Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Emma (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen

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This is by way of an introduction. Because Emma is, I believe, Austen's finest novel, I have used the annotations to supplement the historical and social background to the other five novels Austen completed and BookDoors has annotated. Hence the annotations to Emma's first four chapters total about twenty-five percent of those to the entire fifty-five chapters. Scattered throughout the three volumes are expanded annotations that elaborate on some aspect of the novel or time and sometimes discuss it within the context of Austen's fiction. Nowhere do the annotations divulge the plot.

You will notice in some annotations ("Search"). This indicates that the word or other matter related to the note has been defined elsewhere in the annotations or that there is useful additional material to be found in another Austen novel or another author. The e-readers do not support such search functions. If you wish to Search, return to bookdoors.com, call up the novel, and go to Search. The search engine itself is a powerful and helpful tool.


Austen worried that Emma is "a heroine no one but myself will like." She surveyed over forty relatives and friends to determine how Emma fared against Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park. Most preferred Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet, Elizabeth being Emma without egocentricity and snobbery, and without an independent fortune of £30,000 or some $2,700,000 in today's dollars. Otherwise the two heroines are the closest in type and manner of all six—smart, breezy, witty, and independent young women who err through prejudice. But Emma is a more complex person, and Austen need not have worried about her or the novel. They are the quintessence of what is finest in her other five novels and Emma is her most fully satisfying work.

Emma Woodhouse, though, is alone among Austen's heroines in uniting the most aggravating imperfections with the greatest potential. Yet an imperfect heroine suits Austen. She writes to a niece that "pictures of perfection [in heroines] as you know make me sick and wicked" (March 23, 1817), which predicts the visceral response some readers have to Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. Emma, by contrast, is unflappably self-centered. She is an elegant dominatrix in a small and until the novel opens nearly static society. She wishes to arrange it for her comforts. She believes that her social preeminence and personality justify her being a vivid presence in the minds of Highbury's worthy citizens.

Austen achieves in Emma a concentration of intent unusual even for her. Emma has the smallest geographical radius of her novels, only a mile or so; there are few characters; and Emma's vivid personality acts as a gravitational force pulling all of them into the orbit of her self-centeredness. This is Austen's only novel whose title is not a moral spectrum or a place but the name of the protagonist. It is as if Emma had willed her eponymous stature.

The confined locale and the focus on Emma neatly exemplify Austen's famous comparison of her fiction with a drawing on a two-inch piece of ivory—circumscribed, precise, and distinct. Emma's two-inch plane permits Austen to observe this world under intense magnification. The authorial voice is brisk, wry, and confident, a voice that harmonizes perfectly with the heroine's. The plot is as focused as the scene. Austen employs doublings and parallels of character and episode that result in ironic juxtapositions. The parallels act as a mirror does in a small room, that of making the space feel larger through a multiplication of perspectives.

Each of the six Austen novels has its particular emphasis, though central to all are love, courtship, and marriage. Yet there is one other common element, even more than love and marriage a given. This is the patriarchy and especially its chief legal support, primogeniture: upon the death of the father the estate will become the property of the first-born son, or the surviving oldest son, or the other male closest in line. However fitted by intelligence and sensibility the women are to inherit the estate, they are excluded. The effect is, unlike on the Continent, to keep the estates' land and resources intact (the second son, a number of whom appear in Austen, gets virtually nothing except an education and a name). The patriarchy's impact on women of especially the gentry class is felt at every level and stage of their lives. Austen focuses on the issue not\ to oppose the patriarchy so much as reveal its limitations and distortions, especially as they affect all of her heroines and many others in the novels as well as worthy second sons.

Emma declares early in the novel that she will never marry. “[H]andsome, clever, and rich,” she possesses attributes that would attract a comparably endowed and even titled suitor. Harriet, the recipient of this proclamation, is dumbfounded, for what is a woman without a husband? Yet Emma's heretical position is not only a matter of her comfortable self-centeredness but a defensive reaction against the patriarchy. Marriage would rob her of her independence, not to mention her wealth. She would instantly cease to be a sun and become a moon in her society and become in the eyes of the law a cipher.

Emma's self-centeredness, though nurtured by “thinking a little too well of herself,” has less to do with pride in her intelligence and beauty (she takes those for granted) and much to do with her undisputed preeminence in her little society. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Emma has also been spoiled. Her mother died early, leaving the child to be raised by a governess who became more of an elder sister and friend and by a father whose self-absorption and phobias render him an unfit parent, a common condition in Austen.

Emma is more egotistical than vain. Vanity may be annoying but egotism in a woman challenges the patriarchy's orderly arrangements. Men's enlarged egos are indulged or, if excessively so, become comic in Austen. The patriarchy endorses and excuses imperiousness, superciliousness, and self-centeredness in men, especially first sons. But considerable irony attends male entitlement in this and other Austen novels, for many of the men are distinctly inferior to the women. 

Talk is an activity in which male self-centeredness displays itself with particular offense, and because Austen's novels take place principally in the drawing-room and progress through conversation the male ego expands to fill the space. Men are entitled to expostulate and pronounce, while women, Emma is here too an exception, are left to interject. The more the men talk the less they listen. Emma has the fine intelligence, quickness of mind, and confidence to converse with any man in her circle and do so from a position of equality if not superiority. She admires a fine mind but does not take it for granted in men. The patriarchy confers power, and as we know power corrupts. Its corruptions are particularly subtle because the men take for granted the entitlements that blind them to the fact their superiority is circumstantial rather than deserved.

Emma's problem is not just thinking a little too well of herself; it is that she is in some deeper sense selfish, centripetal rather than centrifugal. She chooses not to make her acknowledged and brilliant capacities serve her society but herself. Austen's point is not that ego should be extinguished—we meet in the novel people who have little ego, and they are boring—but to bend it outward and take a place in and not at presumed head of the group. Familiar to Austen's readers was Alexander Pope's famous dictum, a compression of the moral philosopher Shaftesbury's writing on the subject (Search), "let self-love and social be the same." In this regard Knightley is exemplary. Emma's family life and education failed her, allowing her self-centeredness to grow without being dfiffused. Yet she is young, twenty, and Emma is a novel of delayed education concentrated into a single year.

In Austen an enlarged ego uses up the available oxygen, starving and stunting the growth of sympathy and of finally of the moral imagination, the faculty that apprehends the place and condition of those around us, their vulnerabilities, limitations, and powers, and their individual and collective importance. Austen traces in the novel the ways in which the egotistical self, in Emma's case one hardened by a nasty snobbery, commits errors in judgment that harm others. We meet Emma when she has already arrived at blithely being Emma and finds the condition one of unparalleled self-satisfaction. But, like a broken bone that has set incorrectly, there must be a re-breaking, and, while hardly fatal, this can be uncomfortable if not painful.

Emma has in fact a superb if self-serving imagination. She is a proto-novelist who constructs plots strictly for her satisfaction. Blind to her misjudgments, she blunders (the words "blind" and "blunder" constitute a leitmotif). But Emma also has rare virtues: she is not only smart but also capable of being self-reflective and bravely honest with herself. The haze of her egotism prevents her seeing others in their actuality but it is a haze that, once open to the light of experience, may dissipate. 

Emma's various plots are intended to accommodate changes that are occurring in her little society when new people enter it and so threaten her position. Change challenges her but alarms her father. Mr. Woodhouse's neurotic dread of change and Emma's attempts to ensure that those around her remain fixed in their relative positions or assume new ones suitable to her occur against a backdrop of historic change resulting from the Industrial Revolution. The novel opens with a change that disturbs the Woodhouse household. The significance of Emma's and her father's fear of change would not have been lost on any of Austen's contemporary readers. He represents as it were the canary in the gentry's drawing-room.

A massive demographic shift to the cities is radically altering England, as is the growth in numbers and prosperity of the middle classes. These changes reverberate throughout English life, though by the time the tremors reach the village of Highbury they have been subtly muted. Yet Knightley's younger brother moves to London, and various parvenus and one very wealthy young man appear in staid Highbury, unbalancing its social equilibrium.

The Gentry

Austen writes almost exclusively about the gentry. Owing to her mother's family and to her father's status as the rector of Steventon in lovely Hampshire, it is the class to which she belongs. She shares the gentry's fundamental political conservatism and its conviction that they are the taproot of English life and culture and its most sensible moral values. But she sees also their fatuousness, sloth, self-indulgence, and complacency. These worry her, all the more because she does believe the gentry are the very strength of England's past and must be the hope for its future.

Austen began writing Emma in 1814 and published it in 1816. It is a time of appalling hunger, unemployment, war, and some violent social disorder. When the victorious soldiers return from Waterloo their numbers augment the many unemployed. Decades of Enclosure Acts (Search), the introduction of farm machinery, and the growth of mills and factories have displaced tens of thousands of workers and transformed the countryside. Discontent erupts in several riots, and the English radicalism that celebrated the outbreak of the French Revolution a quarter-century earlier experiences a rebirth. King George III, now insane, remains sentimentally appealing particularly to the gentry, who identified with him before he went insane, but his son, the Prince Regent, is an acknowledged disgrace. The radical poet Percy Shelley makes no distinction between father and son. In "England in 1819," the year of the Peterloo Massacre ( the name, denoting St. Peter's Fields in Manchester, plays on Waterloo) he writes: "An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king, / Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow / Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring,—/ Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,/ But leech-like to their fainting country cling...." 

Austen's two-inch piece of ivory has space for the gentry and just a little room left over for a few others. Her limited focus raises uncomfortable questions about her the reach of her own moral imagination and for that matter about our choice to read her instead of, say, her great contemporary Sir Walter Scott, the originator of the historical novel. Yet in two of her novels—Mansfield Park and Persuasion—she steps beyond her usual radius, and in Emma there is a transfixing moment when Emma understands village life and several other defining moments in which she is compelled to recognize what has been beyond her scope or sympathy.

Yet even apart from these literal occasions, Austen's vision is far broader than she's sometimes credited with possessing. She writes not only literally but figuratively, and literal change in little Highbury is a metaphor for greater change in the society. Because the gentry have an iconic place in English history and still possess enormous political and economic power, the single manor house can stand as a figure for the whole. The two-inch piece of ivory reveals ominous stresses and strains that have historical reach and national ramifications. Although Austen is certainly no Shelley, she challenges some commonplaces of gentry life. Emma pivots on her heroine's capacity to extend significantly her range of sympathy and to learn that class has little if anything to do with moral worth. For many gentry this is a radical notion. 

Austen's presentation throughout her novels of gentry families shows that their moral and sometimes material future are in jeopardy, owing especially to the generation in power. The conduct of many of her patriarchs and that of their wives is irresponsible. Where Austen differs from a conventional historian of the age is that she identifies the greatest threat to the gentry as originating not in the seismic tremors of the Industrial Revolution, not from outside, but from within their own families. Beyond her immediate depiction of love and courtship there are the reasons people her loves are attracted to one another and the consequences of why and whom they choose to marry. These choices will determine the future: how couples raise their children, the next generation; how the wife manages the household and the husband the estate, which includes families of tenants; how and on what the couple spend their money; whether they use their time in profitable work or in trivial indolence.; and above all how they raise their children Austen's vision has a conservative cast to it. She shows that history is composed of the small, commonplace, and customary, the “little acts of kindness, / And of love,” as Wordsworth writes.

Austen makes love, courtship, and marriage figure prominently in the novels not just because those appeal to an audience but because more than anything else they are the rudimentary stuff of human life and history. They describe the gentry's present actuality and intimate its future. Marriage is only the probable end of her novels' plots. For the gentry she writes about it is the beginning of their responsibilities to have, raise, and educate their children for the proper rule of the manor and the stability of the society dependent on it. 

The landed gentry total a very small number of houses and people with a great deal of power, even if that power is slipping away. Patrick Colquhon's A Treatise on Indigence (1806) estimates the nobility (gentlemen up through peers such as barons, earls, and dukes) represents a tiny fraction of the population: "one family in every 70 or 80…1.4 per cent in 1803," according to Harold Perkin, though possessing "about a seventh of the national income." The middle classes range from freeholders (a farmer who owns his land) and farmers such as Robert Martin in Emma, whose land is on an indefinite lease, and merchants, manufacturers, ship owners, the professions, clergy (sometimes marginally a gentleman, but regarded so in most cases by the landed gentry who give them their "livings" and many dinners), tailors and clerks, army and navy officers, and such occupations serving the gentry as gunsmiths, button makers, hatters, butchers, et al. The "Lower Orders" extend down from artisans to hawkers and peddlers, miners and navvies, soldiers and sailors, laborers, pensioners, cottagers, vagrants, and paupers. 

Men such as Knightley and Woodhouse would have an annual income between £700-1500, the shopkeepers and tradesmen £150, farmers £120, and artisans and other higher workers £55, and the seamen and soldiers who were making possible so much of England's power and wealth £40 and £29 respectively. (It is extremely difficult to translate 1815 pounds into 2011 dollars, but, as explained elsewhere, I have used a figure of £1 to $90. Search Money.) The artisans represent a threshold. The remainder, however hard working, were beneath subsistence level. In 1803 more than one in nine people, or over a million, received poor relief and even with that required private philanthropy's supplements if they were not to starve.

The gentry were largely Church-and-Crown men adamantly opposed to any inclination to Catholicism or to the divine right of kings—one of the issues that cost Charles I his head—and to any abridgment of the local power of the magistrates, almost all of whom were gentry and the remainder aristocracy (barons or above). Thrust in opposition to James II, who replaced many of them as magistrates with his own choices and whom eventually the gentry compelled to abdicate, they became in the 18th c. the greatest beneficiaries of the Glorious Revolution (1688). Possessing untrammeled local authority, they vigorously resisted the centralization of power in London, the site of Whitehall, the government offices, and of Parliament.

As the principal political force in both houses of Parliament, the gentry were able to protect their economic interests through limitations on exports (the Corn Laws, which kept the price of grain at artificially high levels even in times of famine devastated the huge suffering of the poor); the gentry were able in the mid-18th century to eliminate the tax on gin to expand the market for their grains (as the crusading painter William Hogarth helped show, the effects were disastrous, leading to the reinstatement of the tax); and supported the Enclosure Acts, which increased their holdings, rents, and profits on farm produce through efficiencies that ravaged the agrarian workers. From about 1760 farming became especially profitable for those who had the resources to buy machinery, new seeds, and sufficient land for crop rotation and heavier manuring. The medium-sized and large farmer's income went up dramatically, even though the purchase and fencing of newly-enclosed land were initially expensive. With the other gentry Donwell Abbey, Knightley's estate, rents and sales would have improved by more than 50% since 1760, despite a 20% or more increase in taxes (in 1816 the 10% war tax on income was rescinded). Yet in 1780, approximately the year of Knightley's birth, a quarter of wheat (eight bushels) sold for 34 shillings; ten years later it was 58s, and in 1800 128s. This helped to account for the staggering pauperism at the beginning of the 19th c. and for the gentry's affluence.

Yet shadows darken more than dapple the gentry's future. England by 1810 has already passed the point of being an agricultural economy and become a predominantly manufacturing one. The 1801 Census revealed that one-third of all families was connected with agriculture, two-fifths with commerce, trade, and manufacturing. This change prefigures the rapid growth of the factory slums in dismal, filthy manufacturing towns; more important with respect to the gentry, the change signals the slow listing of political weight toward the manufacturing and commercial interests and the larger towns.

The country estate is for Austen the ship of state's keel. Hartfied and Donwell Abbey here, Longbourn, Northanger Abbey, Kellynch Hall, Norland Park, Barton Park, and Mansfield Park in the other novels, attest or not to the health of the family within. Much hinges on the pater familias, and where he is lacking the weakness impacts all connected with the manor. Distinguishing Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), whose estate is the largest in Austen, is his management of it, which impresses Elizabeth; others such as Knightley, who is in addition a magistrate, have lesser but still extensive, lucrative properties that affect directly many people; some such as Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park and Sir Walter Elliott of Kellynch Hall (Persuasion) not only possess grand manors but are baronets.

Each of Austen's main gentry families is at a pivotal point resulting often from a circumstantial matter of inheritance combined with the parents' rearing and education of the children just reaching their majority. At issue are the values that will lead to their choice of a mate. Because primogeniture does not divide the estate but passes it whole, the stakes are large, and marriage is central. The situation can be complicated by the son's being feckless, stupid, or by there being no son or no closely related male heir to the manor born. Multiply, as I believe Austen wishes us to do, one family by hundreds, and the stakes mount for the nation. Primogeniture's preservation of the estate intact made the house more important than any single possessor of it. Ideally the owner was a steward, a responsible transient. His job was to conserve if not increase the estate's value, adding if possible to the land through marriage or purchase but certainly preserving the land and home for generations to come. Austen approves of this, while understanding that primogeniture can be disastrous for the women in the house (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion open at just that point, and the issue of inheritance shadows Emma). Making the nearest male heir so powerful renders all other males except the next in line family capons—they will join the army or become vicars or attorneys—and makes the wife and daughters pendants.

The Regency is a period of spectacular and scandalous dysfunction in the Royal Family (Search Regent, Regency). Although George III's wars and taxes offended many of the gentry, they always knew he was one of them. He was domestic in his habits, simple in his tastes, a homebody, a lover of farm life who bred sheep, and, uncharacteristic of many of them had an inquiring mind absorbed by developments in scientific agriculture and astronomy. His son was the antithesis—dissipated, a rake and man of the city rather than the country, opulent and prodigal in his tastes, vain, a man of uninhibited appetites and petty emotions.  The Prince Regent claimed to admire Austen's novels and requested through the court physician that she dedicate her next to him. The sovereign's wish being a command, she wrote, "Emma. Dedicated by Permission to H.R.H. The Prince Regent," as if advertising her lack of enthusiasm. Her publisher, the most important in England, asked for a more gracious revision. She wrote, "TO HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS, THE PRINCE REGENT, THIS WORK IS, BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS'S PERMISSION, MOST RESPECFULLY DEDICATED, BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS'S DUTIFUL AND OBEDIENT HUMBLE SERVANT, THE AUTHOR." The fulsome repetition of this dedication borders on arch.

Despite Austen's general levity, brightness, and optimism, her novels dwell on domestic disorder and dysfunction. The older Dashwoods (Sense and Sensibility), Bennets (Pride and Prejudice), and Bertrams (Mansfield Park) are weakened to the point of being nearly disabled. Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park is away at a critical time in the lives of his children; Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion is fixed in the amber of his own self-love. He is in debt because he has spent lavishly to support his gargantuan ego; our own Mr. Woodhouse is immobilized by anxiety; and General Tilney of Northanger Abbey is an obsessive-compulsive aesthete and a tyrannical parent. All of these men are fathers of daughters whose futures hinge precariously on the paterfamilias.

Typically, Austen does not address issues of the macro-world but only touches on them obliquely through the microcosm of the country house. We may infer from it something of the gentry's uncertain future. The future of Knightley's estate, the old and esteemed Donwell Abbey, is uncertain and so joins Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park, in each of which the matter of inheritance is commanding. Knightley is in his late thirties and single. If he does not marry and have a son, Donwell Abbey upon his death will go to either his brother, a London attorney out of touch with the land, or to his brother's oldest son, a boy born and raised in the city. It is obvious that neither would be able to approach Knightley's management of the lands, tenants, and home.

This uncertainty about the future raises another issue that runs throughout Austen. Five of the novels have heroines (Emma, Elizabeth Bennet, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Anne Elliot) burdened by weak, selfish parents, predominantly the father. Anna Karenina's opening sentence, “All happy families are alike; all unhappy families are different, each in its own way,” could have been the epigraph for the Austen novels. In varying ways each of these heroines labors under the difficulties created by the unsatisfactory marriage of her parents, sometimes compounded by the death of one parent. To Austen the real tragedy of an unhappy marriage is its impact on the children, whose reading and education are jeopardized. This leaves the question of whether the children will be discerning, kind, useful, and cheerful, the compass points of Austen's world, the virtues that preserve and perpetuate what she describes in practically the last words of Emma as "the small band of true friends." The phrase reminds the reader where we live most of our life, the small band being the next circle just beyond the family and pretty much the outer limit of Austen's characters. Just how important this little world is can be measured by there being nothing beyond it in Emma and very little in any of the other novels.


The Novel of Manners, according to Austen

At some point the term "novel of manners" became a feature of English literature, and Austen's novels have been taken to epitomize the genre. They do, in the sense in which the phrase is commonly used—that of individuals of a class, often landed and affluent, living in a polite, strict society that requires impeccable behavior and examines the consequences of when it is less than that. But Austen complicates and enriches the genre as no one else has and turns a novel of manners into an inquiry into their purposes and limitations.

Austen's fiction has had an uneven development and has always enraged a few, such as Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain. Some of the negative response is predicated on the certainty that a highly mannered society represses, filters out, and dilutes potent natural desires and their actualization until they are nearly bloodless, leaving only a manicured exoskeleton. Austen suffered in the 1960s and 1970s. To readers then, especially college-age ones, manners appeared a barrier to living a vivid, authentic life. Manners, they believed, compromised if they did not extinguish sincerity. Austen has a more complex view.

She does not believe even the most sincere of us can escape manners. An entirely uninhibited sincerity would be judged lunatic. Manners mediate between the self and the group of selves around it, ensuring that egos do little more than brush against one another. They may contain but they also separate. In Austen manners alchemically transform the lead of the ego into the gold of a developed social being. Central to Austen's thought is that we realize ourselves not as individuals but as social beings. The self alone is an inchoate, incomplete thing, desirably transitory. We might think in this connection of the country house and its owner. The estate transcends in importance the individual who happens to possess it at any moment. Similarly the little society's well-being transcends any one of the egos populating it at that time. This is something Emma must learn.

But were Austen's novel of manners composed of no more than this, her subject would be limited. She views manners as a nuanced semiotic code. The action of her novels occurs largely through conversation and small behaviors, not defining deeds. Manners are the language by which we read the character from which they spring. Character may be described as the moral self as opposed to the far more visible personality. We must separate personality (a word that originates with the Ancient Greek persona, whose meaning is mask) from character.  Manners are the clothes of character, and personality the mask that we must penetrate. This too might be simple in another author, but Austen knows that there is often an imperfect relation between manners and character. For one, people will adopt manners that exaggerate or conceal; for another, none of is objective and all of us are limited as to sense and sensibility and readily charmed or offended by pride and prejudice. 

In Austen manners are a hybrid compounded of two discrete sources. Imagine a plant that derives its being from both the sun (family, class, and the culture), and the dark loam beneath (the character). These manners, readily apparent in speech and gesture, are acquired behaviors and tell an early 19th-century Englishman much about a person's social history. In Austen that is a useful introduction but says little about what I'll call natural manners. These express our moral character, whether we wish it or not. They subtly animate and define our social being. The discerning can read such manners.

Austen's people spend a good deal of time thinking about and discussing the manners of others. The object of the more serious of these discussions is to triangulate in order to gain an outline of the person's character. This can be faint and elusive, even ambiguous. Drawing-room etiquette tends to remain at a shallow level, excluding much of what is personal and all that is intimate in conversation. All that remains for the observer are dress, card games, sketches, a scrapbook, and the like. Declarative, unequivocally revealing acts are sparse, though each novel has them, but the knowledge about character they convey often comes too late. Yet far from boring us, the apparent insignificance depicted on the two-inch ivory only heightens the suspense of Austen's people reading and often misreading the signs. The decorous, polite environment allows for virtually no physical contact and hardly a raised voice. Still, the consequences—the future of the family and the estate, and to some degree of the nation—are worthy of the Shakespearean stage.

The intrinsic snobbery of most gentry is a prejudice that invites them to misread their companions, whom they are apt to welcome naively or exclude foolishly. They welcome almost anyone whose manners are their own and whose wit and charm will enliven the longueurs of a winter night in a drawing-room. Yet what makes such a person desirable can cloak what makes them dangerous to the house's moral life. Austen's novels play upon this tension and the difficulty of penetrating the mannered veils of seemingly banal conversation and activities such as a walk or a drive, reading aloud, a card game to discern the character beneath and the probable consequences for the little band of true friends. The results can be tragic, as in Mansfield Park, or largely comic, as in Emma.

Austen sold well but was writing the novel of manners against the literary grain of the time, which ran toward the melodramatic, the Gothic, and above all in poetry toward the Romantic, this being the zenith of Romanticism. The values of that time closest in the century and half since to those of the 1960s and 1970s. Blake, Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats were her publishing contemporaries. Superficially they and she seem poles apart, yet they have more in common than is generally allowed. Austen was conscious of this when in Sense and Sensibility she dramatized the conflict between the distinctly Romantic individual and the conservative demands of the family. The sister who represents the Romantic temperament errs grievously, but Austen is deeply sympathetic to the emotions that overwhelm Marianne and makes a favorable comparison between her authenticity and the vitiated feelings and hollow manners against which she rebels. Austen shares with the Romantics the belief that feeling is more intrinsically and infallibly sincere than the intellect. She, like the poets, distrusts reason, which all too easily degenerates into self-serving rationalization and that feelings, not reasoned thought, motivate us.

Yet many readers in the 1960s and 1970s were unprepared to recognize nuance and viewed Austen as a spinsterish anachronism. They believed her controlled, mannered world revealed a preference for etiquette over substance, when in fact the drama fastened on a collision between the two. Where they see civilization as tending to deform the individual, she sees it as necessary to the self's development. Austen offended Charlotte Brontë, and Mark Twain said that reading her made him feel like a bartender who's entered the Kingdom of Heaven. (It would reveal something about us to know why in the last decade or so Austen has become so important to us, evidenced by the publication and downloading in great numbers of her novels and by the many films and TV adaptations.)

"Letting it all hang out" would be for Austen not only undesirable but impossible. She esteems sincerity but entire sincerity is a phantasm. Sincerity is a matter of degree, not kind. We are only more or less (in)sincere in the conventional sense of the word. Because selfishness motivates insincerity, we are unable to be entirely insincere. We are an alloy. Our surroundings along with our acquired manners demand that even the sincere person become insincere at times. Knightley is a harsh critic of Emma but he indulges her father, whose fatuousness and selfishness inconvenience all around him. Perhaps he restrains himself because Mr. Woodhouse is older, or a man, or incorrigible, or because the harmony of the little band of friends would be troubled. Or because he has a special interest in Emma. We know only that he is inconsistently sincere and learn over time that indeed he cherishes the equanimity of the little band and respects the older man if only because he is that. Austen shows us that sincerity becomes more difficult as we move from the privacy of, say, the bedroom or being out in nature (Austen's people forget themselves outdoors) to the society of the drawing-room. The more artificial the environment—the more a product of civilization and culture—the more sincerity of manner is qualified.

Further confounding the discernment of sincerity is that once sincerity is prized it becomes a cultural commodity. People wish to show they are sincere, and one means, assuming that “naturalness” betokens sincerity, is to commodify it in dress and haircuts and affect it in deportment and speech. Moreover, sincerity being relative, is a matter of time and place that must be tuned to which drawing-room we're in and who is there. In the context of a Highbury drawing room, Knightley's straightforward, confident manner does not meet Emma's criteria: he speaks his mind to her, has friends beneath his class, will walk rather than use a carriage, and wears clothes that reflect his being a working as opposed to a delegating squire. His sincerity takes the form of what Emma views as bad manners, and his persona is more nearly aligned with his character and hence transparent.

Yet sincerity in Austen is not simply equatable with candor. There is a second coordinate, which measures the greater or lesser alignment between a person's public behavior and his or her character. Knightley is inconsistent in one way but in another unvarying. His thoughtful devotion to the little band and his concern for the individual are higher values for him (and for Austen) than an inflexible situational honesty. His omnipresent sense of duty necessitates an inconsistent candor. Duty is the primary defining feature of his character, and sincerity in the single sense secondary to that.

Speaking his mind is a part of his character but not its measure. Austen cleverly warns us not to confuse the two coordinates (public manners and the manner of character) by giving us in Knightley's brother and Emma's brother-in-law, the London attorney, as an alter ego. Here is a man who believes in the sincere expression of his feelings to the unease of everyone around him. He is occasionally dismissive with his wife, rude to his father-in-law, who irritates him, and generally speaks his mind. Regrettably, it is a dyspeptic mind, and the spur to his sincerity is inevitably not anyone's enlightenment but his selfishness. The elder Knightley's candor with Emma can border on the imperious and intrusive and is at the farthest edge of an acceptable sincerity. Austen legitimizes selfishness when it is based on the premise that our little band of true friends' stability and happiness improve our own: “Let self-love and social be the same.”

The real choice and tension in Austen is not between sincerity and manners or even sincerity and hypocrisy but between sincerity and restraint. Hypocrisy, of which there is plenty in Austen, is self-serving, whereas restraint is likely to have a greater component of selflessness. Yet if Austen were to stop here she would be insufferably pious, not to mention humorless. Insisting upon giving the group primacy over the self does little in any case to resolve the matter. It is a rule for which there are infinite exceptions, and Austen's people are brilliant at thinking themselves exceptions and then tolerating the ensuing contradictions. For Austen the comic and occasionally tragic flaw in human nature is our nearly boundless capacity for rationalization. Any of us is capable of justifying our behavior by defending it as useful to our family and friends. Austen's irony sets her apart from the espousers of sincerity, who are apt to be tediously earnest and monovalent. But her critics are right that, given the choice between a disruptive sincerity and a kind civility born of artifice, Austen will choose the latter. The ramifying matter of our lives occurs principally in the drawing-room, not the bedroom, though anyone who believes Austen isn't fully aware of the power of physical attraction and sexual energy has failed to read closely.

From the outset Emma and Knightley disagree over the character of one of Knightley's prosperous tenant farmers as a potential husband for Emma's friend. Knightley judges the intrinsic merits of the actual man while Emma insists that his class—he is not landed gentry but a class below—defines him. Emma's snobbery is appalling (and self-interested) but hardly uncommon. Emma and Knightley collide again over the intrinsic merits of a young, good-looking, very wealthy man, Frank Churchill. Is Frank frank (in the sense the OED quotes Ann Radcliffe's The Italian,1797, "Frank in his temper, ingenuous in his sentiments")? Or alternatively, as Emma ponders, is Jane Fairfax naturally reticent or is her reserve a calculated attempt to deceive? Sincerity is a compound of the conscious mind and the unconscious and reflexive. Conversation in Austen is suspenseful because its lunge-parry-riposte happen quickly, too quickly for participants not to respond at times reflexively. It is precisely in the reflex more than in the manner that Austen's characters reveal the ghostly shape of their character. Emma learns this to her chagrin and shame. To the discerning observer, those moments in which the unconscious being spontaneously materializes reveal a truth about the whole person that no one can create or conceal.

To the dedicated Romantic, the inhibitions that manners impose compromise sincerity, just as Wordsworth felt the conventions and subject matter of much poetry before his enfeebled and rendered artificial its statement by ornament and rhetorical device. This notion does not, I think, apply easily to Austen. Good manners only filter; they are a sieve, not a mold. They clothe the private self and make it presentable but don't change its shape. Austen is as aware as any Romantic poet of the duality between the private self and the public persona but she will default to the public. The drawing-room is where we learn and enact our public roles, and it is there that the cross-currents and demands upon our insight and judgment are most tested. Austen's novels caution that we not mistake size or function for intensity: the drawing-room compensates for inhibitions and restraints upon desire with the subtle gradations of feeling that thrive there. While strictly regulating verbal and written communication, manners do not attenuate desire so much as force it into channels that require the full range of mind to make sense of. Characters such as Emma and Knightley attend to not just the brute words but their intonation and timing. Neither intensity nor sincerity is vitiated so much as pressurized.

That, though, is not how the ardent Romantic is likely to see it. Austen's readers, nudged by her into questioning their values, must decide for themselves where they position themselves on the continuum between her and the more decidedly Romantic mind, between sense and sensibility. At issue is not the outcome so much as the awareness by which we arrive at our position. Blake can represent one pole. He writes in the Proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that "the cistern contains: the fountain overflows." Another proverb pictures a drawing room in which "Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity." Austen, who sought the moderate place between extremes, would not agree that "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." The road of excess may serve the driver's immediate needs for excitement and gratification, but she worries over the danger to the passengers and the vehicle, the communal coach. Yet she, as much as any Romantic poet, finds manners as an end in themselves to be detestable. And she as much as they appreciates how powerful emotions can be—and ought to be. Manners in her novels do not prove how easily weak emotions are controlled but how necessary it is that strong ones be.

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