Emma by Jane Austen

A View of Box Hill by George Lambert

A View of Box Hill by George Lambert

The other day, a fellow mom described one of her dear friends as, “One of those rare friends who will actually call you out on things, you know?”

Ah, yes, I know.

I know that from daily life, in which my beloved husband occasionally and gently points out my flaws, and from the realm of literature where splendid authors like Jane Austen show us the merits of friends who dare to speak the truth. In Emma, we read, “Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them.” I’d argue that this one little line captures the spirit of the book entire.

Playful, cheerful Emma Woodhouse is a young woman who’s been surrounded by approving voices most of her life. Her worrywart of a father thinks she’s perfection itself, while her sister hasn’t a bad thing to say about anyone she loves. Even her governess, Miss Taylor, whom we might expect to offer the occasional word of reproof, has such affection for Emma that she can’t find a single fault in her.

The only dissenting voices in Emma’s life come from Mr. Knightley and the narrator (okay, she can’t actually hear the narrator, but still), who on the first page of the book blurts out Emma’s two worst faults: “The real evils indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.”

(It is actually rather something of a miracle, then, that Emma is as self-reflective as she is; she occasionally spends hours at a time pondering the things she’s said and done.)

The novel explores the journey of Emma’s eyes being opened to her own foolishness and errors in judgment, with Mr. Knightley as her noble (or, to be painfully obvious, knightly) guide. It’s really a beautiful story, almost fairytale-like in the way in which Emma comes to see that to which she was formerly blind. (I think of charming tales like Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess, in which a prince with an unfortunately large nose, who is surrounded by courtiers who proclaim its merits, doesn’t come to know true happiness until he recognizes the enormity of his nose.)

The question, then, is On what basis do we form our judgments? Looking around at the characters in Emma, we could start with the vicar’s wife (as my husband is in seminary, I find it fascinating to read of pastors and their wives in novels), though unfortunately Mrs. Elton doesn’t prove to be the wisest of women. She defers to the wisdom of her sister’s lavish household at Maple Grove; what is done there is as gospel to her, from the notion that sleeping in an inn is a horror to the more mundane need for uncut decks of playing cards for whist parties.

Emma’s friend, Harriet Smith, hasn’t an original thought in her exquisite little head; she forms her judgment based on the words of other people. I chuckled reading this blatant line of hers to Emma regarding a friend’s musical accomplishments: “I saw she had execution, but I did not know she had any taste. Nobody talked about it.” Clearly air-headed Harriet isn’t going to be helping out Emma in any meaningful way.

Emma herself bases her judgment on her own fanciful imagination – and it’s a pretty lively one. For example, when she discovers that her new friend, Harriet, was born out of wedlock, Emma rather groundlessly assumes that her parents must be nobility. Emma is hopelessly snobby when it comes to herself (she wouldn’t be caught dead dining at that Coles because they’re from the merchant class), but she blindly sets up Harriet with lofty friends who might have good cause to hesitate before marrying a young lady of questionable birth. She clearly has a penchant for jumping to (wrong) conclusions.

And then there’s Mr. Knightley, who isn’t swayed by money and power like Mrs. Elton or by the opinions of other people like Harriet Smith. And he certainly isn’t subject to a runaway imagination as is Emma.  Almost from the first page, he’s described as the one person who sees and corrects Emma’s faults: he warns her about the foolishness of making a match between Harriet and the vicar, he berates her for unkind words spoken to an impoverished woman and he even points out that she’s painted Harriet too tall.  He’s often found saying, “Depend upon it, Emma” before one of his corrections, and because he loves what is true and good, she can depend on his judgment.

And Emma changes as she accepts Mr. Knightley’s moral guidance. She considers the reproofs of the man who’s both blamed and lectured her, recognizes that his judgment has been true and good where hers has been false and harmful, and submits to his correction.  As Mr. Knightley puts it, “You have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”  Because he offers his admonition in a spirit of love, Emma flourishes rather than wilts.  Isn’t that such a beautiful thing? Emma’s moral vision, all awry at the outset of the novel, is made true and she’s the wiser and happier for it.

How about you – which Jane Austen novel is your favourite?  Do you relate to Emma & Mr. Knightley at all?


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