It Takes a Village Nincompoop: A Review of Emma by Jane Austen
“Silly things do continue to be silly if they are done by idiots in an impudent way.” I may have fudged Emma’s quote a bit but this version is true to her role as the village idiot, who was authored to be mocked and ridiculed in this prolix satire. I’ll get to all of that but first:
Everyone marries at the end, everybody but spinster Jane Austen, which can be seen as a sort of sardonic joke on the part of the novelist. Living a “front parlour existence” as Henry James wrote about Emma in a letter of 1883 to George Pellow, Jane Austen, nearing 30, had been engaged for one day. The story goes as follows.
“Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane’s niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive — he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realized she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal.” (1)
Or, it could be that following the a mysterious seaside rendezvous with Samuel Blackall, who went on to marry another woman, and after watching as Cassandra, her sister, vow a life of singleness following the death of her fiancé, that Jane simply soured on marriage. (2) Just as plausible is Jane’s passion for writing novels, in itself a labor intensive job, and she may have considered that the time she needed would be sapped by duties typically entailed by a wife as house-manager, and eventual mother.
What we do know is Austen wrote a full-on satire as hinted at by her own words: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” (3) Of course she alone would like Emma. Writers love all their characters, even their Robert Lovelaces and Nurse Ratcheds. Thus was imagined Emma, the novel, a satire in the realm of John Gay. Emma is written to skewer upper-middles attempting in their British attempts to be the Beau Monde.
We might claim that the story itself is a satire on manners and morals, but again we could say that about most any fiction, so evidence would be needed for this view. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a satire, we’re clear. Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady is not a satire. His Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded is not a satire although Fielding’s An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews is. Here’s the start of Shamela’s second letter: “O what News, since I writ my last! the young Squire hath been here, and as sure as a Gun he hath taken a Fancy to me; Pamela, says he, (for so I am called here) you was a great Favourite of your late Mistress’s; yes, an’t please your Honour; says I; and I believe you deserved it, says he; thank your Honour for your good Opinion, says I; and then he took me by the Hand, and I pretended to be shy…” There’s no doubt this is meant to be hilarious. Such similar obviousness is not found in Emma beyond the sly first sentence that is often interpreted to say she knew it all but was in the end wrong, when actually it stresses what she would consider her qualities. But let’s be clear: Austen is far less of a novelist than was DeFoe, Richardson, Sterne, Fielding, and Smollet.
Self-awareness of the satire by its characters is hidden in part by Austen’s technique of free indirect discourse so that judgments are situated from Emma and not from the author. Unless we know this, we might take the wrong route in thinking Austen wrote Emma with the earnestness the characters exhibit. For the contrast read Fanny Burney’s Evelina. What we have then is a mocking of manners and morals written as a shaggy dog story. The punchline, if we can call it that, is that Emma sort of realizes she’s been wrong, sort of, although the fact all the idiots find suitable idiot mates is a better punchline.
At the end of the English Fairytale The Three Sillies as written down by Joseph Jacobs in 1890, the gentleman comments, after seeing a crowd of people attempting to rake the moon out of a pond, “So there was a whole lot of sillies bigger than them three sillies at home.” He might have been thinking specifically of these Emma-incompetents.
No character in insipid, incestuous, piddling Highbury transcends the title of nincompoop. Why should they? They are designed as caricatures for our amusement. Emma is the busiest nincompoop of all who works tirelessly to enliven her shallow life with calf-loves galore, both real and imagined. Movie trailer start: [Low gravelly voice] “In a world…of mismatch making mischief.” Did I mention, they all get married in the end, because as we learn in this warped world, there is no greater goal in the life of these townies.
Emma may be assessed on two levels. One is to settle into the flow of extended scenes subtly deriding the interpersonal interactions — dry humor for sure. To do so means we accept, in the name of stagy yuk-yuks, our torment characterized by pages and pages of dialogue in which, for example, everyone in the (Pseudo)High(brow)bury clique worries about whether Mr. Churchill will possibly visit or not, sooner or later, or ever, or now, or please for the love of god make it tomorrow, or at least an hour later, or the next day. We are supposed to chuckle over the extended, hysterical dwelling on this insignificance. We are supposed to chortle heartily, and knowingly I add, when Mr. Frank Churchill travels all the way to London for the day just to get a haircut, which we take to most likely be a haircut and an indiscretion. It can be suggested that Emma succeeds for what it is, confronting the early 19th Century reader’s expectations of the usual romantic novel by turning it ninety degrees askew. In this sense I find the extended scenes right up there with John Waters’ Mondo Trasho, in specific a scene in which a man with a foot fetish is offered a woman’s feet in the park, and what is at first relatively humorous after five and ten minutes, or however long it goes on, feels like “Please for the love of all things sacred move on to a new scene.”
On the other hand, Emma may be assessed as a novel. Thus, when we read extended passages where we get to worry along side the whole sick crew (sorry T.P.) of nincompoops about whether they should stay or go home, get the carriages or not, and how deep the snow is — it is snowing with strong drifting wind, or a look shows no snow above a half inch, or there exists only a few flakes falling, depending on which page you want to read in this section. Without better evidence this inconsistency looks less like an attempt at humor and simply like authorial sloppiness. We recognize our boredom, and possibly the humor, however even in humor the telling the same joke again and again in the same standup gig becomes downright irritating. This is why I think many of the scenes and ultimately the entire book functions as a shaggy dog story, defined as an extremely long-winded narrative full of trivial details and irrelevant incidents. The trick to enjoying a shaggy dog story is either in the telling or to know what’s coming.
To pursue this a bit further, a shaggy dog story sets up “normal reflex shortcuts between an opening situation and the sort of conclusion one would expect in normal life.” (4) However “The bizarre reactions of characters in these stories do not follow, psychologically speaking, from the situation and from what we expect of human behavior….Every shaggy dog story is essentially a trick which is pulled on the listener after he has endured a drawn-out, ridiculous, seemingly pointless narrative.” (5) The trick to enjoying a shaggy dog story is to be in on the game, and then to “relish the pointless verbosity…as they do the pointed gag.” (6) This accounts for the bizarre hysteria of all the nincompoops when considering nearly any event, and the author’s long-spun emphases on vapid minutiae. Emma’s and everyone’s (except for Knightly’s) overdramatizing is meant to be ridiculous. Here’s a funny quote from Mr. Elton, “A sore-throat! — I hope not infectious. I hope not of a putrid infectious sort.” To our contemporary eyes, this is over the top. Back then people may have known that “putrid fever” referred to epidemic typhus brought to Southampton. (7) Mr. Elton may have been thinking of this. Still, one supposes his hysteria about it was intended to be comic in the way were are supposed to chuckle every time Madame Duval exclaims “Ma foi” in Evelina.
Back to the writing issues, which I doubt are Austen’s attempt at satire, father goes to sleep after dinner each night although each night they play board games and although nearly every night they host a dinner party — this type of continuity problem appears frequently throughout Emma. Mrs. Taylor (now Weston) has left the household and Emma is lonely almost beyond consideration. Her father reminds her that Mrs. Weston visits nearly every day to which Emma replies, “She is always obliged to go away again.” Boo tiddly hoo I guess. Little miss muffet doesn’t realize people have lives beyond her own tuffet squished wishes. At times Mr. Woodhouse begins to slide into the hypochondriac Matthew Bramble from Smollett’s The Expidition of Humphrey Clinker. Repetition tap dances up one wall and down another. For example, in one paragraph it says, “After much thinking, she could determine on nothing better.” Next paragraph, “She could think of nothing better.” Emma never practices anything yet she is excellent at painting, and conversation, and dancing, and music, and arranging parties, and, and, and. And at the end everyone marries.
Much of the narrative in Emma reads like this:
“…she came back, not to think of Mr. Martin, but to talk of Mr. Elton. Miss Nash had been telling her something, which she repeated immediately with great delight. Mr. Perry had been to Mrs. Goddard’s to attend a sick child, and Miss Nash had seen him, and he had told Miss Nash, that as he was coming back yesterday from Clayton Park, he had met Mr. Elton…”
How similar it is to Rep. Jim Jordan quoting William Taylor in the Senate impeachment hearings,
“Ambassador Taylor recalls that Mr. Morrison told Ambassador Taylor that I told Mr. Morrison that I conveyed this message to Mr. Yermak on Sept. 1, 2019 in connection with Vice President Pence’s visit to Warsaw and a meeting with President Zelensky.
“We got six people having four conversations in one sentence and you just told me this is where you got your clear understanding,” Jordan said to Taylor at one point. “I’ve seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.” (8)
Austen commented, “Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of the mouths of other people. I do not like him, and do not mean to like “Waverley” if I can help it, but fear I must.” (9) Letter to Anna, September 28, 1814.
Scott was not so kind with respect to Emma in return. “Sir Walter Scott wrote that book displayed “the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes from an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.” (10)
Here’s a line I found interesting: “‘Cautious, very cautious,’ thought Emma; ‘he advances inch by inch.’” It sure seems The Three Stooges line in Gents Without Cents (Niagara Falls) that for all we know might have been inspired by Emma: “Slowly I turned … step by step … inch by inch….”
Emma who hardly ever traveled, never saw the sea, etc, spends her time arranging hayseed marriages and get togethers. If it looks like a ball may not take place because a horse is lame, well the world is surmised to be ending. But I think this was probably Jane’s world, in addition to her chronic health problems. I think she probably lived and died truly believing in social events having read through many of her letters. The dialogue, like her letters consists generally of many disjointed thoughts in one or two lines each. Here are some examples:
“People get so horridly poor and economical in this part of the world that I have no patience with them. Kent is the only place for happiness; everybody is rich there.” — Letter to Cassandra, December 18, 1798
“Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?” — Letter to Cassandra, June 15, 1808
Here we find that Emma really is Jane Austen
“Lady Catherine is Lord Portmore’s daughter. I have read Mr. Jefferson’s case to Edward, and he desires to have his name set down for a guinea and his wife’s for another; but does not wish for more than one copy of the work. Your account of Anna gives me pleasure. Tell her, with my love, that I like her for liking the quay. Mrs. J. A. seems rather surprised at the Maitlands drinking tea with you, but that does not prevent my approving it. I hope you had not a disagreeable evening with Miss Austen and her niece. You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.”
We find Austen to be judgemental and narcisisstic — this excerpt from the letter of June 15, 1808. Austen tosses out who’s who gossip like throwing eggs at a barn wall. If this scuttlebut is what some theorists call linguistic labor, then Emma must be a millionaire because she sure puts in long hours.
Cryptographers look in awe. I have decoded Austen’s cunning cipher system. Just follow the alphabet! So we have:
Hartfield, etc, etc.
Every woman is competition to Emma. A riddle is offered at a get together, the answer is “M. and A. — Em — ma.” Does Emma get it? Oh yes. “Understanding and gratification came together….Emma found a great deal to laugh at and enjoy in it.” Of course she did, it was all about her. Later Knight-nite chastises her once more for her insolence and Emma yet again makes everything about her, and she replies “Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad.” We expect her to continue, “But enough about me. What do you think of me? Hahahah. I’m joking. Not.”
The wayward excesses of Austen’s thoughts that some might try to call a plot has as much coherency as one long game of spin the bottle at a teen pajama party; dialogue dutifully transcribed. At the end everyone marries.
The I-do’s finally, include our local narcissist, guess who, and Mr. G (Mr. George (knight in shining armor) Knightly, who should have been named after George II (1683–1760) who was seen by historians as short tempered and boorish. Knightly has berated her through the book, and at every meeting with Emma they have argued tirelessly. Opposites attract evidently. Or, he was bristling because Emma was applying her usual modus operandi of putting everyone who deals with her into a catch-22 situation so that whatever they choose, she looks good, no matter how they end up looking. At the end of the novel she has a bit of a dalliance with good-Knightly. Brace yourself — here presented is the most lurid sex scene in all of Austin’s writing: “she found her arm drawn within his, and pressed against his heart.” I’m shamed scarlet with sweat forming on my fingernails just typing out such obscenity. As Justice Steward Potter once said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” And so do I dear reader, So. Do. I.
The Austen family evidently enjoyed only a modest income, and marriage would have been a means of improving both her social rank and financial security, but Austen was unable evidently to stomach the tactless, stuttering oaf Harris Bigg-Wither. Still, the desire to marry infected all of the female characters. We find then that her “most charming heroines are actually fortune hunters.” (11)
Call Emma a marathon hen party (it is indeed a tedious gossip fest with the mindset of late teenagers) or call it women’s empowerment (good luck with that since you’ll have to prove gossip and continually supplicating to men, a near categorical imperative to marry within your own economic class, the reliance on a man to bring order to your meddling, chaotic mind, is actually a strategy of empowerment, and that hinging your whole raison d’être on a man asking for your hand is emancipatory). Either way the entire endeavor is a snippy, snobby, vapid slog.
Austen’s women accept the supposed benefits and inequalities of the British industrial revolution, with all its classist underpinning regarding access to privileges and goods,. They desire to become the appropriate wife, to reap status and social admiration, true love is subservient, ultimately, to class appropriate position. I suppose again, we are supposed to have a good laugh over both Emma’s delusion in thinking she can conceptualize true love, and the fact that the book supposedly ends with the idea these people marry thinking they’ve found for true love. But what are nincompoops supposed to do? My guess is they bumble about imitating the actions of those who have awareness, and as such we get to read the book as a commentary on the merit of people to fulfill certain hierarchically expected roles on the suburban stage.
If you consider stuffing bees in your ears and choking down a pound of sugared lard is great fun then reach out and be warmly welcomed to one of the many Jane Austen societies. That said, I respect scholarship by the societies, and I do respect Austen’s practice and dedication to writing. And I give credit, authors can narrow their subject as much as they wish. Austen does what she does, which is to write a book is a relatively lightweight love’s labor’s lost and found. Did I mention they all marry at the end?
Austen’s word usage stats also verifies her focus in the novel:
“opinion’ 80 times
“judge and judgement” 80 times
“pleasure” 124 times
“marrying, marriage, marry” 176 times
“well” 403 times
“cried” 81 times
“feelings” 176 times
Oh yes, let’s not forget: “Emma” 870 times. Yep it’s all about her. And this leads to the next point.
But before listing Emma’s traits, to be clear we are supposed to laugh not with her but at her and at all those around her as though they are lapdogs flouncing at a pooch park.
Emma always has to be right. Yes the pungent smell of priggishness hovers in the air. And while she says she feels shame in her free indirect discourse way, we don’t know if she really feels it, and certainly she never apologies for being wrong or hurting others. Rather, she spends an awful lot of time seeking justification for her actions. So for example, she looks at Jane Fairfax, “with twofold complacency; the sense of pleasure and the sense of rendering justice, and was determining that she would dislike her no longer.” She thinks she looks to everyone else first but this is delusion. Emma without a doubt has Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Here’s some research by Fernandes, Kapoor, & Karandikar (2017) on symptoms that exactly fit for Emma, the young woman.
“Judging individuals based on their moral beliefs is associated with the MFT [Moral Foundations Theory]. Gossip played an important role in cultural learning by transmitting information about social norms and other guidelines of behavior. (Baumeister, Zhang, & Vohs, 2004). Based on this, we suggest that decisions to gossip depend on the link between the moral values that individuals endorse and the violations or endorsement of these values by others. For example, if an individual primarily values fairness, and someone behaves in an unfair manner, that person is more likely to gossip, as a closely held value was violated by another.” (12) The authors found the driving factor for gossip generally was for moral motives rather than amoral ones.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists a description of narcissistic personality disorder as including “a pattern of grandiosity, pursuit of admiration and lack of empathy. Individuals with this disorder show scant considerations for the feelings of others and exhibit disagreeable behaviours and feelings of envy and contempt.” (13)
And finally we have this, “Narcissistic personality disorder is objected by grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, egocentrism, need for excessive admiration, lack of empathy, unlimited fantasies of success, unreasonable expectations from people around.” (14)
Can we guess that early 19th century readers would have known to laugh at Emma and her pals. Probably, given that works on behavior were available such as The Whole Duty of a Woman: or, an infallible guide to the fair sex. Containing, rules, directions, and observations, for their conduct and behaviour … of life, as virgins, wives, or widows. …. (15) Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9 titled Of Vanity and Affection: “We muft with more than ordinary Earneftnefs give Caution againft Vanity, it being the Crime to which the Female Sex feems to be the moft inclined…Vanity..may be called the Root of Self-Love.”
Vain, full of hubris, a liar because she has to be right, Emma is quite a mess and so we end the novel highly skeptical of her sudden moral turnaround. I’ll end up only with this: When the novel begins, Emma is nearly 20 years old but then everyone, including the author, forgot her birthday. Whoopsie!
(1) Hall, K. (February 6, 2014). Jane Austen: A Biography. Found online at https://byuprideandprejudice.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/jane-austen-a-biography/
(2) Lassman, D. (Jule 18, 2019). The real reason Jane Austen never married. History Extra.
(3) Leigh, J. E. (1926) Memoir of Jane Austen. (ed. R. W. Chapman). Oxford University Press.
(4) Furnas, J.C. (May 1937). Don’t Laugh Now. Esquire, 56, 236–237.
(5) Brunvand, J.H. (Jan. — Mar., 1963). A Classification for Shaggy Dog Stories, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 76, №299, 43.
(6) (Brunvand, p. 44)
(7) Le Faye D . (2004). Jane Austen: A Family Record [new ed]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(8) Chan, J. C., & Ellefson, L. (November 13, 2019). The Wrap. Found online at https://www.thewrap.com/5-key-moments-from-trump-impeachment-inquiry-hearing-day-1-video/
(9) Letter to Anna, September 28, 1814.
(10) Litz, A. W. (March 1975). Recollecting Jane Austen. Critical Inquiry, 1(3), p. 672.
(11) Chamberlain, S. August 3, 2014. The Economics of Jane Austen, The Atlantic.
(12) p. 219, Fernandes, S., Kapoor, H., & Karandikar, S. (2017). Do We Gossip for Moral Reasons? The Intersection of Moral Foundations and Gossip. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 39(4), 218–230.
(13) Bilotta, E., Carcione, A., Fera, T., Moroni, F., Nicolò, G., Pedone, R., Pellecchia, G., Semerari, A., & Colle, L. (2018). Symptom severity and mindreading in narcissistic personality disorder. PLoS ONE, 13(8), 1–17.
(14) Vulea DM, Băcilă C, Anghel CE. (2019). Narcissistic Personality Disorder — Theoretical Considerations and Therapeutic Perspectives. Acta Medica Marisiensis. 65(15).
(15) Read, T. (1737).