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|Is Emma ever going to learn from past mistakes? (long)
Written by Kathleen Glancy
(3/4/2011 2:32 p.m.)
We are well over half-way through the book, and so far I am not wholly satisfied with her progress. She has made some improvements, but still remains to be convinced that she doesn't know everything, and to learn that her fantasies are not always going to turn into facts, and she still shows right up to the end of Chapter 43 that disposition to think a little too well of herself that the narrator told us about in Chapter 1.
She is, as we begin, convinced that Frank Churchill is in love with her, though she plans to refuse if he offers and would rather he didn't, and that she was a bit in love with him but is no longer. She was so much in love that she decided, on the basis of a passing, polite and conventional mention in one of Frank's letters to Mrs Weston, that he might fall in love with Harriet once he gets over Emma and that this would be a good thing. As for him, his behaviour is so odd - I might say shifty - that I would not be entirely confident about his supposed affection. Will it ever occur to her she could be wrong?
I will say for Emma that she behaves very well at the Crown Ball, and Mr Knightley behaves even better. It would of course be rather hard for them not to appear to advantage against the appalling behaviour of the Eltons.
But, oh dear, it doesn't last. Frank Churchill saves Harriet from harrassment by some gypsies in Chapter 39 and off goes Emma "Such an adventure as this, -- a fine young man and a lovely young woman thrown together in such a way, could hardly fail of suggesting certain ideas to the coldest heart and the steadiest brain. So Emma thought, at least. Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together, and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other? How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight! especially with such a ground-work of anticipation as her mind had already made". A mathematician might have calculated the odds of (a) Frank Churchill coming to the rescue of any lady in these circumstances, and (b) the odds of his falling in love with the lady provided she was young and pretty, and concluded that there were too many variable and unknown factors for (b) to be an automatic consequence of (a). But then of course mathematicians deal in hard facts, not already conceived fantasies.
It hardly seems to occur to Emma that a Frank/Harriet romance could not possibly end well. She must know the kind of woman Mrs Churchill is, that she would violently disapprove of the illegitimate daughter of someone who may or may not be a gentleman as a match for her adopted son. And as there was no formal adoption in those days the Churchills (Mrs C appears to dominate her husband)could disinherit Frank as easily as they took him in if he married against their wishes. Emma is usually very rank-conscious, but is almost wilfully blind to Harriet's real prospects. Has she learned anything from the Elton fiasco?
Yes, she has a little. In Chapter 40 she refrains from the sort of wrong assurances she gave over Mr Elton and acknowledges there will be difficulties - says they won't even name the man - and says she will not interfere. Her advice is not as bad as it was before. Except that she is assuming the man in question is Frank - it may be, but more than one gentleman has rendered Harriet a service in the recent past and it might have been better if she had named names. And she can't stop herself from adding "But yet, Harriet, more wonderful things have taken place, there have been matches of greater disparity". And oh dear again - "Emma was very decided in thinking such an attachment no bad thing for her friend. Its tendency would be to raise and refine her mind -- and it must be saving her from the danger of degradation". Degradation presumably meaning Mr Martin. Yes, obviously it would be much better for Harriet to pine in vain for a gentleman than marry a decent man who only Emma regards as ineligible for her.
And in Chapter 41 she makes only a feeble attempt to stop Frank Churchill from putting the letters for Dixon before Jane Fairfax. She says "No, no, you must not; you shall not, indeed.", but she says it laughingly. She should have said it sternly - and also grabbed the X out of his hand and kept hold of it. And she is back to pronouncing her opinions as if they were proven facts. When Mr Knightley voices his suspicions of some relationship between Frank and Jane she says "They are as far from any attachment or admiration for one another, as any two beings in the world can be. That is, I presume it to be so on her side, and I can answer for its being so on his. I will answer for the gentleman's indifference."
Of course she can't really do either. Her belief in Jane's indifference goes back to her grubby little Dixon/Jane fantasy, to which she still clings though at least she does not share it with Mr Knightley as she did with Frank, and she does not know what Frank is thinking any more than we do. Mr Knightley must imagine from the way she speaks that Frank has made some declaration to her, but we know he has not.
She behaves really well in Chapter 42, showing real empathy and genuine concern for Jane Fairfax. Sadly any hope for continued improvement is rather wiped out by Box Hill. First she flirts with Frank Churchill without ever considering whether this spectacle might be painful for Harriet, for whom she still intends him. Then comes her insult to Miss Bates, and - what is actually worse - she promptly forgets about it until Nemesis in the form of Mr Knightley reminds her. Then she recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off. Recollected! She should have been sorry as soon as the words were out of her mouth. However, there are at least signs that she is indeed sorry now, more than she has ever been before, and if her tears of repentance translate into actions perhaps all hope of her learning her lesson is not lost.
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