Commonplace: Jane Austen’s Emma and Mr. Woodhouse’s Crime

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Rereading Austen is always fun, and Emma particularly so, not least – as P.D. James pointed out – because so much of the pleasure of that novel involves reading both the hidden and the explicit plots alongside each other, which you can only do once you know the twist.  This time around a couple of things caught my eye about the early pages, and the one I’d like to discuss in this post is concerned with perspective.

Mr. Woodhouse’s obsession with his own health and comfort comes across as more and more culpable every time I open the novel.  The first few times I read or saw the story he seemed a necessary establishing character, like Cher’s hardworking but absent father in Clueless, and a mere relict of the missing mother who provides space for Emma to take over the estate make her own mistakes.  He apparently stood in the direct line which ran through Menander and Ben Jonson: a comic old man with a monomania who gets in the way of the young people’s desire to remake society in their own image.  His stated antipathy to marriage makes this appearance even stronger, lending him the air of a “blocking” character from the same tradition, an impediment to the romantic plot which will work itself out in ways which transmit money and family lineage safely and legitimately to the next generation (to pick one particularly conservative model of comedy.)

However, rather like Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Woodhouse is pretty strongly condemned for his failure to command his own household and live up to the demands of his role.  The “space” which the incompetent or lazy or introverted paterfamilias provides to an Austen’s heroine is also a gap in the protection afforded her by society against exploitation or danger.  Because Mr. Bennet is a relatively attractive character who is surrounded by gossipy people and prefers the quiet of his library and the conversation of a young woman who has definite ideas – all surely calculated to appeal to many modern readers of the novel – I think we can sometimes overlook his dereliction of duty.  It is not just an over-scrupulous conscience which makes him blame himself when one of his daughters elopes with a man whose last romantic adventure involved trying to marry a fifteen year-old girl in order to financially exploit her.  Of course Mr. Bennet then goes to another extreme, execrating the social networks which he has shunned for an easy life, and declaring his intention to impose a positively Puritan lifestyle on his family.

Mr. Woodhouse’s care for his own person is rather like Mr. Bennet’s for his comfort and his quiet hours in the library.  He is, as the narratorial voice informs us, “a much older man in ways than in years” and though amiable, “his talents could not have recommended him at any time”.  He is basically pointless and of no use to anyone else.  It’s a surprisingly harsh judgement, and one which reminds us that being nice isn’t a virtue which Austen’s novels rate particularly highly.  Certainly not in those who have a duty to others, and whose indulgence of their own pleasantness can have disastrous consequences.  My students are often surprised at how conservative Austen can be when you stop and examine her, and I know the feeling… Her world’s scorn for a desire for personal comfort at the expense of one’s proper place in society suddenly jumped out in Persuasion when I realized that Anne Elliot is horrified that her father can be happy in apartments in Bath, that he isn’t snobbish enough to be appalled at the drop in his circumstances.  Though she’s often read as exalting love over social convention and social position, Austen can be damning to those who find themselves at the top and exert themselves only to enjoy the situation.

There’s another flaw lurking in Emma’s father, which I think I totally misread in the past.  Mr. Woodhouse’s dislike of marriages, Christmas parties and rich foods is well attested in the book: when Miss Taylor has been Mrs. Weston for quite some time he is still remarking when she visits them “poor Miss Taylor.  She would be very glad to stay”, and he cannot believe the “story” he hears that the doctor’s children were seen eating wedding cake.  I’ve always seen this as the monomania of humours comedy – even more so because he is literally concerned with his humours, or at least his health – but there’s a telling aside that it stems from “his habits…of never being able to suppose that other people could feel differently from him”.  This is an actual vice in Austen, I think.  In her work, which is so concerned with the way we recognise and misrecognise others, and the potential of novels to expand the range of a reader’s sympathies, the inability to imagine someone else having seriously different thoughts verges on a crime.  It’s a trait which Emma herself comes very close to at times, and Mr. Woodhouse is introduced early in the novel as an illustration of the persistent lack of imaginative sympathy which nearly derails people’s lives throughout the book.  His daughter’s glib assumption of the right to map, inhabit and direct other people’s psyches – and love lives – is only a transposition of Mr. Woodhouse’s characteristic flaw into another key.  Perhaps we can read the novel as partly about her lucky escape from becoming as narrow and obsessive as her father by a process of moral and emotional education.  Of course the way that education takes place is another matter…

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