Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Liking" Emma Woodhouse

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Liking" Emma Woodhouse

Article excerpt

In mid-career, Jane Austen created two problematic heroines: Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Emma Woodhouse in Emma. By all accounts Austen liked Fanny Price, whom she calls "my Fanny" in the final chapter of the novel (533), nor has Austen left any indication that she expected her readers to dislike the heroine of Mansfield Park. When she began writing Emma early in 1814, however, Austen reputedly told her family, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like" (Austen-Leigh 187).

It's easy to see why Austen would like Emma Woodhouse, a clever, observant young woman, who treats most of the people around her (although never her father nor Mr. Knightley) as though they were characters in a novel that she is writing. Granted, it's a bad novel, full of the very novel cliches that Austen set about to undermine, but, nevertheless, Emma's creative temperament appears akin in many ways to Austen's own. Moreover, Emma shares Austen's capacity, normally restrained by decorum, to mimic the characteristic speech patterns of others and to skewer people with sharply worded observations. It is also easy to see why Austen feared her readers might dislike Emma, for in addition to having a sharp eye and ear and a keen wit, Emma is snobbish, complacent, manipulative, and a terrible bossy-pants, well on course to becoming Highbury's own Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Critics of the last century discussed the so-called "problem" of Emma's unlikeability in terms of Austen's innovative narrative strategies (Booth 24445, Lodge iv). The question I want to address, however, is why Austen would set herself such a "problem" to begin with: why would she deliberately create a disagreeable heroine? And furthermore, what does it mean to "like" the heroine of a novel as opposed to liking a real person? (1)

The answers lie in Austen's own writings. The author of Pride and Prejudice knew perfectly well how to create charming, sympathetic, universally beloved heroines. When Pride and Prejudice was first published, Austen wrote of its heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, "I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know" (29 January 1813). Austen's letters, however, suggest that at this same time, January 1813, she was considerably advanced in writing Mansfield Park, a novel with a heroine whom generations of readers have found difficult to like, for Fanny Price utterly lacks Elizabeth Bennet's wit and charm even while she shares her intelligence, courage, and integrity. Furthermore, within the year Austen had begun to create "unlikeable" Emma Woodhouse, a heroine blessed with everything material that Fanny Price lacks, but without Fanny's introspection and self-discipline. During the summer of 1815, just after completing Emma, Austen probably began work on Persuasion, with its sweet, sad, mature heroine. Between 1811 and 1816, then, Austen's mind would have been crowded with the diverse possibilities of the heroines of her imagination as she interrogated the received novel form and reinvented the novel heroine in order to challenge readers' complacent assumptions, as Mr. Knightley repeatedly challenges Emma's.

Emma's unpleasant characteristics are clearly deliberate and strategic. Jan Fergus, observing that Emma is "her most experimental" novel, with a "risky" choice of heroine, suggests that Austen's recent critical and financial successes had given her the confidence to experiment (1-2). Certainly critics have long acknowledged the formal innovations of plotting and narrative technique in Emma. Early reviewer Walter Scott shrewdly observed that in Emma, despite the absence of romance elements associated with older novels, "there are cross purposes enough for cutting half the men's throats and breaking all the women's hearts" (qtd. in Southam 67, 62). Janet Todd notes that both publisher John Murray and novelist Maria Edgeworth found the novel lacking in "incident," even though, as Todd says, "The lack of story is in part the subject of Emma" (95). …

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