Notes on Jane Austen's Emma

From end papers of Trollope's copy of Emma1

by Anthony Trollope

Emma is undoubtedly very tedious; -- thereby shewing rather the patience of readers in the author's day than any incapacity on her part to avoid the fault. The dialogues are too long and some of them are unnecessary.

But the story shews wonderful knowledge of female character, and is severe on the little foibles of women with a severity which no man would dare to use. Emma, the heroine, is treated almost mercilessly. In every passage of the book she is in fault for some folly, some vanity, some ignorance, -- or indeed for some meanness. Her conduct to her friend Harriett [sic], -- her assumed experience and real ignorance of human nature -- are terribly true; but nowadays we dare not make our heroines so little. Her weaknesses are all plain to us, but of her strength we are only told; and even at the last we hardly know why Mr Knightley loves her.

The humour shewn in some of the female charactes in Emma is very good. Mrs Elton with her loud Bath-begotten vulgarity is excellent; and Miss Bates, longwinded, self- denying, ignorant, and eugolistic has become proverbial. But the men are all weak. There is nothing in Emma like Mr Bennett [sic] and Mr. Collins the immortal heroes of Pride and Prejudice. Mr Woodhouse, the malade imaginaire, is absurd, and the Knightleys and Westons are simply sticks. It is as a portrait of female life among ladies in an English village 50 years ago that Emma is to be known and remembered.

We have here, given to us unconsciously, a picture of the clerical life of 1815 which we cannot avoid comparing with the clerical life of 1865. After a modest dinner party, when the gentlemen join the ladies, the parson of the parish, a young man, is noticed as having taken too much wine. And no one else has done so. But allusion is made to this, not because he is a clergyman, nor is he at all a debauched or fast-living clergyman. It simply suits the story that he should be a little flushed & free of speech. The same clergyman, when married, declines to dance because he objects to the partner proposed to him; and special mention is made of card parties at this clergyman's house. How must the mouths of young parsons water in these days as they read these details, if they are now ever allowed to read such books as Emma.

I cannot but notice Miss Austen's timidity in dealing with the most touching scenes which come in her way, and in avoiding the narration of those details which a bolder artist would most eagerly have seized. In the final scene between Emma and her lover, -- when the conversation has become almost pathetic, -- she breaks away from the spoken dialogue, and simply tells us of her hero's success. This is a cowardice which robs the reader of much of the charm which he has promised himself --

Augt. 17, 1864

Box Hill, late 18th century print

1 From "Trollope on Emma: An Unpublished Note," Nineteenth Century Fiction, 4:3 (Dec. 1949), 246-47. I have italicized the title of the novel, and added two apostrophes ("author's" and "Miss Austen's").

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