Emma has been my favorite Jane Austen novel since the first time I read it, because I immediately identified with the undisciplined, imaginative heroine. Thus, it's hardly surprising that I enjoyed Emsley's chapter on this novel most, but I was also surprised by how much this chapter of literary criticism "showed me to myself'. Although Emsely considers Emma less well-developed that P&P, I found the most striking insights in this chapter. Perhaps it is because it focuses on "the greatest of these" -- love.
Emma Woodhouse, who possess some of the "best blessings of existence" is yet in the position described by Paul in 1Corinthians 13 -- all her gifts profit her nothing, because she has a false understanding of love. This is partly do to her lack of self-knowledge. Emma is, of course, quite confident that she does know herself, telling Harriet, "If I know myself... mine is an active mind". However, Emsley posits that Emma's pursual of company, even inferior company like Harriet's, proves that she fears
lonliness or "the reality of being left with her own mind" (131). This was a moment of revelation for me. Although not as sociable as Emma, I too fear the solitude of my own mind, refusing to lie awake and think about my own faults and failures when I can distract myself with various forms of entertainment.
"Emma does, however see some things clearly, early on..." (132) Emsley declares. When she defends Frank for not visiting Mrs Weston she is "taking the other side of the question from her real opinion". She also cannot long pretend to be in love with Frank. More importantly, Emsley acknowledges something I've thought, but not articulated well: "In contrast to Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland, whose revelations of self-knowledge come quite late in their respective novels, Emma has her first encounter with the pain of enlightenment relatively early in Chapter 16" (133). After Elton makes "violent love to her" she is very penitent and miserable. Does this mean Emma is the most complex of Austen's ouvre through making "conversion" (repentance/self-knowledge, whatever word suits) a repeated process? Perhaps this is yet another reason I love this novel best, because I too have never had one moment of change or even spiritual conversion, but learn slowly. The fact that Emma experiences not one but three epiphanies is also an argument against the idea that she does not change, since throughout the story, self-knowledge is a continuing process. (Can anyone tell me who the critic was who thought she doesn't change at the end? I may have read it in "A Truth Universally Acknowledged".)
Another vital point that Emsley makes is about the difference between "charity as love and charity as image" (138). As much as Emma despises Mrs Elton, she has been guilty of having a disturbingly similar conception of charity. Emsley says that "In [Mrs Elton's] estimation, charity is what those in power offer to those without power" (135). Emma too "has thought that it woud be charitable to be useful to Harriet (when
in fact she uses Harriet as a pawn in her own matchmaking game), that
it woud be charitable to Mr Elton to find him a pretty wife (when she
has used him as the object of that game), and also, that it would be
charitable to Frank Churchill for her to bestow her affections on him.
This is charity conceived of as condescension. Emma Woodhouse, proud,
elegant, and benevolent, might condescend to treat 'a Harriet Smith' as a
friend, to arrange the local clergyman's love life for him, and to fall
in love with a long-lost neighbor. But, as Emma needs to learn, charity
is not about power" (133).
This conception of charity as power is a common failing, perhaps especially among we Westerners who consider ourselves educationally and culturally advanced; and among we Christians, eager to spread our "good news" in condescending ways. A right conception of charity, Austen and Emsley imply, is based on respect for others' personhood and autonomy. Whenever we begin to use others -- to advance our positions, our reputations, or even our self-esteem -- we have abandoned real charity.
Emsley concludes her comments on charity with the statement: "In E, charity is not defined simply as either good works performed for
other people, or as love offered to one's intimates; romantic love, the
love of friendship, and the love of benevolent good works are all part
of Austen's understanding of charity. The process of learning to be
charitable, therefore, is more than an education in good works or social
justice, as it can help characters work toward happiness as well as
Emsley then turns to a discussion of happiness, concluding that through practicing the virtues "Austen suggests, one may achieve something like perfect happiness, not happiness as an end result, but as a process open to revision" (141). She asks, "Is it the aim of virtue to be in charity with one's self?" (141) While she does not explicitly answer the question, through examining the process by which Emma comes to understand the cruelty of her remark to Miss Bates, she suggests that a time of great self-reproach may be the first step to later self-charity. She shows that while Emma is not a reader like Lizzie Bennet (who is changed through her close reading of a letter), once Emma has had her error pointed out by Mr Knightley she is harder on herself than he has been, recalling all her "scornful, ungracious" private thoughts and remarks that led up to the open barb. Ultimately, "Emma has to learn to love her neighbor as herself, and to be in love and charity with her neighbors rather than simply with herself" (144). She has claimed it is not her "way" to fall in love, but has it been because her own self-love has blinded her to what it is to be "in love" as a way of life?
(I'm doing a remarkably reprehensible [think Mr Woodhouse's voice in Emma 2006] thing and posting this in a great rush unedited. Will edit later, so for now I beg you all to show charity and forgive ;)