Emma was the first Jane Austen work I had ever read, and consequently, the following thoughts must be taken for what they are–the barely coherent ramblings of a “newbie”. The incredibly socially structured life portrayed in Emma underscored to me lessons about graciousness towards others-especially in public situations-that I was never taught and have never had occasion to reflect upon before reading this book. The conversation between Emma, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax on Box Hill (Chapter 43), in particular, stands out to me in this connection.
Frank Churchill is a very weak, ill-bred man caught up in his own feelings and situations so much that he simply doesn’t notice the rest of the world passing him by or how his many “slight” inconsiderations, which he cannot be bothered to notice, affect others. Having made a secret engagement with Jane Fairfax, he proceeds on Box Hill to totally slight her by lavishing attention on Emma in order to keep his own precarious illusion of social respectability intact. After all, he is not sure that the happy situation of the Westons is all that common an occurrence, but that it is more likely that a man who makes an attachment on short acquaintance will have “ill luck” and “rue it all the rest of his life”.
Jane Fairfax, though offended, responds in a manner so gracious and solicitous of his weaknesses that she preserves his secret even though his behavior shortly induces her to break off the engagement. In this solicitousness for the position of others, Jane outdoes Emma, who had only just finished completely humiliating Miss Bates before the entire party by pointing out her obvious flaw-excessive talkativeness and triviality of thought. Mr. Knightley, in turn, upbraids Emma, but in private, showing that he is equally concerned to preserve the social dignity of someone who has made a dreadful error in judgment, horribly violating the accepted social norms.
Interestingly, though the violations were public, both the correction and the restitution are done “behind-the-scenes”. Emma makes up with Miss Bates (Chapter 44) without ever mentioning the specifics of the Box Hill humiliation, and Frank Churchill apologizes for his behavior in a letter to his stepmother (Chapter 50) which she gives to Emma and Emma to Mr. Knightley (Chapter 51). In both cases it is Mr. Knightley who makes the sage remarks that let the reader in on the social lessons of the novel. For, in his correction of Emma he agrees that Miss Bates does have a degree of ridiculousness about her, but observes that Miss Bates’ response to Emma’s biting remarks was to honor her forebearance in the face of such irksome character flaws. Even in deprecating herself, Miss Bates upholds Emma’s dignity. Regarding Frank Churchill, Mr. Knightley justly points out that it ought to have been his “first object to prevent her from suffering unnecessarily” and that “he should have respected even unreasonable scruples.
The lesson I got from Emma, then, is that in every society there are those who do not always quite “fit in”, but it is the duty of those who do “fit in” to keep the society running smoothly by forebearing patiently with the weaknesses of others, correcting them when necessary (but always with grace and regard for their standing with others), and helping them overcome their faults. Emma is probably the most fault-ridden character in the book, but by the story’s end she has by the gracious help of her friends (chiefly Mr. Knightley) been started down the road of applying these lessons in her own life.
[Originally written in April 2004 for Peter Leithart's Literature Colloquium at New St. Andrews College]