Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The (almost) Complete Truth


“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”   ― Jane Austen, Emma

I most recently read Emma as the April book for my local Great Books reading group. I had previously read it as the introductory novel in a class at the Newberry Library. The class was entitled "Jane Austen's Heirs" and included novels by such "heirs" of hers as Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, and Anita Brookner. Rereading this delightful novel is something I will undoubtedly do again.

Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." In the very first sentence she introduces the title character as "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich." Emma, however, is also rather spoiled; she greatly overestimates her own matchmaking abilities; and she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people's lives and is often mistaken about the meanings of others' actions.

While Emma differs strikingly from Austen's other heroines in some respects, she resembles Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot, among others, in another way: she is an intelligent young woman with too little to do and no ability to change her location or everyday routine. Though her family is loving and her economic status secure, the quotidian details of Emma's everyday life seem a bit dul; she has few companions her own age when the novel begins. Her determined though inept matchmaking may represent a muted protest against the narrow scope of a wealthy woman's life, especially that of a woman who is single and childless.
And of course there is the classical balance of the novel's structure that, combined with the beauty of Austen's writing style, makes this novel a favorite of readers and writers, particularly those mentioned above, ever since it was published.

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