I enjoyed John Mullan’s discussion of why it belongs alongside the works of Flaubert, Joyce and Woolf as one of the great experimental novels. As he explains, we are invited as readers to share Emma’s delusions:
It was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions.
Even though we are brought into Emma’s world, the novel is still written in the third-person. This means of placing the reader inside the thoughts of a character has been described as ‘free indirect style’:
It was only in the early 20th century that critics began agreeing on a name for it: free indirect style (a translation from the original French: style indirect libre). It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character … Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.
David Lodge has observed how odd James’s condescension is, given that he came to specialise in the very technique Austen had pioneered: “Telling the story through the consciousness of characters whose understanding of events is partial, mistaken, deceived, or self-deceived.”
Personally, I am fascinated with the idea of taking the idea of ‘dreams’ and ideals in the novel as a thread and reading this alongside psychoanalytic texts, such as Freud’s Ego and the Id. It makes me think about Emma and the whole text being an example of the battle between the ego and the unconsicous. There is a hidden side of the text that is below the surface and can only capture in passing, however the many clues seem strangely obvious after the fact.
I was drawn back to Emma through the Minefield podcast and there investigation of the novel. On Scott Stephens’ recommendation, I actually listened to Juliet Stevenson’s narration of the novel via Libro.fm.
Invite him to dinner, Emma, and help him to the best of the fish and the chicken, but leave him to chuse his own wife. Depend upon it, a man of six or seven-and-twenty can take care of himself.”
Harriet Smith was 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. This was all that was generally known of her history.
“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.
“I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.—It depends upon the character of those who handle it. Mr. Knightley, he is not a trifling, silly young man. If he were, he would have done this differently. He would either have gloried in the achievement, or been ashamed of it. There would have been either the ostentation of a coxcomb, or the evasions of a mind too weak to defend its own vanities.—No, I am perfectly sure that he is not trifling or silly.”
Mr. Knightley connected it with the dream; but how it could all be, was beyond his comprehension. How the delicacy, the discretion of his favourite could have been so lain asleep! He feared there must be some decided involvement. Disingenuousness and double-dealing seemed to meet him at every turn. These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick. It was a child’s play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill’s part.
It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was—and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding.
“It is to be a secret, I conclude,” said he. “These matters are always a secret, till it is found out that every body knows them. Only let me be told when I may speak out.—I wonder whether Jane has any suspicion.”