After I read Conrad (Victory & Heart of Darkness) and Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility & Emma) I have come to this conclusion: Never believe it when your literary history books call something “excellent” or “brilliant”. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with these texts or their authors, except that you read them not for the stories themselves but their use of words–and the worlds within the words. No ‘humour’ by itself–sidesplitting or nonsensical or the Wodehousian fantastic, but grim ‘reporting’ of perceptions. If there is any humour, the ability to identify them is a reader’s privilege to be earned and the joke is to be solemnly smiled at. The language is distractingly self-conscious; in describing a landscape or a thought, the narrator must go to unparagraphed lengths, abandoning the characters in mid-action and mid-speech, even in mid-thought. For Conrad, craft is art, while in Austen, it is the author’s mind and values that seep through the narrative facade.
Emma is rooted in a commonsensical, pragmatic and highly sensible view of the meaning of life and the world. Emma Woodhouse is an attractive person–in manners, conversation and daily life, but rather than a progression of character (in keeping with its pre-supposed bildungsromanic genre), I found her on a declining plane of personality. Her opinions increasingly start to mimic George Knightley’s, her behaviour mellows (or ‘matures’) as suits Knightley and she is constantly checked (or ‘righted’) by social propriety and class restrictions (,which I think is a good thing, but still, you don’t expect society to have any kind of a ‘favourable’ status in books of such stature). A woman’s life is prone to social accommodation or ‘harmonization’. Maybe, the rebellious (read self-willed) Emma must sacrifice her ‘contrariness’ in order to become elevated to a position of safety and respectability in her world (read immediate locality).
The party at Box Hill is one of the highlights (and my most memorable episode) of the novel, an event which supposedly shows Emma at her worst. I felt that Austen had loosened her grip on her self-conscious pen to bring out the occasion in all its vitality and force. However, this episode tolls the close of a relatively presumptuous, naive, but ebullient Emma. The rest of the novel shows her maturing into a stock Victorian heroine–with qualities of beauty, high birth, elegance, and pleasing intellect; devoted, discerning, and eternally socializing; of pleasing temper and impeccable morals. Despite the slow and dull progress of the novel’s beginning, it was Emma’s spirited and outspoken character that provoked me to read on. I cannot quite say the book was a disappointment, because the book’s value lies not in the plot or the craft of writing, but in its study of society and human natures and the making of judgments, decisions and choices.