Disclosure: I am not an Emma scholar. I have read the book only once. Even though some of Jane Austen’s best lines are in Emma,* I have a hard time liking a heroine who cannot understand, no less accept, the opinions of others. (Even Jane Austen anticipated my reaction.) However, I have seen the various adaptations, and I am particularly fond of the Emma with Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley (mostly because of Jeremy Northam), and Gwyneth Paltrow did a great job of capturing Emma’s evolution from a self-centered, meddling young woman to a more fully realized person who is capable of recognizing her own shortcomings.
When the theme of “Travels” was chosen for August by Austen Variations, the first thing that popped into my head was not Elizabeth Bennet touring Derbyshire or Anne Elliot going to Lyme or Catherine Morland visiting Bath. Instead, it was Emma Woodhouse not going anywhere! She had the money, the carriages, the time–definitely the time. Then why doesn’t she travel? The reason is simple: Emma will not do anything that would distress her father, and it seems that almost everything, from eating cake to a sneezing child, distresses Mr. Woodhouse. Even though his older daughter Isabella lives in London, he never visits. If his daughter and son-in-law want to see him, it is incumbent upon Isabella and John Knightley to come to Highbury:
Mr. Woodhouse: “Ah! my poor dear child, the truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. It is a dreadful thing to have you forced to live there! so far off!– and the air so bad!”
John Knightley: “No, indeed—we are not at all in a bad air. Our part of London is very superior to most others! You must not confound us with London in general, my dear sir. The neighbourhood of Brunswick Square is very different from almost all the rest. I should be unwilling, I own, to live in any other part of the town. There is hardly any other that I could be satisfied to have my children in: but we are so remarkably airy!”
Mr. Woodhouse: “Ah! It is not like Hartfield. You make the best of it—but after you have been a week at Hartfield, you are all of you different creatures; you do not look the same. Now I cannot say, that I think you are any of you looking well at present.”
That in a nutshell is why Emma never leaves Highbury. Her father, whom she adores, would not survive the journey from Hartfield to the county line—or so he believes.
Throughout the book, people are constantly on the move. In addition to the John Knightleys, Frank Churchill tells Emma that he must go to London “to get a haircut.” (I assume the person cutting his hair is Jane Fairfax.)
Mrs. Elton insists that a visit to Bath would make all the difference in Mr. Woodhouse’s health, but Emma refuses to consider the idea: “‘My father tried it more than once, formerly; but without receiving any benefit; and Mr. Perry, whose name, I dare say, is not unknown to you, does not conceive it would be at all more likely to be useful now…,’ their going to Bath was quite out of the question; and Emma was not perfectly convinced that the place might suit her better than her father.”
There will be no Bath for Emma because her father would never consent to go.
When the odious Mrs. Elton insists that Surrey is the garden of England, Emma’s response that many counties lay claim to the title is weakened by the fact that she hasn’t seen any of these other counties. Having silenced Emma, Mrs. Elton presses her advantage: “When people come into a beautiful country of this sort [i.e., Surrey], you know, Miss Woodhouse, one naturally wishes them to see as much as possible… You have many parties of that kind here, I suppose, Miss Woodhouse, every summer?”
“No; not immediately here. We are rather out of distance of the very striking beauties which attract the sort of parties you speak of; and we are a very quiet set of people, I believe; more disposed to stay at home than engage in schemes of pleasure.”
This is a rather sad situation for a woman in her early twenties. As a result of her father’s limitations, Emma’s world consists of Hartfield and Highbury. Is it any wonder that she finds amusement in meddling in the affairs of others? Mr. Knightley, understanding the limitations placed on Emma by her father’s hypochondria, gently teases that he knows how she loves “news,” aka, gossip. Of course she does! Although she is financially well off and belongs to the landed gentry, her world is smaller than that of Jane Fairfax.
I believe Emma does wish to get beyond the confines of Highbury, but even a proposed honeymoon trip to the seashore, upsets her father, and by the time Emma becomes Mrs. Knightley, it appears that, as long as her father is alive, Hartfield and Highbury it is.
By placing her father’s well-being above her own, Emma becomes a sympathetic character, and Mr. Knightley a saint, as he has agreed to make Hartfield his home as long as Mr. Woodhouse lives. Let us hope that once Mr. Woodhouse goes on to his reward that the pair will be able to travel or, at the very least, eat a piece of cake!
So, what do you think? Will Emma get to see her sister in London and visit the seashore? Is it necessary for her happiness and Knightley’s sanity? I would love to hear from you.
*One of my favorite Emma quotes: “Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible.”