Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Labours Not Her Own": Emma and the Invisible World

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Labours Not Her Own": Emma and the Invisible World

Article excerpt


Although she died almost a quarter of a century before Poe published "The Purloined Letter," Jane Austen knew all too well about the phenomenon of things being hidden in plain sight. Throughout her fiction, from the violent slapstick of the juvenilia to the scarcely less displaced and deranged world of the Sanditon fragment, one of the distinctive features of her narratives is their ability, in various ways, to make a virtue of indirectness and obliquity, to make the offstage, the unheard, the unseen--all the features that hover in that hinterland beyond the story in front of our eyes--register their presences in a reader's imagination. When Humberstall, in Rudyard Kipling's masterful short story "The Janeites," has trouble squaring his addiction to Austen's novels with the fact that "there was nothin' to 'em nor in 'em. Nothin' at all, believe me" (741), he is touching on a quality that Austen's readers--both her staunchest admirers (like Kipling's soldiers, finding a meeting place in "Jane" amid the casual slaughter of trench warfare) and her detractors--have frequently noted, and found puzzling. Why, one might ask, do these novels keep readers coming back to them? Why do so many readers, both specialist and non-specialist, experience the sensation of ideas and possibilities crowding around them every time they do reread, when, as Humberstall suggests, what is right in front of us is often so comparatively spare in its content or its rendition? Of course, there's no way I could provide one all-encompassing answer, one Key to All Austenian Mythologies, in the space available to me--even if I wanted to. What I would like to do here, though, is to suggest some possible answers to that question, as I explore the different ways in which "what's there" in the world of Emma, Austen's most stylistically imaginative and suggestive novel, also involves the ghostly presence of what lies beyond its immediate field of vision. Moreover, I'd like to suggest that the novel's particular invitation for readers to imagine its invisible worlds offers a model of how we might understand Austen's attitude to the very medium and form in which she works.

To begin with, though, I would like to look at one of the most intriguing marginal presences in the novel, not least because it sheds a light on some of the long-running aesthetic and political arguments that have been made about the social "reach" of Austen's writing. My title comes from a famous passage in the 1714 version of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock: the virtuoso set-piece at the end of canto 1, where Belinda's morning toilette is transfigured by Pope's mock-heroic style into the arming of a classical warrior:

   Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms;
   The Fair each moment rises in her Charms,
   Repairs her Smiles, awakens every Grace,
   And calls forth all the Wonders of her Face;
   Sees by Degrees a purer Blush arise,
   And keener Lightnings quicken in her Eyes.
   The busy Sylphs surround their darling Care;
   These set the Head, and those divide the Hair,
   Some fold the Sleeve, whilst others plait the Gown;
   And Betty's praised for Labours not her own. (1:139-48)

This passage, like the whole of The Rape of the Lock itself, is both beautifully absurd and deeply in tune with the subject that its style would seem to be exaggerating. After all, in a poem sending up an eighteenth-century "battle of the sexes" over the lost lock of Belinda's hair, the "arming" of the heroine with cosmetics might not be such a small matter (a famous British advertising campaign for "Boots 17" in the late 1990s ran with the tag-line, "It's not make-up--it's ammunition").

The comedy of manners staged within the lines of Pope's verse also creates its own suggestive collisions of the visible with the invisible. Since this is a burlesque version of a classical epic, there need to be some traces of divine intervention in the human actions: "The Machinery, Madam, is a Term invented by the Criticks, to signify that Part which the Deities, Angels, or Daemons, are made to act in a Poem" (217). …

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