany her own voice well.
—Jane Austen, Emma
Jane Austen’s detractors always attack the whole premise of her aesthetic: its circumscription. The anti-Janeites, from Romantics like Charlotte Brontë and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Marxists like Raymond Williams and Edward Said, are forever complaining that she leaves too much out—the natural world, the spiritual world, the human body, the Napoleonic Wars, the capitalist system, the British Empire. As Virginia Woolf writes in her Common Reader essay on Austen:
She knew exactly what her powers were, and what material they were fitted to deal with as material should be dealt with by a writer whose standard of finality was high. There were impressions that lay outside her province; emotions that by no stretch or artifice could be properly coated and covered by her own resources.
Novelist Carol Shields observes that Austen’s aesthetic minimalism and ideological idealism are so rigorous that there are no fingers and toes in her fiction—and just as Austen’s relative silence about slavery is redacted by Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park film, so Joe Wright corrects her digital deficit in his 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation, whose Lizzy Bennet goes barefoot almost enough to satisfy Quentin Tarantino, and that’s without mentioning the porcine testicles Wright notoriously also includes in the film, which is perhaps not what Charlotte Brontë meant when she criticized the lack of “open country” in Austen.
While our Flaubert-and-Hemingway-conditioned contemporary MFA idea of “the literary” is saturated in very non-Austenian physical concreteness, as one computational humanist reveals, Jane Austen is otherwise our ancestor in her political silences. Our novels may have fingers galore, but still not too many Napoleons. When Madeline ffitch complains in this vein about “neoliberal realism” (“[m]arked by formal unity, the quest for authenticity, and the belief that the self is a ‘bottomless pool’ full of cogent meaning and redemption”), she could be describing the flexibly conservative national agenda of Austen’s Regency-era domestic novels just as well.
Realistic literary fiction after Austen still tends to command an inside perspective on the world, where inside refers both to the cultural interiors of the (broadly) middle-class household and to the psychic interiors of its personae. Austen invented the modern realist novel, and nowhere more than in Emma, because she innovates upon 18th-century realism’s cumbersome epistolary structures or mock-epic storytellers by introducing a subtle, supple, impersonal third-person narrator that spends half its time in its heroines’ heads.
The fiction-writing device that externalizes this interior life is free indirect discourse: a third-person narrative rhetoric that blends with the inner language of the character whose viewpoint it takes up. Unlike first-person narrative, free indirect discourse communicates what a character could or would never consciously say for herself, but unlike third-person objective narration, it insists on miming or dramatizing her inner life rather than merely reporting on it. Because it limits information to what one character at a time can know—or even one character per novel if the viewpoint is limited to the protagonist, as it mostly is in Emma—free indirect discourse is also useful for creating suspense, since readers must discover the secrets of the plot alongside the often blinkered protagonist. As Adela Pinch notes in the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of Emma:
Austen makes voices stick in the mind through her use of free indirect discourse, which makes a character’s voice seem indelible, capable of soaking into other beings. But she also uses the same technique for representing thought. Her cultivation of this mode of representing her heroines’ minds has made her novels crucial to the history of the English novel, markers of a moment when the novel as a literary genre perfects its inward turn, and begins to claim human psychology as its territory.
In Emma, Austen exploits both the ideological and aesthetic potential of this narrative form beautifully. The eponymous heroine seems to have it all—at 21, she is “handsome, clever, and rich,” the opening sentence famously informs us—but what she lacks is an understanding of the social structure she inhabits and the people who share it with her. How better to tell such a tale of inner transformation than from the inside out?
The plot begins with a transformation of Emma’s estate, Hartfield, in the small but London-adjacent town of Highbury. After the early death of Emma’s mother, she was partially reared by her governess, Miss Taylor. But Miss Taylor has married; now Mrs. Weston, she has moved to a nearby estate called Randalls, leaving Emma alone with her gentle, hypochondriacal father. For his part, Mr. Woodhouse disapproves of marriage because it breaks up families—and Emma accordingly resolves not to wed, especially since she, unlike Lizzy Bennet or Fanny Price, has no economic imperative to do so.
Instead of seeking to get married herself, the bored Emma wants to marry off others. At the beginning of the novel, she takes up the cause of Harriet Smith, a boarding-school orphan of uncertain parentage. She declares Harriet’s first suitor—a local farmer who works on the estate of Emma’s single brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley—to be, as a yeoman, too middling to catch her fancy, unlike the graceful gentry or the picturesque poor. Despite the likelihood that Harriet herself also lacks pedigree, Emma encourages her to reject Martin.
Emma tries to fix Harriet up with the new vicar, Mr. Elton, who mistakes Emma’s attentions to him on behalf of Harriet as indicating the rich young woman’s own attraction. Excited by the possibility of his marrying up into one of Highbury’s most prominent families, Mr. Elton proposes to Emma during a carriage ride, and is insulted to learn that she’d thought him drawn to the obscure Harriet.
While Emma is chastened by this blunder, which occupies the first third of the novel, she immediately falls into another. Mr. Weston’s flashy son, Frank Churchill, who has been reared by the aristocratic family of his deceased mother, comes to town. Emma, though not quite as attracted to him as the town thinks she should be, falls into a flirtation with the witty if vain young man (he goes all the way to London for a haircut)—a flirtation at the expense of the mysteriously reserved Jane Fairfax.
Jane is another orphan, niece to Emma’s friend Miss Bates, a prolix and shabby-genteel vicar’s daughter. Emma plainly envies the lower-born but equally beautiful and occasionally more accomplished Jane, which motivates her confederacy with Frank to gossip about and even humiliate the diffident young woman, even though Jane, unlike Emma, is condemned to serve out the rest of her days as a governess rather than as wealthy mistress of a distinguished family estate.
I will let first-time readers discover how this central thread of the plot ravels itself out through the novel’s last two-thirds, but suffice to say that Emma has again mistaken both the motives of those around her and her own drives and desires. Ruled by vanity and an overactive imagination rather than by reason, she neglects her twofold duty: 1. to treat the less fortunate, like Jane and Miss Bates, with kindness and forbearance; 2. not to upset the social hierarchy of the rural gentry, as in her attempt to marry Harriet to Mr. Elton, which only leaves everyone upset and embarrassed, and results in the creation of vain monstrosities like Mr. Elton’s eventual wife, a conceited and tasteless parvenu who is the second half of the novel’s mortifying comic relief.
Perhaps the best way not to interfere with Highbury’s hierarchy is for Emma to marry within her own elite class. This is where her brother-in-law Mr. Knightley comes in. To contemporary readers, he is an unlikely beau for Emma. He is an old family friend, 16 years her senior, and he has, he confides to her, “‘been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least.'” He also lectures more than flirts with her (“‘I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance'”), unlike the immediately appealing if callow Frank Churchill, though the novel validates Knightley’s lectures by having the plot always prove them factually and morally correct, in contrast to Emma’s constant misprisions. Churchill might be Emma’s male doppelgänger (“‘I think there is a little likeness between us,'” he says at the close), but for that very reason could never be her partner, even if Austen did not seem to think his vivacity unseemly and effeminate in a man.
And Knightley is the master of nearby Donwell Abbey, and the magistrate and defender of the whole neighborhood, suddenly beset as it is in the novel’s second half with “gypsies” and thieves. He is, moreover, one of the only men Mr. Woodhouse might consent to marrying his daughter. We might even say that Mr. Woodhouse’s ineffectual and unmanly hypochondria necessitates that another man, a real man, step in and rule Hartfield. If the novel begins with the loss to marriage of Emma’s surrogate mother, it ends with her gaining, through marriage, a new and improved father.
As for Emma, her problem is that she represents a new way of thinking in England: recklessly imaginative and heedless of old divisions and hierarchies. She is particularly concerned to transform the economic into the aesthetic, as we see when she is offended by the idea that money-and-class concerns could intrude on true love and its emotive, aesthetic regard for the inner quality of persons:
[B]ut then, Mr. Knightley did not make due allowance for the influence of a strong passion at war with all interested motives. Mr. Knightley saw no such passion, and of course thought nothing of its effects; but she saw too much of it to feel a doubt of its overcoming any hesitations that a reasonable prudence might originally suggest; and more than a reasonable, becoming degree of prudence, she was very sure did not belong to Mr. Elton.
Her visit to Donwell Abbey, though, overseen as it is by the humanely rational and realistic Mr. Knightley, reveals to her the emptiness of this ambient Romanticism. She sees the unlikely but true beauty of old England, as perhaps also indicated by the medievalizing surname Knightley:
She felt all the honest pride and complacency which her alliance with the present and future proprietor could fairly warrant, as she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered—its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight—and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up.—The house was larger than Hartfield, and totally unlike it, covering a good deal of ground, rambling and irregular, with many comfortable, and one or two handsome rooms.—It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was—and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding.
Note, in this mimesis of the movement of Emma’s mind, her learning to appreciate tradition over innovation, realism over romanticism, caste over miscegenation. As the narrator, perhaps speaking for Emma’s judgment, concludes of the scene,
It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.
But Mr. Knightley’s authority is modern as well as medieval. He is often portrayed in the novel as—and Emma teases him for being—all business, an ambitious landowner and responsible magistrate always keeping “in hand” his property and defending the realm. How better to complement his overt political and economic authority than by literally wedding it to Emma’s youthful intelligence and aestheticism, manifested in the novel by its free indirect discourse, provided it doesn’t get out of hand?
When Emma paints Harriet’s portrait for Mr. Elton, she muses, “A likeness pleases every body”—which is to say that Emma’s artistic sensibility, her power of slightly idealized mimesis, makes her the surrogate of her author, just as the novel’s motif of Emma confronting the social world as a sometimes literal riddle allies her to the reader of this teasing, riddling novel. Reader, writer, and character unite, just as power and property marry delicacy, taste, and beauty.
This union is what I mean when I called Austen’s ideology flexibly conservative—her ideological and aesthetic innovations renovate rather than obviate the basic social structure she is concerned to preserve. Free indirect discourse parades as wit and corrects via irony the inner life of an evolving and responsible ruling class embodied as a brilliant, flawed, developing woman. Later writers—Flaubert, Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Morrison—may use it for more scabrous or subversive ends, but it is in its Austenite inception a tool of accommodation, a discovery of the psyche as a new common ground for social conflict and social resolution.
What should we make of this? Literary criticism presents several options, as I’ve laid out above: largely, skeptical critics disparage Austen for neglecting too much of life’s sheer polymorphous and conflictual variousness in her quest to improve the genteel polity from the inside out.
But one might also credit Austen for her momentous originality while querying the political outcome. To take a classic example from late-20th-century literary theory’s hermeneutic-of-suspicion corpus, Nancy Armstrong faults Austen from the Marxist-Foucauldian left, anticipating today’s critique of white women as an oppressor class. In Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, Armstrong disputes second-wave feminism’s claims of female powerlessness; she observes, by contrast, that Austen’s style of interiority successfully converts political conflict into cultural conflict, just as Emma hopes to turn economics into aesthetics.
Domestic woman, says Armstrong, is hardly oppressed but is rather the paradigmatic modern individual: her taste, imagination, and inner life—the whole concept of the profound self Austen’s fiction helps to inaugurate, disdained as “neoliberal” by ffitch above—comprises the legitimating ideology of bourgeois class power over the lower orders at home and the colonized abroad. (Granted, Austen writes about the rural landed gentry, not the urban industrial bourgeoisie, but she is in Armstrong’s view nevertheless developing a new ruling-class ideology of affective individualism that will define bourgeois authority.) A little more (liberalism, Emma) or a little less (conservatism, Knightley) flexibility in the social order matters less than the preservation and even aggrandizement of present private property arrangements, and where better both to preserve them and to improve them than in the related private realms of the psychological and the aesthetic?
On the other hand, we could follow filmmakers like Rozema and Wright, who put back in what Austen so delicately leaves out of her famous “two inches of ivory” to achieve her subtle effects. A recent example: Helena Kelly, in Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, invites us to discover an Austen who is on the side of the poor and dispossessed. Kelly’s Emma is less a pioneering psychological novel than it is a coded social critique. Mr. Knightley, Kelly argues, has had his eye on Emma since she was 13 not so much because of questionable sexual designs, but because he is proposing new land enclosures and wants her father’s estate—a suggestion that abrades with predatory avarice the novel’s central union of male power and female art.
But even if Austen expects us to come to this radical conclusion, she provides nothing in the narrative to signal her disapproval of it, because there is no authoritative narrative voice—the only voices we hear coincide with Emma’s flawed but developing consciousness or, sometimes, the whole town’s attitudes, perhaps as refracted through Emma. We would have to revolt against the standard of value the novel proposes to read it in the way Kelly suggests. Austen elides Knightley’s probable economic motivation because, in her view, it does not matter: rational love is just how economic rationality expresses itself in the private life. Why not have it all—art, morals, wealth, and power? the love and the land?
Jane Austen is more likely just what she appears to be from her novels: not a secret radical but an overt, if sensitive and open-minded, conservative. Her characters in Emma use phrases like “rights of men and women” as punchlines, and, if they refer to slavery at all, it is only to disparage upstart money made in “trade” as morally tainted. Modern readers and writers who aspire to a different ideology, then, might aspire likewise to alter the shapely and economical form of the realist novel she was ingenious enough to make out of her 18th-century predecessors and bequeath to us.
James McElroy’s recent attack on free indirect discourse from the political right, for example, censures the technique for the corrective capacity of its irony: because it allows author and reader to conspire over the head of the character to see what she’s missed, it is a patronizing literary style that can only reinforce liberal platitudes, such as Emma’s lack of gentility toward poor Miss Bates, at the expense of free and compelling characters. I can imagine a similar critique coming from the left, albeit with a different end in mind: a broader and freer fictional collective, occupying vaster (common) tracts of prose.
Austen herself died young. Her final novel, Persuasion, gives evidence that she might have taken her techniques much further—she might have arrived at the 20th century by the mid-19th, as Woolf allows in her aforementioned essay: “She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust—but enough.” Not enough: we should say she would have been the forerunner of Woolf as well.
In conclusion, I can sympathize with Austen’s critics. I am lost in admiration for her technical developments in the art of the novel, but her novels themselves, for me, always seem to lack something, something her contemporaries and descendants in the English novel possess, whether the grit and explosive imagination of Dickens, the visionary passion and anger of the Brontës, the philosophical breadth of George Eliot, the mystic prose-poetry of Woolf—even if some of them, Eliot and Woolf particularly, couldn’t have done it without her precedent. Yet, pace Armstrong and some other left anti-Janeites who might disparage the very idea of the inner life as bourgeois, neoliberal, or otherwise oppressive, never mind literature that represents it, we may not want to be too quick to dismiss an aesthetic that turns into ethical self-inquiry and cultural dispute what once was open violence.