I very much enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home. It is exactly what the title suggests: a description of all the houses Jane Austen lived in or visited and the life she led there. Because Lucy is a proper historian, we are spared ‘possibly’, ‘probably’ and ‘we can imagine how’, which ruin so many biographies for me. It’s written in a very lively style which anyone could enjoy and has some good anecdotes. My favourite is one about Tennyson. When visiting Lyme Regis, he was invited to view some interesting spot or other and cried, ‘No! Take me to the Cobb, that I may see the steps down which Louisa Musgrove fell!’ Tennyson was also a great admirer of Charlotte M Yonge, so he had good taste. It wasn’t until I was looking at the photos in this book that I remembered a television programme Lucy did on the same subject, at one point pacing out the outlines of the long-demolished Steventon Rectory where Jane Austen lived for so long. You only have to compare that programme with the truly terrible one which Gyles Brandreth did recently to see the difference between proper, historical biography and misleading rubbish.
After finishing Jane Austen at Home my plan was to re-read all Jane Austen’s novels, one after the other, something I’d never done before. I decided to read them in backwards (for me) order, moving from the least to the most often read. This meant starting with Northanger Abbey.
Northanger Abbey is a novel about growing up, in which teenaged Catherine visits Bath with a rich friend of the family and comes back a changed girl. I don’t buy this as a satire on the Gothic novels of the time (e.g. Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho). Rather, it is a fable about the effects of such reading on an impressionable girl, who reads gothic horror much as today’s teenagers might read the Twilight novels. (Note though, that Jane Austen doesn’t condemn the books as such). In Bath, Catherine meets handsome Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. She falls for him and is thrilled to be invited to their home, the mysterious-sounding Northanger Abbey. Once there, she has a number of foolish misunderstandings, based on her reading. In spite of this, brother and sister like her very much. When Catherine’s Bath ‘friend’ Isabella throws over Catherine’s brother for Henry’s, showing her true character, Henry satirically describes her: ‘open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise’ ‘Such a sister-in-law, Henry, I should delight in,’ said Eleanor with a smile.’ He has been describing Catherine. Jane Austen makes it clear that Henry would not have thought of Catherine as a wife if she had not so obviously admired him first. This, and his father’s appalling treatment of her on learning that she is not, as he had imagined, an heiress, explain why he turns up at Catherine’s home to offer his hand. To us, Catherine seems ridiculously young to be married and not Henry’s intellectual equal but he is sensible, she is loving and already used to parsonage life, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t do very well together.
Persuasion is so often described as ‘autumnal’, ‘elegiac’, almost as if Jane Austen had written her own epitaph. It is a beautiful book, in rather the way that Great Expectations is a beautiful book but we shouldn’t read too much into its bitter-sweetness. Jane Austen couldn’t have known when she wrote it that she would die young and not write another finished book. It is many people’s favourite but not mine. Sense and Sensibility I actually found hard to get through. Marianne is so tiresome, Elinor so good, Edward so feeble etc. etc. Marianne has to be tamed by grief and illness to appreciate the qualities of Colonel Brandon. Elinor has to suffer by believing that she has been deceived by Edward, then accept his explanation and marry him anyway. I’m not convinced.
My gripe about Mansfield Park, a great novel, is that so many other readers can’t be doing with Fanny Price, whom they see as feeble and not worthy of being the book’s heroine. Wrong! Fanny is the toughest character in the novel. Consider her position: penniless, dependent upon an uncle she sincerely respects but cannot love, constantly abused by Mrs Norris. Then handsome, lively Henry Crawford callously decides to make Fanny fall in love with him, only to find himself genuinely in love with her. Unlike everyone else (particularly her cousin Edmund), Fanny has seen through Henry and Mary Crawford and knows their morals are not what they should be. She is also, as Jane Austen openly states, protected from Henry’s advances because her heart has long been another’s: Edmund’s, little though he suspects it. She holds out against her uncle’s displeasure and is sent to stay for a while with her family in Portsmouth. Surrounded by dirt and disorder, not made very welcome by her own relations, she is still able to resist Henry when he visits her there; the gentlemanly, wealthy man who could have taken her away from such a life for ever. When scandal ensues, Fanny is the only character in the book who gets what she has always wanted: marriage to Edmund. I see Edmund and Fanny as modernisers. When he takes up his parish with her beside him, it’s a hint that the old squirearchy, as represented by the late Mr Norris and Dr Grant is coming to an end and will be replaced by clergy with genuine religious feeling and care for their flock.
What can one say about Pride and Prejudice? It’s a brilliant fantasy, full of humour and unforgettable scenes and the model for almost every romantic novel written since. My favourite events take place in Derbyshire, where Elizabeth is on a tour with her uncle and aunt. Mr Darcy visits her at the inn and finds her very distressed after receiving the shocking news about Lydia and Wickham. ‘Good God, what is the matter?’ he cries. This is the sexiest thing in the whole book. Elizabeth’s later smart ripostes to Lady Catherine de Burgh are superb, if unlikely and allow Darcy to hope that she will change her mind about him. She does, of course, and she and Jane end up with the happiness they deserve. It is all highly unlikely and utterly delightful. Jane Austen called the book ‘her darling child’ and Dickens felt the same way about David Copperfield, although he didn’t put it like that. Interesting that in each case their personal favourite was not their best book.
And so we come to my number one: Emma. It’s always been my favourite but I used to think that Mansfield Park was the better book. I’ve completely changed my mind and now think Emma not only my favourite and Austen’s best but just about as perfect as a novel can be. There are many reasons for this. All the action takes place in or around the village of Highbury. People do travel but always offstage; we don’t go with them. I always like to see the unities followed. There is no melodrama. No near-death illnesses (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion). No elopements (Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park). No abductions (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice). No real villains. Frank Churchill behaves badly but he is no Willoughby or Wickham. Mrs Elton is detestably vulgar but not as heartless as Mrs Dashwood, Lucy Steele or Isabella Thorpe. There are no titled characters. In short, nothing happens in Emma that could not happen in an English village; it is grounded in real life.
Jane Austen described Emma, ‘handsome, clever and rich’, as a heroine no one would like but herself. When the book begins, Emma is lonely because her long-term companion has left to be married, although still living nearby. We see first her good side, her kindness to and patience with her tiresome old father but as soon as Harriet Smith appears, we see her tendency to meddle and, (like Mr Knightley, who is always right), we can see that she is wrong. It’s very clever of Jane Austen to make us sympathise with a character who makes mistakes and occasionally behaves badly, as she does to Miss Bates at Box Hill.
The whole book is beautifully plotted. Quite near the beginning, Mr Knightley says he would like to see Emma in love and not sure of a return. In a brilliant twist, at the end he fears that she has fallen for Frank Churchill and may be heartbroken to know that he has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax all the time. He has his wish and doesn’t like it at all! Now he knows that the reason he has never liked Frank Churchill is plain jealousy. At about the same time, Emma listens in horror as Harriet, whom she herself has encouraged to look above her station, says she believes Mr Knightley to be interested in her. In a flash of self-knowledge, Emma realises that ‘Mr Knightley should marry nobody but herself!’ It’s taken the pair the whole book to realise what the reader has known from the start; that they are made for one another. Take this exchange, at a ball. ‘Whom are you going to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley.
She hesitated a moment and then replied, ‘With you if you will ask me … we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.’
‘Brother and sister! No, indeed.’
Similarly, after the first reading, you can see the clues to the secret arrangement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax; they’re all there from the start. The writing is brilliant and the whole book very funny. After Emma has been teasing him, as so often, ‘Mr Knightley seemed trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs Elton’s beginning to talk to him.’ Or, when Mr Woodhouse has been expatiating on the unwholesomeness of wedding cake (as of so many other things) and thinks that his medical man, Mr Perry, agrees with him: ‘There was a strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of Mrs Weston’s wedding cake in their hands: but Mr Woodhouse would never believe it.’
Quite apart from all this ‘Mozartian brilliance’ as Sebastian Faulks cleverly called it, Emma is the most satisfactory of the novels because it ends in the most equal of all the marriages. Emma and Mr Knightley are both rich, of similar social standing and highly intelligent. There is very little they don’t know about each other. Which is why, when Jane Austen assures us in the last sentence of ‘the perfect happiness of the union’, we believe her.
I wrote something about Emma back in 2009