Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Emma, Vol I

Jane finally got me with the hilarious Horrible Proposal Scene -- she does love to do those, and she's so good at them -- how did she get the reputation as the Mother of All Chicklit when most of her 'romance' scenes are so anti-Romantic? (I know, I know, Marketing: the god of the modern era.) And the awful, terrible Christmas dinner, so dull, just dragged on and on, and on, until it was like Shaw's description of Siegfried Wagner's conducting:
Then an incredible thing happened. The last item in the program was the overture to Die Meistersinger. The last, and, as it at once promised, the worst. Its slowness, its genteelness, made me doubt whether I was not dreaming. I felt that the overture would certainly peter out and stop from sheer inertia if he did not speed up the final section. Instead, to my amazement, he achieved the apparently impossible feat of slowing it down. And the effect was magical. The music broadened out with an effect that is beyond description. It was immense, magnificent. At the end the audience, which ten minutes before would have murdered him but for the police, was frantically recalling him to the platform again and again and again and yet again.
Drabble took Austen to task for not being Chekhovian enough in Mansfield Park, but I think Jane achieves something like it here -- that combination of exquisite observation, almost tender attention, and the crushingly mundane: the slow-motion cherishing of the everyday until it somehow, as Shaw says, slows down and opens up and becomes almost like a Vermeer painting. And all the characters are Chekhovian too -- Emma's hypochondriac gently self-centered tyrannical-in-flannels father, Mr Knightley the frustrated hovering suitor, silly lovable dumb sweet Harriet, the gentleman farmer forgetting to borrow Gothic romances to impress her. It is just as Virginia says:
At once our senses quicken; we are possessed with the peculiar intensity which she alone can impart. But of what is it all composed? Of a ball in a country town; a few couples meeting and taking hands in an assembly room; a little eating and drinking; and for catastrophe, a boy being snubbed by one young lady and kindly treated by another. There is no tragedy and no heroism. Yet for some reason the little scene is moving out of all proportion to its surface solemnity....Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial.
And even the style of her prose has somehow become better too -- not the glittering dialogue of P&P, or the sober internal reflections of MP, but in the little asides that are not quite quips, no longer jokes, but flashes of penetrating insight: "If there had not been so much anger, there would have been desperate awkwardness; but their straightforward emotions left no room for the little zigzags of embarrassment." ("Zigzags" - that just slays me.) Again, it's like Chekhov, the author's illumination no longer as sparkling, but deeper, richer, understanding suffusing everything. "People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart."