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Why Jane Austen?$

Rachel Brownstein

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780231153911

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231153911.001.0001

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Why We Reread Jane Austen

Why We Reread Jane Austen

(p.195) Chapter 5 Why We Reread Jane Austen
Why Jane Austen?

Rachel M. Brownstein

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Jane Austen as a writer. In a linguistically poorer time, Austen's insistence on care with language is easily misread as school-marmish stress on correctness for its own sake, or as an equally old-fashioned emphasis on mannerliness and lack of profanity. But her care for language is neither only aesthetic nor merely moral, in the contemporary sense that signifies high-minded opposition to blasphemous or sexually explicit language. Writing as a perfect lady liberated Austen from the constraints of being one. Her language is principled and precise, respectful of the fact that both thought and feeling are intrinsic to their expression: she is a moral writer, but she does not moralize. Her novels insist on the importance of details, and she usefully reminds one to pay attention to both the details of living and the words one use.

Keywords:   Jane Austen, language, profanity, thought, feeling, details

Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation;—the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme, and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state …: these places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood.

Persuasion, chapter 11

It is hard that we should not be allowed to dwell as often as we please on what delights us, when things that are disagreeable recur so often against our will.

—William Hazlitt, “On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin”

“And what are you reading, Miss——?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.—“It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

Northanger Abbey, chapter 5

Indeed, one could argue that Austen’s ideal reader is one who initially gets things wrong.

Bharat Tandon, Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation

Why We Reread Jane Austen

Figure 16. Action figure of Jane Austen.

Photograph by Catherine Casalino, 2010.

My friend c. is concerned about her oldest grand-daughter. Emma, born in 1995, is a great, an avid, an omnivorous reader, she tells me; she saw and loved all the Jane Austen movies, which her parents got for her on DVD. She’s read and really enjoyed (p.196) the other Austen novels, but she cannot and will not read Emma. No, the problem is not that the heroine who shares her name is a brat—there’s a very annoying Emma in her class, and she doesn’t mind her. And she says she does not object to what they say is the moral of the story, that you shouldn’t manipulate other people or condescend to them, and that kids should be polite to older people (although she can’t see going so far as to marry one). Can I explain? They have bought her several beautiful editions.

It is a grandmotherly question, dated by its preconceptions as well as its kind concern. If girls ever read Jane Austen, as cynics used to say they did, for the covert thrill of sexy romance masked as educational literature, they no longer do—at least not in our sophisticated, liberal urban circles. First of all, it does not seem obligatory, as it once did, to educate oneself by reading the classics: the prevailing cool view is expressed in the back-cover copy of the smash-hit mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), shelved in the “teen” section of your local mega-bookstore—that it “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” I’m not sure exactly what young Emma reads, but the covers of the other books piled in that super-sophisticated section promise laughs, sex, violence, gross-outs, laughs at sex and violence and gross-outs, and weird spooky fantasy. What’s now (deplorably) denominated “literary fiction” barely makes it to the tables in a dying book business where “romance novels” and “relationship books” by, e.g., Nora Roberts make dazzling profits. (Asked to account for her success, Roberts has explained that in hard times like ours, her books give one hope; presumably she was not quoting Lionel Trilling.) Overwritten and lush with adjectives, action, and explanations, predictable at every turn of the sentence and the bosom-heaving plot, mass-market romances are available and accessible to the curious teenager. They are easy to read, there are a lot of them, and tolerant parents and teachers and salesclerks—if they notice—tend not to disapprove of the girl who buys, borrows, quotes, or carries one, a girl who after all, unlike most girls, these days, is (they say proudly) a reader. The eager mass-marketing of Jane Austen–related books and films, from the by-now old movies of the 1990s through the continuing stream of sequels, etc., to the latest mash-ups, have confusingly confounded her works with popular genre fiction. I tell my friend that Austen’s novel must seem slow and dull to a girl who has enjoyed the handsome, clever, richly colored movies, costume dramas calculated to persuade people to see her love stories as naïve, absurdly chaste romances of mostly historical (p.197) interest—dress rehearsals for the real thing we can finally truthfully write and read about, and experience, today.

Young Emma probably reads for the plot, which is only normal, I tell C.—and there’s not much plot in Emma. It’s the least romantic and the most original and characteristic of Austen’s novels. The problem for the modern young reader is not only that there are no sex scenes and car chases: part of the point of this book is how much little things matter, and it’s most interesting to a reader who’s read it before, and is already disposed to track the echoes and parallels, the differences and, yes, the details. In the introduction to the latest Penguin edition, I remind her, Adela Pinch argues that the novel is about nothing. My friend is a distinguished feminist professor, and I can feel her turning off: she has read Emma, after all, and even some articles about the novel, and she hardly needs me to tell her what it is about. She is polite about the inadequacies of my aesthetic emphasis. Social scientists like her have low expectations of their colleagues in the humanities: indeed they count on us to dream on. Probably she thinks of me as one of those pleasure-loving people in English departments who do not quite function in the real world, and enjoy an alternative one a little too much. Maybe she’s right: after all, my take on Jane Austen is that everything in and around the books points toward the mutual imbrications of realities and alternatives. I soldier on. I tell her you have to be carefully taught, these days, to read Jane Austen, and that I work to get my students to read for anything but the plot, and that her Emma is too young to read Emma quite yet.

When I “teach” Emma to undergraduates, I work to alienate it. I read the opening paragraphs aloud so the students can savor the slow, gradual elongation of the “e” from the short indeterminate grunt in the words it starts with (“Emma” and “best blessings of existence”) to the long emphatic screech of the “e’s” in “real evils.” If they seem attentive and I’m on a roll, I inform them that the twentieth-century novelist George Perec wrote a whole novel entirely without “e’s,” and that the “e” in Mr. Knightley’s name distinguishes it from the word it derives from (although the bluff middle-aged hero named after the English Saint George is a modern version of the perfect, gentle knight, a traditional gentleman farmer in a newly commercial society). I point out that the dropped “e” in “Donwell Abbey” is what saves it from being too simply, overly allegorically named “Done Well.” (I might even go on a little about “Norland” and “Morland.”) If the students begin to say or want to say that I’m making too much of too little I stop there. But with graduate (p.198) students, rereaders, I always manage to get to the conversation at Box Hill and Mr. Weston’s game spelling “Emma” with the letters “M” and “A,” minus the initial “e.”

I want them to notice that the novel is a fabric of words, to see how Jane Austen insists that evil is real by her choice of words, and I want them to remember these words that sound at the very beginning of the novel. The best of them will hear the echo later when Emma considers the distressing possibility that Harriet might be “the chosen, the first, the dearest” of Mr. Knightley, “the wife to whom he looked for all the best blessings of existence” (422–423). Jane Austen’s sentences sound and scan as those of few prose writers do. Sometimes, conscious of enjoying them a little too much, I worry that I am like those impious people in the couplet by Alexander Pope, those who “to church repair / Not for the doctrine but the music there.” Music can expand the mind, as doctrine cannot. Stuart Tave wrote movingly of the amplitude of meaning in “the just and lovely words of Jane Austen [which] take power … not from a narrowness of meaning, fixed and single, but from a certain largeness of scope within which they can move in careful purpose.”1 Like most of her regular readers, I reread Jane Austen for the pleasure of the texts, to enjoy what Nabokov called “aesthetic bliss … a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”2 I read her to borrow and enjoy her thinking about how language makes life mean and matter, her bracing sense that everything hangs on using it precisely and well. “Composition” is what she called what she did at her desk; and her famous effusion of praise for the novel, in Northanger Abbey, ends emphatically on the words “chosen language.” A marriageable maiden’s choice is the focus of the plots of her novels, and the novelist underwrites that theme by keeping us conscious of her own choices, of words. Zeroing in on those “e’s” in the first paragraph of Emma and running with them, as I stand in front of my class, I find myself preaching that paying attention to each and every detail leads the attentive reader to the truth. That Jane Austen writes fiction, but she doesn’t lie.

The novels emphatically scorn “the common phrase,” fashionable slang (Mrs. Elton’s “caro sposo”), the “thorough novel slang” of the time that Jane Austen deplored, bad grammar like Lucy Steele’s, and pious moralizing clichés like Mary Bennet’s. In Sense and Sensibility, when Willoughby thoughtlessly resorts to bluster (“Thunderbolts and daggers!”), he remembers Marianne’s scorn and apologizes to Elinor, giving us a quick rare glimpse of his charm. (p.199) In a linguistically sloppier time, Austen’s insistence on care with language is easily misread as school-marmish stress on correctness for its own sake, or as an equally old-fashioned charming fastidious emphasis on mannerliness and lack of profanity. (In the 1990s, one dowager at a Jane Austen Society meeting confided to me, wonderfully, that she adored the new movies because they had no “language” in them [her air quotes, to convey the innuendo].) But her care for language is neither only aesthetic nor merely moral, in the narrow contemporary sense that signifies high-minded opposition to blasphemous or sexually explicit language. Writing as a perfect lady liberated Jane Austen from the constraints of being one. She gave the following advice to her niece Anna, in a letter clearly designed to shock, about a character in that sober young woman’s novel in process:

Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a “vortex of Dissipation”. I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression.

(Letters, 277)3

Her language is principled and precise, respectful of the fact that both thought and feeling are intrinsic to their expression: she is a moral writer, but she does not moralize. It is impossible for me to believe she did not smile a little when she described Hartfield as a “notch” (slang then for female genitals) in the expanse of Donwell Abbey; and although the admirable recent editor of Mansfield Park disagrees, it seems to me that such a clever and conscious connoisseur of words had to be aware that Mary Crawford’s remark about the talk of “Rears and Vices” at her uncle the Admiral’s skirts the subject of sodomy.4

“You know I enjoy particulars,” Austen wrote appreciatively, evidently in response to an especially vivid lost letter (not much more than this fragment remains of her response) (Letters, 288). The novels insist on the importance of details, like the rivet in Mrs. Bates’s spectacles that Frank Churchill gets called in to fix. Walking with Harriet, Emma stops to tie her shoelace, then deliberately breaks it off as an excuse to bring Harriet to Mr. Elton’s cottage. Later in the story, Mr. Knightley bends down to tie his shoelace: readers not yet aware that he is in love with Emma are led to think the effort of doing so causes his face to get red. On rereading, the matching episodes resonate wonderfully, comically, contributing to the beautifully patterned whole of (p.200) the novel. It is not only in Emma, of course, that everything depends on the details. The reader is challenged to notice them from the very first paragraph of, for example, Mansfield Park:

About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Hunting-don exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it.

The punning, alliteration, and off-balances (hunting done; captivate and comforts and consequences, handsome house and large income); the play of active and passive voices; and especially the punctuation signal mockery. My favorites are the commas that set off “himself.” Kathryn Sutherland (who acknowledges that pointing, or punctuation, was often left to the printers in the period) argues that Austen uses two kinds of commas, the syntactical and the conversational: the three that follow the words “uncle,” “lawyer,” and “himself,” would fall into the second category. Like the comma after “universally acknowledged,” in the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, they indicate a pause for an intake of breath, as if in conversation—and also, I think, a pause that suggests time taken to notice the lift of an eyebrow, for emphasis.5 Like the energetically emphatic underlining in some of Jane Austen’s letters and manuscripts, these commas indicate stress (in both senses of that word), and a giggle. Here they insist that marriage is a financial contract: Miss Maria’s lucky arrangements were made by her uncle the lawyer (socially a very far cry from a baronet), a pompous man (the lawyer) clever enough to make nice distinctions. That Miss Maria’s own uncle was obliged to acknowledge his niece had made a good match prepares the way for the story of Fanny Price and her much grander uncle Sir Thomas Bertram (who admires her figure and also cruelly tries to give her to that unexpected high bidder, Henry Crawford).

Austen’s most suggestive comment about (or around) her writing practice occurs in a letter to her favorite niece Fanny—a response to a letter from Fanny reporting from London, where she was seriously considering a marriage proposal. The aunt describes her sympathy, and her inability to come up with (p.201) useful advice about what Fanny should do about her suitor: “I am feeling differently every moment, & shall not be able to suggest a single thing that can assist your Mind.—I could lament in one sentence & laugh in the next, but as to Opinion or Counsel I am sure none will [be] extracted worth having from this Letter.” Like an aunt in an epistolary novel, she brings literary sense and sensibility to the cases for and against marrying “Poor dear Mr. J.P.”

There are such beings in the World perhaps, one in a Thousand, as the Creature You and I should think perfection, Where Grace & Spirit are united to Worth, where the Manners are equal to the Heart & Understanding, but such a person may not come in your way, or if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a Man of Fortune, the Brother of your particular friend, & belonging to your own County.—Think of all this Fanny.

(Letters, 279–280)

Briefly, she changes the subject to her own news, which is that the first edition of Mansfield Park has sold out and she is looking forward to a second one, being “very greedy.” (She had already wryly observed that Fanny was “much above caring about money”—Fanny was in fact rich but her aunt’s point is that no one is above money.) Having done with both their private lives, she adds a paragraph of assorted family news, then signs off—but comes back to add a postscript apropos of the letter’s main subject:

Your trying to excite your own feelings by a visit to his room amused me excessively.—The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!—such a circumstance ought to be in print. Much too good to be lost.

(Letters, 282)

Too good to be lost, too good for preservation in the mere mock amber of a private letter, the telling detail “ought to be in print”: thus Fanny’s appreciative aunt, Jane Austen the proud member of a thriving print culture, successful author of Mansfield Park and two earlier novels.

Fanny’s visit to her suitor’s room recalls a classic in the annals of satire, “Cassinus and Peter” (1731), Swift’s poem about the “two College Sophs of Cambridge growth” who are horrified to discover, in a lady’s dressing room, paint, false hair, and, unimaginably, a chamber pot (“Nor wonder how I lost my Wits / O, Caelia, Caelia, Caelia sh—”.) If either Fanny or her aunt knew Swift’s poem, they would have known as well that the circumstances (p.202) are not parallel: no woman, certainly not one daring enough to look, would be disillusioned or surprised to find dirty evidence of his toilette in a man’s private quarters. It is important that Jane Austen does not seem to have been shocked by Fanny’s visiting her suitor’s room in order to “excite [her] own feelings”; what she finds “exquisite” is Fanny’s noticing the “Shaving Rag.” Fanny’s keen eye for a telling detail is what makes her a “delightful creature,” a very different creature than Harriet Smith, still stuck on Mr. Elton, who treasures the piece of court plaster that once stuck to him.

Registering Fanny’s registering the shaving rag, delighting in it, Jane Austen longs to have the “circumstance” related to others, to preserve the tiny detail in print as bugs are preserved in amber. It is not the dirty banal thing itself but Fanny’s seeing it that is “much too good to be lost,” as the most keen-eyed observations will be unless they are written down and printed. James Boswell wrote that he would live no more than he could record, as he would plant no more corn than he could gather: registering and writing down this comically insignificant detail of her private life, Fanny reaps a kernel of general truth. By noting it in her letter to her aunt she makes it mean. The exchange about the shaving rag is between writers as well as women; it is as Swiftian as it is feminine. From it, you get a whiff of what it must have been like to learn at her feet how Jane Austen looked at things, and to try—for one’s own amusement and edification, and for hers—to see and to write as she did. It begins to explain why not only her nieces and nephew but also later generations of readers and admirers have thought they could try their hand at trying on Austen’s simple-seeming style.

Jane Austen does not tell us how to live any more than she told Fanny whom to marry, but she usefully reminds us to pay attention, to both the details of living and the words we use. She seems to me to be divided (not unlike Lionel Trilling) about whether it is in fact possible to reconcile the moral life with enjoyment of the best blessings of existence. Her politics, like her private emotions, are elusive. Did she not write much about the servants because she didn’t think they mattered, or because she limited her characters to the class she knew best, or knew best how to skewer? The remark in Northanger Abbey that from talking about politics it is an easy step to silence is sometimes read as Austen’s personal view—but it could be that of the people talking. (Does only Fanny consider Sir Thomas a good man?) When Elizabeth Bennet calls herself “a rational creature,” and Mrs. Croft, in Persuasion, defends women as “rational creatures,” as opposed to “fine ladies,” does the novelist behind them (p.203) deliberately evoke Mary Wollstonecraft—approvingly? Is it fair to discern, in the hints of anxiety about incest and endogamy in Mansfield Park and Emma, shadows of the debates going on at the time the novels were written, about so-called miscegenation—and of Jane Austen’s personal views of that—mixed with her private anxieties about marrying and leaving home?

Austen is harder to catch in the ideological act than she is in the act of genius.6 As I see it, she is most useful today, politically and morally, as an example of linguistic precision. If the formal exigencies of Jane-Austen diction and manners have the Balinese charm of remoteness, now, they function usefully as metaphors for the arbitrariness of social and linguistic signs. They encourage awareness that language itself is part of the problem, as some things should not and others cannot be said. Words as Austen deploys and weighs them reflect, obscure, and influence by mediating the subtle relations of signification to meaning—therefore of meaning to feeling, and of what is meant and felt to what must remain unsaid. “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” (E, 431): this is what the reader is told about Emma’s response to Mr. Knightley’s proposal of marriage. In the face of this complexity, at the heart of it, in the elegant phrasing and timing and epigrammatic brilliance, there is the promise of mastery over language. “My Emma,” says Mr. Knightley, toward the end, after his critical close reading of not-frank Frank Churchill’s letter (and therefore his character), “does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?” (E, 446). If the language-loving reader’s heart swells at this as at a patriotic anthem, the surge on second thought subsides. Although she wants to, Emma can agree with Mr. Knightley only “with a blush of sensibility on Harriet’s account, which she could not give any sincere explanation of.” For our heroine is still keeping a secret, therefore still being incompletely truthful and sincere: it is a function of her character and context, and also of the limits of truth in conversation, and furthermore of the English language. Some fourteen pages earlier, apropos of Emma’s being baffled by the task of explaining her inconsistency, either Mr. Knightley or the narrator carefully reflects that

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; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.

(E, 431)

(p.204) Rereading Jane Austen, I don’t believe that Emma and Mr. Knightley are real: I hardly believe Jane Austen was. But I believe this truth about truth in language, and begin to believe again in the beauty of telling the truth, and in the importance of trying to. We reread Jane Austen because she persuades us to be nostalgic for what we never knew, and because we want her clarity.


The meanings of the words “understand” and “understanding” fall into three rough but overlapping categories. The first includes the verb “to understand,” meaning to perform a solitary intellectual act, and the noun “the understanding,” that is, the reason or mind or intelligence, or “power of the soul”7

with which an individual comprehends or grasps ideas and meanings, and objectively observes and assesses other individuals. This is operative in reading novels of the sort that begin by characterizing an Emma Woodhouse as “handsome, clever, and rich,” totting up her attributes in a tone that directs one to weigh them instead of being swept away by them, as one might be while reading another kind of book—say, a romance. In this sense of the word, Elinor Dashwood has “strength of understanding,” Jane Bennet has an “excellent understanding,” and Mrs. Bennet can be fairly dispatched as a woman of “mean understanding,” meaning she is not very intelligent.

Austen appeals to readers who are inclined to value mental ability and to scorn stupidity, to rank people according to their intellectual powers: the capacity of minds is more interesting to her than the color of hair. Harriet Smith, unlike Emma, is “not clever,” having no “strength of understanding”; Isabella Knightley is “not a woman of strong understanding,” while her husband is a “very clever man.” Miss Bates has “no intellectual superiority”; Mr. Perry is “an intelligent, gentlemanlike man”; Mr. Weston has “an active, cheerful mind.” (Of Mr. Knightley, “a sensible man,” more later.) When Emma thinks at the end of her story that she had wrongly “set up for Understanding” (427)—the word is capitalized—she is criticizing herself for having thought she was so smart. Emma’s revulsion from her own intellectual arrogance is engaging: readers who think that Emma (like Jane Austen) is too smart for her own good have fastened on this moment, sensing an interesting reversal of Jane Austen upon herself, an instance of softening, even penitence or atonement.

(p.205) People of understanding in this first sense of the word are equipped to get jokes and understand puzzles and witticisms that elude duller minds. “Do you understand?” Mr. Weston anxiously asks Emma after he spells out his simple flattering conundrum on her name, at Box Hill. (“Understanding and gratification came together,” the narrator tells us.) Three pages later, smart-aleck Emma says defensively to Mr. Knightley about the joke she made at Miss Bates’s expense, “I dare say she did not understand me” (374). To understand what is outside it—the cognitive function—is a function of the understanding, that inner capacity some people have more and some less of. “No doubt you were much my superior in judgment at [one] period of our lives,” says Emma to Mr. Knightley; “but does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?” (99). This remains a question in the novel (and the world beyond it), and it begins to raise the question of whether and how, if the understanding grows more capacious in the course of living in the world, it grows more connected with the things and the people around it. Common sense and British philosophy would seem to suggest that it is so: Hume argued that experience is a factor in the operations of the human understanding. (Jane Austen does not, I think, think quite that way: in Mansfield Park she hints at a more tragic vision, writing of Fanny that “she began to feel that she had not yet gone through all the changes of opinion and sentiment, which the progress of time and variation of circumstances occasion in this world of changes. The vicissitudes of the human mind had not yet been exhausted by her” [MP, 374].) All the novels seem to insist on the importance of innate intelligence, and tend to contrast people of strong understanding with less acute people who have different virtues. Sisters like Elinor and Marianne or Elizabeth and Jane, rivals like Mary Crawford and Fanny Price, are paired, in part, to pose the question that Emma raises outright apropos of Harriet Smith, whether a strong understanding in a woman is a “charm equal to tenderness of heart” (E, 169). In Northanger Abbey there is a reflection by the narrator that “a woman especially” should keep it to herself that she knows anything at all.

The first meaning of “to understand,” to comprehend, apprehend the meaning or import of, grasp the idea of, is illustrated in the OED by the familiar quotation from Emma: “One half the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other” (81). It is Emma herself who makes this observation to her father, in response to his saying, “I cannot understand it,” about his grandchildren’s enjoyment of being tossed in the air by their uncle. “You (p.206) understand everything” (76), undiscriminating Harriet tells Emma, using the word in the same way. To observe that half the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other is to observe the word “understand” begin to slide, as “understanding” also slides, into the second category or dimension of its meanings, to signify not the intellectual power of an individual but imaginative sympathy between people. Here, for instance, is Emma contemplating, and then listening to Harriet describe, Harriet’s visit to the Martin girls:

After much thinking, she could determine on nothing better, than Harriet’s returning the visit: but in a way that, if they had understanding, should convince them that it was to be only a formal acquaintance.

(E, 185)

They all seemed to remember the day, the hour, the party, the occasion—to feel the same consciousness, the same regrets—to be ready to return to the same good understanding; and they were just growing again like themselves, (Harriet, as Emma must suspect, as ready as the best of them to be cordial and happy,) when the carriage re-appeared, and it was all over.

(E, 187)

“If they had understanding,” they would get the point of the very short visit: such a quality is not intellect but social tact. Something of that kind of meaning colors Emma’s flirtatious invitation, to Mr. Knightley, to look back twenty-one years to the beginning of the lifetime she has spent improving her understanding. To understand or have understanding of this kind is to add feeling to the “mere understanding” or intellectual power. In the main plot of Emma, as the hero and the heroine move from being friends and relations by marriage to being married lovers, from teacher and student to husband and wife, the movement from an intellectual to an emotional understanding is subtly mapped. Mr. Knightley, rebuking Emma in her adoring father’s presence, makes the point that she sometimes is by saying she is “not often deficient either in manner or comprehension.” He concludes with a clear emphasis, “I think you understand me, therefore.” It is not yet midway through the novel and Emma only imperfectly does, although she thinks she really does. “An arch look expressed—‘I understand you well enough;’ but she said only, ‘Miss Fairfax is reserved’” (171). Depending on being understood by the people they talk to, speakers like Mr. Knightley and Emma may encode (p.207) their meanings by inflecting the words and looks they exchange, telegraphing “You know what I mean” in order to prevent others (like Mr. Woodhouse, here) from beginning to comprehend their meaning. Doing that, they make a connection that depends on silence and sympathy, and on separating themselves from those around them; their mutual understanding or complicity is a psychosocial, antisocial force, the force that forms couples, coteries, cliques, and classes.

Different from both the objective understanding of the mind and the sympathetic understanding that goes without saying is a third more trivial sense of the word, “understanding” meaning a specific assumption or set of assumptions or a formal arrangement or agreement that links and joins individuals who consent to it. Marriage is its ultimate form; an engagement to marry comes close. Mr. Knightley near the end finally has a strong “suspicion of there being something of a private liking, of private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane” (344). If we conceal such an understanding from the community, the consequences—as this novel sees it—threaten our private agreement, and our individual selves. The trouble with every private understanding is that for both good and ill it is exclusive and in that sense anti-social, therefore not subject to being corrected. For we may be wrongly imagining that both of us see things the same way, or that something like a (socially sanctioned) contractual agreement binds us together. A related error takes place among more than two people when a “good understanding” (187) or pleasant consciousness of being a comfortable party encourages a sense of personal well-being: people being inveterately like themselves, sometimes some are left out, and sometimes they are not what they seem to be.

The three meanings of the word “understand” and “understanding” are discrete, but they slide into one another. For to comprehend the words or gestures of another person, to take in the signs he or she invests with meaning, is after all to begin to be that person’s ally, accomplice, or confederate. Understanding what another might mean requires work by the understanding; it may require, and may lead to, a mutual understanding of more or less depth and feeling; its premise is the understanding—true or false—that you will know what I mean. The several kinds or dimensions of understanding influence and color one another; the separate, distinctive intellectual power of an individual is complexly involved with the people she lives with and the arrangements and conventions that inform social life, simply because she thinks and talks in language, uses words like “understanding.”

(p.208) In Emma, as the meanings of the word “understanding” are explored, misunderstandings proliferate. A world made up of families in a country village is a world where people literally speak the same language and think they do figuratively as well, so that a great deal goes without saying and is given to be understood. What is understood in that sense is inevitably sometimes misunderstood, or taken to be understood without positive or sufficient knowledge, for instance when all Highbury says, “I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr. Frank Churchill had written to Mrs. Weston? I understand it was a very handsome letter, indeed. Mr. Woodhouse told me of it. Mr. Woodhouse saw the letter, and he says he never saw such a handsome letter in his life” (18). What we understand on Mr. Woodhouse’s authority we understand only as he understands things, which is to say not very well. Frank Churchill’s father uses heavy irony when he reports another letter from the same young man and says, “Mrs. Churchill, as we understand, has not been able to leave the sopha for a week together” (306). The italicized phrase suggests that what people have been given to understand is merely an excuse, and not the truth—and that he counts on his neighbors to mistrust distant Mrs. Churchill.

While mutual understanding is widely assumed to exist in, say, High-bury—that people so casually say “as we understand” attests to this—individuals there in fact, as elsewhere, talk at cross-purposes, and often mistakenly rely on other people’s correctly reading between their lines. When Frank Churchill amuses himself by flirting with Emma in order to tease Jane, talking about the “true affection” of whoever bought Jane the piano, Emma says to him, aside, “You speak too plain. She must understand you.” Frank replies, “I hope she does. I would have her understand me” (243). Emma is unaware of the secret understanding between Frank and Jane; Frank depends on Jane’s overhearing him and understanding his meaning as only she can; rereading the novel, we are uncomfortably in on his game, distanced, as we were not the first time, from poor blind Emma.

In Emma, the love that the marriage plot celebrates as the acme of mutual understanding is also, as in all romantic comedy, a source of misunderstanding. When Harriet Smith falls in love yet again, this time with Mr. Knightley, she says to Emma, “I do not want to say more than is necessary—I am too much ashamed of having given way as I have done, and I dare say you understand me” (337). Emma is sure she does, but she doesn’t. Fools like Harriet too eagerly assume, in emotional matters that tax the powers of speech, (p.209) that they understand, or that others do; so do people of intelligence, like Emma. For although words are hard to interpret, so is silence. “Charming Miss Woodhouse! Allow me to interpret this interesting silence,” cries tipsy Mr. Elton, in the carriage, coming back in the snow from the party at the Weston house. “It confesses that you have long understood me.” Emma calls his words into question by repeating them: “No, sir … it confesses no such thing. So far from having long understood you, I have been in a most complete error with respect to your views, till this moment” (131). The sympathy Mr. Elton seeks and expects is very different from what Emma refers to when she says she has not understood his views: she’s saying not only that she has no sympathy for his feelings, but also that she is horrified to learn of their existence. She means that she does not and cannot love him; and by so utterly misreading and misunderstanding her, he shows that he cannot love her as she needs and deserves to be loved.

False or foolish friends and lovers presume that understanding is easy, and sometimes misinterpret silence. Between true lovers, on the other hand, there is true understanding of differences. As Mr. Darcy’s proposal echoes Mr. Collins’s, Mr. Knightley’s proposal to Emma echoes Mr. Elton’s: “God knows,” he says, “I have been a very indifferent lover.—But you understand me.—Yes, you see, you understand my feelings—and will return them, if you can” (430). (Unlike Mr. Elton, he wants not only to be understood but also to be loved back; unlike Mr. Elton, he has a sense of Emma’s separate reality.) He reads her silence sensitively, and he charmingly despairs of finding language adequate to his feelings (“I cannot make speeches, Emma”). The narrator gracefully suggests that she does too, telling us of Emma’s acceptance speech only this:

What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.—She said enough to show there need not be despair—and to invite him to say more himself.

(E, 431)

Sure that the reader understands certain social constraints and conventions, and is in sympathy with related literary conventions of discretion and decorum, the storyteller withholds the love scene.

By acknowledging that this understanding on the reader’s part exists—by naming it, or nearly—Jane Austen creates the complicity that makes for much of our pleasure in reading her. While misleading and mystifying us, in (p.210) Emma, she manages to create the conviction that we understand the sort of people who know how hard it is to express real feeling. Restrained language throughout Emma has been an index to truth of feeling, as “fine flourishing” language indicates that feeling is false, or betrays it by spelling it out. That Emma and Mr. Knightley communicate clearly in very brief exchanges throughout the novel promises the final mutual understanding between them that needs no language. “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,” the narrator moralizes as the two declare their love, out of earshot. We are obliged to agree, having been shown how hard it is for people to make themselves understood. In Emma, some people lie, while others babble; some are naturally, others unnaturally, reticent; some are inarticulate. The urge to say something clever betrays some; their natural way of talking betrays others. People play word games, write charades, pose conundrums, manipulate children’s alphabets, all in vain attempts at pretending they are the masters of a language that more often masters them. Like us, reading, they are obliged to understand within constraints.

Emma is about a young woman’s struggles “to understand, thoroughly understand her own heart” (412)—to comprehend, support, possess, and in effect stand under so as to support the mysterious source of her being’s energy. Her success in this private quest is signaled by her marriage to Mr. Knightley. Just as a community’s life depends on the conventions and arrangements that presume “a perfectly good understanding between them all” (202), even when there is not one, a young woman’s heart—whether or not she understands it—is affected by those around her. Instructively, it is when Emma suspects Mr. Knightley loves Harriet that “it darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself” (408).

The comic novel that points to and laughs at failures of understanding depends—paradoxically—on the marriage plot, which ends in a mutual understanding understood as such by society. Jane Austen assumes her reader understands this plot’s conventional nature, and by making this assumption she creates an understanding with that reader. This understanding allows us, at the end, once again to take the long comic view of Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich. In the end she acts just as she must and ought to do, that is, she acts like a novel heroine, someone whose importance depends on the romantic plot. The heroine’s marriage—one of several, as usual in comedy—is presented as a conventional arrangement from the literary and (p.211) the social points of view. “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it,” Mrs. Elton, the malcontent, mutters from the edge of the scene (484).

The narrator has the last word: “In spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” As “uniting them,” the emphatic final words of Pride and Prejudice, also do, the last words of Emma emphasize the social spirit of comedy. The ending transforms Emma’s wedding into an abstraction—a union—among other abstractions like wishes, hopes, confidence, and happiness. Doing so, it puts Emma and her life at a distance. Closing the book, we withdraw not at all in the spiteful spirit but nevertheless in effect as Mrs. Elton withdraws, understanding Emma at the end of the novel as we were called upon to assess her in the beginning—with the Lockean, Humean intellect that was called “the understanding.” Part of the pleasure of reading is in this coming full circle—and also in being left out of the wedding party, free to take a clear comic view of the little bride and groom on the cake, and what little there is of satin and veils.

Jane Austen charms us by permitting us to share with her this detached view of brides and grooms. Separated from Emma in the end, we no longer share her subjective reality, her anxiety to understand the world and herself; but we perceive her understanding with Mr. Knightley sympathetically, seeing it as a distant analogue of our understanding with the narrator. So we can enjoy feeling detached and connected at once. To be an amused spectator of marriages seems, in the end, quite as delightful and companionable as marrying is. The reader can eat her romantic cake and have it, too, and even hedge her bets on Emma’s happiness ever after—rather like Mr. Perry, who is prevailed upon by Mr. Woodhouse to acknowledge “that wedding-cake might certainly disagree with many—perhaps with most people, unless taken moderately,” but who nevertheless occasions the “strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of … wedding-cake in their hands,” although “Mr. Woodhouse would never believe it” (19).

“It is respect for the understanding,” Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “that keeps alive tenderness for the person.”8

By “understanding” she meant the mind; by “person” she meant the body; she was arguing that education for women would improve the state of marriage and therefore of the world. Austen modified this Enlightenment emphasis— (p.212) the dichotomous opposition of mind and body—with a Romantic insistence that emotional knowledge and sympathy, intuitive understanding of one’s own heart and other people’s, was as important as intellect, indeed was bound up with it. (Over time, Wollstonecraft grew more Romantic, too.) And to that other dimension of understanding she added yet another, with an emphasis that is not so much Romantic as novelistic, on the way social and linguistic and literary conventions inform both the head and the heart.

In the course of making what Henry James called an “ado”—that is, a novel—about Emma Woodhouse’s marrying, Austen meditates on the meanings of the word “understanding,” and on the extent to which people can understand that word and one another. Daniel Cottom writes that “this is the point of her satire: that understanding in general … is neither safe, nor certain, nor real. Understanding is the agreement we imagine between ourselves and others, and all of Austen’s writing dramatizes the dangers in this presumption of agreement.”9 The novelist’s game with the word “understanding,” like the word games the characters play among themselves and against one another, serves to reinforce and support the theme of the novel, the paradoxical separation and connection between individuals, and between intellect and emotion, and between words and meanings. The three kinds of understanding are distinct and mutually dependent on one another, braided together.

England’s Emma

Jane Austen began writing Emma in Chawton Cottage on January 21, 1814. At thirty-eight, she was already the author of several novels, two between boards and one that had been accepted for publication the following spring. Although her name was not on the title pages of any of her books, she was known as a writer among her family and friends, and in London her proud brother Henry had begun to make her authorship more widely known. As a very young girl she had written send-ups of genteel novels that double as startling works of realism—for instance, a story about a young girl struggling to get through a boring family visit while hiding her secret love. The name of this young person who fancies herself a tragic romantic heroine—and at the end of the story retires to her room, where she “continued in tears the remainder of her Life” (MW, 33)—is Emma. Another early Emma is in a romantic predicament in the even shorter story “The Adventures of Mr. Harley”: (p.213) her husband has forgotten that he married her. The name also figures in two more of Jane Austen’s juvenile works, “Lesley Castle” and “Sir William Mountague.” In her twenties, she began but didn’t complete a novel, “The Watsons,” which also has a heroine—pretty, lively, and poor—named Emma. Around the time her own Emma was published, Austen drafted a “Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters,” mockingly compiling what she thought her neighbors demanded of a perfect work of fiction. It concludes thus: “Throughout the whole work, Heroine to be in the most elegant Society & living in high style. The name of the work not to be Emma—but of the same sort as S&S. and P&P.” (MW, 430).

Emma insists by its title on the heroine, implicitly putting itself on the side of romance: it is the only novel she published that is named for the heroine. No question, it will be a woman’s story. For the novel’s first readers, the name would have evoked other Emmas in fiction—Emma; or, The Unfortunate Attachment (1773), by Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, or Courtney Melmoth’s Emma Corbett (1780), or Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796). Barbara Benedict records an anonymous title of the period, Female Sensibility; or, The History of Emma Pomfret, published by Lane.10 People who preferred their scandal plain, not clothed as romance, and especially people who were connected, as Jane Austen was, to the British navy, might have been reminded by the name of a prominent, problematic national figure, Emma, Lady Hamilton. (In fact her name, originally, was no more “Emma” than it was “Lady Hamilton”; she had started out as “Amy.”) This Emma, who was notoriously an adulteress, was the heroine of the love story of the nation’s hero, Lord Nelson. The name would evoke the nation more comfortably for patriotic readers who recalled “Henry and Emma,” Matthew Prior’s “Poem, Upon the Model of The Nut-Brown Maid,” which identifies its virtuous heroine—like Austen’s heroine, she is her father’s “Age’s Comfort”—with a traditional English ballad, therefore with England. There is a reference to this popular poem in Jane Austen’s next novel, Persuasion: “Without emulating the feelings of an Emma toward her Henry, [Anne] would have attended on Louisa with a zeal above the common claims of regard, for [Wentworth’s] sake” (P, 116). In Jane Austen’s Emma, Henry—the name of the author’s favorite brother—is not the name of Emma’s lover but of the aged father she is obliged to attend with zeal.

In a letter to Cassandra of 1800, Jane writes of a Miss Wapshire, “I wish I could be certain that her name were Emma” (Letters, 65), and in letter of 1808, (p.214) “There were only 4 dances, & it went to my heart that the Miss Lances (one of them too named Emma!) should have partners only for two.” She goes on, “You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance—but I was,” by a gentleman with pleasing black eyes who “seems so little at home in the English Language that I believe his black eyes may be the best of him” (Letters, 157). Does an Emma deserve to dance every dance, as a Jane does not? The earliest recorded Emma, the mother of Edward the Confessor, was a Norman princess. The century-long war in which England and France traded accusations of producing more worthless romances than the other country came to a conclusion, of sorts, when Flaubert gave the name “Emma” to his romance-reading Norman bourgeoise, Madame Bovary. To what extent is Jane Austen’s Emma about Emma, and to what extent does Emma, does Emma, represent England in or around 1814? Is this novel in dialogue with contemporaneous historical novels by Lady Morgan and Walter Scott? And to what extent are the heroine and the book representative of “England’s Jane”?

In 1814–1815 Jane Austen’s sense of audience was well-honed. She had collected the “Opinions” that people she knew had expressed to her about Mansfield Park; about her next project, she is said to have announced she was “going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Her worry about the heroine—real or feigned—extended to the whole novel. She expressed the fear “that to those readers who have preferred ‘Pride and Prejudice’ it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred ‘Mansfield Park’ very inferior in good sense” (Letters, 306). A month earlier she had written to Cassandra that John Murray, who was about to publish Emma, “sends more praise … than I expected” (Letters, 291). She seems to have thought she was doing something new. In London on a visit to Henry, she learned that the Prince Regent (of whom she strongly disapproved) admired her writing, and took this with aplomb. After the Prince’s librarian invited her to dedicate the book to him, and after receiving yet another flattering letter from Murray, she purred from London to her sister in the country, “In short, I am soothed & complimented into tolerable comfort” (Letters, 289). When the librarian, Mr. Clarke, suggested that she write a romance about the royal House of Saxe-Coburg, she comfortably replied that, “I could no more write a romance than an epic poem” (Letters, 312). Completed three months before the winning battle of Waterloo, near the height of her nation’s confidence and her own, Emma was her version of a national epic.

(p.215) She finished it in March 1815, a year and a month after beginning it. It was in the middle of this period—the early fall of 1814—that she wrote the letter, responding to a manuscript novel her niece Anna had sent her, in which she famously declared: “You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life;—3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on” (Letters, 275). It surely reflects her delight in her work in progress. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, the as-yet-unpublished Northanger Abbey and asyet-unwritten Persuasion cover much more territory, for all their narrowness, than Emma does. All the action of that novel takes place in a country village—Highbury, possibly an anglicized version of “Alton” (from the Latin “altus,” meaning high), the name of the larger village near Chawton. London, Bristol, Bath, Weymouth, the north of England, Ireland, and continental Europe are talked about in the novel as distant places, dangerous to get to or be in. Mr. Woodhouse is reluctant to stir from his fireside; his son-in-law John Knightley can’t understand why one would want to leave home to dine with a neighbor; the heroine has never seen the sea. (Chapman points out that Dr. Johnson had not, either, until he was fifty-six, and that George III had not seen it at thirty-four.)

Toward the end of the novel sulky Frank Churchill, looking over views of remote “Swisserland” in the snugness of Donwell Abbey, says to Emma, “I am sick of England—and would leave it tomorrow” (365). The sour remark damns him as Byronic—he also promises a self-expressive effusion from abroad—before his character is revealed as thoroughly bad; the contrast between Frank the would-be wanderer and Emma’s own home-loving male relations could not be more dramatic. In the England of Emma tourists cut off from the Continent by the Napoleonic wars (they include an “Irish car party”) are pleased to explore the local beauties of Box Hill. The reader is invited to think that only a fool or knave like Frank would want to leave England: we recall that he is said to be “aimable” only in French, not amiably English, having “no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people” (149).

When Frank comes to Highbury for the first time in his life and walks past Ford’s with Emma, he interrupts her question about Weymouth and Jane Fairfax and abruptly announces that he has to shop. He says, “If it be not inconvenient to you, pray let us go in, that I may prove myself to belong to the place, to be a true citizen of Highbury. I must buy something at Ford’s. It will be taking out my freedom.—I dare say they sell gloves.” “Oh! yes, (p.216) gloves and everything,” Emma responds in the same key. “I do admire your patriotism. You will be adored in Highbury. You were very popular before you came, because you were Mr. Weston’s son—but lay out half-a-guinea at Ford’s, and your popularity will stand upon your own virtues” (200). Emma is being arch and flirtatious in response to Frank’s archness. She is also, like Austen, aware that England is changing in 1814: propriety and manly virtue, once the province of the landed and well-born, have new commercial sources and manifestations. Inside Ford’s, Frank reverts to their dropped conversation: “But I beg your pardon, Miss Woodhouse, you were speaking to me, you were saying something at the very moment of this burst of my amor patriae. Do not let me lose it. I assure you the utmost stretch of public fame would not make me amends for the loss of any happiness in private life” (200). If on first reading you admire the easy banter that makes Frank seem meant for Emma, the second time you register his evasiveness—and his pretentious and possibly even sarcastic and unpatriotic Latin. Jane Austen is approaching the big theme of England in her own way, noting the critical intersections between national and local, old ideals and the new materialism, what people say and what their words reveal.

A sense of national identity and pride is implicit in the way John and George Knightley greet one another—“‘How d’ye do, George?’ and ‘John, how are you?’”—repeating one another’s quintessentially English names in “the true English style, burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment that would have led either of them, if requisite, to do every thing for the good of the other” (E, 99–100). The author of Emma characterizes John and George by how they talk; she listens to what all the three or four families that interest her say more than she looks at their village. Nevertheless we, like Frank Churchill, seem to know, as if we have seen them before, Ford’s store, The Crown, and the small home of the Bates ladies, with its narrow stairs. In relation to them we easily imagine adjacent Hartfield in its pretty shrubberies, carved out of the larger estate of Donwell Abbey; Abbey Mill Farm, spreading out productively beside the Abbey; and the more and less dangerous walks and turns toward the vicarage and Randalls. There are gypsies around, and talk of turkey thieves to come, but Highbury and its environs are cozy and pleasant, easy to locate in the tradition of pastoral, which has typically been written, since Theocritus, by city people looking back at a country paradise cleaned up by the literary imagination.

(p.217) On first reading, the pastoral Highbury that Emma comfortably contemplates as she stands outside Ford’s waiting for Harriet to finish shopping seems a charming, quiet refuge from the world as we know it, even from other novels. But even at our first reading we have to ask: is it Emma, or the narrator, who reflects on the village scene? By bracketing the description of Highbury village with consideration of the perception of it, does not the narrator suggest (as Milton did) that the mind is its own place, and that it half-creates (as Wordsworth put it) the place it finds itself in? Is the narrator suggesting that Emma the Imaginist, whose too lively mind runs to spinning romantic stories, is or should be satisfied with contemplating the diurnal, unexciting, and real life of the village? What is the relation between this narrative that goes nowhere and its premodern setting?

The language of Emma calls attention to itself from the first page, which repeats the title. I pass over the dedication, “To His Royal Highness The Prince Regent,” where the phrase “His Royal Highness” is written out three times: John Murray’s fulsomeness can figure only lightly in my argument that by repeating sounds, words, phrases, and scenes, Austen insists that her novel is a fabrication of words, a literary work like a poetic epic, something more than a mere story or indeed a mere didactic tract. (But surely she must have been amused by the multiple “Royal Highnesses” in the dedication. And could she possibly have added, to balance the compliment to the nation’s putative ruler, Mrs. Elton’s peculiar promise to Jane Fairfax, toward the end of the novel, to be “as silent as a minister of state”?) In Emma the repetitions range from the staggeringly obvious to the very subtle. An example of the former comes toward the end of volume III, when the heroine sits with her father and is “reminded … of their first forlorn tête-à-tête, on the evening of Mrs. Weston’s wedding day” (E, 422). Usually, a nice parallel reminding you that the linguistic whole has been deliberately fabricated is discovered only on rereading.

Repeating words and sounds, contrasting what seems and what is, what exists and what is perceived, the novel from the beginning calls attention to its language, characterizing it as indexical and referential and not at all transparent. By doing that, it stakes a claim for both the pleasures of language and the seriousness of this work of literary art. It is by stressing its heroine’s significant imagination, by its play with point of view and all its authorial and linguistic self-consciousness, as well as by the subtlety of its moral and aesthetic distinctions, that Emma stakes its claim to difference from the ordinary (p.218) run of novels. Like the poems of Jane Austen’s contemporaries Wordsworth and Byron, it is concerned with the perceiving and creating imagination, with what the mind makes of persons and things.

The heroine’s romantic name is immediately modified in the novel’s first sentence by her downright, domestic-sounding English surname: the focus on the homebody-heroine is emphatic, comfortable (the word is right there for us to borrow). This novel is about a heroine who is decidedly not a picture of perfection, a book in which the word “perfection” is repeated so often as to become a crux. Mr. Weston poses the flattering conundrum at Box Hill, “What two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?” (he means M and A), to which Mr. Knightley gravely rejoins, “Perfection should not have come quite so soon” (371). Emma’s relation to some kind of picture is dramatized early on when Emma is called “the picture of health” by Mrs. Weston: Emma herself makes a portrait of Harriet, whom she hopes to make a heroine by making a match for her. (But Mr. Elton values it for the sake of the artist, not the sitter.) The gap between “real” people in life and in novels and the mere pictures of perfection that Jane Austen thought other people admired too much is in effect the subject of all her novels—pointing toward another, larger subject, the inevitable gap between any kind of novel and the world it seems to represent.

The first sentence of her story says, more or less, that Emma has everything going for her—as a heroine should. (Henry James echoes it in a review of a novel by Trollope, writing that the protagonist “is not handsome, nor clever, nor rich, nor romantic, nor distinguished in any way.”11) That a man, not a woman, is typically described by the first adjective Austen applies to Emma has been remarked by those who are critical of her unusual confidence and independence of mind. Like her wealth, Emma’s “comfortable home” puts her in a good position—no reason for her not to be happy and stay there, as she is disposed to do, enjoying some of the “best blessings of existence.” That Emma only “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence” is not lost on the first-time reader; but the meaning of “in the world” is more problematic. What world is at issue, here? The reference in the title of Frances Burney’s Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World (1778) is to a social world that thirty-eight-year-old Jane Austen might be said to have lived in for nearly twenty-one years. That worldly world may be evoked by the phrase—which also might refer to this world rather than the next. For the religious register (suggested by the phrases “the best blessings,” and “the (p.219) real evils”) puts us in a serious place as it insists that place itself is serious. The point is reaffirmed by the repetition of “house” (“Woodhouse,” “his house”), and the interesting word “situation,” which will gain resonance later on in the story of job-hunting Jane Fairfax. Rootedness, house and home, are crucial here: Emma is about much more than Emma.

Beginning a chapter, the narrator introduces Mrs. Elton: “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of” (181). The best way to appreciate that sentence—the way it steps back from the action to philosophize, temporizes with the phrase “interesting situations,” pivots on the “young person” (pointedly not gendered), tendentiously parallels “marries or dies,” blows up the parallel with the illogical “is sure of,” and comes to social earth with the syntactically different but similar-looking “spoken of,” ending triumphantly with a preposition—is to compare it with imitations. Here is Emma Tennant, also beginning a chapter, in her fan-fiction sequel, Emma in Love (1996): “Human nature is so well inclined to the receiving of compliments, that any amount of annoyance or interference will go unchecked, in order for the succession of pleasant remarks to continue.”12 The epigram is less sharp: the subject lacks weight. Similarly, Angela Thirkell, writing as an Austen wannabe, echoes Emma inadequately, in The Brandons (1939): “But human nature cannot be content on a diet of honey and if there is nothing in one’s life that requires pity, one must invent it; for to go through life unpitied would be an unthinkable loss.”13 The most substantive difference might be the difference in weight between what people say to and about one another—Jane Austen’s parallelism is bolder, her target more significant. There is also a difference in the music of the sentence, and the preciseness.

“A young person, who either marries or dies”: English novels of the kind entitled Emma—or Evelina, or Ethelinde—are usually about young women who marry. (Cf. Byron: “All tragedies are finished by a death / All comedies are ended by a marriage.”) The heroine’s plot is in Emma’s case literally and outrageously that: here, as well as being possessed by the plot, the heroine hatches it, more than once. (Marilyn Butler observes that “the masterstroke” of Emma is “to make the apparent spring of the action not Emma’s quest for a husband, but Harriet’s.”14) Of all the Austen heroines she is the only one to own, or nearly, a plot of land. Mistress of her father’s house, Emma is free of the marriage market: unlike Elinor and Marianne, Elizabeth and Fanny, (p.220) Catherine and Anne, she does not have to sell herself to a man in order to get a home of her own. Being rich, she is not a commodity. Far from seeking to exchange her, her father wants nothing to change; the only lover who seeks to marry her for her money is easily shaken off early on. With her thirty thousand pounds and her nieces, her music and her crayons and her reading lists, she has, as she informs Harriet, “none of the usual inducements to marry.” She goes on, enumerating them:

“Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want; I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”

(E, 84)

But the marriage plot or the love story, which had pushed young women into narratives long before novels like Austen’s were written, requires a mate for Emma. He is a member of one of the three or four families in her country village, more precisely a member of Emma’s own family, her sister Isabella’s brother, as they said then, and her own “brother” John Knightley’s brother. It is hard to say whether the plot of Emma or Mansfield Park most cleverly foils the marriage plot by ingeniously eluding the obligation to exogamy.

“Whom are you going to dance with?” asked Mr. Knightley.

She hesitated a moment, and then replied, “With you, if you will ask me.”

“Will you?” said he, offering his hand.

“Indeed I will. You have shown that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”

“Brother and sister! no, indeed.”

(E, 331)

But yes indeed, as well. Marrying Mr. Knightley, Emma proudly reaffirms family connections already made, joins estates that are contiguous. She goes nowhere, stays the same, resists change. At the end she is as she was at the beginning, mistress of her father’s house and still residing in it, having solved the problem of being both wife and maiden that baffled Frank Churchill’s long-dead mother, who “wanted at once to be the wife of Captain Weston, and Miss Churchill of Enscombe” (16).

(p.221) What happens to Emma, in Emma? In a sense, in the end, total victory is hers, as it is Elizabeth Bennet’s. But the transformation is not so great. Her heirs, presumably, will inherit Donwell, while little Henry, her older sister’s son, will have only Hartfield. But the general critical consensus, at least since Mark Schorer’s famous mid-twentieth-century essay about “The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse,” is that Emma gets all that in the process of a plot in which she is taken down a peg.15 Some argue that she comes to know herself by knowing she loves Mr. Knightley, rather in the manner of Elizabeth Bennet; some have even claimed that Emma is sexually awakened when “it darted through her with the force of an arrow that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself” (408). Others think she wants him only because she thinks he wants Harriet, whose “soft eyes” awaken her own most tender (homo)erotic impulses. Of course Emma only imagines Mr. Knightley’s interest in Harriet—and on rereading one discovers Emma prefiguring all this early on, when, defending Harriet against Mr. Knightley’s criticism, she says, “Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you” (64). It is another piece of evidence of the obvious, that this novel, like Emma, stays where it begins.

It is interesting to compare Emma on this score with Elizabeth. When Emma looks at and reflects on the much less romantically named Donwell Abbey, in the same shopping frame of mind in which Elizabeth considers Pemberley, she is charmed less by its beautiful blend of nature and art than by its stability, being already, after all, well connected with the place:

She felt all the honest pride and complacency which her alliance with the present and future proprietor could fairly warrant, as she viewed the respectable size and style of the building, its suitable, becoming, characteristic situation, low and sheltered—its ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream, of which the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight—and its abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up. … It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was—and Emma felt an increasing respect for it, as the residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding.—Some faults of temper John Knightley had; but Isabella had connected herself unexceptionably. She had given them neither men, nor names, nor places, that could raise a blush. These were pleasant feelings, and she walked about and indulged them.

(E, 358)

(p.222) She walks over the gardens with some of the others, and they are drawn to a “broad short avenue of limes” that “led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there.” The flaw, if it is one, is of a false entry, an entryway to a nonexistent approach. It is quickly smoothed away: “Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty.” The prettiness is national in character, and an anthem ensues. “It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive” (360).

As in the Highbury village scene the focus is on Emma looking: here, Emma is taking in a synecdoche of England itself. Her relation to the land’s proprietor—a man “untainted in blood and understanding”—confirms her possession of what she sees; her marriage will soon reaffirm it. The emphatic reiteration—“English verdure, English culture, English comfort”—persuasively insists, effectively praises, says, What could be better than England? But what on earth are we to make of that appearance of an approach which never had been there? It would seem that that, at least, had not been done well. That she notices the flaw and forgives it indicates Emma’s continuing keenness and new generosity, perhaps, but the thing itself is baffling. The representation of the real estate is done well: the false entry is a reminder that it is not only, and certainly not most importantly, actual and material.

Is the point of Emma that although commerce reigns in modern High-bury, and buying seems to some to be the finest expression of patriotism, a superior old-fashioned agrarian England, when men were knights, belongs to a woman of mind and taste and imagination? That a woman like a novelist, like this novelist, owns England as much as the men who own the land do? Praising the land and the country village, casting aspersions on vulgar Bristol—Mrs. Elton’s mercantile home town, where the slave ships docked—Jane Austen, they say, affirmed a virtuous, moral England, an ideal England of long ago at the moment it was changing for the worse.

But by its ambiguously ironic emphatic repetitions, Emma simultaneously celebrates and distances itself from the historical England of 1814, and from historical epics as well. The approach that never was there represents a place that never was there, except in the imagination: what Emma affirms is the imagination. Emphasizing Austen’s irony and ambiguity, some critics (p.223) have been led down the garden path, like Emma at Donwell, to consider the novelist’s own putative ambivalence, her “regulated hatred” of the society she lived in. But interesting as it is, the subject of biography—the real life of the writer—is only one of several sources of the voice that charms us. Jane Austen was first of all a maker of works of art. To Cassandra she wrote, memorably, “I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the House; And how good Mrs West cd have written such Books & collected so many hard words, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment! Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb” (Letters, 321). Cassandra did more of the housework; neither one of the sisters undertook marriage, a separate household, and all the attendant, dangerous “family cares” of a married woman like “good Mrs. West.” “Composition” is what engaged Jane Austen: her Emma puts in precise and suggestive delicate balance the warring forces that enable a singular heroine, and a singular nation, simultaneously to change and stay the same.


For a man can employ his thoughts about nothing, but either the contemplation of things themselves for the discovery of truth; or about the things in his own power, which are his own actions, for the attainment of his own ends; or the signs the mind makes use of both in the one and the other, and the right ordering of them for its clearer information.

—John Locke, An Essay on Understanding

Mr Parker’s Character & History were soon unfolded. All that he understood of himself, he readily told, for he was very openhearted;—& where he might be himself in the dark, his conversation was still giving information, to such of the Heywoods as could observe.

—Jane Austen, Sanditon (MW, 371)

There is a scene in Douglas McGrath’s film, Emma (1996), just as there is in Jane Austen’s novel of the same name, where the heroine asks Jane Fairfax for the lowdown about Frank Churchill. She has never met Frank but she’s heard a lot about him, and she knows Jane has met him at a seaside resort. Emma is as nosy as a novelist about private lives; in addition, the reader knows, she may have a secret reason for seeking “real information” (169) about Frank. (p.224) His father has recently—at her instigation, she imagines—romantically married her beloved former governess, connecting Frank’s family, as Emma sees it, to her own. A further connection—Emma likes multiple connections—might just be possible: without ever having seen rich and eligible Frank, Emma has her eye on him.

In both the novel and the film, Jane barely responds to Emma’s inquiry. As neither Emma nor the first-time reader (or viewer of the film) yet knows, she is secretly engaged to Frank. Emma thinks Jane is repellently reserved and the reader is persuaded to side with her: later, Emma will complain to Frank, in retrospect most inappropriately, that Jane is “so very unwilling to give the least information about any body” (200).

In the text the dialogue of the young women talking about Frank is presented from Emma’s point of view, as if she is recollecting it. It unrolls in a single paragraph placed, as if for emphasis, at the end of a chapter; Emma’s questions are written as direct speech, in quotation marks, and the first of Jane’s answers in indirect speech, but also, confusingly, in quotation marks. This small significant asymmetry makes it even harder not to be on Emma’s side, and as if inside her head:

“Was he handsome?”—“She believed he was reckoned a very fine young man.” “Was he agreeable?”—“He was generally thought so.” “Did he appear a sensible young man; a young man of information?”—“At a watering-place, or in a common London acquaintance, it was difficult to decide on such points. Manners were all that could be safely judged of, under a much longer knowledge than they had yet had of Mr. Churchill. She believed every body found his manners pleasing.” Emma could not forgive her.

(E, 169)

The next chapter begins by repeating that last line for emphasis: “Emma could not forgive her.” By repeating the sentence in the narrator’s voice, Austen suggests how irritating and annoying Jane Fairfax is to Emma, not only because she is not playing ball conversationally, but also because she is pulling moral rank by being discreet. She is also showing off her knowledge of the world to Emma, who has never been anywhere, while making a great point of distinguishing between manners, which everyone can see, and more intimate personal qualities accessible only to the perspicacious.

(p.225) In the film the dialogue is presented directly, dramatically. At the point when Emma asks whether Frank is a “man of information”—to us the phrase seems as old-fashioned, pretty, and formal as the clothes the actresses are wearing—the Jane of the film replies, “All his statements seemed correct.” The response is as evasive as what Emma remembers Jane saying in the novel, but here it depends on a mistranslation. The meaning of the old-fashioned phrase “a man of information” is clear enough to the moviegoer, who heard it before when Emma asked Harriet whether Robert Martin was such a man. But in this different scene the camera’s close focus on the young women’s faces brings the language into focus as well. The context in both scenes makes the meaning obvious: Emma is asking whether Frank (and before that, Robert) is a man worth a woman’s talking to, a man with anything to say to a girl, a man one could imagine marrying. Conceivably, when she says, “All his statements seemed correct,” Jane of the film might mean that Frank was correct or appropriate in his language, and therefore marriageable; but it is much more likely she means that what he said seemed accurate.16 To an information-age Jane Fairfax, a “man of information” is a man who has his facts straight. This mistaken understanding of the phrase is a sign of the dangers of borrowing dialogue for a film from an old book that was written in what is after all a changing language. The word “information” in Emma sometimes does mean what it means today: data of public importance and general significance. But such “real information” as Emma looks for about Frank Churchill—facts about his family and history—is not quite the same as that. Nor is the “information” Emma wants to know if Frank is “a man of.” Jane Austen’s novel probes by repeating the phrase “a man of information,” criticizing it perhaps as what she might call a “common phrase,” or cliché (e.g., “Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family” [MP, 2]). Her repetitions of it suggest the commonness of the word, and begin to suggest that the meanings of “information,” still vexed, were changing at the time she wrote.

To the ears of a moviegoer of the late twentieth century or later, the phrase “a man of information” seems a genteel circumlocution, characteristic perhaps of the manipulative Emma. Trying to persuade poor Harriet Smith that the farmer Robert Martin isn’t good enough for her, Emma says, tendentiously, “Mr. Martin, I suppose, is not a man of information beyond the line of his own business. He does not read?” Harriet struggles to defend her suitor: “Oh, yes!—that is, no—I do not know—but I believe he has read a good (p.226) deal—but not what you would think any thing of. He reads the Agricultural Reports and some other books …—but he reads all them to himself. But sometimes of an evening, before we went to cards, he would read something aloud out of the Elegant Extracts—very entertaining. And I know he has read the Vicar of Wakefield.” Harriet has a flustered sense that there is something wanting in Robert Martin, that is, something that Emma would want. She goes on: “He never read the Romance of the Forest, nor the Children of the Abbey. He had never heard of such books before I mentioned them, but he is determined to get them now as soon as ever he can” (29). Satisfied by Harriet’s confusion, Emma can shift the focus to Mr. Martin’s looks—as important as his information in reckoning a man’s appropriateness for a discriminating young lady, which Emma is teaching Harriet to be.

Confusion is Harriet’s element—as Mr. Knightley puts it, she is “not a sensible girl, or a girl of any information” (61)—but her confusion is worth pausing over here. Emma’s questions define a man of information as a reading man, but even Harriet knows there are different kinds of books and different ways of reading. There are books intended to instruct and to delight, and useful Agricultural Reports, as well as books for leisure and ladies like Vicesimus Knox’s popular “Elegant Extracts,” and Goldsmith’s popular moralizing novel. Under Emma’s tutelage Harriet has become aware of a third kind of books—popular novels like Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest and Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey—and therefore perhaps of another way of reading. Harriet seems to be aware that if Robert Martin deserved to be called a man of information he would read fashionable gothic novels for himself, for pleasure. In the film Harriet’s mention of a title, The Romance of the Forest, gives the audience a rough idea of what scholars have been documenting: in the eighteenth century, a romantic novel by a woman promised to feminize and polish a Robert Martin. Neatly evocative of a still-familiar genre, the title of the Radcliffe novel is the pretext for a bit of business in the film that’s not in Austen’s Emma: Martin, cast here as a comic dolt, first admits, under the trees, that he can’t remember its name, and later boasts that he’s managed to get the book.

The little anecdote reflects historical truths that educated moviegoers were aware of by the mid-1990s. Scholars for some thirty years had been working to show that in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, there was an enormous growth in printing presses, literacy, and the publication of new secular books, especially novels by women. The value of reading popular (p.227) new books was debated then as now, with Dr. Johnson, for one, defending it as a social and socializing practice. “We must read what the world reads at the moment,” he allegedly declared. “It has been maintained that this super-foetation, this teeming of the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature, because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour value, in order to be in fashion, so that better works are neglected for want of time, because a man will have more gratification of his vanity in conversation, from having read modern books, than from having read works of antiquity. But it must be considered, that we have now more knowledge generally diffused; all our ladies read now, which is a great extension.”17

In Northanger Abbey, which satirizes literary fashion, mocking not only novels but other profitable publications “with which the press now groans,” Catherine and Isabella Thorpe “shut themselves up to read” novels together (NA, 37). (As a girl Catherine preferred “running about the country” to “books—or at least books of information—for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all” [15].) Isabella’s boorish brother John denies any knowledge of any novels except two famously risqué ones, The Monk and The History of Tom Jones. (In the most recent television rendering of Northanger Abbey [2007], Catherine herself reads The Monk—a symptom of the tireless sexing up of Jane Austen.) But Henry Tilney, who also knows something about fabrics, professes wild enthusiasm for a woman’s novel like The Mysteries of Udolpho (by the author of The Romance of the Forest), which he claims to have read with his “hair standing on end” (106) the whole time. Henry says he sometimes reads novels together with his sister, who—more sophisticated than poor Catherine—misunderstands her when she refers to news of the latest horrible thing “just out” in London, thinking she means a riot (like the Gordon Riots) and not a new novel (112).

The author of Northanger Abbey sends up but also defends novels by and about women as works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed,” etc. (37). But what is the effect on the mind—and the body—of reading them? Writers since Montaigne have debated the physical effects of reading both stories and what Jane Austen might have called works of reflection. Arthur Young, writing in the 1770s, complained that in “an age schooled by Sir Charles Grandison,” readers were unwilling to give up “the pleasure of being amused for the use of being instructed,” in order “to receive real (p.228) information.”18 But how might novels contribute to making a man a man of information?

A proper answer to the question would require the analysis of ideas that were current in Austen’s time about what there was to know and the ways of learning it, and about theories that the self and society could be improved by reading. One might begin with the Protestant practice of reading the Bible and other religious literature for “the information of the soul,” or spiritual value. But civic value was also an objective of those who argued for the extension of literacy. Charles Hoole, in 1660, wrote that reading should be taught even to “such children as are intended for Trades, or to be kept as drudges at home, or employed about husbandry; their acquaintance with good books will (by Gods blessing) be a means to sweeten their (otherwise sowr) natures, that they may live comfortably toward themselves and amiably converse with other persons.”19 Good books, presumably, taught adherence to the Good Book. Jane Austen’s first readers would have been familiar with the intersecting and sometimes contradictory arguments about the spiritual and social, intellectual and civic uses and perils of various texts, the development in tandem of national literacy, a national literature, and the nation itself, and with it the idea of the informed citizen whose reading equipped him to function in the public sphere.20 The history of reading practices in the long eighteenth century is outside my scope here: my subject is Jane Austen’s uses of the word “information” as an index to her thoughts about reading and personal development, and to some salient differences between her time and our own.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century the word retained the sense of its root, formation, naming an inner process like education—sometimes close to the (equally problematic) German Bildung. The meaning is retained still in the phrase “for your information.” It was once much more alive: the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels (1727) makes an instructive distinction between facts and the mental process of receiving them when he repeats his Master Houyhnhmn’s argument “that the use of speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive information of facts.” (One may still, similarly, receive as well as have intelligence.) Unfamiliar with lying and false representation, Gulliver’s Master quickly understands the evils of misinformation and disinformation, too: he explains, “now if any one said the Thing which is not, these Ends were defeated; because I cannot properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from receiving Information, that (p.229) he leaves me worse than in Ignorance.”21 Elizabeth Bennet uses the word this way when she asks Darcy, toward the end, about what he told Bingley about Jane’s feelings for him: “Did you speak from your own observation … when you told him that my sister loved him, or merely from my information last spring?” (PP, 371). The word “information” as Swift and Austen used it in this sense signified something between data or news and the imparting and receiving of it. Austen therefore often uses the word, as we no longer do, apropos of data of a local, trivial, or private kind, as when Fanny Price looks forward to “direct and minute information of the father and mother, brothers and sisters, of whom she very seldom heard” (MP, 234). For us “information” tends to be data of greater general interest and consequence—although it also includes gossip about a man’s family, character, and reputation. (These days, “real information” about “what he truly was”—data scrounged up and presented as “hard facts”—can ruin a person in the public eye more thoroughly than it could ever have ruined a Frank Churchill). Jane Austen points out that we would do well to take note that information’s truth is jeopardized as it is passed on. Anne Elliot gently corrects her friend for believing gossip that came to her thirdhand: “Indeed, Mrs. Smith, we must not expect to get real information in such a line. Facts or opinions which are to pass through the hands of so many, to be misconceived by folly in one, and ignorance in another, can hardly have much truth left” (P, 205). Like all language, information is colored and shaped by the minds that receive and contain it, and pass it on.

Over time, the meaning of the word “information” has moved—as if to parody by inverting a common rhetorical figure—from the container to what it contains, or from the effect to its cause, like “horror” in the phrase “horror film.” On the edge of change, Jane Austen points to the dangers of this. Because as one person informs another facts slide into opinions, public opinion of individuals and types—what we, today, call “information”—cannot as Austen sees it be relied on. Reading through her works, one senses a shift in her attitude toward the newspapers from her first published novel, in which rude Mr. Palmer puts up the newspaper to avoid the people he’s with, to Sanditon, left unfinished when she died, where Mr. Parker believes what he misreads in the papers. But it is more complex than that. At Mansfield Park, the young people lounge about idly reading Quarterly Reviews; Tom Bertram picks up news about both the horses he bets on and the war from the newspaper; in Portsmouth, gross Mr. Price inflames himself by reading the (p.230) gossip in the papers about adultery in high life. It would seem that the new popular publications attract only the worst people—but Edmund Bertram studies the papers too, and the exemplary Mr. Knightley also reads newspapers. Jane Austen wickedly tempts the reader to simplify.

It’s clear she thinks that public opinion cannot be relied on. In Mansfield Park, Edmund answers Mary Crawford’s put-down of the clergy by saying that her knowledge of them, gathered from talk at her uncle’s table, is unreliable, and Mary defends herself: “I speak what appears to me the general opinion; and where an opinion is general, it is usually correct. Though I have not seen much of the domestic lives of clergymen, it is seen by too many to leave any deficiency of information.” (Mary’s uncle is an admiral who has lived an irregular life, bringing his mistress into his home.) To which Edmund says: “Where any one body of educated men, of whatever denomination, are condemned indiscriminately, there must be a deficiency of information, or (smiling) of something else” (110–111). The repetition, the smile, and the insinuating “something else” suggest the word had something like a double meaning: Edmund’s hint that prejudice or a want of respect, rather than a deficiency of information, is involved points toward an older meaning of “information,” the process of moral development or education, the “information of the soul,” that creates what Emma calls “right-minded and well-informed people” (E, 164).

Distinctions between a mind and its contents, a man and what he says, are hard to make. When Mrs. Bennet is dispatched as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper,” the sequence suggests information is a quality of mind between intellectual capacity and receptiveness. It’s not that Mrs. Bennet doesn’t know what’s going on, simply that (like Lady Denham in Sanditon, where the point is made directly) she is uneducated. Knowledge, training, experience, reflection, all expand the capacity of the mind. When Elizabeth Bennet finds herself bored by Sir William Lucas, it is because she already knows what he has to say: “He could tell her nothing new of the wonders of his presentation and knighthood, and his civilities were worn out like his information” (PP, 152). Civilities and information are what pass between people in casual polite conversation: information here refers to Sir William’s informing Elizabeth.

In Jane Austen’s time the phrase “a man of information” retained the idea of “formation,” as in “the information of the soul.” As the information of the (p.231) soul is increasingly understood to occur in the process of reading—of the Protestant Bible, of the press by an informed citizenry, and of moral fiction—the two senses of the word begin to merge. First the process of reading, then whatever gets read, gets confounded with the improvement of the self and the community. By metonymy, the power to inform gets shifted to what does the informing. By the time Douglas McGrath harks back to the phrase, “a man of information” would appear to be a man well stuffed with hard facts, or data.

And what about a woman of information? The small-minded gossip Mrs. Bennet, who accepts as truth what is universally acknowledged, can be read as a satirical inversion or domestic counterpart of the man of information, that enlightened, cultivated, knowledgeable gentleman citizen who is Emma’s and her culture’s ideal. Mrs. Bennet is proud of being in the know about what’s going on: “there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.” Anne Elliot reads Italian and the navy list, but there is no “woman of information” named as such in any of Austen’s works: Lady Catherine, who is ready to inform whoever will listen about what the weather will bring and the best way to arrange shelves, is not such a woman any more than Mrs. Bennet is. “Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant,” the narrator of Northanger Abbey intones with heavy irony. “To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can” (110–111). A man of information is tactful and sensitive to others, too. The private or domestic sphere is, as Ann Bermingham notes, dialogically and dialectically connected with the public sphere.22 Austen’s novels are about the education or information of young ladies, young women: with their characteristic obliquity and indirection, they suggest what the well-formed man must be.

When Fanny Price arrives as a child of ten at Mansfield Park, her girl cousins call her stupid because she lacks the “real information” they can boast of having—hard facts about “the principal rivers in Russia,” “the chronological order of the kings of England,” and “a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers” (18–19). The standard education of girls—disparaged, by the way, in the description of Mrs. Goddard’s school in Emma—is scornfully detailed (p.232) here. Fanny’s cousin Edmund educates her by encouraging her natural “fondness for reading,” which his sisters seem to lack. He makes “reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heighten[ing] its attraction by judicious praise” (22). Julia and Maria, whose heads are stuffed in the course of their expensive “early information,” or education, are spoiled rotten, have no morals, and fail at life, but Fanny the reader succeeds, winning not only Edmund’s love but a student of her own, her sister Susan. Unlike Fanny, Susan is not interested in “information for information’s sake” (418), that is, disinterested reading. But although “the early habit of reading was wanting” in Susan, she proves to be teachable. With her to guide, Fanny joins a circulating library. “She became a subscriber—amazed at being any thing in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way; to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one’s improvement in view of her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself” (398). Jane Austen’s learned Latin wryly makes an educated masculine kind of fuss about Fanny’s excitement; meanwhile the girlish exclamation points make another kind.

Back in the unheated East Room at Mansfield Park, Fanny’s reading had included Crabbe’s poems, and Dr. Johnson’s The Idler, and Lord Macartney’s “big book” about China. Both Fordyce and Mrs. Chapone, in their conduct books, warned against novels: they recommended that young ladies read accounts of distant lands so as to gain a sense of the wider world and of the superiority of England. (Prints of scenes in India and Barbados were wildly popular; Byron’s travel poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was published two years before Mansfield Park.) Jane Austen herself read—in addition to poems and novels—sermons and Shakespeare and big books full of information—accounts of visits to China, the Hebrides, Iceland, India, Italy, and Spain. In a letter she reports on having found “Captain Pasley’s Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire” (1810) “highly entertaining” (Letters, 198–199). But surely it goes without saying that most of what Fanny and Susan chose and borrowed and discussed were novels, the staples of the circulating library. (According to Anne Mellor, three quarters of the books in such libraries were novels.23) Is the fact that novels are not mentioned along with biography and poetry as the reading of the Price sisters the narrator’s little joke?

(p.233) The vexed exchange, in the movie, between Emma and Jane about Frank might be read as a joke also, whether or not it was intended as one. In the film as in the novel, Jane Fairfax cannot be frank about Frank, and Frank himself cannot be frank, because the lovers share a secret engagement. Secretive, attractive Jane is Emma’s rival for the reader’s attention as well as the attention of the inhabitants of Highbury: like Emma we want information about her love life. But the novel does not give it to us; Emma refuses to oblige. The narrator, who fastidiously averts her eyes even from the chaste scene in which Emma accepts Mr. Knightley, absolutely refuses to consider telling Jane’s secret—the story of how and why she yielded to Frank, for money and also for love, in the first instance and the last. Although it teases us with lurid hints about Jane’s adultery with Mr. Dixon, the novel doesn’t begin to admit to concealing that truth. A lady, after all, doesn’t tell what goes on in the bedroom, or in the sexual imagination or consciousness—which is where the untold story of Jane and Frank took place. A lady who is a novelist, like a young woman who wishes to attach, must conceal as well as she can any knowledge she has of such matters. Indeed any well-bred novelist had to, in Austen’s time: Walter Scott, in The Bride of Lammermoor, is full of information about Scottish customs, but averts his eyes from the personal part of Ravenswood’s letter to Lucy Ashton, “which, however interesting to the lovers themselves, would afford the reader neither interest nor information.”24 We never find out how a virtuous, respectable, admirable girl like Jane was seduced into a secret engagement to a rich but unreliable, not quite respectable or moral young man, and how it came about that an ambitious man like Frank ventured to risk everything for love of her. The narrator of Emma gets nowhere near this young virgin’s sexual awareness, or sexual life, or for that matter her hankerings after Enscombe. She cannot do so because Jane Fairfax, a minor character, is a good and moral young lady, in this story, as Emma is a good and moral novel.

“Mystery; Finesse—how they pervert the understanding!” Mr. Knightley exclaims toward the novel’s end. “My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?” (446). But in fact what the novel serves to prove is that the mystery of human relations is endlessly charming. Emma stops short of making everything clear. To the extent that the heroine’s own love story is compelling it is because she keeps little secrets from Mr. Knightley and from herself— (p.234) and because she’s so keen on finding out about Jane, whom she suspects of sexual adventuring. The reader reads also to find out more about Jane—i.e., for information the novel refuses to give (but seductively points to). Jane Fairfax’s bland reply in Douglas McGrath’s film that all Frank’s statements seemed accurate, from which we tend to understand she thinks “information” is a matter of facts, is best understood, I think, as a little joke about the limits of language—and of Jane Austen’s novel. Emma’s view—it is articulated by Harriet!—that a man of information is a man who’s been improved into a gentleman by the process of reading women’s novels about love is comical. The novel in what would become the great tradition deliberately evades information about the sexual life at the core of its plot, a plot that’s compelling and powerful to the degree that that information is withheld. (Similarly, a coy “literary” film like McGrath’s must be elaborately and egregiously chaste.) In Jane Austen’s time as in ours, a story called, say, Emma, implicitly made a promise to be about relations between men and women. As the woman-centered novel “rose” from the hands of the likes of Eliza Haywood into bourgeois respectability and importance—as a Robert Martin’s upwardly mobile girlfriend began to browbeat him to improve himself by reading gothic novels—it became increasingly elliptical about its unspeakable subject matter.

The change in the meaning of the word “information” from “a mental process” to “important stuff out there” is parallel to another, more recent change that privileges “information for information’s sake” and encourages misplaced credulousness about the sources and the value of data. Jane Austen’s careful deployment of the word, as well as the quality of her attention to it, suggests that we ourselves might do well to think a little more about it. Developing the idea current in her time that “a man of information,” or an educated man, reads novels, Austen begins to suggest that novels are a source of intellectual enrichment precisely because they are non-instrumental, not useful like the Agricultural Reports or even novels like Lady Morgan’s, and Maria Edgeworth’s, and Walter Scott’s, which were chockablock with anthropological details about different kinds of places and people. Even all these years after Melville on whaling and Philip Roth on the manufacture of gloves, “classic” novels about relationships, most of them chaste, still are looked at as sources of truths you cannot find in books of information.25 Some readers of some kinds of books look there for explicit descriptions of what goes on in boardrooms and bedrooms—and kitchens, too—but most look (p.235) for something more inchoate, maybe themselves. Leah Price has noted that “in late-twentieth-century America … the intellectual superiority of novel-readers over non-novel-readers appears to be more uncritically accepted than in any other time or place.”26 As the well-chosen adverb implies, this might or might not be a good sign. (p.236)


(1.) Stuart M. Tave, Some Words of Jane Austen (Chicago, 1973), 30

(2.) Lolita”Nabokov’s Congeries, ed. Page Stegner (New York, 1968), 235

(3.) Graham Robb, Parisians (New York, 2010), 22–23

(4.) Most contemporary readers agree that Jane Austen must have meant the double entendre, but see John Wiltshire’s Introduction to Mansfield Park (2005) in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.

(5.) Sutherland’s chapter “Speaking Commas,” in Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood (Oxford, 2005)

(6.) I paraphrase Virginia Woolf’s well-known allegation; in A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen (Oxford 2004; 2007), 121, Richard Jenkyns—correctly, I think—maintains that Woolf is wrong here.

(7.) Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), I, I, ii. x, 40

(p.265) (8.) “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” in Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler (New York, 1989), 5:166

(9.) Daniel Cottom, The Civilized Imagination: A Study of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott (Cambridge, 1985), 112

(10.) Barbara M. Benedict, “Sensibility by the Numbers: Austen’s Work as Regency Popular Fiction,” in Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, ed. Deidre Lynch (Princeton, 2000), 72

(11.) Henry James, “English Writers: Anthony Trollope,” in James, Literary Criticism (New York, 1984), 1339

(12.) Emma Tennant, Emma in Love (New York, 1997), 85

(13.) Angela Thirkell, The Brandons (London, 1939), 13

(14.) Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (London, 1975; rev. ed., 1987), 251

(15.) Mark Schorer, “The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse” (1959), in Ian Watt, ed., Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays (New Jersey, 1963), 98–111

(16.) Fullerton, Jane Austen and Crime [Sydney, Australia, 2004], 14

(17.) LifeTrevor Ross, “The Emergence of ‘Literature’: Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century,” ELH 63.2 (1996): 397–422

(18.) A Tour in Ireland, with General Observations on the Present State of That Kingdom: Made in the Years 1776, 1777, and 1778Katie Trumpener, Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire (Princeton, 1997), 38

(19.) Charles Hoole, A New Discovery of an Old Art of Teaching Schoole (1660), quoted in D. S. Palmer, The Rise of English Studies (London, 1965), 10.

(20.) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, 1983)

(21.) Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, ed. Herbert Davis (London, 1959), IV, 4, 240

(22.) Ann Bermingham, “Elegant Females and Gentleman Connoisseurs: The Commerce in Culture and Self-Image in Eighteenth-Century England,” in The Culture of Consumption (1600–1800): Image, Object, Text, ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer (New York, 1995), 489–513

(p.266) (23.) Anne Mellor, citing Richard Altick, describes the readers and the contents of circulating libraries in Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780–1830 (Bloomington, 2000), 3–4; 88

(24.) Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), chapter 27

(25.) Mary McCarthy, “The Fact in Fiction” (1960), in On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946–1961 (New York, 1966), 249–270

(26.) Leah Price, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel (Cambridge, 2000), 5