An archival review of Emma 3.
Emma 3: Austen's Horrible Heroine
After adapting Pride & Prejudice for television, Andrew Davies has turned to Emma. His reading casts new light on the story.
By Andrew Davies,
Jane Austen famously called Emma a heroine "whom no one but myself will much like." And one can see why she said it.
Emma Woodhouse is arrogant, ignorant, snobbish, a control freak, and a bully, who treats other people as if they were mechanical toys. She has little insight into others and almost no self-knowledge. And what are her redeeming features? She is patient, affectionate and protective towards her father. And, er, that's it.
It's interesting that Austen chose her as a heroine; in the typical Austen romance, the heroine is the Jane Fairfax figure - a Cinderella, disadvantaged, deserving, finally triumphing over adversity, despite being snubbed and spurned by various Rich Bitches. In Emma, the heroine is the Rich Bitch.
I think I know why Jane Austen liked her. Emma has an artist's imagination. But, unlike her creator, she doesn't write fiction. She tries to build her works of art by using real people. In my adaptation, I was able to give her a film-maker's imagination, too - for example, when Miss Bates is telling the story of the fishing expedition at Weymouth, Emma visualises the scene, and so do we: the heaving swell, the sudden lurch and Jane suddenly in the arms of the dashing Mr Dixon!
By such means we can enable Emma's imaginative excesses to be seen as funny and perhaps even endearing. But Emma has to be more than a story about a spoilt child with an over-active imagination, for that would not be interesting to grown-ups. Emma is young, but she has to count in the world. She has ruled Hartfield since she was 12 years old. Her games have consequences.
Frank is a damaged child. He's never forgiven his mother for dying on him, or his father for giving him away.
Probably the worst of her crimes happens early in the book, when she persuades Harriet to reject Robert Martin. What she does is shocking. Harriet is in awe of Emma, and believes her to be utterly benevolent and disinterested (in the film Clueless, Amy Heckerling's clever reworking of the story in 1990's LA, the Harriet figure turns on Emma and regrets ever listening to "a virgin who can't even drive!").
Jane Austen's Harriet never rebels - though she can't help but continue to feel tenderly for Robert Martin and go all fluttery whenever she sees him. Harriet in fact, though silly and easily swayed, has far more sense of her own sexuality than Emma, who seems worryingly asexual to me for most of the book. A grown woman, beautiful, blooming with health and energy - but retarded in her emotional and sexual development.
Perhaps that's why she's initially attracted to Frank Churchill, one of Austen's most worrying characters. Many readers take an indulgent view of Frank, but I think he's a misogynist of the most dangerous kind - because he is genuinely charming, on the surface. When we look below the surface, it's not a pretty picture. He needs to conceal his engagement to Jane Fairfax, but he doesn't need to disparage her quite so enthusiastically - her reserve is repulsive, her hairstyle outré, her dancing languid and disagreeable. . . why does he go to such lengths?
I would explain it like this: Frank is a damaged child. He's never forgiven his mother for dying on him, or his father for giving him away. He spent his formative years appeasing his monstrous stepmother. No wonder he hates and fears women.
He does love Jane, but he fears and resents the power that love gives her over him, and that is why he treats her so cruelly. And he gets double pleasure out of making a fool of Emma at the same time - not publicly, but privately, for his own satisfaction. Emma thinks she is his full partner in the malicious teasing games Frank plays with Jane; in fact she is his secondary victim.
And at the end of the novel, when the engagement has been made public, he draws Emma's attention to Jane's charms for all the world as if he's proposing a sexual threesome. Poor tortured Jane is "forced to smile". And Emma realises at last, perhaps, just how nasty a bit of work Frank is, and what a hell of a marriage Jane is in for. He will have other women, of course he will, and flaunt it, and expect to be forgiven, and he will play his games with many another Emma.
Most of us would be stir-crazy by the end of a week at Hartfield: Emma seems to like it.
Jane Fairfax is, I think, the character most misunderstood and undervalued by critics. They tend to make the naive mistake of accepting the judgment of Emma, who is a poor judge of character, and of Frank, who is not to be trusted.
Everything that we see of Jane's behaviour suggests not a cold, reserved nature, but a passionate one held painfully in check. She is reserved with Emma, but she is wise to be. She knows Emma doesn't like her, and she is rightly wary of Emma's capacity for malice. Would any of us reveal our secrets to someone like Emma Woodhouse?
I see Jane Fairfax as a sexually mature and awakened woman in contrast to Emma. In a dramatisation we can indicate Jane's true nature, partly through the casting choice - Olivia Williams is clearly a grown-up woman to Kate Beckinsale's wilful child - and also through the songs she chooses and how she sings them. Jane chooses "Italian songs" which have far more emotional weight than the simple English melodies which Emma chooses. Jane can use her songs to express her love for Frank, and her suffering.
I believe in fact that the story makes most sense if we assume that Frank Churchill seduced Jane Fairfax at Weymouth. It isn't difficult to believe in him as a skilful and persuasive lover. So by the time we meet her she is sexually in thrall to a man she is gradually beginning to see as unworthy of her.
Unable to bear his cruelty, she very bravely breaks off the relationship, and prepares to face life "in the governess-trade". But then Mrs. Churchill conveniently pops her clogs, leaving the couple free to marry and repent at leisure. Not a pretty story. But then Emma, understood properly, is not a pretty book.
Take Mr. Woodhouse, for example. Traditionally regarded by generations of readers as an old pet, he is actually a manipulative old monster. He sits in his great house like a maggot: whimpering, querulous, in opposition to any vital, healthy instincts that might result in love, or marriage, or even a bit of fun. How can Emma bear it?
Is there, perhaps, something life-fearing about Emma herself that makes her happy to collude with her creepy old Dad? Most of us would be stir-crazy by the end of a week at Hartfield: Emma seems to like it. She even wants Knightley to move in. Will Emma be just like her father when she's his age? It's a worrying thought.
Mr. Elton's a bit of a nonentity, really, though his drunken proposal in the carriage is the funniest thing in the book. But Mrs. Elton is another matter. She brings to the novel a healthy whiff of Bristolian energy and vulgarity. Yes, all right, she is dreadful, but most of Emma's objections to her are merely snobbish.
Is Knightley a bit of a Humbert Humbert, or what?
In fact, Mrs. Elton is more like Emma than anyone else in the book - she wants to rule the roost, too; she enjoys patronising poor but deserving females and running their lives for them; she, too, has a mistaken belief in her own wisdom and superiority. No wonder Emma flies into a panic at her arrival. Mrs Elton is challenging Emma's Queen Bee status.
Among all the flawed inhabitants of Highbury and its environs, Mr. Knightley stands alone as the very embodiment of the ideal English gentleman. I have yet to find a critic prepared to hazard a question-mark about this most Austenian of Austen heroes, so let's raise one or two here.
Mr. Knightley is "seven or eight-and-thirty", Emma is 20. He is an "old family friend". He probably held her in his arms when she was a baby. He's played a lot of different roles through her childhood and adolescence: much older brother, sort-of-uncle, stern but loving tutor and substitute father, since Mr. Woodhouse is so inadequate in that role. And then in Chapter 53, he tells her that he has been in love with her since she was 13.
Hmm. We'd certainly see that as an inappropriate attachment these days. The guy has practically powdered her bottom, for God's sake. Well, at least he waited till she was 20 before proposing a full sexual relationship.
But why did it have to be Emma? I know people didn't get about much in those days (Emma's never been to the seaside) but Mr. Knightley must have met some eligible women. Is Knightley a bit of a Humbert Humbert, or what? To put it at its kindest he looks a bit slothful in the mate-hunting department.
There is of course the material consideration: Knightley has land but not much cash, and Woodhouse has cash but not much land. In fact, Knightley owns most of the county, apart from the Hartfield estate. Is it mean of me to imagine Knightley as having spent many hours pondering the map of the area and thinking how much more satisfying it would be if that awkward corner of land were subsumed into the Donwell estate? And Mr. Woodhouse's thousands would have a very beneficial effect on the cash flow.
But these are base thoughts, and I shall desist from them. Knightley is one of Austen's most attractive heroes: strong, decisive, intelligent, outspoken, unsnobbish - and he's sensitive to other people's feelings, sussing out the Jane / Frank situation long before anyone else does. He is also an exemplary English gentleman.
I felt there was still a question mark hovering over Emma's sexuality - does she really understand what married people have to do, and will she like it ?
Emma is unusual, for a Jane Austen novel, in that we get a working model of a whole society - with some fascinating glimpses of the underclass. The Martins are important in the structure of the novel, and it's interesting that while Emma feels she can have nothing to do with them (they're too low to enter her social circle, too comfortably off to be the object of her charity), Knightley, the moral touchstone of the story, has a lot of time for the Martins.
The farmworkers' cottages on the Donwell estate are clean and tidy. Not so the cottages on the Hartfield estate, some of which are dreadfully dilapidated. We would expect Mr. Woodhouse to be a hopeless landlord, unable to bear the responsibility of his riches, and Emma herself is not much better.
And then there are the gypsies who menace Harriet Smith and her friend, and the chicken thieves who make off with all Mrs. Weston's turkeys. These are the criminal classes, threatening the ordered pattern of society. And as we know from novels such as Middlemarch, as well as from history books, the English upper classes were extremely worried about the possibility of revolution at that time. There had been a revolution in France - why didn't it happen here?
I think Jane Austen's answer would be: because of Mr. Knightley and his like. Unlike the French aristocracy, the English upper classes - or enough of them to swing it - lived with their tenants and their labourers, and took their responsibilities seriously. Old-style one-nation Conservatives, in fact. And we can be pretty sure that those leaky old cottages on the Hartfield estate will soon be renovated once Woodhouse's liquid capital is available to Knightley's enlightened management.
I wanted to do something about this in the screenplay - and I took the liberty of inventing a traditional harvest supper at Donwell, to which tenants and estate workers are invited as well as the gentry of Highbury. At such an occasion it would be appropriate for Emma to acknowledge Robert Martin and his sister, make her peace with Frank, forge the beginnings of a friendship at last with Jane, and so on. And Knightley could make a little speech about continuity and change that would express the essence of the conservative viewpoint in the most beguiling way.
I did want a little coda, too, but they wouldn't let me. I felt there was still a question mark hovering over Emma's sexuality - does she really understand what married people have to do, and will she like it? What I had in mind was this: it's dead of night when smash! bang! goes the lock on the chicken house, in go the chicken thieves, chickens running around all over the lawns. In the house Emma wakes up with a start and goes to the window. Nothing to be seen. She comes back to bed.
Knightley has woken now. "What is it, my love?" he says. "Oh. . . nothing - nothing at all," she replies. And he holds his arms wide, and she goes happily into them. And out on the lawn, the cock, raising the alarm too late as usual, goes: "Cock-a-doodle-doo!"
But everyone except me thought that was in very poor taste.