Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

The Darkness of Emma

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

The Darkness of Emma

Article excerpt

"While the opening paragraphs of Emma immediately locate the "danger" (4) to the heroine's happiness in her flaw of "think[ing] ... too well of herself (3), through the secondary and tertiary characters of the novel, Austen glances at a very different threat to happiness in the forces that lie beyond one's control. We learn of Lieutenant Fairfax's death "in action abroad" (174), presumably in the war with France, of the near death of Colonel Campbell from "a severe camp-fever" (174), and of the deaths of the mothers of Emma, Frank, and Jane when their children were all very young.1 Miss Bates forms a poignant example of the vicissitudes of fortune, while Mr. Woodhouse lives in perpetual terror of accident and illness. Even as we laugh at his absurdly exaggerated fears, the novel subtly validates them. We learn, for example, that the sea did almost kill Jane Fairfax in a boating mishap at Weymouth. Against its lively, comic, optimistic tale of a young woman's moral growth, Emma counterpoints a somber vision of the vulnerability of our lives that anticipates Persuasion. Even as it explores those "blessings of existence" (3) that counteract its devastations, Emma expresses an incipient awareness, developed more fully in Persuasion, of our very limited power to contend with the blows of fortune. Paradoxically, this bleak awareness gives rise to a remarkable affirmation of passion in both novels.

Entirely preoccupied with the dangers of life, Mr. Woodhouse fears everything outside the carefully controlled environment of Hartfield, from a vacation at the sea--'"I am sure [the sea] almost killed me once'" (108)--to a ball at the Crown Inn--'"A room at an inn was always damp and dangerous'" (270); from Mr. Elton's trip to Bath--"Mr. Elton might never get safely to the end of it" (152)--to Emma's short drive home from the vicarage on Christmas Eve--"[H]er father ... had been trembling for the dangers of a solitary drive from Vicarage-lane" (143); from open windows and open doors to an egg not boiled well enough or an apple not baked long enough, all of which might make one ill. His response to the cancellation of the ball-"[T]hey would all be safer at home" (279)--encapsulates the obsessive quest for "safety" that has led him to forego so many of the innocent pleasures of life and to immure himself at Hartfield. And even there, as he cautions Emma, '"[I]t is never safe to sit out of doors'" (50)!

What has made Mr. Woodhouse so morbidly fearful? What has caused him to become so overprotective of himself and, more importantly, of Emma so that she is "Very seldom"' absent from Hartfield for '"two hours'" at a time (338), and when she does leave to visit Miss Bates on the morning after Box Hill, she returns to be greeted by her father with the nonsensical, neurotic question "'[A]nd did you get there safely?'" (419). Notwithstanding his tongue-in-cheek presentation of a psychoanalytic approach to Emma, Avrom Fleishman offers the plausible suggestion that her father's "acute anxiety" may indicate "premature senility" (248). I would like to suggest that Mr. Woodhouse's fears may originate in the death of his wife. Whereas the novel tells us how the mothers of Frank and Jane died--the one from a "lingering illness" (14), the other from "consumption and grief" (174)--it offers no information about the death of Emma's mother. It is tempting to speculate that she may have died suddenly from an accident or a brief illness and that the shock of her death permanently traumatized Mr. Woodhouse. To be sure, the novel indicates that Mr. Woodhouse was always "a nervous man" (6) and "a valetudinarian ... without activity of mind or body" (5). Yet clearly he was sufficiently energetic and healthy to marry, albeit late, and to father two children. In this regard, we may see in Isabella a reflection of the younger Mr. Woodhouse. She too is a nervous, anxious person, overly concerned with her own health and that of her family, but she is also very much in love with her husband and leads a normal married life. …

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