Matchmaking in Regency England
I finished reading Emma by Jane Austen over the weekend. It was part of a Read Along hosted by Sarah Emsley and Dolce Bellze’s and it fitted very nicely into my Women’s Classic Literature Event. Also while I was reading it, I realized it could also be part of my Reading England project with its coverage of Southern England and Surrey to be specific. This is why I worship Jane Austen; she always complies with all my needs! I was supposed to read it through the month of December, but greedy me, just could not let it off!
Emma begins with a description of our primary protagonist, Ms. Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield, Highbury. She is beautiful 21 years old heiress of 30,000 pounds a year, beloved daughter to a doting father and mistress of his house. She has everything going her way, financially secure, loved by all, life is as perfect as it can be. Her sister Isabella, senior to her by 7 years is married to Mr. John Knightly who is a barrister in London. His elder brother is Mr. Knightly, a friend and neighbor to Hartfield; he owns the huge acres associated to Donwell Abbey and is the primary landowner and Justice of Peace of the area. He is also one of the few people who can see faults of behavior with Emma. The novels opens with the marriage of Miss Taylor, former governess and then best friend and companion to Emma with Mr. Weston. Mr. Weston is a self-made man, who had suffered some misfortune in his first marriage to the very rich Miss Chruchill, who had died in the fourth year of their marriage, leaving him with a young son. This son, Mr. Frank Chruchill was brought by Mr. and Mrs. Chruchill (brother and sister-in-law) to Miss Chruchill and considered the heir to their vast estate. Therefore Mr. Weston free of all responsibilities had worked had, built a fortune, bought Randalls and finally married Miss Taylor. Emma believes that this marriage happened through her efforts and match making skills and this un-parallel success, convinces her to continue matchmaking among her friends, like Miss Harriet Smith, a parlor border at the local school, whose parentage is unknown and Mr. Elton the local vicar, with amusing and sometime disastrous results, finally leading to mature realization in Emma of what truly constitutes marriage, love and companionship.
What can one say about this novel that that has not been said before? I love Emma because she is so unlike other Jane Austen’s heroines – blessed with brains and good heart, she still manages to act like a scatterbrain and is not above making mistakes of being ungenerous and perhaps sometime unkind. She does not completely understand human nature is often blinded by her own self conviction.What makes her well-loved is the fact that like all us mere mortals, she makes a mistakes, realizes her errors and goes about not only repenting it but also making amends. Her heart is in the right place, and if sometimes the sheer good fortune of her status and abilities carries her away, it is her heart and conscience which makes her somber and do everything in her power to make amends. Mr. Knightly is a quintessential Austen hero – mature, generous and gentlemanly. A vigorous, always in action man, duty of a man and its completion to him is first and most primary requirement of being a gentleman. The ensemble cast is equally brilliant and extremely well-drawn out; it is difficult to choose between the hypochondriac but kind Mr. Woodhouse, simple albeit silly Harriet and the up-start Eltons. I had several laugh out loud moments every time I came to passage containing Mrs. Elton. I think while writing about Jane Fairfax, Jane Austen wanted to create an-almost model for women, the perfect, accomplished, well-spoken, elegant lady, something for lesser mortals including Emma to aspire for. The only character I could not abide by was Mr. Frank Chruchill, exactly for the reasons that Mr.Knightly enumerates! The plot is interesting and like Tom and Belleza posted in their blogs, this novel can be called mystery novel, because one really never knows what will happen – will Harriet marry? Why is Frank Chruchill so late in his visit to Randalls? Why does Jane Fairfax insist on getting her own posts? As a reader you are hooked! Some critiques have pointed out that the end is too neatly packaged and everything falls into place – well it does; but that is part of author’s creative liberty and Austen does a good job of tying up lose ends. Had she left some of the ends lose, I have a strong feeling that the same critiques would have come back and said that the story was incomplete!! The novel is set in upper-middle class Regency England and does not include the high life of London or the politics of post Napoleon Europe. In a way it’s a time capsule, isolated and standing independent of all the historical happenings of that time England, but I believe Jane Austen wrote of the world she knew and understood well and that is why her books endure, because they give us an insight to human nature – the one constant thing that never really changes. The last parting word that I have for the novel is that like all Austen novels, the book does raise the first flags of feminism and independence of a woman. In a conversation, between Harriet and Emma, where Harriet suggests that Emma should marry or will be considered an old maid by the society, Emma gives a fitting reply, a reply which I think resonates despite 200 years since it originally put down –
“If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty. Woman’s usual occupations of eye and hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now; or with no important variation. If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music, I shall take to carpet-work. And as for objects of interest, objects for the affections, which is in truth the great point of inferiority, the want of which is really the great evil to be avoided in not marrying, I shall be very well off, with all the children of a sister I love so much, to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need. There will be enough for every hope and every fear”
What more can I say about the inimitable Ms. Austen and her work – except, Vi! Va! Ms. Austen!