Wednesday, June 1, 2011

For the Love of Leisure Time: Jane Austen's EMMA

Jane Austen is dangerous. I've just set down Emma and I must sew myself a muslin gown and put my hair up in curling papers. I need to drink tea in pretty china cups, cut thick slices of cake onto lovely saucers, and dab at my lips with a lace-edged handkerchief. Every time I finish an Austen novel, the same symptoms crawl out of dusty corners and smile their way into my psyche. Tomorrow I'll wake up and think, "Perhaps I'll take a walk into the ravine, let my eyes rest on something lush and green."

Or maybe just something lush. Like a gentleman in a smart jacket. If the visage of Austen's female world with its lace and picnic umbrellas draws me into the fantasy, it's her stout, restrained gentlemen—Darcy! Knightley!—who drown me in a vat of hope and longing.

It's disgusting! And once it's in, it's very hard to wash out.

Emma, Austen's fourth novel and the last to be published
in her lifetime, is a horrible antidote for any unemployed graduate with aspirations. Emma Woodhouse is "handsome, clever, and rich...with very little to distress or vex her." She is one of the luckier women in Regency England. With no financial constraints or pressure to marry, she's at leisure. When Emma wakes, what does Emma do? She pays visits to her neighbours and is graciously received with cake and tea (maybe scones with jam and clotted cream?); she sits in her parlour writing thank you notes and invitations (with a dip pen in beautiful longhand—"nobody could have written so prettily but you, Emma"); she hosts dinner parties and balls (dressed in lovely gowns gathered at the waist); and she enjoys snappy bits of conversation with lovely gentlemen. And of course she meddles, rather deliciously, in the love lives of others.

But these are such superficial pursuits. Just simple activities taken up by women trapped within the stifling confines of societal expectation. With too much time and little opportunity to offer her skills and intelligence in meaningful ways, Emma funnels her energy into imaginative pursuits; she plots the nuptials of ill-matched friends. Is this Austen's critique? Her sharp wit and irony revealing the unsavoury bits of her society? Ugh, maybe. But, please—is it really such a terrible existence? Austen's previous heroines, intelligent girls dependent on a "fine match" to clinch happy lives, wait in splendid circumstances for potential husbands. Psychologically, perhaps they're a little weary, but aesthetically they're very well off! And aesthetics—silk parasols and long walks through green gardens—can make a dull penny shine.

If today, I am a woman with ample opportunity and intelligence to pursue a financially independent life, why do I find the aesthetics of Emma's world so appealing? Why is her time spent in leisure, guilt free, such forbidden fruit for today's modern woman? Is it so terrible that I would like to look pretty and lounge? That I would like to go visiting and engage in sparkling conversation with ladies and gentlemen whose company I enjoy? Is it really such a bad thing that I would rather do this than update my resume? And wait for it...maybe I'd like to entertain neighbours over a cup of tea while my Darcy, Knightley, or Bingley gallops over the moors tending to our estate! Like Emma, I could take a turn about the garden and be thrilled to my fingertips when he declares his love to me. I could do all this and be quite content, couldn't I?

No. This is practically sacrilegious. I'm afraid I'm inflicting a terr
ible injustice on my sex by voicing these dark desires. I should want to go out into the smoke and ash of the world, crack my way through the brimstone, and emerge soiled and spent, but oh, so glorious. If I'm educated and intelligent, the modern world welcomes my endeavors. No, the world expects my contributions. What a waste of time, effort, and resources if I didn't contribute! Selfish! To dream of lolling through my days, finicky over feminine trifles! What a dash backwards for women.

In the introduction to my edition of Emma, Nicola Brown (University of North London) writes, "...there
is no doubt that the lives of the leisured women at this time were narrower than we can easily imagine. The apparent emptiness of the lives of these characters is games and gossip." Thus, Austen's women are intelligent but ultimately so restricted, they lead empty lives filled with silly gossip and silly games.

But Nicola, not just games and gossip! And oh, why say it with such disdain? Why fail to see the power and meaning in frivolity? What would a Jane Austen book be without its juicy parcels of gossip and misunderstandings? And those clever games are always rife with hidden meaning: what did he mean by that look?! Does he know something she doesn't?! Is there more to this man than meets the eye? Of course!!!

Have I been duped by the lovely pastels of an Austen adaptation where everything is green and good? Yes, quite likely. Positively. Would I truly be happy lolling about day in, day out, my future happiness dependent on whether or not I find a 'fine match'? Oh, shudder.
I can't ignore the screaming constraints of hierarchical class structure that rule Emma's life, nor can I shrug off the financial constraints that govern the dreams and wishes of Fanny, Lizzie, and Jane. The brimstone of the working world--its promise of exhaustion, of a day well spent--is not only alluring, it's necessary and fulfilling.

But like all these women (and the women of today who love these women) I enjoy dresses and balls and
cake and tea and reading and walking and romance...I enjoy these trinkets of leisure time because I know there is value in the minutiae of human interaction. Though the gossip and games may serve as filler in their lives, they also represent the myriad of connections between people, the importance of tiny exertions. A teatime visit, a knowing glance, a witty exchange—these female fancies are the little baubles in life that hold lasting meaning. They make us feel real and breakable; they make us human.

What to Eat:
You must pair this novel with a plate of soft, buttery scones and homemade (ie: Smuckers) strawberry jam. If you add a dollop of clotted cream and enjoy your tea in real china--bonus! Wear lace gloves.

Judging by the Cover...
Scandalous! That gentleman is proposing something unsavoury and she's all, "ah, sigh, how juvenile, but...strangely intriguing." Generally works as a representation of secret love and double meaning depicted in the novel but that man--ugh! Is that supposed to be Frank Churchill? Has Mr. Churchill no sense of propriety? Actually no, he doesn't. But still, the look in his eyes is too lusty and controlling, borderline creepy. Maybe I'm just misjudging the power of a romantic gaze? And really, is that supposed to be Emma? I hate her hair, all frizzy and sloppily piled up like she's going to mop the floor. Emma would never mop a floor.

From an illustration called Hearts are Trumps by George Goodwin Kilburne (1839-1924).

Images (respectively): Lady Estelle's Tea Corner, Squidoo, Edmund Blair Leighton, and Ian Britton.

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