It was a delightful visit—perfect, in being much too short.
The first time I ever read a Jane Austen novel, I had no idea what I was getting into. The book was Sense and Sensibility, and I began it immediately after finishing Lolita. My dear reader, I hope you never suffer such a complete literary shock; it was like being pushed into a pool on a cold winter’s day. After such scandal, such literary rhapsody and tragedy, such depravity and bliss as found in dear Humbert’s tale, how could I get engrossed in the quiet lives of English gentlewomen trying to marry? I expected that I was in for a great bore of a book; but, strange to say, by the time I put that book down, I found myself rather engrossed. Though infinitely more quiet and tame than Nabokov, Austen’s book had worked its odd magic, and I was left with a pleasant aftertaste.
It’s hard for me to say or write anything about Austen without feeling somehow indecent, boorish, crude, coarse. Writing a review of her books is like writing a review of a flower—the flower doesn’t care a whit, and neither would Austen. Austen would have done the same exact thing if she had read every negative review, had overheard every negative comment; like a flower, she simply was. Good thing, too, because she has been often maligned. Consider this famous quote from Emerson:
I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. . . . Suicide is more respectable.
Such negative opinions are not confined to the past. One of my friends, an avid reader with normally excellent taste, absolutely refuses to open an Austen novel; he can’t be talked into it. Another friend, of similarly dependable taste, read Austen and hated it. I recently asked him why, to which he responded: “It’s like she thinks she’s so smart and so clever; as if she just writes about people to make fun of them, and thinks everyone she has ever met is an absolute dunce.”
I think there is certainly some truth in that assessment. To be sure, there is something pinched, something condescending, something critical about her books. She was not a writer of great range, nor an artist of great depth; so it seems odd (to say the least) to place her name besides Tolstoy and Shakespeare, as a world-class author. How could she be? Yet this is her magic. So subtle is her greatness, that beside her, other authors seem a bit obvious, a tad clumsy. If all the great geniuses of the past were gathered in one room, some would be arguing, some laughing, some weeping; and Austen would be sitting in the corner, suppressing a smile.
At her best, Austen is a paradox. She is intensely satirical; yet no satirist was ever more gentle, sympathetic, and kind. She is both engrossed and detached from her surroundings; she is able to offer a cultural critique, a comedy of manners, showing how narrow and superficial were the customs of her day, while still being open to the possibility that one could reach the highest happiness within the confines of those customs. She is painfully aware of the defects in people’s personalities, and yet can accept them with an almost saint-like readiness. All of her stories are tiny and tidy enough to take place on the head of a pin; yet this pin is pointed, like an arrow, towards the stars.
This particular novel, however, is a bit of a departure for Miss Austen. Normally, Austen’s characters do not loom large; they are likable, but forgettable. The main interest comes, instead, from the anthropological detail, the wonderful wit, the driving logic of the story. This novel is different. Instead of being driven by the inexorable machinery of plot, it is driven forward by the titular character, Emma Woodhouse. Miss Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich,” is a flesh-and-blood character; she has whims, aspirations, fancies, and moods. We spend an awful lot of time in her head, following the train of her thoughts; and when we are in society with her, we are her co-conspirators, scheming along.
This is interesting, and Emma is good company. But Austen is not quite up to the task of a character study. For everything gained in depth, Austen must sacrifice crispness and cleverness. The novel is too diffuse and windy; it is not, like Pride and Prejudice, a polished gem, but an untidy portrait. There are two conflicting elements at play: the character-driven, and the plot-driven story. In the first half of the book, Emma is at the reigns; she directs the action, and we stand back and observe the farce. But in the second half, Austen resumes control, and the chaos of Emma’s schemes resolves itself into a neat picture. Well, not quite neat, as the resolutions are not as relieving or believable as in her other stories. It is almost as if Austen gave up on Miss Woodhouse somewhere near the end, exasperatedly shoving her out of the driver’s seat.
Still, this is an excellent book, and I had a great time. After I finished reading, I watched the 1996 movie version with Gwyneth Paltrow (which was surprisingly good) with a friend of mine. Because my friend was unacquainted with the story, I had to keep pausing to explain the subtleties of what was going on—who was from what social class, who was trying to accomplish what end, who thought what of whom, and so on. And in the course of one of these clarifications, I realized how astoundingly rich this novel was, as are all Austen’s novels. Austen makes you feel like you’re back in high school, gossiping about crushes and drama, while simultaneously making you feel like you're infinitely above gossiping; and these two feelings, so apparently incompatible, are what make her so charming.