notes on jane austen's emma



~6 min read


1177 words

A few of the passages from Jane Austen’s Emma that I found particularly memorable / thought provoking / beautiful.

On the unsettling power of imagination

Throughout the novel, the reader is both comforted with the illusion of a cosy rural community of familiar figures, and unsettled by the realization that these figures have been constructed by the individual imagination, working only with hints from other fictional characters.

On how expectations evolve with age

What is passable in youth, is detestable in later age. Mr. Martin is now awkward and abrupt; what will he be at Mr. Weston’s time of life?

On the effects of poverty on your mind and review in society

“But still, you will be an old maid! and that’s so dreadful!”

“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross. This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates; she is only too good natured and too silly to suit me; but, in general, she is very much to the taste of everybody, though single and though poor. Poverty certainly has not contracted her mind: I really believe, if she had only a shilling in the world, she would be very likely to give away sixpence of it; and nobody is afraid of her: that is a great charm.”

On the role of the home and self-worth

“Nobody ever did think well of the Churchills, I fancy,” observed Mr. John Knightly coolly. “But you need not imagine Mr. Westonis rather an easy, cheerful tempered man, than a man of strong feelings; he takes things as he finds them, and makes enjoyment of them somehow or other, depending, I suspect, much more upon what is called society for his comforts, that is, upon the power of eating and drinking, and playing whist with his neighbours five times a-week, than upon family affection, or anything that home affords.” Pg 93

On the character of a man (while discussing why Frank hasn’t visited yet)

“Depend upon it, Emma, a sensible man would find no difficulty in it. He would feel himself in the right; and the declaration—made, of course, as a man of sense would make it, in a proper manner—would do him more good, raise him higher, fix his interest stronger with the people he depended on, than all that a line of shifts and expedients can ever do. Respect would be added to affection. They would feel that they could trust him; that the nephew, who had done rightly by his father, would do rightly by them; for they know, as well as he does, as well as all the world must know, that he ought to pay this visit to his father; and while meanly exerting their power to delay it, are in their hearts not thinking the better of him for submitting to their whims. Respect for right conduct is felt by every body. If he would act in this sort of manner, on principle, consistently, regularly, their little minds would bend to his.”

“I rather doubt that. You are very fond of bending little minds; but where little minds belong to rich people in authority, I think they have a knack of swlling out, till they are quite as unmanageable as great ones. I can imagine, that if you, as you are, Mr. Knightly, were to be transported and palced all at once in Mr. Frank Churchill’s situation, you would be able to say and do just what you have been recommending for him; and it might have a very good effect. The Churchills might not have a word to say in return; but then, you would have no habits of early obedience and long observance to break through. To him who has, it might not be so easy to burst forth at once into perfect independence, and set all their claims on his gratitude and regard as nought. He may have as strong a sense of what would be right, as you can have, without be so equal under particular circumstances to act up to it.”

“Then, it would not be so strong a sense. If it failed to produce equal exertion, it could not be an equal conviction.”

On being unable/unwilling to defer what must be done

A very few minutes more, however, completed the present trial. Mr. Weston, always alert when business was to be done, and as incapable of procrastinating any evil that was inevitable, as of foreseeing any that was doubtful, said,“It was time to go;” and the young man, though he might and did sigh, could not but agree, and rise to take leave. Pg 243

The other interesting thing about this scene, is that, how, on retrospect, it is one of the scenes of Austen’s majesty — Frank clearly thinks that Emma suspects that he’s in love with Jane Fairfax, but Emma is under the impression that he wants to ask her to marry him. The confusion that arises from this is marvelous.

On how our public stance can differ from our private thoughts

Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private. Pg 331

On leaving the work to the imagination

Her way was clear, though not quite smooth.—She spoke then, on being so entreated.—What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does… Pg 404

Austen flexing her muscle as a writer. Showing how Emma acted exactly as you would expect… but leaving what that meant up to the reader to interpret. It’s genius.

On how one emotion can drive another and our feelings about people are often complicated and intertwined

He had been in love with Emma, and jealous of Frank Churchill, from about the same period, one sentiment having probably enlightened him as to the other. Pg 405

On how the stories we tell ourselves influence what we believe of others

”…—Fancying you to have fathomed his secret. Natural enough!—his own mind full of intrigue, that he should suspect it in others.—Mystery; Finesse—how they pervert the understanding! My Emma, does not everything serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?” Pg 406

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