—Written on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
Emma is a river in which its characters bump and bang against themselves and one another in a journey of sentimental education whose primary but unexpected goal is self-awareness. Experiential education drives character development,and we discover that although the novel, like the world it depicts, appears superficially engrossed in one's relationship with others, its heart is primarily concerned with one's relationship with one's self. This is a relationship that, according to this novel, can be educated into harmony and authenticity primarily by first-hand experience of the world. Once the relationship with the inner world of the self is seen clearly, the relationship with the outer world of other people flows naturally as a matter of course.
Life at Hartfield is a vertical wine tasting for our antiheroine Emma Woodhouse, a young lady whom life educates from disharmony into harmony with both herself and with the world around her in the course of the novel. Hartfield is, at first glance, stultifyingly boring, and that is its greatest strength. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and only a few people around to talk to, some of them skull-crushingly stupid and tedious. But part of Jane Austen's genius is her “little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush,”1 that allows her characters a focussed environment in which to learn about life and what really matters. If Emma could have gone scuba-diving in the Alboran Sea as an oceanographer, we her readers could never have experienced how her misadventures teach her the paramount essentiality of self-awareness as the epicentre of maturity.
Formal education in Emma is an establisher of rank in the mating race. Part of what makes little Harriet enjoyably inferior (in Emma's estimation) to Emma herself is that she has been educated at a boarding house. Emma herself has been aristocratically educated by a private governess according to the standards of the day, which doesn't mean much. As befits a gentlewoman, she is “accomplished” without being truly informed. She has no in-depth mastery of any discipline which could inform her life's journey. She has bright easy smatterings of literary familiarity but “has been planning to read more ever since she was twelve years old.”2 She can play the piano and sing, but not well. She knows how to draw, but not well, and lacks discipline in all endeavours:
“She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to. She played and sang;—and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of. She was not...sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.”3
She can write a fine hand, but has been protected from exposure to any ideas that could give her something incendiary to write about. She can run Hartfield, and she can foolishly bollocks up other people's love lives. She can be bright and clever at parties but has not yet learned that compassion outweighs easy heartlessness and reserve is a greater conversational stock than nastiness. Formal education gave Emma a shellac of respectability but never touched the depth of real life for her, and at the start of the novel, she is someone who has always lived at the most superficial level of consciousness and never had to pause, listen, and learn to operate from her roots up.
Jane Fairfax, Emma's esteemable opposite, purportedly doomed for governesshood, has allowed formal education to direct her first-hand accumulation of wisdom, and this fertile nexus has made her a more mature, deeper, and more admirable character than Emma. Although Jane's poverty devalues her as marriage meat, her mastery of her education bumps her up a few notches. Jane, unlike Emma, took her musical education and ran with it: she has talent, skill, and taste. Jane is a real artist, because she took the suggestions formal education offered and put in the time and slow personal effort that turns knowledge into wisdom. Consequently, her musical awareness of life informs a character that is wiser than Emma's and lives more in harmony with herself and her environment. Unfortunately for Jane, she lives in England in 1815, and as a poor woman, she can only sell herself as a governess or sell herself as a wife for the dishonourable schlemozzel Frank Churchill. A social censure of reality for women at the time...and little has changed in two hundred years.
Emma's governess, now Mrs. Weston, offers her two separate educations, one worth little except for its label, and one far more valuable. As Emma's governess, Mrs. Weston gave her the official external veneer of gentlewomanliness that befitted her public station. But as her elder friend and mentor, Mrs. Weston gives her a lifetime of compassionate guidance and acts as a wiser, better-informed sounding board to support and focus Emma's youthful exploration of life. This is the real education that aids Emma's private internal development.
The education that others give you puts you somewhere on a social ladder but isn't otherwise worth much. (This is still true.) The education you give yourself is what matters. The knowledge gained second-hand from formal education is therefore, important socially to others but secondary to wisdom gained first-hand, which benefits the private individual. Who you are to others is a shell. Who you are to yourself is the person who fills the shell. Defining the shell is easy. Coming to harmonious terms with who's inside the shell takes a lifetime.
Formal education forms the epithelial layer of a character. But experiential education forms the meat and bones underneath. Since women have always been judged based on their appearance, it makes sense that formal education would be given lip service as being what “matters,” and it does matter in an economic sense, as a stepping-stone toward marriage and consequently away from destitution. But all of Jane Austen's books put their heroines' internal maturation odysseys at the centre of their plots, and only after the young women grow into themselves as mature, free-standing individuals, do they then marry. So according to Jane Austen, if you haven't learned life the hard way, you haven't learned at all, and union with another cannot be truly comic unless you go into it with an independent mind, a unique voice, and a mature understanding of life. When supporting cast members in her books try to do otherwise, they invariably end up with unsatisfactory marriages.
Little Harriet, an unfortunate pawn, reminds us uncomfortably of our own adolescent bumps and scrapes of the heart. It would be great if we could all be born knowing how to love wisely and in accordance with our own unique identities. It would also be great if we could all be born knowing how to walk—but any toddler will tell you that the only way to learn how to walk is try hard and fall down a lot. You can't learn walking from a book, any more than you can learn character from a formal education. What Harriet learns through experience is how to get back to listening to her own voice instead of those of others. As is often true of children, she initially knows how to listen to her inner voice. She initially thinks Robert Martin, an excellent choice for her, is the most wonderful man in the world and wants to be his sweetheart. Where she errs, as we all do, is when she learns to doubt her own voice and listen to those of others—in this case, that of Emma, foolishly trying to pair her off with Mr. Elton and then with Frank Churchill. But over the course of the novel, her romantic misadventures and her exposure to other people teach her not just to value hearing her own heart, but to how speak with her own voice. Thanks in part to being chagrined in Emma's misguided matches for her, and thanks in part to Emma's own education of her into a less mousy, smarter, more sophisticated young lady, Harriet develops into someone who can tell her idol, Emma, the contents of her own secret heart and stand by them. She likes Mr. Knightley! All by herself, without Emma telling her to do so! By telling Emma this, Harriet regains her earlier unconscious independence of voice, but now it is evolved, more self-aware, and more rooted in her belief in herself as a freestanding individual. And when Mr. Knightley fortunately doesn't work out, she returns to the man she was written for with a love that now has its eyes open, a more mature love now informed by her experiences with others. The love of a child has been replaced by that of the love of a woman.
Jane Fairfax's story reflects grim social reality. Her already mature and beautiful character grows by suffering but still does not get a happy ending. She gets knocked about by other, more childish people throughout the book, most notably her own fiancé and Emma, although as a poor woman her residence, her holidays, her company, and her very life are dictated by the whim of others. Her sentimental education in the course of the novel takes her from being an innocent woman who falls in love with and becomes betrothed to a man she meets at the seaside, to being sidelined, maligned, teased, ignored, humiliated, mocked, neglected, pitied, taunted, and continually ill-treated. Churchill (and Emma too although more unconsciously) tramples all over her tender feelings throughout the course of the book. Jane sadly learns the unfair side of love. And then, helpless in the hands of her ruthless author, she marries Frank anyway. Frank is not totally unevolved by the book's end; he does write a long apologetic letter. But he is still what Mr. Knightley calls “the favourite of fortune.”4
The reason Jane Austen believed Emma was “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”5 is the reason we do like her: she is a celebration of growing up. When we meet her, she is a child. See sees as a child. She speaks as a child. She acts, most definitely, as a child. And it comes back to bite her hard. As a child, she sees only fragments of Mr. Elton and of Harriet, and makes Harriet suffer by trying to set her up with a man whom she proves better off without. As a child sees, she snobbishly shuns Harriet's ideal and desired suitor Robert Martin and interferes with their appropriate and would-be-felicitous pairing-off. As a child speaks, she gangs up with noxious Frank Churchill and teases Jane Fairfax about her childishly-assumed liaison with Mr. Dixon in public. As a child speaks, she publicly shames the less-fortunate Miss Bates with no noblesse oblige at all. And time and again, her old buddy Mr. Knightley, who sees and speaks as an adult, sets her straight. But they cannot properly fall in love and behave to one another as man and woman until her humiliation of Miss Bates makes him reprimand her and she finally sees as an adult, sees the error of her ways, and speaks as an adult, paying a visit of contrition to the older woman. Only once she has done this does he raise her hand to his lips and...not quite kiss it. (It's a start.) And then once Harriet professes her infatuation with Mr. Knightley, the scales really fall from Emma's eyes. Finally, after almost a whole novel has gone by, she realizes that she is the right woman for Mr. Knightley, and that thanks to her own actions, she has probably ruined her chances of winning him. As her later incarnation Cher says, “I was just totally clueless.”6 This essential moment of recognition makes possible the comic reparations that ensue. Now that she has a clue, and sees life as it is, she can act in harmony with it.
Emma's love for Mr. Knightley spurs her adaptive capacity for growth. She wants to be the woman he wants to be with, and his words and actions compel her to evolve. Initially, Emma sees through a glass, darkly. But thanks to her first-hand experience of love between her greatest teacher, Mr. Knightley, and herself—even though for much of the book she doesn't recognize it for what it is—she learns how to grow up. The characters in the book with childish understandings of life are those who do not evolve, and who can only see from one perspective. Emma's ability to learn from her mistakes and to evolve based on fresh perspective is what makes her into a real woman, finally able to receive and reciprocate the love Mr. Knightley has been slowly incubating for her since she was a tender stripling. And once his duckling is now a swan and he professes his love for her, she, for perhaps only the third time in the book (after apologizing to Miss Bates and hearing out Harriet's crush on Mr. Knightley), speaks perfectly truly. “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” 7 The sentimental education that shows her that she has royally messed up everyone's life and most especially her own is the education that forms her adult understanding of life, which in turn creates from her raw material a woman who sees with clear vision, speaks with compassion, and acts according to her own inner truth.
Self-knowledge draws us into harmony with life outside ourselves. For once we are true to ourselves, we cannot be false to any man. This is why Emma's Tao of wisdom learned from personal experience is the most significant educational theme of Emma.
1“Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others,” Ed. R.W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 469
6“Clueless,” Miramax 1995