There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Learning the Art of Charity in Emma

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 goodness" (140).

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 ;)


  1. Oooh, as another person who quite identifies with dear Emma, this is such a good review!

    It's a very good point that Emma goes through at least three major epiphanies/reevaluations. Does Emsley talk about how they build upon each other, how each one reveals one aspect of Emma's growth?

    I also like the examination of Emma's growing in all types of love - and I like that while Mr. Knightley is a big part of her growth, her biggest insights come from self-examination, rather than external scolding or humiliation ;)

    1. Yeah, I simply can't be convinced P&P is the best. Even Emsley's analysis of Emma struck me most! ;)

      She goes a little bit into E's revelations building (reasons why their only partial, especially the first time) but I'd love to hear your thoughts on how they build. (Or is there an essay on it I can read?)

      Yeah, there's definitely stuff out there on Mr Knightley and Edmund as mentor/father figures, and Emsley does a good job of refuting the extremes of that theory on both E and MP. She does think Mr Knightley is too perfect though, and I don't _feel_ that way. I guess I should work out why not in an essay or something. (Something to watch out for in my next reading.)

    2. I think I view the revelation about Mr. Elton as touching her vanity, the revelation about Miss Bates touching her actions, and the revelation about Mr. Knightley touching her heart - working inwards from her self-perception and control of new friends, to the sphere of deeply rooted relationship conflict with longtime acquaintances, finally into her dearest friend. So it's a social progression, and one that I think also mirrors classical concepts of the virtues - there seems to be almost a Platonic progression of what is revealed in each one?

      I could be totally making all this up, though. I've not read anything (at least not that I recall) that sets up the revelations this way.

      The accusation of Mr. Knightley as too perfect is very common...but I think very much flawed in both reading judging Austen's psychological accomplishment. J. F. Burrows, both in his monograph on "Jane Austen's Emma" and one of my favorite books ever, "Computation into Criticism: An Experiment in Method", and John Hagan, building on Burrow's work in his essay "The Closure of Emma" (this last you can find in JSTOR, the first is a bit hard to find, the middle one is reasonably common in midsize university libraries with a decent Austen collection) - all three of these pieces explore the idea that Mr. Knightley is not intended to be a mouthpiece of virtues. Yes, he is exemplary - but he is also jealous, prone to his own blindness (his argument with Emma over Harriet and Robert is full of him dismissing quite plain truths).

      I would happily add an essay on Mr. Knightley by you to my list of excellent Emma analyses!

    3. Your analysis of the three revelations makes sense to me, especially since they're all social progressions. You should write something on it, I'm curious about the Platonic progression too.

      Why would I every write anything on the subject when you've just directed me to three fascinating-sounding works? ;) Definitely adding them to my TBR. As you point out his jealousy is a fault, but he wouldn't be so likeable without it, in my prejudiced view.

    4. I wish I were more enthusiastic about Plato, but The Republic really soured me on his philosophy. I'm not actually sure I buy his division of the human - but it is very influential, especially to someone like Jane Austen, who if she didn't receive a classical education, almost certainly imbibed some of it from what she read and her brothers and father.

      Oh, I don't think Mr. Knightley is unlikeable at all because of his faults - I just get cranky with critics who claim Austen sets him up as an uncriticized mouthpiece of virtue. Such characters are not for our beloved authoress!

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