With new curiosity, I recently began to reread Jane Austen’s Emma, her second last (major) novel, which she completed in 1817, two years before her death, at age 41. Like most of Austen’s readers, I instinctively guard a list of my favourite books, which hadn’t included Emma, following my first encounter with the novel four or five years ago, but this time, I intuit a maturity of thought in the author that I had previously overlooked, as I now imagine how Austen might have desired, by that point in her writing life, to pursue a little more liberty, exploring with freshness elements that we don’t readily find in her earlier works: the atmospheric beauty of an evening snowfall; the vivacious presence of young children; a widowed father who possesses the charm of the earlier Mr. Bennet while adding an elderly gentleness (without his predecessor’s sharp wit); and a heroine who, while her confidence and social meddling bring about blunders, exudes a loving kindness, especially, in her attentiveness to her father, a relationship that might have echoed Austen’s own fondness for her family.
As I read, I wonder if Austen might have had a double vision when she composed Emma, recalling her life as a young woman, while aware, at every stage of the writing, of her present moment, as an aging author? Was she looking backwards, reflecting on her life: pondering the wisdom of remaining single, without marriage and children (a circumstance that defines Emma, initially, while her sister, Isabella, has both); affirming her attachment to country life, described in loving detail; revealing her loneliness and longing for friendship (in the way that Emma mentors young Harriet); acknowledging the satisfaction of her sharp mind, while aware of its potential to lead one astray in moments of frailty; and savouring her power to perceive the world with subtly, including the ironic complexities of human relationships. Each of these elements intertwines so nicely in this late novel, I now see, as I (re)read with joy, in the evenings.
I admit that the circumference of my little library is narrow, as I anchor my mind in the nineteenth (and early twentieth) century, mainly in books with strong rural themes and settings. Prior to Emma, it was George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and before that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Recently, too, was E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, in which the gems of Florence intersect with quiet, English country life. The nineteenth century is remote and idyllic enough for me to forget the troubles of our present-day world, which aren’t what I wish to face when I read. Shouldn’t a book transport the mind? “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,” John Keats remarked, doubling the metaphor of reading as a journey with his image of “gold”: imaginative richness that comes with a book. Virginia Woolf, too, conceived of that possibility, when she asked, “What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something . . . so elastic,” she thought, “that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind,” the voyage of thought embracing not only her writing, perhaps, but also her reading.
While transporting myself to a different era, reaching beyond our present-day circumstances, I also let the “elastic” constrict, through a single century and similar settings, as I read all of the novels by one author and revisit each one multiple times: how does Emma’s Hartfield differ from (or resemble) Dorothea’s Middlemarch or Jane’s Thornfield Hall or Lucy’s Windy Corner? The books take me in lovely circles.
Is writing, too, intrinsically circular? Is Emma a former, younger Jane, while Jane, in the moment of writing, is old enough to tinge the story with a little regret: a hint of the melancholy edge of time? Should she have married, raised children, abandoned writing, pursued more friendships? Is the snow in this novel, while lovely, an icy undercurrent of sadness, unlike the eternal springs, summers, and autumns that we find in the earlier novels, which no longer stand in as the sole or principal seasons? While she composed Emma, might Austen have thought in circles, and is that pattern of thought inevitable for all of us as writers, as we wrestle with the implacable march of time?
Either way, I will return to Emma, tonight.
Suzanne Stewart writes in Nova Scotia, where she also teaches at St. Francis Xavier University. Her book The Tides of Time: A Nova Scotia Book of Seasons was published by Pottersfield Press.