Is Emma Woodhouse Trapped?

It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public!”. Sara Pascoe – in an extraordinary edition of BBC Radio Four’s Great Lives programme in 2016 – declared that if her subject, Virginia Woolf, were alive today she would be a member of society’s current philosophical elite: the stand-up comedians. This was a light-hearted point, yes, but it makes a compelling case for perhaps Woolf’s greatest influence: Jane Austen, and her most witty of creations, Emma Woodhouse. Emma Woodhouse is a true wit in the Dorothy Parker interpretation of the word in that there is a truth to what she says – an intelligence – not a wisecrack who performs “simply callisthenics with words”. It may be troubling therefore for a contemporary reader to read Jane Austen’s magnum opus from 1815, Emma, and find that its heroine is so intelligent, yet confined to a life of pastimes seeming so menial it verges on absurdism to the post-modern eye. Austen’s creation, Emma Woodhouse, is trapped in a society that cannot fulfil her needs, because, as a woman, she is excluded from the highest intellectual circles, just as Austen was by, for example, having to publish anonymously. However, Emma, like Austen uses this confinement to her advantage.

Take, for instance, the use of Austen’s beloved tool of verbal irony in Harriet’s response to Emma’s announcement that she shall never marry. Harriet responds as if she were a Greek chorus, enforcing the patriarchal society of Regency England by saying: “Dear me! – it is so odd to hear a woman talk so.” Austen’s use of delicious snark in conveying the belief of the society that trapped her subtly damns her society’s gender politics simply by relaying it through a character of little intelligence who seems foolish whilst making explicit the entire make-up of Regency era gender constructs. The proto-feminism of Emma’s [and by extension Austen’s] position on womanhood and marriage would have made her one of the great thinkers of her time had society not so tightly confined her to a life of walks with a companion, playing the piano-forte and making herself desirable to young, wealthy men to secure her fortune. Virginia Woolf wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”; in the time Emma Woodhouse inhabits even these two conditions would not be enough to be taken seriously – which is why Emma is so confined by the patriarchy even with her original ideas and sparkling intelligence. Austen was a writer to whom every single word was of huge importance – and so even this seemingly throw-away line of humour has great depth in both its gender politics and in understanding the novel’s heroine.

Both Emma’s wit and ideas on gender are also conveyed through Austen’s use of epigrams in Emma’s speech. When Mr Elton is disappointed at Emma’s refusal of his marriage proposal, she replies “A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her.” The witticism on Emma’s part represents Austen’s brilliantly subtle condemnation of Regency gender paradigms within the wisecracks of the novel’s protagonist. Emma is in this moment criticizing the submissive position women were forced to take in society. Emma should be trapped in this situation to accepting – as to refuse would have been discourteous. So, when she does refuse, Emma is made to feel as if she were in the wrong. Indeed, the way the proposal is written makes it sound like an attack – “actually making violent love to her”. Irony underpins Austen’s prose and her heroine’s discourse. In post-modern society, a witticism like Emma’s would be entirely backed as a great piece of comedy; in the Regency England society of strictly defined roles of ladies and gentlemen, Emma’s wisecrack is ground-breaking.

Emma Woodhouse’s intelligence is not simply confined to scabrous wit. To describe Austen as one of the great thinkers of the 19th century perhaps seems faintly ridiculous – especially as this was a century where the accepted great thinkers were all radical – Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, the Romantic poets etc. – and Austen is often given that dismissal title of ‘conformist’. However with uses of anaphora in Emma’s dialogue during the declaration of love from Mr. Knightley such as: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.” The profundity of Emma shows to the post-modern reader that a character of such great intelligence should not be trapped to a life of such triviality. As a woman, Emma can only display such profundity in oft-ignored conversation. Emma Woodhouse speaks like a character we would now see in a Woody Allen or Whit Stillman film. However Austen’s creation does not have the freedom to commit her thoughts to published paper nor to be thought of seriously, as people are able to now, regardless of gender. Austen knew of the glass ceiling left unshattered Emma would have lived under for she herself worked under it. Until the 20th and 21st century, Austen had been thought of as trivial for her pre-occupation with the concerns of femininity. Mark Twain said, with perhaps a smidgeon of misogyny underpinning: “Jane [Austen] is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.” Even later writers, undeniably influenced by Austen such as Henry James, only begrudgingly admitted the influence. Not until the clear validation of feminism in works like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, have Austen’s pure interest in femininity been fully accepted into the Western literary canon. Perhaps the most important establishment being the lengthy epigraph from Northanger Abbey, in arguably the most important post-modern British literary text – Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Perhaps the plight would have been a lot shorter if Austen, and her mouthpiece Emma’s gender had not stopped them from being taken seriously at the height of their observance and social profundity.

In this pivotal and beloved scene from Emma, the clear conclusion to the romantic arc of Emma and Mr. Knightley, dramatic irony is used by Austen to reward the reader who spots the hypocrisy within Emma’s thoughts communicated in the novel’s free indirect style. “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”. Often considered a sign of Austen’s conforming – this line does three things. One: it provides a notion that romantic love will out and is more important that the triviality societal manners (this fundamental rule only applies, seemingly in the case of Emma’s true love as opposed to the slightly oily vulgarity of Mr. Elton’s social climber). Two: it shows Emma as being trapped by a society in which the only acceptable positions for a woman in advancing age are wife and mother regardless of wealth and having the social status of the “untitled aristocracy” to quote Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. Three: It, however, may also show Emma is intelligent enough to use her trapped position in society to her advantage – marrying a man she truly loves and passing it off as conforming to her accepted role. Austen does not tell us which of these Emma is tied into, in an experimental move subtly inventing the Modern novel followed by her predecessors – whether they be dissenters like Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, Proust in Swann’s Way, Woolf in Mrs Dalloway, and post-modernists like Ian McEwan in much of his work ranging from Atonement to On Chesil Beach. All of which, once again would have been acknowledged if Austen’s protagonist had not been a woman. The patriarchy invades all corners. Even if the reader decides Emma Woodhouse uses her situation to her advantage, it is impossible not to admit she is trapped to such an extent she must silently rebel within her conformity. She is never in anyway free from her situation.

Emma Woodhouse’s intelligence has needs that cannot be fulfilled under the patriarchal rule of early 19th century England. Austen leaves her a wealthy wife of a wealthy land-owner; Austen does not leave Emma a greater writer that revolutionizes the thought that began within the Enlightenment. She couldn’t have. Austen was above-all a realist, before true realism existed. Austen observed, quietly rebelled, changed the course of literary history, and ended all her six major novels with a marriage. In her novella, Lady Susan, its eponymous heroine does not marry and is a complete contradiction of everything a Georgian lady should have been yet received no retribution (no surprise it went unpublished in Austen’s lifetime). In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is virtuous and marries at the novel’s end. In Emma, Austen has her heroine defy societal conventions within the confines of the etiquette of her gender, and she marries at the end: a perfect combination of the two extremes. Emma Woodhouse does not conform to her society’s level of intelligence, it conforms to her own.


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