‘Emma’ has always been my favourite Jane Austen novel. I studied it in detail at school and then again at University. Imagine if ‘Persuasion’ has been on the syllabus? My Highbury Trilogy would never have been written! In it I have explored the more minor characters who have always intrigued me; Mrs Bates, her two daughters and the enigmatic Miss Fairfax.
Jane Austen predicted that nobody but herself would much like Emma Woodhouse and in my case she predicted quite accurately. I don’t like her and even given her mortification at the end of the book, I can’t quite forgive her.
Many people seem to be taking objection to the new film adaptation of the book because of the way Emma is played; as pert, calculating and arrogant. But I think that accords with the way she is written!
In comparison, the Jane Fairfax in the film is a vapid creature but that, I believe, is far from the reality. Jane, truly accomplished, well-travelled and sophisticated, glitters far more brightly for me than Emma, who is the brightest star in a very small firmament.
Miss Austen necessarily veils Jane in a shroud of reserve and mystery. Given Jane’s superior qualities, though, I struggled to understand her attraction, let alone her secret engagement to Frank Churchill. Not only could I not understand it, I couldn’t square it with the sensible girl Jane seems to be. What might have driven her to embark on such a dangerous course? What alternatives did she have? How might her upbringing with the Campbells have contributed to her reckless decision? These questions plagued me. I couldn’t believe her capable of the kind of silly, infatuated and materialistic manoeuvrings of Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility but what was her motivation? I had to know. I didn’t understand her but I did admire her. At least she knows her own mind, her own heart. For some reason I had to discover, she chooses Frank from, presumably, a wide selection of eligible young men to whom she has been exposed in London and Weymouth. That in itself is so much more interesting that the young lady of Hartfield who selects her husband from a catalogue of one.
Emma makes mistakes but they are errors of judgement, social gaffes, rather than moral failings. Jane’s sin – if we can call it that – is far more serious and so much more interesting. Her secret engagement contravenes every rule in the book of social behaviour; even a covert correspondence, if discovered, could have tainted her reputation for life. To be secretly meeting a man – as Jane must have met Frank on many occasions – endangered not only herself but her guardians and her friend Miss Campbell. Why would she take such a risk?
Emma suffers, but not much. She only has to endure the sweaty pawings of Mr Elton, the embarrassment of telling Harriet that she has got things wrong and the shame of realising that she has been far too indiscreet in her dealings with Frank Churchill. These things have passing – and deserved – discomfort but they are not devastating. Jane, on the other hand, suffers terribly. We know from her conversation with Mrs Weston that she has known’ no tranquil hour’ from the moment she agreed to the secret engagement. She is wretchedly unhappy, morally compromised, helplessly mired in deceit. The profound seriousness of Jane’s situation is far more moving and raised far more questions than the little ripples of Emma’s faux pas.
The Jane Fairfax we meet in Highbury is reserved – and no wonder! She has much she must conceal. But there is nothing like an enigma to get a writer’s creative juices flowing. I was desperate to see the madly flailing, emotionally broken, morally torn girl beneath that aloof exterior. I wanted to understand it, to identify the causes of it, and I suppose, in that regard, I am no better than Miss Woodhouse.
My book Dear Jane will be discounted this weekend, so that you can read for yourself the story Jane Austen hinted at, but never fully told.