Gifting, getting, greed, and goodness in Highbury
Is Jane Austen's 'Emma' about greed, or is it about goodness?
It’s the season of giving. And when you think about gifts, and Jane Austen, what comes to mind for me is all the gifting, and giving, and greediness, and goodness, that goes on in Highbury.
Looking back on my dog-eared marked-up Penguin edition of Jane Austen’s Emma, all of the gifting and giving and running about strikes me this holiday season as central to what’s going on in this multilayered novel - which was published on Dec. 23, 206 years ago.
So, let’s celebrate - grab a holiday latte, settle in, and let’s talk about how this novel is actually about giving, and goodness, even as it might be taken for a story about selfishness and greed.
When we talk about all this we’re also talking about Helena Kelly’s ideas in her remarkable book Jane Austen, the Secret Radical - which I highly recommend.
We’re going to look at the greed first; and the giving comes later.
But if you want to get straight to the goodness, I don’t blame you - go ahead and scroll ahead, and we’ll meet you there.
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‘Everybody has their level’
Dr. Kelly in her book helpfully outlines an aspect of Emma that I had not deeply considered before - and it’s a welcome discussion: the economic disparities that serve as the backdrop to the novel, and to Jane Austen’s world.
As Kelly writes, this historic, contextual backdrop consists of rising food prices, low wages, bad harvests, and costly, hungry militias that put pressure on prices for just the sort of luxury foods that Mr. Woodhouse fears having too much of.
All of this establishes what Kelly describes as a shifting, changing landscape.
In Highbury, there are comings and goings and conundrums and questions. There are puzzles, and riddles, and motherless children - not only Emma, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, and Harriet Smith, but also both John and George Knightley, which always strikes me as a deeper aspect of Knightley’s attention and friendship with Mr. Woodhouse.
Also, against all of this uncertainty and shifting, there is Hartfield’s contrasting abundance, and Donwell’s contrasting solidity, standing in its midst. So in many ways this story is not only about instability, and disparity, in revolutionary, uncertain times - it’s also about power, and good fortune, and what you do with those as an individual and as a society.
Austen is not only portraying this instability and insecurity, but as always she’s challenging us with the question of how we respond to it, and navigate it - individually, as humans.
But what Dr. Kelly is brilliantly challenging us to see is that Austen also might be saying something bigger in this most domestic of novels - about our response to these disparities and uncertainties as a society.
[I]n many ways this story is not only about instability, and disparity, in revolutionary, uncertain times - it’s also about power, and good fortune, and what you do with those as an individual and as a society.
And while there is plenty of gift-giving in Emma - and this is portrayed fantastically in the Emma 2020 film where pivotal plot points are enacted by Emma going forth with various baskets - as always Austen is most entertaining when she’s showing us how not to do it.
And how not to do it is emblematic in our second-favorite Austen bad clergyman Mr. Elton.
Here we have all of Austen’s faves in one Church leader: fashion, pretentiousness, clumsy condescension, and misplaced snobbery. He gives us what might be the snobbiest line in all of Austen, when he says to Emma of an alliance to Harriet Smith in the politest tone, “no doubt, there are men who might not object to - Every body has their level.”
But like all of Austen’s terrible characters, we appreciate the work they are doing for our author - Austen is deploying these Eltons to portray the chaos of status, place, primogeniture practices, and the disappointing unreliability of our sacred institutions, including the family and the Church.
Nothing is reliable, nothing makes sense in this world - where you can be insulted and assaulted in a carriage by a clergyman following a Christmas dinner; but also in a world where a lowly yeoman farmer can reach unlooked for poetic heights by simply writing a letter. .
It’s all topsy-turvy. And Emma’s certainty, and snobbery, is constantly challenged.
Adding to the multiple layers and the planned chaos of this story is the fact that we readers, through the gift that is Austen’s innovative technique of free indirect discourse, can see that Emma is in fact wrong about her place in society.
She’s at the top, yes, but is misled and misleading about how she navigates her class-ridden world and what her responsibilities are to that world.
Knightley, by contrast, is not confused about any of this at all.
Through Knightley, I feel Austen is showing us what it means to act responsibly from a position of power.
[A]s always Austen is most entertaining when she’s showing us how not to do it.
As Kelly points out in Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, landowners are powerful and influential in this world. Knightley is repeatedly shown to act with generosity and responsibility, both personally and in the community. Dr. Kelly suggests that Knightley and his work on land enclosures on his estate makes him one of Austen’s examples of what’s wrong, and that he is contributing to the disparities by shutting out commoners from his estate. That’s possible - but it seems that the text, and the narrator, makes our expected views on Knightley very clear at the end of the novel, where he is described by Emma as: “always so kind, so feeling, so truly considerate for every body …” And yes this is coming from Emma who has been wrong about people before - LOL - but is unlikely to be that degree of wrong in the last portion of this complicated novel. I feel it’s clear that we are meant to love and admire Mr. Knightley.
But Dr. Kelly’s insights are illuminating and fascinating and something I will be in constant conversation with as I read and reread Austen. Her research and descriptions and insights about early 18th century England provide a whole new set of glasses for viewing this world.
Even Box Hill - that pivotal scene that’s the subject of so much consideration and climactic dramatizing on the screen - looks different.
When you consider that the parish of Highbury and its surroundings likely are part of the Donwell estate, and you consider that much of the safety net addressing poverty and need within those environs is managed through through estates and landowners like Donwell and Mr. Knightley, you do see that scene with Miss Bates as being about more than just rude words: It’s about how the privileged in this system carry their responsibilities for the marginalized.
It’s about generosity and grace, even when you don’t feel like it.
So, that brings us to letter-writing - always a wonderful achievement in Austen - and that interesting phrase that we all notice but perhaps don’t highlight enough, in the crucial, excruciating scene where Emma manages to talk Harriet Smith out of accepting Robert Martin’s proposal letter:
“She read, and was surprised. The style of her letter was much above her expectation. … She paused over it …”
What she notices, when she pauses, is the manner, the beautiful writing. You might say this is because Knightley actually wrote the letter, which is fun to contemplate, that he’s inadvertently seducing Emma without either of them quite realizing it in this moment.
But our first impression as a reader at this point is surely meant to see that Emma is taken aback because someone she has judged to be beneath her exhibits personal sensitivity and intelligence of a kind that she herself doesn’t encounter often, even in her privileged world, because those she is surrounded by - her father, her sister, and her neighbors, are all, as Knightley points out, not as clever as Emma is. But the writer of this letter is.
The letter is everything Austen always wants of us - it’s “a very good letter,” heartfelt, plainspoken, well-expressed and affectionate.
She pauses - but not long enough.
We’re still on a train wreck in this novel - toward confusions of status, merit, value; and away from order, stability, security.
All will be well because all will end well.
But how we get there is largely through Emma’s - and that of other characters’ - reflections, repentances, and a turn toward giving and goodness.
Gifting Jane, and a warm reconciliation worthy of the season
One of the most surprising and under-examined aspects of Emma is the spree of generosity that overtakes Emma as she turns that corner from misjudgments and snobbery, toward self-reflection and responsibility.
The reconciliation gifts to Miss Bates and Robert Martin make lovely turning points on screen.
But the generosities that play out even more dramatically, in the books, are the ones that comprise the reconciliations that Emma brings to Jane Fairfax, after she learns what was really going on at Box Hill. And what was really going on at Box Hill was that Frank was causing actual harm to Jane, and that she, Emma, was helping him.
As we outlined in a previous post - Jane Fairfax Drops the Mic - Emma repents, and then approaches Jane with multiple overtures, visits, offers of carriage rides, and finally offers her best arrow root from Hartfield, in an attempt to not only redeem herself but to also finally embark on a friendship that Mr. Knightley has advised all along.
Jane refuses it all. At first.
It’s only when Frank Churchill himself is also refused by Jane - when he’s faced with Jane’s nuclear option of going into service as a governess rather than marrying him - and their relationship is restored, and Jane is safely and publicly engaged and set to become the mistress of Enscombe and therefore presumably will be even wealthier than Emma in this status-twisting confusion of a plot - that Emma and her gifts and her new-found generosity are finally accepted by Jane.
Yes, at this point in the story, and like the very best of Austen characters, Jane is “without words” at Emma’s new-found offer of friendship, and “She came forward, with an offered hand.”
What Emma’s About
So what is this meandering novel of displacements, chaos, disparities, orphaned and motherless children, shifting laws and landscapes, and even references to poverty and the slave trade, and the insults and assaults - what is it all about?
Writers and thinkers like Dr. Kelly surely are right to say it’s about power, and influence, and disparity, and the greed and chaos that can attend it.
But because this is Jane Austen - and Austen always shows us a better way if we look closely enough, it’s also fair to say this novel is about Goodness.
It’s about those who hold power, and good luck, and fortune growing their inner character, recognizing their responsibilities to others less fortunate in a chaotic, unfair society, and taking the trouble to see, notice, and give back.
In Emma, that Happy Ever After comes after turning the corner, from snobbery, chaos, and confusion, toward reflection, generosity, and goodness.
But, friends! Tell us what you think!
What is your favorite example of gift-giving in Austen? I really was not coming up with much outside of Emma, but I’m likely missing something huge here!
How are you making Austen, the films, the novels, the retellings, part of your holiday?
Reach out and let us know by commenting right here.
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Meanwhile, we at Austen Connection wish you the merriest, most abundant of holidays filled with gifts and goodness.
Yours most truly,
Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, the Secret Radical
Jane Austen Centre, Bath - interview with Helena Kelly
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