Sunday, September 2, 2018

Emma - Jane Austen

Is there anything in the world more deliciously fun than rubbernecking other people's personal drama from the outside?  I'm sure that there are a few pearl-clutchers amongst my readers who may be saying sanctimoniously to themselves "Well, I never gossip or judge other people.  You just don't know their circumstances."  I'm here to tell you, pearl-clutcher, that you are a hypocrite.  Just because you're not saying it out loud doesn't mean you're not thinking "If I had a fight like that with MY sister in law, I certainly wouldn't put it on Facebook!" And that may be true - you might not put it on Facebook.  But you're sure as hell reading Facebook and rubbernecking the drama, just as the rest of us do.  Sometimes I like to go in and stir up drama, then sit back on my heels and watch it all play out, just for kicks.  "I see that you don't want to talk about it, but you sure love posting it on Facebook" I might type on a young cousin's status, then I sit back and watch the angst.  I'm so glad that I got old before social media became a THING.

In Jane Austen's day, there was no Facebook.  Their gossip was spread through an in-personal social network.  An analog Facebook, if you will.  It wasn't instantanous, but because people lived in small communities where they saw each other every day, gossip and speculation could still spread pretty quickly.  Your whole life could be confined to this very social circle and because people had to take care of each other, your business was automatically everyone else's business.  

I know that readers generally either love or hate Emma.  I think that it's her most modern story, and that it holds up to the test of time better than many of her other books.  This is especially apparant when you watch the movie Clueless, which is a cinematic masterpiece disguised as a silly high school love story.  Watch it, I'm serious.  

Emma is the story of a young woman who was basically the OG of young women in her small community of Highbury.  When I say small, I mean that there were only a handful of families in her social class within a reasonable distance from her home.  Emma has never left this home, where she lives with her doddering father and until recently, her governess.  

Emma's dad, Mr. Woodhouse, is written as a charmingly eccentric, gentle soul.  He's prone to health anxiety.  If Mr. Woodhouse was here today, he'd be that middle aged dude who says things like "back in MY day we put butter on burns, and I see no reason to stop it now!"  He's also the type of person who thinks that if he doesn't like something, that no one else could possible like it or should do it either.  Mr. Woodhouse thinks that he's perfect and everyone should be just like him - stay at home, wrapped in quilts, and never have any excitement or fun.  He's profoundly against marriage because he's widowed, and since he can't imagine remarrying, he doesn't see why anyone else should marry either.  

To Jane Austen's credit, her characters know that he's a kook.  They like him because he's genuinely concerned for everybody and wants everyone to be happy, but because he can't imagine any happiness other than what works for him, they make allowances for his piss-poor behavior.  Mr. Woodhouse in 2018 might benefit from some medication.

Emma has sworn she'll never marry, party because she really hasn't met anyone eligible.  Of course, it would also upset her dad, and she's a total daddy's girl.  Despite this, she's considered very eligible and thinks quite highly of her station in life.  She's the richest, most accomplished ingenue in town, although Austen as narrator admits that this is largely because town is so small.

The drama starts when Emma's governess decides to get married, as you do.  This upsets Mr. Woodhouse a great deal, and as Emma has spent most of her time with her governess, she becomes lonely and bored.  A bored, arrogant young woman is a dangerous person.  She soon turns her attentions to a woman of lower social rank, a Miss Harriet Smith. 

Harriet is described as a total babe, but she's of dubious parentage and basically lives at a boarding house.  She's not very smart, but she's incrediby sweet and kind.  As she is also young, she's in the habit of falling in love with every man who bats his eyes at her.

This is another odd Austen quirk.  Because of the short window of marriagable age and the small communities, people pretty much made up their minds to marry people within a six week period.  I won't get into the social class structure of the time, because it's complicated and very boring.  I won't criticize it  either, because there were good reasons for it back in the day.  The point is that you might meet a half a dozen people who were considered "eligible" to marry, and if you didn't want to or couldn't live with your family forever, you'd end up with whomever sucked the least.  This is not really all that different from modern day dating.  

Anyway, Emma gets her claws into Harriet and decides to improve her.  She drags Harriet from the boarding house at every opportunity and invites her to social mixers.  She teaches her an appreciation for a finer life, and gets Harriet to set her eyes on the eligible bachelor of the moment, a Mr. Elton.

Mr. Elton is a ridiculous man.  He's over the top in his gentlemanly manners.  We all know the type, don't we? The guy who thinks he's a ladies man - his manners are so obvious that we know they're for show, and we know that he thinks he's making panties drop across the room whenever he slides out a chair for a woman.  Men - just be normal, please.  Well, in Austen's day, panties didn't quite drop, but there was quite a bit of flirting through conversation and games.  Unfortunately, because most of this happened in the presence of other people, this could be ambiguous.  To flirt outright would be too forward and rude AF, but if you were too effusive in your manners to everyone, people might get confused as to who you are flirting with.  

Emma's longtime family friend, Mr. George Knightly, warns Emma about this outright.  "I know you think you're pushing Harriet in his way, but we don't know who her parents are, and you're setting her up to fail" he might say.  Or "are you sure Mr. Elton isn't really in love with you?"  I'm paraphrasing, of course.  Emma rejects this and tells G-Knight to stop criticizing her.  

One of the most perplexing things about this book to me is that G-Knight constantly tells Emma she's too big for her britches, too sure of herself, too arrogant, while being exactly the same himself.  He's 17 years older than she is, and has seen more of the world, so it makes sense that he's often right about things.  But when he criticizes her personality, it's hard not to snort.  Yeah, dude, Emma's the only egotist in this book.  Hah!

Because this is a pretty universal trope, of course Mr. Elton IS in love with Emma.  Emma, who finds him ridiculous, rejects him in what I thought was a very appropriate and modest fashion.  Mr. Elton, who thinks very highly of himself, does something I have personally witnessed from modern day men a number of times:  he throws an angry tantrum.  Moments after declaring how wonderful she is, he turns abruptly and starts screaming about how she's beneath him, anyway.  It's the olden times version of a man calling a woman hot, and then screaming that she's an ugly c-word the minute she says she's not interested. 

Harriet, who has been pushed into this drama by Emma herself, and who has actually rejected someone she was really interested in but who Emma deemed lowly and crude, is crushed.  Emma realizes that her meddling is terrible and it has to stop.  Immediately!  She will turn over a new leaf.

Hah, amiright?  Mr. Elton storms off and returns several weeks later, with a new bride.  The brand new Mrs. Elton is the best character ever.  She's from another small town, smaller even than Highbury.  Her brother in law is the wealthiest household in their town, and so she constantly compares everyting at her new home to her old home.  This is mostly funny because she's so obvious and horrible about it, but also because the people at Highbury (Emma) who are offended that she'd DARE compare Maple Grove to Highbury (Emma) are themselves being snobs for assuming that Maple Grove ISN'T just as nice.  Mrs. Elton is horrible for other reasons - she knows the Emma/Harriet love triangle story and goes out of her way to shun and embarrass them socially, and so does Mr. Elton.  Harriet really dodged a bullet.  My favorite bit of snobbery by Mrs. E is the way she constantly name drops her brother-in-law's model of carraige.  The baroche landau.  This is like the way my former smarmy boss used to hand me the keys to his very, very used car and say "don't dent my Mercedes!" as loudly as possible, so that the guy who managed whatever gas station we were at could hear and be impressed with his third-hand finery.

Fortunately for Emma and Harriet, there are other new people in town upon which to fixate.  Mr. Frank Churchill, the son of the man Emma's governess has married, and Jane Fairfax, Emma's imagined rival. 

For family status and snobbery reasons, blah blah blah, Frank Churchill has been raised away from his dad and has developed an outrageous personality quite independent of his dad. Frank has been riased by rich relatives, so while his own birth is rather modest, he's been moonlighting with an upper class aunt and uncle, so his social status is a bit ambiguous.  When he comes to town from London-adjacent, he's a breath of fresh air to Emma, who is instantly charmed.  They flirt openly and brashly, and for a time, Emma is infatuated with him.  Mr. George Knighly, G-Knight, dislikes the foppish Frank instantly.

Jane Fairfax, our other newcomer, isn't really new.  She's from Highbury originally, but has been living out near Frank and claims to know him slighly from parties out yonder.  Jane is everything Emma isn't, which means that Emma is insanely jealous of her except for one fact - Jane is poor, and will be resigned to having to work for a living, after being raised amongst finery and the upper classes.  This is sort of simliar to Harriet, who was raised amongst the working class but who is now being introduced to higher society.  The difference between them is that Harriet is quite simple and happy amongst the lower classes, and Jane is brilliant, reserved, and very musically talented, and so she doesn't fit in with the lower classes to which she'll be resigned.

One of the overwhelming themes of this book is that status jumping can be very, very difficult, except for the opportunity of extrordinary circumstance.  It's easy to want to say this was the snobbery of old England, except that it's still pretty true.  Every time I attend a professional function and overhear people talking about how they worked their way up in the world because they had to pay for their own law school becaue their parents were ONLY paying for undergrad, I know that I am out of my depth.  This was even something I discussed with a therapist, the additional difficulties heaped on relationships when there are different backgrounds shaping your values and expectations.  This shit was REAL, and Jane Austen was a pretty good judge of human nature.  It's no wonder she never got married. 

Anyway, as immature as Emma is, she's incredibly self aware.  She knows she doesn't like Jane because she's jealous, and she knows that she should pity Jane for her social position, but she doesn't care because she's young and petty and used to getting her way.  I really identify with Emma. 

Frank and Emma even mock Jane from time to time, although through the course of the book Emma realizes that she's really more friends with Frank than in love with him.  They both love to gossip, and they both speculate wildly about why Jane has left the bosom of the wealthy family who was educating her and why she's back at home now.  They both predict that it was SCANDAL! 
Interestingly, as Emma cools a little towards Frank, his behavior becomes more brazen towards her.  It's not consistent, though.

G-Knight, our old friend, asks Emma if she thinks this is weird.  "Do you think he's making fun of Jane because maybe he's concealing something?"  G-Knight asks.  Emma declares that G-Knight is an old bossy pants and tells him to mind his business. 

Mrs. Elton, too, senses that Jane and Emma aren't the best of friends, and has taken Jane under her wing.  Mrs. Elton goes out of her way to make sure everyone knows how charitably she feels towards pooooooor Jane, and also goes out of her way to try to get Jane a job.  This might be nice, except for the fact that Jane tells her no REPEATEDLY, and although she's too polite to throw Mrs. Elton out of her house, she's pretty direct in saying no. Mrs. Elton disregards this and SIGNS HER UP FOR A JOB ANYWAY.  God, Mrs. E., no means no!

G-Knight and Harriet, meanwhile, have struck up a bit of a friendship.  He feels awful about the way the Eltons are treating her and also feels that Emma has My-Fair-Lady-ed her into a position where Harriet will not be fit for any spouse, being raised above her rightful station.  Harriet, so damaged by the Eltons' public abuse, falls in love with G-Knight. 

When Harriet tells Emma this, she loses her shit, inwardly.  She's forced to confront the fact that she loves G-Knight, as he's been the only person in the world not to spoil her or tell her how fabulous she is when she's really only average.  As I've said, Emma is pretty self-aware. 

Frank ends up confessing that he's been engaged to Jane the entire time and was hiding it by acting like an ass.  Harriet ends up with the first man she was in love with, the one Emma thought was unworthy of Harriet even though they both loved each other and were of simliar stations.  And Emma ends up marrying G-Knight, and they decide to live at Highbury with her dad while he is still alive, to avoid rocking the boat. 

Mrs. Elton is HIGHLY critical of their weddings, not being nearly so fancy as her own.

I love this book and I've loved every adaptation I've see of it.  There's a 70s BBC version that's way too slow paced, but has the best Mrs. Elton I've ever seen.  She shows up at every event bedazzled out the wazoo, like a drunk gold-digger on a cruise.  At the end of the story, Emma, Frank, Jane, and G-Knight laugh at the parts they played in the drama, but forgive each other, because they know that human speculation is part of life and is inevitable.  They do promise to be less outwardly deceptive, but they don't really apologize for the gossip.  They all know that they're going to continue to gossip forever, because there's nothing else to do.

I vote that from now on we re-brand gossip as "human interest," and try to villify it less.  Who's with me? 





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