Emma as a Comedy of Manners
The comic art of Jane Austen was overlooked and ignored by the critics. Rachel Trickett accounts for the ignoring of Jane Austen’s devices of comic art in his essay “Jane Austen’s comedy and the Nineteenth Century”. But now Jane Austen is recognized as a great artist of comedy. She has written six lovely comedies, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. Emma is an exhilarating comedy of manners. The comedy starts from the beginning of the novel. The middle section of the novel is the perfect example of the comic reversal. The happy end, with the wedding bells ringing, is no loss comic.
The comic story begins with the deluded trud, Emma, Harriet and Elton. Harriet has her eyes on Elton, Elton on Emma, Emma, on both. Emma thinks that Elton is falling in love with Harriet, while he is already in love with Emma, with his eyes on her wealth. Emma contrives to arouse Mr. Elton’s interest in Harriet by drawing a picture of the girl. Mr. Elton praises the sketch extravagantly and offers to take it to London to be framed. Emma thinks that Elton is praising Harriet, but Elton is really praising Emma. Harriet seems anxious that Emma advise her to accept the proposal of Robert Martin. Emma, while refusing to help in writing the reply to the latter, actually almost dictates the whole latter. When John Knightley tells Emma that Elton seems to have a great deal of good-will towards her, she thinks of “the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are forever falling into.”
The thinking of Emma is ironically comic because she suffers from the very shortcomings she attributes to others. The reaction of John’s remark on Emma is just the reverse of John’s wishes. Emma becomes increasingly certain that Mr. Elton is yielding to her plan. Emma and Harriet, while returning house, meet Mr. Elton on the way. Emma hopes that Mr. Elton will declare his love to Harriet. She therefore provides Elton opportunity for declaring his love. She pretends that she has difficulty with the lace of her shoe, and lags behind. As she bends down to her shoe, she sees the lady and lover in deep conversation. This is a scene of hilarious comedy. But Emma feels disappointed when she joins them only to learn that Mr. Elton has been giving his fair companion an account of the party he attended at Mrs. Cole’s previous day.
But nothing can damp the spirits of Emma. We have yet to see greater hilarity. Emma breaks the lace of her shoe, and throws it into a ditch. She begs Mr. Elton to permit him to stay at his house and ask his house-keeper for some string. She does so to provide Mr. Elton another opportunity to propose to Harriet. She sees the lovers standing at one of the windows. For half a minute she feels that her plan is about to succeed. But she is disappointed to learn that nothing serious was talked. Yet she is still hopeful. She thinks that Mr. Elton has not proposed only because he wants to observe caution.
There is then another trio of Emma, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill which provides ironic comedy. Emma has begun to like, and even love, Frank because of his kind attention’s to the Westons and herself, and especially because of his apparent dislike for the reserve, and want of complexion of Jane. This becomes highly ironic, greatly comic.
There is the third trio consisting of Emma, Harriet and Mr. George Knightley which provides stuff for irony and comedy. Emma has agreed not to mention the name of Harriet’s second lover. While Emma thinks that Harriet has fallen in love with Frank, Harriet has fallen in love with George Knightley. When Harriet speaks of the “service” an inexpressible obligation”, she refers to Knightley’s gallantry at the ball. But Emma thinks that Harriet is alluding to Frank and the gypsy episode. Thus the stage is set for another disappointment for Emma and Harriet later in the story. But the delusion of Emma is highly comic. “It is particularly ironic”, says A. H. Wright, “that Emma should be the creator of this illusion on the grounds of non-interference.”
It is a comedy of a double sentimental education. While Mr. Knightley is grooming Emma for the marriage ordeal, Emma is instructing Harriet how to make good matches. But the great thing about Emma is that she is a dynamic character. She learns from her experience, though gradually. At the end of the novel she is not the same Emma, deluded and self-conceited. She changes, emerging into a new Emma, wise and purified. “Emma’s ‘simple’ comic self-discovery”, says Robert Garis in “Learning Experience and Change”, “is paradoxically one of the most complex, most convincingly inevitable, most vividly rendered things in art “
This comedy is perennial, not contemporary. The relevance of the comedy lies in the fact that it moves us to laughter even today. The weaknesses of the characters like Mrs. Elton, Frank Churchill and Emma are as true today as they were in the times of Jane Austen. We still, like Mr. Elton, keep our eyes on the Wealth of others. We still like Mrs. Elton, are fond of displaying our wealth. We still, like Frank, flirt with women. And, like Emma, we still have too much our own way, and have a disposition to think a little too well of ourselves. And the learning experience, which Emma has, sublimates all of us today. We come out wiser from the experience.
Rightly does Arnold Kettle writes in his essay “Emma” :
“Emma is not a period piece. It is not what is sometimes called a ‘comedy of manners’”.
The comedy of Emma is as eternal as that of Twelfth Night.