The Group has now looked at chapter one of Emma; we have decided that, rather than go through the novel chapter by chapter, as we were almost obliged to do by the episodic nature of The Rainbow, we should begin the next session, on 24 October, by when we hope to have read the first twelve chapters. We hope by then to have some idea, first, of what has happened in the story so far, and second, what we have learned by reading it.
It will have taken us to the point when Isabella and her husband, John Knightley, together with their five children and assorted servants, are visiting Mr Woodhouse and Emma at Hartfield, as they do from time to time. They live sixteen miles away, in London, too far for ‘frequent intercourse’. At the end of chapter twelve Mr Woodhouse is trying to tell John Knightley that he should not have gone to Southend on holiday: he should have taken the family to Cromer. The next chapter brings us to 24 December, the first great turning point in the plot (you can read further if you like!).
In the first four chapters we have met most of the characters who populate the book; we know something of the geography of the area: Highbury is a village; Hartfield, Mr Woodhouse’s estate, is within the parish; so is Mr and Mrs Weston’s home, Randalls, half a mile from Hartfield; Mr Knightley, John Knightley’s elder brother, lives at Donwell Abbey, the centre of a large landed estate, only a mile away but in the next parish.
We should by now know that Emma is twenty years old, Harriet Smith is seventeen and very pretty, Mr Knightley is probably thirty seven, and Mr Weston is probably forty something and has a marriageable son; Mr Elton, the relatively new vicar of Highbury, who in the very first few pages we learn has just married Mr and Mrs Weston, is about twenty six, good looking and, like most of the cast of characters, not married. He also has a private income of some sort.
There is very little sensuous description in this section but a great deal of generalisation about appearance, manners and property. We should probably look at examples of this kind of description, as well as picking out the places where the author wants us to feel more involved – often to do with coldness, heat or comfort – and she needs for our sakes to be more explicit and to stimulate us in a slightly different way.
By the end of chapter twelve we should have realised, if we had thought about it at all, that the frequent (particularly American) view that Emma is about class and class distinction is quite wrong. What Austen calls ‘the set’, the people whose lives are key to the whole story, are people that would now perhaps be described as ‘landed gentry’, but their other immediate relationships are with people we would now think of as middle class; where there is distinction it takes the form of snobbery. Look carefully at the biography of Mr Weston in chapter two: ‘a native of Highbury’. Almost everyone else works for somebody and is virtually ignored.
Finally, we should always look back at the author’s defining statements about the characters, especially in chapter one, especially the very first sentence, as well as the discursion about Mr Woodhouse while Emma is thinking about Mrs Weston: ‘The evil of the actual disparity in their ages… a valetudinarian all his life… his talents could not have recommended him at any time’. Look at the whole paragraph – Jane Austen loves the character but wants to undermine it all the time. Does anyone know what ‘valetudinarian’ means? Jane Austen is being a bit cynical here as well as accurate.