I don’t feel the need to justify my appreciation of Jane Austen to others, but I do sometimes feel the need to justify it to myself. One of the chief complaints about her work is that each novel is essentially just a bunch of hoity toity Tories making bon mots and arranging marriages. Of course, that is not all her work is, but it is hard to completely dispute that claim and, bearing in mind that that description sounds like the worst kind of story in the world to me, that I enjoy Austen appears baffling. Furthermore, her works are undeniably romantic comedies, a genre that I have generally found, despite being a sentimental soul, pretty unbearable. So, what gives? I have heard Austen referred to as a writer’s writer, but that is simply absurd; her books are so hugely popular that she cannot be a writer’s writer; she’s a lot of people’s writer, many of whom have no interest at all in the writing process.
If I had to make a comparison I would say that she is like classic Disney; by which I mean that her books are undeniably crowd-pleasing, even obvious, or predictable, and yet she was so impeccable at her craft that it is impossible not to be impressed by it. For me, Austen lacked imagination, but was, in other ways, incredibly talented. Her genius is in her sentences, her execution, and pacing, not in her plots or people. This is not to say that her characters and plots are entirely artless; Elizabeth Bennet, for example, is a fine creation, but she isn’t burned into my consciousness like, say, Pierre Bezukhov or Harold Skimpole or Bjartur of Summerhouses. Austen’s characters are, to use Nabokov’s term, blonde; I feel neither one way nor the other about them; I don’t hate them or love them. Yet her books are so much fun to read; indeed, they make me happy in the same way that listening to an accomplished public speaker, someone who is able to effortlessly and elegantly express themselves, does.
So there you have it, my cards are on the table. I very much expected, as the above will attest, to have a lovely time reading Emma, without it ever making my pulse race. What is interesting about my experience of the book is that I did not particularly enjoy it, at least partly because Austen moved away from the formula she was so adept at. Emma herself, for example, is not blonde; I mean, I don’t think she is complex, that is a different thing altogether, but she certainly does provoke a reaction. She is spoiled, arrogant, pettish; she is also kind and charming. She has some depth, in a way that none of Austen’s other characters do [who are all easy to pinpoint, or judge]. She is, in fact, a lot like a genuine teenager [although she is 21 in the book], by which i mean that she isn’t bad, she merely thinks that all her ideas and opinions are completely worthwhile. Austen gives over a significant proportion of the text to her thoughts, preceding Modernism’s obsession with internal dialogue and introspection by about a century.
However, all that is well and good, but the secondary characters, which are never rounded creations anyway, suffer so much in her presence. Mr Knightly, for example, is an absolute void; I mean, can any of you describe him in detail? I challenge you to write an entire paragraph about him. His function in the novel, it seems to me, is to contradict Emma, is to provide cautionary advice. He’s like the good Angel on her shoulder; literally that is how I imagined him: perched on her shoulder in white garb; he is so lacking in substance that I often missed him entering a room. I’d be reading, fairly contentedly, and then Bam! There’s Knightly…saying the same kind of shit, in the same kind of tone every single time. What about Emma’s father? He’s a walking catchphrase. No one apart from Emma does anything in the book. The spotlight is entirely on her; she may as well have been alone on an island. Honestly, I have never come across a supporting cast with less meat on their bones. This is particularly a problem with Knightly, as he is meant to be the romantic hero. Darcy might be predictable but at least he’s there in the text, at least he has moods.
In terms of Austen’s craft, her prose, well, it is fine, but it feels flatter than usual. The jokes aren’t as sharp, the sentences not quite as elegant as I expected. Perhaps that is simply a consequence of trying to make Emma a character study, a more imposing artistic achievement; her energies, it seems, were elsewhere. That wouldn’t be a problem if she had pulled it off, if Emma was a serious, believable character study. It isn’t though. While she is, at stated, more rounded, more interesting than Austen’s usual fare, her journey is kinda ludicrous. One would imagine that if you present this flawed heroine, this silly but essentially kind young girl, that you would want to show her flowering, her march towards maturity. Yet the conclusion of the book is Emma marrying the guy who was telling her throughout the book that she is a brat. What kind of journey of self-discovery is that?! I preferred her when she vowed never to marry, at least that was original thinking. But, no, she falls into the arms of the guy who thinks she is often an arse, thereby indicating that, y’know, he’ll sort her out. The pacing of the book, I should also add, is poor; Emma is too long, with too little action, or too much repetitive action. None of this is meant to give the impression that I think the novel is rubbish; it isn’t at all. It is just well below the standard I have come to expect from her work. Indeed, I did not think it possible I would ever put one of her books down without finishing it – so easily, so effortlessly, I glided through the others – but I nearly gave up on this one. That’s a bad, bad sign, yo.