Hello and welcome to the second ‘Emma’ read-along! I hope you enjoyed the first two chapters and Alexa’s wonderful post, which you can find here, if you haven’t read it.
I have been incredibly fortunate to listen to John Mullan talking about ‘Emma’ in Chawton and also at last year’s Bath Festival, and he has the most captivating way of transmitting his passion for Jane Austen’s works in general and ‘Emma’ in particular to his audience.
I was very taken with the way he helped us see through the smoke and mirrors that Jane Austen so skilfully surrounds us with when she tells the story through the characters’ perspective (especially Emma’s, with her misguided interpretation of the world around her).
But other characters have, if not as strong, just as entertaining a voice. Consider for example the line Chapter 2 finishes with:
‘There was a strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of Mrs. Weston’s wedding-cake in their hands: but Mr. Woodhouse would never believe it.’
We can almost see and hear Mr Woodhouse, the short sentences are rife with his hypochondriac notions about health and wholesome food.
In Chapter 3 we hear him again, and we also see him caught between wishing to be hospitable and not knowing how to do it. And it is only thanks to Emma that his guests don’t leave his table absolutely famished.
‘Upon such occasions poor Mr. Woodhouse’s feelings were in sad warfare. He loved to have the cloth laid, because it had been the fashion of his youth, but his conviction of suppers being very unwholesome made him rather sorry to see any thing put on it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his visitors to every thing, his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat.’
Once invited to sit at Mr Woodhouse’s table, we become acquainted with a number of new characters. First-time readers, pray greet Miss Bates and Miss Smith. Of Mr Woodhouse’s guests they are, I think, most worthy of your notice.
We learn that Miss Bates is a spinster of modest means. She is kindly, chatty, unable to boast either good looks or cleverness, but devoted to her ailing mother and disposed to think well of everybody.
Miss Smith, we are told,
‘is the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard’s school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder.’
‘Somebody’. How delightfully cryptic is that? We are not told who that ‘somebody’ is. We learn instead that Miss Smith had just returned from a visit to some former school-friends, the sisters of a local farmer. Emma finds her engaging and worthy of her notice, although not particularly clever. So much so that she decides Miss Smith should be separated from ‘unworthy acquaintances’.
‘The friends from whom she had just parted, though very good sort of people, must be doing her harm. They […] must be coarse and unpolished, and very unfit to be the intimates of a girl who wanted only a little more knowledge and elegance to be quite perfect. She would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers.’
This is exactly what Alexa mentioned in last week’s post that John Mullan identifies as one of the novel’s greatest stylistic innovations. Here we have the narrator letting us inhabit Emma’s consciousness. We are invited to internalise her prejudices against the Martins. We are led to believe that Miss Smith is a diamond in the rough. Do we get to sense Emma’s patronising arrogance in making those decisions? Should we be a tad surprised that, to the young lady of the highest standing in Highbury, illegitimacy is not a stain, but the association with a farmer’s family is?
Once we move on to the following chapter, we get to learn more about Miss Smith.
‘Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition, was totally free from conceit, and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to. Her early attachment to herself was very amiable; and her inclination for good company, and power of appreciating what was elegant and clever, shewed that there was no want of taste, though strength of understanding must not be expected. Altogether she was quite convinced of Harriet Smith’s being exactly the young friend she wanted—exactly the something which her home required. […] Harriet would be loved as one to whom she could be useful.’
So: docile, grateful, easily guided. Am I jumping the gun here, or is it safe to say that Emma isn’t looking for a friend, she’s looking for a pet?
We hear her, in the narrator’s voice again, determined to be useful to Harriet. If you haven’t got a copy of ‘Emma’ to hand, visit Molland.net to read Chapter 4 to see how she proposes to do that, then please join us for a chat. Have fun and happy reading!
Our discussion of the novel takes place at the Writer’s Block Forum: https://austenauthors.net/writers-block/emma-read-along/emma-chapters-3-4/.