You can check out her work scattered throughout Austen in August, especially in our annual "colorful conversation" posts (where so far this year, she's compared the trainwreck that is Mr Collins to an episode of Law & Order: SVU...). But before you run off to check out those posts, check out this one, where Laurie has some things to say on the comedy of errors that is Emma Woodhouse.
And make sure to click through to enter to win Laurie's awesome Austen Addict + Emma prize pack!
*At least, it's bright and shiny here in Michigan. And no matter the weather where you are, every day with Jane is a bright, shiny day! *dies from the sugariness of that statement*
Emma and the Conspiracy of Cluelessness—Plus a Giveaway!
Guest post by Laurie Viera Rigler
In Austen’s works, the road to self-knowledge is full of missteps, blunders, and ultimate revelations. Those who presume to “know it all” do so at their peril, and the eponymous heroine of Emma is no exception.
Few would dispute that the biggest know-it-all in Austen—perhaps the biggest know-it-all in English literature, is Emma Woodhouse. Like all know-it-alls, Emma truly knows nothing at all. Even Catherine Morland, the naïf of the underrated yet thoroughly charming Northanger Abbey, is a sage compared to Emma. For Catherine is humble. She knows that she knows nothing, and thus she is on the road to being wise. Emma, however, sits upon a throne of self-satisfied infallibility, placed there by her father, her former governess, and nearly all the citizenry of Highbury, where “woman, lovely woman,” to quote Mr. Elton’s riddle, “reigns alone.”
If one considers the sheer breadth of Emma’s erroneous “knowledge,” and the pain she causes thereby, it’s pretty staggering. Not only does she have multiple matchmaking fails, but she makes wildly off-target assumptions about everything from Mr. Knightley’s reluctance to warm up to Frank Churchill to Jane Fairfax’s “reserved” character.
|Note from Misty: couldn't resist.|
In short, there is a veritable conspiracy of cluelessness in Emma.
Take Emma’s father, who sees only perfection in his daughter. And why wouldn’t he? After all, Emma devotes herself tirelessly to his comfort and displays infinite patience in dealing with his hypochondria and narcissism. Here is a man who is so fearful that he finds an inch of snow on the ground a catastrophe, and so selfish that he wants his own daughter as well as her former governess to remain single all their lives in order to cater to his every whim. Any interests Emma might have that do not pertain to such affairs of state as Mr. Woodhouse’s nightly bowl of gruel or the manner in which Searle boils an egg, might as well not exist.
Mrs. Weston, Emma’s former governess, is a much more reliable source than Mr. Woodhouse, and yet she too sees barely a fault in Emma. She will concede to Mr. Knightley’s observation that Emma doesn’t read as much as she ought, but she will hardly own that to be a material failing. As she puts it to Mr. Knightley, “Where shall we see a better daughter, a kinder sister, or a truer friend? No, no; she has qualities which may be trusted; she will never lead any one really wrong; she will make no lasting blunder; where Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times."
We want to believe Mrs. Weston, at least the part about being “a better daughter, a kinder sister.” We’re not so sure about the “truer friend,” as it’s clear that Emma is manipulating her friend Harriet Smith into rejecting the man she truly cares for.
To complicate our readerly perspective, Austen gives Emma some estimable qualities that live alongside her failings. And I’m not just talking about Emma’s devotion to her father. Emma also has a great deal of compassion for the poor of Highbury. Moreover, she has put Mrs. Weston’s happiness before her own by promoting a marriage that she knew full well would take this most beloved friend from Hartfield. Thus, Emma earns our sympathy, no matter how grudging, which likely makes us more willing to give her credit for not being completely clueless.
Thus Austen herself is in on the conspiracy, doing her mischievous best to fool us into seeing the world through Emma’s eyes. We are meant to see Mr. Elton as the lover of Harriet, at least until the party at Randalls, just as we are meant to see Harriet as a docile plaything who will always be guided by Emma’s wishes, even if we don’t always agree with those wishes.
Despite Emma’s popularity in Highbury, she is not without her detractors. In fact, there are a couple of people in Highbury who take quite a dislike to Emma, namely Mrs. Elton and her husband. But neither of the Eltons is in the least reliable, as their dislike of Emma is born of rejection and jealousy.
Mr. Knightley, however, is both a sympathetic character who cares for Emma and a person who sees plenty of fault in her. For one, he finds her far too self-assured for her own good. “I should like to see Emma in love,” he remarks to Mrs. Weston, “and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good.” He also disagrees with Mrs. Weston as to the merit of Emma’s friendship with Harriet.
Both of Mr. Knightley’s observations are prophetic, and yet when he first voices them to Mrs. Weston, who sees Emma’s friendship with Harriet quite differently, it is fairly early in our acquaintance with Mr. Knightley, and thus we could easily dismiss him as an overly scrupulous, slightly cranky brother-figure.
We cannot, however, so easily ignore Mr. Knightley’s opinion of Emma’s behavior to Miss Bates at Box Hill. He alone has the courage and standing to scold Emma for her insensitivity, something that not even Mrs. Weston, who sees herself as a mother to Emma, ventures to do.
It is interesting to note that not long after the Box Hill incident—and aided by the unpleasant catalyst of Harriet’s confessing to Emma her designs on Mr. Knightley—the truth of Emma’s own feelings for Mr. Knightley become clear:
It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!
That isn’t the only thing Emma realizes:
Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world.
In life, and most certainly in Austen, honesty and honest self-reflection, no matter how painful, form the road to happiness. The rewards of heartfelt reform are manifold, and they always include, at least in Austen, the fulfillment of romantic love. Thus Emma will be rewarded with Mr. Knightley, and the two ladies she has wronged, Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax, will also have their own joyful weddings. Is it any wonder that we who love Austen return to her works again, and again, and yet again?
If you are like me, then you have read Emma more than once, or even at least once a year, as I do. For the genius of Austen is in her ability to write eternally entertaining stories that are comic as well as deeply touching and resonant. These are timeless stories, relevant for every era of humankind and every phase of one’s life. Even better, the journey is ever unfolding, for Emma, like all of Austen’s masterworks, is a multilayered work that reveals more of itself with each successive reading. To re-read Emma is to revel in Austen’s genius and marvel at how cleverly the author slyly does her best to keep us in the dark along with her heroine, while dropping a multitude of hints that are not unlike those we often ignore in our own lives with willful blindness.
Perhaps the real reason Austen considered Emma to be “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” is because there is a little of Emma in all of us. But maybe, just maybe, if we can acknowledge and laugh at that kinship, we may just see our own stories “with a clearness which had never blessed [us] before.”
Enter your info in the Rafflecopter for a chance to win three novels:
- the EMMA 200th ANNIVERSARY ANNOTATED EDITION (to be released September 29, 2015) [link]
- RUDE AWAKENINGS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT. [link]
- CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT [link]
This giveaway is US only. There will be one winner:
- The winner will receive a choice of paperback OR Kindle edition of each title.
- Both Austen Addict paperbacks will be signed, but sadly we cannot obtain Miss Austen’s signature for EMMA.
Thanks for hosting me here, Misty, and for doing this wonderful Austen in August event!
Thanks for hosting me here, Misty, and for doing this wonderful Austen in August event!
a Rafflecopter giveaway
About the Author:
Laurie Viera Rigler’s novels Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict could have been considered semi-autobiographical had they not involved time travel and body switching. Her short story, Intolerable Stupidity, in which Mr. Darcy brings charges against all the writers of Pride and Prejudice sequels, spin-offs, and retellings, appears in the anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It. In addition to having four more novels in the works, including the third in her Austen Addict series, Laurie is the creator of the Babelgum original web series Sex and the Austen Girl. which was inspired by her Austen Addict novels and had over half a million views. A longtime resident of the very same Echo Park / Silverlake neighborhood in Los Angeles in which Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict is set, Laurie now lives in nearby Pasadena, California with her filmmaker husband. She can also be found at janeaustenaddict.com. http://janeaustenaddict.com
Clueless gifs courtesy of Misty, who couldn't resist... ;)
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