“The Evolution of Emma”


“… in this old teacup comedy can be found, far more clearly appreciated than in more ambitious books about problems and politics, the psychology of this mere restlessness in the rich …”

“The Evolution of Emma” by G.K. Chesterton from The Uses of Diversity 

“Among the many good critical tributes to the genius of Jane Austen, to the fine distinction of her humor, the sympathetic intimacy of her satire, the easy exactitude of her unpretentious style, which have appeared in celebration of her centenary, there is one criticism that is naturally recurrent: the remark that she was quite untouched by the towering politics of her time.  This is intrinsically true; nevertheless, it may easily be used to imply the reverse of the truth.  It is true that Jane Austen did not attempt to teach any history or politics, but it is not true that we cannot learn any history or politics from Jane Austen.  Any work so piercingly intelligent of its own kind, and especially any work of so wise and humane a kind, is sure to tell us much more than shallower studies covering a larger surface.  I will not say much of the mere formality of some of the conventions and conversational forms; for in such things it is not only not certain that change is important, but it is not even certain that it is final.  The view that a thing is old-fashioned is itself a fashion; and may soon be an old fashion.  We have seen this in many recurrences of female dress; but it has a deeper basis in human nature.  The truth is that a phrase can be falsified by use without being false in fact; it can seem stale without being really stilted.  Those who see a word as merely worn out, fail to look forward as well as back.  I know of two poems by two Irish poets of two different centuries, essentially on the same theme; the lover declaring that his love will outlast the mere popularity of the beauty.  One is by Mr. Yeats and begins: “Though you are in your shining days.” The other is by Tom Moore and begins.  “Believe me, if all those endearing young charms.” The latter language strikes us as ridiculously florid and over-ripe; but Moore was far from being ridiculous.  Believe me (as he would say), it was no poetaster who wrote those hackneyed words about the silent harp and the heart that breaks for liberty.  And if English were read some day by strangers as a classic language, I am not sure that “endearing” would not endure as a better word than “shining”; or even that (after some repetition and reaction) it might not seem as strained to say “shining” as to say “shiny.” Yet Mr. Yeats also is a great poet, as I called him last week; only the printer or somebody altered it to a “good” one — a mysteriously moderate emendation.  Similarly, when one of Jane Austen’s heroines wants to say that the hero is a good fellow, she expresses confidence in what she calls “his worth.” This goads her younger modern readers to madness; yet in truth the term is far more philosophic and eternal than the terms they would use themselves.  They would probably say he was “nice,” and Jane Austen would indeed be avenged.  For the best of her heroes, Henry Tilney, himself foresaw and fulminated against the unmeaning ubiquity of that word, a prophet of the pure reason of his age, seeing in a vision of the future the fall of the human mind.

Negatively, of course, the historic lesson from Jane Austen is enormous.  She is perhaps most typical of her time in being supremely irreligious.  Her very virtues glitter with the cold sunlight of the great secular epoch between mediaeval and modern mysticism.  In that small masterpiece, Northanger Abbey, her unconsciousness of history is itself a piece of history.  For Catherine Morland was right, as young and romantic people often are.  A real crime had been committed in Northanger Abbey.  It is implied in the very name of Northanger Abbey.  It was the crucial crime of the sixteenth century, when all the institutions of the poor were savagely seized to be the private possessions of the rich.  It is strange that the name remains; it is stranger still that it remains unrealized.  We should think it odd to go to tea at a man’s house and find it was still called a church.  We should be surprised if a gentleman’s shooting box at Claybury were referred to as Claybury Cathedral.  But the irony of the eighteenth century is that Catherine was healthily interested in crimes and yet never found the real crime; and that she never really thought of it as an abbey, even when she thought of it most as an antiquity.

But there is a positive as well as a negative way in which her greatness, like Shakespeare’s, illuminates history and polities, because it illuminates everything.  She understood every intricacy of the upper-middle class and the minor gentry, which were to make so much of the mental life of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It is said that she ignored the poor and disregarded their opinions.  She did, but not more than all our Governments and all our Acts of Parliaments have done.  And at least she did consistently ignore them; she ignored where she was ignorant.  Well it would have been for the world if others had ignored the working-class until they understood it as well as she did the middle class.  She was not a student of sociology; she did not study the poor.  But she did study the students — or at least the social types which were to become the students of the poor.  She knew her own class, and knew it without illusions; and there is much light on later problems to be found in her delicate delineation of vanities and snobberies and patronage.  She had to do with the human heart; and it is that which cometh out of the heart that defileth a nation, philanthropy, efficiency, organization, social reform.  And if the weaker brethren still wonder why we should find in Baby Week or Welfare Work a dangerous spirit, from which its best adherents find it hard to free themselves, if they doubt how such a danger can be reconciled with the personal delicacy and idealism of many of the women who work such things, if they think that fine words or even fine feelings will guarantee a respect for the personality of the poor, I really do not know that they could do better than sit down, I trust not for the first time, to the reading of Emma.

For all this that has happened since might well be called the Evolution of Emma.  That unique and formidable institution, the English Lady, has, indeed, become much more of a public institution; that is, she has made the same mistakes on a much larger scale.  The softer fastidiousness and finer pride of the more gracious eighteenth-century heroine may seem to make her a shadow by comparison.  It seems cruel to say that the breaking off of Harriet’s humbler engagement foreshadows the indiscriminate development of Divorce for the Poor.  It seems horrible to say that Emma’s small matchmaking has in it the seed of the pestilence of Eugenics.  But it is true.  With a gentleness and justice and sympathy with good intentions, which clear her from the charge of common cynicism, the great novelist does find the spring of her heroine’s errors, and of many of ours.  That spring is a philanthropy, and even a generosity, secretly founded on gentility.  Emma Woodhouse was a wit, she was a good woman, she was an individual with a right to her own opinion; but it was because she was a lady that she acted as she did, and thought she had a right to act as she did.  She is the type in fiction of a whole race of English ladies, in fact, for whom refinement is religion.  Her claim to oversee and order the social things about her consisted in being refined; she would not have admitted that being rich had anything to do with it; but as a fact it had everything to do with it.  If she had been very much richer, if she had had one of the great modern fortunes, if she had had the wider modern opportunities (for the rich) she would have thought it her duty to act on the wider modern scale; she would have had public spirit and political grasp.  She would have dealt with a thousand Robert Martins and a thousand Harriet Smiths, and made the same muddle about all of them.  That is what we mean about things like Baby Week — and if there had been a baby in the story, Miss Woodhouse would certainly have seen all its educational needs with a brilliant clearness.  And we do not mean that the work is done entirely by Mrs.  Pardiggle; we mean that much of it is done by Miss Woodhouse.  But it is done because she is Miss Woodhouse and not Martha Muggins or Jemina Jones; because the Lady Bountiful is a lady first, and will bestow every bounty but freedom.

It is noted that there are few traces of the French Revolution in Miss Austen’s novels; but, indeed, there have been few traces of it in Miss Austen’s country.  The peculiarity which has produced the situation I describe is really this: that the new sentiment of humanitarianism has come, when the old sentiment of aristocracy has not gone.  Social superiors have not really lost any old privileges; they have gained new privileges, including that of being superior in philosophy and philanthropy as well as in riches and refinement.  No revolution has shaken their secret security or menaced them with the awful peril of becoming no more than men.  Therefore their social reform is but their social refinement grown restless.  And in this old teacup comedy can be found, far more clearly appreciated than in more ambitious books about problems and politics, the psychology of this mere restlessness in the rich, when it first stirred upon its cushions.  Jane Austen described a narrow class, but so truthfully that she has much to teach about its after adventures, when it remained narrow as a class and broadened only as a sect.”

from The Uses of Diversity a book of essays by G.K. Chesterton, 1920

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